Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Faster and Faster, or Rowboats Redux

I recently stumbled on another version of the ‘Three Rowboats’ story, the one I mentioned in my last article. Instead of the fervent believer refusing to save himself from the flood by getting into a rowboat, in this version, the man does finally leave his rooftop perch. The reason he drowns in the end (and gets to ‘meet his Maker’) is because the three rowboat captains quarreled over who would be first into the landing dock, with the result that all three boats capsized. Our f.b. never learned to swim, and everyone else was too busy arguing to notice his plight.

One of my ongoing quandaries in writing these articles is whether or not to revisit something previously discussed or to leave well enough alone. Usually, I go with the latter alternative, but today I’m going to stick my neck out. You may decide if I’ve done the right thing.

Here in The Land, the weather shows no signs of changing: autumn seems eternal and the rains have not arrived. The two chief rabbis have called for a day of fasting, with special prayers at the Kotel at 3:30PM. Things must seem desperate, because even secular kibbutzniks plan to participate in the prayers.

It’s a funny kind of question: why is the sun shining, and whose fault is it? When that question was dealt with two thousand years ago in similar situations, the answer seemed obvious: It’s ours. We are the reason the rains have not come. Today? It probably depends on whom you ask. On Dizengoff St. in Tel Aviv, all signs would point to ‘global warning.’ But in a poll on the Arutz-7 website, a very different crowd, two thirds of the respondent voted that “the drought is because of our sins.” Another article on the same site referred to the mass emigration of farmers in Syria, abandoning their farms in the face of a drought which has lasted for several years, reducing an area that was once fertile to an arid, inhospitable land. From a meteorological standpoint, it would seem to be the same weather pattern. Is it fair to ask whether our sins have caused a region-wide famine?

This is serious business. I remember vividly an incident that happened in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy in NYC. Someone in Management in the non-profit organization for which I was working at the time had the idea to ‘assemble to troops’ to share their thoughts and concerns about what had just transpired a few blocks away. One young lady, visibly upset, got up to speak. What, she wondered in a trembling voice, did G-d want from her? Did she believe that something she had done, or not done, was the reason that a group of terrorists set out to murder thousands of innocent people? Some questions are better left unasked, let alone answered.

I admit to being responsible for a small amount of the communal discord here in The Land. Last week, I was shopping in the local superrrrrrrrrrr, MisterZol. Normally, when I get to the checkout counters, I avoid…….. Let me backtrack and explain. One of the very annoying things that people do here is place their shopping carts in the checkout line and then disappear for long periods of time, wandering around the store and picking up additional items. Usually, they return – using the same instinctive sense that allows migratory birds to traverse the globe and return to the same tree they left six months before – just in the nick of time, exactly one second before the person in front of them has completed his purchase and they couldn’t complain if you went ahead of them. When you come upon one of these seemingly abandoned carts ahead of you in a checkout line, looking as innocuous as a land mine, the best thing to do – at least for your sanity – is scrupulously avoid that line and go to another cashier. Sometimes wisdom is realizing when you can’t win. And if you get into a confrontation with an irate Israeli, you’re not going to win, regardless of the outcome. Many of my countrymen are holy people – at least inwardly. Others can be described charitably as acting like the five year old children of holy people. They’re entitled to do what they want, they don’t need your permission or consent, and why don’t you understand that?

On this one occasion, though, I forgot myself and fell into the trap. And sure enough, exactly one second before the woman checking out had finished paying, the guy who had disappeared for a good ten minutes, leaving his cart as a souvenir, returned and, even though I had put all my items on the counter, insisted on going first, pushing ahead of me. I have never figured out the best way to handle this kind of situation. If you meekly submit you’re a freier; you’re worse than a freier because you’re encouraging someone else’s bad behavior. Maybe if you’re a true tzaddik, you can explain to the offender in a way that he will understand that his behavior has caused you great emotional distress and is antithetical to the best interests of society as a whole. That’s if you’re a tzaddik. If you’re me, you wind up yelling. I never crossed the line: I did not use profanity or discuss his lineage, maternal or paternal. I do admit to questioning his intelligence. And I did it in English, which he may or may not have understood – although I’m sure he got the general message. If I’m going to argue, I’m going to do it on my terms, using my language. But what good did I accomplish? Minutes before, I had come from an exercise class and was feeling really mellow. All it took was one intemperate outburst at one nitwit to sour my disposition and contribute to the communal discord. But is that why there’s water rationing in Jordan? You tell me.

