Saturday, July 30, 2005

Facing Our Fears

(Note to This Normal Life readers: This Normal Life has moved - we now have a brand new site hosted by Bloggerce, complete with pictures, podcasts and more. I will continue to mirror articles on this site for a little while longer, but please update your bookmarks to or


With his older brother and sister gallivanting around California presumably having a grand time on an extended summer vacation with their grandparents, we knew we had to spend some extra quality time with our seven-year-old Aviv who had been “left behind” in Israel.

This need was made abundantly clear during a phone call Aviv had with thirteen-year-old Amir shortly after they landed in Los Angeles.

"What are you doing there, Amir?" Aviv asked his big brother.

“Well, tomorrow we're going to Disneyland,” Amir said mostly matter-of-fact.

“No you’re not,” Aviv replied quickly, but there was a muted look of panic in his eyes. How could he not be included in the annual Disneyland trip, the penultimate height of summer fun?

“Yes we are going,” Amir said.

“No, you’re not!” Aviv said emphatically.

Thinking quickly, I turned to Aviv. “Tell him where you’re going tomorrow.”

A faint swipe of seven-year-old smugness settled over Aviv’s face.

“Well, we’re going to a water park…and you’re not.”

“Big deal,” Amir shot back.

But it was a big deal.

As we entered the Yamit 2000 park in Holon with our friends Debbie and Eliot and their two boys Liav and Avidan, Aviv’s water-loving eyes lit up.

Spread out in front of us were two enormous water slides that fed into what appeared to be a near-Olympic-sized swimming pool; a rambunctious children’s area with a wave pool and randomly timed fountains that erupted to spritz unsuspecting passersby in the face; and a wacky contraption called the Space Bowl that shoots the rider into what I can only describe as a giant toilet basin where you circle round the side at breakneck speed before finally “plopping” through the bottom into the pool below.

There was also plenty of grass and beach chairs to make a respectable picnic…if you can hold down your lunch after swirling through that toilet bowl thingamajig.

But the main attraction of Yamit 2000 was a new indoor section with what was billed as “extreme” water slides.

Which is, of course, exactly where we headed first.

There were three extreme slides to choose from. The “Amazonas” ride was actually pretty tame. You glide down on a big yellow inner tube. Aviv went with my wife Jody, and I went on my own. It was a leisurely, almost dreamy experience.

The other two rides were decidedly less bucolic. One had the calming name “Super Kamikaze.”

“What’s that mean?” Aviv asked innocently.

“Well, kamikazes were pilots in Japan who dive bombed their planes straight down like bombs. So I guess it’s a slide that goes very fast.”

Aviv made a face.

“What about that one?” Aviv asked, pointing to the third “extreme” slide – this one called “The Black Hole.”

I had read about this one on the Internet before we came. “It’s a slide that goes in complete darkness.”

“Oh no, I don’t want to do that one,” Aviv said immediately.

“You sure?” I asked. “It sounds fun.” The line was the longest of all, and it was the most heavily promoted. Extreme slide enthusiast that I am, I figured that ought to account for something.

“Abba, no! You know I don’t like the dark.”

“You know sometimes it’s good to face our fears,” Jody poked in.

Aviv looked perplexed.

“That’s when you do the thing you’re most afraid of,” Jody clarified.

“Well I’m not doing it, so don’t ask me again!”

And that was that. Or so we thought.

We went on the Amazonas a second and third time, and on the outdoor slides at least four. But there was something rattling around in little Aviv’s brain. He didn’t express it out loud, but clearly he was thinking about something. We just didn’t know what.

We had some lunch and rested before heading back to extreme action land.

“OK, I decided,” Aviv announced suddenly.

“Decided…what?” I asked.

“I’ll do it. The Black Hole.”


“Yes. I’m going to face my fears.”

Jody and I gave him a high five and then, before he could change his mind, we raced to get in line. The line of course snaked much too slowly, giving our inner chickens plenty of time to cluck away. But Aviv stayed steadfast with his decision. We climbed the stairs to the top and then faced down the Black Hole.

I sat Aviv on my lap and we shot off into the enveloping darkness. They’d done a good job of painting the tube black; it was so dark that at one point I wasn’t sure we were even moving.

I kept repeating encouraging words to Aviv.

“Isn’t this great?” I said. “Not too fast. Not too scary.”

Aviv giggled nervously.

The slide sped up. Faintly lit stars appeared on the side, illuminating our faces. Aviv still looked tentative. Then the path dropped suddenly. I was thrust to my back as we sped up with a wicked start. I struggled to regain a sitting position which I knew would slow us down.

The stars faded and now arrows pointing backward zipped by, as if to say “you’re going the wrong way, turn back.” Right, like that was going to happen. We were locked into an R-rated version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I envied the big kids at Disneyland with their safety-tested family fun. Another twist, another lurching turn and then…

…we were out. Back in the normalcy of daylight. Aviv and I both caught our breath.

“That was great!” I said, not entirely sure of myself. “Wasn’t it?”

But there was no question for Aviv: he had a huge grin on his face that said loud and clear that while he may not have enjoyed every moment, he was darn proud. He had faced his fears…and come through with flying colors (or lack of color, this was after all the Black Hole”).

“So you ready for the Kamikaze now?” I asked.

Aviv looked at me like I was crazy.

“Come on then…” I said. And the three of us got back in line, fears faced, to do the Black Hole again.

Friday, July 22, 2005


This Normal Life has moved to a new open at Bloggerce. Please update your bookmarks to either or I will continue to mirror articles on this site for a little while, but check out the new This Normal Life - complete with pictures and even podcasts. How cool is that!


“How did this happen?” seven-year-old Aviv asked suddenly one night.

“How did what happen, sweetie?” my wife Jody replied.

“How did it happen that Amir and Merav get to go to America and I have to stay here,” Aviv pronounced with a mix of confusion and rising consternation.

Meanwhile, thirteen-year-old Amir and his eleven-year-old sister Merav were in a very different head space.

While Amir spent his last minutes before we left for the airport with his nose to the grindstone (the computer in this case), juggling several simultaneous chat and Skype sessions while doing some impromptu bug testing of my new company’s software, Merav broke out in song every few minutes and hugged me, unable to contain her excitement.

“We’re going to America!” she squealed with glee. “Alone!” she added.

Yes, our two older kids were about to become our very first, bonafide B.U.M.s.

Blum Unaccompanied Minors, that is.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Amir and Merav would get a chance to spend a few weeks in California with their grandparents on their own. We were sure they’d have some incredible adventures, unmitigated by prying parents, while getting to know that other half of their dual citizenship a bit better.

But as the moment of truth approached, I was a nervous Nelly.

Jody had already gone over all the rules of being a good guest.

“Remember to always say please and thank you.”

“Yes Imma.”

“Always offer to help.”

“Yes Imma.”

“And don’t leave your towel on the bathroom floor,” I added.

“Because when you left your towel on the floor when you visited your grandparents, they almost kicked you out, right Abba?” Merav said, recalling my ultimate family fashla.

“And well they should have,” I said.

The babysitter arrived and it was time to head to the airport.

“OK, let’s go through this one more time,” I said in the car as we sped down Highway One in the direction of Tel Aviv. I began my instructional narrative one final time. “Now, when you get to Newark, the escort will take you through customs…”

“Will there be TV screens on each seat?” Merav interrupted.

“Yes…then you go into the customs area where you have to identify your luggage. You don’t have to take it, but…”

“Can I have the window seat, Amir?”

“Sure, whatever, Merav. Hey Abba, do you think we’ll get a hot stewardess on the plane?” he asked, entirely serious.

“First of all, that’s not an appropriate question,” I answered. “And second, they’re called flight attendants now, not stewardesses. Now then, you’ll be walked to a waiting room in Newark until it’s time for your next flight….you got all that?”

“What? Huh? I wasn’t listening really,” Merav said.

“Me either,” said Amir.

I would have thrown my hands up in the air. But I was driving. And we were out of time.

As we parked the car and headed through security on our way towards the check-in counter, I started acting out my nervousness by telling anyone and everyone around me of our unique situation.

“It’s our first time,” I said, hoping to elicit a compassionate smile or some reassurance from the check-in agent that our kids would be well-tended. Jody rolled her eyes.

“Come back at 9:45 PM. Meet at Counter 17,” the agent said matter-of-factly after she’d processed our Unaccompanied Minor forms and taken our payment.

