Tuesday, November 25, 2008

:Daddy, they're punishing the paintings!"

There isn’t much to do at 4AM except let your mind wander. Of course you might wonder, why is this man awake at 4AM? For someone of a certain age, the first answer is “bladder.” But there is an additional reason. Younger people may have children to keep them up; we have Mimi the geriatric cat who is always awake at 4AM. Because she has lost a good part of her hearing, she no longer goes meow; she shrieks like a banshee. What is bothering her?, you ask. It could be that her food bowl is empty or that she is not pleased with what remains; she might have made a mess next to her litter box and is offended by the smell; she might have knocked over one of her three water dishes and needs to have it refilled; possibly she is announcing that she is about to upchuck a hair ball under our bed; perhaps she wants to curl up on Barbara’s stomach but my wife is sleeping on her side. At any rate, our cat is standing on my pillow, howling in my ear. Why? Go ask her. As I lie there, trying to go back to sleep, I have time to think about things, perhaps to consider what I would be writing next for my eager readers. And so on this one night I began to focus on The Underground Museum.

My first thought a year or so ago when Barbara had suggested that we visit this place was a visit to the bowels of the earth. Now it occurred to me that it also could have been an exhibit about the history of the London subway system, which is called “The Underground.” There is such a museum devoted to the NYC system in Brooklyn. I seem to remember Barbara telling me that she had been there. I never was. Haval (it’s a pity). There wasn’t so much reason for me to have gone there; I grew up in New York and I know I rode many of the subway cars that are on display. By the end of WW II, my mother was already taking my brother and me on the D train; we were still small enough to walk under the turnstile, meaning my mother didn’t have to pay the five cent fare (I come by my frugality naturally). My brother and I would stand in the front of the first car, looking through the big window next to the motorman, and pretend we were driving the train. The subway cars of that day had wicker seats and large ceiling fans – no air conditioning. The irony of the New York subway museum is that much of the system was never underground. Riding on the 3rd Ave El was like being in a living museum; the platforms and the cars were relics from the beginning of the 20th century, waiting to be torn down or sold as scrap metal. In some places, the tracks were laid directly opposite the windows of tenement buildings, sometimes so close that you could see a man in his undershirt brushing his teeth. We would ride down to 14th St, and on our way back, our final destination would invariably be a large coffee shop which had a conveyor belt which carried donuts from the back of the establishment all the way around to the display window in the front. In my whole life, I have never come across anything remotely as fascinating as that never-ending stream of donuts marching on a mechanical belt seemed to me when I was eight years old……

Back to a more scary and prosaic reality. Our museum in Jerusalem serves a testament and memorial to the Jewish underground, those groups (the mainstream Haganah and two other more extreme factions, The Irgun and the Lehi [The Stern Gang]) who defended Jewish communities from Arab attacks and opposed the efforts of the British to restrict immigration during the British Mandate. Barbara and I had visited this place before, built originally 150 years ago as a hospice for female Russian pilgrims to The Holy Land, and after 1917 served as a British prison. Here you can see the actual cells in which political prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, the infirmary where a doctor would dispense brightly colored placebos, the courtyard into which the prisoners would be allowed for an hour of exercise a day, the office of the High Commander, with furniture and equipment hurriedly left behind in 1948 when the Mandate ended. In one room there is a memorial with photographs and information about these brave men who died fighting to save Jewish lives.

But now this somber reminder of an heroic past would serve as the venue for a Jerusalem Art festival; and this would be our next scheduled stop on our Hag Hamoed itinerary. Needless to say, once we returned to Jerusalem from Beit Shemesh, we needed additional sustenance before doing anything else. And so we walked, as we have done so many times, up and Rehov Yaffa, considering which of the many local establishments we would patronize – all of them, it goes without saying, kosher, and all of them this time of year having a sukkah in the front or side – so that for entire blocks the sidewalks are festooned with festive booths. Any time I can, I steer people to the Coffee Bean, probably the only kosher version of an international chain. Why? First of all, they are fairly inexpensive (did you expect any other ‘reason number 1’?), most of the day serving a “businessman’s lunch” – a very popular item in almost every Israeli restaurant – in this case, half of a large sandwich and a cup of cappuccino or good tea for twenty shekels. You can sit at a table for hours on end without anybody bothering you; you can utilize their wireless internet connections; and people (lots of American students) do just that: sit for hours with their laptops, doing business, writing papers, talking long distance with their VOIP connections. And third, they have clean bathrooms – which I have availed myself of even when I wasn’t otherwise patronizing the place. Needless to say, we had our coffee there outside in their sukkah (number three for the day) – which I admit had very schvach schach – and then headed over to the Russian compound to the art show at the Underground Museum.

