Friday, December 25, 2009

The Cuboid and the Prime Minister

Here’s a good question to start off with: what is the correct term for a three dimensional rectangle, say something shaped like a shoe box? I didn’t know either, and I had to think of some way to describe something to my buddy, Ron as he, his wife Esther, and I were walking back to their house for Shabbat lunch. So I said that the object I had in mind was aquarium shaped. He thought that was kind of funny, but he admitted he couldn’t think of a better way to describe what I had in mind, even though he had one of these objects himself. And that is a glass container, which does in fact look like a five or ten gallon fish tank (for those of you who housed a collection of guppies sometime in your life) which you turn upside down and place within it your Hanukkah menorah, which you can now place outside your house and really publicize the miracle which is central to this holiday. (By the way, the correct answer is a ‘cuboid.’)
The point of my story was that exactly one week before (which was the first day of the holiday here (as it was wherever you might be in Exile) , I was doing exactly the same thing, walking this way with them – even though it is slightly out of my way; but good company is worth something – and after we parted company, I saw something lying on the sidewalk. On closer inspection, I realized that it was what remained of one of these aquariums. I can only surmise that some family had placed in on their balcony, and the heavy wind we had last Friday night blew it off. “Great,” I thought. “Someone is trying to do a mitzvah and all they wind up with is shards of glass strewn all over the sidewalk.”
Now a more pessimistic sort might have used that as a metaphor for Hanukkah this year. Things did not seem to be working out as well as I would have like them to. We had moved into our new apartment before Rosh Hashana (and I promise I will be writing more about that soon), and we ordered a few pieces of furniture and began having some work done, nothing extravagant, obvious things that most of you would have done: a fresh coat of paint, replacing sub-standard electrical wiring, making sure the roofs were water-proof, making sure everything worked the way it was supposed to, hanging pictures on the wall, being able to put out our books and our clothing. Repair and replace, as opposed to renovate. But the list kept getting longer and longer as new ‘surprises’ were uncovered, and it seemed at times that the workmen we were using (all highly recommended Jewish labor) were living in our apartment. I know that some of you know what that’s like; you can’t get anything else done when guys are banging, sawing, hammering, and always needing you to tell them what you want done. At some point, I began to adopt a strategy which I use with great frequency, very helpful in maintaining one’s equilibrium. Let’s say you’re waiting for a bus. You’re waiting a long, long time for a bus. And it’s cold. And it’s raining. And you’re getting soaking wet. And it seems that you have been waiting forever for this bus. Try the following mental exercise: “This too will pass. There will be a time when I am no longer waiting in the rain for this stupid bus. I will be in a warm, dry place. I will be………..(and you can fill in the blanks). You can annoy me by withholding your bus, but you can’t beat me.” As November rolled around, I began to say to myself,, “It seems chaotic and never-ending now, but by the time Hanukkah is here, everything will be finished, we will be enjoying our new apartment, and we should begin considering having some kind of housewarming party, a Hanukkat Habayit over Hanukkah. I could almost taste it: a week without having anybody come to fix something, or worse, waiting for someone to come and fix something.
Needless to say, Hanukkah did arrive, and…… our closet and bookcases were almost ready, and several projects were almost finished or almost started, or almost ready to be started, or…. (Can you pick out the key word here?) One area of concern is the roof in our machsan (storage area). What came with the apartment was an old, temporary roof made of corrugated plastic, demonstrably ready to leak, hence making the area unusable for storage; and forcing us to use what will be a guest room for storage. Gilad, our painter/handyman, started putting up a very elaborate tile roof on top of what we had, but he had to take it down and start again because it was too visible from the street and would bend our local building inspectors out of shape. And even if they didn’t notice it, it was the first day of THE BIG FREEZE – a much more global upset than our petty personal problems.
Some of you may be aware that our government has declared a freeze throughout Judea and Shomron/Judea and Samaria/the West Bank. So you might think that means that no one can go up to an unoccupied hilltop and put up a caravan. No, it doesn’t mean only that. OK. It must mean that you can’t begin new construction anywhere in an existing community. No, it doesn’t just mean that either. OK. Then it must mean that you can’t put on an addition to something that’s already built. No, but you’re getting warmer. What it does mean is that you can’t do anything in an existing community to an existing structure that would need a building permit. And if you’re still with me and have the stomach to ask: what would you need a building permit to do? The two favorite absurd but real examples are to put up a new pergola on your patio or balcony (very popular in this sunny climate) or to add a large air-conditioning unit (very popular in this sunny climate). Some of this is not completely clear. For example, there was a latticed wooden roof on one of our balconies which the previous owner took down because it was falling apart. The metal supporting structure is still there; If we want to replace the pergola that was there before – so we can sit out on our balcony in the summer – will we be allowed to do so? And did we actually need a permit to put up a new roof? I hope not because we did it anyway.
A sense of uncertainly and profound skepticism surrounds this dubious activity: stopping any and all construction in a significant part of our country for ten months. The economic implications alone are staggering; I don’t know if anyone has become to assess the kazillions of shekels this will cost the economy. The very left-wing Supreme Court has implied that those affected may be entitled to remuneration from a government which apparently hadn’t given the slightest thought to the matter. Reimbursement would only apply to builders who can’t construct and people paying mortgages for virtual apartments. The irony is that the people who stand the most to lose – because they won’t able to sue – are the thousands of Arab laborers who will have lost their jobs in construction and related fields.
You may be asking the same question which a lot of us are asking: what is the point to this exercise in futility? What is it supposed to accomplish? Whom is it supposed to satisfy or impress? How will it help anything or anybody? And the biggie: what is the prime minister up to, and can anybody believe anything he says – like THE BIG FREEZE will only last for ten months? Netanyahu, to his credit, put his foot down and refused to stop construction anywhere in Jerusalem, making it clear to all and sundry that our eternal capital will not be the subject of any future negotiations. Fine. But if you are willing to freeze construction in Maale Adumim – which by general consent has always been considered untouchable – what message is being sent? Does that mean that our community of almost 40,000 people will be the subject of future territorial negotiations? And if we are placed on the bargaining table, what about Efrat with its 15,000 residents? And then what about the smaller communities of 1,000 or fewer people?
If you have seen photographs or videos of confrontations, of militant residents, even school children, manning the barricades against the soldiers and the police who are being sent in to prevent construction, the action is going on in these small communities. It is obvious to these communities that today’s police action is an exercise in preparation for possible expulsion in the future, and they are not going to leave without a fight. Here in Maale Adumim, people are more sanguine, and things are quiet. There are no inspectors, no police, no barricades, no kids staging sit-downs in the streets. Our mayor, Benny Kashriel, called a meeting a week or so ago to give a full report on what was happening. The turnout was, shall we say, disappointing. Probably half of the plenty-of-seats-available audience came from the relatively small Anglo community here, including one guy who was ready to sign up people for the Likud Party – still nurturing the belief that if there were only enough right-wing party members, we could wrest control of Likud from Bibi and company. Benny had a much bigger audience two days later at a mass rally near the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, which drew a crowd of between ten and thirty thousand people (depending on which paper you read), mostly young people who paid little attention to the speakers, a parade of well-meaning politicians vowing to continue building throughout Yehuda and Shomron. If only words were bricks and resolutions, mortar.. Our Benny said something to the effect of: “Bibi, for eighteen years you told me to build, and I did so. Now what are we supposed to do?” Boo-hoo. There were two or three Knesset members from Likud who spoke at the rally. Most of the other so-called right-wing members that Likud voters had pinned their hopes on have chosen to indicate their disapproval of THE FREEZE, but have heeded Netanyahu’s pleas for unity by doing nothing about it. In other words, keeping their party together is more important than keeping the country together.
Now there are some obvious parallels between today’s events in The Land and the so long ago struggles of the Maccabis against the Hellenists and the Syrian-Greeks, but why don’t I let you make the connections, dot the i’s and cross the t’s – if you choose to do so. Ever since I heard the bat mitzvah girl in New Jersey get up and claim that the modern-day Maccabis were the civil libertarians in America who were campaigning against the use of Hanukkah displays on public property, ever since then, I have understood the chameleon nature of this holiday and its heroes: that every Jewish group and cause today claims the Maccabis as its own. I haven’t heard of anyone yet who is saying that it’s the Israeli police who are the modern-day equivalent, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
So you can understand why I was less than my usual exuberant self as the holiday rolled around. And neither of our girls would be home to cheer me up for the start of the holiday. Barbara was suffering from muscle spasms in her back, so the latke production was at an all-time low. Last year, I came to the painful but inescapable conclusion that for the most part the local sufganiyot are not worth the caloric investment (the average Israeli gains about five pounds during these eight days).
Barbara’s back problems forced us to cancel the walking trips we had planned. But there was one excursion that I had intended to go on by myself: a field trip to photograph the Hanukkah lights in The Old City. The fellow running the event, Doug Guthrie, holds photographic workshops for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel; these are really for beginners only, and therefore I had never met up with him. This trip sounded like fun, whether or not I ‘learned’ anything or not. It would at least get me out of the house with my camera.
We were supposed to meet by the Zion Gate at 4:30, and that was just about when I was getting off the bus by the Jaffa Gate, which is a brisk fifteen minute walk away. I figured that I was going to be too late to meet up with the group, but that there would be no harm in trying. If nothing else, I could walk around on my own. Thank G-d for Israeli time! The group was still there when I showed up, huffing and puffing from my dash through The Old City. I handed over my thirty five shekels, and we were off. The small group of attendees was comprised mostly of Doug’s students, still learning how to use their point-and-shoot digital cameras, although there were a few of us with some experience. It became obvious to me very quickly that what Doug was looking for was very different from what I was, and that I needed to do things my way. Still, he had done this tour before, and knew where to go, which I would not have on my own.
We began to wander through the streets and alleys of the Jewish Quarter, seeking out hanukkiot and the fine Jews lighting them, up streets where I’ve been before and I could find again, and down alleyways which I would need a map to locate – and maybe a trail of breadcrumbs to get out again. We stopped first along Chabad Street, one of the main thoroughfares in the Quarter, in front of a gate which opened into a courtyard shared by a number of apartments. It was now the earliest possible minute that one could light candles – six plus the shamash – and the intrepid lighters were not going to delay doing their mitzvah for even a nano-second. One after another, men and children came out. They were not lighting inside their home or even in front of it; their hanukkiot were carefully placed in front of the gate, for maximum exposure, and each one was placed inside a glass enclosure (remember the cuboid?!) to make certain that the lights wouldn’t blow out. Most of us use little candles which perch precariously in their place in our menorah. Here the preference is for wicks sitting in oil; some put the oil in yahrtzeit-size glasses. Many of us have only one menorah per family. Here they have one per person, and some of these families have lots of persons! Looking closely at these artifacts, many with inscriptions on them, you realize how old they are, how many generations have used them, in how many countries, in what troubling times when miracles were sorely in need, before this evening on Chabad Street in the Jewish Quarter in our ancient capital. I was beginning to get the sense that something special was going on. We wandered on until we came to the large plaza where the venerable Hurva synagogue is being rebuilt from the rubble which the Jordanians turned it into. A crowd was gathering, and of course we stopped to find out what was going on. On the second floor of a building, a family was getting ready to light their candles, and below there were at least hundred people waiting and watching expectantly. When the husband realized what was going on, he motioned to the crowd; several people took him up on his offer and went up to his apartment. We could see the man, his wife, their children, their friends, and now the newcomers standing by the window of this modest apartment in a ‘million dollar’ neighborhood. Finally, the man began to light, and the crowd spontaneously burst out singing: “she assah nissim l’avoteinu…” Talk about publicizing the miracle! For years I have heard learned rabbis talking about this, in Hebrew, pirsumei mitzvah, and we have always dutifully placed our menorah in a window – even though in many of the places we lived nobody could possibly see our candles. I have been present about public ceremonies: Chabad was always good for that sort of thing: a prominent rabbi and a dignitary would be lifted in a cherry picker to light a fifteen or twenty foot high oil burning flame. But for the first time, standing in the plaza next to where the Hurva is being lovingly reconstructed, I witnessed and I understood on a visceral level what publicizing our miracles was all about. I witnessed and I understood how something done by an ordinary Jew in the privacy of his home can be raised to something transcendental. Of course, it helps to have an audience, especially an enthusiastic one, and it’s even better when the audience becomes part of the act. For me, it was as if the light of these candles had banished all the darkness. Not just the physical darkness which was beginning to surround us at 5:15 in the evening. This moment of true joy is the way things are supposed to be and can be – if only people wouldn’t work so hard at mucking things up.