“That’s it?” I said.

“Is there something more you need?”

“No, not really, I guess…”

A couple of other kids were already hanging out with their parents. They had large orange ribbons on their backpacks.

Enough with the ribbons already!

As we waited, it occurred to me that this wasn’t any worse than when we sent Amir and Merav to Scout’s camp just a few weeks before. There, it was other kids running the show. Here at least it was a professional.

The agent arrived a few minutes late and immediately started marching us towards passport control. No hello or chirpy introduction:

“Good evening, my name is Mandy, and we’re so happy you’ve chosen to send your children half way around the world with just me in charge, an unsmiling bored desk clerk who was corralled into this dead end job after I spilled one too many tomato juice cocktails on a passenger’s lap...oh, well, I digress….”

“I’m going to miss you guys so much,” I said to the kids as we said our goodbyes.

“We won’t,” Merav said, then quieted when she realized that wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But she couldn’t contain herself.

“We’re going to America!”

And then they were off. Fading into a small blur as they disappeared into the bowels of Ben Gurion.

24 hours later, they called from Papa Mike’s cell phone at LAX. They’d made it fine.

Yes, the escort in Newark almost put them on a plane to San Francisco instead of Los Angeles, and they lost their kosher meals, but they made do. The things that bother us as parents, the small organizational details that make us wacko, they don’t phase our kids at all.

After all, they’re going to America. Alone. Just a couple of B.U.M.s. And we’re going to be just fine.

All of us.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Fast Food, Fast Camping (Redux)

It's been a year since we arrived at the Jerusalem Scouts' Summer Camp woefully empty handed. This summer, we went back with goodies galore...and my new digital camera. In honor of both these enhancements, I am republishing the original story - complete with photos so you can get a better feeling for the event and an audio version that you can download or subscribe to as the first in a series of "This Normal Life" podcasts. can't do it from here...

As of this post, I am migrating "This Normal Life" to a new home at Bloggerce (which also is the name of my new company). If you want to see all the pictures or listen to the audio,'ll just have to go to the new site. Same URL as before: If you've got this Blogspot site bookmarked, please update your links.

I'll be "mirroring" my posts for a little while here but, really, go on and check out the new site. And while you're at Bloggerce, why not sign up for a 30-day trial blog of your own. It's very cool...and free. Enjoy!

-- Brian


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 little more than 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 Amir, six-year old Aviv and I took off in the car for the Tzipori Forest where the Jerusalem Scouts were holding their annual machane kayitz (or summer camp).

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. And kosher too!

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 red and yellow peppers, 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, then to 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 overnight camp a few summers back 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?" Amir demanded from the back seat. 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?

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Summer Color Wars

“We’ve got a problem, boss.”

“What is it, my esteemed chief marketing guy?”

“It’s with our brand.”

“Our brand? What could be wrong with that? It’s incredibly simple, ultimately recognizable and licensed to companies around the world.”

“It’s been expropriated.”

“By who?”

“The Israelis.”

“That doesn’t sound like a problem...more visibility for us.”

“No, you don’t get it. It’s been adopted as the national identity for a particular group of Israelis...those opposing the country's upcoming disengagement-from-Gaza plan.”

“We’re not political. We’re just a cell phone operator.”

“I know that and you know that, but now anything Orange is being associated with anti-disengagement.”

“Can they do that? We’ve got a copyright on orange, don’t we?”

“I don’t think you can copyright a color, sir.”

“Tell me...what’s going on. Exactly.”

“Well, you can’t walk more than half a block without running into something orange. An orange ribbon tied around a car antenna or on a kid’s backpack. An orange headband on a little girl. There are orange flags and orange baseball caps.”

“Don’t go overboard here. Are you telling me that all these people are making a political statement?”

“It’s hard to tell, really. Some people might just like the color orange.”

“Right. I saw a man the other day wearing an orange t-shirt. He didn’t look like he was advertising an agenda.”

“But at the same time, there are stores now that have draped their windows in orange to pick up extra business. And I read an article about a woman who says she deliberately makes sure to wear something orange in her clothes every day. It’s getting so you don’t know if the security guard wearing an orange vest or that teenager bouncing an orange basketball is doing it intentionally or what. And don’t even get me started with the orange wristbands.”

“Like the yellow Lance Armstrong ones...that sounds, no, this is a public relations disaster!"

"It gets even worse. Now the Israeli political party Balad is threatening to sue the anti-Gaza protesters."

"Whatever for?"

"They claim that Balad has been using the color orange since 1999 in its election campaigns and now their 'freedom of speech and assembly' has been limited."

"Good there an alternative color to all this orange?”

“Yes, there’s blue.”

“Blue, that’s good. Blue and white – the colors of the Israeli flag. Patriotic and neutral.”

“Unfortunately not. Blue has become the group identity of anyone in favor of the disengagement plan. There are blue ribbons on all the cars and backpacks that don’t have orange ones."

"Anything else about blue I should know about?"

"Yes. It’s also the color of our biggest competitor – Pelephone.”

“Did they see this coming? Where are they getting their information? Is this another example of that Trojan horse spyware scandal?”

“It looks like a coincidence, sir.”

“Well, has anyone started to boycott our phone service?”

“No, that’s the thing. Right now, in Israel’s summer color wars, orange is the big winner.”

“We’re winning?”

“Well, the color is. There are twice as many orange ribbons and stickers and flags and headbands as blue ones. The blue ribbon people said it was because their manufacturer couldn’t produce ribbons fast enough at the price they wanted. But that sounds kind of like a lame excuse if you ask me.”

“So maybe we can turn this to our advantage! Sign up the anti-Gaza pullout supporters to only use our phone service.”

“Hmmm...that could work. And when the demonstrators block the highways with nails and oil like they did this week, they could throw a few of our Orange phones into the mix as well...”

“Don't you think that's being just a tad cynical?”

“...we just need to make sure that the Orange warranty doesn’t cover acts of civil we're not liable.”

"Come on, not everyone in orange is organizing mayhem on the streets. You're giving a black eye to their cause."

"Don't you mean an orange one?"

“I think we need a different plan.”

“I'm listening...”

“We need to disengage entirely...from this whole color war. There’s nothing holy about orange. We're just going to have to rebrand ourselves.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Green is nice.”

“No, that’s taken by the environmentalists. And also the right-wing Women in Green.”

“Both of them? How about red?”

“Some rabbis say only prostitutes wear that color. We’d be limiting our market.”


“Jerusalem Post columnist Saul Singer already suggested that as a blending between orange and blue.”

“Orange and blue don’t make purple...oh, never mind, we’ll do our own mix then – a rainbow.”

“Then we’d be banned from heard about the whole business with the mayor and the parade, didn’t you...”

“Fine, fine! Then no color at all. Black.”

“That’s the ultra-orthodox.”

“Is there any color in this crazy country that’s not political?”

“Gray hasn’t been used by anyone.”

“Kind of dull isn’t it?”

“In a summer of color wars, dull might be just what we need.”

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Queen Jeneane

Queen Jeneane was sitting on the newly constructed deck to her beach house barking directions to her son who was puttering about down on the sand.

“Move it over there,” she called out. “A little to the right. No, bring it back a bit. Yes, there, that’s it”

Her son, a burly shipputznik-looking kind of guy, was lugging what looked at first to be a large red porta-potty, trying to find a suitable place to settle it into the blowing sand that stretches for miles on this mostly pristine beach.

When she saw us, Queen Jeneane immediately broke into an ear-to-ear welcoming grin. “Come, sit down please,” she beckoned.

As we approached, her appearance was incongruous to say the least. She was wearing a frumpy flowered house dress (or maybe it was a night gown). Her face was so tanned and cracked from age it looked as if chunks were doing to fall off at any moment. An aging beach bum, she was. Yet her hair was tightly bound up in the head covering of a very religious woman.

And her home...she had taken what started as an ugly stucco pre-fab, not much more than a mobile caravan plunked down within a stone’s throw of the water, and renovated it to hold its own with the best of beach houses around.

Two small bedrooms, a clean white kitchen and a living room that opened like a giant picture window onto the deck facing the beach. A lovely red pergola, the paint only recently dried, covered the comfortable lawn furniture where Queen Jeneane hastened to serve us ice tea and Mandelbrot punctuated with fruit and nuts.