It just goes to show: how you can take something and turn it into something completely different. Normally, you would not use the word “cheerful” to describe a testament to brave men long gone and barely remembered (and the history of the formation of the State is replete with such people). But now the corridors, the rooms, he courtyard was filled with art from Israeli galleries. Some of these were first rate galleries with carefully selected collections: acknowledged first rank Israeli artists like Reuven Rubin and Nachman Gutman, a few small canvases by Utrillo or Pisarro, interesting work by “emerging” Israeli artists; then there were lesser galleries with more of a hodgepodge, whatever they managed to get their hands on; there was plenty of kitch on display: by-the-numbers paintings of bearded men dancing with torah scrolls, etc. There were a number of individual artists displaying their wares, some good, some not so. At one point, Natania came over to me and said to me, “Daddy, they’re punishing the paintings.” Sure enough, someone had had the most out-of-the-box idea: displaying paintings behind the barred windows of the solitary confinement cells (which contain some thin bedding on the stone floor and a chamber pot). Effective, but very disconcerting. Then it occurred to me. Many of the prisoners incarcerated and executed in this jail were from the Lehi, (a Hebrew acronym for ‘Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), the smallest, most extreme and controversial of the groups opposing the Mandate, called by the British ‘The Stern Gang’ after its leader, Avraham Stern. Here in these halls more than sixty years after Jewish men were hung in the courtyard, the Stern gallery was hanging its wares. If that’s not a kick in the pants, an eyeful of irony, I don’t know what is.

After having had breakfast in Yehudah and Arleen’s sukkah, refreshments in a sukkah in Beit Shemesh, coffee on Rehov Yaffa, the only thing left to do was have dinner. Natania was eager to try a new sushi joint on a nearby street called Shlomzion Hamalka, where again we found room in their sukkah. This place was “fancy” (defined as using table cloths), and the food was pretty good – although no better than at some of the “less fancy” places we had frequented. We had a leisurely meal; and when we left, there was suddenly a huge line of people waiting to get it. We started to walk back to Yaffa to get a bus to another bus to get us back to Maale Adumim (a little bit east of you-know-where). Every food establishment along the way worthy of the name was packed, with people waiting to get in. Then it occurred to me: I was hearing an awful lot of English. Yes! That was it! All the yeshiva and seminary kids here for the year, all the families here on vacation, they were free to go. Free to join the rest of Israel. Free to find a restaurant – because they hadn’t eaten enough over the last two days. Thee synagogues and hotels were emptying out. Hag Hamoed was over!

The next day, we would be visiting Sderot on a tiyul organized by the yeshiva there. But that’s for next time.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hag Hamoed, or a Tale of Four Sukkas

