Friday, June 25, 2004

2000-Year-Old Traffic Jam

If I told you there was a completely hidden world buried under old Jerusalem – would you be interested? Well, I sure was when I first learned about it. And last week, I got a ticket to explore.

The world I’m talking about consists of the tunnels under and alongside the Western Wall, opened several years ago. From the moment I learned of their existence my mind went wild with imagination.

I envisioned buried treasure – not gold and bouillon, but exquisitely-preserved artifacts from Solomon’s Temple, finally uncovered for the world to see. Perhaps a secret passageway would lead to that most marvelous find of all – the Israelites’ Holy Ark, lost even in King Solomon’s time.

Would the ark, I wondered, wield the mysterious and ultimately monstrous powers that Harrison Ford witnessed in the first Indiana Jones movie? Or would it be just a crumbling crag of ancient rock, more interesting to Bible historians than my pals in the sci-fi and fantasy set?

The opportunity to play amateur archaeologist arose when twelve-year-old Amir’s seventh grade class went on a school field trip to the tunnels. One of the kids got sick at the last minute and I got to take his place.

The tunnel begins auspiciously enough with a semi-secret entrance to the men’s bathroom across from the Western Wall’s main plaza. After descending into a large cistern and then passing a long-buried bridge, we began our walk.

Now, what you normally think of as "The Wall," the part where everyone comes to pray that is featured so prominently in every tourist brochure of Jerusalem, is actually only a small 80 meter piece; another 320 meters are accessible only by walking the tunnels.

The tunnels weren’t always underground, of course. Originally built by King Herod, this was once an outdoor marketplace, the main shuk for Jerusalem.

“And what were they selling?” our guide asked his student charges. Probably the same overpriced tourist trinkets being sold today (Jerusalem has always been a major pilgrimmage site).

Plus a few things you can’t get anymore, such as offerings to give in the nearby Temple, like sheep and grain.

The old shuk has long since been covered, as dwellings in ever overcrowded Jerusalem were built around and on top of it. But the stones we walked – hidden for centuries – were the very same ones placed there by Herod some 2000 years ago. The still smooth wall to our side was built from stone slabs so enormous it was hard to imagine how they were moved into place.

The experience was marvelous. Except for the sense of claustrophobia, a feeling that increased as we burrowed deeper into the tunnels. Perhaps the street was wider back in Herod’s time. But today, it’s just thick enough for a single person to squeeze by.

And we were not alone.

The tunnels, it seems, have become a major tourist attraction. Even though tourism is still way down from its pre-2000 high, groups had still been scheduled for entrance every five minutes. At several stops along the journey we bunched up and had to wait for the next tour to move on.

It was just like Indiana Jones...the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, that is.

After an hour or so of our tour, we arrived at a cavernous chamber used once as the main well for the city. It was there that our guide informed us that we had to turn back. The exit from the far end was closed to school groups. Apparently, it opened out into the Moslem Quarter of the Old City and the Israeli authorities had deemed that too dangerous.

As we turned to double back in the direction we had just come from, another school group passed us...and continued on towards the forbidden exit.

“Hey, why do they get to go out that way?” I asked our guide.

He just shrugged his shoulders. A by-the-books kind of guy, he had his rules.

And so we found ourselves shoving our way past the other tour groups, moving in the wrong direction through the narrow walkway which now seemed impossibly constricted.

Tight spaces do strange things to a twelve-year-old's manners (such as they are). Amir’s classmates began to push each other relentlessly. Backpacks became weapons in an underground struggle to see who’d be the first to reach the exit. One kid started singing “Who let the dogs out” and several of his classmates, realizing they had a world class echo at their disposal, joined in.

When we were finally released back into the fresh air of the Western Wall plaza, it was none too soon.

Oh, the tunnels were still fascinating, enough so that I can heartily recommend a visit in all good faith. But as the volume and frustration level rose, the super secret world hidden deep below the Old City that I had fantasized about for so long, had taken a turn for the something strangely familiar: a typically Israeli traffic jam.

Well, a two-thousand-year-old traffic jam that is.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Is it Real or is it Memorex?

Ten-year-old Merav had been practicing for weeks. At last, the big performance was upon us. The event was the conclusion of a year’s study program on “roots.” Every child in Merav’s class had collected a family “song” and they had creatively stitched them together with some brief narrative thread for an evening of fifth-grade theater.

