Monday, August 16, 2010

Musings That Began at a Brit Milah

The following episode was told to a few of us by the son of our friends Jeff and .June. Aaron family was supposed to move out of their apartment on Tuesday – in other words, one day before we were told the story. They had been looking and looking for a new place for months, even considering our neck of the woods, Ma’ale Adumim, which, as everybody knows, is a little bit east of Yerushalayim. They had found nothing, and had decided to focus their search in certain areas in the city: Baka, Katamon, etc. Nothing doing. It was now Sunday and they had one more place to look at. Wouldn’t you know, it was overall the best apartment they had seen. They called up a moving company. “Can you move us….tomorrow?” So on Monday, while they were negotiating the details of a contract with the new landlord, the movers were carting our their belongings from the old apartment. When the contract was signed, they called the movers to bring everything over to the new apartment.
Aaron told us this story without any outward signs of acute anxiety. I leaned over the table and said to Abby and Steve, “That is so Israel!” We all agreed that an episode of this kind would almost never happen in New Jersey, but it occurs all the time here in The Land. We’ve always wondered about a certain national nonchalance, a loosey-goosey-ness, when it comes to a roof over one’s head, as compared to the need-to-plan, need-to-know months in advance that I’m familiar with. The people from whom we bought our apartment didn’t made any serious effort to find a rental in the city until absolutely the last minute. Of course, they found something. We, on the other hand, made a special trip here in May 2007 to find our first apartment, even though our aliyah wasn’t scheduled until August 1. We were perfectly happy to pay the two and a half month’s rent for an apartment before we were going to occupy it; it was worth the money to have our peace of mind, and we couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. I’m beginning to think that there must be a yekke cloud that covers the rest of the world that we know – like an ozone layer – which the Divine Illumination burns away over The Land. The problem is that sometimes we forget where we are and worry about things as if we were back in Exile. A perfect example: a post on one of the e-mail groups from a recent olah, wondering if she should start being concerned about getting herself a sukkah – which she won’t be using for another six weeks. That’s a lifetime away here in The Land. She might as well be shopping for a new rain hat or a pair of gloves!
The apartment that the junior Glazers found was conveniently located a few blocks away from where we were gathered when we heard the story, a facility named Yakar – a beit knesset and a place of learning – where the grandson of other friends, Arvin and Gila, was enduring his brit milah. The fact that I was present at this august occasion is in and of itself newsworthy because, as a rule, for a variety of reasons, some of them aesthetic, I don’t ‘do’ britot; only if it involves the families of very, very, special friends. Even so, I could be found scrunched against a wall, as far from ‘the action’ as I could get – without being outside – which was a good thing, as we were up on the second floor. But I could hear the goings-on. There is, of course, a prescribed ritual for this event – even more extensive here in The Land; and most of the attendees knew the words and the melodies by heart. I’d better bone up on all this if I ever have a grandson (no pressure!).
The deal is that after an eight day old Jewish boy’s foreskin is removed, everyone gets to eat. (Try explaining why watching this ritual should make anybody hungry.) So everyone went downstairs to the refreshments (where we got to hear the aforementioned story), catered, as is often the case, by Holy Bagel. In fact, that’s how we found the place, tucked away as it is on a small side street; we just looked for the Holy Bagel truck, and we knew we were there. Speaking again across the table to Steve and Abby, I suggested – only half in jest – that Holy Bagel should become an official sponsor of the Nefesh B’Nefesh flights. This outfit is part of the burgeoning Anglo economy here in The Land. What distinguishes them from Tal Bagels or Sam’s Bagels, or Eliyahu Hanavi’s Bagels, is that they do a thriving catering business – perfect for smaller, informal affairs: britot milah, sheva brachot, house parties, even an occasional Monday or Thursday bar mitzvah. And who’s ordering bagels, assorted spreads, cheeses, and stuff like quiches and lasagna? Moroccans? Ethiopians? Everyone coming off an NBN flight is a future Holy Bagel customer – as well as one more fact on the ground, one more potential procreator of a brit milah candidate – or a relative or friend of same.
It was one of those rare weeks when we seemed to be ‘out’ every evening. We were, though, in that ‘in-between’ time, the days between Tisha B’Av and the beginning of the next month, Elul, and even up to the weeks before Rosh Hashana. Here in The Land, these days happen when they happen; they’re not smushed in between July 4th and Labor Day. Most of the summer events are programmed for these somewhat relaxed days. Not all: the Jerusalem Film Festival with all its interesting movies is scheduled by its blatantly secular organizers to coincide with The Nine Days (leading up to Tisha B’Av) when a lot of us don’t go to movies. But that’s the exception. The grand reopening of the renovated and expanded Israel Museum was scheduled about a week later with all the appropriate hoopla, which will continue for the next several weeks.