The Jewish Quarter was filling with people. Everywhere you turned there were tour guides leading Jews and gentiles, explaining the significance of Hanukkah. Even in the out-of-the-way alleys into which we headed next, a hanukkiah in its glass cage would be carefully placed on a chair in front of a doorway, and fifty people would pass by, and then another fifty people. Great for maximizing the effect; not so great if you are trying to take a picture! The little group of photographers kept going about its business, although at some point I had to leave, in order to get back to Maale Adumim by 7:30 for Nachum’s Wednesday night Gemarah shiur. I managed to find my way out of the Jewish Quarter onto the road which leads back to the Jaffa Gate. There is a restaurant one passes in the Armenian Quarter, and as I walked by I heard a familiar melody being played softly. A Christmas Carol! How many of these would I have heard back in the wilds of New Jersey eight days before December 25?
The following night, I was sitting, hunched over my laptop, too tired to do anything useful, but not quite ready to go to bed. Looking over my e-mail, I noticed a Zogby poll to which I had not responded. Several months ago, we had gotten a call on our New Jersey line from the Zogby organization. They were sending me stuff to an out-of-date e-mail address and were trying to locate me to re-include me in their surveys. I explained to the nice man on the phone that we are living in Israel and they probably wouldn’t want to include me. But no, they were still very much interested in my opinions, and so I gave them my Yahoo address. So now, the least I should is respond to the questionnaire they sent me. That seemed to be as much as I was capable at that moment anyway. I opened the attachment. First they asked where I live, and I checked off the box that said ‘out of the country.’ Not surprisingly, they were interested in my opinion of the incumbent American president and topics like global warming. Finally there was a long section on Holiday shopping. Was I going to spend more or less this year than last year? How to answer that? Let’s see. This year we spent eight shekels for a box of candles. Last year, I think we found a guy selling them on the street next to Mahane Yehuda for six shekels. So that would be more this year. On the other hand, we – or I should say I – spent much more last year trying to find a decent sufganiah. So that would be less this year. I wound up by ducking the question and indicating ‘the same,’ but I’m not sure my spending patterns are what Zogby had in mind. I went up to bed thinking about all the ‘holiday’ music that wouldn’t be invading my space this year and all the shopping days until you-know-when I would again be missing, tucked away as we are in The Land. I could tell you about how I fell asleep counting reindeer, but I would be making that up.
If you are concerned that we didn’t have enough to eat over Hanukkah, rest assured that we did. I finally broke down and got one filled donut for me and one glazed one for Barbara, which she ate while resting on our sofa – with Mimi, the geriatric cat, lying on her stomach. Our feline normally does not go after human food, but she took a lively interest in what Barbara was eating and received her fair share, proving that even cats are willing to participate in pirsumei mitzvah. Barbara’s back improved enough to allow her to make one enormous batch of latkes which she, I, and Natania devoured in one weight-ignoring session. Saturday night, when Shabbat and Hanukkah were over, our friend Devorah came over to make her fried delicacy, funnel cakes. I usually go shopping once a week, and try to make certain that we don’t run out of things in between. By my reckoning, we had about six ounces of canola oil, enough to last until my next shopping trip, but I hadn’t factored in filling a frying pan for Devorah. There was nothing to do but head off to MisterZol to purchase a three liter jug. When I got back, I announced that I knew for certain that Hanukkah was over. Devorah was brash (or foolish) enough to ask me how I knew. “If it were still Hanukkah, the oil we had would have been enough for eight days of funnel cakes.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The answer is.............

It is always a good idea to start a story at the beginning – or at least to indicate when you somehow stumble over it – although sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the yarn actually started. Saves a lot of wear and tear on the grey cells of your audience if you at least try to keep them in the loop.
I began thinking about making this resolution about two months ago. What happened was this: a woman put a post on one of the aliyah-oriented e-mail lists I belong to with the following concern. She and her husband were planning on making aliyah, but “somebody” told them that a lot of kids in the dati leumi (National religious) schools here use drugs and she was concerned. Personally, I have very little patience with people whose lives are ruled by what “somebody” tells them – as if “somebody” ever knows anything or anybody. My first thought was to respond by saying that this is not a new situation, citing an obscure midrash (story) to the effect that when the twelve spies who were sent by Moshe to scout out The Land, and ten of them came back with a negative report, part of it was the claim that all of the teenagers hereabouts were smoking marihuana. That part was edited out of the Torah, but the story remains. However, I decided not to get involved in the discussion. After all, besides my extrordinary wit and the high quality of my prose, what did I have to contribute? My kids didn’t go to school here; so I have no first hand information to impart. My reticence left the field open to several women who sent in long, earnest contributions on the do’s and don’t’s of child-raising here. One of these ladies stated unequivocally that ex-pat American parents should not send their children back to The States for summer vacation. Don’t ask me how that relates to the original question about alleged drug use here in The Land, but she did write it.
It is very tempting with these e-mail groups to give advice – especially when the senders are asking for it. “What should I do? What should I bring? Where this; when that? But maybe, just maybe, telling people you’ve never met how they should live their lives is not such a good idea. Now let’s make some distinctions. In my lexicon, there is a difference between a suggestion (someone you might want to speak to on the subject is……), somewhat stronger, a recommendation ( I highly recommend X, a leading authority on the subject), information (The Ministry of Health compiles statistics on drug use amongst teenagers), and that dreaded bugaboo, advice (whatever you do, don’t………..). There is all the difference in the world between being helpful and being bossy. So I have decided that as much as possible I’m going to shut down my advice-dispensing machine, once and for all.
Having said that, I think what I’m going to do when people who are preparing to make aliyah ask, as they often do, what should they bring with them?, I am going to make the following SUGGESTION. “Here’s something I didn’t do, and therefore I am constantly forced to improvise on the topic. I wish I had a list of everything, everything, that went wrong back in The States because it is so easy to lose perspective when you’re having a difficulty here and you forget you had exactly the same problem back where you came from – whether it was the time it took you half an hour to find a disinterested sales person to assist you; or the poor quality of electrical repair in the house you just bought; or when you spent forty five minutes on line at the post office to get a package which they claimed they tried to deliver, but you had been home the entire day and the postman never came; or when some moron-who-should-be-banned-from-driving-for-life cut you off and you almost came to blows. The biggest SNAFU we have had since we arrived in The Land was getting EZ-Pass in New Jersey to remove what they charged us after we returned their transponder and were thousands of miles from their nearest bridge, tunnel, or highway. It took Barbara five months of calling, going back and forth between them and our credit card company before the matter was finally resolved. When you keep in mind that stupidity, over-zealous bureaucracy, and inertia are widespread throughout the planet it makes it somewhat easier to deal with the occasional (?) problem one faces here.
This need to create a sense of calm and equilibrium was whirling through my mind the day, several weeks ago when Barbara and I met Tina at the belly-of-the-beast, the office of The Rabbinate in Tel Aviv. Tina, as I believe I have mentioned, is planning to get married here in The Land next May, and the first official step was to get The Rabbinate to acknowledge that she is Jewish. Difficult enough for anybody, but especially for anyone who was born elsewhere, and even more especially for someone like her who was born in Odessa, part of the former Soviet Union. (The percentage of forged documents of all kinds in Russian is apparently significantly higher than any others). As I spent almost thirty years working for a similar kind of operation, the New York City government, I figured out P.D.Q. what the Rabbinate’s method of operation is: whatever documents, whatever forms, whatever papers you produce are the wrong documents, the wrong forms, the wrong papers; and, what’s more, whoever signed any of them is the wrong person. Even if it’s a rabbi, it’s the wrong rabbi, because whoever it was isn’t on their twenty year old list, which includes some who are no longer alive. Easy, once you understand the rules. As an aside, let me say this: there are many Jews in The Land who find their way back to Torah Judaism because they come to conclude that our several thousand year old religion is more sensible than the secular world they see around them (the latest example I have come across Doron Sheffer, an Israeli who played college basketball for the University of Connecticut and was an all-star in the Israeli league for many years, who now wears a skullcap as big as a basketball), and because there are many sincere, dedicated rabbis infused with the light of Torah. But none of this has anything to do with The Rabbinate here, who seem to do nothing but fight amongst themselves and turn people off.
The first time Tina showed up at their headquarters with all her documents, they told her to come back with pictures of her family. Because she lives about five minutes away, she zipped home and brought back the scads of pictures she happened to have. At this point, you may be wondering: how does having pictures of your parents, grandparents, extended family prove that you are Jewish? Don’t non-Jews also have pictures of their families? I was wondering the same thing too; I don’t have an answer for you. Then you might be thinking: supposing somebody didn’t have scads of pictures to show the Rabbinate? Would that mean that you’re not Jewish? What about the hundreds of young singles who have made aliyah from America with fewer belongings than my grandparents brought with them to America and left the photo albums behind in New Jersey? What about those people – and I include myself in this category – who would be unable to produce a copy of their parents’ ketuba – either because their parents were not married under religious auspices or whose parents did not consider this document to be important enough to save? You want to hear something really absurd: I can walk into any beit knesset in Israel (although there are some I would not choose to enter) and get up to recite the priestly blessing, and no one will question whether I am or am not a Cohen. But I probably would have a difficult time convincing The Rabbinate that I am even Jewish. I honestly have no idea who married my parents (and It’s a little too late to ask), and the truth is that while the rabbi who married us happened to know Barbara, he had no idea who I was. Plus the chances that he is on The Rabbinate’s approved list are about equal to my successfully swimming The English Channel. We do have a photo album from that event, and most of the men are wearing yarmulkes; whether that would count as evidence or not, I don’t know. There are no pictures of our – my brother’s and my – bar mitzvah (just as well: immediately after the Shabbat morning service, the invited guests walked around the corner to our apartment where the ‘reception’ took place). Somewhere in the boxes we have not unpacked there is a printed invitation to the bar mitzvah of Frank and Fred Casden on a particular date in late February in 1954 at the Young Israel of Moshulu Parkway in The Bronx. Would that count as evidence? When Natania visited Barbara’s mother in Florida earlier this year, I had her bring back a copy of her ketuba. Barbara’s mother and father were married – purely by coincidence – by a prominent Orthodox rabbi (in his office) on L’ag B’Omer when her father had a day off from the military. It is quite possible that the rabbi who married them during W.W. II is still on the official list of The Rabbinate. That might help Natania if she needs to deal with these folks down the line.