“Hag Hamoed,” that’s what I am going to call it from now on: the second day of Sukkot, which is still Hag (the holiday) for you laggards in Exile and Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days for those of us who have successfully made it to The Land. By 9AM of that day, here a little bit east of Yerushalayim, you can see teenagers and adults getting ready, backpacks prepared, cars and buses being loaded, as a huge part of the nation prepares to celebrate our return by walking and riding the length and breadth of the country during these glorious days. But we in the Anglo community have a problem; to wit, you. Many of our English speaking friends and neighbors are hosting family and friends from back where they came from; the hotels in Jerusalem are packed with tourists. And all of these unfortunate folks are required to repeat the prayers and restrictions of The Hag for a second day. So “us natives” are, in effect, waiting for the rest of you to get done with your business so that we can get going; there will be no organized tiyulim for the Anglo community until the following day. It’s like a family in New Jersey having to delay its summer vacation until their son finishes summer school to make up the courses he flunked during the regular school term.
No matter, there is plenty for us to do on this Hag Hamoed. We are expected in Jerusalem at 10AM to visit Yehudah and Arleen, whom Barbara has known forever. When Barbara’s family moved to Rochester when she was thirteen, the only Jewish family on Goodman St. was the Osbands. Helen, may her memory be a blessing, and Les, who is now in an assisted living residence in Baltimore, had three children. Arleen was the oldest child; Barbara went to Monroe H.S. with the Leah; the youngest was Michael, an extremely brilliant and gifted boy who became a renowned pediatric oncologist, later tragically succumbing to cancer himself.
The first plane that left Israel after the 1967 war had among its passengers Rabbi Ohad and Bracha Habshush who arrived in Rochester just in time for the wedding of their oldest son Yehuda to Arleen. As it happens, Barbara had planned to go to Israel shortly thereafter, and she spent a week in the very (very!) cramped Habshush apartment in the Yeminite neighborhood near Mea Shearim – in which then lived their very large family – with a kitchen as big as a mid-sized American bathroom. From then on, Barbara became the ninth Habshush child, the only one with blue eyes and rosy cheeks. Rabbi Habshush is long deceased, but Bracha is going strong, living in Efrat, and meticulously tracking in a notebook the birthdays of her perhaps forty grandchildren and a developing army of great-grandchildren.
The apartment in which Arleen and Yehuda live in the Artzei HaBirah neighborhood is the same one they lived in when we came to Israel in 1980 (I always think of how many homes and communities Barbara and I have lived in since then). Their four children are grown, out of the house, and two of them are married with their own children. Some of the pictures on the wall are different; otherwise, the apartment seems exactly the same as when I first saw it in 1980. The neighborhood, though, has changed; it has gone from being a poor, mixed, working class neighborhood to an overwhelmingly Haredi one. I know the area well. When Barbara, Natania, and I were in Jerusalem in 2004 we rented an apartment a five minute walk away. I always marveled at the residents’ total disregard for the garden areas and the yards around the buildings. I wondered if they believed that the empty pizza boxes strewn around would grow into pizza trees, the plastic cups into soda bushes, or, and this would truly be a miracle, the candy wrappers into Torah scrolls. Otherwise, I can find no satisfactory explanation for the obstinate refusal to pick up any refuse anywhere in the area and a total aversion to any living plant life that did not precede the current occupants’ arrival on the scene.
The bus schedule from Maale Adumim always prevents us from arriving anywhere exactly on time; we have to be either early or late. So we arrived in plenty of time to help Arleen set up for her brunch in the sukkah, an annual event commemorating the yahrzeit of her mother, to which she invites a many people as she can who knew Helen Osband from the old days in Rochester (making Barbara a prime suspect). Arleen, being Arleen, was certain that everyone would arrive at 10AM and we would be done by 11AM, at which point she could return the borrowed plastic chairs which were needed by their real owners by 11:30. (Needless to say, her family and friends did not arrive en masse at 10, and, of course, we were not finished at 11.) By 10:30, we went out through a bedroom to their small balcony on which there was sukkah big enough for about eight people to squeeze in (the women, who are not obligated to eat in a sukkah, stayed inside – there just wasn’t enough room). We then returned inside back to the table in their small dining nook, and we began taking turns reviewing the sections of the Mishnah which relate building a sukkah, taking turns reading each section. (A sukkah more than twenty cubits high is invalid…) I must admire the patience of the Habshush clan for putting up with me; I’m sure that any of their children, third grade and up, could read with greater agility, but they included me and allowed me to take my turn. Guests kept arriving, and at this point David Glazer, the son of our dear friends Jeff and June, came in with his wife, Yardaena, and her mother, Barbara, the widow of Michael Osband. The three of them sat down at the table and joined in the learning. Now in this kind of environment, the men will sit around and do the learning, while the women are usually involved in other things. But I imagine that everyone present understood and expected that these two women would join in; they were certainly knowledgeable enough.