I came armed, as I always do in these situations, with my video camera. We reckon that, since the kids were born, we have documented over 78 hours of our lives on tape.

The tapes are not just for posterity, mind you. As soon as we’re done with a video, we copy it and send it off to the grandparents. It’s a necessary part of the modern trans-global family. And in Israel, with so many expatriate families far from their old homes, we are hardly alone.

Sometimes, we even watch the old tapes ourselves. It’s a lot cleaner, a whole bunch more wholesome fun than the latest Mary Kate and Ashley adventure in Manhattan or Tahiti or some other exotic location.

So, at Merav’s performance, I started off by dutifully taping snatches of the other children’s songs. 20 seconds of a family tradition sung in French; a 10 second snippet of kids at a seder table singing in Ladino, the secret Jewish language of Spanish and North African Jews.

I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing when to turn the camera on and off, so the resulting tape doesn’t drone on and on and on...forever.

When we got to Merav’s part, I hit the button to record. Or so I thought. When her group was done, for some reason I had a bad feeling. I rewound the tape, just to check.

Somehow I had switched the camera off just as she had started...and then back on again when she was done. As a result, I’d gotten lots of great footage of my feet, the back of someone’s head, and an overstuffed book bag. But none of Merav and her friends singing her Nana’s sing-song family rhyme (click here to read it).

My first thought was panic. Would Merav be upset? Would the grandparents realize that the only performance that was missing was their darling granddaughter? And: how could I be so stupid – I mean, my only job for the night was to press the button. How did I mess up? Would anyone hold me responsible?

It was more than that, though. After so many years of taping, if something's not there, it’s as if it never happened. Once our camcorder broke and had to stay in the shop for several months while the repairmen were trying to figure out the problem. We actually have to rely on memory to recall any events that happened during that time. Imagine that (well, we couldn't).

We definitely weigh out on the Memorex side of real.

Tape also has an uncanny effect of only capturing the good times. It makes sense – who wants to sit through a half hour of a kid kvetching or a baby refusing to nurse? If you watched our tape, you’d think we were the most well adjusted family on the planet.

Tantrums are resolved with the flick of the pause switch. It’s even less realistic than a least there they take a full 22 minutes to solve all of Ross and Rachel’s latest problems.

But being an obsessive videographer also means missing out on some of life itself. We have lots of tape of Imma dancing with the kids at their various kindergarten parties. But where’s Abba? Fully immersed in living for the moment? Nope...that’s him behind the camera, concentrating hard on how all this will look in the future.

I once heard a radio play written by a writer named Carol Adorjan. The play was called “Portions Mechanically Reproduced.” In it, a couple has recorded all the highlights of their life on audio tape. When they have a fight over the veracity of a particular incident and whether the tape has captured the truth, the wife leaves. Her husband simply edits her segments out and replaces her with the event as he remembers it.

We’ve never gone that far, but the first thought that occurred to me when I missed Merav’s performance was: can we have them do it again?

That would have been nice six years ago. Shortly after Aviv’s brit mila (circumcision ceremony), our apartment was broken into. We got robbed big time – a lot of jewelry and electronic equipment...including our camcorder which contained the original tape of the ceremony and speeches afterward.

I was devastated, then as now. But there was no way I could ask the mohel (or Aviv for that matter) to please “do it again” for the camera.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone among the camcorders on Merav’s big night. At least three other parents were eagerly taping their sons and daughters performing such old world family classics as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “Yellow Submarine.”

Ultimately, I was able to copy a version from our friend Reba. So what if the center of attention in the performance is not Merav but another girl. At least we got it.

Still, I wonder if I’d be better off going light on the tape for awhile. Maybe I’d be healthier and happier if I tried to break my video nicotine habit and participated a little more fully in life.

After an evening of Merav and her classmates’ roots, it seems high time I get back to mine. Yes, I could do it. It wouldn’t be that hard.

Now, all I have to do is convince Jody to get behind the camera.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


If you’ve never experienced it, it’s hard to describe just how disabling insomnia can be. Most people have had a few sleepless nights here and there. It’s a pain and the next day you’re zonked, but it’s usually temporary. And if you put the time to good use, all-nighters can be quite fun, sometimes even profitable.

But when it goes on for days and weeks and months on end, that’s a whole different ballgame. One in which, unfortunately, I’ve been forced to play designated hitter, pitcher and shortstop all at once and unasked.