Even though I might have trouble proving that I am Jewish, I would qualify, along with Barbara, as a witness that Tina is Jewish – as we are not related by blood to our daughter. And this is the reason why were on the express bus from Maale Adumim to Tel Aviv which leaves our corner around 6:15 in the AM, arriving at the Arlazaroff station at 8 in the AM, giving us time to down a cup of coffee and some kind of pastry en route to the HQ of The Rabbinate, which we located by the following the guy n the frock coat the last block or so.
The letter Tina had received advised her to show up with her documentation and her witnesses at 8:45 and go to room X; no appointment was necessary. Of course, as the clock neared 9 in the AM, lots of other people began filling the chairs outside room X. And they all had appointments! At about five minutes before the hour, the clerk came out and posted the day’s schedule. Tina, to her credit, was in this guy’s face, trying to make certain that she would get in to see the panel of rabbis. But there was another couple, also in the clerk’s face. The two of them, we discovered, had lived in Miami for fourteen years, returning recently to Israel, and naturally spoke good English. Their problem? The list began at 9, and their appointment was for 8:50! Lucky for all of us, the man knew somebody downstairs at the reception desk, so he managed to get him and his wife taken care of, and somebody sent a message up to make sure Tina got seen. I have to say, I began to feel sorry for the clerk, who was the gatekeeper. Every time he came out of the office, everyone who was waiting converged on him, trying to get in to see the rabbis. This prompted me to coin one of my justly renowned aphorisms: Israel is the only country in the world where everybody is “next.”
As we were sitting there, I began to wonder: Why were all these people there, waiting to see a panel of rabbis? Certainly it was not to prove they were Jewish in order to get married. And then I took a look at the list posted on the wall. It looked like the kind of sheet we would find at our health clinic when we had an appointment: the list would have our ID number, our first name, and the time of our appointment (and at the Maccabi clinic, the time listed is pretty much when you get called). But the list at The Rabbinate gave your last name, and why you were there. A quick peek would tell you that the people ahead of you were getting divorced, the people after you had some issue with an inheritance, and so on. Who needs privacy anyway?!!
Tina was nervous, Barbara, whose opinion of the Orthodox establishment in Israel on a good day is lower than a grasshopper’s kneecap, was stewing; but I was maintaining my sense of equilibrium. We were, after all, on the wrong side of the desk at a welfare center in New York, one I must have worked in so many years before. And I kept thinking about my dealings with NYCERS (which, as you all know, stands for the New York City Employees Retirement System; and even if you don’t, I do, because they provide me with a hefty check every month). When we moved to our new apartment several months ago (something to be chronicled shortly), we had to change our address with a host of banks, insurance companies, brokerage firms, you name it. Each one had a different procedure for notifying them of our move. Some required a phone call, some an e-mail, some a signed letter faxed to them. But the most problematic procedure came from NYCERS. In response to an e-mail, they sent me a form to fill out and have notarized. I looked at the form and did what any red-blooded ex-pat would do: I put it down and ignored it for several weeks, gathering my strength for the task ahead. For the record, my pension, as well as my social security, is deposited monthly in Citibank in New York. So NYCERS only needs my address to send me a statement for tax purposes. OK. I was finally ready to make the phone call to their customer service people. Instead of the usual “All our representatives are busy serving other customers” message I was expecting, I got an intricate explanation of the voice recognition system they were trying to establish, which meant I had to recite my ID number three times, getting into an argument with the automated voice over what I had said. Then I had to pick one from a series of questions, to which only I would know the correct answer and further establish my identity. The list was rattled off so fast that I couldn’t make sense of them. They may have included: What is the name of your uncle’s favorite dog?, and In what year did the Peloponnesian War begin? I thought I heard something about my mother’s birthday, but before I could remember that the correct answer is February 7 (a bit of information I haven’t needed to use for eight year), before I could say something, anything, I was connected to a live operator. What I was hoping to accomplish was to get them to agree to a waiver of the notarization. As I explained to the nice young man, notaries here in The Land are not everybody and his brother, and the fee is not the chump change it is back in Brooklyn where NYCERS is located. Here notaries are lawyers, and the fee is about seventy five dollars for the use of their stamp pads – which is why I hoped not to have to pay it.
The nice young man cut me off. “If you live out of the country, you have to go to the U.S. consulate where you live and have them stamp your form. We are not able to recognize foreign notaries.” My response, “Gee, it’s a good thing I called. If I had followed your instructions, I would have wasted my time and would also be out seventy five bucks. I know that talking to you about this won’t change anything, but maybe NYCERS could send the correct information for those of us who live out of the U.S.” To which he replied, “But most of our customers live in the U.S.” To which I replied, “But you sent me the form in Israel. You could have a separate instruction sheet which you send only to people out of the country.” Our conversation ended there. I didn’t see the point of vocalizing my thought, “You’re trying to create a sophisticated telephone voice recognition system, but you can’t even handle a lousy piece of paper.”
And so, Barbara dutifully went on-line to the website of the U.S. embassy and from there to the site for the consulate in Jerusalem. (You of course remember that the embassy is still in Tel Aviv.) The instructions for notarization services advise you on the top of the page that you don’t need an appointment and then in the middle of the page tells you that you absolutely do need an appointment. Better make one to be sure. This process is actually fairly easy – once you get past figuring out that the information about which days of the week you are able to make an appointment does not jibe with what’s on the click-on chart. Assuming that you remember to print out the page which contains your appointment information – you have to bring that with you – you’re good to go.
That’s where things stood with me and NYCERS – I had my appointment at the consulate the following week – as we were waiting our turn to see the esteemed rabbis at The Rabbinate. Maybe it’s the misery-loves-company syndrome, the realization and acceptance that anytime, anyplace, you have to deal with a bureaucratic organization, you have the serious possibility of being in deep doo-doo. I never wait in line if I don’t have to, and if I can, I will leave – just to make a point. If I have to stay, I’m not going to give the incompetents who are keeping me waiting the satisfaction of allowing my blood pressure to rise very far from its normal 120/80.
It turned out that Barbara and I were not needed as witnesses after all. Here’s what happened, as Tina described it to us. She had brought with her all her documents and all her photographs and all her information. What the esteemed rabbis decided to do was call Tina’s uncle and ask him some questions. Of course, if it’s 10:30 in Tel Aviv, it’s 3:30 in Brooklyn, but that has never stopped a government official hot in pursuit of The Truth. Fortunately, her uncle is a cab driver who is used to getting up early in the morning, and Tina had made him aware that his testimony might be needed. The conversation went like this: a Hebrew-speaking rabbi – he must have been the one in charge – would ask a question which the rabbi who also spoke Russian would ask her uncle: “Do you know your niece?” “Yes.” “Did you know her mother (that would be his sister)?” “Yes.” “Did you know your mother?” “Yes.” On and on. Tina could hear the questions in Russians and the translations of the answers in Hebrew. At one point, Tina was obliged to give her uncle, thousands of miles away, a virtual high-five. The question was, “What holidays do you remember celebrating?” “Pesach, he replied.” When Tina had her first interview several weeks before, she was asked the same question and she gave the same answer.
Dear esteemed rabbi who is asking these questions; There were hundreds of thousands of Jews in America who marched for Soviet Jewry those many years ago, Jews of all ages and from all over the spectrum of Jewish observance. And they all knew that there was no Pesach in Odessa in the 1980’s when Tina was a child. Perhaps a few courageous refuseniks in Moscow and the-then-Leningrad had a seder. But in Odessa? Certainly not in the home in which Tina was raised. But you asked, and she had to say something, anything she could think of. And you asked her uncle who grew up in the last days of the Stalin regime when matzoh would have been as scarce as Jack-o-Lanterns for Halloween in present day Jerusalem. You asked, and he had to say something. In all due respect, do you have a clue? I wonder.
Tina’s uncle is one of those people who, with all their merits and faults, has an uncanny memory for details about his family. When the rabbis finished their interrogation, there was nothing left to say. They turned to Tina and asked her how it was that he could answer in such depth at 3:30 in the morning. Tina told them that he was a taxi driver and he got up at 4:30 anyway. The question remains: what if he hadn’t answered the questions in such depth when the rabbis woke him up in the middle of the night? At any rate, Tina got her certificate that she is deemed to be Jewish and may marry another Jew in Israel.
We left the headquarters of The Rabbinate, Tina heading off to her job, Barbara and I returning to the bus station. We could have prowled around Tel Aviv for a while, but my spirits had been sufficiently dampened by this experience, and I just wanted to go home. We stopped at a little out-of-the-way coffee shop, Café Café (mehadrin min hamehadrin), near the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem for lunch. (Very good food.) We could see several ‘mazal tov’ balloons at a nearby table for two. Sure enough, a little while later, a young religious couple came in. They probably had been engaged for at least an hour; and they probably had known each other for at least a month. I could not help watching the interplay between the two of them. The young man took it upon himself to order lunch for the two of them, but it was obvious that he was not in his element. His very sweet bride-to-be began to make suggestions, so that in the end it was she who decided what they would eat – all without wounding the pride of her husband-to-be. Some folks have people skills, some don’t, and some will never learn.
To wrap up this saga, we have to head off to the U.S. consulate on Nablus Road in Jerusalem, a scene of many heartaches and tribulations – at least, so I am told. Our only previous experiences there had been to renew our passports – a document I would not sell for a sack of gold – and for me to change my address for Social Security when we first made aliyah. And, all things considered, it wasn’t so bad. But the stories persist. The prevailing point of view here is that the U.S. considers its embassy in Tel Aviv to be for the Jews and its consulate in Jerusalem to be for the Arabs. I have as much of a bone-to-pick with the American government as the next guy, but I do try to be fair. I arrived fifteen minutes early for my 9AM appointment, went right through the security – staffed by Israelis – and was seen right away at window five by a woman who was obviously from the Midwest. I explained what I needed, all the while waving my U.S. passport. She sent me to window one where I produced my Capitol One card to pay the thirty dollar fee (not great, but better than seventy five). Back to window five where I was met by a gentleman who felt the need to be super-helpful. He began explaining to me that the form he had just stamped was so that I could begin collecting a pension. I gently corrected him. It was just to change my address; I have actually been collecting that pension since December 1994. I could see the “This does not compute” look coming over his face. “I’m sixty eight years old, If you don’t believe me, look at my passport which you happen to be holding in your hand.” Life is good. I look just old enough to get a seat on a crowded bus most of the time, but not old enough for anyone to believe that I should be collecting a pension or be entitled to senior citizen discounts. May all of you get to experience that wonderful moment.
I was almost done. But before the super-helpful gentleman would take his hand off my stamped form and my passport, I needed to answer one question: What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? My favorite flavor of what???? “I really don’t have any one favorite flavor.” He persisted, “No, you have to name a favorite flavor.” I had to say something, anything. But nowadays there are a million flavors of ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s even has a ‘flavor graveyard’ for their discontinued items. Bovinity Divinity? Cherry Garcia? S’mores? Chunky Monkey? Dublin Mudslide? And that’s just Ben and Jerry’s. What about Haagen-Daz, Carvel, Baskin Robbins, Good Humor, and all the cheap brand we could get at Shoprite? What about the Strauss flavors we get here? Sixty years of licking ice cream cones, and this guy wants me to pick one flavor!!! The moment of decision. The man’s thumb was still on my precious documents. “Chocolate!” I blurted out. The man smiled and whipped out a chart. He had been tracking answers to this question for I don’t know how long. “Good choice,” he said showing me that good ol’ chocolate was the overwhelming favorite of American ex-pats.
