Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The Snorkeling Rabbi

Last night we marked Tisha B’Av, the fast on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. The day commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem along with a mixed bag of just about every calamitous event to befall the Jews in the last 2000 years, everything from when the spies gave their damning report on the land of Canaan to Moses and the Israelites in the desert, to the day that World War I started.

The weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av itself are similarly solemn, treated as days of mourning and subject to the same prohibitions: some men stop shaving, weddings are postponed and many avoid eating meat except on Shabbat.

Three years ago, however, as Tisha B’Av approached, my family and I were doing our best to forget the often crushing history of our people.

It was nearly a year into the violence that began in September 2000, and we had gone on vacation with my father-in-law and his wife to Hawaii. A beach-front condo and ten days of lolling on the beach lapping up the perfect waves off the Maui coast were just what the doctor ordered.

We were in desperate need of a break.

And that’s just what we got. We enjoyed glorious sunsets, watched several kitschy hula shows and wolfed down some of the freshest fish we’d ever eaten (with no kosher restaurants on the island, it wasn’t hard to mind the no-meat rule).

Maui was about the farthest place away from Israel – both physically and spiritually – we could imagine.

And you know, we might just have succeeded in our quest to passively assimilate, however briefly, into the tropical landscape if it were not for the Snorkeling Rabbi.

Jody saw him first. It was the morning before Tisha B’Av. We had gone to check out a new beach on the north side of the island. And there he was, climbing out of the water like a moving mirage in goggles and flippers. A vaguely familiar face.

“Rabbi Joe?” Jody gasped.

“Jody? Brian?” he replied, equally dumbstruck.

Here we were, ten thousand miles from home in Jerusalem, and out of the waves comes our Rabbi friend from two blocks away.

Suddenly it wasn’t quite as easy to blend in. We were hanging out with a Rabbi now.

Not that he looked the part. In his funky Hawaiian bathing suit, I imagined he might be feeling just as awkward as we were about being spotted. 

“So…are you enjoying Maui?” Rabbi Joe asked.

“It’s amazing,” Jody said brightly.

I was staying out of it, still trying to look inconspicuous.

“But what are you doing here?” Jody asked.

“Oh we come every year. This is like our second home.”

We talked for awhile about which were the best beaches for snorkeling and where to watch the hang gliders and which hotel to stay at the next time we came.

Then Rabbi Joe said he had to get going. “Tonight’s Tisha B’Av,” he said. “Are you coming to shul?”

“Shul?” I sputtered. “You mean there’s a synagogue here…in Maui?”

“Well, more of a small congregation that meets in someone’s house. But we’ll be reading Eicha,” he said referring to the Book of Lamentations that’s traditionally read on Tisha B’Av night. “You should come. Here, hand me a pen. I’ll write out the address.”

His reached out an arm which was still sparkling from a few yet-to-be-evaporated drops of salty ocean water. “Maybe you can join us for the break fast tomorrow night?” he added.

Now, I’d like to end this story by telling you we made it to synagogue that night and heard the solemn chanting from the Book of Lamentations, buffeted by the sweet winds and the sound of the sea at sunset. And that we then broke bread the next night with a group of Hassidic hippies on the beach.

But we had to pack. We were out of there the next day.

Or maybe it was that we weren’t ready to head back to the harsh reality of our people just yet. We needed one more night of escape…even if it was Tisha B’Av.

Of course we fasted. On the plane ride home, that meant we had to miss out on the scrumptious airplane food (no great loss there). The time change worked in our favor ending the fast three hours earlier than it would have if we had stayed in Maui.

Two days later, after a short stop in Los Angeles, we were on a plane heading back to Israel.

We run into Rabbi Joe all the time now…in Jerusalem. And when we do, we always laugh about that day the Snorkeling Rabbi came in from the beach and gently reminded us where we had come from…and where we were going.

