Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Secret Life of Legumes: How Passover in Israel is an Entirely Different Bag of Beans

Moving to Israel was supposed to make our lives easier. Well, at least around Pesach time. But that's not exactly how it's turned out.

I'll admit it: the Passover holidays "back home" were always a bit of a hassle. Let's start with the food.

Unless you live in certain neighborhoods of New York or Los Angeles, the regular supermarkets don't do a clean sweep of anything not-kosher-for-Pesach the way they do in Israel. So buying food free of hametz (the breads and other grain products prohibited during the seven days of Passover) invariably necessitated a trip to the kosher market.

Which in our case was a good half hour drive away. Jostling with the other customers in the narrow aisles of Oakland Kosher was never a particularly spiritually uplifting experience.

But at least everything inside was kosher, a pleasant change from the need to scrutinize the labels at the Safeway, searching for that tiny O-U, Star-K or some other symbol of kashrut that meant we could buy it.

In Israel, everything is backwards. During most of the year, we can go to any old supermarket and buy whatever we want since everything is kosher. On Pesach, though, it's back to label-checking. That is, if you don't eat kitniyot.

Kitniyot are defined as "legumes" and are a food that is prohibited only to Jews of Ashkenazi (i.e., European) origin during Pesach. Kitniyot are not forbidden foods themselves, not like wheat or barley. Rather they're substances that either appeared similar to true hametz or were once transported in the same sacks and containers: foods like rice, corn and peanuts.

The problem is, a majority of Israel's population is not Ashkenazi but is of Sephardi (non-European) origin, and the rabinnical leaders in those countries have long been more lenient, ruling that Sephardi Jews can eat all the kitniyot they want. And so while in North America the Ashkenazi-oriented kosher markets at Pesach time are pretty much kitniyot-free, in Israel those same kosher stores are filled with 100% kosher-for-Pesach food - all of it fit for just about everyone...but us.

Now you might say "when in Rome" and you'd be right. More and more North American immigrants to Israel are adopting the custom of the land. My wife Jody and I resisted for many years, but last year, we finally gave in. In the end, it wasn't a major philosophical decision. We simply couldn't find any kitniyot-free mayonnaise.

Still, checking labels for ingredients is a small price to pay compared with the major benefit of Passover in Israel: only having to sit through one seder. But this too is a mixed blessing.

Traditional Jewish practice holds that certain holidays - including Pesach - are celebrated for one day in Israel and two days outside the country. The origin of this custom had to do with how word got out from the authorities in Jerusalem on the official start of the new month, which in turn was used to calculate the start-date of the holidays.

In olden times, transmission of the message went via fires, torches and signals on the tops of hillsides (so that's where Lord of the Rings: Return of the King got the idea). As a result, there was a concern that far-flung communities might receive the news late and mess up on the day. And so, despite the fact we now have written calendars with fixed months, atomic clocks and round-the-clock cable TV news, Diaspora Jews still celebrate for two days.

That means two Pesach seders.

Now, don't get me wrong. We love a good seder. But what are you supposed to do for an encore on the second night? Read it all again? The story doesn't change, guys. OK, fine, we'll do the four questions and the four sons one more time, but all the rest? It takes hours you know. Dayenu already.

During our years in North America before moving to Israel, we tried to make the best of it. We'd usually host a long drawn out intellectual seder with friends on the first night, and then do a shorter to-the-point seder with the extended family on the night number two. It worked pretty well, especially since I was always afraid my parents would find it a bit of a tircha to wait until close to 11:00 PM before we even got to the matza ball soup.

My mother put my fears aside one Pesach when she pulled me aside into the kitchen and said, "You don't have to rush this time. Your father had a big bagel and cream cheese from Noah's before seder."

I didn't bother to ask if it was legume-free.

And so, when we got to Israel, we could barely contain our excitement to finally be having only one seder. We put extra energy into making sure everything was perfect for our single annual shot. Everyone had his or her own Hagadah and had been asked to prepare something stimulating to discuss. We'd scoured the house for even the slightest bread crumb and Jody had cooked up a storm. We'd sung loud and hard at shul.