I was done, in and out of the consulate in about fifteen minutes; walking over to a bus stop to get the 174 back to Maale Adumim. In life, one must be prepared at times to say something, anything.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Land That I Will Show You

Part 1. A little ‘rachmones’ for a little guy far from home
It turned out to be a rather interesting weekend in many respects. First of all, our friends from Har Halutz came down for three day filled with music and food. The itinerary started Thursday night with a trip to Kibbutz Tzorah (right outside Beit Shemesh) for a concert of American ‘country’ music by two groups, The Hazel Hill String Band and ‘Judi ‘n’ Lynn Lewis with Dvir Cafri,’ all of whom I am told are, like us, American ex-pats who brought their musical preferences along with them on their lift. The original plan was for the four of us to stop at a Chinese restaurant in Beit Shemesh before the concert, but the place was closed for a private party. So dinner wound up being schwarma for the three of them. Alas, I was suffering some light effects of my morning’s flu shot and didn’t make the trip. But at least I didn’t miss the Chinese food that nobody else had either.
I had to get a flu shot anyway. I could have walked the ten minutes to our local clinic and got a free shot any morning, but, believe it or not, I had a better offer. There is a study being conducted at Hadassah Hospital to validate an improved vaccine, for which they were looking for healthy alte cockers, over sixty five. So I volunteered. Here’s the deal: I have to go to the hospital four times (I am picked up and brought back by a taxi each time), the first time for a physical exam to see if I qualify, the second time for the shot itself, the third and fourth time for a follow-up check-up. I have to take my temperature each day (using a digital thermometer provided by the hospital) and spend about ten seconds each day filling out a form. For this they are giving me a thousand shekels (about $250). (You can buy a lot of Hot and Sour soup and kosher ribs for that – assuming we can get back to the restaurant in Beit Shemesh! And I discovered later that Barbara’s mother, the world’s greatest mother-in-law, is participating in a similar study in Florida, AND she is only getting $100.) Anyway, I was still a little tired and dizzy, so I opted out of the jaunt to Kibbutz Tzora. It gave me the time to do a good part of my Shabbat cooking, which is just as well, because it enabled me to go out with my wife and our friends Friday morning to one of our favorite places in Jerusalem, Beit Ticho.
Without a question, this little house, part of the Israel Museum is one of the lesser known gems of Jerusalem. It was the residence of Doctor Albert Ticho, the first eye doctor in the area in the early twentieth century (at a time when medical professionals of any kind were scarcer than the proverbial hens’ teeth), and his wife Anna, who began to create drawings and watercolors of a sublime intensity. The building with its beautiful garden, located a few blocks off Rehov Yaffa (next to a large hole in the ground and a series of billboards showing an idealized version of the giant structure soon to be erected there, another opulent residence for wealthy foreigners who can afford to spend a million dollars for a place they may reside in for one month a year) is now a museum to showcase Anna Ticho’s work and house temporary exhibits which range from great to awful. And on Friday mornings in the upstairs gallery, they present Concerticho, a series of chamber music concerts which showcase the talents of local performers, mostly the myriad of former-Soviet-Unioners and their children who keep classical music alive in The Land. For more than an hour, starting at 11AM, the pianist Lubov Barsky (later joined by Igor Braslavsky, violist) performed works by Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Prokofieff. Well done, although it’s hard to make the soft passages pianissimo in a room this small. And then it was time for lunch in the little restaurant on the first floor. During the concert, I had looked out one of the windows and noticed the trees swaying more than is normal for that time of the day. When we went downstairs later, we realized that there was a genuine downpour – part of the first really heavy rain that has fallen in the Jerusalem area, and we could see the drops dripping through the leaves. Israelis, in general, have no patience, but their vegetation does. These trees, and all the plants scattered throughout the city had waited stoically for over six months to get a bath, and the dustiness in Jerusalem was suddenly replaced with the aroma of the freshly falling rain – which we could smell from our table in the little side room in which we had been seated. On any day of the year, the lunch we had we have gotten rave reviews, but it was made more special by the fact that it was early Friday afternoon and the four of us could prepare for Shabbat by relaxing instead of being caught up in the normal frantic erev Shabbat pace. All I needed to do was take out my cell phone and call up our daughter Natania, “We’re still at the Ticho house; would you mind making another vegetable dish (or two)?”
Saturday night, after Shabbat, we were back in Rich’s car, heading to the Bible Lands Museum for concert number three, devoted to the music of George (and Ira) Gershwin, performed by Robert Binder (vocals) and Paul Salter (keyboard), the two men who put on the series of Gilbert and Sullivan and musical comedy productions which we have been going to since we arrived here. The concert started at 8:30, and because we got there at 7:35, we were able wile away the better part of an hour, sitting in the little restaurant on the museum’s lowest level, nibbling cheese and crackers and sipping wine (all at no extra charge). The concert itself was delightful, a cornucopia of familiar Gershwin tunes (‘Swonderful! Smarvelous!/That you should care for me!/”Sawful nice! ‘Sparadise!/’Swat I love to see!.......) that almost everybody in the audience (a selection of Anglos, most of whom would have qualified for the flu shot study) could have joined in singing even without the song sheets that were distributed as we entered the auditorium. The only thing that was missing was a screen with the words projected on it and the bouncing ball (although I think you have to be of a certain age to understand this reference. When was the last time you were at a sing-along?) Let me add one musical comment. The scoring of the accompaniment for solo piano had been made by George Gershwin himself and, listening to Paul Salter work his way through these sophisticated arrangements, I was reminded of the comment by Irving Berlin that the rest of them wrote good songs, but that the Gershwin was a composer. These piano accompaniments by themselves are better than most of the music written in the twentieth century.
The only downer to the evening occurred as we were leaving. Some guy, who must have reloaded his wine glass even more than I did, button-holed us – even following me into the men’s room – with a long explanation as to why the most important thing we could do with our lives in the next twenty four hours was to register for the Likud Party so that we could vote in the next primary to oust Netanyahu – having no idea who we were and what our politics might be, or whether local politics were uppermost on our minds (the answer is ‘no’). The guy’s wife was mortified – although I have to assume this was not the first time he was drunk and rowdy in public. Once we were back in the car, I decided to give my three companions a ‘pop quiz’ which I hoped would return our focus to the music of the evening. You can try your hand at it to, if you want; the answer is below.In 1930, the Gershwins created a Broadway musical “Girl Crazy,” in which Ethel Merman made her debut, and which was later made into a film starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. In the song “Could You Use Me,” which in the film, Mickey sings to Judy – who of course is initially unimpressed with everything about him – Ira Gershwin had to scramble for something to rhyme with “easterner.” What did he come up with?
Back to Maale Adumim, because our friends had to leave for work the next morning even before the dawn was considering cracking, before the traffic from Modiin and the south started to jam the roads going to Tel Aviv. Natania had to leave by 7:30 to get back to her base on time. Barbara and I have to be presentable for a plumber who was supposed to be at our house at 9:15. Unfortunately he never showed up, but that’s another story……….
(Have some pity on an Easterner,Show a little sympathy,No one possibly could be sternerThan you have been with me.There’s a job that I’m applying forLet me put it to you thus:It’s a partnership I’m vying for,Mr. and Mrs. Us.)
Everything is easy……if you know how.
Part 2. Advice given and ignored
Lest you think that life for us here in The Land revolves primarily around our interest in food and various forms of Western music, this Shabbat was the one on which we read the Torah portion entitled “Lech Lecha.”(G-d said to Avram, “take yourself out of the land of your birth and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation.) For obvious reasons, this is designated as the Shabbat for Olim at our beit knesset, Musar Avicha, when we welcome anyone in the community who has arrived within the last year. Any such adult mail gets called to the Torah, there is a special kiddush for all such families, and we arrange that everyone gets invited to someone’s home for Shabbat lunch. So there were eight of us in our dining salon: the three of us, a neighbor who often winds up with us, our friends from Har Halutz, and a new couple in town.
Back in the beginning of September when we had just moved to our new apartment, we were in one of the stores in Kikar Yahalom, the old shopping center in town, looking for a few things we needed, when Barbara and I spied this couple. They didn’t have to open their mouths to let us hear their Mid-western accent; we knew immediately from their expressions that they were just off one of the latest Nefesh B’Nefesh flights. There is unquestionably a New Olim look, as unmistakable as if they were wearing the NBN caps one is given on the flight over. With this singular look, one can convey all of the following degrees of panic: am I in the right store; do I know what I need and do they have that here in Israel; what do they call it; what does it cost in this Monopoly money they gave me; will they realize that we’re just off the boat and rip us off; does anybody here speak English? Now we, of course, are seasoned veterans. There is a reasonable chance that we, well at least Barbara, will know what something is called in Ivrit, or at least how to describe it so that they can figure out what we need. So we sauntered up to this couple, in our best we’ve-been-here-for-two-years-and-we-know-it-all saunter and posed the question, “How long you guys been here?” And then, “Where you guys living?” They had arrived a week or two before, and it turns out that they are living at 3 Hamitsadim. “You’re living where the Tehilla and Michael used to live!” (You see, we do know everything.) Well, one thing led to another, and, as neither we nor they had workable kitchens, the four of us walked over to the food court at the mall for dinner (there we go, eating again). We see them every Shabbat at Musar Avicha, but with all the work going on in our apartment, we hadn’t had a chance to have them over. So Olim Shabbat would be a great opportunity. It’s called in the vernacular, killing two birds with one stone.
When we were in the middle of the meal, I asked if I could read something to the group, not something I usually do, but I wanted to get some response to something I found troubling – to say the least – and which in an abridged form you see below:
“Suppose they (Jews who had been humiliated and murdered in former times [FC]) arose now from their graves after three quarters of a millennium have (sic) have passed….(T)hey would see how much of that mania has already vanished, how much of that barbarism had disappeared. They would discover that a much more humane civilization, a much more enlightened culture has surfaced……….But most of all they would seek their own descendants in this bright, better era. They would seek their ghettos that have disappeared. The yellow badges that are no more….”
I explained to my family and friends that I had come across this rather painful passage in a book of essays in the small English section of the Musar Avicha ‘library’ on Simchat Torah when I joined the group of men who consider jumping up and down with a Torah scroll an excessive use of energy and insufficiently interesting as a spectator sport, and who instead use the time to try and learn something. Only then did I tell my audience that this passage was from an essay entitled “The 67th Psalm and the Centuries of the Crusades---Should we Delete the Sefirah Prayers?” Doling out information bit by bit, I said that this was written towards the end of the nineteenth century…. in Germany………by a very prominent rabbi……….a leader of German Jewry…………named (as some of you have already figured out) Samson Rafael Hirsch. I also admitted that I did not understand the article, at least as it related to the sefirah (counting the forty nine days from the second day of Pesach to Shavuot). You would get the sense from the author that the greatest danger then facing world Jewry was the Reform movement.