However, as far as communal discord as a possible cause of our ‘liquidity crisis,’ there are bigger issues at stake than my tempest in a tea pot. For example, recent events in the Shas party, whose main raison d’etre is defending the rights of the Sephardic majority in The Land. One of their members of the Knesset, the only one who is actually a rabbi, is Chaim Amsalem. Always something of a maverick, he apparently went a little too far this time. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, he put forth what might be considered a program for his party. The top level of yeshiva students, the ones who might conceivably be the next generation of educators and rabbinic leaders, should continue to have their studies subsidized by the government. The others, the ones whose heinies are warming the backbenches, let them go out and earn a living, learning part time. Let them, gasp, serve in the army. Provide a more comprehensive education in the yeshivas, so that the graduates have the knowledge and skill to earn a living. Defends the rights of Sephardic children to attend the best schools. Deal with issues around conversion of the large number of Russians and others in The Land who are not halachically Jewish. Ooooooooow, did he stir up a hornets’ nest, and did he get yelled at by his party’s leaders and the rabbis on whom they rely. You would think he said something radical, like it’s OK to watch TV, or something like that. The crescendo of criticism reached the point that the party’s newspaper Yom leYom likened Rabbi Amsalem to Amalek. That was going a wee bit too far, and the party leadership had no choice but to retract this libel, although I don’t think they went as far as issuing an apology. Meanwhile, the Shas party functionaries tossed the rabbi out of the party and demanded that he resign his Knesset seat, which he has so far refused to do.

As much as possible, I try to stay away from the internal workings of the various groups, factions, and parties, religious or secular, that collectively mis-manage the government and the affairs of state. There are kerfuffles of various kinds in the political parties all the time. If some Labor MK broke party discipline, perhaps certain ‘privileges’ would be withdrawn for a period of time. But there is a limit to what the secular party bosses can do, and they know it. Can you imagine finding posters in North Tel Aviv neighborhoods attacking a Meretz MK who might have hinted that the latest Kassam rocket falling near Sderot might be an obstacle to peace? Would the Kadima apparatchniks insist that its followers shun a recalcitrant party member, or that the local Aroma coffee bar refuse to serve him?

No such wimpy behavior for the Shasniks! They made it clear that Rabbi Amsalem (whom they demoted to ‘Mister’ in attacking him) was “a thief” and a “hater of Torah sages,” and that people should “stay away from this man and his opinions.” In case any of their followers hadn’t seen or heard the message, posters to that effect went up in certain neighborhoods all over Israel.

Do you see the slippery slope looming in the distance like an iceberg? Suppose our shunned rabbi should want to strike out on his own and run for the Knesset with a group of supporters. Might there not be similar posters everywhere threatening anyone who votes for this man with his “strange and heretical opinions?” Imagine if you thought that voting for him would mean that you would never again get an aliyah in the place where you daven. That might influence a few people!

Speaking of ‘strange opinions,’ consider the remarks of Katzele (Ya’acov Katz on his identity card), the leader of the National Union party (for whom I voted in the last election). As reported in the Jerusalem Post, “The current travails of Police Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev are a punishment from God for his role in the Gaza Strip withdrawal National Union MK Ya’acov Katz said over the weekend. Bar-Lev, who commanded the police’s southern district during the disengagement, is under investigation of suspicion of sexually harassing Dr. Orly Innes, an adviser to the police.” We will all have to wait for the outcome of this matter, because the state prosecutors are currently on strike (you gotta love it!) and they have announced that they will not deal with the case at this time.

Wouldn’t you like to have Katzele’s clairvoyance? Let’s say the guy with whom I was arguing in the superrrrrrr got into a fender-bender on his way home. I could thunder, “You think you can cause mischief with the four wheels of your shopping cart; now the four wheels of your car will cause you trouble.” Or the Shasniks’ high mindedness? Gee, I could plaster the walls in the shopping mall with posters denouncing this guy’s ‘strange behavior.’ Life would be good!

In answer to the question raised by the apprehensive young lady described above, my suspicion is that G-d wants us to act in a semi-reasonable manner towards one another. I’m willing to go out on a limb and surmise that He would be that more impressed by that than by our temporary reductions in caloric intake and all our supplications. If we are going to cry out, let it be for the strength to forgive each other for all the terrible things – real and imagined – we have done to our fellow. May the sun stop shining, and may the rains come.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How Fast Is Fast, or The Tale of Three Rowboats

Sometimes, it’s not a bad idea to be a little flexible…. every once in a while. A case in point: every Shabbat morning at our friendly shul, Musar Avicha, there is an on-going mishna shiur in English (mishna being the first attempt to write down the Jewish oral law about 1800 years ago) starting a half hour before the davening begins at 8AM. My initial reaction three years ago was ‘I can’t do that. It’s too early. I’ll never get there on time. Maybe we’ll be away sometime and I’ll miss something.’ Etc. In other words, if I couldn’t do it 100%, then I wouldn’t bother at all. Maybe I’m mellowing (like fine wine) or maybe I’m just getting to be more sensible, but I realized recently that I was being ridiculous. Why not try? Whenever I arrive, I arrive. If I miss a week, I miss a week. Whatever I am able to learn, that’s how much I learn. But if nothing else, at least I would be on time for the davening, instead of wandering in fashionably late, as is my wont.

So a few months ago, I started to put a proverbial toe in the water; I pushed myself out of bed a little earlier Shabbat morning and got to shul in time for the last ten or so minutes of the shiur. With a little more effort, I was able to make it in time for fifteen minutes. More recently, I’ve been showing up almost at the beginning; and once when the rabbi giving the class was late, I arrived before he did.

