Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Cold Turkey

Jody and I had been out for the evening. Our usual babysitter couldn’t make it, so we hired someone who we didn’t know all that well.

What exactly transpired while we were away we may never know. But when we got home, the babysitter was upset. Apparently, she and twelve- year-old Amir had gotten into disagreement over the TV. He wanted to watch. She said it was bedtime.

Now, some babysitters may be bad. Some may even be true evil stepmothers-in-training. But there’s a basic rule that enables the system to function. And that is: you listen to the babysitter.

My first inclination was to lay down some sort of punishment. I had just finished reading the kids the book Ella Enchanted. Amir would make a fine scullery maid, I thought.

As I walked down to Amir’s room, where I imagined him waiting in bed with dread anticipation, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do or say.

But I had a nagging feeling that the heavy handed approach stood a strong chance of backfiring. The goal here was to promote a lasting change in both TV and babysitting behavior.

There are eight stairs from the kitchen where I stood to the kids’ floor. Somewhere on step six, I knew what I had to do:

Listen. Just listen.

And somehow I did. I let him talk. Let him tell me what happened. I didn’t judge. And when I did speak, it was in empathetic terms.

Amir was flabbergasted. He had girded himself for the worst. And it hadn’t come.

“Now Amir,” I said at the end. “I want you to give some thought to how we can make this better, how we can make sure this kind of thing never happens again. We’re going to have a family meeting in a few days and we’ll talk about it then.”

Then I kissed him goodnight and left.

Two days later, it was time for our weekly Family Meeting. Jody opened by asking all three kids if they knew the difference between a “right” and a “privilege.” The concept was a little hazy, so I pulled out the Webster’s Elementary Dictionary.

“A right is something to which one has a just claim, such as the right to freedom,” I read aloud. “A privilege is a right or liberty granted as a favor or benefit especially to some and not to others. Now, how do you think we view TV in our house? As a right or a privilege?”

Ten-year-old Merav got it right away. “It’s a right.”

And what should it be?

“A privilege,” she answered with enthusiasm.

Perhaps she didn’t see where this might be going. Amir did, and cringed a bit, but his resistance had already been broken by the conversation those two long nights before.

“So, do you think that maybe our family watches a bit too much television?” Jody asked coquettishly. “That we view it more as a right that can never be taken away?”

This time Amir jumped in. “Yes,” he said, knowing that to not only be the right answer, but true. Now it was Merav’s turn to look around the room uncomfortably.

“And do you think we spend enough time outside? Or playing with all the toys we have in the house?”

Five-year-old Aviv perked up at the mention of toys.

“Do you think maybe our family would function better if we watched less TV?”

Nods all around.

“Does anyone know the expression ‘cold turkey?’” I asked.

You could see their minds picturing uncooked turkey on the kitchen counter.

I had done my research and traced the origin of “cold turkey.” According to the website IdiomSite, the phrase describes the skin's reaction to heroin withdrawal. As an addict stops using the drug, blood is drawn toward the internal organs, thereby leaving the skin to resemble a cold, plucked turkey.

I left out the details of which drug we were talking about. But the metaphor was clear: we as a family had become hopelessly addicted to TV.

“I think the only way we’re going to kick the TV habit is to go cold turkey,” I said. “Not just a reduction from 10 hours this week to 7 hours next week to 3 hours to one. But completely stopping it.”

“Completely?” Merav panicked for a moment.

“We can introduce it back in at some point for special treats. But no more automatic watching whenever you want or whenever you go home. I think we can turn TV from a ‘right’ into a ‘privilege.’ What do you guys think?”

To my amazement, they bought in. Willingly. Apparently they had realized the level of illness our family had descended to.

Since that point, the change has been remarkable. We’ve found toys and games that haven’t been played with in years. Aviv has made riding a scooter his special passion. Amir picked up one of my favorite Sci-Fi novels This Perfect Day by Ira Levin and so far declares it to be the best-written book he’s ever read (although I’m afraid what he really likes are the dirty parts). Merav is out playing even more often with her friends.

We didn’t get rid of the tube and we’re still plugged in to cable. We’ve already sat down as a family on several occasions to watch a movie as a Saturday night family activity. But the habit is well on its way to history. Jody and I might even be able to get out for an evening.

