Thursday, March 27, 2008

Avraham, where art thou?

(Considering that I used to make my living “managing data,” this past week was not a good one in that department. First I dropped my Nikon. Loss: one roll of film. Cost to repair: about $100. Then my computer stopped working. Diagnosis by company: defective sectors on the hard drive [in simple English: dead as a doornail] Cost to repair: probably nothing, as it was seven months old and under warranty. Loss: a lot of work in progress, including the last 47 pages of Rav Aviner’s commentary to the haggada which I was editing from a rough translation. Also gone is the second part of my entry about Purim, entitled ‘And You Forgot to Remember.’ I will try, bli neder (no promises), to reconstruct it from memory. This third part was composed on Natania’s laptop, which has worked flawlessly for several years. All of the previous entries are available at

It goes without saying that we were eagerly anticipating our first Purim in The Land, even though I hate it (hate, hate, hate!) when Purim is Thursday night and Friday. I definitely think the Rabbis dropped the ball on this one. Normally, you hear Megillat Ester in the evening and then again the next morning. After that, those wonderful people who lovingly prepare shalach manot for their friends have plenty of time to run around in the morning and give their packages away. (Also, in communities like our beloved Maale Adumim, there is always a Purim parade in the morning.) And there is still plenty of time to pray, to drink, and to have a leisurely seudah (festive meal) sometime in the afternoon. (And for those unfortunate people in The Exile who have to work on Purim, they can take at least take off a little early and get home in time for the meal.) But when Purim comes out on Friday, the overriding concern that these activities would impinge on preparations for Shabbat. So the seudah is pushed up to the morning, which presents certain obvious difficulties. First, you can talk until you are blue in the face, you will never convince me that scrambled eggs is a festive meal, nor that I am going to want pot roast at 9:30 in the morning. Second, my approach to my A.D.D. is to do only one thing at a time. So if you tell me that I should hand out shalach manot, go to a parade, and have my festive meal at exactly the same time, my response is to smile and tell you politely “No.” We simply do not multi-task. In my mind, there is no logical reason why the seudah is not put off to Sunday so that people can enjoy it.

Anyway, we were invited to our friends Ian and Thelma Reed for the seudah; they were going to have a bunch of people over for a buffet and to sample some of Ian’s single malts. We were definitely looking forward to that; until Wednesday morning, when we got a phone call from one of their friends that Ian’s mother just died, and they were on their way back to Manchester for the funeral. I guess we would be on our own for the Purim seudah. When you have a lemon, always, always make lemonade. I got on the phone and called some other friends, the Aarons, who are also here without extended family, and invited them to join us, which they happily agreed to do. Natania would be back from doing shmirah (guard duty) on Wednesday; she would make some of her delicious eggplant parmesan, and I – because summer seems to have arrived here in one day – would make some gazpacho and some cold pasta dishes. That and a salad, coffee and dessert, and you actually have something like a festive meal.

Then the phone rang – again. (Maybe we should stop answering it.) Our friend Avraham just died and his body was being flown in from Columbus, Ohio in time to be buried on Friday in Jerusalem. (I first met Avraham in Jerusalem in 1980. His wife, Varda, is one of eight siblings in the very large and ever growing Habshush family. He was then a successful lawyer who got into trouble with the Israeli tax officials because they refused to believe that he had not charged some of his clients. The family moved to America where, brilliant has he was, he was never able to pass the bar examination. His health ultimately failed him, partly because he was too stubborn to take care of himself. His son, then Udi, a boy of about five, now Rabbi Ohad Yishai, was accompanying the body)

