Wednesday, April 28, 2004


Here’s something you never want to see when you're driving: a policeman waving his arms, motioning you to pull you over.

My first thought was that there had been a terrorist attack and they were diverting traffic. I was driving near the Jerusalem Central Bus Station so it was a distinct possibility.

The reality, however, was more prosaic. I had made a wrong turn and was now in a lane reserved for buses and taxis only.

I had to think fast. How could I possibly wiggle out of a ticket? I decided to play the stupid immigrant card. It had worked for me once before.

Back in 1984, when I first came to Israel, I actually got stopped by a policewoman for jay walking! It happened when I was strolling across a street downtown, near Zion Square.

Everyone else was doing it.

As the officer approached, I told him that I spoke no Hebrew. He didn’t seem to speak much English himself, so he let me off rather than put himself through the exasperation.

Twenty years later, apparently, the police have taken a few English lessons. The officer at my window this time had a decent command of my mother tongue and was not letting me go so easily.

"License," he commanded.

“I’ve driven here many times,” I explained. “When did they make it just for public transportation?”

“Three years ago,” he grunted.

“Yes, but is there a sign?” I challenged him, hoping for a lucky loophole.

He motioned to a large orange slab of metal.

“Hey, it’s in Hebrew!” I protested.

The cop just shrugged.

I tried a different tack. “Is this going to be expensive? My family...well, we’re on a budget you see, and…”

He gave my car a once over, as if to say you can’t be too poor if you’re driving a Toyota.

“What’s your street address?” he asked.

“26 Rechov…” I started, then quickly stopped mid-sentence as I realized I was giving away my game by using the Hebrew word for “street.” And, although you my dear readers know too well about my deficiencies in Hebrew, I have over the years learned just enough to know how to roll a respectable resh or emit a guttural “ch.”

“Can’t you help me out here?” I pleaded one last time.

“I can’t give to one and not to another,” he stated matter of factly.

And I thought: of course you can! That’s what being Israeli is all about. Bending the rules. Showing flexibility.

When I used to work in Tel Aviv, I had to park in a public lot. I got to know the parking lot booth attendants – Yossi and Moshe. We would schmooze, I’d tell them a funny story, they’d complain about the heat. After awhile, Yossi started charging me only every other day. Moshe let me in for free every day. I never asked why; they never explained.

My policeman in Jerusalem was having none of it. He went back to his motorbike and wrote up a ticket. It took him a good ten minutes. He joked with the other police people while some guy brought him a cup of coffee. Just get it over with it, I thought. I’m already running late.

When he finally returned, he held out a ticket… all in Hebrew. And the policeman’s writing was none too neat. Even so, it wasn’t hard to spot the bad news: 250 shekels. Just about $55.

As I took possession of my fine, the officer turned to me and said “Now just don’t let it happen again.” He then flashed me a broad smile. It wasn’t mean or vindictive. More a way of saying “it’s nothing personal.” I tried to manage a smile of my own, something on the order of “and you have a good day too.”

Now, I would like to tell you that with those smiles and conciliatory words, the policeman and I miraculously felt an intense bonding. I would like to tell you that he promptly ripped up the ticket and left me off with just a warning.

Instead, I pulled away and, in the rear view mirror, watched as he flagged down another driver who had driven into the wrong lane and, I imagined, was now attempting to talk his way out of a English.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

443 Calculations

On the last Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, we were invited to a barbeque at the house of friends in the new city of Modi’in, about a half hour’s drive outside of Jerusalem where we live. On the day of the party, though, the news reported that the main road out of Jerusalem was jammed and there were hour-long back-ups. The solution seemed easy enough: we’d just take the alternative highway - Road 443.

Except that nothing is that simple in the reality of Israel today.

Since September 2000, we have avoided traveling on certain roads, specifically those that pass by areas where there have been terror attacks. This may sound like a logical enough precaution, but if you don’t live here and travel the roads daily, the inconvenience and sheer insanity of such rerouting can get lost.

Imagine in the San Francisco Bay Area if Interstate 280 going up and down the Peninsula was deemed too dangerous after dusk, forcing 95% of commuters onto the only alternative route, the already congested Highway 101. Or if taking the Holland Tunnel in New York vs. the George Washington Bridge meant risking a potential ambush.

The strongest parallel in Israel to these two routes is 443. With only one main entrance to the city of Jerusalem, the country’s traffic engineers were desperate to open up a second entry point to grant some relief to drivers stuck in the perpetual jam. The government spent millions upgrading the formerly little used 443 from two lanes to four. Curves were straightened, bridges and tunnels built.

Problem was that 443 runs pretty much right along the old Green Line. When a couple of people got caught in drive-by shootings , everyone freaked. At first no one took the road at all. Then a trickle began using it again during the day, but never at night.

When our friends invited us to their Independence Day barbeque, Jody and I hadn’t taken 443 for nearly four years. But we were running late. Sitting in traffic would have meant we’d miss all the fun. And definitely the chicken wings.

We quickly ran some quick calculations in our heads. The kind that define the constantly changing parameters of our so-called “normal” life in Israel. We don’t take the bus. We won’t eat out in restaurants without an armed security guard. And we’ve abandoned once close friends who live only a few kilometers away from our supposedly safe apartment in central Jerusalem…but require traveling on a road that doesn’t add up to a total we can live with.

But today…the food, our friends, the traffic. And before we knew what hit us, we’d set out…on 443.

We were immediately struck by its stark, barren beauty. The rolling hills with their jagged rock formations, the long stone terraces that always look to me to be thousands of years old…it’s all so stunning, especially when you haven’t seen them for a while.