Now I wonder which babysitter we should hire this time…

Wednesday, January 21, 2004


When I was growing up, my mother wouldn’t let me in the kitchen. I suppose she thought she was doing me some kind of favor. But years later, I still panic when I’m asked to prepare anything more sophisticated than macaroni and cheese.

There is one dish, however, that I’ve managed to perfect. So much so that, in our house, it’s known as “Abba’s Cholent.”

Cholent, for the uninitiated, is the ultimate Shabbat meal: a thick meat and potatoes stew that simmers all night on a hotplate until the water has just about evaporated and all you’re left with is a gooey, mushy, absolutely delicious concoction that sticks to your ribs as much as your plate. It’s the perfect food for a wintry Saturday afternoon.

Cholent was actually dreamed up to address two critical issues in the religious household: what to eat on Shabbat since traditional Jews don’t cook on the Sabbath, and how to prepare something really fast since there’s never enough time on Friday before the sun goes down…especially when Shabbat can begin as early as 4:00 PM in mid-December and January.

My cholent recipe goes something like this:

- Soak a bunch of red beans the night before (“a bunch of” is the correct measurement, I assure you);

- Throw the beans in the pot an hour before Shabbat along with some barley, onions, carrots, two kinds of cut up but not peeled potatoes (sweet and white);

- Top it all of with several chunks of red meat (you can use chicken but why not go all the way...)

- Then add in Abba’s secret sauce –a hunk of honey, a sprizzle of ketchup, and a glob of liquid garlic. Finish with salt, pepper, zatar and cumin;

- Cover the mixture with water and boil for an hour, then shift it to the hotplate until the next day.

“Abba’s Cholent” made a late start this winter – it wasn’t until last week that I finally deemed the lingering chill in the air worthy of the full cholent treatment. I had just finished adding the final spices and was heading downstairs to get five-year-old Aviv into the bath when an uneasy thought crossed my mind.

“Jody,” I called across the house. “What color is cumin supposed to be?”

“Yellow,” she answered matter of factly.

“Is there such a thing as black cumin?” I asked.

“No,” came the reply.

“Um…can you come look at this for a minute, honey?”

They were bugs. Tens of tiny black bugs had infested the cumin, which probably hadn’t been used since last year’s cholent.

“What are we going to do?” I demanded in a panic. This was definitely beyond my mac and cheese repertoire.

“We have to throw it out,” Jody said. “You know bugs aren’t kosher.” Not to mention being really disgusting in a stew.

“But we can’t,” I sputtered. We had a full table of guests coming over and the cholent was the major part of the meal. Not only that, but the kids were so looking forward to the first installment of “Abba’s Cholent” this year.

What was supposed to be a culinary triumph was fast turning into gastronomic nightmare. This was even worse than the time Jody asked me to make a tomato soup, and I accidentally poured in chili powder instead of paprika.

Did I mention our guests that night were my in-laws-to-be?

“I can get the bugs out.” I said defiantly “It will take awhile, but I can do it.”

And I set to do just that. I removed anything black: pepper corns, black markings on the potatoes. I consoled myself with faulty logic: according to Jewish law, as long as any bugs that remained were less than 1/60th of the total, the dish wouldn’t be considered treife – that is not kosher

Of course, this rule is supposed to apply to “after the fact” discoveries, not upfront transgressions. And I’m not sure it even applies to bugs. Still…

I thought about a report I once heard on the National Geographic Channel, about how in places like Thailand they eat bugs. “They’re delicious, whether fried or sautéed and so full of nutrition,” the peppy announcer reported. “Just pop them in your mouth, exo-skeleton and all. It’s like candy!”

Jody bathed Aviv. I continued to painstakingly pick out the bugs. The sun was going down when I finally got the cholent on the hotplate just as Shabbat was beginning. We headed off to synagogue and didn’t talk about it again. I would serve the cholent. We wouldn’t mention to our guests what had happened. No one would ever be the wiser.

And then: disaster struck again. We had been plugging the hotplate into a timer so it wouldn’t waste electricity by being on for 24 hours straight. But cholent needs to cook all night. And I had neglected to switch the timer off. When I awoke and stumbled into the kitchen searching for my morning granola and rice milk, I immediately detected something was missing: no smell of bubbling meat and potatoes.