Back in touch with the Aarons. Can they come over earlier, and do you mind if Barbara leaves in the middle so she can go to a funeral? So the Aarons came a little earlier and we sat down to a very delicious meal. There are a considerable number of gentlemen here in Maale Adumim with larger libraries of single malt whisky than I have, but I do have a few bottles, and it was Purim. In the middle of our tasting, I remembered that Ron had brought over the remains of a bottle of Arak. I told him we could put it on the table; just not too close to me. Otherwise I would need to get a cushion for my chair. Why would that be? Because without a cushion, I would be between Arak and a hard place. (It was Purim, after all.) At this point, our neighbor, Tzippi – one of Maale Adumim’s finer cooks – came over with some home baked pastries, just in time for dessert. Barbara left to go to the funeral; later, the Aarons left. It was time to clean up and get ready for Shabbat. So I began washing dishes; Natania began working on some chicken soup; then I began making some meat loaf. (In theory, some of the cooking could have been done earlier, but for many reasons it wasn’t.) I remembered reading some advice from someone that on Purim Friday, it would be good to take a nap before Shabbat. I was considering some choice remarks for this time management expert; maybe I could find fifteen seconds to rest when I wouldn’t be busy. I was also considering a more realistic seudah the next time Purim was right before Shabbat: how about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

At this point, the phone rang. Should I even consider answering it? What new catastrophe might there be? It was Barbara on the line. “I’m on my way home. The funeral was canceled. They couldn’t find the body.” (Do you know the classic distinction between comedy and tragedy? Comedy is when somebody else slips and falls on a banana peel; tragedy is when it’s you.)

After Shabbat was over, Barbara got the word: they think that Avraham’s body had been located, and the funeral would be that night. (Only in Jerusalem are Jewish bodies buried at night.) So Barbara went, and, yes, the body had arrived on a subsequent El Al flight, and the funeral was held.

The next day was Shushan Purim, the day the holiday is celebrated in Jerusalem, and we went into the city to the home of Arleen and Yehuda, Avraham’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law, where Ohad would be sitting shiva for the one day before he returned to his wife and children in Toronto. I should add the following: Arleen Osband and Barbara were neighbors back in Rochester, New York. When Arleen married Yehuda Habshush, Barbara got to meet his family; and when she spent a year in Israel in 1968, she became the unofficial ninth child in the family. The eight official Habshush children have so far spawned more than thirty grandchildren and now a growing number of great-grandchildren. The only one who can keep track of who’s who is the matriarch of the family, Bracha Habshush, still going strong in her eighties.

Now it would be virtually impossible for all the Habshush clan to fit into one apartment (maybe the White House), but there must have been at least forty people – from Mrs. Habshush herself to the newest grandchildren– coming and going in Arleen and Yehudah’s small digs in Arzei Habirah. And they were all there to comfort Ohad and to celebrate Shushan Purim with the rest of the family – at the same time. We arrived after the family more or less had completed its seudah; and as there were almost ten men present, they decided to get a minyon for minchah. As we were waiting for reinforcements, I stood by a large open window, looking out at the neighborhood. I watched as throngs of people passed by on the street below, all coming and going to their Purim destinations. Even if I were not anywhere near the window, I would have heard the soundtrucks blaring away with festive music. One thing about the Hareidim in Jerusalem: they sure know how to party on a festive day! Nothing I can write could remotely capture the holiday freilichkeit that I have experienced over the years in these overcrowded neighborhoods, with huge families going this way or that, coming or going, Sukkot or Purim. It’s Yuntif! Ohad later related to us the surreal feeling he had the previous evening, watching his father’s body placed in the ground, and then seeing the celebration all around him. There are moments when the expression about not knowing whether to laugh or to cry becomes very real. I had been “bummed out” because I felt that my Purim had been diminished by its being squished together with Shabbat. Ohad had no Purim whatsoever. While everyone around him was experiencing simcha, he couldn’t even pray – let alone hear the Megillah – from the time his father died until the corpse was buried Saturday night. Maybe I should reconsider the idea of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich seudah.

