Monday, February 21, 2011

Nachas and Its Ramifications

Let’s begin on a happy note: “shepping nachas.” Almost all of us understand, at some level, what that’s about – even though I would be hard-pressed to define what the verb sheppen “to shep” means, or even to figure out its derivation. We generally understand that you can’t do it for yourself. Even if you created a gadget that would block out cell-phone reception within fifty feet of you in all directions so that you could get some peace and quiet on a bus; and you won some prestigious award for this invention, you personally wouldn’t be “shepping nachas.” But let your grandchild recite two lines in the school play, you are free to “shep” away to your heart’s content.

That said, is “nachas” something which is quantifiable? Could somebody create a nachometer to measure the joy one is entitled to receive for something that happens? Then, you might ask, what is the most nachas that the average family might be able to receive – short of a member winning the Nobel Prize or being elected President?

Do you want to max out, or come within a fraction of an inch of doing so, on your nachas score? Here’s all you have to do. Attend the bat mitzvah party for your great-grand-daughter and be of sufficiently sound mind to enjoy it and well enough to get there on your own two feet. That’s it. Simple. Oh, you say, that as of this moment you’re not up to that stage in life? We’re not either. But you have to admit that, if you were, you’d be in the red zone on our make-believe machine. Of course, if one were to attend the wedding of this same great-grand-daughter………..

Some people get to be in that enviable position (at least the bat mitzvah part). One of them is Bracha Habshush, the matriarch of a family which Barbara met in 1967 and I became introduced to in 1980. At that time, Mrs. Habshush, the widow of the esteemed Temeni Rabbi Ohad Shalom Habshush – who had supported his family by running a small grocery store – was still living in the small apartment in the Yemenite neighborhood adjacent to Meah Shearim in which they had raised nine children, some of whom had to be farmed out to the homes of other family members because there wasn’t enough room at home for all of them to sleep. In 1980, the family was small enough, though, to gather in the large room of the apartment for Shabbat meals, which were prepared on a neft burner in a kitchen the size of your bathroom – maybe a little smaller – and eaten on a table carried through the streets of Jerusalem by one of the sons.

Let’s fast forward to a Tuesday afternoon in February 2011, and hundreds of people – cousins, close and distant, friends of the family, classmates of the celebrant – were gathered in a large room at the Park Hotel, one of several in a row on Jerusalem’s Sderot Herzl, for the bat mitzvah party for Sheni, the daughter of Yitzchak and Tzurit, the daughter of Bracha’s daughter Zehava. Knowing all of the siblings and having been to numerous Habshush clan celebrations over the years, I recognized most of the cast of characters. As I often do at these events, I look around and consider how the generational goings-on of the Habshush family fit into the broader context of how this wonderful country has grown and prospered. The delicious food we ate (as good as Sephardic cuisine gets) did not have to be prepared by family members as it would have once upon a time, and no one had to bring extra tables with them for all the invited guests. No, this extended Yemenite family has not become wealthy, but they are prospering because the State of Israel is thriving – despite all claims to the contrary.

But the family is having its simchas at banquet halls these days not just because they can afford it; they need the room. The six Habshush children living in The Land and their spouses have spawned over thirty grandchildren, who with their spouses have already produced……… Just do the math. Bracha, who needs to know, has a notebook with the names and birthdates of all her progeny; she showed it to us one day when we visited her in her apartment in Efrat, upstairs from the large home in which Noga, Yehoshua, and their children live. But, as all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren share the same strong Habshush genes, Bracha sometimes has trouble telling them apart. That’s what makes this country so different from many western nations, the sheer number of children turning into adults in front of your very eyes.

“The sheer number of children……” Most mornings I recite my morning prayers in front of the window of our living room and I can look out to a street, parts of Ma’ale Adumim, the neighboring Arab town, and the highway to Jerusalem. Right below us is a parking lot with ten spots, parallel to each other and perpendicular to the curb (like the supermarket lots in New Jersey). Here the spots are rather narrow, and it’s almost never that ten cars manage to squeeze in. But at 8AM, there’s a constant stream of vehicles coming in and out. A mother or a father will get out of the car and get his child or children out of the back seat and bring them either to the Leumit Clinic or to the gan (day care center) which shares the building. All kinds of people and all ages of children, but for an hour or so every morning, a constant stream. And then there are other parents walking their children to one of the several schools a few blocks from our building. That’s what we have, here a little bit east of Yerushalayim, children galore: boys in kippot or with spiked hair, girls in long skirts or skin-tight clothing. There are times when there is no room to stand on the #174 Egged bus because there are forty school kids taking up all the room. Somehow they all count as part of the as-of-yet unfulfilled promise to our patriarch Avraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

