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.