A little while later, a few more men arrived, enough for a minyon for minchah. Afterwards, one of the new arrivals who seemed vaguely familiar began talking to me. (I’m beginning to notice an increase in the number of times when my Hebrew is better than an Israeli’s English.) He seemed to know who I was and began talking about our being with him for Pesach two years ago. I finally realized that he was talking about Tina and Natania being with him in Maale Levana. So I told him that Tina was living and working in Tel Aviv and that Natania was now in Tzahal (I.D.F.) – although Israelis just say tzavah (army). Now it was his turn to be confused. I figured out that he didn’t know that our family was now living in Israel, so I said proudly that my family had made aliyah. Whereupon he welcomed us to The Land.

Finally, it was time for us to leave. We declined the offer of more food and said goodbye to everyone there, cheerfully to the many people we knew, more somberly to Ohad, both because he was in avelut (mourning) and because it might be years before we will see him again. Barbara wanted to walk over to the midrechov (the promenade?) at Ben Yehuda because there were supposed to be activities there all day. And so we walked up the long, steep hill on Yehezkal Street until Meah Shearim where it becomes Nathan Strauss Street, past Bichor Holim Hospital and down to where the street becomes King George and the neighborhood changes immediately and markedly. We passed more families, more soundtrucks, increasingly intoxicated yeshiva boys, tourists staring in wonderment at this totally strange world. We finally did get to Ben Yehuda, but after the spiritual high of the Hareidim, this “more normal” area seemed a decided letdown.

I started to tell Barbara about my conversation with the vaguely familiar man with whom I had been speaking. He looked something like Moshe, but much, much older (we had met Miriam [a Habshush daughter] and [son-in-law] Moshe in Jerusalem in 1980 when she had just given birth to quadruplets [three of whom survived] and then in Maale Levana in 1988 when their sukkah was bigger than their caravan). I wondered if that could have been Moshe’s father? – although I don’t remember meeting any of his family. Barbara set me straight. “That was Moshe,” she said.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Memories of You

Waking skies at sunrise, ev - ry sun - set too, Seems to be bringing me memories of you.Here and there, ev - 'ry - where, scenes that we once knew,And they all just re - call mem - o - ries of you.
How I wish I could forget those happy yes - ter - years;
That have left a ro - sa - ry of tears.
Your face beams in my dreams, in spite of all I do,And ev - 'ry - thing seems to bring mem - o - ries of you.
(Memories of You, music by James Hubert (Eubie) Blake, lyrics by Andy Razaf,from the score of Blackbirds of 1930)

A number of weeks ago, I don’t remember how many, as I was about to check my e-mail, I noticed an intriguing article on my Yahoo home page (one of those articles which appear for fifteen minutes, and, by the time you look for it later, it’s gone) about a man with perfect memory. Now I don’t mean memory as in the ability to memorize something ridiculous, like a string of 100 five digit numbers in the space of half an hour. This man – his name escapes me – remembers every moment of his life. Every detail. On a good day, I might remember what I had for breakfast yesterday. You might remember that you ran into your friend X at the bus station last Wednesday. This man could tell you what he had for breakfast on September 3, 1996. He would know who performed the ceremony when his friend Joe’s sister got married on June 22, 1989. And he’s not alone; there are a few others like him, and some others who can remember almost everything. Needless to say, scientists are examining this phenomenon.

My first reaction was: “that’s amazing!” Then, upon contemplation, I thought: “how awful.” We all know people who have had very difficult periods in their lives. But even for the Average Joe, everyone has had something happen that you’d definitely want to forget. Maybe even need to forget to retain your sanity.

Understanding the relationship between memory and personality is a fairly recent concept, I believe from around 1900. It is surely not a coincidence that the two greatest works of twentieth century literature, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Marcel Proust’s “À la Recerche du Temps Perdu” (In Search of Lost Time) deal in very different ways with this phenomenon. It seems that René Descartes’ renowned notion “cogito, ego sum” (I think, therefore I am) was replaced by, as pithily described in one of Fred’s famous aphorisms, “You are what you remember.”