As we soaked up the sun and hospitality, we could have been at any beach town in the world. But we weren’t. This was Shirat HaYam, literally “Song of the Sea” (taken from the book of Exodus), a tiny outpost in Gush Katif, the area in the Gaza Strip slated for disengagement in less than two months from now.

Shirat HaYam was established four and a half years ago following a terror attack on a school bus near Neve Dekalim in the Gush that had claimed the lives of two Israeli adults and left several children paraplegic. 16 families live in a row of converted quarters formerly used by the Egyptian army.

What was I doing in Gaza, let alone in one of the most controversial Jewish communities in the entire Strip?

It started earlier in the week when my new reporter friend from the San Francisco Chronicle invited me to join him on a day of interviews he’d arranged. We were going to meet “normal” people he said - just like me - who happened to be living in a location even more in the news these days than my humble Jerusalem. We’d be accompanied by a photographer and translator. All that sounded good to me.

There was more to it than that, though. It had long struck me as odd that for all the time I’ve spent thinking and talking about this summer’s disengagement from Gaza, trying to formulate an opinion...I had never actually been to the place.

I did a quick poll of friends in synagogue over the weekend. Not a single person I asked had ever set foot inside Gush Katif, the main settlement block of the Gaza Strip. My survey, though far from scientific, included both relatively new immigrants like myself and native born Israelis.

So when the opportunity arose for a quick apolitical visit not under the auspices of an organization with an overt agenda like, how could I say no?

The visit itself was filled with contradictory images.

We saw lovely near-palatial homes with large lawns which sat only a few blocks from dilapidated buildings that looked like they’d been abandoned long ago...or perhaps they’d never been lived in at all.

We met adamant ideologues who were clearly going nowhere, no matter what the government said, and pragmatists who were ready to leave but with a heavy heart.

One woman told us how the boys of her community would fight the disengagement by heading into the local synagogue, donning their tallitot, and taking the Torah out of the ark to read. How could soldiers forcibly remove Jews from a synagogue holding a Torah, she asked?

We saw the famed Gush Katif hothouses that grow much of Israel’s produce, clean well-tended playgrounds, and lots and lots of sand – yes, the communities here really are built in the dunes.

Back at Shirat HaYam, Queen Jeneane was holding court. She explained how she was here alone; her husband is still manning the farm they own in the Golan Heights.

“We came to show our support,” she said and motioned for a young girl in her late teens, maybe early twenties to join us. “She arrived just last week from the Old City of Jerusalem.” There were many others like her from around the country throughout the Gush, she said cheerfully.

What about the disengagement? Why was she investing money, now of all times, into fixing up a place she knew she’d just have to leave very shortly?

Queen Jeneane motioned to the heavens and held up her palms. I wasn’t sure whether to take that as a symbol of faith...or an expression saying “don’t bother me with the details, kid, I’m busy building.”

Nor could I say definitively that this was indicative of the opinions of the rest of the community...or just one woman’s approach. Ever animated, it was hard to imagine Queen Jeneane being described as one of the “normal” residents we had ostensibly set out to meet.

Eventually it was time to go. We still had another meeting before making the two-hour trip back to Jerusalem. And I wasn’t keen on being out in Gaza after nightfall.

My reporter friend had one last question. It was one he’d repeated over the course of our long day.

“How can you justify staying here?” he asked gesturing towards the sprawling Palestinian town on the other side of the chain link fence that was built to protect Shirat HaYam. The intonation in his voice made clear that he was referring less to the issue of security than that of democracy and demographics.

Queen Jeneane chuckled. “What we need here is a kingdom. Like in the old days. A Kingdom of Israel.”

We all looked at each other. Was she cooking up a plan to become Israel’s first Empress of the Sea, I wondered?

“Oh no,” Queen Jeneane said with a twinkle in her eye. “But I know a lot of nice boys who’d love to be king!”

Sunday, June 12, 2005

More Cheese Please

“What are we going to do today?” six-year-old Aviv demanded as he shoveled in his tenth spoonful of cornflakes in as many seconds.

It was shortly before the Jewish holiday of Shavuot last year and the kids were off school. Then ten-year-old Merav and twelve-year-old Amir were now looking up from their breakfasts as well, waiting for my pronouncement.

But I was ready. I had concocted the perfect plan.

Now, one of the traditions of Shavuot is to eat dairy products. So I declared in as animated a way as I could: “We’re going to a cheese farm!”

“A what?” asked Amir with more than a hint of cynicism.

“I read about it in the paper. There’s an organic goat farm that sells these incredible cheeses. It’s only a few minutes outside the city. Wouldn’t that just be perfect?

But to my surprise, the kids were into it. I should have known; they like just about anything that has to do with eating.

So later that morning, we took off for the Har HaRuach Goat Farm in the hills just outside the village of Nataf, about 20 minutes west of Jerusalem.

Har HaRuach is run by Haim and Dalia Himelfarb who studied cheese making at Israel’s Rupin Institute. The farm is an ecological project and the goats are left to graze in a natural meadow year-round. Even the milking is done in a highly goat-friendly way.

The newspaper article said that the road “is a bit rough” in spots. That was the understatement of the year. Rocks the size and shape of small fax machines were strewn all along the road.

But the payoff was worth it. There at the top of the hill was a charming dining room…and a take-out window. We had our choice. I opted for the latter, in no small part because I found the idea of a take-out window in the middle of the woods so utterly incongruous and amusing. Add a drive through window and I’d be set for life.

Dalia was manning the counter and insisted that we try a taste of all of the cheeses, plus the yoghurt made from that morning’s 4:00 AM milking and some sweet and spicy goat-cheese pesto. We nearly filled up just on the sampling.

But it was smart marketing: we wound up ordering four containers: a smoky-hard goat-cheese camembert; a semi-soft local creation called “Itla,” spreadable lebana drizzled with olive oil and zatar; and a cheese named after the nearby village of Nataf which had large chunks of raw garlic inserted throughout.

We had thought ahead and brought our own fresh pitas which fortunately didn’t bother Dalia. The bill came to NIS 73, just over $16.

Picnic benches were scattered throughout the pines just below the restaurant. Amir, who had been skeptical throughout (“I don’t really like goat cheese,” he confided quietly just before we arrived) took one bite of the garlic-infused Nataf and was in hog heaven. So to speak.

Aviv favored the lebana while Jody and Merav went for the Itla. I was the sole fan of the camembert. Their loss.

As we soaked up the cheese on a perfect spring day, our conversation turned to the upcoming holiday. Shavuot symbolically marks the day the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt.

“So, does anyone know where the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot comes from?” I asked.

Blank stares.

“Um…I think it had something to do with when they left Egypt, they didn’t have enough time to take any meat...” Merav ventured a guess.

“That was the matza,” Amir corrected her.

“Maybe they didn’t have meat plates?” I joked.

“They didn’t use dishes,” Amir and Merav both shot back in unison and then dipped their pita into their cheeses to drive home the point.

All the joking, however, didn’t diminish the fact that here we were, chowing down on some delectable dairy products...and we hadn’t the foggiest idea why. It was terribly embarrassing.

Before I could chastise our lameness, a faint sound of tinkling interrupted. The goats were returning from the pasture in time for their 3:00 PM milking.

Talk about saved by the bell.

We packed up our cheese and went to watch before tackling the bumpy ride home.

All the way back, though, the question of “Why Dairy?” kept eating at me. I proposed a contest. We have several computers at home. We would divide into teams and scour the Internet. Whoever came up with the best explanation would get to finish off the remains of the cheese at dinner.

Amir and I headed for the computer upstairs. Merav and Jody took control of the downstairs machine. We came back together and shared the results of our research.

From Team Merav:
Shavuot was when the Jews accepted the Torah which means it’s also when we learned about separating milk and meat and the various laws governing animal slaughter. Before that, what else could we eat but dairy? OK, but that sounded a little too much like my joke about the dishes!

Israel is known as the land of milk and honey. But then why don’t we eat honey cake on Shavout instead of cheesecake and blintzes?

From Team Amir:
The gematria (the practice where each Hebrew letter is assigned a numerical value) of chalav – the Hebrew for milk – is 40, the same number of days that Moses was up on Mount Sinai. Maybe, but a whole holiday based on what essentially comes down to an ancient magician’s card trick?

Receiving the Torah was a form of rebirth. So we celebrate by eating baby food. Namely: milk.

Even Amir shook his head at that one.