This is also an ‘in-between’ time for us personally. Everything was essentially on hold for about a month while our daughter Natania was suffering from migraine-strength headaches with accompanying nausea. We still don’t know what caused it; possibly some mysterious virus. She is fully recovered now and back to her charming but acerbic self. She has begun writing about her travails in her own blog, and I’ll let her tell her story in her own well-chosen words. It’s not yet finished, but if anyone is interested, the link to her opus is
To make things even more stressful, not only was our daughter unable to keep any food down, our geriatric cat was refusing to eat. While Natania was sleeping on the couch in the living room, Mimi was wandering around the apartment in search of food she didn’t want. In desperation, we changed her diet from the special food prescribed for older cats with weak kidneys to equally expensive ‘gourmet cat food,’ Fancy Feast Turkey and Giblets Feast. Then we somehow figured out that she was unhappy with the metal pet food bowls she had been eating out of for years. Barbara got her some plastic bowls with a pretty design; no good. We seem to have settled on two blue plastic plates which gratify Mimi’s aesthetic sensibilities. Being old and small, she cannot eat a lot at any one time, and if the cat food stays out too long in this heat, it dries up, and someone can’t eat it. So every hour or so, we put out a tablespoon of food, mixed with her medicine and occasionally some chicken fat. When she wants more, she lets us know. We are thinking of getting her a dinner bell.
Next week, Barbara will be heading back to The States, once again to help her mother, now moved to a semi-assisted-living program in Maryland, try to settle in. So in this ‘in-between’ time, we have a few weeks to do some fun things, and, yes, we will do them, by golly, by gumbo!.
We started out with a bang that Monday at the International Arts and Crafts Festival, which has been held for the last thirty-five years at Khutsot Hayotser,. As far as I can figure out, ‘Khutsot’ means open spaces, and that just about describes it: a lot of room for artists and craftspeople, located south of the Old City walls, adjacent to the tower of David. They need lots of room because there are 150 participating Israeli artists, plus exhibits from thirty countries, plus a lot of food (a lot of food!), plus a number of stages for musical performances, plus the main venue, an amphitheater in the area called the Sultan’s Pool (don’t ask me what sultan or what pool) where they have a featured concert every night. That’s a lot of room for a lot of people to wander around in, and you’re sure to meet somebody you know – even your family doctor. This year we kept running into people we knew from Teaneck; I guess it is an international festival after all.
You just walk around. If you see something that is really intriguing, you can buy it; if not, there are all these temporary displays where you can go window shopping for ceramics, jewelry, works in metal, glass, leather, fabric, or wood; plus funky stuff like hammocks or exotic doorbells. When you get hungry, you can stop to eat; when you get tired, you can stop and listen to a jazz ensemble, or a band from Colombia or Poland. When you’ve had enough, you leave; no matter when that is, more people will be arriving. I do not know the official attendance, but if you told me that over the two weeks they’re open a quarter of a million people show up, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash.
The next night at the office of Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, the crowd was a little smaller; just a tad. Their new quarters in Talpiot has a lot of wall space and they are using that as an art gallery – a precious commodity anywhere, especially here. The current exhibition features the work of a water colorist, a digital photographer, and a young man who is doing cabbalistic drawings as part of his effort to find his place in the Jewish world. The official opening of the exhibit was several weeks ago, but this was an ‘Artists Speak’ evening – an effort to bring in additional people to see the work. Was it worth it, all the work involved to attract fifteen or twenty people? That’s the question I posed to Donna, the woman in charge of ‘the committee,’ after the formal presentations were over. During our conversation, Donna figured out that she could use someone who has had experience working with other artists and mounting exhibitions, so, with no effort on my part, I managed to get myself drafted onto her committee.
I must be working on the principle that the more fingers you have in the pie, the more you’ll get done (or at least, the stickier your hands will be). As of March, I had one project on the fire: revising the translations Rabbi M. is doing for a yeshiva here. In April I took on a second task, tutoring students at Hebrew U. in the intricacies of the English language, one of the few things I know for sure. Then last month, I again stepped up to the plate; a well-know non-profit organization took out an ad in the Jerusalem Post asking for writers to help them make their English language material literate. It’s too late for what’s on their website now, but I’m supposed to be working with them the next go around.