As you might expect, considering the earliness of the hours, the shul is not packed with men eager to learn, but there is a solid cadre of about eight guys who show up regularly. Mishna, without the extensive and often convoluted commentary of the gemarrah is relatively straightforward, perfect for learning at a time when the brain is not kicking in on all cylinders. Because the mishna is exceedingly concise, it is possible to complete the entirety of it, all the tractates, in the course of a manageable number of years, without the sense that you are drowning in a sea of arguments and conjectures. Nobody at the shiur is in a hurry, there’s plenty of time for questions and tangential discussions, and wherever we leave off, we pick up the following week. Shortly after I started showing up, we began going through the tractate Ta’anit, which deals mostly with how and when our holy rabbis during the time of the Beit Hamikdash would decree communal fasts, especially because of drought situations.

“The seventeenth of Marheshvan (that’s usually in October F.C.) arrived and the rains did not fall, individuals began fasting three fasts…..Rosh Hodesh Kislev arrived (about two weeks later F.C.) and the rains did not fall, the Court decrees three fast for the community…….[translations, for those who care, are from the English language Kehati]. And so on: who, what, when, where. As the rabbi giving the shiur, Gedalia Meyer, pointed out – although it should be obvious if one gave the matter a little thought – no rain in The Land, no water, no life. Two thousand years ago in parts of the world where there was a rainy season and a dry season, people used wells and dug cisterns to collect rain water. If the well went dry and the cistern emptied out, ooooow, were you in trouble. So you used your water sparingly and you worried a lot; hence, you prayed a lot.

Now, as Cole Porter used to say, times have changed. But the sporadic nature of rainfall in The Land has not. There are good years and bad years – not so good the last six or seven years. It has rained once or twice this season, even making it to our neck of the woods, but there is no good reason to believe, precipitation-wise, that things are looking up – as the Gershwins used to say. We’re supposedly in for a short, dry winter. Good for our heating bills; not so good, terrible in fact, for our water supply. It simply does not rain here when it’s warm.

OK. You’re sitting in a shiur about rainfall and fasting in The Land two thousand years ago. Even if your brain is working at half speed (remember, it’s 7:30Shabbat morning), there are a few questions begging, pleading, to be asked. Do these rules for fasting apply today? If not, why not? (Not that anybody is looking for an excuse not to eat, but a question is a question.)

Rabbi Meyer first response was, in a sense, sociological. We’re not as obsessed or stressed out as we used to be about water – at least here in The Land. Most of us can’t imagine there not being any water. We turn on the tap and there it is, hot and cold. We can even drink it. If I’m finicky, I can take my shopping cart down to the makolet three minutes away, pay twelve shekels for a six pack (two liters each) of spring water, and shlepp it back up the stairs to our apartment. If we had to, Israel could probably import large quantities of water in freighters from countries like Turkey which have more than they need. Thanks to the JNF, we have reservoirs aplenty. Israel has pioneered in the development in drip-farming and desalinization. What reason is there for us to go boo-hooing to G-d?

You know the old story about the three rowboats? A fervent believer is caught in a flood. He goes up to the second story of his house, whereupon a National guardsman in a rowboat spots him and offers to rescue him. The f.b. declines the offer, declaiming, “G-d will protect me!.” The water keep rising, and our man goes up to the attic. Another guardsman passes by. Same thing: “G-d will protect me!” The man is now on the roof, still refusing to get into the next craft because, “G-d will protect me!” Not surprisingly, he drowns and winds up meeting his Maker. Still sopping wet, he lodges his complaint. “I was certain you would protect me!” “What are you complaining about; I sent you three rowboats.”

I can imagine the following dialogue: “Hashem, forgive our sins and send us rain, as you did in days of yore.” “No one knows better than I what knuckleheaded and out of control things you the children of Israel are guilty of. I am giving you a pass – not forever, but for now – because of your willingness to resettle the Land I gave you and thereby sanctify My Name. But water? I’ve given you water. If you haven’t used it well; if you haven’t even used the technology which you yourselves developed; if your Finance Ministry refused to fund the desalinization plants your Knesset approved…… I can forgive you your sins, but your stupidity, that’s another story.”

Right on cue, the week after this particular Shabbat morning shiur, some rabbis, perhaps from the Rabbinate, called for a fast, but in a very low-keyed way (meaning that many people didn’t know about it or heard about it second or third hand, and then generally ignored it). My Barbara, upon reading about it on the next-to-last page of the Jerusalem Post, responded in a not-so-low-keyed way: “The rabbinate, they should fast for their own sins!” (My wife, believe it or not, has a very low opinion of the Rabbinate here. My guess is that on a scale of 1-100, she would give them about a three. Perhaps she is being a little overly critical. Myself, I would rate them between 10-20. They are no more guilty of stupidity than our politicians and no more guilty of hatred than the leftist intellectuals who have hijacked our cultural institutions. At least that’s one man’s opinion.)