Finally, it was Jody who found what we all agreed was the most acceptable, if somewhat obtuse, explanation.

According to the mystical book of the Zohar, for the 49 days of the Omer period – the amount of time between Passover (leaving Egypt) and Shavuot (receiving the Torah), the Jews needed to be in as pure a state as possible. Abstaining from eating meat, which is inextricably connected with death, facilitates such purity.

“But wait a minute,” I said. “If Shavuot is supposed to be the night we got the Torah, then we should be celebrating by eating meat. The 49 days of purification are over. Time to break this flesh fast. Let the party begin!”

“Meat, meat, meat,” the two older kids began to chant and we all burst out laughing.

Except for Jody who turned to us and, with a single withering look that encapsulated exactly why it is so difficult to change 3000 years of tradition, said simply:

“So, what am I supposed to do with all that lasagna?”

To reach the Har HaRuach Goat Farm, drive out of Jerusalem, exit at Abu Ghosh and follow the signs to Nataf. Turn left when you see the sign for Ya’ar Polin (which memorializes Polish victims of the Holocaust) and follow the (very) bumpy dirt road uphill until you hear the goats. The cheeses have a kashrut certificate; the restaurant does not. You can eat on the picnic benches adjacent to the farm or continue further up the road to the scenic look out point which also includes a children’s playground.

Himmelfarb Farm at Har HaRuach: +972-2-534-5660. Fax +972-2-570-9312

Thursday, June 02, 2005

This Normal Poetry

I was recently interviewed by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle. He was in town for a few months to try to get the “real story” behind the headlines. He’s been a regular reader of this column and figured I might be able to share some insights.

Besides which, he offered to take me out to lunch, his treat. We went to Olive and I ordered this chicken dish in a mango-pineapple-coconut sauce which was to die for. I can talk for hours if you give me a good meal.

“So what do you do on an ordinary day?” the reporter asked me.

“Well....I get up in the morning, help get the kids off to school, make lunches and that sort of thing,” I started. Then I usually go for a run and work out. Shower. Eat breakfast. Then I go to work.”

“OK,” the reporter said, looking a bit befuddled though, at this point in the conversation, I didn’t know why. “And what do you do at work?”

“I’m a writer, you know that, so I guess I spend most of my day in front of the computer...writing, using the Internet, sending emails. When I need to conduct an interview with someone in the States for an article, I do it via my broadband Vonage phone that gives me a phone number in New York that rings through to here. No one has a clue where I’m really located!” I laughed.

“Uh huh,” said the reporter, now looking more crestfallen than bemused.

“And then around 6:30, maybe 7:00 PM, I try to stop work,” I continued cheerfully, “have dinner with the family. Get the kids ready for bed. Maybe watch some TV. Every so often Jody and I will go out to eat with friends or catch a movie.”

The reporter stopped me. “What you’re describing sounds just like a suburban San Francisco Bay Area lifestyle,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess it does.”

“So why are you here?”

I stared at him blankly. For a moment, I was speechless, despite the mango-coconut chicken.

The truth is, I didn’t have a good answer. Because if that’s all we’ve done, built a normal life, one that could exist anywhere, then why not do it in Walnut Creek or Danville? Why put up with all of the difficulties of Israel…the outrageous taxes. The rotten public services. The insane driving. The diminished job possibilities.

Is all that tsuris worth it, if all we’re getting is a normal life?

OK, that’s not fair. We have a rich Jewish life that you’d be hard put to duplicate anywhere else. But there are big cities outside of Israel where life is easier than in the Holy Land, still Jewishly-rich, and nearly as normal.

I found myself trying to fashion an answer in my mind to this reporter of what a supposedly super-normal life in Israel would look like.

If I walked to the Kotel every day for sunrise prayers, would that qualify for beyond-ordinary status?

If I demonstrated in front of the Knesset in order to influence the only Jewish State in the world on issues of social justice, would that constitute a life lived purposefully?

Maybe I should be flying one of those orange-starred anti-disengagement flags on my car window…or sporting an opposing bumper sticker in favor? Would an overtly political statement add more meaning than religiously watching 24 and Star Trek: Enterprise?

My dilemma reminded me of the time, several years ago, when we were coming back from a summer in California and I found myself not only able to imagine what it would be like to live there...but surprisingly intrigued.

But this was different. Then it was about wanting a lifestyle I didn’t have here. This time, I’ve discovered I already have the lifestyle...and am wondering what’s it all for?

Finally, I gave the reporter the only answer I could. One that seemed true enough.

I moved to Israel because I always felt like an outsider in the U.S. Because the calendar and the holidays and the passions that most captivated me didn’t match the calendar and holidays and passions that the rest of the country was operating on. In Israel, I said, I feel part of society. I’m on the inside.

“So you have a lot of Israeli friends?” the reporter asked. “You go to local theater performances and lectures?”

“Actually, no...” I said, more to my napkin than to the reporter.

What was this, an interview or a therapy session?

Later that day, as I was describing the interview to my wife Jody, it struck me that I’m just as much an outsider in this country as I was in the old one. There, the calendar was out of synch. But here, a combination of being an immigrant and suffering from perpetually poor language skills have kept me from fully engaging in all that society offers.

In the midst of what was shaping up to be a mid-life, mid-aliyah crisis, I found myself asking a not insignificant question: which is the bigger trade off? Where would I rather be an outsider?

As if to answer my unspoken question, eleven-year-old Merav announced that she had written a poem for a school assignment. She had never written a poem before. She stood up and with a dramatic flourish began to read.

I don’t know if it was just that I didn’t understand the Hebrew, but the language sounded sophisticated, mellifluous even. Putting aside my obvious bias and pride in my daughter’s first attempts at creative writing, the words were certainly well beyond the simple ones that I know from the local makolet. It even rhymed!

Whether or not we have the next Yehuda Amichai in house remains to be seen. But what was even more important to me were the insights – her poem was a first person monologue about what it’s like to be an eleven-year-old in Israel. The fact that she was able to express in writing so many of her fears and joys, concisely and with feeling, filled me with unbridled nachas.

I praised her as much as I could without sounding like a fake, which I certainly was not.

An hour later, she had written three more. And it occurred to me that she was teaching me something about the true nature of the word “insight.” Insight is the ability to communicate a personal perspective from deep within. I may be forced into the role of frustrated outsider wherever it is I seem to go, but my Israeli-raised daughter is unquestionably an insider.

Is that what it’s all about, then? The immigrant parents move to a new land and sacrifice so their children can feel they’re a part of something, that they belong?

No, that’s not it, not entirely at least. But it’s a good start.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

That’s a Nice Robe You Got There

“I need help with my homework,” eleven-year-old Merav announced after dinner the other night.

Normally I run as fast as I can from these requests. As an immigrant father, it's not easy to cope with homework in Hebrew which, while it may be one of Merav’s best subjects, is certainly not mine.

“It’s geography,” she clarified.

Ah, now that I could help with.

“I need to know the capital cities. Read from the list and test me,” Merav said and she handed me a sheet with some 30 countries written down.

The list itself was a fascinating slice of local culture. The countries picked – I don’t know if it was by Merav’s teacher or was part of some state curriculum – demonstrated in a very immediate way what was important to Israel...and what was not.

There were countries I had barely heard of when I was a kid. Growing up in California in the 1960s, who even knew where Yemen was, let alone Syria or Morocco? But they were prominent on Merav’s list.

On the other hand, Central and South America – the capitals of which we had to learn by heart – were barely represented...except apparently for countries which had large Jewish populations that had immigrated to Israel.

I began the drill. Merav sailed through the first few cities with ease. She had clearly been practicing.

Germany – Berlin.

Canada – Ottawa.

India – New Delhi.

We got stuck at Romania.

“Um...give me a hint,” Merav said.

I was immediately transported back to my own youth when, sitting with my father, we used to make up all kinds of rhymes and alliterations to make do when memory failed.

“OK, well, I’ve got some books and I need to put them down so they can rest,” I said to Merav.

Merav stared at me like I was insane.

“Books...need a rest.”

“Bookshelf? The capital of Romania is Bookshelf?”

“No, Bucharest. get it?”

“What does that have to do with Romania?” Merav demanded.

I shrugged. I’m “Beats me. But you won’t forget it now, will you?”

“More,” Merav said, her eyes eager as if I were telling her a make-believe story before bed.

