Saturday, December 29, 2007

It Happened Here Part 2

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

I’ve always had a fond feeling for this little haiku-like poem by Carl Sandberg, perhaps because it was the subject of the most successful lesson I taught in my short career as an eighth grade English teacher. Understand that it had nothing to do with me; my assistant principal, Alice Zeghers, was “observing” my class, and so, of course, for the only time in my short career as an eighth grade English teacher, there was not an inappropriate peep from any of my students – which only served to reinforce my sense that teaching eighth grade boys and girls was not going to be my life’s work.
In any event, it seems an appropriate way to describe the advent of Hanukkah here in The Land, a little bit east of Yerushalayim. Unlike in America, where the “Holiday Season” arrives with great fanfare, or as with our own major holidays: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach, where there is a buzz in the air and mucho preparation, Hanukkah does seem to creep up on you until it’s in your face, like certain cats I have known and loved. And that’s part of the charm of Hanukkah here: it’s not considered more important than “the biggies;” it’s free to be what it is and no more, playing a supporting role in the calendar of holidays – instead of having to be our “answer” to Xmas. Imagine someone who bats seventh in the lineup who is one day asked to be the cleanup hitter and carry the team in The World Series, or a woman who is usually cast as one of the Three Witches who has to take over for Lady Macbeth when the leading lady is indisposed. Maybe they were just good enough to be at the bottom of the batting order, or charismatic enough to recite “Double, double toil and trouble…..” every night.
Just about one month before Chanukkah, you begin to notice sufganiyot in the midst of the other cookies and pastries displayed in the ubiquitous bakeries throughout The Land. One day, they’re not there, the next day they are – sort of like spring crocuses in most of America. Usually, the Jerusalem Post, as a public service, does a taste-testing, sampling the wares of some of the most popular places in the Jerusalem area. (In fact, I remember reading last year’s review –generally very negative – and sighing wistfully that we still had seven or eight months to go before aliyah.) This year, for reasons unknown, the JPost did not perform this essential service. Never fear, Fred is here! Your intrepid blogger, capably assisted by daughter Natania, went about to do his own review. (Why else did we make aliyah, if not to help out?)
Now you might wonder, wouldn’t that be dangerous to one’s waist line, eating all those calorie-laden jelly donuts? Actually not. The first thing to understand is that you are dealing with something like the buttered bread syndrome: if you drop a piece of bread which has butter on it, invariably it will land butter side down. If you bite into a sufganiyah, the jelly inside will immediately begin a downward trajectory, especially if you are standing while eating – which is most of the time in today’s hustle-bustle world. Of course, the jelly will not go straight down to the floor. No way! First the jelly will go sort of sideways, landing on your shirt or blouse. Then it will find its way to your pocket book, the book bag you have draped over your shoulder, or anything else you are carrying. From there, it will slide down to your pants or skirt, and then to your shoes, before finally reaching the ground. On the other hand, the white powder on top of the donuts travels horizontally. If you come within five feet of a counter with several dozen donuts – especially if you are wearing dark clothing – the powder will begin a migratory flight in your direction, until you look like a walking advertisement for Head and Shoulders shampoo. So what you wind up eating of the sufganiyah is mostly the bland dough, not all that fattening.
Even so, there was no way that Natania and I could sample the products of every purveyor in Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, so there were a few places of note that we never got to. We did, however, munch samples from such places as Marzipan (a highly regarded producer of pastries on the outside of the MahaneYeduda market), Peer (a somewhat less known bakery in the closed part of the shuk, which makes hands-down the best challah that I have ever tasted) a few other places in the shuk (which you have to find by location as they usually don’t bother to advertise their names), a marvelous French patisserie on King George St., and by way of a contrast, a boxful from MisterZol – six for fifteen shekels – right here in Maale Adumim. (By the way, the word for supermarket in Modern Hebrew is “supermarket,” usually shortened to “super,” and pronounced “superrrrrrrrr,” as in “I’m going to the superrrrrrrr,” or “they have it at the superrrrrrrrr.” Most of us Anglos have a very difficult time trying to roll our “reshes,” especially those of us for whom final r’s have become vowel sounds.) But by far the best sufganiyot we sampled was from Maafa Ne’eman, in our mall and throughout Jerusalem: the dough was tasty, the jelly was plentiful and not the same commercial glop we found in every other product. I am making a standing offer to anyone out there: Natania will be in the I.D.F. starting in February, and I will be in desperate need of an assistant for next year’s taste-testing –whether or not the JPost resumes its review.
The next sure sign that Hanukkah is coming is the availability of candles about two weeks before. We found a guy selling boxesful for seven shekels on the sidewalk outside the shuk. A few days before, you can find street vendors selling simple, tasteful, hanukkiot for about as little as fifteen shekels (the fancy Judaica shops have tasteful, expensive ones for sale all year ‘round.) And, of course, there are the large, public ones throughout The Land. The biggest one I heard about was in the municipal square in Jerusalem: something like six stories high made of corrugated metal. It goes without saying that in a country where the most ubiquitous face remains that of “The (late Lubavitch) Rebbe,” Chabad got into the act. Hundreds of metal hanukkiot, about eight feet high, and lit by electricity were placed in malls, municipal centers, and facilities all over The Land. Lest you think that Chabad hanukkiot are a source of controversy only in The West, here is a quote from an article in the Haaretz magazine (a publication which goes out of its way to find points that it can miss) by one Ariel Hirschfield, entitled “Dim Light:” “The Chabad hanukkiot….are the personification of a total absence of viewpoint; they are a cheap industrial product that emits industrial-contemporary-global anonymity in all its nakedness.” (Stop that runaway metaphor!) If you think that this pontification is weird, consider the campaign by one of the more extreme environmental groups here, to light one fewer candle each night in order to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide pollution! A competitor group thought that this suggestion was too extreme, so it suggested that everyone light the appropriate number of candles, but place an additional, green candle in their hanukkiah – but don’t light it. What I derive from all this, is that in a nation of Torah giants and Nobel prize-winning economists, we have our share of fools as well; that people who are trying to turn political social, or ecological concerns, valid or invalid, into secular religions are – whether they realize it or not -- waging the same war against our religion as did the Hellenists, whose defeat we celebrate precisely at this time every year; and that no matter how much light you try to spread, there will always be somebody ready to pour cold water over it.
We did have ulpan the first day of the holiday in order to have an ulpan-wide Hanukkah party. However, we did have a few hours of class first. Our teacher, Ora, wrote on the board the words of the song “Sivivon,” (Sivivon, sov, sov, sov, Hanukkah hu hag tov…….) and after explaining the words, asked students to provide a translation in their mother tongue (we have students from Italy, Slovenia, Holland, and France in our class) which she wrote on the board in Hebrew letters. (Are you with me so far?) So we had a slew of translations in all these languages, as well as Arabic. What about English? Now normally in ulpan my brain while thinking in Hebrew is working with the efficiency of a very large truck going up a very steep hill, but just then I was being asked to think in English, and suddenly the very large truck was now going downhill. So fifteen seconds later, I asked the teacher if she wanted a “free translation.” Whereupon I recited the following: “Little top, spin, spin, spin, Get a gimel, and you win…….” But I needed a second stanza, so I further improvised, “Spinning tops everywhere, Miracles happened there….” Except that Ora quickly reminded me that I was now in The Land, and the dreidels here say “Nes gadol haya po,” instead of “haya sham” as Jews have been saying for all these years of painful exile. What to do? Well, how about “Spinning tops, far and near, MIRACLES HAPPENED HERE.” Last year, we were far (as in Teaneck, NJ.) This year, we are near (as in Maale Adumim.) You may consider our coming Home a “nes gadol,” a “nes katan,” or no “nes” at all, depending on your point of view. But I also have a point of view, very far removed from industrial-contemporary-global anonymity. To my way of thinking, there are such things as miracles, and miracles are never anonymous, because to Our Creator, no one is anonymous. And nowhere can you be less anonymous than in The Land, where everyday a miracle occurs to someone who takes the trouble to see it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It Happened Here - Part 1

