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.”

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