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.”

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Rice Milk Crisis

“What, no rice milk?” I asked Jody as I helped her unload the groceries after a recent trip to the supermarket. I had immediately noticed the bags seemed lighter than usual.

“They were all out,” Jody said, almost apologetically.

“Harumph,” I muttered, trying to be flip about the matter but barely concealing my disappointment.

Rice milk isn’t just a guilty pleasure in our family, you see; it’s practically a lifestyle. Our enchantment with the organic white stuff goes back 15 years now.

We first began drinking Imagine’s brand of Rice Dream rice milk when we lived in Berkeley, and we haven’t poured regular “cow’s milk” (as the kids call it) onto our Blueberry Morning cereal or into our chai masala since.

Still, as this wasn’t the first time our store has run out, I wasn’t entirely surprised. The supply channels from Palo Alto to Israel are a bit longer than when we lived less than an hour away from the factory.

When a second week went by and the supermarket shelves still ran bare, though, I began to get worried.

Now, when we moved to Israel in 1994, there was no such thing as rice milk here. I knew that from a pilot trip I’d made a few months before our arrival.

So when we packed up our “lift” – the containers that were sent by ship with all our furniture and pots and pans and paperwork – we included several large palettes of rice milk to “ease the transition.”

Friends thought we were wacky. I deemed it prescient. Especially when, a mere two months after we ran out of our imported supply, Israel miraculously started to stock our favorite beverage.

But since then, every time there’s a rice milk shortage, a mini-crisis erupts in my mind. What if this time it’s for good, I think.

Maybe Israelis just aren’t buying enough of the stuff?

Or maybe the manufacturer has decided to boycott Israel? It wouldn’t be the first time that politics prevented us from imbibing what we want, when we want: let’s not forget that Coke didn’t arrive on the Israeli scene until 1966 and Pepsi not until 1992 (the Snopes website has the complete history).

I did a survey of several other stores which also normally carried our rice milk. All out.

Even at the health food shop down the street from us – which charges a 20% premium for an already overpriced product (nearly $3.50 a box here vs. $1.50 in the States) – there were only three boxes left.

I bought out the store.

I can whine all I want, but truthfully, we’ve been pretty fortunate in terms of getting the foods we crave from back home. There are only a few items we still lack, nearly all of them of the junk food variety.

Tops on my list: corn chips. The Fritos brand. Just hasn’t gotten here for some reason. Whenever I bring up this particular desire, friends inevitably point me to Doritos tortilla chips, which we do get and which are even from the same Frito-Lay company. But there’s something different...the shape or texture or saltiness...that makes Frito’s brand corn chips uniquely satisfying.

Then there’s...doughnuts. Real American doughnuts. Regular readers have heard me wax rhapsodic on Krispy Kremes, and let me tell you, it was a tough break for all us expatriates when Dunkin Donuts pulled out of Israel several years ago.

So, on Jody’s recent trip to the States, when she asked if there was anything she could bring back. I said, “Some Entenmann’s glazed doughnuts, please.” Ziplocked and packed in the cold underbelly of the plane, they’d make the trip just fine I reckoned.

Instead, Jody brought back two boxes of Girl Scout Cookies. Uniquely American, yes, but not the same thing!

Then there’s those big Starbucks-style blueberry muffins. And other equally big cookies from the likes of Mrs. Fields, Famous Amos, Pepperidge Farm...

Are you detecting a pattern here?

It’s not that we don’t have some really yummy baked goods here. You won’t find me saying no to a hot babka. But an oversized, crunchy Pepperidge Farm cookie stuffed with white chocolate chips and macadamia nuts...stop me before I get on the next plane out.

And don’t let me forget what used to be my breakfast staple once upon a time: Eggo frozen waffles. Straight from the freezer into the toaster oven, then smeared with butter and maple syrup, topped with Fritos...sorry, I got carried away (although apparently, the good folks at Eggo have some interesting, very real recipe suggestions).

I’m telling you, though, if I was ever cast in one of those old commercials, anyone telling me to leggo my Eggo would be looking down the wrong side of a blueberry muffin.

Back at the supermarket, during our third week of rice milk deprivation, an official looking man spotted Jody scouring the empty shelves and approached her.

He explained that there had been a dock strike in Italy which, apparently, is the closest port of call to Israel for our beloved rice milk, but that it was over now. The rice milk should be back in another week’s time.

Jody came home and told me. I breathed a sigh of relief and gave the air a triumphant punch.

Not that I was worried or anything.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Why Aren’t You a Winner?

Steve, an entrepreneur friend of mine in Jerusalem, met recently with an Israeli venture capitalist concerning funding for Steve’s new company. The two discussed the market, the company’s technology and promise.

Eventually, they got down to Steve’s work history which included several startups that had trudged along but never really hit the big time.

The venture capitalist then looked Steve in the eye and asked: “So how come you’ve never been a winner?”

Steve was momentarily stunned but came up with what he felt was the right diplomatic and politically correct response. Afterwards, though, he confided in me at a bar mitzvah we both attended.

“What does that mean, not a winner?” Steve asked feeling both indignant and a bit bewildered. “And what right does he have to sum up my life on his own techno-financial terms? I’m not living on the street, am I? I’ve raised a family. In Jerusalem, no less.”

Steve had run head on into a mindset that we too often buy into.

How many times do we allow external forces – with or without our permission – to define our intrinsic value or our success in society...not on our terms but on theirs?

If you watch enough TV or go to the movies, how do walk out feeling about yourself? Are you rich enough? Thin enough? In love enough? It’s pretty hard to score when the odds are so stacked against you.

While I was having my conversation with Steve, another friend of mine, Josh, was making a pilot trip to Israel. He hadn’t visited in 20 years and it was his burning desire to be here, not in California where he’d raised a family and built a medical practice.

What had kept him?

Josh was dealing a different sort of external definition on what constituted success.

“The Rabbis in our community pretty much forbid anyone to move to Israel if they’ve got kids between the ages of five and 18,” Josh explained over zucchini and carrot pasta one night during his trip.

I was flabbergasted. “You’re kidding, right?” I said, but I could tell he wasn’t.

“They say coming here can be so traumatic that you’re kids will go off the religious path for sure,” Josh said.

Now, in Josh’s community, statements from Rabbis he relied on constituted more of a binding ruling than mere opinion. His even being here in Israel, checking out school and work options, was an act of rebellion in its own quiet way.

Whether Josh’s Rabbis were right or not – aliyah counselor Howie Kahn agrees with them in this article, although I still believe that a kid who’s going to go off the path will do that wherever he or she is in the world – Josh and Steve were both forced to contend with how other people view their lives.

I’ve been thinking about Josh and Steve a lot as I’ve been taking a meditation class for the last couple of months. I’ve dabbled with meditation for years. But it turns out I got it all wrong.

I always thought that meditation was about emptying your mind of all thoughts. Focusing on your breath and being peaceful and pure. But as one meditation practitioner quipped, “that’s just being dull.”

Meditation, rather, is about being mindful, and to a large extent paying attention to and identifying external stimuli, then simply noticing them for what they are – something outside of you.

And whether it’s a visceral sound like jack hammer drilling away while you’re trying to think, or a subtle voice like a Rabbi or a venture capitalist trying to define your life or career path on terms not your own, you always have a choice of how to respond.

The key is to separate facts from perceptions; to remember that the external event is not you.

Why aren’t you a winner, asked the VC to my friend? That’s the wrong attack. The real question is, why don’t you see that you already are?