Sometimes it’s the little things that help you bridge the gap between what you “know,” and what you appreciate. A recent example:
We were again in Tel Aviv the Sunday during Hannukah to visit with Tina, and for all of us to go see an exhibit at Beth Hatfusoth (The Diaspora Museum) about Soviet refuseniks and their struggle to escape the Iron Curtain. The exhibit began by documenting the role of Jewish Bolsheviks in creating a Communist government in Russia and the inevitable follow-up: the replacement of Czarist anti-Semitism with Stalinist anti-Semitism. From there, it traced the burgeoning of a Zionist movement, essentially from Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, until the demise of the Soviet Union. There were photographs and accompanying biographies of refuseniks, film clips, underground self-published books, posters, paintings, prisoners’ uniforms, religious articles, typewriters, and materials to learn Hebrew. All that was missing was the indescribable: the fear, the danger, the hunger, the cold, the isolation of a tiny minority defying one of the most terrifying totalitarian governments the world has ever known. Some of Tina’s relatives were real authentic refuseniks, and I thought it would be useful for her to see the history of the struggle before 1992 when she was born in Odessa. For Barbara and me, it was a trip down memory lane, at least the last part of the show, which dealt with the international support for Soviet Jewry, as the two of us marched in many of the Solidarity Sunday demonstrations in New York. (I still have a print of a large throng of people gathered at the UN, watching on a giant screen (then) Anatoly Scharansky when he was first released from the Soviet gulag. It seems like yesterday that we were there; and now I can see him, as Natan Scharansky, in person at demonstrations here in Israel.)
Our lunch at the museum was meager. (I think for the sake of authenticity they were using “The Refuseniks’ Cookbook for their menu planning: “place one potato in four liters of boiling water…”) So after Tina went back to await a shipment of furniture from Ikea for her new apartment, Barbara, Natania, and I went off in search of something more substantial to eat. Barbara had discovered a rather upscale mall about two blocks from the Tel Aviv University campus (I consider any mall which has a demo model of a Lexus hybrid on its first floor as qualifying for “upscale” status), and we trotted off in the hopes of finding some place, anyplace, that was kosher – this being Tel Aviv. Imagine our astonishment when the woman at the information booth told Barbara that all the eating establishments there were kosher (which probably meant that the entire mall was closed on Shabbat -- even more amazing for Tel Aviv.) We sent Natania up to check out the food court on the second floor, while Barbara and I went searching for a plastic spatula in a very fancy kitchenware store. Unlike the “meraglim” in The Bible, Natania came back with a favorable report. After much indecision, we wound up with some decent take-out level Chinese food. When we finished, we went back down to the ground level to leave – we simply wanted to get back to Maale Adumim to commence the sixth night of the holiday. As we were walking, we noticed a guy wheeling a portable, four foot high hanukkiah – just lit – to where it would be displayed. We could hear singing a little bit ahead of us, and we came upon a bunch of Chabadniks and a few “friends of Chabadniks,” all of whom had been involved in lighting the Hanukkah lights in this upscale mall in Tel Aviv (while I was obliviously snarfing some Szechuan chicken.)
I must have had one foot still on Memory Lane, because the sight of the Chabadniks and the hanukkiah brought me back some twenty years in time to when we were living in Caldwell, NJ and we had gone the Willowbrook Mall for the first ever candle lighting ceremony there, organized by Chabad in Morristown. (I remember photographing that as well, but none of my negatives looked promising and I tossed them.) I could picture that mall in my mind’s eye and I began to consider what a mall would look like this time of year – if we were back in New Jersey.
Now on a number of occasions, we had discussed the obvious fact that Xmas is hardly noticeable in Jerusalem (even though the municipality gives out FREE Xmas trees to anyone who wants one), but my point is that there is a vast difference between knowing something superficially and understanding its consequences. For the first time, I started to visualize what it would be like and how it would feel and how it would sound like on that December day if we were suddenly transported back to The States. What would it be like wading through the crowds at the Garden State Plaza? What music would I be hearing while maneuvering my cart down the aisles of the Shoprite in Englewood (where they have a Xmas tree and a big electric menorah in the parking lot all through December) or on “light FM” in my chiropractor’s waiting room in Bergenfield? And then the floodgates opened in my mind, and for the next several hours all the Xmas music I have ever heard since I was a boy – all the stuff about reindeers, and sleds, and snow, and winter wonderlands, that the gentile teachers at P.S. 80 felt obliged to teach us Jewish kids -- began racing and crashing through my brain until I was finally able to gain control and turn it off.
I was eating breakfast the following morning, idly flipping (in Hebrew, “ledafdef”) through The Jerusalem Post, when I came across an article entitled “The Three Reindeer Rule,” in which columnist Marilyn Henry described December in America as “the month of conflict and confusion over religious symbols in the public square and hurt feelings over holiday greetings.” I began to skim through the article, stopping abruptly in column four when I realized that Teaneck, my old home town, was mentioned: it seems that a divided town council there decided to add a crèche to their seasonal display, as opposed to removing the “menorah” (I imagine leaving only the Xmas Tree by itself.) The article describes the contortions that communities have gone through in dealing with visual symbols of “The Holidays” that would please their conflicted constituents and satisfy the often contradictory rulings of the American legal system. One town, Briarcliff Manor, wound up displaying a twenty five foot high Xmas tree and a six foot high dreidel! (Why not a plastic Santa Claus with a Kwanzaa symbol on his chest carrying a sack full of little dreidels? (Somebody please suggest this to Elie Katz [the mayor of Teaneck, himself a religious Jew.])
Please understand that one of America’s greatest contributions to Western Civilization – in addition to sliced bread and perhaps Al Gore’s invention of the internet – is the incredible concept of “secular” symbols of religion. The Supreme Court ruled twenty years ago that “both Christmas and Hanukka are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society.” In other words, if you add “three reindeer” to a Xmas display, then it is no longer a symbol of Christianity, but part of “The Holidays,” to which everyone is invited, and by which nobody should be offended. Join the party! You can even bring your own music! (Most of the seasonal music that you hear in December in America was written by Jews: not only the incomparable Irving Berlin, but lesser lights like Johnnie Marks, who fashioned an entire career out of writing tunes like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”)
You see, the Greeks had it all wrong. Forbidding a stiff-necked people to practice its religion will only get you something like a civil war. The American system, on the other hand, without even trying, has accomplished much more in destroying the religious fiber of the Jewish people – just by being nice (as in “Have a nice day!”)
I remember when Chabad began its campaign of placing hanukkah lights in public places – as much to reach out to their co-religionists as to publicize the miracle of this holiday to the gentiles of the world. And I remember the furor this campaign created. I will never forget a short speech delivered by a young woman who had just become a bat mitzvah who said that the modern day Maccabees were those Jews who were fighting the Chabadniks, so that there would be no hanukkiot allowed anywhere except in synagogues and private homes. Now you can think whatever you want about the legality and the efficacy of lighting hanukkah candles in malls, parks, and bridges. That’s not the point. The issue is, what would a modern day Maccabee do? Or better still, who might qualify as a modern day Maccabee? Who could be seen as being G-d’s agents in delivering “the strong into the power of the weak, the many into the power of the few, the impure into the power of the pure, the wicked into the power of the righteous, and the sacrilegious into the power of those immersed in Torah…” Or, in modern parlance, what few people did the most to bring down an Evil Empire? If you’re not sure of the answer, please return to the top and reread paragraph one. And what is the correct answer to the question: what would a modern day Maccabee do about the vexing issue of Hanukkah lights on public property in America? Would it be impertinent to suggest that most modern day Maccabees do not live in America?
For more about Hanukkah in Israel you will have to wait for part 2 of this article, coming soon to a computer near you.
(A brief postscript for all you cat-lovers: About a month ago, a friend of ours was walking back from our local MisterZol with her shopping bags of food. She stopped to rest along the way, and suddenly a forlorn, emaciated little kitten ran over to her and started meowing. The message was clear:”take me home or I will die of starvation.” Our friend put the kitten in her bag and proceeded home. Last week, our friend told us that she would have to return to The States on business for several weeks, and would we mind dropping into her apartment once a day to feed the cat and deal with the litter. Barbara, who is always getting into trouble over cats, decided that the now much bigger kitten would be lonely if left alone for several weeks. So she suggested that we keep him in our house. Our fourteen year old cat, Mimi, was not too happy with this idea, but we did it anyway. After a day or so, Mimi and Witty Kitty [don’t blame me; that’s what Yaffa named him] have come to some kind of understanding: Mimi is on our beds, and WK is in a shoe box under our beds. The only problem is that WK eats Mimi’s food, into which Barbara puts Mimi’s high blood pressure medication. The solution? Place the food where Mimi can get to it, but not WK. Now Mimi can no longer jump at all; she gets on our beds by climbing onto a plastic container which Barbara placed at the foot of her bed, and from there, she can climb up. WK is still too small to jump onto our bed, even using the container. So Barbara has been covering her bed during the day with newspaper and putting Mimi’s food bowl on top. I woke up this morning, and there was Mimi a few feet from me, snarfing down her morning meal. I called out to Barbara, “I’ve heard of breakfast in bed but this is ridiculous!”)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Ehud Olmert and Abraham Lincoln