I have always been amazed by the many things that seemingly I should remember but I don’t, and the few things that for no apparent reason I do remember. Case in point: in the seven years I lived in Teaneck, almost every Friday evening, I walked to shul (Congregation Beth Aaron) taking exactly the same route: up the hill on Cranford Place to Red Road, turning left one short block to Grayson, making a right turn to Queen Anne Road, dodging traffic crossing the street and turning left to the shul. Depending on how late I was, it would take from seven to ten minutes, and fairly often I would run into somebody I knew. But most of these forays are just a blur in my mind. But on this specific Friday evening, as I was turning onto Red Road, I saw three people whom I did not recognize walking on Grayson Place, and for whatever reason, my antennas went up. I caught up with them, and they definitely needed my help. A college student was returning from a school project somewhere in New York or New Jersey to his home in Staten Island, taking with him a fellow student (whom at the time I thought was his girl friend, but was in fact just a passenger). They got terribly messed up in traffic, and there they were, close to an hour away from home, and it was, indisputably, Shabbos. (The nightmare that none of us who are “observant” ever want to be caught in.)The two of them knew that there were Jews in Teaneck, but they didn’t know any, and there were synagogues, but they didn’t know where. They just stopped the car, got out, and started walking – in their Friday dungarees. They chanced upon a fellow Jew who was not “observant,” but knew where Beth Aaron was. Then they saw me, and made the reasonable assumption that I was heading to shul. Now the young man was reluctant to go into Beth Aaron in his dungarees. So we agreed that the two of them would wait outside, and I would arrange hospitality for them. I ran up to Rabbi Kanarfogel, who directed me to … (anyone in Teaneck knows the answer!) Jeff Glazer, the local version of Avraham Avinu (the patriarch Abraham.) After the davening, Jeff and I left, looking for these two young souls. They were not near the synagogue, and we were about to give up looking for them when we found them wandering several blocks away. Jeff took them home, found them more appropriate Shabbat clothing, and they stayed with Jeff and June for Shabbat. And that was the last I saw or heard of that young couple, and I have no idea why this incident stuck in my mind, when so many things more critical to my life are totally gone. But it did.

Fast forward five or six years. A few weeks ago, Barbara and I were having dinner with Jeff and June Glazer in a little restaurant in the basement of Heichal Shlomo, a facility next to Jerusalem’s “The Great Synagogue” on King George St. We were planning to attend the taping of “Tuesday Night Live,” a new program which can be seen on Arutz 7 internet “television,” hosted by two of the station’s internet radio broadcasters, Ari Abromowitz and Jeremy Gimpel. As we were eating, Jeff began to tell us an “amazing story” about a young man whom he had met through Rabbi Kanarfogel. I interrupted Jeff and asked him why he was telling me the story; I knew all about it because I was the one who found this young man wandering the streets of Teaneck. Jeff had absolutely no recollection of my admittedly limited involvement in this incident. But why was Jeff telling us this story now? Jeff and June had gone to a previous taping of “Tuesday Night Live” and found this same young man, Yosef Adest, now also an oleh, playing the keyboard in the house band for this show. (After the show, we went over and Jeff introduced me to Yosef, who also had no recollection of my admittedly limited involvement in the affair! A few years later, still wearing jeans, Yosef realized how foolish it was of him to have been afraid to enter our synagogue that Friday night. As I put it, “Better to wear the wrong clothes in the right place, than to have on the right clothes in the wrong place.”) Come to think of it, that could apply to where you live, not just where you pray.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Letter to THE Editor