I still have fond memories of traveling up to the Maimonedes School in Brookline, Massachussets so many years ago for Yardaena’s bat mitvah celebration, for which she and her father – then very much alive and full of energy – had spent an entire year learning a large section of The Mishna – so that it wasn’t just a party, but a Siyum (a celebration at the completion of a section of learning.) Yaerdena blossomed into an amazing student like her father and began teaching Judaic Studies (she gave a shiur at Beth Aaron one Shavuot morning a few years ago). And in the “it’s-not-just-a-small-world-but-a-broom-closet” department, I remember the look on our friend Heshy’s face. We had invited him and his wife Chana-Chaya to our home in Teaneck many times for Shabbat meals. On this one occasion, when we passed out the “benchers” (booklets which include prayers after one has eaten, which are often given out at events with the names of the honorees), he asked in astonishment, “Where did you get this?” He showed us the bencher which he had selected seemingly at random from a large stack. It read “Bat Mitzvah of Yardeana Batya Osband, Rosh Chodesh Tamuz 5747” (that’s 22 years ago). “We know the family, and we were there.” “So was I” said Heshie. Turns out he went to school with Michael. I know that most of us have similar tales of amazing connections, but it doesn’t take away the shock and awe every time you hear such a story.
But take it one step further: one century ago, more or less, three families were part of a mass migration which would move hundreds of thousands of Jews great distances from the cities, towns, and villages where they had lived for centuries. The Habshush clan was part of a movement of Yeminite Jews who somehow, with great difficulty and through great danger, made their way from Saana, the capital city, to Jerusalem. A second family, the Osbands (along with the Marzel family) would come to Rochester, NY. A third family would wind up in Fort Worth, Texas with their family name changed to “Glazer.” It would seem to require the talent of a very gifted novelist to construct a plot intricate enough to unite these families who had been geographically so distant. Yet, we were all sitting around a table in Jerusalem: a Glazer and an Osband having married and being related by another marriage to the Habshushes, three families which we had met in completely different contexts, in different times and different places. And we were there to share memories of Helen Osband, one of the truly nicest women who ever walked the face of the earth.
The party was still going on, but we had to leave. We had arranged to meet Natania at a bus stop on a street corner to get the #415 bus to Beit Shemesh, our next destination, and we didn’t want to keep her waiting.
We have friends from our days in Passaic who a number of years ago bought an apartment “on paper” (in other words, construction hadn’t begun; you were just shown the floor plan). To our amazement, we received an e-mail from them shortly before Sukkot. Their home was now finished, and they were inviting all their friends in The Land to join them for a hannukat habayit (house warming). From the wording of their e-mail, that it would be the second day of the holiday for them, we inferred (correctly) that they have not yet made aliyah. Still, a residence in The Land is noteworthy, and we would be happy to see them under any circumstances. In keeping with our pattern, we were the first to arrive, and so we had time to take a house tour and catch up with each other’s stories. Both of their kids are still in college, and they do not expect to be able to live here permanently for another few years. But now they have a place of their own to come to even before that Big Day comes! Not yet fully furnished, but livable – with many nice neighbors. So it would be fair to say that they were excited. Both of their children were with them, and each child had three or four friends staying with them. So their two story apartment, planned to satisfy the demands of the American Jewish community, looked like a large dormitory. No matter.
Their sukkah was on a patio outside the “salon,” facing a very large New Jersey sized back yard (just parched bare dirt for now.) There was plenty of nosh and several bottles: a few single malts and the original Jack Daniels (not the inexpensive black label stuff they used to serve at kiddushes back in Passaic). I picked up a small glass, sat down in the sukkah (with appropriate blessings), and began to sample the various whiskeys and whiskies before me. Sadly, as people began to come in, nobody, nobody, sat down and joined me for a wee drop. This is almost unheard of, but true.
But, as I was sitting in the sukkah and looking out at the street beyond the yard, I heard the following cautionary tale. We have already discussed “be careful what you wish for” and my corollary “be careful what you complain about.” I now realize that there is a third element to this: “be careful what you worry about.” The family in question was considering buying a home in The Land and was looking at an apartment in Modiin. From the description we were given, it seemed like a really nice place. But the realtor they were using had other ideas (it’s called “steering,” common among realtors world-wide, but especially prevalent here in The Land where telling somebody else what they should be doing is a national pastime). She began explaining that the particular neighborhood in Modiin was “mixed” (that is, “religious,” traditional, and secular people living in close proximity) and you couldn’t tell who your neighbors would be, and they might make noise on Shabbat. Before she was finished, she had painted a dire picture of a busload of Hilonim (secular Jews) moving in downstairs from them who would have loud parties from Friday night all through Shabbat. She frightened them out of Modiin and into purchasing something in this area of Beit Shemesh. Across that very street we could see from the sukkah was another housing development that had just been completed. Originally, it was built for a group of French Jews who were making aliyah, but at the last minute, the project was bought out, and now the occupants are………….extreme Haredim, hostile Mea Shearim-type expats who do not like their new neighbors or any other Jews who do not look, think, or act like them. “We were so worried about who our neighbors would be, and now we’re the goyim.” Just goes to show. No matter how “religious” you think you are, there is always someone else who thinks that you are a dog-in-the-street. And Moshiach is waiting patiently in the wings……..
It was time to leave sukkah #2 and head back to Jerusalem, where we would find out what happens when paintings misbehave.