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
For our tenth grade project in our American History honors class in DeWitt Clinton H.S., our teacher, Mrs. Wilson, would require from each student a term paper on a presidential election. She had the election years written on separate cards, which she would distribute at random to everyone in the class. Some poor shnook drew 1880: James Garfield (R) vs. Winfield Hancock (D). (Imagine finding information about Winfield Hancock!) But I was fortunate: I was given 1860, which meant I had a lot to write about and zillions of reference books. Now my question to you is: whom did Abraham Lincoln run against in 1860? (I’m assuming that most of you who were born in the U.S. know that Lincoln won the presidency in 1860. Please don’t prove me wrong.) If your answer is Stephen Douglas, you are partially correct. In fact, Lincoln and Douglas contested the North, and two other candidates now consigned to the dustbins of history, John Bell and John Breckenridge campaigned in the South, with the result that Lincoln won handily. Breckinridge had the second most electoral votes, Bell the third, and Douglas – who is still remembered for his debates with Lincoln – was almost shut out.
I can reasonably trace my life-long fascination with America’s 16th president to my efforts in the tenth grade, when my only purpose was to get a respectable grade from Mrs. Wilson. But I now understand that Abraham Lincoln was one of the great political leaders in world history and perhaps one of the dozen or so greatest writers of English prose. Have you ever visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC? OK, it’s not the Kotel or Kever Rachel, but it is an inspiring experience, especially if you choose to read the words of the Getttysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address (the ending of which is quoted above), and reflect on how much his words speak to us to today.
Imagine if, after his election in 1860 when the South seceded from the Union, Lincoln had let them go: “take your cotton and your slaves and be gone!” Consider the consequences of having two hostile nations: a vastly diminished United States of America and The Confederate States of America, instead of one great nation. (And because there were only three states west of the Mississippi in 1860, there might even have been three or more nations in the area between The Atlantic and The Pacific.)
Lest you think that all this is interesting but irrelevant to your life, consider the following: if instead of one United States, there were two essentially hostile nations side by side, would either have had the interest in allowing mass immigration on a scale previously unimaginable? When my grandparents arrived in New York sometime around 1885, they would be among some 2 million Jews (and 25 million gentiles) who would emigrate from Europe between 1880 and 1924, when the gates to The New World were shut tight by immigration restriction. Most of those Jewish families would have had to remain in Europe: two million more potential sacrificial lambs to the Cossacks, the Communists, or the Nazis.
And consider this: only a truly United States would have had the strength to intervene – not once, but twice – in the 20th century European maelstroms that would have destroyed the world. We know that the Roosevelt administration did almost nothing to save Jewish lives when we were dying by the thousands every day (if you think that recent secretaries of state have been unfriendly, consider for a moment one Jew-hater named Breckenridge Long, who served under Roosevelt, and who more than anyone else at the time was responsible for blocking the entry of Jewish refugees.) But The United States, with the help of “The Allies,” did ultimately stop The Nazis, shutting their gas chambers once and for all, leaving enough Jews alive to form a fledgling state in our ancestral homeland.
I have been thinking recently about these events in American history, but in a very different context. Last Monday night, Barbara, Natania, and I got on a bus in front of the shopping mall in Maale Adumim to participate in our very first political demonstration as citizens of our new country. “One Jerusalem” organized what turned out to be relatively small indoor rally at The Haas Promenade (a site on the southern part of the city which overlooks most of Jerusalem including The Old City.) against even the thought of dividing Jerusalem -- as part of a “two-state solution.” But we got to hear Natan Sharansky speak, (another man for whom I have the most profound respect) and Shuli Natan (the original singer of Naomi Shemer’s “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”) perform. (May I respectfully suggest that hearing that song performed in Jerusalem, overlooking the Old City at night, at a time when “friends” and enemies are considering the fate of our ancient capital, creates a perspective which is simply unobtainable in Flatbush, Teaneck, or Baltimore?)
After the music and the speeches, the 500 people in attendance went outside to witness a laser show, which was the major point of the evening. We watched a demonstration of how close to kassam rockets (less than ten kilometers) all of Jerusalem would be: The Kotel, The King David Hotel, Hebrew University, The Knesset, Ben Yehuda St. – if Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem were turned over to a hostile entity.
As I watched this simulation, I began to consider how we came to this point whereby unless we stop them – and we will – the Israeli government would join the nations of the world in giving away our land and our safety. Was it not about a dozen or years ago that a retired and out of work Ariel Sharon took the then governor of Texas, George W. Bush, on a helicopter tour of Israel to point out – as Sharon had done on many previous occasions to other American officials – how tiny Israel actually is? When Sharon showed Bush how undefendable Israel would be in its pre-1967 borders (something like nine miles wide at its narrowest point), Bush is reputed to have remarked that there were driveways in Texas bigger than that. (That might be an overstatement as a point of fact, but I am told that there is at least one ranch in Texas as big as pre-1967 Israel.)
(And while I am on the subject, consider this: we are most recently from New Jersey, a state which has certain similarities to Israel. They are about the same size; they are both long and thin; they both have certain areas in which few people live [The Negev and The Pine Barrens]; in both places, most of the population is concentrated in one area [the coastal area around Tel Aviv and the northeastern area near New York City.] Now, if somebody had the bright idea of taking four or five counties in New Jersey [maybe west of Morristown or south of exit 7 on The Turnpike] and making them, not just another state, but another country, how far would that idea get? I remember a few years ago when there was talk of Staten Islanders wanting to become a separate city, where that notion went. America is still the country of Abraham Lincoln, and secession is still a dirty word.)
While it is easy to blame the American president and his secretary of state for the farce called Annapolis, remember that it was Ariel Sharon who blinked first with his “security fence,” which would be seen as the de facto borders between Israel and a “Palestinian” state. Of course, Condi Rice has since decided to run with this insanity as if it were her own private football. Why someone who has a Ph.D. would not understand that creating a politically unstable nation state on Israel’s borders, one which has no economy to speak of, too many people for a tiny area, and where two rival factions are intent on killing each other – let alone its Jewish neighbors – is not a good idea eludes me. I guess some people are too smart for their own good.
As place after place in Jerusalem was lit up by laser as the focal point of a simulated attack by even the most primitive rockets, thoughts about Abe Lincoln began to percolate slowly in my brain. You can say that he was the first leader – in very trying times – to reject the “two-state solution.” Perhaps we should consider the validity and urgency of his words, “…with firmness in the right, as G-d gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in….” For us this must be the building and defending of the Jewish state which was founded in even more trying times sixty years ago. And may we then “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all other nations.”
And let us say “Amen.”

Sunday, November 25, 2007

License-ious Behavior

Part One
My parents were always a little out of the ordinary, out-of-the-box, in their own quiet way. I’m certain that they were the only Jewish square dancers in the Bronx. They were not the only Jewish hikers in the area (there was after all at least one Jewish hiking club, The New York Ramblers, in which my father was a charter member) but they were in a distinct minority. They travelled all over the tri-state area (NY, NJ, and CN) occasionally through the kindness of others, but mostly by public transportation. In short, they never drove and never owned a car. This put me at a distinct disadvantage in the late 1950’s. All of us were in college, and all my friends were getting their driving licenses and getting cars of their own. Even my fraternal twin brother Frank got his license. (I distinctly remember the series of old cars – usually Pontiacs -- he bought, all of which he was still paying for long after each of them had found its final resting place in automotive heaven.) But I could never get it together to get a license. A number of years later when I was working, I finally made the effort. And let me tell you, getting a drivers license in New York City was definitely an effort, trying to overcome enormous bureaucratic inertia. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that they were doing you a favor by granting you a license. After you had spent the time to get your learner’s permit and the money for driving lessons, you would be confronted with a grim-faced motor vehicle inspector who would take you out for your test drive. He had a scorecard on which he silently deducted points for everything you did wrong. A week or ten days later, you would receive the results in the mail with cryptic comments like “poor motor control.” You may assume – correctly – that I failed the test several times until I gave up in disgust. It seemed I was destined for permanent pedestrian status.
Years later, when Barbara and I got married, it was a package deal: I brought to the marriage three cats (Bonnie, Clyde, and Lulubelle), while she had a car, having obtained a drivers license in “grad school” in Minnesota. After driving me around for several months, Barbara informed me that our ketubah did not include her being my chauffeur for life. So, once again, I was back to driving lessons. At least this time I had a car in which to practice driving and the encouragement of a loving wife. Finally, I had my driver’s license – first from New York and then from New Jersey.
Let’s fast-forward this reverie to October 2007, at which time Fred, Barbara, and Natania were now A Little Bit East of Yerushalayim and were ready to get Israeli driving licenses. Understand that a) you can drive here for one full year with your American license, and b) we’re not planning to get a car anytime soon, so it was just one more thing we were doing to get it done and out of the way. I’ll spare you the boring details of all the steps required in this process: from going to the Jerusalem (Malka) Mall in the southern part of the city to get our eyes checked, to our visits to various offices and post offices to process our paper work. What you need to know is that if you have a foreign driver’s license, you must take a mandatory forty minute lesson, reviewing the rules of the road, before you are permitted to take your driving test – even if you had spent thirty years as a cabbie in New York City. What you need is an instructor who will give you the lesson and arrange for you to take your test in his car on the same day. We got a recommendation from our friend Steve Leichman, called the teacher, and were given a date for our lesson and test. I should also add that this is not a solitary venture: both the lesson and the test are done with three “students” in the car. This arrangement worked for the Leichmans, and since we are three, it worked for us. So on a Tuesday, our man picked us up at our Ulpan in “downtown” Jerusalem, and we drove down to the Talpiot neighborhood where we would take our lessons and our tests.
One more thing to mention: in all the time that the three of us have been in Israel, none of us has ever driven a car here. Like my parents, we have always gotten around either through the kindness of others or by taking buses all over the place. Nor had we given the slightest thought to how the road signs look or where they are placed, or how traffic flows – with all the traffic circles and two-way streets becoming one way, very different from driving in NJ. The fact that we had no idea how one drives in Israel was painfully obvious during our lesson, as we all failed to notice road signs in plain sight.
Finally, we were ready for our tests. I drove into the parking lot of the motor vehicle bureau. Our instructor got out of the car, and the inspector got in. Unlike the instructors of my youth, she had no scorecard, nor did she appear to be especially menacing. Fortunately, she did speak English, so we didn’t have to process and respond to “smola” and “yamina” while driving on our best behavior. Nonetheless, we all did poorly. I was the first to go. My problem was that our instructor’s car had brakes that were ultra-tight, so that every time I slowed down for a speed bump, I was braking much too hard – something which the lady tester noticed and told me in no uncertain terms that I could cause an accident. One down. Natania was next, and driving on a two lane one-way street, never signaled when she changed lane, something you have to do on a road test. Again, our tester complained to Natania. Two down. Barbara was doing quite well until she rounded a turn and hit the curb, visibly flustering our inspector. When Barbara drove back to the parking lot, the inspector got out, and we could see her haranguing our teacher. Noticeably upset, he expressed his frustration to us. He told Barbara to call him at 5PM, and he would give us the results. As if we needed to know.
We were only a few blocks from the Hadar Mall, so we walked over and ordered some coffee from Aroma, something desperately needed to soothe our wounds. In all the several months we had been here, I had never felt so down, so completely decimated, totally wiped out. The three of us had just flunked our road test. We would have to do it again at considerable expense. If any of us flunked a second time, it would mean starting from aleph, as if we were an eighteen year old Israeli kid who would have to take twenty two lessons before taking a road test. This is when you wonder why you’re here. If we were still in the Great 48, we could move to any state, read the driving manual, (something which I don’t think they have here – certainly not in English) pass the written test, and get a new license. Even if I didn’t care about getting an Israeli license, my New Jersey one will expire the end of 2008, meaning that starting in 2009 I would have no license, so I couldn’t even rent a car when we came back to visit. We finished our coffee, and Barbara wanted to get a few items at The Home Center before we went home. There were a few things I wanted to get, but I was too depressed to think about it. When Barbara was done, we got back on the bus heading to the center of town. It was now 5PM. I would have waited until we got home to get the bad news, but Barbara promptly called our instructor. I heard her let out a gasp. “We all passed,” she said.
Part Two
The next day, Wednesday, we went and got our temporary drivers licenses at an office near our Ulpan in Jerusalem and then went home to rest. Our community aliyah liaison, Shelley Brinn, (a wonderful lady!) had organized a little trip that evening for the recent olim, and forty of us had signed up to go. So at 4PM, we showed up at the parking lot in front of the Maale Adumim City Hall and boarded the bus, which actually left on time (very unusual!)
Usually when we take a bus from our town we are heading to Jerusalem, which means that we start on the main road, and then the bus takes a clover leaf to the road through the tunnel, past the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University, and into the City. Today, our bus stayed on the first road, which goes to Jericho and down to the Dead Sea. We had been on this road only one time before, when we went to Rami Levi, the big supermarket in a neighboring industrial area. Now we kept going, into the Judean desert, on one of those winding roads where one false move and you’re over a cliff (no guard rails here!) We began to pass Bedouin encampments – a few families with as many goats and sheep – with no electricity in their shacks and, I assume, no running water. (It’s as if you were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike and you stopped, say, at the Richard Stockton rest stop, and you pulled out, but instead of going left back on the Turnpike, you inadvertently went right, and there you were at a campsite of Oakies, right out of “The Grapes of Wrath.”) For a moment, I thought I was in a time warp, going back at least a century. But then we passed a flock of sheep grazing under an electric grid on the top of a mountain, all this as the sun was setting through the clouds. We arrived at our destination: Eretz B’reshit or Genesis Land, depending on which language you are using, and I realized that our whole journey from the parking lot next to the Maale Adumim mall to the middle of nowhere took less than fifteen minutes.
I try not to get too carried away with myself when writing this journal. I could paint a picture of this “theme park” as something special, the equivalent of Great Adventures. The truth is that for most people this place would barely make it if it were located on State Road 37 in Arkansas. We were ushered into a small building (a combination orientation center and gift shop) where we met “Eliezer,” the faithful servant of the patriarch Abraham. “Eliezer” gave us a brief presentation about the life of his master, and, to get us in the mood, offered us the use of some tacky smocks (period costumes!) to put over our clothes – which I graciously declined. We were then ready to set forth to meet “Avraham Avinu.” We could either walk the 100 yards or ride one of the ten camels waiting outside. Now if you know Barbara and me, you know which one of us wanted to ride, and which one would have been just as happy to walk. Have you ever ridden a camel? It’s not like a pony ride at the Central Park Zoo. A rather large animal was basically squatting on the ground, held down by two assistants to make certain that it didn’t get up prematurely. The larger person (me) was in the rear, and the smaller person (Barbara) was in the front. The camel was then urged to get up, which it did in sections, first the hind legs, then the front legs, at which point I screamed to no one in particular, “I’m only doing this because I love her” (My wife that is, not the camel.)
When everyone was mounted, the procession of walkers and riders began, and I soon realized why camels are called “ships of the desert.” Seasickness was fast approaching as our “boat” lurched down the path. It also occurred to me why there are usually two spaces on a camel’s back: one for you, and one for your chiropractor. None too soon, we arrived at our destination, the headquarters of our host, “Avraham Avinu,” whom we gathered had begun his journey to Eretz Yisrael from Australia. He ushered us into his “tent,” and after a few words of welcome and introduction served us a delicious meal, which we ate surrounded by old and new friends. (We could of course quibble over the fact that most of the food: tomatoes, cucumbers, hummus, potatoes, or coffee would have been known in the time of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, but I never believe in sweating the details.)
After the meal, Barbara, Natania, and I stood in the dark, looking out over the desert, facing due east towards Jericho and further away to Jordan. It was mostly dark, with a few lights indicating the existence of several “settlements,” and our problematic “neighbor.” “Avraham” came over and joined us, and we began speaking about the animals – gazelles, foxes, sheep, goats, and birds – which live in what would seem to be a land inhospitable to wildlife – except that when the rains come (and they do even in Judea) out of nowhere the barren hills are filled with vegetation, enough to feed the animals for several years. “Avraham” has lived in The Land with his wife (not Sarah!) for twenty years, and, if it were up to him, they would live permanently in the authentic desolation of “Eretz B’reishit,” not just when the place was open for visitors, but his wife was not quite ready for that!
Here’s the point: someone with an entrepreneurial spirit could try to recreate “Genesis Land” on a few hundred acres of land off Route 37 in Arkansas, complete with animal rides, actors in period costumes, roller coasters, 3-D movies, you name it. But something would be missing. Standing at night under the stars on a hilltop, overlooking the real Judean hills – even without the assistance of computer animation or light shows -- is an experience which cannot be duplicated, even by a Disney or a George Lucas. One can imagine – in a tackier world – a large, flashing neon sign, saying “Avraham Avinu slept here.” Because he probably did at least walk on that hilltop, or on one very close by, in his journey to the land which he, his son, his grandson, and his descendents throughout the generations was promised. And that is why “Genesis Land,” however modest in scope, was there: to give a context and a connection to people from Tel Aviv to Toledo (Spain or Ohio, take your pick.)
How did the real Avraham get here, let alone his self-styled wannabe? How did we get here? My journey had begun sixty-six years ago a little bit east (one block!) of Moshulu Parkway in The Bronx, and I had spent the last batch of years on the West Bank…of the Hudson River in New Jersey. Now I could get on one of these cantankerous camels and be at The River Jordan in less than one day. Such a strange journey!
It was time to board the bus back to Maale Adumim. Because the camels were all bedded down for the night, we all walked the hundred yards or so back to the Orientation Building, being careful to avoid the camel droppings on the way. The gift shop was now open, and I browsed around, eventually buying some date honey. I noticed that Barbara was dealing with “Avraham” at the sales counter, and when we boarded the bus, she showed me her prize: we had two official (?) “Camel driving licenses” signed by “Avraham” himself! It was Barbara who figured it out: on the same day in Israel we got our licenses to drive a car and to drive a camel. Only in The Land!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