The cholent was cold, the meat clearly spoiled by now.

Jody saw this as a sign. We dumped the contents of the pot in the garbage. The guests were spared. We doubled the salad and borrowed an extra challah from the neighbors.

That night I had a dream. In it, our guests were eating my cholent. They loved it. And then one of them commented, “Mmm…crunchy!”

I looked down and, breathing a dreamy sigh of relief, noticed it was just an undercooked bean.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Channeling Louis Armstrong

It seemed like just an ordinary wedding band. That was until the band leader started channeling Louis Armstrong.

He was a short Yemenite man with a straggly beard, bushy gray payot (sidelocks), a red Bucharian-style kippa and, perhaps most remarkably in an already remarkable appearance, a bright red tallit swung over his shoulder - something more at home in the synagogue than on stage.

He sure didn't look like Louis Armstrong. But that voice...

"I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom for me and you..."

No sooner had they finished the final notes of "What a Wonderful World" then the band segued into a spot-on rendition of Eric Clapton's "Layla," followed by a sax-laden version of 1980s New Wave sensation Men at Work's "Land Down Under" - but this time with Hebrew lyrics joyfully praising God. And then the band switched gears again and launched a Grateful Dead-inspired jam based on a particularly rousing Jewish wedding standard from the "Singing Rabbi," Shlomo Carlebach.

Now, Jody and I have been to a lot of weddings in our almost thirteen years in Israel and we've heard a lot of Jewish music played - from pure Klezmer to out and out rock and roll. But we stood dumbfounded by the range and repertoire of the five men on stage who, adding to the wonderful wackiness of the night, were by their garb clearly all religious. Not only that, they were mostly ultra-Orthodox.

Last time I checked, they don't teach the Beatles or Dire Straits in yeshiva. So where did they learn this stuff? I had to find out.

More than that, I wanted to know if this was the beginning of a trend - a combination of rock and tradition that signified the coming together of worlds, a healing of the too often fractious denominations within Judaism and Israel.

As the band took a break after cranking out the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," I approached the leader.

He immediately reached out and took both my hands in his, shaking them warmly.

"That was amazing," I started. "You guys really play great."

"Thank you, thank you," he said handing me his business card. Like his tallit, the card was completely done up in various shades of red. I looked down and read:

"Mati Harari. The Old Red. Music of All Types."

That was for sure.

Maybe it was the hot spiked punch, or perhaps I was just naturally high from the dancing, but I was feeling a bit more open than usual.

"So...where did you grow up, Mati?" I asked him. A good icebreaker I hoped and not too intrusive. Certainly not for Israel.

"Hadera," he replied referring to a small town on the Mediterranean coast a bit south of Haifa.

"You grew up religious?" I continued.

"Yes of course," he replied.


He knew where I was going. Undoubtedly, he'd been asked the same question many times before.

"I left religion for awhile," he explained with a grin. "Then I came back to it. As you can see." He waved his hand dramatically to call attention to his appearance.

As if I hadn't noticed.

I did a quick calculation and surmised that he must have spent the years he was outside a traditional religious framework listening to a lot of rock and roll. I tried to imagine him clubbing it in Tel Aviv - when? Twenty years ago? Thirty? More? Was there even rock and roll in the country back then?

There's a famous story about the Beatles. In 1964, the fab four expressed an interest in playing the Holy Land but were turned down by a governmental committee who felt the Beatles would be a bad influence on young minds in those heady days of nation-building.

My how times have changed.

"You know, I have a son who'll be bar mitzvah in a few months," I began. "Maybe you could play at his party. Do you know any of the modern stuff? Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Linkin Park - that kind of thing?"

"We could bring a DJ," Mati offered, not missing a beat.

And that's when I realized why all his music was going down so well with my particular age group in the wedding hall. He probably had a limited number of years as rock and roller before he returned to his religious roots. From the music in his songbook, I was guessing that must have been from about 1972-1983. He wouldn't know from Nirvana or Metallica. He'd probably never even heard of MTV's "So 90s" program.

But that was OK. Because us old fogies were having a great time, even if he didn't know his REM from The Dream Syndicate.