In short, when we got to the table we were all completely exhausted. The two younger kids fell asleep before the gefilte fish. I started nodding out after the second glass of wine. Jody did her best to keep her head up at least until the afikomen.

And suddenly, the wisdom of the Rabbis began to make a bit more sense. Maybe there's something to having two seders after all!

But I'm still eating the kitniyot...

Saul Singer agrees with my take on kitniyot and even gives it a feel-good nation-building spin. Check his column by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Up Against the Wall

We live all of ten minutes drive from the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. How many countless thousands of Jews around the world would just love to be so close? So you probably think we visit all the time.

Well, think again.

I don’t mean to be flippant. It’s just that, the truth is, I can’t remember the last time we came a calling.

It’s not for lack of affection. The Wall never fails to take our breath away. It is every bit as inspirational as you see on the webcam that broadcasts from the site 24/7.

It’s more a matter of taking things for granted. Do New Yorkers visit the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building on a weekly basis? How many Parisians climb the Eiffel Tower more than once in their lives? If even that much?

And we’re not the only ones. Israelis in general don’t visit the wall. Heck, they don’t even visit Jerusalem. There’s something about our twisting, curving one-way streets that change names every few blocks that simply terrifies Tel Avivi’s.

But, still, this is the Western Wall we’re talking about. The Kotel as it’s reverently referred to in Hebrew.

So when my ten-year-old daughter Merav came marching in from school one day announcing that her class was going on a field trip to the Old City, and that parents were encouraged to tag along, how could I say no? Besides, it seemed like an excellent opportunity for some meaningful father-daughter bonding.

Except that we were surrounded by 28 of Merav’s classmates.

I was about to get a real education.

Now, let me say up front: they’re good kids. It’s just when you set that many kids free in a relatively non-structured environment, it’s difficult to maintain decorum. Especially with boys.

Oh, did I mention that a majority of Merav’s classmates are boys?

As we made our way towards through the historic Old City, the boys reverted to purely pre-historic behavior. As if hunting in packs, they swarmed into every shop, every café, every open space on the short trek from the bus parking lot to the Western Wall.

They fingered the tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) in the religious articles store.

They pulled volumes off the shelves in the book shop and sniffed at the scented candles in the gift corner.

They hoisted napkins out of their holders in the Glatt Internet Cafe, never stopping to consider how the term glatt – which is normally reserved for the how kosher a cut of meat may be – could be applied to the web (did it only allow access to modestly dressed Internet sites?)

Or the seeming idiosyncrasy that there was something as modern as an Internet Cafe smack dab in the middle of a 3000-year-old city.

Now, I normally try to avoid making sweeping generalizations, but it seems that Israelis in general have a certain – how shall I say it – gusto, a zest for life. And it starts at a young age.

Better that we nurture in our kids a healthy sense of curiosity. That’s got to be more meaningful than having them explore the Old City in an atmosphere of detached boredom.

By the time we finally made it to the Wall, the boys were in a near frenzy of curiosity.

I was in charge of taking the boys to the men’s side of the Wall. They were supposed to daven (pray) near the back. But the boys were far more interested in getting up close.

Can’t argue with that.

I saw that some of the boys were indeed praying, others were kissing the stones. A couple had pulled out pen and paper and were writing notes to be stuffed into the crevices of the wall.

This is the custom and the Western Wall is filled with small folded sheets of paper with requests of all types. You can even email the wall and for a small fee, your request will be printed and stuffed for you.

Then I noticed that a small group of Merav’s classmates were huddled together, taking a great interest in some hidden object in one of the boy’s hands.

I moved in closer. He had a wad of notes that he had swiped from the Wall. He was reading.

“I ask for better sex,” read the first note.

“I want my girlfriend to…”

“That’s enough!” I barked, snatching the notes and banishing the kids from the frontlines.

It was time to head back to school anyway.

But how could I be angry. A part of me wanted to stay and read the rest of the papers I held in my hand. I had always wondered what people asked for. But I never would have dared…and I know that anyone who has ever placed a note in the Wall is probably reeling in shock, knowing what really happens sometimes to their missives.

I carefully placed the notes back in the rock crevices. As I turned to leave, though, I felt a certain bonding with those ten-year-old boys. An odd satisfaction and realization.