When Friday Will Have To Do

If anyone out there is ever with a group of American olim, and if you need something to get the conversation flowing – doubtful, but possible – try asking “What do you miss most from The States?” (We’re not talking about family and friends; that’s obvious.) If you ask for five things, or even three, you’d get some quirky answers. For instance I would include Tropicana orange juice. I once received an e-mail from a veteran olah here in MA that she misses snow. She assured me that when I lived here long enough, I would too. Fat chance!
But if you limited it to one thing, you’d get amazing uniformity: “Sundays!” Whether the respondent has been here twenty days or twenty years, that’s what you’d hear in a rare example of unanimity. Here, Sunday is simply “Yom Rishon,” the first day of the work week. Instead, the work week here starts coming to a halt after Yom Hamishi, Thursday evening, and people start preparing for Shabbat – whether they are “religious” or secular. Even though more Israelis are off from work on Yom Shishi, Fridays will never be the same as Sundays, but, as we say, “Mah l’assot?” what can you do?.
At least, we don’t have to get up at 5:30 to go to ulpan. We may sleep as late as 7AM! By 8AM, I’m ready for breakfast. I admit that I do miss being able to make a Sunday breakfast for the family (you can easily see where my priorities lie!): omelets, French toast, pancakes, or waffles. But even if I only have a bowl of cereal and a mug of tea, I can sit and browse through the newspapers before we get on with our business. We currently subscribe to both English language periodicals available here: The Jerusalem Post and the combined International Herald-Tribune/Haaretz. Now many people are familiar with The Jerusalem Post, a sort of centrist paper with a lot of local coverage.
The International Herald-Tribune/English language Haaretz is another kettle of fish, to mix metaphors on a grand scale. Once upon a time, there was a wonderful newspaper in NYC, The Herald-Tribune, now sadly defunct. Its world renowned international operation was long ago taken over by The New York Times, and it exists as a shell of its former self. Nothing, however, compares with the inspired lunacy of the Israeli left, which Haaretz represents. As an example: I am certain that The New York Times hates our President, but I don’t believe that its editorial board hates every American who voted for him -- scorns and derides, maybe, but hates, no. But I have no doubt that the editors of HaAretz hate me. Their editorials spew venom for any Jew who is the least bit religious, they despise any Jew who lives “Over The Green Line,” and if you’re religious and live where we live, then you’re the scum of the earth. The only columnist in their weekend magazine worth reading is Sayed Kashua, an Israeli Arab who writes about his life with wit and sensitivity. His current piece, “Requiem for a Dream,” is about taking his now reluctant young daughter for piano lessons in The German Colony (a fancy Jerusalem neighborhood.) I finish his article and my cup of tea, and it’s time to get moving.
Most Fridays, we take advantage of our free time and go on a trip or do something interesting, but on this particular day, we have nothing grand planned. My big adventure will be going up to the Canion, the shopping center, for some last minute purchases. I am nattily attired for my trek in a pair of shorts and my “Phat Fred” t-shirt, complete with a larger than life size picture of Fred Flintstone himself on the front. No sooner do I get to the street when I meet Tova, unloading groceries from her car. (She, her Israeli born husband, and their girls have recently returned to Israel from The States. When she saw the stack of Meyers Brothers cartons in front of our gate two months ago, she put two and two together and came down to introduce herself.) Tova admires my t-shirt and begins to reminisce about when Hurricane Wilma swept through Florida, and the local Miami paper printed a picture of Wilma Flintstone, with the headline “Bitch.” I leavet Tova to finish unpacking her groceries, and I proceed up the hill to the path that would take me to the town center. If my other namesake, the late Fred Rogers were here, he would definitely consider this “A beautiful day in the neighborhood.” The intense heat of the summer has gone, and the temperature has been hovering in the 70’s, (I will continue to gauge temperature in Fahrenheit, because I don’t do Celsius) a perfect day to be walking A Little Bit East of Yerushalayim. I am in no hurry. At a leisurely pace, my journey will take twenty minutes.
The path to the center of town begins at the top of the hill, and you can see the entire other side of Maale Adumim and the immense sand dunes beyond. The path continues past our Central Park, no match for the one in NYC, but for this part of the world a magnificent expanse of green. Finally, you pass the garden, an area given over to residents to plant shrubs, bushes, and flowers – which they have done with taste and exuberance. There is definitely the sense that we are living in an oasis, surrounded entirely by immense quantities of sand and rock.
On this Friday morning, there is no one in the park. It is too early for the Russians who usually sit at the picnic tables in the garden. There are a few people coming back from the mall, mostly Ethiopians carrying large quantities of groceries, and speaking Amharic to each other, a language I will tackle once I have mastered Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian, and reviewed my Spanish and French – which I estimate will take me into the 110th year of my next life.
The path ends at the modern Macabbi health care center and Kikar Yahalom, a series of about twenty small stores with apartments above -- I suspect the oldest part of the town, and once upon a time, state of the art shopping for our community. Still, it contains our bank, our pharmacist, Pizza Roni, Mimi’s vet, and a host of other stores. I stop at a hole-in-the-wall where a Russian oleh repairs watches. Natania has a watch with a metal band that needs two links removed. Barbara and I had conferred as to how I should make this request in Hebrew so I could memorize it. (After considering several alternative verbs, we arrive at “Efshar laredet shteim?” loosely translated as “Is it possible to take down two?”) This does not seem idiomatic in any language, but the Russian man understands; he removes the links and charges me a big five shekels ($1.25) for his services, and I am on my way to the canion.
Now let’s be clear about one thing: Canion Adumim would fit into one nook or cranny of The Garden State Mall in Paramus NJ. But there are “only” 40,000 people living here, about the same number of souls who would be crowding into the GSM the Saturday night before Xmas. Our canion contains a supermarket, Mister Zol, (“zol” means inexpensive, although it’s not) the now-famous Ace Hardware, Lior’s (a chain appliance store) an Aroma Coffee Bar, a food court, and a post office; but none of these is on my agenda just now. I need the first two stores as you enter: on your left, a place which sells fresh fish, olives, and a dozen or so salads, some of which, placed in large or small containers, will supplement our Shabbat menu. On the right is the small bakery where pita breads and lafahs are baked in situ seemingly ‘round the clock. It is here where I get my challahs. Here in The Holy Land, we have no use for the wimpy soft challahs replete with preservatives available from Tuesday on in The Great 48. Ours you have to chew! I purchase what I need and head to the other bakery, Maapah Ne’eman to pick up a cake.
Back through Kikar Yahalom. I meet Yoni, one of our many new friends, outside his store, a Judaica shop, half of which is now devoted to selling aronot and other pieces of wooden furniture. Yoni admires my t-shirt, we chit-chat, and I am on my way. Last stop is the plant store, where for twenty shekels I obtain a fairly respectable bouquet of flowers. I then retrace my steps through Kikar Yahalom, up the path past the garden, the park, the view of the town and the dunes, all the way to my block. As I walk down the last hill, a young woman with excellent English approaches me. “Great shirt,” she exclaims. I stop and turn to her. “My name is Fred,” I reply. My admirer bursts into laughter and continues past me up the hill. Now I know why I got up that Friday morning: to make someone’s day!
My shopping complete, I can get started with my cooking while Barbara and Natania get the house ready for Shabbat, which is fast approaching. Tina will be making an infrequent appearance, and she will be bringing a friend. We have also invited the Rogers’ for dinner, the first Shabbat guests we will be having in our new home. We are now also hosts. It is all good!
Do any of you remember Ed Sullivan? For those of you who are too young, or who were not in the U.S. from 1948 to somewhere in the ‘60’s, this very untelegenic man hosted a wildly popular variety show at 8PM Sunday night. Millions of schoolchildren would be watching his show, knowing full well that when it was over, so was the weekend. The TV would soon go off; it would then be time to get ready for bed because the next day was …… school.
So while Sundays are wonderful, they invariably signal “The End.” But Yom Shishi, Fridays, are always the beginning. Because what comes next? SHABBAT!!! Maybe there is a poetic justice after all.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Taking A Nap To Tel Aviv