Ms. J, just off the plane and still feeling the euphoria of her aliyah, drew a conclusion from the article that others have voiced: even when things seem to be going well for the Jews in a particular country, catastrophe is just around the corner, and Jews in America should take heed. I told her that she was free to infer whatever she liked from the excerpt I read, but I was not necessarily pushing in that direction, or any direction. Although I wasn’t up to articulating it at the time, I was in the process of developing an image in my fertile and sometimes overheated brain, which could perhaps be described as something from a movie: First you see a (fictional) rabbi sitting at his desk writing about the wonders of Jewish life in Berlin, Vienna, Warsaw, Paris…..The scene shifts to an large ship docked in a harbor, say in Hamburg, waiting to set sail for New York. Back to the rabbi, still writing. Back to the port where people are gathering to board the ship. Back to the rabbi. Back to the ship, where more and more people are gathering. The rabbi keeps writing, how we need to remain in our cities of residence in Europe where a ‘new world’ is opening up for the Jewish people and we are becoming a Light Unto the Nations. Back to the docks, where for the first time we see the faces of the now throngs of passengers boarding the ship and their families there to say good-bye. Why many of them are unmistakably Jews!, fleeing a life of oppression, of poverty, running away from conscription in the Czarist army, thousands of people, thousands of reasons. Close-ups of faces, a mixture of elation at fleeing to a New World and the sadness of knowing that they may never see again those they are leaving behind. Back to the rabbi, still writing………
I know something about this topic because all four of my grandparents were on one of those boats.
The editors of the his Collected Writings, The Jewish Year, volume 1, published by Feldheim Publishers, do not indicate when this particular essay was written, although it had to be before 1888 when R. Hirsch died. That was also the year when a great blizzard unexpectedly blanketed the New York area in March and shut down the city; from their cold-water flats on the Lower East Side and the South Bronx, my grandparents were there to witness this meteorological phenomenon for themselves, which they remembered, I am told, long after. But I have no idea whether my grandparents were aware of R. Hirsch’s death that year, or if they had ever heard of him. Suffice to say, they, like hundreds of thousands of their landsmen, had, knowingly or otherwise, ignored his advice. Generally speaking, the Jews who came to America were poorly educated and poorly situated, unlike Samson Raphael Hirsch, a brilliant and honorable man and the unquestioned leader of the German Jewish religious community. I am reminded of one of my iron principles of life: Being smart does not necessarily make you right.

Part 3 A Nasal Passage
Many of my readers, I realize, have characterized my articles as an ‘aliyah blog,’ similar to with the other five hundred or so other blogs whose main purpose is encouraging friends and family to get on a plane ASAP and join us in The Land. So it may come as a surprise to some that I have an entirely difference purpose in mind. I simply want to keep in touch with people back in The States; and for the first time in my life I have the time and the energy to write something on a sustained basis. I enjoy describing my fascination with our ancestral homeland, and enough people have encouraged me to continue my efforts to make me feel that it’s all worthwhile. But suggesting that all of you become Israeli citizens? That’s more than I can aspire to. My readership, at least those whom I know about, is a rather eclectic group of people: ranging from some of whom are actually planning or considering making coming here all the way to those for whom that’s not even remotely on the radar screen. So what kind of useful advice could I provide to such a diverse group? And what could I say that hasn’t been said, poorly or well, a hundred, a thousand times before? Should I take the approach of Ms. J., and warn about the great physical danger facing Jews in Exile? First of all, I have no substantive evidence to support that proposition – at least in the States (England, France, South Africa, that’s another story). And there’s the thing about crying wolf: people were predicting imminent disaster for the residents of Boro Park thirty years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet. And if not physical danger, what about spiritual danger? At the latest count, there are exactly five Jews world-wide who believe that they personally are in spiritual danger….. more than ten minutes after Yom Kippur has ended. Assimilation, the destruction of a Jewish community from within? Not ‘my’ problem; my shul is packed every Shabbos.
One of my friends, who every Friday sends a short piece back to kith and kin in America, recently devoted one article to reminding everyone that it remains a mitzvah to live in The Land, citing the positions, stated and implicit, of two Torah giants, the Rambam and the Ramban. First of all, I do not ‘poskin shaylas,’ i.e., provide answers to questions of Jewish law. Second, if there is something I hate wasting almost as much as food, it’s my time. Why should I tell another Jew that it is incumbent upon him to live in The Land – if at all possible, when his real ‘rebbe,’ the guy who gets paid to answer his halachic questions is living down the block from him? And the rebbe’s rebbe is living in the next town, and that rebbe’s rebbe……… You get my point.
And then there are those who let you know how easy it is today to make aliyah and how much easier it is to live here these days than ever before. You know what? The easiest thing for most of us always….ALWAYS….is to do nothing. To stay put. That’s why people continue to live in flood plains year after year, bailing out their basements when the riverbanks invariably overflow. That’s probably why my late Aunt Gussie remained in her apartment on the Grand Concourse when no other un-armed person would have ventured into the lobby of the William Morris residence. I understand why talking about the level of creature comforts in The Land is not causing a run on suitcases at Kohl’s department stores.
There is one point, however, I can make which is believe is factual. It’s at least reasonable, by which I mean that it can be quantified and therefore discussed rationally. It has to do with what I believe is a very obvious transformation, demographically, politically, and spiritually, of the Jewish world going on in front of our eyes. Of course, as George Orwell said somewhere, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”When my grandparents and the thousands of other immigrants were sailing towards New York harbor, no one was there to ask them what they were thinking. There were no college students preparing term papers, no professors writing learned theses, no Gallop, Roper, Rasmussen, or Zogby polls, no reporters with cameras or microphones asking “How does it feel to be landing in America,” or “Do you think you’ll have a better life here.” Provocative questions like that. I never even got to ask my grandparents. Three of them were dead by the time I was four years old. The fourth, my mother’s mother, known as Tante Mashe, lived until I was in my twenties. But I never sat down and asked her, not only what was it like to leave Europe in the dead of the night and arrive here with something like the shirt on your back, but what was going through your mind at the time? What were you trying to accomplish, if anything? But I would be mightily surprised if any of the Jews coming to the harbor in New York, or Baltimore, or Galveston had a Grand Idea stuffed into their meager belongings, their clothing and their pots and pans: “We realize that we are the first wave of a massive migration that will ultimately move the center of world Jewry across the Atlantic.” Not too likely. But whether my grandparents and the other Jewish immigrants on the boat understood what they were going to accomplish by their actions, the cosmic implications of their decision to leave their fathers’ homes; or whether they created something by just going about their business, the end result was the same: millions of Jews got to live and thrive in America. As far as I’m concerned, they certainly did the right thing. Looking at things from the parochial perspective of my own family, by the time the gates of entry to America were shut tight in the 1920’s and the window of opportunity to emigrate was closed, my father had already graduated law school in New York, and all of his and my mother’s sibling were grown and ‘out of the house.’ Later, when the “yellow badges that are no more” became ‘more,’ unlike a lot of other unfortunate people, we were safe and sound far away in the New World, which for a brief instant in World History had become, almost by default, the center of Jewish life.
The ‘problem’ is that there are some who are under the impression that this momentary blip is an eternal verity: that the center of Jewish life will remain in America for the next thousand years, rather than rather rapidly shifting back to where it all started for us thousands of years ago. For most of us making aliyah these days from The West, being part of that migration is paramount in our minds. We may be rejoining family already here or taking advantage of certain benefits that accrue to new Olim, but we are all aware of the enormity of the enterprise: that every one getting off a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight is bringing us closer to the day when a majority of the Jewish people will be living in the Land which G-d promised to Avraham a long time ago, and which hasn’t been the case since the days of the first Temple. We realize that we are Johnny-come-lately’s. Jews were coming here to settle The Land when the Turks were in charge – even before that. Jews came here to build a nation when our population here was less than the Grand Concourse and environs. Every day, I run into Anglos who have been here twenty, twenty five, thirty, forty years and who seem none the worse for wear. We know a couple who won a lottery for an apartment and were among the first hundred families to come to Ma’ale Adumim in 1983; others who were here when there still were no sidewalks in town, and the Arab bus left you off a mile down the road. For me, this adventure is big, and I don’t want to miss out on the story – even if I have missed a whole bunch of chapters. And what’s more, my family has the merit of being characters in that story – even if we remain minor players. That is one of the reasons why we came to Israel, and that is the main point of my articles. Pure and simple. Anyone is free to disagree with my scenario or the importance I attach to it. You can say that we as a People have no future, in which case, we are all wasting our time. You can say that the subject is unimportant, in which case, we have nothing to discuss. You can tell me that we will continue in majority wandering all over the planet, living among hostile neighbors, but that is a thought too depressing to contemplate. Or you can suggest that Jews should remain en masse in The States – even though the Jewish population there is becoming less of a masse every day. But you know what? Even if you agree with my thesis and its implications, you’re not required to do anything about it. I operate under the fairly safe assumption that no one is going to come here to live because of anything I say or write. And believe it or not, I’m reasonably comfortable with that. You are free to root from the sidelines, kibbitz from the bleachers, watch events on your TV – before and after the big game. Or turn off the TV and go antiquing or fishing or whatever else floats your boat.
And I certainly don’t want to sound too triumphant. Just because the majority of world Jewry, and its institutions, and ultimately its money will be in Israel in the next generation or two, doesn’t mean that everything will be hunky-dory here between the Mediterranean and the Western Wall. In addition to the formidable set of enemies lining up at our borders, we have within our midst two enormous obstacles to our physical and spiritual growth: the government (not just the knaves who sit in the Knesset, but the whole system we are burdened with) and The Rabbinate (not the many extraordinary rabbis who reside here, but the Officialdom, who are doing us no favors by their existence). Every day when the sun rises over the Hills of Moab (Jordan) to our east, we as a nation can either take one step closer to our creating our own Gan Eden, or one step closer to becoming a necessary evil (being in control of our destiny – as much as any human beings are ever in charge – gives you the chance to mess up big time); many days the country splits the difference and takes a step in both directions at the same time. What happens is that most people here – like Jews everywhere; in fact, like most people everywhere – get up and go about their business, giving them a never-ending series of opportunities to be as holy as possible or as big a pain-in- the-you-know-where as can be. Being here gives you the opportunity to see the possibilities both ways and some conceivable scenarios by which things can get better or worse. Either way, it will be people who will make the difference, people who are willing to see what is in front of their nasal passages.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Real MisterZol

More often than not, one of my verbal ripostes proves to be the last word on a given subject, but in this case I was seriously outdone, and I don’t even know the doer’s name. One of the things which the Anglo community here loves to hate is our local supermarket (pronounced, ‘superrrrrrrrrrr’) MisterZol, located smack dab in the middle of our local mall, which means that everyone can get there by car, by bus, by cab, even by foot. Now, ‘zol’ in Hebrew means cheap or inexpensive, leading one to believe that this chain of markets is just the place for the cost-conscious shopper. Once one is here for a while, long enough to recalculate what things cost in local coins of the realm, one realizes that this assumption is somewhat off the mark. MisterZol is not the most expensive, but is certainly far from the cheapest. Nor does it have the best and largest selection of products, the most room to maneuver one’s cart, the most courteous and efficient staff. In short, it’s not a fun place to be (although the fact that, like many of its kind in Israel, every item in the store is kosher should not be forgotten or made light of). So when one local resident posted something on MA-chat, complaining about something or other in the store, probably that they systematically overcharged her on their computerized cash registers, there was a predictable barrage of responses with similarly negative opinions. After a day or so, I chimed in with the rhetorical question as to why anybody with a) a car and b) an ounce of sense would want to shop there. Several hours later came the ultimate response from a gentleman who opined that when he died he hoped it would be in one of the aisles of this very store, because if he then went to Hell, it would be an improvement. Kind of says it all.