The following Shabbat morning, our little group of learners reconvened to continue discussing the absence of rain and the lack of participation in the fast (full disclosure: I was in for half a day, whereupon I lost interest.) Rabbi Meyer came in with an answer which he said up front wouldn’t be satisfying. There’s no individual rabbi or official group of rabbis around today who believe they have the authority to institute the kinds of fasts described in our mishna. Trying – unsuccessfully, thank G-d – to segregate the streets in their neighborhood; trying – with who knows what result – to annul retroactively huge numbers of conversions; trying – very successfully – to make the most outrageous statements which antagonize as many of us as possible and delight the secular press, itching for some juicy tidbit to print. All these remarkable activities various factions can do. But if group A called for a fast on Thursday, group B would insist on Monday, and group C would question the credentials of both A and B. So effectively, no communal fasts. Whatever rain falls, falls.

In my unofficial capacity as silver lining seeker, I am pleased by the rabbinic modesty in this regard. In a way, it’s like the headline we saw the other day, that the ‘Palestinian’ Authority had announced that Jews had no intrinsic right to pray at the Kotel. Why? The Western Wall had no connection to the Temple Mount. That’s good, I said. At least they’re on record as admitting that the Beit Hamikdash actually existed. Likewise, our official rabbis are forced to admit the limitations of their authority and – more importantly – their ability to organize and represent the body of Israel.

We here in The Land will have to muddle through another year, and we will. The desalinization plants that will contribute between 10-20% of the water we need are being built; members of the Knesset are stopping their bickering long enough to consider what stop-gap measures can be taken to conserve this elusive liquid. There may even be attempts to locate underground water (which has always been there, like the natural gas reserves offshore, just waiting to be tapped). Our citizenry is finally getting the message. Consumption is down a little bit – to be fair, more than a little bit; the supply of water to farmers and industrial users has been rationed. Our future is bright – if we don’t muck it up. It doesn’t take much to make a hole in the bottom of a rowboat.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Born in the USA

Had you seen me at about 9:30 that Shabbat morning, standing in front of our beit knesset, Mussar Avicha, chewing the fat with Ezra, you might have been inclined to wander over and inquire why the two of us were standing by our lonesome outside. Granted it was a beautiful morning: the last gasp of summer heat had seemed to dissipate. (It had rained in the early hours of the morning, although we hadn’t heard it. Someone’s car alarm had gone off, and as I lay awake in bed, I had fantasies of locating the offending vehicle, flattening its tire, and pouring fruit drink into its gas tank. Life is good, but not idyllic, here in Ma’ale Adumim.)

Still, why weren’t we inside with everybody else? Macrophobia, the fear of long waits, that’s the answer. Or at least one hitherto undiagnosed variety of it: the dread of hearing a rabbi announce that he has a “few words” to share and then prattle on for twenty minutes in the middle of the service to an essentially captive audience. I am usually willing, even eager, to hear a talk about the Torah reading or some aspect(s) of Jewish law. Just not when it’s without my consent – and especially when the davening is long enough anyway – even if the rabbi were speaking in English. I willingly concede that it’s not his fault that I cannot understand everything he’s saying in Hebrew. There are situations, though, when you need to understand mea ahuz (100%) or there’s no point. Imagine that you weren’t feeling well and you went to the doctor, who went on at great length and in greater detail about the status of your kidneys. And you left his office wondering, did he say I did or didn’t need an operation?

Anyway, there we were standing on the steps, when a fellow I thought maybe I had seen Friday night walked up and asked us (in English, of course) what time did davening start? I pointed out that the official starting time for shacharit was 8AM, but…..I shared with him my philosophy: whatever part of the service you have missed is less important than what is left; and if you do it right, you’ll finish at the same time as everyone else. By way of explaining his tardy arrival, the man – of indeterminate middle age – told us that he was still jet lagged; he had arrived back in The Land two days before after an absence of – what did he say? – thirty years.

Sure enough, the rabbi did f-i-n-a-l-l-y finish up, and we went back inside. When the service was over, I did my usual round of shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with the usual cast of characters, starting inside the sanctuary and then out to the crowded lobby. I noticed the jet-lagged newcomer standing by himself, and there was absolutely no question in my mind that he was angling for a lunch invitation. And where was Jeff when we needed him? – alluding to our friend Jeff in Jerusalem, who has made it a good part of his life’s work to locate stragglers in shul and invite them back for whatever hospitality they might need. To my dismay, Jeff was home in Jerusalem and wasn’t available to come out of the dugout to pinch-hit. The previous Shabbat, the Torah reading was about the extraordinary hospitality of our patriarch Avraham; and we had just finished reading/hearing about how Avraham had sent his servant back to his old home town to find a wife for his son Yitzchok, finding Rivka, who offered water to the servant and his camels. Lessons there. It is not like me to start talking to perfect strangers – let alone imperfect ones – but…..There was nothing else for me to do but step up to the plate and swing the big bat. Being essentially by himself, the newcomer was delighted to join us for lunch. (‘Us’ being Barbara and me and our friends Richard and Barbara[2], who had come down from their hilltop in the western Galil, bringing with them a bag full of fine wine. Let me further digress by indicating that this ‘bag’ is one of the most important design innovations of recent times – a canvas shopping bag, about a foot high, with six compartments, each one designed to hold securely one bottle of wine. Amazing!)

