Thursday, May 20, 2004

Mayors in our Midst

We know a lot of people named Meir. It’s a pretty common Hebrew name. So it’s not surprising when we told the kids we were having a couple of "mayors" for Friday night dinner, they asked “you mean like Meir and Miriam,” referring to friends whose wedding we recently attended.

“No,” I replied. “I mean like mayors – as in the head of a city. We’re getting San Leandro and Azusa.”

Which was, just as unsurprisingly, followed by a round of blank stares.

The occasion was the 22nd annual Jerusalem International Mayor’s Conference, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Jewish Congress which covers the costs of the mayors’ participation. 28 mayors from 17 countries descended on Jerusalem for a week, and we were asked if we’d be interested in hosting a couple for Shabbat.

It was very much an only-in-Israel experience. I doubt we'd ever have been asked to host a mayor when we lived in Berkeley...

All day before they arrived, I was jittery. I knew that whatever we said, whatever we did during their stay with us would probably be interpreted as how all Israelis really are. And they’d probably want to talk politics at one point.

The responsibility to represent our country in the right light was already weighing heavily when the doorbell rang. What would they be like? All official and mayor-like?

Standing on the other side of the door were Cristina Cruz-Madrid from the Los Angeles suburb of Azusa, and Sheila Young the San Francisco Bay Area burg of San Leandro.

They actually looked pretty normal…for mayors, that is.

Cristina brought us two glass mugs from the Azusa Light and Water Department. “We understand you have a water shortage too,” she said knowingly.

Sheila catered more to taste, presenting a box of Ghirardelli Chocolates.

“Isn’t Ghirardelli in Fisherman’s Wharf?” I said. “In San Francisco?”

“The factory moved to San Leandro in 1964,” Sheila beamed, whipping out a digital camera to snap our picture with the chocolates.

So far so good.

Perhaps to deflect all the responsibility from my own shoulders we had invited several other guests including our cousin Nehemia and good friends Adam, Lynne and their six-month-old baby. (You may remember Lynne...I had to "testify" to her singlehood before she and Adam could get married. Click here to revisit the story.)

Over dinner, we talked about what they’d done on their trip so far. The theme of the conference this year was “The Role of the Mayor in Times of Crisis,” and the tour program included visits to Hadassah Hospital’s trauma unit and the army’s Home Front Command to discuss emergency services and disaster preparedness.

We talked about lighter subjects - what it’s like to be a mayor and how long they’d been in office. We reminisced with Sheila about changes in freeways and shopping malls in our old stomping grounds and explained the various Shabbat rituals like Kiddush and washing before eating bread. Everyone complimented Jody’s salmon.

It looked like we might avoid politics all together when Cristina described the demographics of her southern California town. “It’s primarily Latino now. A lot of children of immigrants who came up from South America looking for better opportunities.”

Almost on cue, Adam jumped in. “I was just wondering...” he said, and the way he stretched out his preface perked up a vague sense of alarm for me. “...what your constituents think about what’s going on in this part of the world. Seeing as how they come from places where violence is not exactly unknown.”

Apparently Adam hadn’t properly familiarized himself with my list of acceptable questions.

But Cristina deftly deflected the question. “Truth is, they don’t really think about it at all. There’s so much unemployment and poverty and gangs; they’ve got enough on their plates with local social and welfare issues.”

Nice save, Cristina.

We passed around the chocolates and over the last sips of herbal tea, the conversation got around, as it inevitably does when visitors come from the “old country,” to the question of “why are you here” and “would you ever consider returning to California?” Normally we get this from friends and family and we go immediately on the defensive.

But this time, a different response had started to form in my mind. I turned to Cristina.

“Moving to Israel is kind of like...immigrating to Azusa,” I said. “We came here because we felt we could give our children a better Jews in a Jewish State. For us, Israel is our land of opportunity.”

The parallel wasn’t airtight. We weren’t in danger of being deported. We were full-fledged citizens from day one. But it was good enough.

Cristina nodded.

And if that was a semi-political statement, then I guess I’d crossed my own red line. But if I’d helped at least one mayor of one small town understand why a family of crazy Californians moved half way around the world – and choose to stay – in what’s perceived back home of as a war zone, then I’d acquitted my country with acceptable panache.

We said goodbye and Cristina and Sheila headed back to their hotel. Well, that wasn’t so bad. And they weren’t so intimidating after all.

But when we closed the door, six-year-old Aviv who trying to fall asleep on a nearby couch sat up for a moment, looking confused.

“I don’t understand," he said. "Where were the Meirs?”

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Better off Red than Dead

Let me state upfront I’m not a big fan of the Dead Sea. Sure it’s cool to bathe in a body of water so filled with salt that nothing can live in it so you actually float on top of the water rather than swim.

