Friday, September 26, 2003

Apples and Bunnies

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

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

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

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

And so, every September, the kids begin hinting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how?

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

The kids looked at me like I was a psychopath.

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously they hadn’t been married that long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bunny visitation rights?

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

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

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

Well, at least so far…

Monday, September 22, 2003

Dance of the Discount

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

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

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

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

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

Communicating was another matter entirely.

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

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

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

“No plates,” the guard repeated.

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

“No plates. Fool.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We’d like to...”

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

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

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

“Children half price,” he replied.

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

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

Anything can be negotiated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 15, 2003

How We Do It

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

But their questions were of a more personal nature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still: how do we do it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how we do it.

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

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Driving Through Terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except for the familiarity.

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

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

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

“I don’t know. To see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 08, 2003

Leaving Terezin

It was all I could think about for weeks. No, months. We had talked about doing this for so long. And now it was finally happening.

We were taking the family to Europe.

And more than that, to Prague, one of the most fascinating, exquisitely gorgeous cities in all of the continent. With a rich Jewish history to boot.

Mind you, it was only for five days, but our expectations were high. We would go hopping from castle to ancient castle. We’d ride on classic trams without the fear of being blown up (an sadly only-in-Israel point of view), walk the storied streets of the Jewish Quarter and the kids would soak in the history of a new place while making pithy remarks on all the new and different things they were seeing...doors, street signs, ice cream flavors.

But no one prepared me for how hard it would be traveling with children.

That’s not entirely fair. For the most part, we really did enjoy ourselves and even five-year-old Aviv was happy as long as he could hopscotch across the cobblestones.

But there was also whining and hunger and runny noses that needed to be wiped; broken-record arguments over who would be responsible for carrying the backpack and the camera case; not to mention the seemingly never ending bathroom breaks. It made having any kind of an adult educational vacation almost impossible.

Truth be told, a lot of it was my own fault. I’m the kind of guy who overly-researches a place, then plans the itinerary down to the hour. I should have been a tour guide. Well, actually, I was one once...during college I used to lead Gray Line bus tours of San Francisco during my summer vacations.

But kids require a more go-with-the-flow kind of approach, even if this means we only hit two attractions in a day instead of five.

So I probably pushed too hard while the kids were just being, well, themselves. How could I have expected anything different?

And that probably would have been just fine were it not for Terezenstadt (Terezin in Czech), the notorious Nazi transit camp where over 140,000 passed from 1941-45 but only a few thousand survived.

Terezin would be heavy, we knew, but also particularly relevant since so many children were sent there. In Terezin’s Jewish Museum, there is room after room of children’s artwork, poems, magazines, theatrical productions.

Of the 15,000 children under the age of 15 deported to Terezin, only 132 survived.

I was particularly unnerved by the essential deceptiveness of the camp. Jews sent there were told it was just a stop on the way to somewhere else, somewhere better. They were even forced to sign property releases with promises from the German government that in exchange for leaving their homes they would receive free room, board and medical care for life.

Instead, they arrived to triple bunks (in the best cases) and conditions so horrific that many of Terezin’s unfortunate inhabitants died of disease and malnutrition. Those who didn’t were sent primarily to Auschwitz, just a few hours train ride across the Czech-Polish border.

How could our kids not be moved?

And still, despite all the intensity of the place, nothing seemed to change, behavior-wise. Yes, there was learning...and whining at the same time. Absorbing...and demanding ice cream in the midst of the most emotionally wrenching of moments.

As we hurried back into the car in order to make it to our second big site of our day - a castle not too far away - the bickering intensified. When it escalated to spitting, that’s when I exploded.

Maybe I was already on edge after three hours of testimonial to man's inhumanity to man. But five days of fighting finally converged into a need to let it out. On my kids.

I’m not proud that I yelled just then (though the bickering stopped for awhile). But it was Jody’s mortified look that shook me. Her silent gesture to a road sign that read in Czech “You are now leaving Terezin” said more than any words could.

We were leaving Terezin. In a car. Unharmed. Of our own volition. Having just eaten the cheese and tuna paste sandwiches we’d packed earlier in the day.

Tens of thousands of children never could, never did what we'd just accomplished with such ease. And here I was, yelling at my kids. Those kids who I adore. Who mean more to me than anything in the world.

We never made it to our next planned stop. We were late anyway. And it was time to start going with the flow.

We exited the ironically named “Transit” highway that skirts the suburbs of Prague and stopped at an enormous mall. We found a children’s play area that kept the kids in non-bickering joy for close to an hour. We sat and ate ice cream.

And then we found a lovely unassuming park and played hopscotch over the cobblestones.