I thought I had enough to do, but wouldn’t you know it: a recent olah remembered that one of the works I had edited was a haggadah for ‘the yeshiva here.’ She must have a good memory because that was two years ago and the printed version has still not arrived at the bookstores. Anyway, she works with publishers in The States, and a small outfit there was also looking for an editor for their haggadah; would I, she asked, be interested, hinting that I might even get paid for this project. “Paid, what a novel idea!” Once again, I will be dealing with terminology like “process of rectification” and “Divine concealment,” and concepts like “attributes of justice” which are always getting into an argument about how long the yidden were supposed to be in Egypt. As long as I still have time for my afternoon nap……
Back to my story. We have disposed of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings. Thursday would be the topper, the annual wine festival in the sculpture garden at the Israel Museum. Oh joy! But first, there were some every day type activities to attend to. I would head into Jerusalem for my monthly trip to the chiropractor, who would attend to my chronically stiff lower back and loosen my right arm – the one that spends long hours massaging a wireless mouse. Then around the corner to Mahane Yehuda, to buy the victuals to feed, nay, to stuff family and friends who join us for a Shabbat meal. I have written copiously about the wonders of the shuk and how it is slowly changing. What I saw this day says it all. But you have to cooperate and imagine you’re seeing what I’m going to describe to you. As you would expect, it was a hot day. No, it was a very hot day, and in the middle of my shopping I stopped for an iced coffee at a new stall which sells specialty ice cream and slushy drinks.. I was in the ‘closed’ part of the shuk – covered with an ancient plastic roof – where the passageway is never more than fifteen feet wide; and I was standing on the side, trying to keep from being knocked over by the on-coming traffic. On my left was one of the newest businesses, purveyors of high end jewelry – the only one of its kind. And the owners have fixed it up beautifully: it’s the only stall in the shuk with parquet wooden floors. It could just as easily be in Tel Aviv or the Upper East Side of Manhattan. (Imagine what it looks like.) Diagonally opposite is a fish store, not the only one of its kind, in fact, a typical fish store that you find in the shuk or a lot of other places. (Imagine what this must look like.) One of the men who works there is a burly guy in a tee-shirt. And what is he doing as I’m watching and slurping my iced coffee: he has taken the hose, the one that is used to wash off the fish, and he is spraying water over his head. (I said it was a very hot day!)
On to the wine festival!!! (Who’s excited?) OK, there are other wine tastings I’ve been to that I remember fondly, especially the ones in Teaneck. We would go over to Beth Aaron on a Sunday night, and there would be a bunch of distributors with kosher wines from all over the world. They’d give you a plastic cup and, for a half an hour or an hour, you’d walk around the room sampling this and that; and at some point, either than evening or later, you’d place your order. You’d get a discount; the shul would get a cut. If you were smart enough to show up near the end, you might get to take home a few half empty bottles of good wine; a nice touch.
At the Jerusalem festival, you pay sixty shekels to get in. But…….with your admission, you are given a large crystal wine goblet (courtesy of the Avi Ben wine shops) which you use all through the evening and which you take home with you (no one, absolutely no one, leaves his behind). Crystal goblet in hand, you are free to spend the entire evening – up until 11PM – wandering through the sculpture gardens and environs, chatting with friends (and we had many friends there), eating the cheeses which you brought from home or you bought there (or the sushi or the cupcakes and chocolates), listening to American jazz (thank G-d, no Israeli music!), admiring the view of Yerushalayim, and sampling as much wine as you are able to consume – without dropping your crystal goblet. Let me give you two numbers to consider. There were thirty two Israeli wineries at the festival, which is almost all of the important ones. If I counted correctly from my program, there were one hundred and forty two different wines available to sample. If anybody was able to get to every booth and try every one of the one hundred and forty two , he’s a better man than I am. (It’s actually slightly less because a few of the wineries are not kosher.) One of the reasons I never get plastered is that my body shuts down at a certain point – whether it’s Scotch or wine – and I can’t drink anymore, so some of the booths were unvisited and many of the offerings went unsampled. (Plus, I have to be in shape for the Jerusalem Beer Festival next week which features 100 types of beer from all over the world.) Whether other people have this built in mechanism, I can’t say. What I can say is that there were a lot of seriously mellow people there. Thursday night is date night all over Israel, and there were so many young couples enjoying a romantic evening. The trick for people of my generation is, if you have enough wine, you don’t mind being the oldest person (well, one of the oldest) in the throng. Nobody else, young or old, was wearing an official wine tasting t-shirt [“sophisticated, complex, with lots of character (enough about me – let’s drink wine)”]. One fellow was so impressed, he asked if he could take a picture of my shirt with his cell phone. If I ever get a call on my cell from another t-shirt, I’ll know what it’s all about.