Plus the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at 400 meters (or 1320 feet) below sea level, is mentioned prominently in the Bible in no less than nine verses. How many times do you get to say you went floating in a Biblical sea?

But it’s also slimy and cold and full of rocks instead of sand. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of those things you do once, maybe twice in a lifetime…but that’s it.

Not so for my kids. The idea of lying on your back and not sinking is as superhero magical as being able to fly or mastering invisibility.

Our first experience with the Dead Sea was two years ago. We were staying at the Ein Gedi Field School for a weekend away with our synagogue. On Shabbat I walked with then ten-year-old Amir and eight-year-old Merav down to the free public beach. Aviv was too young at the time to handle the 90 minute roundtrip walk in the hot sun and was quite devastated that he wasn’t allowed to join in the fun.

As soon as we got to the beach, the kids waded in. I’m sure they’d have liked to have jumped in, but the beach at Ein Gedi is not one of the most pleasant ways to “do” the Dead Sea. This particular beach has these large sharp rocks in the water that have come closer and closer to the surface as the water level has receded over the years. Maybe that’s why there’s no charge.

Well, the kids got into floating pretty quickly, but instead of laying back and enjoying the show, they had to spend their time avoiding the treacherous stones: one false move can pierce or scrape the skin just enough to allow the salt to seep in, causing searing pain. Given the number of rocks, it’s pretty much inevitable, and yet still people do it.

Forget all that Carpe Diem crap. Some things just cause temporary insanity.

Merav was the first to brush up against disaster.

“Abba,” she cried out about 15 minutes into our experience. “I think I got cut. Oh, I did. It hurts. Can you come out here? Please!”

This was not a feeling she’d had before and she began to panic in the water. As I tried to paddle out to her, I too got stung.

“I’m coming Merav,” I yelled between stifled curses. Somehow I maneuvered the two of us back to the shore where we nursed the salt in our wounds. I vowed never to do this again.

Flash forward two years. It was a Friday afternoon and we were on our way back to the Dead Sea for another Shabbat weekend. The kids apparently have incredibly short memories when it comes to trauma. Amir and Merav both wanted to give it another try, and Aviv, well he was adamant that he be given his chance at long last.

I refused to go back to the S&M beach at Ein Gedi. But I’d heard that nearby Mineral Beach was rock free. That was the only thing that was free, though: the entrance fee set us back a good hundred shekels. And the water was still cold and slimy. But I figured I could handle that. We all headed in.

About three steps in, our feet descended into something deep and squishy. Mud. That’s OK…it’s supposed to be therapeutic. The big kids started lathering up with the stuff. But Aviv was looking confused. Then he started to wail.

Nuts, I thought, he must have a cut somewhere. He was still close to the shore, so it wasn’t too hard to help him out. I inspected his body. Nothing. But a red rash was starting to spread. Something in the water – the salt or the minerals – was reacting with his sensitive skin. And he didn’t like it one bit.

“You have to get him to the showers,” a helpful man with a bushy beard and dreadlocks suggested.

To do that, though, we needed our shoes. Even though the water might have been rock free, the beach was still covered in millions of not-so-tiny pebbles.

Now let me ask you: have you ever tried to put shoes on a screaming and kicking five-year-old?

“You have to carry him,” Mr. Dreadlocks suggested.

I’ll ask again: have you ever tried to carry a screaming and kicking five-year-old over millions of not-so-tiny pebbles?

The whole process of putting on shoes and hiking up the hill to the showers probably only lasted a few minutes. But it felt like an eternity. Fortunately, once I’d washed the Dead Sea water off Aviv, he reverted to his normal happy self.

Amir and Merav came walking up the steps shortly afterward. This time, their experience had been 100% positive. Merav’s neck was covered in salt – the short walk from the beach had dried off the water leaving just a spicy mineral residue. The mud that covered Amir’s arms had transformed his skin into a dry leather that looked like it was going to crack or flake off at any moment.

“Did you have fun?” I asked.

“It was great!” they both responded.

Well, two out of three aint bad.

But lest you think I’ve been converted, rest assured my curmudgeonly side is still firmly in place. The kids had their Biblical Sea experience, if they want more – let them go on their own.

Or better still, why not check out the other sea mentioned prominently in the Bible: the Red Sea (yes, the same one that parted to allow Moses and the Israelites to pass through). Whether you enter from Eilat or deep in the Sinai, this one has everything you could possibly want: sandy beaches, warmer water and incredible coral, fish and snorkeling.

As far as I’m concerned, next time we’re better off Red than Dead.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The Blessing of a Broken Heart

Every fiber and bone in my body tells me I shouldn’t be reading this book. And yet I cannot put it down. Because I have a son who will be thirteen too. Soon.