“OK. Greece.”

Merav got that easily. “From the Olympics. Athens,” she replied.


Paris.” All those Madeline books had done some good too.



“No that’s the capital of Yemen. You want a hint?”


“Think of a Jim Carrey movie.”

Me Myself and Irene?”

“No, starts with 'The.'”

The Man in the Moon?”

“It’s the one where he puts this thing on, turns him all funny.”

The Mask!”

“Right,” I said. “Da-Mask.”

“Da-Mask-us..oh, Damascus, I get it!”

We sailed through Belgium, Russia and Argentina, stopping at Australia.”

“Need another hint?” I asked.

Merav nodded.

“There’s a chocolate bar that’s like this capital,” I said.


“Snickers, Australia? Never heard of it.”

“Well, it’s definitely not Milky Way. Or Baby Ruth.”

“Try Cadbury?” I said.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s a British treat.”

“You’re pushing it, Abba,” Merav laughed.

We got stuck only one more time: at Kenya.

“’re getting ready for bed. You take off your clothes and put on a nice...”

“Pair of pajamas?”


“Warm fuzzy slippers?”


“Then what?”

“A nice robe....eeee!”

“What, is there a spider?” Merav said turning behind her. She hates eight-legged insects.

“No, it’s part of the hint. Nice-robe-ee. Nairobi.”

“What kind of name is that?”

“Got me!”

“Do you think I’ll do OK on the test?”

“You’re going to ace it.”

“Yeah. I think so too. Thanks, Abba,” Merav said as she headed downstairs for bed.

“It was my pleasure. Now just remember, the capital of Syria is Jim Carrey, the capital of Romania is Book Shelf and what’s Kenya?”

“Fuzzy slippers,” Merav replied.

“This will be one test your teacher will never forget!”

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Grueling Tiyuling

It’s been nearly a month since I last posted an update on Merav. The news, thank God, is all good.

Our eleven-year-old daughter seems to have recovered completely. No more pain, no fever, no jaundice. Whatever it was – and the doctors never were able to come up with a diagnosis – it seems to have passed and gone forever.

In celebration, we decided to go away for a few days of vacation. Friends invited us to join a camping trip and tiyul – the Hebrew word for hike – along the Jordan River just north of the Sea of Galilee.

Only two weeks earlier, Merav’s doctor had told her she wasn’t strong enough to participate in a hike sponsored by her scouting troop, but since then, she’d recovered so quickly and had been so full of energy, we figured why not. Plus we’d never seen that part of the Jordan. It sounded lush and lovely, even exotic.

The day started out promising. We left Jerusalem at 7:00 AM for the three hour drive to our starting point at the B’not Yaakov Bridge just east of Rosh Pina. Some of the group had gone ahead and parked their cars at Karkum, the hike’s end, so we wouldn’t need to double back on the hike itself.

We began by walking along the banks of the Jordan, watching groups of merrymakers in bright orange rafts and kayaks go sailing by, bumping down the mini-rapids in this stretch of the river.

Soon, however, the trail began to meander higher up the hill away from the river. Not quite as nice, but the Sea of Galilee was always in sight, its vast mass (for landlocked Jerusamelites like us, at least) shimmering in the near distance. We plowed on through the fields and enjoyed our brief respite from the pressures of work and technology.

As the path went on, though, the trees became sparser, and soon we were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, on a rocky hill entirely devoid of vegetation.

Well, not entirely devoid: thorn bushes assaulted us at every turn, tearing clothing and skin.

By now the day had turned hot and our relaxing hike had become more one of figuring out how to avoid getting pricked and how to stay to the path which was now overgrown by thick bushes, obscuring the black and white markers painted on rocks to mark the trail.

It was just about at this point, half way through the tiyul, that Merav started to poop out.

That’s also when we realized that none of us actually knew how long the trail went on. Someone had said it was a four to six hour walk. OK, was that four, six or possibly more?

Rule #1 of hiking in Israel: never go out on tiyul unless someone in the group has done it before.

“I need to rest,” Merav said, as she plopped down on a rock shaded by an especially large thorn bush.

The rest of the group continued on while my wife Jody, seven-year-old Aviv and I stayed back with a couple of other semi-stragglers.

We got up after a few minutes and continued, but it soon became clear that after nearly two months at home and a week in the hospital, Merav was not yet up to a trip of this length.

We rested again.

“Drink, sweetie,” I told Merav. She weakly grabbed the plastic tube extending from her shlucker, the water pack she wore on her back.

“Have some chocolate,” Jody offered.

“Don’t want,” Merav said. “My tummy hurts.”

And that’s when I lost it. “My tummy hurts” was her constant refrain during the height of her illness. It had stopped aching before we embarked on this journey. If it was acting up again now, did this mean she was heading towards a relapse?

I began to beat myself up with guilt. What were we thinking? Taking Merav on a tiyul so soon after she had been so sick. How irresponsible could we be? School started only a few days later, would she be out another two months?

We valiantly tried to continue but Merav wasn’t wearing her exhaustion well. At each subsequent resting point, she looked more and more like the girl I remembered from that hospital bed.

Chana, one of the members of our group of stragglers, broke with our refrain from technology and whipped out her cellphone to call our group leader.

“Where are you?” she said.

“About a half an hour ahead,” came the response.

“Are you near the end?”

“I don’t know where the end is.”

Mearv must have overhead the conversation. “I can’t do this anymore,” she whined and promptly lay down.

And then, just when things didn’t seem as though they could get any worse...

“Drink again, honey,” Jody said.

...we realized we’d run out of water.

And the sun started to go down.

So there we were, in the middle of a field of thorns, no water, our light dimming, and no idea how much farther we needed to go.

“We’ll have to call in the helicopters,” I said, no longer even trying to conceal my panic. I don’t even know what that means, “call the helicopters,” but it sounded like the kind of dramatic rescue we were going to need.

“Party of five airlifted out of perilous valley. News at 11:00.”

It was at that point when, leaping from the trail in front of us, like a superhero straight out of a Spiderman movie, came Tuvia, Chana’s son. He was on a day’s leave from the army where he serves as a medic and apparently had gone tiyuling on his own nearby. He’d been in touch somehow with our group and had arrived bearing water...and a strong back.

“Climb on,” he said to Merav.

Then he, along with his equally strong-spined father Tzvi, took turns piggy-backing Merav out until, another hour later, only a few minutes before the sun was completely down, we reached Karkum, the end point where our cars were waiting.

Merav collapsed into the soft seat of the car as we drove away from the hike area and towards the campsite where we’d planned to spend the night. The earlier members of our group had arrived before us and the hamburgers were already hot. Merav began to revive.

By the morning, she was sore, but feeling peppy and ready for more adventures.

Three days later, she went back to school for the first time since she became ill.

I still don’t think this particular tiyul was the best idea for Merav and her condition. But in a strange way, it served as the final test of her prolonged recovery. If she had crashed back into a relapse of her illness, we would have known that what she had was something chronic that we’d have to watch and wait for.

If, on the hand, she got through it with no adverse effects, there’d be no question that she’d had nothing more than a particularly inexplicable, nasty and long-lasting virus.

This may have been the most grueling exam Merav’s ever had to endure. In the end, though, she passed...even the thorniest of questions.

Today is Yom Ha'atzmaut in Israel. If you're going out for an Independence Day hike, I wish you a less gruesome tiyulsome!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Korczak’s Jerusalem

Janusz Korczak was a Polish Jewish educator who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto just prior to its liquidation in 1942. His story is at once tragic and courageous. Given the chance to escape the ghetto, Korczak chose to stay with his children, ultimately perishing along with them at Treblinka.

“Korczak’s Children” is also the name of a play by Jeffrey Hatcher which has been playing across the U.S. since its Minneapolis premiere in 2003 and was recently performed in Jerusalem by JEST, the Jerusalem English Speaking Theater.

The cast, directed by JEST veteran Leah Stoller, included 19 children (representing the 171 residents in the orphanage); many of the kid actors were schoolmates of our sixth grade daughter Merav.

A couple of months back, Merav’s class was invited to a special afternoon performance at Beit Shmuel, the theater just behind Hebrew Union College. I tagged along as a chaperone.

The play tells the story of Korczak and his charges in the orphanage over a period of two days. During that time, we meet the children, watch Korczak’s innovative Children’s Court in action, and see Korczak writing in his diary.