I’ve never been a great sleeper. But things took a turn for the intolerable three years ago. It was not long after the violence broke out in September 2000. As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, I would hear the sound of helicopters. They seemed like they were just over my house. In reality, they were all of a few miles away, looking for terrorists who had been shooting every night at the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from nearby Bet Jalla and Bethlehem.

The sound of helicopters and machine guns got me so riled that I lay in bed wide awake wondering what the hell am I doing here? Is this insomnia or insanity? Indeed, the question is one that I have asked on a number of occasions since then:

What do you do when your ideological commitment to a place is literally making you sick?

Not willing to give up, I started my search for a cure. I’ve never been one for strong medicine, always preferring alternative, more natural remedies. First stop on the tour was a Chinese herbalist named Aliza.

Our first appointment lasted nearly two hours. Aliza spoke at breakneck speed, downing multiple cups of not-very-Chinese looking tea and asking me questions about everything from my food habits to whether my sideburns itch (apparently itchy sideburns indicate bladder problems). She checked my tongue repeatedly. Then she gave me seven bottles of smelly liquid and told me to be in touch. I took my tonic for half a year.

It didn’t work.

Next I tried homeopathy. Then acupuncture. Over the course of the last three years, I must have tried it all: aromatherapy, reflexology, even magnets. I exercised regularly and cut out all caffeine. I visited a sleep clinic where I was told they couldn’t help me unless I have sleep apnea. That’s where you stop breathing and wake up repeatedly during the night.

Too bad I don’t have that, I thought. At least it would be something.

Friends were not always compassionate. There is an unspoken subtext with insomnia that the victim is somehow to blame. “If only he could just relax,” people think. And “how hard is it to sleep anyway?”

Most eventually came around and suggested their favorite practitioners: chiropractors, massage therapists, energy healers. I resisted the temptation to visit the doctor with the special machine that detects parasites. If there are parasites in me, they’re probably exhausted from not sleeping either.

For a brief moment I thought I had stumbled on something I’ll call "The Peanut Butter Cure." Magnesium, a key element in peanut butter, is supposed to have calming properties. But after two weeks of peanut butter pita sandwiches before bed, all I gained was weight.

Eventually, my regular family doctor sent me to a shrink. “Drugs...” I mouthed in my best mock-horrified Homer Simpson impression. But maybe it was finally time.

Dr. Robinson is a tiny man with jet white hair and the kind of oversized glasses I wore in high school. He used to be head of psychiatry at a private hospital in the Talbiyeh neighborhood of Jerusalem. I never heard of it, but I’m pretty sure there was an institution for lepers there.

A coincidence?

Dr. Robinson prescribed some bitter pills which made me nauseous. Which obviously didn’t help me sleep either. He then tried a different cocktail which totally killed my sex drive. Now if you can’t sleep and you can’t…well, what’s life worth living for anyway?

“These pills are making me crazy,” I complained.

“A bit obsessive-compulsive are we?” Dr. Robinson responded.

“Did I say crazy? Ha, I meant they’re not working. Um, yet.”

Finally, I hit up the sleep forums on the Internet. These discussion groups are very active. Apparently people who can’t sleep spend a lot of time posting messages and sharing in the collective misery. There was some talk of light therapy and several special “sleep” diets recommended. But mostly more drugs.

As I dug deeper and deeper I found that one particular combination of meds kept coming up. I googled my discovery and read as much as I could. They had none of the side effects that had plagued me. They seemed to be working for a lot of people. I rang up Dr. Robinson and self-diagnosed myself. To my surprise, he agreed.

My new meds are not perfect. I still have too many bad nights and I can’t say I’m out of the woods just yet. But the good is beginning to slowly outweigh the delirious. For the first time in years, I have a glimmer of hope.

The repercussions of my experience still rattle me when I think too hard, though. Is it really possible that, in order to make it in Israel, you have to be seriously drugged, crazy...or both?

Well, it’s something to think about on a sleepless night.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004 Style

Our friends are uniformly incredulous when we tell them we’ve never been camping. Oh sure, our kids have been out on scouting and school trips. But we’ve never gone away as the whole family – alone in the woods with just a barbeque and a bagful of burgers, shmores and insect repellant.

So when friends called and said “we’ll take care of everything – the tents, sleeping bags, choosing the campsite...” well, how could we refuse?

Now, there are two parts to every camping trip – the camping itself…and the getting ready part. Before we started to pack, I had no idea how much junk we were going to need to go away for the night. There were clothes to sleep in, clothes to hang around the campfire in, clothes to hike in.