Lunch. To go with our first cholent of the season, Barbara[2] had dipped into her wine bag and pulled out a 2005 ‘EverRed’ from the Ella Valley Vineyards, essentially a mixture of Cabernet, Merlot, and Petite Syrah grapes (We had enjoyed a similar, but lighter 2007 blend from the Kitron Winery the previous evening, to go with the chicken based ‘orange’ soup and the roasted chicken stuffed with lemons. Both bottles indicated that the grapes were harvested at night, picked by hand, and the wine was stored in oak caskets for fourteen months before being bottled. If either of these choices surfaces at a wine merchant near you, grab a bottle or two.)

We ate, we had something to drink, and we talked, which is what we do at our Shabbat table. We learned a little about what our guest had done during his first aliyah, and what he had done in The States after he left. I make it a point never to ask someone who has lived here and left, why he did so; and amazingly Barbara[1] didn’t ask either. Our guest did volunteer why he came back. When it came time to vote in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and he was unable to vote for either candidate, he figured that he should consider that as an omen that it was time to leave. (Editor’s comment: at least everyone was spared having to hear what madness impelled him to vote for Obama.) Interesting reason; but then any reason to come to live in The Land for the first or second time is a good one as far as I am concerned. And so, without a permanent place to stay or any specific plans, he divested himself of thirty years worth of possessions, donating thousands of books to a local Jewish library, got on a plane, and arrived back in The Land – following some prearranged migratory pattern that he was unaware of, or perhaps succumbing to some inner need that could no longer be contained.

As we approached dessert (we still had half a bottle of Muscato to go with this course), I decided to share some Torah thoughts which I had downloaded and printed on Friday and perused during the morning’s davening. One of the writers I especially enjoy reading is Chief Rabbi (U.K) Lord Jonathan Sacks because his education has been extensive and he will bring in references to thinkers that most rabbis never heard of. His “Covenant and Conversation” article for this week, though, focused on a topic which I’m certain was talked about from pulpits the length and breadth of the Exile: Avraham’s efforts to bury his wife Sarah. Seven times in the Torah, G-d communicated with the patriarch, repeating the promise to give the land of Canaan – as far as he can walk – to him and his descendents. Great. Now it was tachlis time: he needed a small clump of earth, maybe three feet by six feet, and he didn’t even have that – just a Divine promise of what would be. I’m reminded of scenes in several films I’ve seen in which someone has something of enormous wealth, a check for one million dollars, a sack of gold, which, because of his situation, he cannot use, with tragic consequences. Our hero was made of sterner stuff; he would go out and deal with the locals, who were in essence willing to let him bury is wife on their land. It would be traumatic enough having to deal with the loss of a loved one who has suddenly died, and now you have to arrange the details of the funeral service and the burial on a moment’s notice. But how would you feel if, G-d forbid, you had to buy a cemetery plot for a loved one, and the management offered you instead only a ten year lease on the plot with an option to renew. That’s how Avraham felt. He insisted on buying the property, finally paying Ephron the Hittite a ‘pittance’ for it – what I understand would be the equivalent of a million dollars in today’s coins of the realm.

Rabbis go nuts with this story: why is it mentioned in such great detail?; what does it say about Avraham and his situation?; what is its significance for the Jewish people today?; on and on. At this point, Barbara[2] remembered that she had heard a similar casting of the story from a Chabad rabbi in New Jersey. I thought about what she said for a moment, and I responded something to this effect: I understand relating to this incident from the perspective of those of us living in The Land (and as we were sitting and gabbing, twenty five thousand Jews were gathering in Hebron, where this incident took place, as happens every year on the Shabbat when Chaya Sarah is read). But what does it mean to a rabbi in Cherry Hill – or London, for that matter? What is resonating in the mind of someone in the places where those of us sitting at the table had lived? How does one interpret this cautionary tale about living among strangers when one is living, willingly or unwillingly, among gentiles? Or perhaps one hasn’t internalized that, in the final analysis, those nice neighbors are not really part of one’s extended family?

After some heavy discussion and my share of a bottle of wine, it was definitely time for a Shabbat nap. I headed upstairs at about 1:30. Minchah, the afternoon service, wouldn’t start until 4:20. Plenty of time! When I woke up, it was 4PM; I must have been more tired than I thought……or maybe it was the wine. I could hear voices coming from the living room. Usually when I head downstairs after my Shabbat nap, I find Natania stretched out on the couch and Barbara[1] curled up in a chair. But there was Richard and our guest, still heavy at it; now joined by two other friends of ours. Party time!!!!! Except the three men needed to head back to Musar Avicha for mincha and Nachum’s weekly exercise in brilliance.