May you have an easy fast…wherever you are in this ever-suprising world.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Putting Up with It

Six-year-old Aviv loves mini-golf. On the computer, that is.
It seems that many of the big candy and cookie conglomerates have discovered that if you create a virtual game online, and then strategically sprinkle images of
Oreos, Lifesavers and Jello Pudding Bites throughout, you can dramatically increase brand awareness and what marketers call “stickiness.”
Without all the mess involved with real candy.
Popular sites like
CandyStand and NabiscoWorld offer a wide variety of interactive treats – including pinball, bowling, virtual snowboarding, and of course, the aforementioned mini-golf. Heck, even good old Planters Peanuts has its own slam-dunk virtual basketball game on the web. 
In our house, Aviv is the leading consumer of these sites, and golf is his clear favorite. But lately it has been getting to be a bit much - mini-golf every single day. "Want to go out and play with your friends?" we would ask. The usual reply: "Nah, I'll just play some more on the computer."
Clearly, we needed to get this kid out of the house. So when we asked the kids where they’d like to go for an afternoon outing, Aviv didn’t hesitate.
“Do they have real mini-golf in Israel?” he asked.
Well actually, yes, they do. Several in fact. The closest was in
Tel Aviv, at the far end of HaYarkon Park.
The day we went, Amir wasn’t feeling well, so it was just Jody, Aviv, ten-year-old Merav and me.
Now, I was a big fan of mini-golf when I was a kid. I remember the long putting greens, with turning windmills and other colorful obstacles that attempted to stop the ball from getting to its appointed destination. For some reason,
mini-golf in the “old country” was always located just off a busy highway.
That was about the only similarity between mini-golf in California and Tel Aviv. Instead of a green course, Tel Aviv’s Mini-Golf had what I can only describe as cracked concrete with patches of green on raised platforms. There were a couple of moving obstacles but they were all broken. It was fairly pathetic. Don’t believe the
picture of the course on the Internet.
Aviv and Merav didn’t notice for a second. As soon as we got our clubs ("one ball per team," explained the bored teenager with three rings in each ear and another in her nose), they were bounding to the course.
Now Merav is very diligent about game playing. And even more so about rules. Aviv, on the other hand, has his own style when it comes to mini-golf. I’d describe what he does more like “gliding” than putting. When he moves his club, he doesn’t whack and release. Rather, the club gently continues with the ball, all the way down the course, in a single fluid movement.
Maybe that’s how they do it online. But Merav picked up on this breach of protocol immediately.
“You can’t do that Aviv. It’s cheating,” she cried.
Aviv ignored her.
“Just let him have fun, Merav,” I said.
“Well, that doesn’t count as swing,” she declared. “Make each stroke count for six! Give him a score of 300 or something.”
“It says here you’re supposed to stop at five,” Jody, our record-keeper, explained. (She’s like her daughter, also a stickler for rules.)
“Put up with it... or stop putting,” I cracked. No one laughed (but then again they never laugh at my jokes).

Merav walked back to the concrete course in a huff. And so the two of them played what essentially were two separate games. Merav played golf. And Aviv played something…I’m just not sure what it was.
Over the course of eighteen holes, Merav eyed Aviv…and the score card occasionally, but Aviv’s lack of conformity was too maddening for her to grace him with any sort of meaningful attention on for long.
Every so often, another group of players would cut in ahead of us. Israeli mini-golf etiquette, apparently, doesn’t include going in order. We saw teams zig zagging through the course, grabbing the next available hole. It was like standing in line at an Israeli supermarket. Or trying to get on a bus. 
And then it happened. On the 16th hole: the unbelievable. Aviv “glided” a hole in one. OK, it wasn’t really a hole in one, as his club never left the asphalt. But Merav put aside her competitive bravado and ran over to give him a big hug.
“You did it, Aviv! I knew you could.” Then turning to Jody, with a look of slight concern, she asked “So what’s the score now?” As if a single successful “scoop” could throw off the entire balance of the game.
But Jody was smarter than that. “Score?” she asked. “Oh I stopped counting long ago.”
Merav gave Jody one of those exasperated “oh mother” looks, but this time it didn’t seem to throw her. She turned to Aviv. “So did you enjoy mini-golf?” she asked him.
“Yes, I guess,” he replied, seemingly hedging his response. Then he added brightly: “Now I’ve got to go back and try it again on the computer!”
Oh well, we tried…

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Fast Food, Fast Camping

Parents Visiting Day is a time-honored camp tradition. But what about when the camp in question is all of three days?

You can imagine, then, that we were a bit skeptical when ten-year-old Merav insisted that we come up to check out her summer quickie campsite with Israel’s version of the Scouts. Especially since the time allotted to visiting comprised all of two hours. It was a long drive and it wasn’t like she was even going to be away from home long enough for us to start missing her (and vice versa, presumably).

But it had been awhile since we’d been out of Jerusalem, and the promise of some fresh air in the lower Galilee hills sounded promising.