Because our older daughter Tina is now living and working long hours in Tel Aviv – such that she is rarely here in Maale Adumim for Shabbat or the Hagim to partake of her daddy’s cooking – there is nothing else for her dutiful parents to do but to get on an Egged bus and cross the country to Tel Aviv to visit her. One of our trips was a week ago Thursday. Barbara, Natania, and I got on a bus in the mid afternoon, after our Ulpan, and began our journey. Now some of you know that one thing I unfailingly do on a bus is take a nap. By the time we left the Takanat HaMerkazit (Central Bus Station) in Jerusalem, past the two gas stations at the edge of the city, through the Jerusalem forest to the west, I was ready to close my eyes. By the time they reopened, we were entering Tel Aviv.
A great deal has been written about how tiny Israel is, especially from east to west. But this is ridiculous! I got from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in the time it took me to take a nap on a bus! (The same nap I used to take going back and forth from Teaneck to New York City.)There are people – some well meaning but clueless, others our enemies – who believe that Israel is too big and needs “a haircut.” Imagine if the country were any smaller. I could probably make the same trip in a couple of yawns and a few good stretches.
Anyway, there we were, entering Tel Aviv, a city which always makes me smile (apart from our familial happiness.) Perhaps because I grew up in New York City, I appreciate the brashness and sophistication of Israel’s second city. Tel Aviv contains the largest extant collection of wonderful white Bauhaus buildings with their simple, flowing lines (between four and five thousand buildings, depending on who is counting), and there is something wonderful about this marvelous irony of history: that The Bauhaus, the twentieth century’s most influential school of architecture and design, which was started in Germany and was expelled by the Nazis, would find its champion in The Jewish State. Then in the middle of the city is a series of imposing towers, the most prominent being the Azrieli Center, (where Tina works) home to many of the hi-tech companies which have thrust our tiny Homeland into the forefront of the world technological revolution.
The last time we got to Tel Aviv, we had time to visit the wonderful art museum before heading to the beach. This time we were more pressed for time, so we headed straight for Frischman Street – where Tina lives – and straight to The Mediterranean Sea. Now it’s true that all the water in the Mediterranean and all the water in all the oceans, seas, bays, and rivers in the world are like a tear drop to Our G-d. Nonetheless, there is something both soothing and exhilarating about standing on the shore, looking out into what seems to be never ending body of water. There is a sense of unlimited possibility out there beyond the horizon that almost everyone seems to respond to. The official swimming season had ended the day before, but the beach was filled with people, and Barbara, Natania, and I took turns walking up and down the beach by the water’s edge until it began to get dark, and it was time to meet Tina for dinner (Somewhere along the way I lost my cell phone.)
This being Tina’s turf, she was in charge of selecting a restaurant, and, as she has done before, came up with a winner, a Turkish restaurant called Pasha. (In case you’re curious, the cost of a good meal in a kosher restaurant in Tel Aviv seems to be about $20 a person.) The four of us sat, ate, and talked. These moments are infrequent and precious.
It was about a forty minute walk from the ocean to the restaurant and about a half an hour walk back from the restaurant to where we would get the bus back to Jerusalem. Walking through neighborhoods and commercial areas, I began to notice something very distressing: you see, in Tel Aviv the streets are clean, but the T-shirts in the stores aren’t. I don’t mean the clothing needed laundering, but their messages do. In this lovely city of Tel Aviv with its pristine architecture, there are dozens of stores that publicly display rude, suggestive, misogynistic, and pornographic slogans that the citizenry supposedly wants to wear on its clothing. Of course, there is little here that can’t be found in thousands of outlets in America, but I do not feel responsible for what is going on in Pottstown, PA. We in Maale Adumim are, however, living only a scant few kilometers from where The Torah indicates Sodom and Gomorrah were situated.
I stayed awake on the bus ride back to Jerusalem. From the Central Bus Station, we took our local bus “upstream” back home. (Going into the city everyday for our Ulpan, we go “downstream.” The bus turns onto Jaffe St. at its beginning, where it seems like any number of other unimportant thoroughfares. Soon it passes the large municipal complex on the right. Then it becomes a wider, two-way street and passes the area around Ben Yehuda and Yoel Salomon Street, with its cluster of shops and restaurants – unquestionably the best place in the world to do Jewish people watching – and then continues past King George St., getting wider as it goes, past where we get off the bus, at the Clal building [a medical complex so ugly that its chances of having been built would have been zero or less than zero], and then on past the Mahane Yehuda market, {the shuk} -- a subject so fascinating that it will require an blog entry all its own -- past the charitable soup kitchens which feed thousands of indigent people every day, supplied in large part by the leftovers from the market -- and finally on to the Central Bus Station.) It was well after 10PM when our 174 bus going the other way went past the shuk, which was still filled with people – some paying customers, some collecting whatever was leftover for themselves or others. We passed the Ben Yehuda area which was still crowded with young people. It occurred to me that it’s almost impossible to find any kind of a T-shirt with a message in Jerusalem. (even “Somebody went to Israel and all I go was this lousy T-shirt.) In a tourist haven like Ben Yehuda, kippahs yes, mezuzas yes, t-shirts no.
Our 174 bus continued its route, turning off Jaffe St., and going by the Old City before it turned off to go through the tunnel and climb the hill to Maale Adumim, which, as you all know by now, is “A Little Bit East of Yerushalayim.” We would wake up Friday morning and look out over the dunes that are between us and the sovereign state of Jordan. There would be no one admiring the sand, because no one does, there being nothing soothing or exhilarating about what seems to be only a vast nothingness. I, of course have my own “take” on the dunes. If the sea represents space, then the sand represents time (as in an hour glass.) These Judean Hills are the Collective Past of The Jewish people, for some of us our Present, and, for those who will have it, our Future.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Sukkah of My Own

