Thursday, October 30, 2003

The Israeli in Me

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

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

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

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

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

I had no idea it could happen so quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t blame them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was there anyone we knew in the attack?

Where did it happen?

What was the reaction on the street in Israel?

Were our friends scared? Angry?

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

The Israeli in me had spoken.

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

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

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

In synagogue, we were literally bowled over by friends.

“How was the summer?”

“Did you love Prague?”

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

“How’s your jet lag?”

Jet lag? Who has time for jet lag!

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

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

We were home.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

The Schmooze Factor

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

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

How would this move affect the schmooze factor?

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

At a cocktail party, it’s called mingling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good schmoozing can be done anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 17, 2003

Jody's Breasts

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

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

She asked for it.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Jody made a second appointment.

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

Which is what was going on with Jody.

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

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

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

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

Another sinister sounding word to learn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice job if you can get it, I mused.

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

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

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

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

I had to feed the meter twice.

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

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

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

The message has just one word:


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

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Sukka on the Roof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or type the following into your web browser:

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Grapefruit Jews

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

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

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

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

We needed some space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remarkably, everyone got along beautifully.

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

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

“Time to do kapparot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” I stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Yom Kippur Groupies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To each his own. We love it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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