Shabbat was over and there was a division of the house; the newcomer was heading into Jerusalem to hear a concert by disciples of Shlomo Carlebach. The rest of an amorphous group were of two minds: 1)stay home and chill out (some people, like Richard and Barbara[2] having to get up at the crack of dawn to get to work); 2) head down to the ‘religious’ neighborhood, Mitzpe Nevo, and hear a concert, which was supposed to be outdoors but turned out to be indoors, by Lenny Solomon and Shlock Rock – their first ever in Ma’ale Adumim. Exercising option 2, several of us did in fact take a cab down the big hill to the concert to join a throng of mostly middle aged folks who first heard Shlock Rock twenty or thirty years ago..

Given the fact that a) I never voluntarily listen to contemporary pop music of any persuasion, and b) I am less than enthused by most of what is termed ‘Jewish music,’ you might come to the altogether reasonable conclusion that I would have no interest in a group that has spent all this time creating and performing Jewish parodies of pop songs, reggae, rap, etc. I have no explanation for why I have enjoyed Lennie, except that perhaps his enthusiasm is infectious and as other entertainers, for example Jimmy Durante, have done, he maximizes his talent with sheer personality. Maybe also, I like the idea that you can be serious about something, but not so serious that you take all the joy out of it. In the course of two or three benefit concerts for the Yavneh Academy I bought a bunch of tapes (that’s how far back we are talking) which I used to take with me into my darkroom and bop around during the long and tedious process of printing photographs. It is just as well that many of the songs he is parodying I have never heard, or I finally heard inadvertently well after I heard the Shlock Rock imitations. Even the original performers may be unknown to me. I have heard of Bruce Springsteen, but I don’t think I have ever heard him sing any of his songs. If I did, I wouldn’t recognize his voice.

Why am I mentioning Springsteen? Towards the end of the concert – a mixture of Lennie’s ‘oldies’ and some new stuff (he just recorded a collection of Shabbat songs played to the melodies of the Beatles’ – from Shalom Aleichem [With a Little Help from My Friends] to Havdalah [Imagine]) the group began playing their version of what I understand is a Springsteen classic, ‘Born in the USA,’ turned into “Born in the USA, Making aliyah today.”

If I had to have a theme song, that might be in the running. Born in the USA, went to The Bronx to stay (although in truth we were born in Manhattan and arrived in the northern borough when we were about six months old; there not being enough room in the apartment in the east 50’s for our parents, older sister, grandparents, and my brother and me). Born in the USA, raised on Mosholu Parkway (although anyone talks about this area, they mean the park, not the road; nobody hung out or walked their dog on the road). Born in the USA, crossed the Hudson to NJ (that’s ‘En-Jay’). Born in the USA, making aliyah today. Except that I’ve already done that. Except that on any morning when I rise and attempt to shine, and I look out through the doors that lead out to the little balcony off our bedroom, looking out to the hills this side of Jerusalem, I am once again making aliyah today. A few thousand years after Avraham Avinu, but that’s OK.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Nest Keeps Getting Emptier