And so it was on a hot Thursday afternoon that my wife Jody, twelve-year-old son Amir, six-year old son Aviv and I took off in the car for the Tzipori Forest where this year’s Jerusalem Scouts were holding their annual "machane kayitz."

As we passed a shopping mall with several restaurants not far from the campsite, Jody remarked that the place seemed quite crowded. When we arrived in the parking lot for the camp, we realized why.

Nearly every parent was carrying a large plastic bag stuffed with fast food: McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Pizza Hut. Brand names only.

Some parents came armed with coolers overflowing with a wide assortment of goodies entirely of the junk variety. Apart from a couple of cut up watermelons, there wasn’t a healthy snack in sight.

We, on the other hand, had a Tupperware container full of sliced carrot sticks and a half eaten box of 96%-fat-free organic soy and linseed corn thins.

Guess you have to have been to a few of these Parent Days to learn the ropes. Which was the real point of inviting us, we soon discovered.

As we passed through the security post (the camp was completely fenced in and armed to the teeth with guards), we were confronted with hundreds upon hundreds of intricate wooden sculptures.

Well not exactly sculptures. But scouting projects on a truly massive scale.

There must have been thousands of campers milling about in the woods (there are 60,000 campers nationwide, and this was just the Jerusalem division, remember). Each age group had chosen a theme and constructed a large number of towering structures, makeshift buildings and other highly creative works...all out of thin logs of wood tied together with rope.

Now we understood what Merav meant when she said the Scouts "build their own camp."

The counselors, we learned, had painstakingly planned everything out in meticulous detail during the preceding weeks, using skewers lifted from several local grilled meat restaurants to design tiny models of what were now mind-blowing feats of teenage engineering. The counselors laid everything out and the campers tied the wood together using that standard of scouting worldwide – knot-making.

Merav’s troop had chosen to build an entire world relating to the theme of "Monopoly. Strewn among the sleeping bags and tents I spied a pair of floating wooden dice, a makeshift "railroad station" where presumably you could ride on the Reading Railroad, a large ship that I was told was supposed to resemble one of the game tokens, and a life-size blue and white Community Chest perched on a mound of rocks.

There was even a jail which doubled as the Scout’s synagogue. Before I could remark on the irony of that juxtaposition, Merav came bounding at us, clearly delighted that we had made the trek and eager to show off everything they had done.

Despite the fact she had only been able to nod off for a couple of hours the night before ("the boys kept trying to paint our faces whenever we went to sleep," she reported), she was her usual bundle of enthusiasm and positive energy.

We walked through the campsite to enjoy the Disneyland-like ingenuity on display, passing all manner of construction and creature, from knotted wooden spaceships to giant Ninja Turtles. We passed a spirited volleyball tournament with kids drumming and cheering on their teams from the sidelines.

We also passed all those parents we had seen earlier, now sitting down with their camper children and enjoying their fast food fix.

I noticed Merav checking out our belongings. Her eyes darted around my backpack, Jody’s purse. She was too polite to demand "What, no Big Mac?" But still...

"We didn’t know Merav," I said, not entirely apologetically. Even if I had known, I might not have partaken in this very Israeli indulgence. I remember the rules for Visiting Day at camp last summer in California: no outside food allowed. There was even a special section in the parent’s manual warning against sewing a hidden pouch inside a stuffed animal to smuggle candy inside!

"Did you bring anything to eat?" Merav asked.

"Carrot sticks?" Jody offered.

Merav accepted this feeble token of our love. But there was no time to argue. The loudspeakers were already blaring "all parents must leave. Visiting hours are over."

I thought back to the synagogue/jail.

We hugged Merav and made our way to the car. We wondered if she would sleep tonight. Was there more to build? And...who was going to take it all down?

As we headed back to Jerusalem, I spied the mall we had seen on the way up. I put on my signal and pulled in.

"Hey, where are we going?" twelve-year-old Amir demanded from the back seat. Six-year-old Aviv looked up from his GameBoy.

But I had a plan: I figured if we couldn’t bring fast food to Merav, at least we could do the next best thing...and eat it ourselves.

"So what will it be: McDonald’s, Pizza Hut or...maybe some grilled meat on a skewer?"

For a look at a Jewish girl scout troop in San Francisco, click this link.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Cycle of Quiet

Steve and Rena were just here. Before that it was Chanan and Eve, then Ralph and Amy and their kids. Later this summer, we’ll see visits by Judy, Linda, Amanda, Michael, Julie, Noah, Jessie, Rikki, David and Aviva, not to mention some 16 members of our own family for soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old Amir’s bar mitzvah celebration in August.