“I always knew that Sukkot was right around the corner, because it was – literally. From the rear of our full floor apartment, we could see the backyard of the Young Israel of Moshulu Parkway (the original building) where, of course, they put up a sukkah. But even without this graphic reminder, and that’s all it was because I had no idea what the sukkah was supposed to be, I would know. For there were four days in the fall that were classified “Jewish Holidays,” when nobody (except for the teachers and the handful of kids who were gentiles) went to school. I should mention that unwritten but clearly understood rule: don’t play in the school yard on a Jewish Holiday. We may not have been that religious, but we were not stupid!”
Who would have thunk that this boy, looking with at best idle curiosity from his bedroom window at the construction of a wooden hut – whose function he only dimly understood – would one day want a sukkah of his own? Yet we returned from our belated honeymoon to Israel in September 1980 with just that thought in mind. We were understandably reluctant to put one up on our sixth floor fire escape. So we relied on The Jackson Heights Jewish Center which had a huge sukkah and hosted fancy dinners the first two nights of The Holiday. Several years later, a couple we had met had one of their own in the central courtyard of their apartment building, which we could access only from their apartment. So of course, when we moved to the wilds of New Jersey, we put in a call to our nearby Lubavitch Center in Morristown, and they sent over a big wooden sukkah and two yeshiva bochers to assemble it. One of them was very handy, and did most of the work. The second guy went by the nom de guerre “Rashi,” and he was one of the least useful specimens I have every encountered. I have always described him as a human clamp reciting tehillim (Psalms.) As in “Hey Rashi, stop shuckling and hold that panel up a little straighter.” The irony was that there would be a hurricane watch throughout New Jersey two days later, and we would have to take the whole thing down and start all over again, which we did with the help of an elderly gentile neighbor, Mrs. Spruills, who was absolutely fascinated with what we were doing. Needless to say, this was the first and only sukkah ever assembled on Central Place, in Caldwell New Jersey.
The big, wooden sukkah moved with us to Passaic, New Jersey, where it had much company, and later to Teaneck, New Jersey, where it was replaced with a fiberglass model – just as heavy but not as pretty – which we jettisoned as part of our move to Israel, which brings us to our pre-fab model from Ace Hardware in Maale Adumim.
As much as we enjoyed our Sukkot holiday in The States, there was always something to dampen our spirits. The first problem was literally one of moisture. Inevitably, at some point in the holiday, it would rain. The table and chairs would get soaked; all the decorations would fall down; and the schach (the roof covering) would become a real wet blanket. The second problem was this madness, the “three day yuntif,” whereby Jews in The Exile keep two days of these holidays instead of the one day kept by Jews who have the sense and/or the fortune to live in The Land. So when Sukkot and Shmini Adzeret/Hoshana Rabba fall (as they often do) on Thursday and Friday, (which means that Rosh Hashana also was on Thursday/Friday) and you throw in Shabbat, that’s three days in a row for three weeks for which somebody (usually the wife, but in our case, me) has to shop and prepare festive meals. That’s a lot of meals and a lot of “Yuntif,” which is why NOBODY who lives in Israel wants to go through that.
Then there is the search for a sukkah – once you leave your own. You could probably chart a route in the hinterlands of the Great 48 where you could go 500 miles in between sukkahs. Even in New York City, you would be fortunate to find one that wasn’t the property of some expensive bistro. I was usually more fortunate. When I worked for the OU, I had only to walk one block to Battery Park to find one put up by the chaps from Lubavitch. There you would climb over people to find an available space on a bench, snarf down your food in the three to five minutes you felt you were entitled to before the next horde of people arrived, say the birchat hamazon in another thirty seconds, climb back over other people to leave, and know that you performed the mitzvah, but with very little simcha.
All of these are serious inconveniences. But the biggest problem in The Exile is that most of our Community has now lost any connection whatsoever to this Holiday. (We at least took off from school – even if we weren’t sure why!) As an example: we were visiting members of Barbara’s family probably around 20 years ago. It was near the end of October, and I remember that their son was in a great rush to finish dinner and leave. There was a community Halloween event and he needed to be part of it. His parents had a kosher home and attended High Holiday services at a proper synagogue, but their son had no concept of our Sukkot holiday. Yet he knew all about Halloween. The point is that in America, most Jews are overwhelmed by the secular calendar. Even if they have done Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, that’s three days off from work or school, and there is simply no more time for Jewish Holidays.
Not even for THE HAG! For Sukkot was known as THE Holiday. Even more than the other two festival hagim, Sukkot was the time when EVERYBODY (Jew and non-Jew) would ascend to Jerusalem for the almost non-stop sacrifices. It was when the world would be judged for rain, and, in case you don’t know, in this part of the world, if you don’t get rain in the winter months, you are in very deep doodoo. This was the time (during the intermediate days) of the Simchat Beit Hashoeva, a water gathering ceremony, of which it was said, that if you had never experienced this event, you had no clue what joy was. Consider that statement for a moment and then think about Halloween in America with the grinning plastic jack-o-lanterns on people’s lawns and the kids in stupid Darth Vader or Madonna costumes, and then shed a tear.
Here in Maale Adumim, our sukkah had even more company than in our communities in The States, because these temporary dwellings were not the exclusive property of “the religious.” We were told of one woman who “religiously” washes her clothes every Shabbat, seems uninvolved in Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, yet every year she puts up a sukkah and has a festive meal for her family, with lots of singing. There were sukkahs popping up like toadstools everywhere in our community, and all over Jerusalem, usually on the sidewalks near coffee shops, pizzerias, falafel joints, and restaurants, so that there was barely any room to walk.
Everyone was off from work or from school on Sukkot itself and on the last day, which here in The Land becomes Shemini Adzeret and Simchat Torah smooshed into one. On the intermediate days – sort of a semi-holiday – the schools were closed and some people (I honestly don’t know how many) were also on hofesh. And there was plenty to do all over the country, from political demonstrations to reclaim land previously promised to expand communities in Judea and Samaria, to hot air balloon festivals in the Negev. There were barbeques, small gatherings in small sukkahs, larger ones in larger sukkahs, and a huge ceremony at The President’s (Perez not Bush) sukkah. Barbara, Natania, and I spent that Shabbat with old friends in Efrat (where we got to spend some time with Bruce and April Abrams and a few minutes with the Wegleins. We went on a number of nature tours – thanks to AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) and Nefesh B’Nefesh. It goes without saying that we found ourselves at the annual Jerusalem Food Festival, in which 40 mostly high quality restaurants were invited to set up stalls and sell “takeout.” And so, there I was, sitting in a sukkah in what I believe is the parking lot of the old Jerusalem train station, with a plate of grilled meat (from a posh place called Vacarro’s) perched precariously on my lap, hoisting a plastic cup of Goldstar, and looking through the schach at the stars. You can tell me it gets better than that, but don’t expect me to believe you.
The Really Big Event, of course, was the annual Birkat Cohanim ceremony at the Western Wall, whereby thousands of us Cohanim got to “bless” the assembled tens of thousands of people. When we were here in 1980, it was a relatively simple matter to get to The Kotel (getting on a bus to go back was another story – but not for now.) The only way to describe the scene now is by way of Yogi Berra, that the place is so crowded that nobody goes there anymore. I would have had to get there an hour early and deal with 30 or 40,000 other people at The Kotel plaza, and I simply wasn’t up to it this year. So I got up that Monday morning and had a leisurely breakfast in our sukkah, only to see in The Jerusalem Post that the event had taken place the day before. So not only didn’t I attend, but I didn’t even know what day I wasn’t going to go.
(But at least I have an excuse for that Sunday. What we did instead was attend a little gathering in honor of the birth of Naava Zemira Levine; and I will leave it her family to describe the event and the emotions attached to it.)
Even before The Holiday started, there were large signs all over Maale Adumim announcing the “Second Hakafot.” Perhaps because Shemini Adzeret and Simchat Torah are only one day, people in Israel have the energy to prolong the festivities after the Hag is over. So not only do people dance with Torah scrolls the last morning, but they repeat these Hakafot in the evening – this time in the outdoors with music and loudspeakers. The invitation to our community event – held in a schoolyard near our house – came from our mayor and his assistants and all the local rabbis. And people came by the hundreds from all over town to dance and to watch others dance. There was one time when I witnessed our mayor, Benny Casriel, (who is one of the finest public officials in the world) dancing with one Torah, Rabbi Sabato dancing with a second, and an Ethiopian oleh dancing with a third. Thanks to a very efficient speaker system and an enthusiastic MC, praises to G-d resounded through the length and breadth of our town, a little bit east of Yerushalayim.
After a while, I went home with the festivities still going on and the music still blaring. From my bedroom window I could hear our Russian neighbors, still in their sukkah, singing Russian songs – accompanied by someone playing a decent guitar – way into the night. They were having such a good time that I couldn’t think to get upset. It would be time enough the next morning to get up and start taking down our sukkah, the pre-fab model from the Ace Hardware in Maale Adumim.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fast Forward to Yom Kippur

In my previous life as an oleh wannabe, I remember getting a post from a blogger in Mevatseret Tzion, who writes under the moniker of “Stupillow.” He was describing the phenomenon of bike riding in his community on Yom Kippur.
Now you have to understand that on Yom Kippur, Israel is officially closed for business, meaning that Jews essentially don’t work, restaurants, shops, and movies are for one day shut tight. You can drive your car, but few people do. On your garden variety Shabbat here in Maale Adumim, there is considerable vehicular traffic – not as much as on a typical weekday, but still more than enough. On Rosh Hashana, there is a little bit less. On Yom Kippur, there is none, except for emergency and security vehicles. (In fact, except for the sounds of children playing, dogs barking, and cats fighting, it is absolutely quiet here for 25 hours.) And so what happens? For one day, the streets become a giant race track for bicycles, tricycles, scooters, skates, and skateboards. While their parents are praying, fasting, and reflecting, young children are zooming up and down hills, innocently oblivious to the solemnity of the occasion. No doubt, many of them in a few years will be beside their parents in shul, and thirty years from now, it will be part of the collective consciousness of an entire generation – perhaps like their experiences in the I.D.F.
But there is the guy in Tel Aviv whom I read about recently. He came from a HUGE hassidic family (something like 17 children!) and decided one day to chuck the whole thing and became militantly secular. He sees his mission in life as driving around Tel Aviv all day on Yom Kippur. (Our older daughter Tina, who lives there and was with us for THE ONE DAY of Sukkot, confirmed that there indeed only one car that she could see driving around in her neighborhood the entire day. I wonder if it was the same guy.) Poor fellow. He doesn’t understand that he too is part of the shana, the collective calendar of the nation. You see, you don’t have to do the same thing to be part of the same year. He’s not driving around because, let’s say, it’s Thursday, and every Thursday he goes to see his personal trainer. He’s driving around Tel Aviv because it’s Yom Kippur! I’m in shul, standing and praying. He’s sitting in the car, driving and anti-praying, but in Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, it is still Yom Kippur.
If he wants to escape from the collective shana, he only has to come to America. Now, it’s part of our belief system that the entire world is being judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but, except for small pockets scattered throughout the land, you’d never know it from empirical observation in the great 48. Here a Jew is absolutely free to ignore the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – if he so chooses. And many do.
I grew up in one of those small pockets where there was a communal sense of the High Holidays, an area in the north Bronx around Moshulu Parkway. Not only was the area heavily Jewish, but insofar as most of the gentile kids went to St. Brendan’s RC school not P.S. 80 where we all went, it seemed to us kids growing up that everybody was Jewish. Now it’s a well known fact that my parents were not especially religious (this is an example of literary understatement), but my father did take off from work on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. As we had nothing else to do, we would take long walks through adjacent neighborhoods on those afternoons. But my parents were punctilious that we should do nothing in public that would seem out of place on those Holidays, because they understood that they were part of a community. I always knew that Sukkot was right around the corner, because it was – literally. From the rear of our full floor apartment, we could see the backyard of the Young Israel of Moshulu Parkway (the original building) where, of course, they put up a sukkah. But even without this graphic reminder, and that’s all it was because I had no idea what the sukkah was supposed to be, I would know. For there were four days in the fall that were classified “Jewish Holidays,” when nobody (except for the teachers and the handful of kids who were gentiles) went to school. I should mention that unwritten but clearly understood rule: don’t play in the school yard on a Jewish Holiday. We may not have been that religious, but we were not stupid!
I’m sure that some of my classmates did go to “services” at least on The High Holidays in the few Orthodox and Conservative synagogues in the neighborhood, and probably some of them came from homes in which there was some semblance of observance, but, honestly, G-d didn’t have a fighting chance in the north Bronx around Moshulu Parkway when Harry Truman or Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the U.S., and when there were probably as many Jews in The Bronx as in The Land. Everyone I knew grew up and moved away from our neighborhood, and we all left the shana behind. Probably fifty percent of the kids in my neighborhood who joyfully and collectively took off from public school on the “Jewish Holidays,” meaning the first and last two days of Sukkot, wound up with spouses who had a very different calendar.
It’s no secret that in The States, The Big Days are not in the little known month of Tishrei, but in the well known month of December, and those days are hard to ignore. A lot of us do things on Dec. 25 to go with the flow, like going to the movies and “eating Chinese.” When I worked for the OU, a different approach was taken: pretending that the day didn’t exist. The office was always open on December 25 – even though public transportation was spotty at best. So, just as our secularist would be driving around Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, I would be driving around New York on Xmas! Talk about symmetry.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Shana Tova 5768