And then there was the food - buns and pitas and cereal and pound after pound of red meat. I swear that by the time we’d packed up the car, there was more in that trunk than when we take off in the summer for vacation overseas.

Six-year-old Aviv apparently thought just that. Taking one look at the car, he duly informed us, “When we go on the airplane, I want to sit by the window so I can look down.”

Now, don’t take my complaints for disinterest: some of my very best childhood memories come from the two weeks I spent every summer as a teenager camping with various youth groups in the California redwood forests. Places with impressive sounding names like Sequoia National Park, Humboldt Redwoods, Yosemite...

We’d throw our sleeping bags down under a tree and try out best to smooth out a place on the ground free of pine cones and needles. Tents – those were for wusses. You wanted to smell the forest, not block it out with some synthetic protective bubble.

After ghost stories and a couple rounds of spin the bottle (did I mention it was a coed youth group), it would be lights out. Miles from civilization, the only lights we could see were the stars peeking in through the thick tree cover; the only sounds from the occasional bear and raccoon (and our lead counselor’s deafening snoring).

It was romantic. It was majestic.

And nothing could be further from our first Israeli camping experience.

Instead of redwoods, our campground consisted of a large patch of grass – not much more than a lawn, really – a few meters from the beach at Moshav Ein Dor.

And we were not alone.

The place looked like Woodstock incinerated. There were hundreds of tents lined up bumper-to-bumper in large groups of merry-makers, each with their own barbeque working round-the-clock to supply a sufficient supply of steaks and spuds.

Darkness? Forget about it. The place was lit up like a Hanukah menorah on the eighth night, with each group stringing up tens of tiny bulbs between concrete poles to demarcate their turf. Gas and electric generators kept the party humming while boom boxes provided the soundtrack.

About the only thing that reminded me of my childhood camping experiences were the mosquitoes.

OK, maybe it was the particular campground we’d chosen (although many friends have told us Dor Beach is the best). Certainly, picking a holiday weekend didn’t help.

Just the same, I was determined to have a good time. We barbequed like the best of them and, after six burgers, three hotdogs, five chicken wings, a plate of shishlik, and seven chocolate chip cookies, I felt good and Israeli.

Not quite Israeli enough, apparently.

There, in the middle of one of the larger groups, it stood: a 27-inch TV. The so-called “campers” were gathered around. And they were channel surfing! Talk about style!

I turned to our friends with a look not so much of shock but betrayal. They laughed and said, “Usually it’s worse. There’s only one this time.”

Still, all this would have been OK if we could have gotten some sleep. But by the time Aviv, Jody and I bedded down in our small smelly family tent, it wasn’t the TV that kept us up. Rather it was the disco on one side of the camping “lawn”...and the outdoor karaoke bar on the other.

The disco didn’t quit until close to 3:00 AM, and then there was a steady stream of teenagers who passed our campsite, which we discovered to our chagrin, was on the all important trade route between the bathrooms and (yes) the refrigerators.

Whatever happened to roughing it?

Somehow, though, we fell asleep, managing to steal a few hours from the cacophony of camping culture shock Before we knew it, the sun was up. The plastic tent was already overheated. I opened a bleary eye and caught Aviv’s. He was lying quietly in his sleeping bag, waiting for some sign of life from us.

He immediately sat up. “Can I go out now?” he whispered.

“Of course,” I whispered back.

Because despite our first camping trip in Israel being more akin to flying in a packed jumbo jet than getting back to nature, this was still Israel. And Israel means our kids can, for the most part, run around free and unencumbered.

Jody and I slipped on our sandals and, then, there we were – at the beach with Aviv. And it was only 8 in the morning! No need to get in the car and drive for a couple of hours through heavy traffic. The air was still cool, as refreshing as the night had been, um, stimulating. The other kids quickly joined us, jumped into the warm Mediterranean Sea and were so, so happy.

As the kids dragged me into the water, I realized it’s all a matter of expectations. Camping in Israel is not about nature and the stars and the night. No, it’s about the morning – and in particular waking up and avoiding the rush hour.

As we ambled back for a late breakfast, the TV was still on, tuned it appeared to an Israeli version of Dr. Phil. But it was OK now. I’d made a sort of tentative peace with my cranky internal monologue. You know, we might even do this again. Camping as a family, I mean.

But next time, let's make it in Yosemite...