Apparently, the curious kid in me was alive and well, too.

We really should visit the Wall more often.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Lost and Found

I’m not in the habit of reviewing films in this column. But I haven’t been able to get "Lost in Translation," Sofia Copolla’s Academy Award-winning character study of isolation and loneliness, out of my head. Because, in too many ways, the film captures how I imagined my own life would be.

And because things turned out so totally different.

When I was growing up and I thought about what the future held in store for me, I always imagined it would be interesting. I loved to write and I loved to travel (still do). During college I worked summers as a tour guide, hopping on and off buses, imparting pearls of historical wisdom and telling lame jokes to a captive audience.

After graduation, I planned a grand adventure around the world. I would go gallivanting from one exotic location to another, soaking up the atmosphere and writing deep thought-pieces on global multi-culturalism. Maybe I would pick up a few tours along the way. Or stomp some grapes in the south of France.

But for some reason, I always imagined that I would be doing it all by myself, socially and spiritually alone. Wife? Family? Not in the cards for me.

Now don’t go and feel all sorry for me. Because I wasn’t particularly sad. It was more a matter of accepting who I thought I was: a guy who never quite found his place...but always had something interesting to say about it.

Unkept, untucked and mostly unshaven from high school on through university, I wasn’t a jock, a stoner or in with the popular crowd. I was a borderline nerd born too soon, before computers would made geeks chic.

I also spent my formative years as a Jew in a predominantly non-Jewish suburban community. Which I didn’t think mattered much to me.

Apparently, though, it did. I was searching for something. I just didn’t know it at the time.

I timed my travels to start right after the tour guiding season was over: that was December 1983. I had convinced myself that winter would be fine. That the lines would be shorter. As if the world were a grand and glorious theme park. When I landed in London, though, there was snow on the ground and it was mighty cold. I did a quick change of plans and booked a flight to Israel.

That’s right: the only reason I came to Israel in the first place was because it was cold in Europe.

I planned on staying a few months picking watermelons on some kibbutz in the desert until the weather warmed up on the continent and I could get back on the road. Instead I met Jody.

It wasn’t exactly mutual love at first sight.

We were introduced on a Shabbat afternoon in the Old City of Tzfat at the beginning of the summer. We had both signed up to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies that fall.

My first thought was: “Wow, I’d like to get to know this woman better!”

Jody’s internal monologue went slightly different. She thought: “Boy, if this is the kind of person that studies at Pardes, maybe I should go somewhere else!”

But something happened in the next year. I persevered. And she saw through my scruffy exterior. We did fall in love and you can read about the rest right here in this column.

How did this near-miraculous change come about? Was it just two people passing through a singularly right time and place? Like Bob and Charlotte in Tokyo – a chance meeting between souls searching for connection?

Or was it something more?

One of the most powerful elements of “Lost in Translation” is the way the city of Tokyo is used as a virtual third character in the drama. I’ve visited Tokyo three times, and Director Sofia Copolla totally nails the city – from the incessant electronic pings, dings and whirs that emanate from absolutely everything, to the inescapable conclusion that a non-Japanese gaijin can never, ever fit in.

Copolla turns Tokyo into a swirling metaphor for unrelenting alienation.

Bob and Charlotte meet, maybe fall in love, but are never able to transcend the sense of displacement that the neon and pervasive otherworldliness around them continually reinforce.

Jerusalem, the city where Jody and I chose to build our lives together is, by contrast, for Jews a metaphor for supreme inclusion. Certainly for someone like me who never quite felt he fit in, the city provides ample opportunities for finding and joining the right group. Heck, the whole country is like one big Jewish Community Center and you’re automatically part of the club whether you've paid your membership dues or not.

I am convinced that my personal transformation from befuddled outsider to satisfied family man is due in no small part to having found “my place.” Sure, I could tell you that I had some meta-spiritual post-Zionist re-awakening, but it was really simpler - the discovery of a sense of deep belonging that opened me to the possibility of becoming a part of something bigger than myself – a family…and a community. Israel as a whole – and Jerusalem in particular - can have a profound effect on those who love it and let it in.