Anyone who has been in The Land during “The High Holy Days” understands that there is an electricity in the air which is hard to quantify. Everyone is wishing you a “hag sameach,” “shana tovah,” not only your family and friends, but the postal clerk, the young lady at the check-out counter at the Mister Zol supermarket, the pharmacist, the cab driver, (in fact, the most effusive greeting (along with a handshake) I have received so far was from the cab driver who brought home my newly purchased sukkah from the Ace Hardware store in the local mall -- when I gave him an additional five shekel tip [4 shekels to the dollar]). In addition you see the greeting on banners in the mall, on signs in the buses that your driver wishes you a shana tovah (if he hasn’t in person, which he often does.) Of course, in The States, Jewish people and non-Jewish people with Jewish friends and acquaintances exchange holiday greetings. But there seems to be a difference in the substance of the greeting, for which I, of course, have an explanation.
Here in The Land, there is a sense that everyone is sharing a common “shana,” which is part of the common bond that brings us together. In The States, we are forced to juggle our calendar and our lives with the calendar, the seasons, and the needs of our secular society. “How come people always say that Rosh Hashana is early or late, but never on time?” The start of the Jewish year is judged in America by its relative proximity to Labor Day. If Rosh Hashana is “late,” then so is Sukkot, which means that large numbers of Jews in America and elsewhere are eating in their sukkah in rain gear or winter clothing. Hannukah is then close to Xmas and is melded into a mush called “The Holidays,” along with Kwanza and who knows what else. If Rosh Hashana is “early,” then the relatively minor holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the trees marks only the time of year when our gentile neighbors are throwing away their Xmas trees. Whether the year is “early” or “late,” Passover always seems to come in the middle of tax season. In general, all our hagim seem to occur in the beginning, the middle, or the end of something “important” in the secular calendar.
In The Land, Rosh Hashana always comes on time. How could it be otherwise? It has to come 30 days after Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the previous month. There is no urgency to get Sukkot in before it gets too cold or too wet; those two possibilities are statistically unlikely anywhere in Israel. Hannukah stands on its own two feet, or on the bases of hundreds of thousands of hannukah menorahs. Even with the efforts to attract Christian tourists, Xmas is not taken very seriously, especially as the Muslims have almost decimated their Christian counterparts in place like Bet Lechem (Bethlehem.) Nor is the secular New Year, Halloween, or even Super Bowl Sunday. But a minor day like Tu B’Shvat takes on a special poignancy, because whether it is early or late, it will mark the time when, after several months of cold and rain, the first harbingers of spring, the blossoming of the almond trees occurs.
There are two times of the year in Israel when employers give special bonuses to their employees: Rosh Hashana and Passover. You can see people whipping out their books of vouchers, buying out the store: clothing, furniture, food for the holidays. So when people wish you a Good Year, they are not only giving you a blessing for life, they are hoping that this feeling of well-being will continue.
A good part of the country does shut down during the intermediate days of Sukkot. Like all schools, our ulpan will be closed. We already got a call from our pharmacy: they will be closed for vacation for two weeks right after Yom Kippur. Come and get your prescriptions NOW. Most of the country will be engaged in a collective barbeque, rivaling the sacrifices brought in the first and second Temples.
Lest you think that all is peaches and cream in The Land, I must mention the current brouhaha over Yom Kippur and Daylight Savings Time. This year, Saturday night, right after Rosh Hashana, we went off DST, turning back the clocks one hour. Being a newbie here, I didn’t realize that the practice of changing the clock prior to Yom Kippur is relatively new, and is a bone of contention amongst the secularists. Now I was never a big fan of DST, and I was always delighted in The States when we went back to Standard Time, meaning that it wasn’t pitch black when I got up in the morning. Here in Maale Adumim, we are getting up around 5:30 so that we can make a bus into Jerusalem at 7 so we can be on time for our ulpan at 8. Lo and behold, the next morning, when I woke up, I could see the orange and purple flowers on the bushes in our front yard. And that evening, the sun went down behind the hills west of us an hour earlier, so it began to cool off an hour earlier. We are trading light for heat abatement, which is more than OK by me.
Now you can argue either side of the DST-Standard Debate, as well as the notion that ending a 25 hour fast at 6:13 rather than 7:13 has any value, but what I realized that this was not a rational discussion about DST. I have been following op-ed pieces in the English language version of Haaretz, and I have concluded that there are people in The Land who are taking this matter personally. The decision to change the clock earlier in the year was made, as many deals are made in the Israeli government, in the dead of night at the behest of the Hareidi parties. And there are people who believe that the main role the religious element in Israel is to make the lives of secularists miserable. One Op-ed contributor wrote that this change was ruining her family life and bringing in winter several months early! Of course, the daytime high for Yom Kipper throughout the Land will be close to 90F. Some winter!
Rather than leave you on a “downer,” let me report some more cheerful items, of special interest to animal lovers:
First of all, I have solved the kapporat dilemma! Many of us today are reluctant to swing a live chicken over our head, which was the original custom, part of a prayer asking for forgiveness. You can also use coins of the realm, but that seems kind of lame. Barbara and I were having lunch in the Machane Yehuda shuk at a tiny place which serves falafel, hummus and bean dishes, and freshly baked pita. If you had any idea how good this food was, and how little it cost, you would be on the next plane over here. As we were finishing our meal, Barbara noticed the strange assortment of goods in the next stall and went over to investigate (you know Barbara!) We realized that it was a pet supply store, and I noticed that there were rubber chickens (canine toys) hanging up on display. Perfect!!!!! Rubber chickens for kapporat!!!!
Second of all, Mr. Goatie is alive and well. To get to the town center of Maale Adumim – which contains the stores, the bank, the Maccabi health clinic, the post office -- we take a little path which is a decided shortcut. This path takes us past the “back yards” (10 by 20 foot plots) of people’s garden apartments. We noticed shortly after we arrived that one of the families had a goat in their back yard, whom, in a fit of brilliance, we named “Mr. Goatie.” He (it could be a she for all we know; we’re not good about these things) would stare at us with his mournful eyes. Sometimes he would raise himself on his hind legs and peer over the fence. Then after Rosh Hashana, we stopped seeing him. After a few days, a terrible thought crossed my mind: could these people have eaten him for Rosh Hashana? You may know that there is a custom amongst Sephardic and other Jews to have a Rosh Hashana seder, in which a blessing is made over various foods. One of the foods is a head, usually a fish head, but on occasion, a goat or sheep head. Could his head have graced their table? You may rest easy. Two days ago, he was back in the yard, none the worse for wear.
I have been chastised by some for making no mention of the well-being of our elderly cat, Mimi. Suffice to say, she survived the long journey to The Land and has made the acquaintance of Maale Adumim’s veterinarian for geriatric feline care.
The sun is still high in the sky, but it will soon be time for our last meal before Yom Kippur. On that note, I will end, as will the fast. Then it will be time enough to put up sukkahs in our wind-blown community. More about that later.

