Thursday, October 28, 2004

Wrong Thong (or Why God Made Men Nearsighted)

Sometimes you just need to get away.

That’s how we’d been feeling after planning and executing three intense weeks of family activities centered on thirteen-year-old Amir’s bar mitzvah this past summer. All the details, the organizing, the meals and parties had taken their toll and we were just plain pooped.

That’s how we found ourselves at a five star all-inclusive resort in Antalya on the “Turkish Riviera”

The best way to describe the Hotel Papillion is that it's like a Club Med, where one price covers everything. Waiters take your drink orders at the pool and the mini-bar is free...and restocked daily (that alone is worth the price of admission). There are bountiful all-you-can-eat meals dished out three times a day, a waffle stand, ice cream cart and lavish entertainment spectacles served up every night.

After so much activity at home, for once we planned absolutely nothing. We would do nothing. We would think about nothing. We’d just relax around the glorious pool reading our trashy novels while the kids shimmied up and down the two enormous water slides.

When ten-year-old Merav precociously announced “It doesn’t get any better than this,” we knew we’d come to the right place.

That was until Merav noticed.

“What is that lady wearing?” she asked.

Or not wearing, as the case turned out to be.

“Ummm...that’s called a...a thong,” I answered, not sure whether to avert my eyes…or hers.

“Oh, like the shoes,” Merav answered matter of factly, her logical brain in motion. “Does it hurt to wear?” she continued.

“I really wouldn’t know, sweetie...hey I’ll race you to the waterfall,” I said, trying to change the subject.

I whipped off my glasses and we jumped into the water, both of us shrieking with delight. We then swam to reach the bridge that connected the waterslide area with the pool bar.

“Pssst...” Merav whispered. “Abba, look over there. That woman...she isn’t wearing a top!”

Apparently, our vacation paradise wasn’t 100% all-inclusive after all.

“Where?” I demanded, too urgently I realize in retrospect.

“Don’t look,” Merav said. “That would be cheating on Imma.”

Not that I could anyway. Without my glasses, I’m as blind as a bat in a bad bikini. Still I wondered: had I inadvertently stumbled upon the real reason God made some men nearsighted?

“Doesn’t she know she’s naked? Merav asked.

Clearly this was going to be harder to explain than the time last summer when, while vacationing in California, we accidentally wandered onto a nude beach. Then, at least, it was just for an hour. This time, we were here for three whole days.

With Merav waiting for an answer, what I said next was going to be crucial. I had to choose between talking tough and laying down some biblically-inspired laws of modesty, or offering up a bit of touchy-feely parenting advice.

I went for the politically correct.

“You know, Merav,” I said, “in some parts of Europe, it’s very common for women to sunbathe this’s not what we would do but that doesn’t make it bad. Different people do different things. As long as no one gets hurt and we all respect each other...”

“Well, if you ask me, it’s gross,” Merav interrupted.

“Oh, well, yes. That too,” I said. But secretly I was delighted she was grossed out.

Despite my best efforts at framing the world through the kind of "I’m OK, you’re OK" lens I grew up with, my daughter had formed her own views. And as far as modesty goes, she was erring on the side of suitable bathing attire. Which was just fine for me, her protective father.

“So what should we do?” I asked.

“I don’t care so much,” Merav answered. “I just won’t look.”

“That sounds good.” I said, “Neither will I.”

Just then, Merav was struck by a flash of insight...and horror. She had worked out a workable approach for father and daughter. But as she thought of her thirteen-year-old big brother, she turned to me with true concern:

“But what about Amir?” she asked.

“It’s OK,” I said, letting out a breath. “He’s nearsighted too!”

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Save My Spot

He looked like a regular guy. His short cropped hair, half frame wire glasses, t-shirt (not too designer, not too sloppy) and well worn sandals all suggested a cafe patron with at least a moderately worldly frame of reference. So when he asked Jody to “save his spot” at the Rami Levy supermarket checkout line, it was hard to refuse.

“Save my spot” is one of the hardest things for the Western immigrant to Israel to get used to. It can occur at nearly any time in just about any public place: the line at the post office, the pharmacy, the bank. An optimist would say it’s simply a way of maximizing limited resources. You reserve your spot and then continue shopping. As long as you get back before your turn, no one gets hurt.

Others would call it plain chutzpah.

Usually we shrug it off and try to go with the flow. There are bigger battles to fry. And to protest this quintessentially Israeli behavior is to admit that we have not – nor may we ever – fully integrate into life here in our new home.

Plus the man with the wire frame glasses had a gentle look that said “trust me, I’m not here to screw you. I’m just covering all my bases.”

Well, looks can be deceiving.

He had maybe twenty items in his basket and he wanted to see if he could get through the "Seven Item Maximum" Express Line. That should have been a red flag right there.

He trotted off and was gone for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Jody and her basket slowly inched forward. It was a Thursday night and the store was overflowing with pre-Shabbat shoppers.

Jody spied the man with the wire frame glasses moving from check out lane to check out lane, trying to secure a space. The Express Lane wouldn’t let him in. He pestered the customer service desk.

And then, when Jody was finally next in line to check out, the man returned. He didn’t say anything but it was clear he expected his spot back.

Now, maybe there’s an etiquette in spot saving, something that, not having grown up here, we just don’t have the cultural background (some would say baggage) to pick up on. But it seemed clear to Jody that a fifteen minute sojourn was pushing it.

She gave him another quintessential Israeli gesture: she shrugged.

To no avail. The man in the wire frame glasses inched his cart up to Jody’s and angled it in such a way that there was no way to gracefully avoid confrontation. Someone had to back down.