The Blessing of a Broken Heart” (Toby Press, 2003) is Sherri Mandell book-length prose poem of love, courage and faith to her 13-year-old son Koby who was brutally murdered by terrorists, three years ago this weekend, on May 8, 2001.

Koby and a friend, Yosef Ish-Ran, had cut school one day to explore the caves just outside the West Bank settlement of Tekoa where they lived. When finally discovered some 24 hours later, their bodies were so badly beaten they could only be identified through their dental records.

When I first heard the news, I was devastated. That’s not hard to understand. The details and circumstances were horrendous: two teenagers play hooky and never come home. It was also not hard to picture the spot where they were killed: my wife Jody and I had gone hiking there years ago, back when it was supposed to be safe.

But it was more than that. The more I read, the more I couldn’t help thinking how Sherri Mandell’s life paralleled my own.

We were both born in the United States, growing up with non-observant backgrounds and developing an interest in Judaism at the Livnot U’Lehibanot program in the Old City of Tzfat in the early 1980s. We both earned degrees in creative writing and make our livings as writers. We even both took a seven year “break” from Israel before formally immigrating.

And now, my son is about to be the same age as Mandell’s Koby.

So is it any wonder I kept asking myself as I read – how would I deal with such a tragedy? How would I cope? And would I be able to transform such a deep and personal horror into some greater purpose if, God forbid…

Mandell tells her story slowly, in short chapter spurts that alternate between details of her life and her growing understanding of Koby’s – and her own – place in a bigger spiritual picture. There is, thankfully, precious little about the “event” itself – for a more in-your-face numbing experience, pick up a copy of Nechemia Coopersmith’s “Israel in the Shadow of Terror” (Targum/Feldheim, 2003) which presents details from tens of gruesome terror attacks.

At the same time, Mandell doesn’t attempt to sugar coat what she’s been through, to make it easier for readers. Her pain, she writes, “is like a rock thrown into a calm pond. It keeps expanding. As soon as you deal with one pain, there is another to take its place.”

And she is bitterly aware of life’s unrelenting uncertainty. As she describes her move to Tekoa, it is serendipitous at best, stating simply “When there were no rentals available in Efrat and homes were being built in Tekoa, we moved and tried to buy a house.” How could she know what was to come?

That doesn’t stop the guilt, which “comes in waves. To fight it I have to realize that even if I was the best mother in the world, the most attentive, least selfish…I could not have stopped this death….maybe he would have died in a different way…maybe not in Tekoa. I did not kill my son. Terrorists did.”

As she attempts to deal with the tragedy, Mandell looks for comfort in the smallest things – a cricket’s song, a shooting star, a bag of potato chips.

In one poignant passage, she describes how her six year old son turned to her in the car at Koby’s funeral to complain that he is hungry. Jolted out of her misery for a brief moment, she asks “Didn’t anybody feed you?” While a policeman runs to the nearby grocery store to pick up a bag of chips Mandell remarks that “even at the most tragic, cruelest moment of life, God is pulling me out of my pain and giving me a son who is alive and hungry.”

This turns out to be the transformative theme that runs through and ultimately unifies the book. At one point, Mandell writes “Koby is more present in my life now than he has ever been. The trick is to forbid death to be more present than life.”

Later, she reflects “my job is not to forgive, but to give meaning. My job is to remember.”

And finally, in perhaps the most telling statement of all, she admits to a growing belief “that everything is for a purpose, that I have a new purpose and I will not waver from it – to take all of the unbearable cruelty in your death, all of the evil, and transform it into love and kindness, the love you had for the world.”

These are not just words, of course. Mandell and her husband have set up the Koby Mandell Foundation which runs an annual six-week summer camp for some 250 kids who have lost someone to terror, as well as sponsoring activities that take bereaved mothers away for a weekend of massage, art therapy and yoga.

“Through the work of the Foundation,” Mandell explains, Koby has become a symbol of fun and healing, a symbol of love. It means that Koby’s spirit is growing. Koby’s capacity for joy, his great love, is in some way staying alive.”

This new unavoidably public persona pervades other aspects of her life and Mandell, to be sure, is aware that her role in the world has changed. She describes herself as “the person nobody wants to be,” and because of that, when people look at her “they love their kids more.” They think “Thank God I’m not her. Thank God I still have my kids, my family intact.”

By the end, Mandell can even laugh. When a friend calls to say that she is upset because she caught her son with a joint, Mandell responds by saying ”What a great problem.” And she means it.

As my own son turns 13, I reflect on what Mandell has lost…and what she has given us. Mandell’s ability to bare her soul and share – her feelings, her hopes, her faith – and to quietly transform the events of three years ago, is a stunning testament to the good that still prevails in the vast majority of humanity. That is, ultimately, the true “blessing” of Mandell’s broken heart.