There are, however, people – even some living in The Land – for whom the Divine promise to Avraham is a nightmare. Consider the following headline in a recent edition of Haaretz:
“Green Movement: Israel’s high birth rate not sustainable.” The accompanying article was about the conference Israel’s ‘Green Movement’ held the previous weekend in which, to be absolutely politically correct, they selected a male and female co-chairperson and signaled “an intention to address the ignored topic of the environmental implications of Israel’s high population growth rate.” According to the male member of this dynamic duo, Prof. Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion U. of the Negev, “The current population growth rate does not allow for sustainable development in Israel.” Therefore, he proposes that child allowances and other incentives to encourage larger families should be eliminated. “We are subsidizing our own ecological suicide,” Prof. Tal opines. “If the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea reaches twenty to thirty million…there will be no nature left to preserve.” In addition, the country will be unable to provide a decent standard of living to its citizens.

Interesting. Let’s put aside the fact that the professor’s projections may include everyone who lives here: Bedouins, Druze, and the other Arabs, none of whom are particularly interested in being Green. Let’s just consider the Jewish population for a moment. I wondered, if we start with 6,000,000, which is a few hundred thousand more than what our part of the population is these days, and we factor in an annual growth rate of two percent – which is what the article says it is – how many years would it take to get to 20,000,000? Math is not my strong point, and I’m a little rusty putting together spreadsheets, but with a little bit of effort I created a simple one, which told me that we would hit that number sometime around 2070. (Imagine how many progeny Mrs. Habshush would have by then!) Of course, there are other intangibles which no one can predict: like how long it will take you guys in The Exile or your progeny to make your way over here. That would throw a monkey wrench into my spreadsheet, if I may mix a metaphor or two. On the other side of the equation, the Green Movement, being Leftist in its orientation, probably assumes that large chunks of the area “between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean” will be given away to those ‘who are not particularly interested in being Green.’ That would also alter the number of people per square kilometer ratio.

But let’s go back to the original premise, that our birthrate here is “not sustainable.” And let’s put aside what we know to be true, that falling birthrates in China and parts of Europe are creating a demographic nightmare of a different kind. Let’s just focus on the meat and potatoes of the Green Movement’s thesis, that there are now, or soon will be, too many Jewish people in The Land, and perhaps in the world. Too many Jewish people, imagine that… We are just about reaching the number of us who were around in 1938, but our birth rate is too high. Collectively, we should stop having so many children. I would turn it around and say that what is “not sustainable” is the predicament we were in seventy-three years ago and one hundred and seventy-three years ago and five hundred and seventy-three years ago when The Nations were free to mow us down, as if we were grass on a suburban lawn. I would say that it was our extinction rate was “not sustainable.”

Is it not enough that Israel needs to spend up to half its budget to defend ourselves against our neighbors, do we now have to do battle with disciples of Thomas Malthus in our own midst? Even though the newspaper article (written by Zafrir Rinat) mentioned us that “The Green Movement failed to gain Knesset seats in its first election, in 2009 and its membership has declined since then………” and that other leaders within the party disagreed with this position, should we let down our guard and not be concerned? Never underestimate the ability of bad ideas to spread in inverse relation to their merit. Never for a minute underestimate the willingness of the Nations to think badly of us: for example – and this wrinkle was new to me – that Israel committed ethnic cleansing or genocide in 1948 when we were defending ourselves against the Arabs who were doing their damndest to drive us into the sea. Never overestimate the effects of our appeal to reason: that our tiny bit of room is too small to divide further, that we are entitled to defend ourselves against our enemies, that even twenty million Jews is a pittance when there are billions of Chinese, on and on.