Monday, September 17, 2007

My First Day At Ulpan

“So far, we are adjusting well to the loss of Labor Day; we have other things on our minds. I just hope I have the strength to make it through the 5, 5, 5 of Ulpan.”
Some of my audience, reading the ending to my previous entry, sent me solicitous responses, expressing full confidence in our ability to survive and conquer Ulpan. Here is how we began our studies.
First of all, Barbara had previously called one of the ulpans, Morasha, and speaking to the woman-in-charge in Hebrew ascertained that the starting date was Sunday, Sept. 2. However, the lady-in-charge said, since neither of us was a beginner, we could come in on Monday, and they would figure out in what level we belonged. So we came in on Monday to find out that they had only one level, beginners. What they proposed we do was that I should start from the beginning, and Barbara, who is more advanced, should go into a class that had started two and a half months ago, which, if nothing else, would mean that she would get only half of her government allotted five months. To put it in its rawest form, the lady-in-charge had told us to come in, knowing full well that she had nothing to offer us, was offended when we didn’t like her suggestions, and made believe that we had no alternative but to take her up on her offer.
Perhaps at this time it might be useful to explain my current working attitude towards living in Israel, which is as follows: it is very easy (you have no idea how easy until you live here) to criticize what goes on, from the current inept government, the overwhelming bureaucracies, down to the supermarket shopping carts, each of whose wheels go in a different direction (if that isn’t a metaphor for life here, I don’t know what is!) But when you take a step back and look at the larger picture, you realize what has been accomplished here since 1948, since 1968 (when Barbara was living here and telephones were rare and black and white TV’s were just being introduced) all in an environment of unending enmity from its neighbors. And it was all done without any help from me (OK, I have prayed everyday for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and we have purchased a few Israel bonds, but let’s be real.) So I’m willing to cut the average Israeli who by his presence built and defended this country a little slack. But there is a level of Israeli chutzpah, to quote Winston Churchill, “up with which I will not put.” And so we told the lady-in-charge what she could do with her suggestions.
After a calming down session, Barbara and I sat down with the list of ulpans in the Jerusalem area (fewer than you might suppose) and Barbara called Ulpan Beth HaAm, which is an entirely different kind of operation, and we went over there and registered. Now Beth Ham has a reputation for being “left-wing,” probably because the strength of its program invites many non-olim to study there, usually to qualify for an Israeli university. So who would these non-olim be? Mostly Israeli Arabs, some Christian, but mostly Muslim. So you can be sitting in class next to a young woman, her head wrapped in a scarf. But she will know more Hebrew than you do. Of course, every non-olim is not an Arab: take Uxu for example; she is originally from Korea, but she comes to class with a German-Hebrew dictionary! She and others in the class speak three or four languages. Almost everyone speaks some English, although I am the only Anglo in my class. I am also one of only four Jews (assuming they all show up), ¼ of the class. There is something disconcerting about being a minority in an Israeli ulpan, something which I would never have expected. I discussed this with our art historian friend Orli, who is in the same program, although in a higher class. How did she put it? Something about having to examine her attitudes and pre-conceptions. Nonetheless, the program is well run, and Barbara, Natania (who is now in the same class as Barbara), and I are all progressing reasonably well.
Because they let us out from ulpan on Fridays, we were able to join 50 other olim, NBN and tour staff on a Nefesh B’Nefesh outing on Sept. 7, a bus ride and mini-hike at a park in the forests west of Jerusalem, the site of a village called Sataf that had been abandoned by Arabs in 1948. Of course, we didn’t have Danny Chazin, Teaneck’s resident hike leader with us. In his place, we had Peter Abelow, (also with Teaneck connections) a noted tour guide and writer. As we stood at the top of the trail prior to descending, Peter pointed out that examples of five of the seven species mentioned in the Torah as indigenous to The Land were located within twenty feet of us: an olive tree, a pomegranate tree, a fig tree, grape vines, and a date palm tree. Many of us walked over to the tiny date palm tree -- about five feet tall – and there growing from the trunk, straight and tall, was a lulav (one of the four species used on Sukkot.) Now most of us were familiar with lulavs packaged in the dozens or hundreds, on sale on tables in synagogues and on street corners in Jewish neighborhoods. But this was the first time that I and the others had seen one actually growing. We were amazed, astonished, and awestruck by this slight amount of vegetation, although I would have a hard time explaining why. I mentioned this to our neighbor Suri, who understood exactly how I felt: one year they realized that a non-descript weed growing in their yard was actually an etrog tree, and there was a real live etrog (another of the four species used on Sukkot) on the tree.
There is a special feeling for the plants mentioned in the Torah, used on the holidays, or just able to grow here, a connection to Our Holy Land which is one of the reasons why we live here. I can look out the window where I am sitting and see in the back yard a large scraggly olive tree and a medium size cactus, the kind that grows prickly pears known as sabras. In our front yard, hanging from a wall is a long, skinny branch of a cactus, which all of a sudden produced an enormous (eight inches long) white flower which always last for one day. This year that day was Shabbat, so I couldn’t take a digital image to show everyone.
Near the bottom of the Sataf trail, we saw fenced-in plots of ground, given to Jerusalemites to cultivate, so that even urban dwellers can retain their love of the earth and what can grow in it. We had walked down a steep, rocky path, past a spring which gushed forth from a hole in the side of a hill into a small pool into which two Israeli boys were diving (of course ignoring the sign not to enter the water.) We had stopped midway for a break, resting and singing, accompanied by a guitar and flute.
From the bottom, we took the bus back to the top, where there are facilities and a place to eat. Barbara and I sat and had lunch at a table with two Chabadniks (followers of the departed Lubavitch rebbe) we had met on the hike: an older man who lives in Connecticut and his son who lives in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. The younger man and I had a spirited, but friendly discussion about Modern Hebrew and Jewish education – no doubt prompted by my ulpan experience. His position, one I’ve heard many times, is that there is no time in a yeshiva curriculum to study Hebrew as a language. Concentrate on Torah studies as the basis for Jewish survival and continuity. From that study, one will pick up knowledge of Hebrew grammar and language skills. To which the reply is that Torah study is indeed essential, but insofar as our long term survival as a people is now dependent on our being in Eretz Yisrael, teaching Hebrew, now our national language, to anyone and everyone who can learn it is also essential. We went round and round on these points, but ultimately arrived at a compromise position: if Jewish schools were going to teach Hebrew language a period a day, five days a week, for twelve or fourteen years, then our children should learn a lot more Hebrew than they do. At this precise moment of amity, we got the signal to get back on our bus for the short journey back to the central bus station in Jerusalem, leaving me time to do the following calculation: there must be at least a million Israeli Arabs who can speak Hebrew. How many diaspora Jews (excluding expatriate Israelis who are temporarily residing outside The Land) can do the same? And why are there more Arabs than Jewish olim in my ulpan?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Labor Day That Wasn't

On Friday, I was heading to the American Consulate in East Jerusalem to fill out a certain form, when it occurred to me that this will be Labor Day weekend in The States, and I began to daydream about what we would be doing if we were still there – this being the first year when we won’t be there.
Now Labor Day is a funny kind of holiday. Once upon a time, it did have a purpose. It was established with the prodding of the American labor movement as a counterbalance to May Day. But few people nowadays have a kind word for labor unions, and I don’t know anybody today who takes Labor Day as an opportunity to hug a trade unionist. These days, it just marks the end of the summer, a good excuse for one last barbeque, more like a day off for good behavior. The summer is over: prepare to resume the normal routine. In more fastidious times, it signaled the last day when men could wear a straw hat; today, I’m told, it means that men should stop wearing flip-flops to work.
If we were back in Teaneck, we would have spent Sunday swimming and picnicking at Swartswood State Park, an isolated area an hour and a half from our home. Sometime about 5PM, we would have packed up and left, knowing that the season had ended, with the melancholy thought that we wouldn’t be back for another year and our Sundays would again be more prosaic. Monday, we would have done a host of chores and then partaken of the last official barbeque of the year with some close friends.
Instead, on Sunday we will be heading back to Talpiot, back to the Misrad Harishui (the equivalent of the Motor Vehicle Bureau) as one step in our getting an Israeli drivers license. We had been there last Wednesday, but they were closed. It seems here that government offices can decide not to open on a given day – sort of like a floating Labor Day. Here you have to go with the flow, make lemonade from lemons. We turned around, had lunch at the Hadar Mall, and went shopping and ordered a dining room table and chairs. Now I will be the first to concede that the commercial area in Talpiot is not the most scenic place one could be, and that a day spent gazing at Swartswood Lake would be more relaxing. But then again, Talpiot is one vast conglomeration of stores, so you might consider that we will be spending Sunday at the mall! (which you can’t do in Bergen County, NJ)
On Monday, the year starts for us in earnest. Barbara and I will be starting Ulpan, five hours a day, five days a week, for five months. What this means to me is that I will not be able to get up when I’m good and ready, daven, and have a leisurely breakfast over The Jerusalem Post. We will be up and about like the rest of Israel, in our case, making a 7AM bus into Jerusalem. Natania, several days shy of her 20th birthday, is volunteering to join the IDF and will be at an office in Jerusalem, taking a battery of tests. No barbeque for us! Maybe we can order takeout from Burger Bar!
Perhaps I should report on our Shabbat because it was so much fun. We were invited to Friday night dinner with Ian and Thelma, people we’ve met at Mussar Avichai, the synagogue I’ve been going to. Ian was immediately impressed when, not only had I heard of his hometown, Cardiff, Wales, but I that have actually been there. Thelma is a wonderful human being, a great interior decorator and a fine cook, but in need of constant subtitles. Among the guests were Donald, a South African who davens at the Russian shul near his house, and Adam and Rebecca, (sometimes known as Aaron and Rivka) New Yorkers who are now going to a French-speaking Chabad minyon. Amongst the bunch of us, we polished off three bottles of good Israeli red wine and downed some Scotch as a chaser. I rolled home and revived sufficiently the next morning to get to the 8AM minyon. Afterwards, we were invited to a Kiddush-lunch at the home of our neighbors Marvin and Yvette Shumacher, to introduce new olim in the neighborhood to some of the oldtimers (some of whom have been in Israel for as long as 30 years.) A few hours later we left to take a Shabbat nap. I was awakened in time to walk a half an hour to another event, a seudat shlishit (third meal) at the home of Alice and John Eigner, where we met a whole new crew of olim and vatikim (oldtimers.) Again, we left there two hours later so that I would be in time for maariv. We walked part of the way back with a woman we had just met named Orli, who, along with her husband, has been in Israel for several weeks. Orli was an art historian, and before she became religious, had specialized in part in Christian art: manuscripts and church architecture. And so, she and I began discussing our withdrawal from Christian culture, she from standing in cathedrals, I divesting myself of my considerable collection of Renaissance masses and Bach cantatas.
We stopped at their house for a minute for Barbara to use the facilities, long enough for me to admire the exquisite view of the Judean Hills from their living room and to consider the impressive collection of Jewish texts that was already unpacked and placed on new bookshelves. Orli’s husband, who was minding the kids, came down, and I realized who he was. He was the Levi who had sat next to me that morning at Mussar Avicha and had washed my hands when we gave the Priestly blessing.
Once Labor Day is over, in communities scattered throughout America, it will be time enough to get ready for “The High Holy Days” and all that that entails. Here in our Ancestral Homeland where we are not scattered, and where all the holidays have some meaning to the Jewish soul, the first consumer signs of the Yom Tovim have already appeared: you can buy two and three packs of Barkan wine at the checkout counter at The Home Center. I’ve been told that sukkah kits will soon be available at Ace Hardware here in the Maale Adumim mall.
So far, we are adjusting well to the loss of Labor Day; we have other things on our minds. I just hope I have the strength to make it through the 5, 5, 5 of Ulpan.