Unless we’re invited out for lunch on Shabbat, most of the time (85%), Barbara won’t make it out of the house, and almost never (99%), will Natania. So usually, both of them have been willing to put on their shoes and accompany me back to shul for mincha, the afternoon prayers. Both of them can use the exercise after a big lunch and an afternoon nap. Besides which, who knows what manner of spooks and goblins might be lurking behind the garbage dumpsters to accost me on the way if I don’t have an escort? We will part ways once we get in front of the beit knesset. I go inside, stay for Nachum’s weekly exercise in brilliance, and come home after the evening prayers. My females take a stroll and are back home before I return.
The previous Shabbat, both of them were still sleeping, so I was on my own to get back to shul. The solitude of this short journey reinforced my sense of impending separation. Once Shabbat was over, Natania would be moving out into her new apartment in the French Hill area, near the Hebrew University campus, where she will be studying this coming year.
Once she finished her army service last spring and was accepted into the mechinah program, a one year preparatory program for students who did not graduate from a high school in Israel, she made it clear that she was ‘moving out’ once school started. She sent in an application for a room in one of the campus dormitories. It did not concern her, as the months went by, that she had not heard anything from the housing department. Barbara and I, taking a more jaundiced view of Israeli bureaucratic efficiency, were more troubled by this lack of communication. Natania hadn’t even been told how much accommodations would cost. She was working, and then she got sick; plus we hate to be 24/7 naggers, so we didn’t press the issue.
Perhaps it was because the mechinah program is part of the Rothenberg International School, and her housing application had to be sent from office to office, or perhaps it was simply ‘because,’ but Natania’s application disappeared into that vast black hole where lost forms become etherized. When she realized what had happened at the end of August, she had to start all over again and fill out another form; at least then she was told how much it would cost, about 1300NIS a month plus utilities.
It was all for the best. Just about this time, a notice appeared on the Nefesh B’Nefesh e-mail list, which I saw, and on Janglo (a community website for the Jerusalem Anglo community), which Natania saw. Two young female shomer Shabbat students were looking for a third to share an apartment near Hebrew U., the monthly rent being 1300 NIS. Even though she would also have to pay utilities and arnona (the tax everyone pays for not being homeless), she figured – correctly – that she would be better off living in an apartment than a dorm room. For one thing, she could prepare her own meals and not be at the mercy of the food court at the student center or whatever fast food establishments French Hill has to offer. In short, she agreed to join the two other young ladies, both newly arrived citizens of The Land, one from England and one from France.
Now the race was on. Get everything that was needed done before the Holidays in September and after that the start of the school year on October 10. Beg, borrow, and, in a pinch, buy whatever you need to move into your own place. Overcome every bureaucratic obstacle to get the utilities registered in your and your roommates names – so you don’t have to deal with it months later when you’re trying to study for midterms. But this is Israel, where nothing is simple (exciting and rewarding, yes; but simple no). You can get almost nothing done by going to one office one time (One remarkable exception is getting an Israeli passport, which you deal with in less than ten minutes.) Natania spent several days running around from the bituach leumi (health insurance) office to the Arnona people to determine exactly how much she would have to pay each month for the privilege of not being homeless. Here’s where it gets interesting. Normally you would pay through the nose if you lived in Jerusalem, just as you pay ridiculous amounts of taxes to live in New York or London. But there are exceptions. Natania’s two roommates, being new arrivees, get a reduction on their rate – for one year, and only on the first hundred meters (the rate is calculated by the size of an apartment, and it doesn’t matter if you own it or you’re renting). Natania, having served in the army, gets an even bigger discount (for how long is not clear; she has to go back at the beginning of 2011). Of course, Natania had to fill out a bunch of forms and bring her paystubs from the army because the army computers don’t communicate with other government computers. In the end, she won the race, getting as much as she could done before school started, but it was nip and tuck for quite a while. Anyway, she had been moving her stuff little by little, and that Saturday night was to be the “nice knowing you; I’m outa here” event.
This may shock you, but there was a bit of ambivalence on the part of the parents. Natania had spent one term at Ithaca College and two years in the IDF, but neither of these two excursions away from the nest had the ring of finality; there was always the sense that our daughter was temporarily absent, home was still first on Cranford Place in Teaneck and then in Ma’ale Adumim. (Make no mistake: we’re not renting out her room, just as we have a room designated for Tina and David for the occasional Shabbat they spend with us; but we’re guessing that we’ll need to change Natania’s sheets and towels much less frequently.) But now it was, no question-about-it, “time.” Natania needs to get on with her life, away from the we-can’t help-it supervision of her parents who are always ‘reminding’ her to do this, or worrying on her behalf about that. She needs to be where she will meet new people and make new friends. But the truth is, we will miss her. Besides being fun to be with, she has taken a lot of the culinary burden off my back and is usually good for a trip to the superrrrrrrr; she’s strong, she’s handy, and she’s good for computer related tech-support. Most important, on those rare occasions when Barbara has forgotten to enumerate my failings down to the last detail, Natania has taken on herself the exhausting burden of providing backup. What will I do without her?
This may or may not shock you, but we could detect a wee bit of ambivalence on Natania’s part as well. She had taken a respectable quantity of goods to her new apartment (people have made aliyah with less!); all that was missing was her. Technically, she could have moved in the first week in September – that’s when their rental contract took effect, and the other girls moved in. But she didn’t. She could have moved in as soon as the Holidays were over and done with. But she didn’t. She was moving in the Saturday night before the first day of classes. I expected her to be on the first bus out of Ma’ale Adumim; but, no, there was still a little bit of laundry left to go into the washing machine and dryer………