I therefore nominate Bracha Habshush to be our Defense Minister. She and her little notebook, along with the similar efforts of matriarchs and patriarchs throughout The Land, may well be our best weapon against our external enemies and the “Useful Idiots,” the well-meaning folks within our midst who tell us that we have too much land or too many people, that we defend ourselves too well or that we aren’t nice enough to our foes. Keep adding more names to your little book, Mrs. Habshush. May you never run out of pages and may your ink never run dry. And keep “sheppen nachas,” or whatever Yemenites do instead.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

See You Around, or A Funny Way to Sip Wine

A friend of ours who is gainfully employed at the AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) tipped us off to an event of great interest which they were co-sponsoring along with several other communal and religious groups: a wine tasting with cheese, featuring the most prominent writer on Israeli wines, Daniel Rogov. The Great Synagogue on King George St. was hosting the event, and it was billed as a fund-raiser for a group which provides support for chayelim bodedim, Lone Soldiers – some of whom are Israeli youth from broken homes, but, more often than not, idealistic Jewish youth from all over the world who decide that defending the Jewish people for real is a better option than fighting an imaginary foe in the computer game du jour.

Wine and cheese!!! One of mankind’s sublime culinary combinations. The very thought of the event quickened my step and brought a song to my heart. We alerted our friends in Har Halutz – the ones with the wine cooler and the son who gives wine tastings – who joined us, and we met up with a number of people we knew from The ‘Hood,’ all of whom are recent olim. There had to be speeches; you can’t have an event of this kind without them. First was a gentleman from The Great Synagogue (I recognized him as having moderated the debate during the last election here), who spoke about the Shabbat dinners for 200 soldiers which his shul hosts. Then two men from the Lone Soldiers organization spoke briefly about their efforts. Finally, it was Rogov’s turn.

This – along with the chance to sip some wine and nibble some cheese – was what we had come for. Surely, he would have something interesting and informative to say. After all, there aren’t many men and women who can say that they have sampled every wine produced in Israel, kosher and non-, over the last 20+ years, wrote about them, rated them, and compared them to wines grown around the world. I’ve always wondered, for example, how he or other critics figure out the ratings they give: this one gets and 87, the other gets an 85. If I do a taste test with a bottle of each, will I be able to tell the difference? When he says that a particular wine should be consumed before 2013, how does he know that? All kinds of questions, starting with the ABC’s of wine tasting to advice to the connoisseurs. What we got instead was a standard stump speech: a little bit about the how’s, why’s, and when’s of improvement in the Israeli wine industry over the last thirty years, but mostly about the life and times of Mr. Daniel Rogov, wine taster, restaurant reviewer, and fair and impartial arbiter of taste.

To prove his point, he told us that he does not travel over ‘The Green Line,’ but that he is happy to meet with vintners whose product is produced in these places – as long as they travel to those parts of Israel where Rogov will venture. And….. Rogov will sample and review their products impartially. As I said, this must be Rogov’s standard stump speech, and I imagine that there are audiences who will give him a standing ovation in support of his self-imposed travel restrictions. Just not this crowd; dead silence.

The first thing I had done when we arrived at the Great Synagogue was to purchase – at a discount – Rogov’s most recent annual volume, “Wines of Israel, 2011,” coupled with a companion volume, “Rogov’s Guide to World Kosher Wines.” Usually, if I buy a book and the author is present, I have him autograph it. When he was finished with his little speech, Rogov went over to the table in the back where his work was on display. I thought to myself that I was happy to have the book (my 2008 edition is out-of-date), but I had no interest whatsoever in having his inscription in my copy. Maybe he doesn’t want his book traveling over ‘The Green Line’ either; maybe he doesn’t even want his signature going there. Maybe I’m not amused.

I’ve been thinking about this business of boycotting other Jews. It is true that I do it to some extent myself. If a restaurant doesn’t have a kashrut certificate, I won’t go in. But there’s no malice intended; I long for the day when their teudah arrives and I can become a proud patron. As far as more global considerations go, nothing doing. Imagine if somebody were to propose that we here in The Land boycott the Exile. (True, there are some rabbis here who insist on reminding one and all that it is forbidden to leave The Land except for certain specific reasons, a position universally ignored by the multitudes.) But despite my belief that the continued existence of five million Jews in random places on the planet is dangerous to their and our continued well-being, I will keep having a pleasant word for everyone, and, to the extent that I am able to traverse the continents, I will be happy to visit you wherever you are.

If someone says that he refuses to set foot in Yehudah and Shomron (a/k/a The West Bank), one question might be, Why not? Is it to prevent some form of spiritual contamination, to maintain some sense of moral superiority over the rest of us demented ‘settlers’ and our allies, or might it be from a conviction that we have no right to be there and the sooner we are expelled the better? Like many questions, this one leads to another. How should I deal with such a person and his boycott?