Mati turned to take his leave of us. The second set was about to begin.

And then the band started channeling another great from a not-so-distant past: Barry White. "My first, my last, my everything..." It was as vivid as an episode of Ally McBeal.

But I was still thinking about how Mati warbled out the last line of that Louis Armstrong number earlier in the night. He had changed only a single word, but in that change he had demonstrated the kind of fusion that could only happen when a religious Yemenite with a red tallit spends the better part of the disco years in a Tel Aviv bar.

"And I think to myself, what a wonderful Jerusalem."

To reach Mati Harari of the "Adom Atik" band, call +972 (3)-516-2918 or +972 (53)-789-871.

A note about this story: if any of the songs that Mati and the band played strike a nostalgic chord, click on the links I've assembled for you and relive the magic.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Pick up the Phone

By the end of 1997 I was down on my luck. Earlier in the year, I had come down with a bad case of fever and I was determined to establish The Next Big Thing in hi-tech.

As I made the rounds from one venture capital firm to another, though, I was met with the same response. The words varied but the direction was always the same.

By the time I was given the name of a private investor named Michael Karash, I had been out of work close to a year and what little savings Jody and I had left had all but dried up.

My first meeting with Michael was in his Tel Aviv office. As soon as I walked in the door, I knew something was different. First of all, he had actually read my business plan and had marked it up with all manner of comments.

Michael asked me several questions, mainly about my character. There was an immediate rapport, even a playfulness one wouldn’t expect so soon in a relationship.

“You know what ‘Karish' (the Hebrew pronunciation of his name) means don’t you?” he asked.

I didn’t.

“It means shark,” he said and chuckled while flipping through my documents one last time. Then he turned to me and said point blank: “OK, I’ll give you $150,000 today. But I take 50% of the company.”

And then with a sly grin that I would come to know almost as well as my own children’s, he added “You and I will be partners.”

I told him I’d think about it, but I already knew. It was now or never and I was far too close to the edge of never. Michael was what they call in the industry an angel. In more ways than one I thought as I walked back to my car.

Over the course of the next two and a half years, Michael and I became like family. We were the parents presiding over our growing brood. Our little company opened offices in Jerusalem, New York and San Francisco, hired – and fired – some 25 employees, and in the end raised over $3 million dollars.

It was a glorious ride. We flew the redeye in business class to give presentations and meet with strategic partners in Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Dallas and countless other locations I no longer can or care to recall. We negotiated in fancy fish restaurants and slept in $300 a night hotels.

Ultimately, though, as the company began to disintegrate along with the rest of the hi-tech industry, it was money that tore us apart. Just like family. Arguments over final salaries and divvying up the remaining assets became painfully contentious.

When the company finally closed its doors, we fell out of touch.

I hadn’t heard nor thought much of Michael in the last three years. Until a few weeks ago when I received an email saying that Michael had died of a sudden heart attack. By the time the message found its way to me, the funeral had already passed.

The next day, I had a meeting with Ami, my accountant. We’d become embroiled in a seemingly intractable argument over expectations and services rendered. As we sat together, trying to come to an amicable agreement that was looking increasingly remote, I felt small tears welling up in my eyes.

This was not a good negotiating tactic.

But suddenly everything looked different. Ami and I were family too. I had worked with him for even longer than I had with Michael. And just like Michael, he could drop dead at any moment.

As I struggled with my thoughts, I tried to figure out exactly why this was hitting me so hard. It wasn’t like I wanted Michael back as my constant companion just like in the good old days. Nor were there burning words I still felt I needed to say. I had accepted that we had gone our separate ways and I was OK with that. Any anger had long since dissipated

But it was inconceivable that, after everything we had been through, we no longer had a relationship. That I hadn’t in the three years that had passed ever picked up the phone to say “hi.”

And now I couldn’t.

I turned to Ami and shared the news about Michael. I told him how I didn’t want us to stumble down the same path. Then I made a financial offer which was more generous than I’d originally planned and I said I hoped he’d accept it.

He did. We shook hands and embraced.

And now I turn to you, dear reader. Pick up the phone and call someone you haven’t spoken to in awhile. Not because you want to be best buddies. Not because you even want to get together for a cup of tea.

But because you never know when you won’t have the chance again.