“But you know – everyone knows – that the army is everywhere in Israeli society.”“I know no such thing. I went out into the Israeli street and did not see what you are describing. And if it were the case, so what?”
It would be fair to ask me why I have this obsession with the newspaper, Haaretz, and especially with its weekly magazine: is it masochism on my part to read it, a need to know what the fringe-left is thinking, or simply morbid curiosity – the kind that impels people to tie up traffic for miles to get a glance at a multi-car pileup on the side of a highway. With all the good stuff I hardly have time to read, why did I take the time to go through very carefully an article entitled “Battle Dress” which appeared on Feb. 15, and then take even more time to respond with a Letter to the Editor?
Let me at least explain what I am talking about. Some months ago – I am not sure when because I wasn’t paying attention at the time, and because the article does not say – an enormous controversy arose here in The Land. A twenty-eight year old student, Eyal Cohen, who was then doing his miluim (army reserve duty), left his army base and went to attend his class in filmmaking. It was alleged that the teacher, a noted director of documentary films, Nizar Hassan, ejected the student from class because he was still in his army uniform. The Student Union became involved and issued a press release demanding “justice.” (This was apparently not an isolated situation: the article notes the activity of another fringe-leftist, Dr. Shlomit Tamari who “told a Bedouin student to remove her head-covering because it is an element of suppression…….’I told the student that I hadn’t intended to insult her,’ Tamari says. I told the college that I have academic freedom, and I can talk about that subject and I am continuing to do so.’”) The response from Israeli society was as you might expect: senior IDF officers became involved, and Hassan was denounced in the Knesset. Ultimately, when Hassan refused to apologize, a process was initiated to terminate his employment.
As you might expect from LeftLand, the article “Battle Dress” begins as a defense of Nizar Hassan, but – and this is why defense lawyers try not to put their clients on the witness stand – in the process, the filmmaker manages to destroy his own credibility. He categorically denies ejecting the student from his class. Instead he simply told him “I am absolutely unwilling to have people bearing arms and in uniform – whether of the police, of Fatah or of Hamas – come into my class,” in effect, creating an atmosphere of non-tolerance for this individual student-soldier as well as for the army in which he serves. When he was asked, “You made the decision to work in an Israeli academic institution -- you know the rules of the game.” “No.” “Can you lay down rules in the classroom even on a nonacademic matter?” “First of all, I have every right to argue with every rule and fight for rules that are appropriate for me.” And, of course, he denies “that the army is everywhere in Israeli society.” But what I love most of all is the false bravado often employed by people who are teetering on the brink: “I will not apologize. I prefer to beg in the streets of Nazareth and eat crumbs.” As if adding another family to the poverty roles would solve anything, or that a filmmaker with his credentials – especially now that he would be considered a “martyr” – would ever have to beg for bread.
Lest anyone misinterpret Hassan’s position that students should “not bring the war into my class,” as one of overzealous naiveté, consider the following sequence of events: this article appeared on Friday, Feb. 15. Two days later, I wrote my letter to the Editor, because this fake issue of “academic freedom” is one of my pet peeves (and thank G-d, while we had to pay $200 to transport our cat Mimi on the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, I was not charged anything at all for bringing along all my pet peeves). That Wednesday night, we received a call from Haaretz that they were planning to print my letter. It did not appear that Friday; in its place was a different letter with a point of view that, I must admit, I would never have thought of. Nizar Hassan was obviously insecure as the only Arab member of faculty; the solution was to apologize to him and hire more Arab professors. My letter did finally appear in Haaretz magazine the Friday after that, Feb. 29. However, by that time, events of the day had overtaken this war of words. (It is often the fate of words to be overwhelmed by reality.)
Up to this point, I have deliberately omitted one significant piece of information. You see, the events we are discussing took place in Sapir College in Sderot. And as many of you are aware, during the week in question, kassam rockets launched by Hamas from Gaza landed on that college campus, killing a forty-seven year old student, and injuring many others. One of the newspapers had a photograph of a female Arab student with most of her face covered, a victim of shock, being carted off on a stretcher. My first reaction was to wonder if she was one of the students insulted by Shlomit Tamari. (By the way, I get absolutely no pleasure in seeing Arabs victimized because their own leaders choose death over life.) A number of students coherent enough to be interviewed by the media indicated that they knew it was only a matter of time before the campus was struck. So much for the notion of keeping the war away from the classroom.