That’s why Copolla’s tour-de-force grabs me by the kishkes – because when I watch the film, I know deep down that if I hadn’t serendipitously booked a flight to Jerusalem on a cold day in Europe, I might very well still be searching for meaning in Tokyo…and coming up short.

I know that there are still too many people in this world who have not found their place or partner yet, and I wouldn’t ever think to trivialize that pain. I know it too well. But sometimes at night, when I’m sitting around the dinner table with Jody and my three children Amir, Merav and Aviv, I allow myself to recognize how truly blessed I am.

My life has not been lost in translation. It’s very much been found…in Jerusalem.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004


It was Purim night and Aviv was in a funk. About his costume.

“What if someone else is wearing the same thing?” he complained, sounding a tad too much like his worrywart father. “Or what if I have to go to the bathroom?”

His hand-me-down Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle outfit could only be unzipped from the back, necessitating adult aid in disrobing.

“I’ll take you to the bathroom,” I reassured Aviv. “And maybe there’ll be a girl Ninja Turtle.”

Aviv looked at me with a mix of six-year-old bemusement and pity, as if to say everyone knows there are no girl Ninja turtles. And I don’t play with girls!

Still, there was no question Aviv would be dressing up. Costumes are a big part of the fun on Purim, the Jewish calendar’s official holiday of disguise. Kids and adults alike dress up as everything from mini-Queens and Kings to go-go dancers and faux-Village People.

The tradition harks back to how Esther, the Biblical heroine of the Purim story, hid her true identity as a Jew until the last possible moment, dramatically saving her people from annihilation at the hands of Persian King Ahashverous’s wicked Chief of Staff Haman.

(We’re also instructed to drink until we can no longer differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys, but I tend to leave that part out when making the holiday relevant to the six-year-old set.)

The highlight of the Purim holiday (other than the drinking) is the reading of the megilla, a scroll contaiing the Purim story, while the assembled congregation tries to make as much noise as humanly possible every time the name of Haman is read.

Some shake baby rattles, others bang on bongo drums or stamp their feet. This year, one guy dressed like “Cousin It” from the Adams Family had his cell phone set to play polyphonic tunes on cue. I think I heard Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

Nice touch.

As we readied our rattles to obliterate that first utterance of the name, there was a loud bang from outside. Then another boom. Aviv shot up.

“What was that?” he demanded, looking not a little upset. His awareness of the world around him has increased of late, and he’s been asking a lot of questions about bombs.

Everyone else in the room simply continued in their merrymaking with the nonchalance of old pros.

That’s because they knew what I have learned since moving to Israel: that the explosions from outside were simply purimcrackers: firecrackers set off on Purim night.

When I heard my first purimcracker, my initial thought was: how incredibly inappropriate. Not just because it was disturbing the megilla reading. Rather, why would anyone want to spark a panic with a sound approximating a bomb when there are so many real bombs going off right under our noses?

OK, maybe it was a fun tradition ten years ago. But now? In the times we currently live in?

Now, I'm no old fart who's forgotten how to have a bit of fun. Along with firecrackers, fireworks have long been used to highlight Independence Day celebrations around the world and I have certainly indulged.

The Fourth of July back in the “old country” wouldn’t have been the same without the mandatory trip down to the Red Devil fireworks stand to pick up a big box of fountains, roman candles and snakes. My brother, my parents and I would set them up in the middle of the suburban cul-de-sac we grew up on and, alongside all the other kids and their parents, light off one after another.

It was incredibly dangerous. And totally fun.

But that was when war seemed far away. Not down the block.

Still, I can understand the connection to Independence Day. But what’s the deal with Purim?

I mean, what was Esther’s first response when her uncle, Mordechai, confronts her with Haman’s plans of genocide? She tries to bury her head in the proverbial Persian sand and ignore the peril. That is until Mordechai makes it clear that, just because she’s the Queen, it doesn’t mean she’s going to escape the fate of her brethren.

So what happens next? Esther orders the Jewish people to fast for three days. Mordechai dons sackcloth and ashes. Not a particularly military response. Esther eventually uses her position to lay a trap for Haman, convincing the King to hang He Who’s Name Must Not Be Heard in a classic case of court intrigue.