Like Anne Frank’s, Korczak’s diary was later published, after being smuggled out of the ghetto after his death and sealed up in the walls of a Catholic orphanage that Korczak previously ran in a Warsaw suburb.

Even before his diary, however, Korczak was already a well known educator throughout Poland. He wrote 24 books and published over a thousand newspaper and magazine articles on childhood education. In the mid-1930s, he hosted his own radio program. During the course of the play, Korczak was repeatedly offered a way out of the ghetto which he always refused.

The centerpiece of the Korczak’s Children was the organization by the children in the orphanage of a makeshift play-within-a-play. The children chose “The Post Office” by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.

The Post Office serves as an allegory for life in the Jewish ghetto. In it, a little boy named Amal is dying; his doctor forbids him from going outside. Amal wishes only for the local postman to bring him a letter from the king.

The wicked village headman – symbolically representing the Jewish leadership of the ghetto which cooperated with the Nazis – tricks Amal and pretends to read a letter from the king saying he will come soon with his personal physician.

No one is more surprised than the headman when the king’s doctor does in fact arrive, ordering the windows open to let the night breeze in. Amal falls asleep to a vision of twinkling stars far beyond the confines of his room. He never awakens.

The next day, the Germans arrive and escort the children to the trains that will bring them to Treblinka. Korczak repeatedly assures the children that they are going to a better, safer place than the wretched ghetto that has been their home these past years.

As the play ends, Korczak tells a fantastic story of a Dr. Zi of the Planet Ro who has a magical telescope that can transform hate and evil into rays of peace and morality.

Merav and her classmates were well behaved during the play. Afterwards, as we headed out of the theater and towards our car, I asked Merav if she understood the ending.

“Yes,” Merav said. “He was taking them to a better place.”

“Do you know where that place was?” I asked.

“No,” Merav admitted. “But it was safe.”

And that's when I realized that Merav, who is an innately literal-minded child, had - like the children in the play - been captivated by Korczak’s words. She felt secure as long as they were still in his embrace, sure that no harm would come to them.

In a strange way, I envied Merav, her trusting innocence. Jewish history in the last century has not been so kind.

And then as we turned the corner towards the car, I looked up and was overwhelmed.

“Look,” I said to Merav. “Do you see that? It’s the Old City.”

The Bet Shmuel theater and Hebrew Union College are situated just off Jerusalem’s King David Street and have an unrivaled view of the Old City walls which are impressively lit up by colored spotlights at night.

“Yeah, OK,” Merav said. As in: seen that before, move on now.

But for me it was a moment of connection and clarity. This is not something you see stepping out of the theater in San Francisco, or even Broadway. I wondered if the play’s local producers had planned on this when choosing the location.

Here we were in Jerusalem. In the Jewish homeland, gazing up at the walls surrounding what was the center of biblical Israel over 3,000 years ago.

Neither Korczak nor his children ever got a chance to see the walls of Jerusalem. They never even saw their next birthdays.

But we can, anytime we want. As we commemorate Yom Hashoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day, we can’t take that for granted.

Not for all those who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto and throughout Europe.

Not for Korczak and his children.

Not for us.

Not for a moment.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Magic of Pesach

Pesach is probably the most magical of Jewish holidays. And that really bugs the heck out of me!

Before we go any further: here’s a spoiler alert: just like in a movie review, if you don’t want to know too much about the way I really think about some of the more obscure Pesach traditions, stop reading right here.

For those of you still with me, OK, first of all, what do I mean by magical? I’m not talking about the warm fuzzy feeling you get when the family is all assembled and someone inevitably blurts out “Oh, what a magical night!”

No, I’m talking about doing things that just don’t make sense.

I was raised in a Jewish home that worshiped at the temple of science. And although much has changed for me since those days (clearly, Israel wasn’t on the agenda growing up...more about that another time), many of my core values have remained, paramount of those being: if you can’t explain it logically, then don’t do it.

I have no problem with the main objective of Pesach. It says it clearly enough in the Torah: you shall not eat any of that there leavened bread for the week (loosely paraphrased I admit).

And clearing out the hametz, the formerly 100% kosher pitas, rolls and bagels that become off limits once the holiday begins, can be given a nice philosophical spin. For example, the physical labor of removing hametz is like cleaning up our souls, taking stock of where we stand as Jews and human beings.

And some of the customs can be loads of fun for both kids and adults alike. In our house ,the highlight of all the preparation for Pesach is the night before Seder when we hide small pieces of bread around the house and the kids search them out with a feather and a flame. Then we reverse and the kids hide and the parents go looking under pillows and behind books.

It’s maybe the world’s first institutionalized game of hide and seek...with a nice educational bent.

The stories we retell from the Haggada are timeless and never fail to engender new insights. The Jewish people’s slow descent into slavery and eventual emergence from Egypt to freedom is just as relevant today as it was then. The commandment to see yourself as if you were actually there in Egypt is sublimely powerful.

But then there’s the magic.

Every year, I have to gather up all the silverware in the house and trudge over to the local mikve where two young men stand over an enormous cauldron of boiling water. I hand them the silverware and they dunk it in the water. And then – magic! – the silverware is suddenly kosher for Pesach. I get to pay a pretty penny for the privilege, too.

But what happened there, that’s what I want to know? Scientifically, I mean. Did the molecules of hametz embedded in our every day knives and forks and spoons somehow re-fuse into another metal with entirely different physical properties?

Is their some hidden chemical process going on that only the sages of long ago knew about but that modern research has failed to detect? Last I checked, most of us were still ordinary Muggles and alchemy is on the curriculum at Hogwarts not Harvard.

Same with the whole business regarding glassware. Apparently, if we soak our glasses in water for three days, changing the liquid every 24 hours, suddenly the glasses are no longer hametzadik but kosher for the holiday? What’s up with that?

I put the glasses in, I take them out. Same glasses, guys!

I sometimes think that if an alien from outer space were to look at Jewish customs this time of year, he’d shake his three heads in disbelief and tell his commanders that this part of space would be a fine place to build a hyperspatial expressway.

So given all my griping, you might ask: why do I still do it? I won’t lie and tell you that I’ve received some divine wisdom and now pouring scalding water over our kitchen countertops suddenly makes sense. Or that there’s a logical reason why we can’t just use the same old dishes after a couple of hot rinses in the dishwasher.

Some would say I need more faith. But I’m fine with the vast majority of Jewish tradition. For me, the real reason is much more prosaic. This is what you do in the community I live in, and I’m not ready – nor interested – in separating myself over a relatively minor matter of some occasional magic.

Hypocritical? Not really. I don’t "believe" in paying a marginal income tax rate of over 60% either but that’s what you do if you want to live in Israel. There are plenty of other things I find wacky in religion and life that alternatively amuse or annoy me. It’s part of a bigger package which I rather enjoy.

So I put up with a little magic. Because as the Pesach Seder starts, it’s often times me who blurts out “Oh, what a magical night!”

May you have a happy and kosher Passover!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Three Minutes

I admit it: I’m a bit obsessive compulsive. No surprise to regular readers of this column.

When I set out to make a purchase – whether it’s a new piece of computer equipment or a vacation – I more often than not spend days doing research on the Internet, talking to anyone and everyone I can find. After I make a decision, I may change my mind. After I make the purchase, I’ll probably regret at least some part of it.

So when we were invited to a bar mitzvah in the town of Efrat, just south of Jerusalem in Gush Etzion, I knew I was about to start obsessing. But it wasn’t about what to get the bar mitzvah boy? Rather it was: how were we going to get there?

We used to visit our friends in Efrat all the time. But that was before September 2000. At first, everyone freaked out. Rocks were hurled at buses on and near the Tunnel Road; shots were fired regularly.

Egged outfitted its buses on that route with bullet special reinforced windows, families stopped traveling together in the same vehicle, and many of our friends who made the commute regularly actually began wearing bullet proof vests.

Then things quieted down. In truth, there’s been nary an incident on the Jerusalem-Efrat road for most of the past four years. Bus patronage slacked off as our friends all went back to their cars, even without the bullet proof vests. But that doesn’t mean something couldn’t still happen. Tomorrow. To us.

When we first invited to the bar mitzvah, I immediately said “let’s take the bus.” That had to be the safest alternative. But it was expensive. And so inconvenient.

“What’s more inconvenient, taking the bus or being dead?” Jody asked in a not-so-flippant way.