Now you might be wondering, if I don’t like MisterZol, where would I want to go? Easy. There is a branch of a smaller competing chain, Rami Levi in Mishor Adumim, an industrial zone way down the hill. It is larger, has a better, fresher, and more consistent selection, and in general is a much more pleasant shopping experience. It’s also at least ten percent cheaper. But, and this an enormous ‘but,’ you need a car to get there – or a ride in someone else’s car. For the last several months, I have been able to get a ride every other week on Wednesday afternoon. We go in, fill up our carts, go through the checkout counters – where they usually have somebody to bag your stuff, which speeds things up tremendously – out to the car, and you’re back in Maale Adumim in five minutes. The people I’m with even help me shlep my stuff upstairs. All I have to do is unpack everything, put it away, and get on with my life.
But this wasn’t one of those weeks. So I had no choice but to join all those without a) a car or b) an ounce of sense – a sizeable group – maneuvering through the aisles of Mister Zol. Now I always try to be fair. You can find some real bargains at MisterZol – if, and I stress, IF you know what you are doing. Stores here, just like in The States, can be put into the following categories: across the board good prices, easy to find or get discounts, and hard to find or get discounts. In New Jersey, the Shoprite supermarkets or the Kohls department stores practically beg you to get one of their store cards, which entitle you to serious discounts. But you still have to pay attention. Sometimes in Shoprite, two eight ounce packages would cost you less than one sixteen ounce container; sometimes thirty two ounces would cost ten cents more than sixteen ounces. All the information you need to do the math is listed on the shelves – if you take the trouble to read it. “To read it!” Never an issue back in The States. Never a problem to read the weekly ads that come with your local newspaper or the signs in the store. I had a conversation with two new friends who made aliyah fairly recently and who are just in the early stages of getting acclimated, including figuring out what things should cost. Nor have they as of yet learned any significant amount of Hebrew. As they have a car, I explained to them with copious examples, they could save some serious money by shopping at Rami Levi. What it came down to was that they had ‘mastered’ the aisles at MisterZol, and now that they knew from memory where to find things in one store, they were reluctant to start over again somewhere else. As I was pushing my cart through the aisles on this off-Wednesday, something occurred to me: MisterZol is the worst kind of place to shop – if you can’t read the signs, or the advertisements, or the conditions on the books of coupons you can get – assuming you know enough to go to the courtesy counter and ask for one; or what day of the week the produce is on sale and what day the meat – assuming you have read the fine print and know how much else you have to buy to get the discount. Some of the cashiers will remind you of a weekly discount and some won’t. There is often a special: if you buy the required amount (usually 300 shekels) you can get that week’s item for an additional one shekel. The ground meat I used in the stuffed cabbage I made for this last Shabbat, I had gotten several weeks ago for one shekel a kilo (I had put the meat immediately into the freezer, but you knew that). Come to think of it, the rice I mixed with the meat also came on a special, three packages for a shekel, probably a two week’s supply for a local Sephardic family.
This past week the designated item was water. Mai Eden spring water, one of the local brands. Two six-packs of one and a half liter bottles. That’s eighteen liters of water. In our old apartment, we had a system which filtered the tap water. Here we don’t, so I have started buying bottled water because it tastes better than the perfectly safe tap water. I saw the display of water near the entrance when I entered the store, but, as I was only planning to get the proverbial ‘few things,’ I didn’t pay it any mind. I wound up not getting that much, but 300 shekels (about $80) isn’t that much to spend in a supermarket; and wouldn’t you know it, the cash register rang up 300 shekels. So what was I going to do, not take the water which I would use anyway for one shekel more? Of course I went over and picked up two six packs of Mai Eden water, noting how heavy they were, brought them over to the checkout counter, and dropped them in my own shopping cart. ( The kind of cart I am talking about is virtually extinct in America but is ubiquitous here in The Land. Every elderly Russian has one, and that’s a lot of people. At any moment in time, you can see at least a thousand of these carts blocking your way in the Mahane Yehuda shuk alone. They are invaluable if you are schlepping groceries without a car. We’ve gone through several of them since we’ve been here. On one of them, the wheels fell off; on another, the bottom broke; a third was too short for me to use it comfortably. The one we have now is ergonomically sound but small: the carrying area is twenty one inches high by fourteen inches wide by seven inches deep, always just not quite big enough for what I buy.) I realized, with a sinking feeling, that these two six packs alone took up most of the space in my cart. Undeterred, I proceeded. I put whatever else I could that was heavy in my cart. I had a package of paper towel rolls with its own plastic handle; this I slung over the handle of the cart. Everything else I put into four plastic bags to carry with my other hand and set off out of the store. At this point, I had several options. I could have gone straight across the street and waited for a bus, but why wait as long as twenty minutes for a bus when I can normally walk home in ten minutes? Anyway, I would have to get all this stuff on and off the bus – no easy task. I could have gone to the taxi stand. A cab would cost me fifteen shekels. For twenty shekels, I could have had the store deliver my groceries up the stairs to my front door. But how could I spend fifteen or twenty shekels to get home? It would have been cheaper not to take the water, but how could I turn down eighteen liters of water for one shekel? You see my dilemma. The only option that made sense…….at the time…. was to walk home with my load. So I made a left turn out of Mister Zol, crossed that street, and walked through and around Kikar Yahalom, the original main shopping area when Maale Adumim was a small town, which means going down a hill, and then a while later up an incline, a short walk on a level area, over a pedestrian bridge, and I pretty much home. I should add that once I have left the area by the mall, it’s too late to get a cab or a bus. You are walking home, whether you want to or not.
It is universally acknowledged that I in no way look my age. But there are definitely times when I feel my sixty eight years. There are even times when I feel older than that. How old do you think I felt as I started walking home, pulling a heavy shopping cart with one hand, and carrying what would have been a shopping cart-full of groceries in the other – in the heat of a day which has forgotten that it’s not still summer? The first part, all downhill, wasn’t too bad – except for stopping for the first of several times to pick up a cauliflower that had been precariously placed at the top of the cart and which was determined to escape. But as I got to the uphill part, I had to stop several times to catch my breath. I was perspiring profusely and I could feel the energy seeping from my body. Originally, I had refused to spend fifteen shekels to take a cab home; but as I started up the hill, which is about halfway home, it occurred to me that if somebody were to have come by just then and offered to relieve me of my burden for twenty shekels, I would have gladly taken them up on the offer. My story does have a happy ending though. After I made it up the incline, at a point when I was three quarters of the way home, and I had again stopped to catch my breath, a man came past and picked up my four shopping bags and walked with me most of the way home (No. I am not going to claim that he was Eliyahu HaNavi. I last saw the prophet a year and a half ago on the way to the Kotel.) I got everything up the stairs into our apartment, where I unpacked everything and lay down to rest. I was completely useless for the next three hours.
Now you may say that I was being stubborn, penny wise and pound foolish, but perhaps I was being true to my real nature. They don’t call me Frugal Fred for nothing. MisterZol? Maybe I’m the real MisterZol. Who else would risk a heart attack for fifteen shekels and two six packs of water?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Show and 'Tel' at Ramat Rachel

I came back from Mussar Avicha, the beit knesset where I hang out here in Maale Adumim, one Shabbat morning several weeks ago, and I said to Barbara, “You and I are not with it, and I can prove it.” Herein lies the tale.
One of the couples we met on our cruise was Rich and Barbara (henceforth designated as Barbara II to distinguish her from my Barbara, who will be designated in this article as Barbara I, to avoid confusion). Rich is one of those people who play an essential role in life, the unofficial group leader. For example, there are a bunch of people finishing dinner, and there are several hours left before bedtime. Somebody has got to say, “How about if we…….,” or “Let’s………,” or “We’re……………; wanna join us.” Otherwise, everyone will just sit around and mope for several hours. Fortunately for all of us, Hashem created certain people to fill that role, to take on that awesome responsibility of planning the recreation for the rest of us sluggards.
When our cruise was over, and we were all safely back, not only on dry land, but in The Land, Barbara II, who had a little vacation left, spent a week on an archaeological dig. Some of you, at least, are familiar with Ramat Rachel, a kibbutz at the southern tip of Jerusalem. This place has been around since the 1920’s, and was the scene of extremely fierce fighting between us and the Jordanians both in 1948 and 1967. When one is standing there, its strategic importance is obvious; it occupies a high ground overlooking Beit Lechem and the entire area to the south (which is why it is named ‘rama,’ high place, and Rachel, as it overlooks the site which by tradition is where our matriarch Rachel is buried). It also makes a great scenic backdrop for a chupah. This, of course, is what it has become known for: a great place to have a wedding, and in our short stay here in The Land, we have already been invited to several – thanks to our Teaneck connections.
What is not so well known is that there has been an on-going archaeological dig on and off going back I believe many decades. When you get to the first parking lot, instead of heading towards the hotel and the wedding hall, if you just keep going, past the swimming pool, you will arrive at the tel where the dig has been taking place. And that was exactly what we did when we got off the number seven bus that Friday morning. We were supposed to meet Richard and Barbara II and another couple at the dig site for what was billed as a reunion – partly for us and partly for Barbara II to revisit what she had accomplished and to show it to friends. For in the one week she was there, B II had dug up what seemed to be an ancient mikvah – certainly something to be proud of.
We were the first to arrive, which gave me and Barbara I time to walk around and get a sense of the enormity of this project and the large number of people involved in the dig. Clearly, most of the participants were students, and we could hear an equal amount of Hebrew and English being spoken. We were later told about the arrangements. Each person paid $x per week to participate, which meant they stayed at the Ramat Rachel Hotel and enjoyed all the amenities thereof; except that unlike normal guests, these folk arose in time to start digging at 5:30 in the morning, when most sensible people are firmly glued to their pillows. Later on, when it gets too hot to dig, the process of sifting and evaluating begins.
Within a few minutes, Richard and Barbara II arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Don and Lorraine. (Another couple from Modi’in was invited, but they were unable to make it.) Before we begin the grand tour of the tel, let me throw in an aside about apparel. One of Richard and Barbara II’s more amazing attributes was the fact that between them, they own what is probably the world’s largest extant collection of Jacob’s Ladder Folk Festival (in Israel) t-shirts. I remember remarking to Richard one day on the cruise, that if Jacob’s Ladder ever went out of business, he would have nothing to wear. But now we were faced with a similar phenomenon, the Ramat Rachel dig annual t-shirt, this year’s color a shade of purple, which many of the young folk were wearing. But if you had been on last year’s dig, you had two t-shirts, one from each year. And if you were back for your third dig, you had three t-shirts, each a different color. Of course, considering the cost of participating, you could say that these are very expensive t-shirts – sort of like the Hanukkah menorah or the challah board which Natania made in ‘early childhood’ at the Yavneh Academy, which we have appraised at about $8000 apiece. Nonetheless, with little effort, one could practice the subtle art of one-up-manship, by wearing a shirt from eight digs ago – for there are people, especially the staff, who have been coming back year after year. (I, of course, have my own eclectic collection of t-shirts, from schools I never attended, places I’ve never been, jobs I’ve never had; so I can’t one-up anybody!)