The woman in front of Jody, who was now transferring items from her cart to the checkout counter, turned around and snarled at the man. “Go in back of her,” she said. “It’s only fair.”

“I was here first,” the man said. It was so incredibly childish that Jody let out a laugh. Like two kids wrangling over who gets the last scoop of ice cream.

This only increased the man’s determination. He pushed his cart forward again.

“What does it matter to you?” he said to Jody. “It’s not like you’re giving up on something you already had.”

“Be a gentleman,” the woman in front said.

Now, a native-born Israeli would have pushed back or turned to fisticuffs. A native-born Israeli would have yelled and made such a fuss that the man and his no longer charming cafe culture wire frame glasses would have been caustically embarrassed into retreat.

Jody let him through.

With a sneer, he drove home this battleground victory, hissing under his breath “Americans are so inflexible.”

How he could discern Jody's country of origin was anybody's guess. She hadn't said a word the entire time. But this latest declaration was too much for the woman in front who had taken the role of Jody’s defender.

“She’s just as Israeli as you or me,” she snapped. One look at Jody’s basket filled with Israeli brand milk and pizza and cornflakes and frozen chicken would confirm that assertion.

Jody was still too stunned by the whole incident. All she had intended to do was shop. She hadn’t gone scrapping for an international incident.

And then, the man with the wire frame glasses left his cart in place...and went off to shop some more. Unbelievable! Jody thought.

He returned just as the woman in front had placed her last item on the conveyer belt and was getting her credit card ready. He moved into place, quickly bagged his twenty items, paid, and triumphantly took off, having beaten the system...and his fellow shoppers.

Jody was loading her goods onto the conveyer belt when she spied him making a hasty return. She girded herself for another confrontation. But the wild beast look that had so taken over his visage had subsided. He was holding out his hand.

“I hope I didn’t upset you,” he said.

“Well you did,” Jody replied. She wasn’t letting him off the hook for ruining her day quite so easily.

“Oh, well..” he said, hesitating for a moment. “Well, um...then Shabbat Shalom!”

And that was it. As far as he was concerned, the matter was closed. Bygones should be bygones and any animosity from this point forward would be as inappropriate as...well, his behavior just a few moments ago.

What could Jody do? Not return the greeting? That would be so un-Israeli. And she’d already been accused of that. But maybe there was something to learn here. About how Israelis deal with conflict. Or muster an apology.

She’d think about that later. For now, there was only one thing to say.

“Shabbat Shalom,” Jody wished the man with the wire frame glasses. She shook his hand and he smiled. Jody suppressed another laugh and smiled back.

And then they walked their baskets through the sliding glass door and out into the parking lot together.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Second Exodus

I’ve never visited the Sinai. And now I fear I never will.

The nearly simultaneous bombings that killed 33 last week at the Taba Hilton and the beaches at Ras al-Satan delivered destruction to a destination regarded by many Israelis as a refuge, an oasis in the desert where one could get away from the stress of life in pressure-cooker Israel and luxuriate on one of the most fabulous beaches in the world with the some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling around.

Or so I’m told.

But the bombs also had the effect of closing the world off just a little bit more to Israelis. Sinai now joins other former Israeli tourist havens that have seen their symbols of public Jewish life targeted in the last few years and as a result are no longer perceived as safe.

Places like Mombassa, Kenya where an Israeli-operated hotel was bombed in November 2002. Or Istanbul, Turkey where attacks at two synagogues killed over twenty just under a year ago. These days, just wearing a Star of David in Paris can be dangerous.

But Sinai...there was something special about the place that called to me more than all the others, even though I’ve never been. Maybe it’s because you can drive there, in your own car even. To give you a sense of proportion, you can get to Taba from Jerusalem in less time than it would take to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Or New York to Washington DC.

Then again, maybe it’s our history. Tradition has it that Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and the Torah. The Jews wandered that same desert for forty years after leaving Egypt.

It’s no wonder then that perhaps the most striking image from the aftermath of the bombs in Sinai was not the pictures of rescue workers digging through the rubble for bodies and survivors – we’ve seen that too many times before right here in our own neighborhoods in Israel.

Rather it was the mass exodus from Egypt. The buses that were sent into Sinai to bring some 15,000 Israeli tourists home in a matter of hours.

The symbolism and religious irony are unavoidable.

And one more thing: we were supposed to be in Sinai. We actually had plans with two other families to make the trek during the intermediary days of the Sukkot holiday and go camping…on the very beach that was bombed.

We chickened out only after the Israeli Foreign Ministry in September issued an unprecedented warning based on “concrete” information regarding terrorists targeting Israelis in Sinai during the high travel season.

Would that everyone had been so cautious.

And yet, how can you live like that? Tourists stopped coming to Israel because they said it wasn't safe. Now Israelis can’t travel abroad because it’s too dangerous. It’s not possible to guard and protect everything. At what point do you draw the line and say “it’s out of my hands.”

Is canceling vacation plans giving in to terrorism? Or is it just plain prudent?

Shortly after the bombs in Sinai, I received an email from a Egypt. We had often joked that we’d meet each other at the half way point between Jerusalem and Cairo where he lives. That is, on the beach in Sinai.

In his letter he wrote:

“I am so sorry for what happened in Egypt yesterday in Taba. I understand that many innocent Israeli people died, which is for sure very bad, and not acceptable by anyone or by any religion. Let's hope together that God brings peace in our region.”

His words of heartfelt concern struck a deep chord inside of me, saying that, even as this world becomes increasingly perilous, there is still hope. Even when the borders are closing tighter and tighter, and when it would seem that no Israeli would be crazy enough to ever visit Egypt again, there can still be understanding between people.

I still hope to visit Sinai someday. And sip tea with my friend from Cairo.