Back in The States, I developed a life-long fascination with eccentrics. One of my favorite persons was Jimmy, who would call to say he didn’t have time to talk with you, and then hang up. I cheerfully hobnobbed with people with bizarre diets and idiosyncratic religious practices; conspiracy theorists of all stripes; even people (shudder) who voted for the wrong political party. So if someone told me that he wouldn’t visit the Kotel – not because he preferred hanging out on the beach in Tel Aviv – but because Jews have no right to control the area around Har Habayit, I would simply add him to my list of odd-niks and leave it at that. After all, I wasn’t any closer to the Old City than he was, so who was I to talk?

But now that we have made it to The Land, can I afford to maintain such a bemused attitude? Am I unwittingly smiling at a crocodile? Consider our Connoisseur for a moment, a man who, by his own testimony, is fair and impartial when he reviews wines from places he will not visit. What would be his reaction if the fields in The Golan and the Judean Hills – where a lot of our finest wines are produced – were handed over to our enemies, and these vineyards were trampled and ripped out? A true wine aficionado should cringe at the thought, especially if one knew about the care and devotion involved in growing the grapes and producing the wine; but if you think that the we shouldn’t have been there to plant the vines in the first place……… Maybe, if he were consistent, Rogov wouldn’t review wines that he thinks should never have been produced. But who ever accused certain people of being consistent?

My mind was already on to other things, when about a week after the wine tasting, I noticed a little piece in the Jerusalem Post, part of a weekly feature called “Grapevine,” a kind of gossip column about social events in and around the capital. The writer mentioned the wine tasting and stated that Rogov showed “courage” by showing up at the right-wing bastion, The Great Synagogue, and announcing his self-imposed travel restrictions. I sent a letter to the editor (which they printed) with my opinion that Rogov was simply showing “poor judgment” and that the assembled throng was too polite to respond to his provocative and irrelevant remarks.

This incident must have gotten my juices flowing again because all of a sudden, something fairly obvious crossed my mind. Rogov’s yearly series of book is entitled “Wines of Israel,” not “Wines of Israel and The Occupied Palestinian Territories” (although I imagine the latter title wouldn’t pass muster with his publisher!). In the great propaganda war being waged around the world to de-legitimatize us, the author is on the wrong side of his own argument; in effect, he is sipping wine out of both sides of his mouth! Is ‘The Gush’ part of Israel, or is it part of ‘Palestine,’ (to me a fictitious state populated by a non-existent national group). And if the latter, why not list the Gush Etzion Winery, or the Golan Winery for that matter, in “Rogov’s Guide to World Kosher Wines,” which lists wines from “The Americas, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.” Why not add ‘Palestine’ to the list? On the other hand, if the Gush Etzion Winery, “(l)ocated at the Gush Etzion Junction near Jerusalem,” is in Israel, what’s all the fuss?

So I’m back to the question I raised before. What’s with these guys? Should I take Daniel Rogov seriously? What about friends, relatives, or acquaintances from The States who announce that they will be visiting The Land but who won’t come to Ma’ale Adumim – not because they’re on a very tight schedule, they’re too jet-lagged, they have no easy way to get here, or, quite correctly, because the selection of quality restaurants is much greater in Jerusalem – but because they won’t set foot over ‘The Green Line’ into ‘occupied territory?’ Never mind, as our friend Steve. L reminded me, that you can’t get from airport to Jerusalem without crossing over that imaginary line – at least for a short distance. Never mind that the ‘good’ side of the GL is littered with abandoned Arab villages – one of which is at the entrance to Jerusalem – while nobody, and I mean nobody, ever inhabited any part of Ma’ale Adumim until 1983 when a construction company started dropping pre-fab concrete walls into place. Never mind our historical claims to Ir David, Hebron, Shilo, and the like. Never mind that some of these folks who won’t come here are gainfully employed by Jewish organizations that assist us, providing goods and services to communities throughout Yehuda and Shomron. If Rogov is drinking wine out of both sides of his mouth, these conflicted souls are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Should I, then, take them seriously? Their version of tikkun olam (fixing the world) seems pretty lame to me, perhaps a tad self-serving. It would be easy to say to such a person: “You know what, I can’t take you seriously; it’s not worth my time arguing with you. Let’s have a beer as far from ‘The West Bank’ as possible and talk about our children, other interests, old times, and the like.” Or should I say, “I can’t take you seriously, but others might – and do. It is definitely not worth my time to argue over something which is a pet peeve for you and a matter of life and death for me. As the old saying might have said, ‘Takes two to boycott.’ See you around.” I like the sound of that, “See you around.”