Time to start our mini-tiyul, giving Barbara II a chance to demonstrate what she has learned and show off what she uncovered. I, of course, was listening with only one ear, because I was watching with both eyes and most of my brain. In other words, I was looking at how, what, and where people were digging, at the serendipitous patterns of tools and buckets and wheelbarrows and gloves left lying around, the fact that they were serving breakfast on china dishes, at how you can see much of Jerusalem from these heights, things like that. What I remember most was the look of astonishment and pleasure on Barbara II’s face when we arrived at where she was digging, only a little more than one week ago. When she had put her t-shirt in the laundry for the last time and checked out of the Ramat Rachel Hotel, she was convinced that she had uncovered a mikvah. Now that another layer had been uncovered, it was obvious that what she had dug up was no mikvah – although nobody had a strong opinion as to what this area, partially covered with a mosaic tile floor, had been. The thing is that Barbara II had no stake in the matter either way, no reputation in the field to maintain, no ego to have soothed. Whatever it turned out to be was fine with her; she was just happy to have uncovered something. Perhaps a professional in the field, already preparing a paper or a lecture series on this find, might have less willing to concede the point, but we will never know. The difficulty in assessing anything in a site like Ramat Rachel is that it is one civilization on top of another, and each one felt free to pillage the previous site and use its building materials anew, so you can find a series of artifacts – from a Byzantine church at the top down to the Iron Age at the bottom. What is mystifying about this site in particular is that while it was certainly a Jewish village at one time – probably second temple – there is no mention of it in our sources. Beneath a Byzantine church was a wine press, a grape press, and evidence of a columbaria, where doves would roost. You can see the Temple Mount from Ramat Rachel, and, while I question the assertion that one could get to Har Habayit in forty minutes, certainly it could be done in under two hours. So a pilgrim on his way to bring a korban (sacrifice) at the Beit Hamikdash could stop on the way and get a pigeon, probably cheaper than what it would have cost at one of the stalls that lined the entrances to the Temple (maybe rent was cheaper at Ramat Rachel). At any rate, there was a lot more to consider at this tel, including a palace which seems to expand as they uncover more and more of it and a Canaanite wall which likewise keeps extending itself (they are using some kind of imaging to track it underground).
We did not get a chance to witness the other aspect of archaeological exploration, sifting for artifacts and identifying them, but I had spent a few hours a number of years ago doing some sifting, and I remember how tedious the process is, and how rewarding – IF you find something of interest or of value. The difference between then and now is this: ‘then’ was going through the rubble, tons and tons of debris which the Arabs had removed – illegally of course – from the Temple Mount, and which had been literally rescued from the garbage by archaeologists. So the purpose of this on-going sifting was to ‘prove’ that there had been a Jewish presence on Har Habayit, and so every coin, amulet, or vessel that someone found was in effect ammunition in a political war. The Arabs are less interested in Ramat Rachel (they still want sovereignty over it, as they want sovereignty over all of our land; but they are not yet saying that we never lived there). The main enemy ‘now’ seems to be time and money – getting as much done before the grant money runs out and further exploration is put off. We came upon a large heap of broken pottery, all of which had been evaluated and discarded. Barbara II looked at the pile; she bent down and pulled out a piece of a jug, about two and a half inches by four, with an intact handle, which she gave to Barbara I. Priceless! We took this fragment home, and we are considering where to put it in our new home.
It was now time for the second part of the morning’s activities, heading over to Emek Refaim for something to eat. Anyone who is familiar with Jerusalem knows about this area, the name of which means Valley of Ghosts (the kids who come here on a one year program call it ‘Emek,’ proving only that that they have been in Israel a year without learning much Hebrew). Well Israeli ghosts are well fed, and most of them must eat here, because this street is really a restaurant row. Over the last several years, slowly but surely, most of the restaurants have become kosher – because they can do more business in six days than they would have in seven. So there must be at least twenty places that we can eat in within four or five blocks (eat your collective hearts out, Teaneck!), but many of them are not suitable for breakfast – unless you are a hard-core carnivore. Our little group was headed to Tal’s Bagels, the perfect place for a meal at 11AM on a Friday.
We have been in The Land now for two full years, and invariably, the sixth day of the week finds me at home, cooking and in general getting ready for Shabbat. So you can imagine my astonishment when, after Rich found a hard-fought parking spot on a side street that I would never have been able to locate, and we walked a ways, we arrived at the main drag, and, wow, the joint was jumping. If I had imagined that everybody was home making meatballs, hanging laundry on the line, or cleaning the toilets, boy was I wrong. Shabbat was not going to start for another eight hours, and several thousand people were milling around with the spectral spirits which haunt this street. I am also making the assumption that the ghosts have over the years picked up quite a bit of English by hanging out near the restaurants.
So we sat and had a leisurely meal, undeterred by the water from the air-conditioning unit that was dripping on our heads. Some of us actually ordered bagels. It goes without saying that we ordered coffee (many of you are not aware that nowadays the coffee here is much better than you get in The States). And we just sat and relaxed like the throng of people coming and going from Tal’s Bagels and similar establishments all over Jerusalem. It turns out that one of the young women waiting on us was the daughter of the guy in charge of the dig at Ramat Rachel.
Rich offered to drive us back to Maale Adumim, an offer we readily accepted. They wanted to head that way anyway, to look at the new cars for the Light Rail (the cars are ready, the rails are not) that are all parked somewhere in French Hill. I should note that Barbara II, when she isn’t digging or going on a cruise, is an engineer, and for many years worked for Amtrac, commuting from the Galil to the East Coast. Our friends came in to see our apartment before heading back. They didn’t have a care in the world; they were staying with people in Jerusalem, so they had little to do to prepare for Shabbat.
So that’s how we spent our Friday morning, relaxed and stress-free – and we still got ready in time for Shabbat. Food for thought for the future. Shabbat morning, my good friend Ron – whose family we met on our Nefesh B’Nefesh flight – wished me a Happy Anniversary. I gave him a look. What are you talking about? Yesterday was the second anniversary (secular date) of our mutual aliyah. We had completely forgotten! Isn’t that funny! We were celebrating our arrival in The Land without even knowing it. We thought we were just inspecting mosaic tiles and feeding our faces. How about that! It’s good to have friends to plan our recreation. It’s also good to have friends to help us keep track of the time.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pagan Gods and Phantoms

It’s a long way aesthetically (down) and spiritually (up) from the glories of the pagan Acropolis to the one functioning but very bland synagogue in Athens, another part of our full-day tour of the city. Our bus driver left us off several blocks away and, led by our effervescent guide in her flowing white sun dress, we walked through an old neighborhood up to the Greek version of a machsom (checkpoint) guarding the street on which the functioning beit knesset and another one, which may or may not be in use, were located.
Yes. Jews have lived in Athens from before the time when the Parthenon was built until the present. And yes. There are Jews living in Athens today. (Although in the nineteenth century when was Athens itself was almost deserted, there were no Jews in the city.) In fact, on the forthcoming Shabbat there would be the celebration of a bar mitzvah; and instead of having a relatively small minyan, there would be a good size crowd. Almost on cue, a young lad entered the synagogue, wearing the kind of rayon yarmulke that one finds at the entrance to many synagogues world-wide, for use by those male visitors who arrive without one. He was the star of the show, the bar mitzvah boy to-be, and those of us assembled were mighty glad to see him and made our excitement known. And that’s all I remember about the synagogue.
Now we know that every shul isn’t going to be visually interesting (although I’ve been in shteibels which are remarkable by their sheer decrepitude). And we are familiar with Jewish houses of worship which are physically gorgeous but, shall we say, somewhat lacking in spiritual enthusiasm (I was told about one temple which spent so much money on its building that the congregation couldn’t afford to pay for a rabbi). There are times, though, when the enthusiasm is great, but the pockets are shallow. The beit knesset I hang out in, Mussar Avicha, is less than opulent. But it’s one of over forty in Maale Adumim, a community of less than forty thousand Jews; and it serves a relatively small, mostly Anglo congregation who insist on using the traditional Ashkenazic order of prayers. So we do the best we can. But here we were standing in what has become by default the main synagogue in all of Greece, built – I assume in a wild burst of optimism – in 1935 and refurbished more recently, and would it have been so terrible to put a little spirit in the renovation? As it is, the interior is as exciting as the aforementioned rayon yarmulke. Somebody was standing in the front of the shul and giving a presentation. At some point thereafter, a number of us were standing outside the building, looking across the street at the other shul. That one had a beautiful pale blue stucco exterior, but it was closed. Again, I do not know if it is ever open for business: we were told no during the presentation, but the pamphlet we received said yes. If we’re ever in Athens on a Shabbat, we’ll let you know.
The standard question: (in unison) Why do they need two shuls in Athens? In addition to the usual answer, having to do with our natural contrariness, there were two distinct Jewish communities in Greece. The original settlers became known as the Romaniote Jews, and they spoke Judeo-Greek. By the end of the fifteenth century, a massive wave of Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula, arrived. They, of course, spoke Judeo-Espagnol, more commonly known as Ladino. (Do you notice a pattern here? From before the Common Era, Jews have been unwilling or unable to speak plain old-fashioned vanilla Hebrew, preferring Aramaic, or Romaniote, or Ladino, or Judeo-German, a/k/a Yiddish. Modern Hebrew is being overwhelmed with loan words, mostly from English. In Ulpan, when there were two possibilities or choices, we did not say, yesh breira, but yesh optsiah [option]. Recently, when I wanted to purchase a flash drive on which to store these articles, I asked my buddy Ron what they were called here in The Land. Sure enough, I went to a store and asked for a disconki; [repeat that a few times, slowly] they guy knew exactly what I wanted and showed me where they were. More on this topic some other time.)
There was one more place for us to go, the Jewish Museum – not the large, well-funded one in New York, with changing, temporary exhibits – but the little one in Athens which had a ‘table of contents’ similar to many other such institutions. In other words, you know exactly what you will find inside: ceremonial items, uniforms and costumes, photographs of buildings no longer extent and people no longer alive. I was reading the caption next to one of the photographs (in English), which related how in one community, the women would assemble in a courtyard after Shabbat was over and roast pistachio nuts together. From the caption and the photograph, I could almost imagine being there, smelling the pistachios as I smelled roasting chestnuts in New York. The story was told in the first person with great emotion by a woman who lived sometime in the past. The museum itself was the collective memory of a community that lived sometime in the past. Is that all? Are we merely a world-wide collections of communities that existed sometime in the past. Maybe if we had all the Madoff-money that never existed, we could create a series of museums for each of the communities that once did exist, but not anymore. Put aside communities like Radin and Salonika, where we were exterminated; don’t consider Tunis or Algiers where we were asked to leave – not so politely. Just concentrate on communities in America which were abandoned by choice: How about Deadwood, South Dakota, where several hundred Jews lived and thrived in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many of whom are buried in Hebrew Hill, the Jewish section of the Mount Moriah Cemetery – where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are the most famous of its ‘residents.’ But even closer to home: Brownsville, Jersey City, the Grand Concourse. How about a museum for the Jewish community from the Moshulu Parkway area of The Bronx, where, as you all know by now, I grew up. Now, while there are hundreds or even thousands of us left to remember the Nathan Strauss Jewish Center, Schweller’s Delicatessen, Jack Ashwall’s ices, or Mrs. Pearl Thaler, the Principal of P.S/J.H.S. 80, where we all went to school and where our lives were shaped. Before varieties of senility cloud are memories, perhaps we should record our recollections. Somewhere in volume four of Proust’s work, Swann (Charles Swann, an important character who is considered ‘Jewish’ in French society, although, if I remember correctly, only his father was Jewish) is described as a ‘connoisseur of phantoms.’ In my view, if all we are is what we used to be, then we are little more than apparitions; we have reduced ourselves to siphoning our memories to fuel our lives.