After four years, where tourism to Israel has been totally decimated by ongoing terror and violence, has something changed? Why are all these people coming...now...and this summer in particular?

While no one has said it outright, I think visitors from abroad are beginning to feel safe again. Contemplating a trip to Israel is no longer so overwhelming and frightening.

You can see it everywhere. With the army reporting that terror attacks are down some 75%, the streets have returned to their pre-September 2000 hustle and bustle. There are lines outside the popular cafes again. Hotels are filling up. NATO has even invited Israel to join.

And in an article that has made considerable waves in certain circles in the last few weeks, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer declared that the "war is over," even if terrorism itself is still with us.

"There was terrorism before the intifada and there will be terrorism to come,” Krauthammer writes. “What has happened, however, is an end to systematic, regular, debilitating, unstoppable terror - terror as a reliable weapon."

And yet, the relative quiet we’re experiencing is just that: relative. If there’s anything Jody and I have learned from our now nearly ten years living in this part of the world, it’s that the cycle of life and death doesn’t apply just to birthdays, bar mitzvahs and burials.

I was reminded of this point as I went out for my morning run this week. Some background first: despite my love for hi-tech gadgets, I still use an eight-year-old tape recorder to provide my jogging soundtrack.

I usually go rummaging for some old tape from my college days, back when I used to DJ on the campus radio station. There’s nothing quite listening to obscure Flock of Seagulls and Mission of Burma songs to get you going in the morning.

But I’d gone through that pile of tapes twice already. So this morning, I grabbed something called "Jody’s Best Wishes Tape." In January 1988, right after Jody and I got engaged, I came on a two-week educational Israel study mission with the Bureau of Jewish Education, where I was working at the time.

Jody and I had lived in Israel from 1984-1987, but Jody couldn't come with me on this trip, so I brought a tape recorder to capture all our friends saying "hi" and "wish you were here" and "mazel tov" to Jody.

Most of the tape was filled with personal updates and happy-go-lucky gossip. Until we got to Myra. She took the tape recorder away from me, went into another room, and closed the door.

"Listen," she said. "You may have heard that things are pretty tense over here right now. Well, the media blows things way out of proportion. But I can’t deny it. It would be very easy to go on with life as usual, you know, 'normal.' But that’s just not the reality. People don’t feel as comfortable going out as they did before the violence started."

What was she talking about? This was a tape from 1988 not 2002. Suicide bombs had barely been invented and certainly weren’t being used in major population centers.

Myra went on.

"My roommate’s mother has been calling every night. She hears about the riots on TV and it sounds like it’s right outside our door. She’s afraid for our safety."

After having been through so much horror in these last four years, Israelis barely remember the first "intifada." And yet the language, the fears, the change in lifestyle...it was all so familiar.

That’s the way it is in the Middle East. You go through cycles of good and bad. Of course the Middle East is not unique - it’s like that in so many things in life: health, the economy. The stock market goes up, then it crashes, then it goes back up.

It's just that here everything is amplified and so much more intense.

If you assume from a good period that things will always be good, then you’re in for a shock. Yeah, I know, that’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow given that we're in a relatively "good" period right now.

But the converse is true too: if you get stuck on believing while in the midst of a “down” period that there is no hope - and that there never will be - you’d be just as wrong.

In our part of the world, that gives both comfort and concern. Two years ago, when Marla was murdered, when people were blown up in at their Pesach Seders, when there were sometimes 2-3 major bombings in a day, it looked like we would never be able to live or love again, at least not in a way that resembled "normal."

And now here we are in a "better" period – though that’s a relative term too; it’s certainly not as "better" as it was ten years ago. And with Qassam rockets raining down daily on Sderot and Israelis still being shot on the roads, calling this a "lull" quickly borders on blasphemous.

Still, maybe this period of relative calm, of ongoing but post-paralytic terror as Krauthammer suggests, will last a year, ten years, an entire generation. But it will cycle back to violence at some point.

And then, just as surely, it will cycle away again.

Does engaging in this kind of circular thinking make it easier or more difficult to go on? I suppose it depends on whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist. Is the glass half empty or half full?

As our friends and family descend on us during this long hot summer, hungrily soaking up everything Israeli, I plan on serving them a lot of water.

And I will try my absolute hardest to make sure that every glass is filled...all the way to the rim.