That’s where most people close the book and call it a night. We won. Now let’s eat.

But the final, less discussed section of the Purim story goes into great detail about how the Jews armed themselves and fought against those who were coming to kill them. And won big time. In a matter of mere months, the Jewish people were transformed from a seemingly powerless minority into a lean mean fighting machine.

By the end of the megilla, the Jews have slaughtered some 75,000 of their enemies and Esther’s uncle, Mordechai, has been appointed Prime Minister.

In this light it seems that maybe purimcrackers aren’t that inappropriate after all. And the plethora of costumed cowboys, bullfighters and superheroes - they're not just out to mark the art of disguise ala Esther, but to remember the military heroes who took over, once Esther’s true identity was revealed.

And that also includes one little worrywart Ninja Turtle.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

The Note

“There’s no school on Sunday!” ten-year-old Merav declared on a recent Friday as she arrived home at the end of classes that day. She was dancing around the room like it was the beginning of summer vacation rather than a cold day in the middle of winter.

“Who says?” I asked.

“There’s going to be a strike. Didn’t you hear, Abba?”

Of course I had heard. This year has been the worst ever in the country’s history for strikes. Government offices were closed for nearly four months, and the schools have been shut down at least three times since the start of the academic year.

You would think that in a country where buses and cafes are blown up on a regular basis; a country which has reported over 19,000 terror incidents in the last three years alone, that the unions and the legislators would be able to minimize any unnecessary additional stress on the population. Like not providing basic services such as education.

On the other hand, maybe this is a good thing. Another potent symbol of how we continue to go on with our normal lives despite an unending wall of terror. That is if your concept of “normal” includes a new strike every other week.

In the case of the most recent strike action, it wasn’t the teachers but the assistants, the sanitation workers, secretaries and security guards who were walking off the job in protest against salaries not paid. The last time this happened, classes were held but the teachers were instructed by the union heads to act as glorified babysitters. So the kids played jump rope and decorated the walls.

The news reported that this time, however, the union had instructed its members to teach…as long as the parents got together and hired their own security guards.

Another symbol of normal life in Israel: without an armed guard posted outside, learning can’t take place. It’s enough to make you long to be a teenager again back in the old country, where the main security concern administrators had to contend with was how to keep us rambunctious kids on campus at lunchtime and away from the nearby Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I told Merav what I’d heard on the news. “It looks like you’ll have to go school,” I said with a not-so-sad face.

“But we got a note!” Merav reported, hoping to un-harden what she perceived as my petty pre-Pharaohnic heart.

“Let me see it,” I demanded.

“No,” Merav replied.

“No?” I said, confused. Why withhold evidence intended to support her case? And in any case, that’s not something you say to a direct order from your father. “Come on, hand it over.”

Merav pulled out a crumpled up piece of paper and started to read.

“Dear Parents. As you know there is a planned strike for Sunday.”

She then put the paper promptly back in her pocket.

“Hey, what’s the rest of it say!” I said.

But then something happened I didn’t expect. Defiance turned to tears. Merav’s face twisted up, her mouth contorted and she flushed a distinct and distraught red.

“Merav, seriously. I need to know what the rest of the note says,” I continued.

Slowly, the full story began to unfurl. Apparently, Merav and her friend Sarah had made a plan. They were taking the day off and going swimming. They’d already worked out all the details – the timing, the clothes, who was getting the pizza.

“Merav, the note…”

“I read it to you already. There’s no school!”

I debated trying to physically snatch it out of her pocket. But that didn’t seem right. I put on my angry face.

She handed it over finally. I read.

“Despite the strike, there will be a regular school day. Please send your children.”

“Oh Merav…”

“We had had it all worked out. It’s not fair. It’s just not fair!”

The next morning, Merav headed off to school. She wasn’t happy but she didn’t fight it either. Later that afternoon, when she came home I asked how it went.

She was practically breathless “Great! We practiced all day for the big concert coming up. We had choir and dance and violin. Did I tell you about the concert? It’s Tuesday at 6. You can come, right?”

“Of course,” I replied. “So it’s a good thing you went to school. See what you would have missed.”

“I still would have preferred to stay home.”


“OK, not really…so can I go to the pool now?”