My original plan was to end this article right about here, but something of note came up, and I must, simply must, comment on it. It was the following Monday afternoon, and I was doing whatever I was doing when the phone rang. It was my wife and chief push-me-out-of-the-house-er. Did I want to head over to Mahane Yehuda for the larger-than-life puppet show? Well, who wouldn’t. So Barbara, Natania, and I reconnoitered for a light repast at our favorite smaller-than-our-dining-room, vegetarian Indian restaurant, just outside the shuk. The area was already more crowded than you’d like it to be as I arrived, and by the time we finished eating and turned our attention to the attraction at hand, it was more crowded than you thought it was possible to be. A small price to pay for a lesson in the care and feeding of do-it-yourself almost-as-big-as-a-dirigible sized puppets. We are talking about objects that are fifteen to twenty feet tall and which need a handful of people each to maneuver and to operate them. And…..we are talking about objects made almost exclusively from items found or purchased in the shuk itself: plastic baskets and kitchen ware, fabrics, used containers and discarded pickle and olive tins. There was one puppet made entirely out of oddly shaped loaves of bread and another made of discarded cartons that looked like a refugee from one of the refuse carts that trample their way through the alleyways picking up garbage and removing peoples’ toes. All of these dinosaur sized Muppets gamboled around the wider open shuk, to the delight of the assembled throngs. The rest of the shuk, the smaller Etz Chaim Street and the connecting alleyways were all mobbed with people. When we decided that we had had enough, it took us twenty minutes to make our way to the iced coffee place, a two to five minute journey. I asked the server for a BIG container; I figured that I had deserved it.
You can always find a larger meaning in things, if you work at it—especially if your mind works at warp speed the way mine does. As I postulated several thousand words ago, ‘that is so Israel.’ One can take things that no one else wants, things that would seem to have no intrinsic value, and make something from that, and everyone goes “ooh” and “ah.” That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the modern State of Israel. That is what has been going on here in The Land for two thousand years and more. Everyone – the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, the Muslims – understood that there was something very special about Jerusalem, and something very, very, special about the Temple Mount. That holiness they certainly wanted one way or another, either to trash it or to bring in their own brand of worship. But The Land itself? Whether you ascribe it to a Divine Decree or an inherent lack of interest by the Nations, it is unquestionable that The Land remained desolate and fallow during all the centuries when we were not here to tend the garden. It is also unquestionable that the sudden interest the Nations took in this tiny, decrepit bit of land coincided roughly with an ingathering that began with the followers the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon around 1840 CE and has continued until this very day. The common explanation for the European involvement is that, seeing the obvious weakening of the Byzantine Empire, each country wanted to get a foothold in Jerusalem, and that’s why they acquired land and established a presence here. Fine. But how does that explain why was there so much effort put into missionary work to convert the impoverished Jewish community in Jerusalem? Why was it so important that Jews not be here?
The way I see it, the instant that the Nations noticed that we were showing an interest in returning to our Homeland, they became interested too. If we wanted it, it must be worth something – even if they couldn’t figure out what it was. And once we showed them what could be done with what is essentially a rock filled sand pile………… Obviously, there’s more to the world’s current obsession with condemning Israel for anything and everything, but that is, to my mind, a healthy (or better, an unhealthy) part of the reason.
We’re back in the shuk watching the oversized puppets – made from who-knows-what with a lot of time and effort. Suddenly, a bunch of people who were standing around, not doing much of anything, come over and start insisting that it’s their puppets because some of the olive tins and discarded containers had been theirs, and they keep repeating mantra-like that the puppets belong to them. At first, few people pay attention, but after a while people begin to fall in line with the Puppet Liberation Organization. Soon committees are being formed to divvy up the puppets; it’s only fair, isn’t it? Someone draws a line down the middle of Mahane Yehuda; anything on this side belongs to this group; anything on that side……….
Would someone do me a HUGE favor. Wake me up and tell me I’m dreaming.

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