Jody rolled down her window. The road was open, traffic was flowing, the mountain air smelled crisp with just a hint of the salt from the Mediterranean Sea, already visible in the distance.

Then, out of the blue, we came to a stop. I quickly noticed that no cars were coming in the other direction either. Something had happened.

People turned off their car engines, got out and stretched their legs. A man opened his back door and out sprang a scraggly black dog who instantly jumped the fence to go for a run on the empty other side of the road. The sounds of the muezzin from a nearby Arab village echoed through the valley.

We turned on the radio. They were reporting that a chefetz chashud – a suspicious object – had blocked the road.

In the midst of our waiting, a totally chutzpadik taxi driver decided he couldn’t wait and started to push his way to the front. Honking ferociously, he yelled to the other cars to start up their engines and move to the right so he could squeeze by on the almost non-existent left-side shoulder.

It was not like he was going to get past the roadblock. What was he looking for? A half a minute’s lead-time over all the rest of us freiers?

And then, after about 40 minutes of frustration, BOOM. Not deafening, but still loud enough to rattle us. The police robot used to zap suspicious objects had apparently taken a bite, and something on the menu had a kick to it.

The traffic started up again. Slowly we snaked down the road, anxiously craning our necks to see what the cause of all the commotion was. I imagined something minor, maybe a small package, a garbage bag or even a suitcase forgotten the side of the road.

It was a car. An old Subaru, left abandoned, and now a smoldering wreck. That was big…had it been blown apart by the robot or was there a bomb inside? I couldn’t stop myself from thinking: what if it had gone off just as we were passing? On the very day – no, the only day – in the last four years that we chose to go this way?

I thought again about how we had calculated the risks and it all seemed so foolish. What’s the use, anyway? Some say if it’s your time, then so be it. In the very real game of Middle East Roulette, you can only pretend that you’ve avoided spinning the wheel. “Real” Israelis just go on with their lives. They get tough. They say things like “we can’t let the terror dictate how we live our lives” and “we won’t give in.”

Little by little, we’ve found ourselves saying the same thing.

Our friends in Modi’in have invited us to another barbeque this coming Independence Day. Jody and I are already debating: should we give 443 a go again? I suppose our calculations will depend on how late we get out of the house.

And whether they’re running out of chicken wings.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Story Hour

Twenty mothers. Thirty children.

And me.

That's the scene at the English language story hour that six-year-old Aviv and I attend every Monday afternoon at our neighborhood library. Aviv has always adored anyone reading him a book. And I enjoy the father-son bonding experience.

Patronizing a library with books in English or an English-language story hour is an important way for us "Anglo" immigrants in Israel to socialize. At least for the mothers and their children.

As the token male, I kind of stand out. Maybe that's why I usually take the role of silent bystander, sitting in the back of the room while one of the twenty mothers takes her turn reading...and bonding with the other parents.

So when Debra, who's in charge of the program, asked me to read, I was hesitant.

"What if they laugh at me?" I asked. "Or they don't like the stories I choose?"

Aviv, overhearing my trepidation, spoke up. "Abba, they never don't like stories!"

"I wasn't talking about the kids," I replied. "I'm worried about what the other mothers will think."

A room full of mothers is as intimidating an audience as I can imagine. In my mind, they are all best in their class, wonderfully nurturing, brimming with maternal compassion...and intensely critical of anyone not providing a stellar storytelling experience for their precious offspring.

What if I didn't measure up?

Still, how could I say no? I was a regular attendee. Not putting in my dues would be like coming for dinner week after week without ever offering to wash up or do the dishes. No wait a minute, that was me back when I was single...

I had two weeks to get ready. Debra suggested I pick a theme. Something I could relate to. That was a no-brainer: food and eating. And we had some wonderful food-y books, including one of my all time favorites "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," the story of the small town of Chewandawallow where instead of rain and snow, things like mashed potatoes and milk come raining out of the sky three times a day at breakfast, lunch and dinner time.

In one scene, a runaway storm of pancakes and melted butter blankets the town. That led to book #2 - "If You Give a Pig a Pancake." I rounded it out with "Strega Noga," "The Magic Fish," and "Sam and the Tigers," Julius Lester's politically correct retelling of "Little Black Sambo" which, incidentally, also ends with a pool of hot melted butter (in this case, the tigers).

I practiced diligently every night - I only hope Amir and Merav are as fastidious when it comes to preparing their Bar and Bat Mitzvah portions.

Finally, the big day arrived. Aviv and I got to the library extra early. The kids, as always, sat on the floor in a semi-circle with their mothers in the chairs behind them.

"Did anyone ever hear the announcer giving the weather forecast on the radio?" I began, addressing the kids. "You know, where they say 'tomorrow it will be cloudy with a chance of rain?'"

Blank stares all around from the kids. A few tentative nods from the mothers.

And with inauspicious introduction, I launched into my first book. When we got to a hailstorm of hamburgers pummeling the town hall, they started to warm up.

I got them laughing as I did a few kid-friendly impersonations for "The Magic Fish." By the time I pulled out "The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash," I had charmed them like the precocious snake in the title.

The hour ended. The mothers applauded. Enthusiastically. And then the most remarkable thing happened. That impenetrable wall of motherly protection I had so feared began to crumble.

"That was great!" one mother exclaimed.

"Please let me know when you'll be reading again," said another.

"I know we've never talked before, but I've seen you around. I think our older kids are in choir together." Heck, if I didn't know better, I'd say she was hitting on me.

No matter. I suddenly had twenty new friends. I was an honorary mother. Or maybe the heroic father who let his ego go-a-wandering in a den of hungry tigers...and survived.

And I didn't even turn into a pool of butter.