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.”