I was curious as to what Chryssa, a young Greek woman who came of age after the colonels had come and gone, thought of this museum, and so I asked her. We weren’t able to finish our conversation, what with all of the good folks in the group wanting her attention, but I got out of her a sense of pride that such a museum existed, as a tribute to what the Jewish people had contributed to Greek society – although the museum did not single out, nor can I think of any specific Greco-Jews who were world-renowned. Of course, she had not visited an array of similar tributes, as many of us have, nor would our present and our future be of such immediate concern to her, as it would to us. Almost everyone in our group is now living in Israel, and those who aren’t have thoughts or plans to do so. I began to explain to her that I and the collective ‘we’ of the Jewish people were too much alive to be limited to the insides of some plexiglass cases; but at that point in our discussion, somebody else had a question for her, and our conversation came to an end.
It was time to return to the Golden Iris which would sail the long way to Lavrion, where we would meet up with our guide and our tour bus again. Our tour leader, Carole Cremer, had ordered a healthy quantity of wine for our group, and for reasons best known to her, decided to have it served that night. So our dinner was especially mellow, and as there was plenty left over, a few bottles were quietly removed for use later.

There isn’t much to see in Lavrion, and I have no idea why our ship was going to stop there, except it was on the way to Santorini. If anyone wants to talk about a community that had one brief moment of glory and then became submerged in complete obscurity, here’s your example. In the glory days of ancient Greece, Lavrion was the center of the silver mining industry that provided the material wealth for the rise of the Greek city states. And then, nothing. The only historical site of any note in this area is the ancient amphitheater; so we wound up there, sitting on rows of hard stone seats, the same ones which were in use – perhaps a little smoother back then – more than two thousand years ago. The one question I had for Chryssa was, what was on the playbill? Did a theater like this one serve for the final rehearsals, as theaters in Philadelphia or New Haven do today prior to the Broadway opening? Was this the equivalent of summer stock? Did the people sitting in this amphitheater see the same plays and the same casts as one would have seen in Athens? She didn’t know; no one seems to know, and there’s no way of finding out. We have the names of the three dramatists and the one writer of comedies, a small sampling of their work, and that’s all. I can’t believe that they were the only playwrights, essentially working in a vacuum. If you were to look up the Wikipedia article on Elizabethan theater for a comparison, you would find the names of almost ninety ‘playwrights’ (some of them were playwrights like I’m a playwright; some of them specialized in writing certain parts of plays and worked in collaboration with others in an assembly line approach, a few of them are familiar to general students of English literature.) Only a relatively small percentage of Elizabethan drama was ever printed and has survived; still the number of plays we have is about six hundred instead of the twenty or thirty from the Greek theater. Whether or not the Greek playwrights were working alone, one in a generation, we are working with a vacuum in understanding their world, and these benches in Lavrion would maintain their stony silence for the rest of their days.
Anyway, that was the last question I was able to ask Chryssa. Her role as tour guide was over. She headed back on the tour bus, and we returned to our ship for lunch. Some of us ventured forth in the afternoon to see what there was to see in the town itself, which wasn’t much, the highlight being some coffee at a local establishment, whereupon we returned to the ship for dinner.
I believe I have previously described the plentitude of victuals available on the Golden Iris, all set out buffet style, like the ‘smorg’ at a simcha, so you have to pass by everything – and you’re hungry, so everything looks especially good – with a plate in your hand, and you’ll try a little of this and a little of that, and just maybeeeeeee, a little of that over there, until there’s no more room on your plate. Of course, you can come back a second time – or even a third time – for whatever you missed on your first pass through. I am proud to say that I was resolute. The only way that I was going to make it through this cruise without serious damage to my waist line was to set a one plate limit for all meals. No seconds, except to get a few pieces of fruit for later. Fortunately for all, the parve desserts were only fair to middlin’. The result: I gained only one half a pound during the eight days we were away. Not bad.
The formal entertainment on our cruise was avoidable, and we were required to do something which is completely foreign to most people under the age of forty: entertain ourselves. This meant that a bunch of us would take some leftover bread from dinner and, as twilight beckoned, hike up to one of the decks on the side of the ship to watch the gulls and other sea birds following the ship across the Aegean. We would toss small pieces of bread over the side and measure the success rate of the feathered followers in retrieving these morsels. It may not sound very exciting, but this is a perfect way to spend an evening after you have been out touring all day. One night, about nine of us were sitting around a table with a bottle or two of wine on one of the lounge decks which faced the back of the ship. There we remained under the stars, drinking and chewing the fat. None of us had come from ‘religious’ backgrounds; two of the women had been competitive athletes, one in running and the other in field hockey; in each of the married couples, if you needed anything fixed you would need to speak to the lady of the house, but if you were hungry, you were better off talking to the husband. On and on, until sleep overtook us and we retired to our cabins for some zzzzzzzzz’s before our next day’s excursion.
Our final port of call was Santorini, and in order to understand what this island is about, you have to perform the following mental exercise. (Look; up to now, I’ve been doing all the work!) Imagine that you’re at the beach, or if that’s too much trouble, in a sand box. You create a mound, let’s say three feet long and one foot high, more or less round in shape. Now scoop out most of the mound so that you’re left with a big crescent and a few small patches where the other side used to be. That’s what this haven for tourists looks like today: one side has the kind of coastline and beach you would see in most places and the other side, a steep cliff down to the blue Aegean. Thirty five hundred years ago, this was a perfectly normal looking island; and then ‘Mother Nature’ chose to intervene – with the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, five times bigger than the famous explosion at Krakatoa – blowing the island to smithereens. That has been the bane of existence for the Greek island to this day, volcanoes and earthquakes, perhaps their punishment for perfecting idol worshipping. Thirty years ago, one could have gone to Santorini with a suitcase of American dollars and bought a significant chunk of the island. Today? That same suitcase would buy you a week’s stay at one of the better hotels on the posh (cliff) side. The entire island seems to be a tourist trap, a breathtakingly gorgeous one, but let the buyer beware. What I remember most about the island was getting onto it and off of it. Everywhere else we went, we were able to sashay off the gangplank onto terra firma. Here, ships had to anchor in the harbor, meaning you had to get on a small motorboat to reach dry land. This we did, and as Barbara and I were among the last to get on board (the motorboat would make several trips back and forth to accommodate all the passengers), we wound up sitting backwards at the rear of the boat. Anybody ride backwards on a bus recently? Imagine that you’re on a boat which is rocking with the waves AND you’re sitting backwards, and you’re from a noble lineage of confirmed and certified landlubbers. I am getting nauseous just thinking about it, even now. I made it through the ten minute ride, but just barely. Safely on land – where there are not supposed to be any nasty waves – we spent the next several hours wandering around the tourist towns, checking out some beautiful vistas and a lot of stores with stuff I wasn’t going to buy. The final tourist town was a long shop-lined street – sort of like running the gauntlet – which was the only route to the way down: you can walk down a long series of steps; you can do the same thing on the back of a donkey; or you can join the long line waiting to get on a cable car. As you might expect, we opted for the third choice, having stopped beforehand for some liquid refreshment at a little place which looked down over the harbor, and where they were playing a CD of a tenor in fine voice singing some Italian songs. It’s amazing what we choose to remember.
Our turn came and we rode down the cable car, from which we could see people and donkeys going up and down the winding trail. Shabbat would be soon approaching, so all of our group was going one way – down. We found the motorboat going back to our ship – as opposed to one of the other ships in the harbor – and making sure NOT to ride backwards, we arrived back at the Golden Iris.
One amazing thing about being in Israel which is so important and equally hard to explain is how The Land allows the ‘pintele yid’ (very hard to translate: probably ‘the little spark of being Jewish’ would work) to survive and flourish. You can be riding the Egged bus from Maale Adumim to Jerusalem, and a young woman gets on dressed in shorts and a tank top; she sits down and pulls out a volume of psalms and begins reciting them earnestly. The dining room on the Golden Iris was filled with the same people as it had been all week. But now it was Friday night, and many men who had been bare-headed all week were now wearing kippot, and many women were dressed a little nicer – because it was Shabbat. During the week, our morning minyan, basically AACI people, had about twenty or twenty five men (there was a separate Sephardic minyan of about the same size.) Shabbat morning in our combined minyan, we may have had as many as 100 men and a very large contingent of women across a makeshift mehitzah. For the next to last time, my faithful group of leviim (all three of them) joined me at the bar in the lounge to wash my hands so I (and now one other guy who showed up) could recite the priestly blessing. The joy of Shabbat would soon be mingled with inevitable regret that our eight days of being pampered was fast coming to an end. That’s what’s wrong with all vacations: they come to an end.
Carole Cremer had arranged for the AACI contingent to have a special third meal in the late afternoon (after lunch and the compulsory nap), after which Daniel Schwartz gave the last of his lectures to us. There was almost an hour left before the evening service and ushering out Shabbat. It was suggested that we spend the time together, and that perhaps some of us could get up and say a few words about themselves. Absolutely amazing! Two of the women worked as museum curators; another was a published novelist; another was a practitioner of ‘natural’ medicine who had been living in Egypt. On and on. Eight days was not enough time to get to know more than a select number of people out of the fifty seven in our group. Next time. (After the trip was over, I found out that one of the rabbis in our group had majored in classics at Cambridge.)
It was time for havdalah, saying ‘bye-bye’ to Shabbat, and then it was time to start getting ready to leave the boat the next morning. By midnight, the ship’s hallways were crowded with luggage that would be carried off as soon as we docked at Haifa. Our morning minyan was especially early, as was breakfast, and then we were saying ‘bye-bye’ to The Golden Iris and all the nice people we had met – some of whom we would be in touch with, some we wouldn’t. But we had one more task to perform, one more place to stop. DUTY FREE!!!! For there waiting for us were the three bottles I had prudently purchased on our way out: the Balvenie (Scotch), the Bushmills single malt (Irish), and the Jack Daniel’s Silver Select (Kentucky). Who says the nations of the world can’t get along? Through Customs and onto the bus to retrace our steps. Stops at Modi’in, Jerusalem, and the mall at Maale Adumim, from whence we took a monit back to our apartment, where Mimi ignored us for at least fifteen minutes before she decided that she was hungry and she had better negotiate with us about that.
Someone might inquire of me, what do you have left from your trip besides memories (and a lot of whiskey and some hand cream. And some digital photographs)? To which I would answer: there are memories that are real and memories, like Swann’s, that are phantoms, unconnected to anything but a feeling of nostalgia. Anything which helps you make sense out of your life is real, and anytime you meet people with whom you make a real connection, you have spent your time wisely, my friend.