An interesting bit of information: a recent poll, for whose accuracy I cannot vouch, indicated that about two thirds of Israelis favored negotiating with Hamas for a cease-fire. Now I have no idea what exact question was asked, or how it was asked. And, as a new immigrant, I do not pretend to be an expert on what your random Israeli – with whom I can barely communicate – is thinking. But I’m guessing the following: this is simply another vote of no-confidence in the current government, a belief that Olmert and company will continue to be unwilling or unable to prevent the terrorists from victimizing our people in and around Sderot. And it also indicates that your man on the street assumes that Olmert and his rag-tag crew will remain in power – even though virtually nobody in Israel who does not sit in the Knesset, or work for somebody sitting in the Knesset, wants this government to survive.
The government continues to survive because the religious Sephardic party, Shas, refuses to quit. I am somewhat reluctant to criticize this group; its spiritual leader, Ovadiah Yoself is a rabbi revered by many here and rightly acclaimed as a Torah scholar. However, their conditions for remaining in the government seem as shifting as the sand in the dunes that surround my home here in Maale Adumim. It has something to do with not negotiating with Abbas on dividing up Jerusalem. What is strange is that they are probably the only people in the country who do not believe that these negotiations are already taking place.
The plain truth is that if you asked a broad sampling of people here – young secularists sitting in a coffee bar in Tel Aviv on a Saturday morning, cab drivers waiting for your arrival at Ben-Gurion airport, religious moshavniks in the Galil – why Shas remains in the coalition, you would probably get variations on the same harsh and devastating answer: blackmail. That Shas is simply using its position as power maker (we can bring down the government if you don’t do what we want) to get its people into key positions (like chief rabbi of Jerusalem), or to get support for legislation that ordinarily wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in you-know-where of passing.
While people in Sderot, and now in Ashkelon, are living in fear of rockets, the Shas delegation in the Knesset was rounding up support for a bill that would require Bezeq – the phone company and provider of our internet connection – to provide every user with a filter that would block out violence and pornography coming over the internet; if you didn’t want it, you would have to opt out on your own.
Now, I am, in general, opposed to pornography and violence, and in favor of devices that keep them away from children and from the rest of us. In fact, I am surprised that there aren’t such devices commonly available for television, which could certainly use some supervision. But there are plenty of effective filtering devises for the internet already on the market, with more on the way. My philosophy is that it’s a bad idea to force people to do what they would probably do on their own – if they thought it was their idea. I am also a political conservative from America who believes that he can do a better job of running his life than the government can. If this bill were to pass – unlikely, but possible – the Knesset member in charge of this project (and who would decide the definition of pornography) could easily become someone who believes that men should never see any pictures of fully-dressed women, and that men and women should walk on opposite sides of the street.
Meanwhile, life goes on in Sderot and environs, and the folks around the world are taking umbrage at even our half-hearted attempts at self defense. What I have decided to do – now that I have caught the attention of the editor of Haaretz magazine, and in my never ending effort to make the world a better place to live – is write a letter to THE Editor, The Ultimate Decision Maker, The One to Whom we address our supplications and requests. With your permission, I will share it with you:
Dear Ultimate Decider of My Fate; I know that You have a lot to accomplish, so I will keep this missive as brief as possible. It seems to me that You are forced to remind us every once in a while who is in charge – You – and who is not in charge – Us. Even as someone who just recently arrived in The Land You promised us thousands of years ago, and to which You are graciously allowing us to return, some things are fairly obvious, and one of them is that You are in the “I’m reminding you” mode. Israel has never been stronger, economically, technologically, and, yes, even spiritually. Yet there is an obvious inverse relation between the strength of the nation and the weakness of resolve and narrowness of spirit of our leaders – even some of those who claim to represent You. And the more numerous we become, the more determined our enemies are to destroy us. (Didn’t we play this scene out before?) So what are we left with? Your eternal mercy and our own resolve to live in The Land. May I humbly offer up the follow requests for Your consideration: Confound our enemies, give our leaders a little backbone once in a while, and remind our extended family still living in Exile – oblivious to the physical dangers some of them face and the real threat of decimation by assimilation that all of them face – that You would like them to come Home. And allow us to go from strength to strength.
Sincerely,Fred CasdenHamitzadim 33Maale Adumim, 98420Israel