“But something could happen to the bus too,” I countered, playing devil’s advocate and contradicting my initial position. There was at least one deadly attack where a roadside bomb detonated under the bus; when the passengers rushed out to safety, terrorists were waiting and began to gun them down.

Then there was a plot that fortunately was uncovered before anything happened where terrorists armed with bomb belts planned to hijack a bus to Bethlehem. But that couldn’t happen on this line...half the passengers are soldiers or otherwise heavily armed.

“You’re driving me crazy,” Jody said. “It’s really six of one, half dozen of the other. Let’s just make a decision and do it.”

But by Friday morning, the day we were supposed to head out, I hadn’t gotten any closer. I had already searched the Internet to see if there had been any increase in terrorist activity on that highway in the past few days. There hadn’t.

I started grilling friends.

“Car for sure,” answered one person.

“Yes, the car,” said a second. “We do it all the time.”

I called up a friend in Efrat who was notably me. I knew she used to wear a bullet proof vest when she drove in her private car.

“Take the bus,” she said.

“ don’t.”

“It all depends on what you have to do. We have friends in Ofra,” she said referring to another settlement north of Ramallah, “and I wouldn’t dream of driving there. But they do all the time and don’t think twice.”

I went out for a run. Maybe that would clear my head. But all I could think about was what’s the point of staying in shape if life is so tenuous?

It’s not easy being me...

On the way back I ran into my neighbor Marc. I posed my usual question.

“What’s the problem?” he chided. “We just drove out to Efrat with the whole family last Friday.” Then he added: “But I certainly wouldn’t drive home at night.”

That was the key. That small bit of extra information was enough to tip my thinking and allow me to make the mental shift. We would drive.

Just not at night.

I called my friend in Efrat. “We’re driving!” I said with a triumphant lilt to my voice.

“I think all of the attacks in our area have actually been during the day,” she said.

“I don’t want to hear it. Children, let’s go.”

We piled into the car and headed out. Before we knew it we were on the Tunnel Road. Large concrete walls had been built to shield it from bullets and stones.

As we arrived at the army checkpoint, one of the kids asked, “Abba...have we passed the place where they throw stones?”

I paused. Then responded honestly: “No, we’re actually entering it right now.” I had told them about rocks but had kept the stories about gunfire to myself. A responsible parent practices selective disinformation.

I checked my watch. It was 4:18 PM when we passed the checkpoint. As we pulled into the entrance of Efrat, I turned to Jody. “Do you remember if I put on deodorant today after my shower?” I asked. I was all wet. We passed the settlement’s security fence.

My watch read 4:21 PM.

Three minutes! That was it. Three minutes of dangerous road. That was what all this obsessing was about? And yet, I thought again, it only takes three seconds to...

We unpacked and got ready for Shabbat. The bar mitzvah boy acquitted himself superbly and we had a very relaxing time. On Saturday night, we hung out with friends while the kids all watched a video together.

“So,” the bar mitzvah boy’s father said as we were getting ready to head back home on Sunday morning. “Do you think you’d be willing to come and visit us even if it’s not a bar mitzvah?”

“Hmm...” I thought. It was such a short trip and I felt foolish for all my procrastinations and posturing.

“You know what,” I said. “I think we just might.”

I’m not promising I won’t obsess about it all over again. But in three minutes, it seems, we’d come a long way.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

No News is the Best News

Merav is out of the hospital and feeling a bit better. That should be cause for celebration. So why do I feel so confused?

These past weeks – how many has it been, six already? – have been pure hell. For us and for our extended families. Eleven-year-old Merav has probably been the least affected. She had the good sense not to dive into the endless “what’s causing it” debate that has been the organizing topic of every phone call and conversation we’ve had.

And that’s the thing: six weeks later, we still don’t know what caused Merav to get so sick she was admitted to Sha’arei Tzedek Medical Center for a week and to be out of school for much longer. She was tested for everything under the sun, and just about everything was ruled out, from hepatitis to parasites to gall stones and liver disease.

Our doctor says the jury is still out. Could be something chronic...or a rare virus that modern medicine just doesn’t know how to identify yet. Time will tell.

Or it may not.

As we’ve hovered in this seemingly perpetual limbo-land, one thing is for sure: we learned a lot about the Israeli medical system...and about how people relate to illness.

Dr. F., who took on Merav’s case as a personal challenge and at one point even convened a brainstorming session of 15 of the top pediatric specialists in Jerusalem, is notoriously non-invasive. His medical philosophy is to strive at all costs to avoid doing tests that could have complications, even if it means waiting it out for weeks with only slight day-to-day improvement.

Family and friends were less patient. Why hasn’t she had a CT scan, they asked? An Upper GI? Liver biopsy? Colonoscopy? All of these would have given us valuable data about possible chronic inflammatory disease that might be the root of Merav’s illness. But each has its risks.

CT scans involve a strong dose of radiation at a time when a young girl’s body is at a critical state of internal development. Liver biopsy can lead to infection or bleeding. Colonoscopy, well, that’s just plain nasty.

Add to that the fact that Merav does not deal well with invasive procedures in the first place. Just getting blood taken was traumatic. And it had to be done daily when she was in the hospital.

On one of her first blood taking expeditions, a particularly inept nurse must have poked her in half a dozen spots before finally having to get blood out from near her femur.

Next time out, it took a full hour of cajoling plus liberal application of Emla, a topical anesthetic, to get the job done.

Blood became our new language. One thing that just about anyone who enters the medical system can tell you is that you become intimately familiar with a wide range of information you never before knew a thing about...and will probably (hopefully) completely forget in a few month’s time.

I can recite the key indicators from Merav’s blood results by heart: Bilirubin down from 4.6 to 0.9. CRP up to 13.8, but dropping steadily to 8.9, then 3.2 and now 1.0. ALP, AST and GGT still high but falling too.

Despite her aversion to blood tests, we couldn’t help wondering: was biding our time being medically prudent...or ultimately irresponsible? Like everything having to do with parenting, it’s a fine balancing act.

Indeed, when Merav was at her sickest, Jody and I found ourselves going against our doctor’s advice, lobbying for taking a more invasive route. It’s natural, I suppose: there is probably nothing worse than seeing your child in pain, especially pain that lasts for weeks unabated. The knee-jerk response is to do something, anything.

But what if it turned out to be just a virus that needed an inordinate amount of time to pass? Or, given that we still didn’t know which haystack we were looking in - let alone which needle - we wound up ordering the wrong tests? What would be the ramifications of that misjudgment?

We tend to place our physicians on all-knowing pedestals. But as one friend said to Jody, “With all of the diseases out there, I’m amazed when they actually do know what’s going on.”

Merav still suffers from stomach cramps, though the pain is definitely down, her energy is up, and - most important - that plucky, playful attitude and presence that we missed so much around the house these past weeks is back for at least several hours a day.

Now that she’s home from the hospital and stable, we’re even starting to think about more mundane things, like getting her back to school.

“Not yet,” Dr. F. told us during an outpatient visit to his pediatric clinic as we reviewed her latest blood numbers. “She’ll let you know when she’s ready.”

Typical of his non-invasive approach. Merav liked that answer and gave him a slight smile.

And so we continue to wait and see. Because in our case, despite the constant chorus of concerned voices demanding a diagnosis, the truth is: no news really would be the best news.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Weekend Furlough

After weeks of illness that had baffled pediatricians, surgeons and specialists across the city, our family doctor said, with no small amount of resignation, we had no option left other than to check eleven-year-old Merav into the hospital.

Hospitalization is a big deal, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It means that you essentially have a new place to live – however brief – with new rules, new food and new people to meet, most of them not necessarily the same individuals you’d choose as your immediate neighbors.

And although the pediatric ward at Sha’arei Tzedek Medical Center has a nicely appointed kids’ club and even a computer room, the drab hallways and pockmarked beige rooms don’t appear to have been touched since the institution moved to its current location in Bayit Vegan some 25 years ago.

With three to a room (six, including parents sleeping next to their kids), the place reminded me of being stuck on a crowded airplane. While the beds may have been fully reclining, we were decidedly stuck in coach, experiencing prolonged jet lag...without the benefit of actually getting anywhere.

With Merav’s condition such a puzzle, we became the “interesting case” on the department floor. A torrent of residents paraded by, each asking the same questions and intently studying her chart.