Perhaps,, just perhaps, Natania’s situation can be seen – only by those who want to – as a paradigm for what other individuals and communities do – or don’t do. Life is good if you are a daughter chez Barbara and Fred: you get room and board, laundry service, plus a lot of other perks. The service couldn’t be better. And you can stay as long as you want; no questions asked. Very tempting, considering how daunting it is out there in a cold, cruel world with all its expectations and demands. Nonetheless, sometimes you have to leave your comfortable surroundings, move on, and strike out on your own. Or you can keep saying you will and never do. Or make excuses why you really don’t need to. Or you can go half way: move your belongings, your possessions, your money, just not yourself. You see where I’m going with this? Not to keep you in suspense, Natania did catch a bus somewhere around 10PM – clean laundry and all.
Now it was just the two of us, along with our geriatric cat Mimi, whose physical deterioration was continuing at an alarming pace. By that Friday, we would take her – in the same little blue traveling case in which she made aliyah three years and some months ago – back to the vet for what would be her Final Mile. We had called Natania and told her what was likely to happen; she insisted on meeting us so she could say goodbye. Donny, our regular vet, wasn’t there, and we dealt with his partner, originally a Francophone, in Hebrew.
Marc the vet was explaining to us our limited options, all the while holding Mimi under her mid-section, so that her head and forepaws were sticking out the top and her hind legs were dangling below, until I walked over and put my hand under her back paws for support. All the while, Mimi, one of the most placid of cats, didn’t move a muscle. That image of our little black and white cat suspended in mid-air, waiting patiently for her fate to be decided, will stick with me forever because it was sooooooo typical of our her.
One of the things which causes pet owners the most anguish when dealing with their terminally ill animals is that you can’t articulate a proper good-bye. Even if she would have understood, you couldn’t explain to Mimi what was going on because, as I have probably mentioned in previous articles, she was for the last few years, stone deaf. (To my knowledge, no one has thought to come up with a sign language for aurally challenged animals. ‘Rover, the urinal is outside, not inside.’ ‘Smoochie, it’s time for your medicine; come down from on top of the curtain.’) But if we could have had a last minute heart-to-heart with our cat, it would have been something like this: “Mimi, you weren’t the picture of health when you came to live with us seven years ago, and we’ve given you the best medical care possible; but we’re running out of options. What this nice man who is holding you so awkwardly is telling us in Hebrew is that IF we can convince you to keep eating, you might make it for another month; and if we can’t, it will be a few days. Even with all your infirmities, you don’t seem to be suffering, but it’s all downhill from here. Your balance is gone, and we might come home one day and find that you fell down the stairs and hurt yourself. You might have a stroke or a cerebral hemorrhage in the middle of the night. We’re not back in New Jersey where we could get in our car and take you at 2AM to the emergency vet in Caldwell. We would have to sit by and watch you suffer. How fun is that? Your ‘family’ is gathered here to say goodbye and let you go while you still have your dignity. We have enjoyed your company immensely , and we will really miss you.”
Marc the vet turned to us for our decision. Barbara and Natania agreed that the time had come. Fred, the wimp, acquiesced to their decision. Barbara and Natania stayed with Mimi for her final moments. Fred, the wimp, gave the cat her last pat, picked up the little blue traveling case, and headed outside to wait.
Barbara and Natania came out minutes later, and the three of us headed to the mall. There wasn’t much to say. We still had to buy a cake for the couple who was hosting us for Friday night dinner. I thought perhaps we could stop and have a cup of hafuk; Natania rarely turns down an opportunity to have coffee – especially if it’s on mommy and daddy’s dime. But no, she had to get a bus back to her apartment. Fridays here are short this time of year – what with our being on Standard Time, and she had cooking to do.
Earlier in the week, the bookmakers in London had quoted even odds on whether or not Natania would come back to Ma’ale Adumim for her first Shabbat away from home. That was before she sat down with her two roommates, and the three of them decided to spend their first Shabbat together – whereupon an ever growing group of the roommates’ friends decided to join them, one bringing challah, another a bottle of wine, etc. That Thursday, I got a call from our daughter at the shuk. “Daddy, where do you buy your chicken and meat?” I invariably go to one family-run business, not because the products there are better than anywhere else, but because the storekeepers are genuinely happy to see me.
While Natania was eager to get back to her cooking, Barbara and I were in no such hurry. By a quirk of scheduling, we were invited out for both dinner and Shabbat lunch. A Friday with no cooking! Our original plan was to spend a few hours at the Israel Museum (we are now members). But the art work could wait; Mimi couldn’t.
With a cake from Maafe Ne’eman and an iced coffee from a cheaper place, we returned home to ‘remove the evidence’; i.e., all of Mimi’s paraphernalia: her plate of uneaten food, her water bowl, the measuring cup and eyedropper in the bathroom – used to clean her ears, the stool so Mimi could get on our bed, the plastic tray that Barbara had placed at the top of her bed so Mimi wouldn’t fall through, of course her litter box. Mimi’s own bed and heating pad were in storage for the summer in our machsan, so those things didn’t need to be moved. The unopened cans of food we will give away or return; the opened can in the refrigerator I brought down to the kittens in the yard. One of them took a portion that it would have taken our cat five minutes to consume and inhaled it in less than three seconds. Both Barbara and I understand that it will take a while for us to stop expecting Mimi to start clumping down the stairs because she is hungry.
Our large apartment suddenly seemed even larger, ridiculously large for two people; six people had lived here at one time. Families twice that size are living in smaller apartments than ours. Barbara reminded me of an incident that happened when we were moving out of our first apartment in Jackson Heights, and a family from downstairs came up to check it out. We were living in a fairly modest accommodation: one decent size bedroom, one bath, an area that served as a living room with enough space to put up a folding table on Shabbat, an apartment sized kitchen, a small room off the kitchen – small even by Israeli standards – big enough for a nursery or an office (I turned it into a darkroom). One of the children in this family, a girl of about eight, took one look at our apartment, and her eyes got bigger and bigger. It was as if she were standing in the Vanderbilt mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Our apartment was modest, but it was bigger than the one bedroom apartment her family had, with their several children crowded together. It happens that some people have more than we do; some less – and I can accept both possibilities with equanimity. Just as I won’t get jealous of those who have more than I do, so I won’t feel guilty about having more than others. And I certainly won’t let a bunch of Nosey Parkers tell me, tell us, that what we have is too much. Especially The Land we live on. Another paradigm.