An IV was inserted right away and blood taken regularly. She had visits from so many heads of department, it’s hard for me to count: pediatric immunology, neurology, rheumatology.

In between visits and tests, we managed to snag the floor’s sole portable TV with DVD player. Jody and I split our time in the hospital and I made sure to pick up a couple of new movies a day that I thought Merav would like.

Flicks like 50 First Dates, The Princess Diaries II: Royal Engagement, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Mean Girls. You know, the kind of girl films I secretly enjoy but don’t readily admit to publicly.

Which I just did, didn’t I...

We checked in on a Wednesday. Our goal was to get a diagnosis as soon as possible and to get out of there. In particular before Shabbat. There was nothing I could imagine more depressing than being stuck in the hospital over the weekend.

No real tests are run on Saturday, I quickly understood, and there’s no TV to take your mind of the dreary sameness of the room (even if we wanted to watch TV, Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital – which is officially religious – wouldn’t permit it).

In charge of Merav’s case was Dr. F., the head of pediatric gastroenterology in the hospital and the most senior pediatric GI in Jerusalem. We felt in good hands with Dr. F. Until, at one point, while making conversation, he asked what I do for a living.

Explaining that I write a blog about life in Israel is always the beginning of a long story, and Dr. F. seemed in a perpetual rush. So I answered with my back-up response, something straightforward I figure most people can understand.

“I’m a journalist,” I said.

“Oh…with the media,” he said.

That appeared to be a mistake, because the next day when I tried to speculate with him about what might be going on with Merav, he cut me off. “You reporters do too much research,” he said. “I’ll tell you when I know something.”

“But...” I started.

“I’m not talking to you,” he said and walked away in a dramatic huff.

Now if you’re thinking about now “dude, it’s not about you, it’s about Merav, get over it,” you’d be right. Except that the week was quickly drawing to an end and I needed to work with this guy to get Merav out of there by Shabbat. Her condition was stable, not worsening. There was no reason for her stay through Shabbat hospital hell.

I had to figure out Dr. F.’s I’d worry about patient rights and ongoing bedside manner later.

I tried being obsequious.

“She really seems to be doing better, don’t you think? Maybe we could treat her as an outpatient?”

“Not yet,” Dr. F. replied curtly.

I tried being direct.

“Really, what’s the point of her staying here on Shabbat? It’s not like you’re going to do anything. Just let her out.”

“We have to wait,” Dr. F. said.

A group of 20 yeshiva boys came on Friday morning and sang us Shabbat songs in the hallways. Girls doing sherut leuminational service rather than regular army - handed out Shabbat treats: chocolate and toffees. We received similar goody bags from the Israel Electric Company and the National Lottery. Not sure about the significance of that one. A light lunch was served early in preparation for a heavier Shabbat meal.

Just when I had despaired that she would be stuck in the hospital for Shabbat, Dr. F. returned.

“She can go home,” he said. “But...”

I waited in worried anticipation for the other shoe to drop.

“...just for Shabbat. She’ll still be a patient in the hospital. Kupat Cholim cannot know about this.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. Was our doctor ordering some uniquely Israeli subterfuge of our local HMO, our kupat cholim?

“The kupah won’t pay for her unless she’s here,” he explained. “Now go. Come back Sunday morning. Same bed, same room. You can leave your stuff.”

Not wanting to tempt fate...or what I saw as Dr. F. taking a temporary liking to me, we just picked up and headed out the door, pillow in hand, hospital tag still on Merav’s wrist. We were feeling pretty blessed that we’d been granted what we were sure was a rare privilege.

That is until we saw the rest of the ward. Except for a few beds, it looked as though everyone had been sprung for Shabbat in what we surmised is apparently pretty much standard procedure in Israel, at least in Jerusalem.

Another in the many ways that life in Israel runs according to a very different clock and calendar, where Shabbat is not just another day of the week but one deserving special dispensation.

On Sunday, Merav and I made our way back into Room 37 on the sixth floor of Sha’arei Tzedek to begin another week of tests in the long search for a diagnosis. But at least we were refreshed from our weekend furlough.


Postscript: After six days in the hospital Merav is now back at home. I’ll update you again next week.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Cake Effect

Our daughter Merav has been sick for the last three plus weeks with an undiagnosed illness. Today's story - as well as the one I'm planning to run next week - reflect particular moments during this long process which also included a week of hospitalization.

For those of you who have been in touch, Jody and I cannot express how meaningful your concern and help has been. Merav would certainly love to hear from you. You can send messages to her at

Merav is still sick, but she is slowly but surely feeling better and we are hopeful that by this time next week we will have gotten to the bottom of what's been causing her all of her distress

-- Brian


It’s been a tough three weeks. Eleven-year-old Merav came down with terrible stomach cramps...then developed a rash and proceeded to turn yellow.

A series of blood tests, ultrasounds and even a liver scan had the mostly baffled doctors ruling out appendicitis, hepatitis, and a score of other itis’s, but to date they still have no diagnosis. There seems to be something going on with her liver or gall bladder which may explain the jaundice, among other possible explanations.

In the midst of all of the poking and prodding and note-taking by diligent interns at three different hospital emergency rooms, little Aviv turned seven.

Any birthday is a big deal in our house, turning seven all the more so...particularly for the birthday boy. We had planned a party for Aviv and his school chums with games like pin-the-nose-on-the-clown, but given Merav’s suffering, we decided to put the celebration off.

Aviv seemed OK with this.

But on the morning of his birthday, just 15 minutes before school started, Aviv announced somewhat nonchalantly, “And you’ll be coming with a cake for hafsakat eser, right?” He was referring to the morning snack break.

“Cake?” Jody and I both looked at the clock and then at each other.

Picking up on our hesitation, Aviv commanded: “You have to bring a cake. That’s what you do for birthdays in my school!”

Jody had one foot out the door already; she was taking Merav back to the doctor for yet another test and it was raining, meaning traffic would be nasty.

“There’s no time,” I whined. “And I’ve got a meeting this morning…I’ll have to cancel...can’t we do it a different day, Aviv?”

Aviv looked panicky. His cancelled after-school party was finally hitting home.

“Just follow the instructions,” Jody said, thrusting a box of Pillsbury cake mix at me and measuring out some oil into a bowl. “And let Aviv crack the eggs.”

Aviv’s face lit up. As Jody and Merav ran out, I whipped up the oil and eggs and flour, then popped the pan in the oven and Aviv out the door.

At exactly 9:45 AM, I arrived at Aviv’s classroom bearing our creation. I even remembered the frosting. The 36 kids in Aviv’s class were delighted to see me. Who wouldn’t be? I was a man bearing a cake.

I sliced and Aviv distributed the pieces. He was beaming and proud, the center of attention on his big day.

As I was leaving the school, I ran into a group of Merav’s friends by chance on their way in from recess. I hadn’t intended to visit her class, but this seemed like an opportunity. In my broken Hebrew, I updated them on Merav’s condition.

“How do you say gall bladder in Hebrew?” I asked one of the kids I knew was from an English-speaking home.

“What’s a gall bladder?” she asked.


“You know,” I added, “Merav’s a bit lonely. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if some of you came to visit for a bit.

Her classmates all began talking among themselves, and I could see that the sixth grade planning wheels had been set in motion.

Jody and Merav arrived back from the doctor about the same time as I walked in from my visit to school. Merav flopped into her familiar sick position, clutching her hot water bottle on the couch and looking dour and distressed.

As I headed back out the door for my meeting, she confided to me: “You know, I thought it would be fun to stay home and watch TV all day. But now all I want to do is go back to school. I wonder if my friends even care about me?”

“Of course they do,” I said. I wanted to tell her about my conversation with the kids in her class, but I was already late.

When I returned home, something was different. Merav’s mood had brightened considerably.

A big poster was taped to the door with well wishes from her classmates and the entire Scouts troop. Someone had brought over a candy bar – white chocolate, Merav’s favorite (not that she had any appetite for it). Merav was flipping through a hand written book with pages after page of heartfelt blessings. Several board games, a video, and a pair of new socks lay stacked neatly in the corner.

“My friends,” Merav said weakly but with as big a smile as she could muster. “They really do care.”

A few minutes later, Aviv came bounding in the door, oblivious to the transformation taking place around him.

“Is there any more cake left?” he demanded.

“Absolutely,” I said. “On a day like today, it appears that there’s more than enough sweetness to go around.”