Monday, May 30, 2011

What Used To Be Home Pt. 2


Out into the sunshine!!!!!!! Not exactly. By the time we were through with Customs at Dulles Airport and had found our way to where the pre-arranged taxi would be waiting for us, shades of night were falling (paraphrasing any number of old songs skipping through my brain). It wasn't exactly a private cab, more like a service that took a number of random people on a circuitous route to their destinations. I looked out the window and watched as we wended our way through towns in Maryland heading to Silver Spring. It could have been early evening in late November in New Jersey; it all looked the same. The last bits of light, pink and orange, were being filtered through the grey clouds, framed by the still-leafless trees. The houses looked the same as in my former-neck-of-the-woods, the shopping malls looked the same, the highways with their delays for construction looked the same. I was back in suburban sprawl America, looking exactly the way it did when we left four years ago.

I can't say that my heart sunk when we arrived at our destination, a residence for seniors run by the local Jewish Federation. But it certainly dropped a few inches. When I had last seen Barbara's mother, it was at her cheerful apartment in a retirement village in Deerfield Beach, Florida. In season, 15,000 people lived there. It was spacious and well-maintained, with swimming pools, tennis courts, even a nine hole golf course. Perfect for a certain kind of retirement life. It wasn't where I wanted to wind up, but I never found being there depressing. One, we were always on vacation and were there to relax. Two, Gwen had a full life there. She was in charge of the Century Village library; she volunteered at a local university which had a series of classes for seniors, meaning she could audit any number of college level courses. Of course, she had a car and went wherever she needed to. She had friends by the dozen, a full network of women who took care of each other in good times and bad.

Almost twenty years had passed since she first went down to Florida, and there came the time when she realized that she would be unable to keep going the way she had been. The doctors couldn't perform the kind of knee operations she would have needed. Hard to drive; harder to walk. The distance from the elevator to her apartment somehow seemed to be getting longer and longer. Everything was becoming more and more difficult. Time to move back to Maryland, to a subsidized facility she knew about because family members had been and are living there.

Barbara had been there before to help her mother 'settle in,' so she knew what to expect. I, of course, did not -- although maybe I should have. It's not as if this facility is inherently depressing; it's not. But it is institutional, no getting around it. No gated community extending for blocks and blocks with guards to check the cars coming in the several entrances. Just a desk clerk on duty in a little cubicle in a little lobby. A room with a number of computers, yes, but no large clubhouse with an auditorium where performers entertain and movies are shown. No balconies with soothing views of herons landing in the lagoon; Gwen's balcony faced the parking lot in the back where the big trucks came to collect the trash. You have to notice that it's designed for older people whose circumstances are getting more and more constricted physically, financially, and therefore emotionally. And that is what's depressing.

We arrived in the evening after the dining room was closed and so the lobby was deserted except for the desk clerk, who brought us upstairs to the apartment. Remember, no one had been here -- except for a distant cousin who came in if and when she remembered to water the plants -- for two months. Why can't we find a light switch that works? Why are all the digital clocks blinking? Why is a six week old edition of the Washington Post neatly folded on the kitchen table? Why are there semi-rancid coffee grinds in a dried-up filter in the Mr. Coffee machine? Are we indeed in some semblance of the twilight zone where time had simply stopped? After some effort, we finally figured out which lamps and wall switches worked, enough to bring in our luggage and get settled for the night.

Settling in. That is part of what was so disconcerting. The move from Florida last June had just about done her in. .Gwen had never been able to settle in to this apartment even though both Barbara and her sister Lois had been there to help her. It wasn't just that there were still a few boxes of stuff scattered around; the place just didn't have that "make yourself at home feeling" that the same furniture, the same pictures created in Deerfield Beach. She was too busy shuttling between her apartment, various local hospitals, and the rehabilitation wing of the Hebrew Home in nearby Rockville, where she was the entire time of our visit.

That was our destination the next morning, after first dealing with the car rental place. Sami, a young man whose parents must have come from the great subcontinent, took excellent care of us. But that accent? He obviously grew up in The States, but not anywhere near this Enterprise office. Then he told us that he grew up in Bayside, Queens. Of course. He sounded exactly like our friend Steve L who grew up in the same area.. A good twenty-five years difference in age, ancestors from opposite sides of the globe, but the same way of talking. That's what a neighborhood will do.

Part of Sami's job was to make sure we were completely satisfied. Translation: Did we want additional insurance? Maybe we needed the car for an extra day? Did we want to pay for the gas we used at their price (cheaper than at the station)? Did we want a GPS? Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes. (I finally figured out what GPS stands for: a Great big Pain in the Somewhere.) Regarding this little gizmo which you plug into the lighter socket and it tells you where you are, we had no choice. We had no idea where we were and where we were supposed to be going. The problem was that this gizmo didn't really either. To be fair, it more or less knows where you are when you're starting out, and you tell it where you want to get to, but then it's more or less pot-luck. If you're on Smithers Road and two blocks away is Smithers Boulevard, chances are the little gadget will get flustered. I can't imagine this device at work in Queens where there might be a 74th St., Road, Ave, and Lane.

So for the next week, we had a running battle with this device. It would tell us to go straight when there was a major highway interrupting the street we were traveling on, blocking our progress. It would tell us to keep going when we knew we had in fact arrived at our destination. It would leave it to our imagination to figure out the subtle distinction between "keep right," "bear right," and "turn right." It assumed that when it said "go east," we could distinguish east from a hole in the wall. All for thirteen dollars a day! I kept wondering: Maybe this little machine has a mind of its own, like in the movie 2001. Maybe it will turn on us. Maybe we'll wind up hurtling over a cliff, or wind up in the only Arab village in the New World, or on the set of some slasher movie.

Now, someone might ask, why don't you just get a road map and be done with it? You wanna know why? We couldn't find one for love or money, no matter where we looked: book stores, gas stations, Office Depot type stores. That's why. At least not for Montgomery County MD. The entire state, yes; the whole Washington DC area, yes; but a map that would show us where C was in relation to A and B in this little twenty mile area we were in, no way, no how. Four years ago before we left, yes; today, not a chance. The word is O-B-S-O-L-E-T-E, one more item no longer needed (think typewriters, bottle openers, slide rules, alarm clocks, even -- dining room tables.) The nice man at the gas station explained that they stopped carrying maps because people had stopped buying them. (Maybe Triple-A still has them, but they don't operate in Israel.)

Since we've been back, I've seen a number of articles which deal, in one way or another, with the dumbing down of the human mind. Many new inventions (think printing press,computers, fully automated anything), while enriching our lives immeasurably, in another way makes it possible to put our brains in sleep mode. We realized, once we could trust our little device to get us from point A, Gwen's apartment, to point B, the Hebrew Home in Rockville), that we were no longer paying attention to where we were going. There were maybe only half a dozen turns, but we realized that if we didn't simply turn off our GPS and (gasp) look out the window at the relevant landmarks, we would never actually remember how to go.

As you would expect from this little diatribe, we had considerable difficulty the first day finding the Hebrew Home in the neighboring town of Rockville, but we did at last arrive. Where we were going turned out to be a huge strip mall of Jewish facilities:schools, social service facilities, a JCC, plus the Jewish Home. Like any of the malls we encountered, this one could have been anywhere. All the buildings were built with the same reddish-brown bricks and had the same institutional look as the building where Gwen was living and all the JCC's in New Jersey. I wonder if the same architectural firm designed them all? Where is Frank Lloyd Wright when you need him?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What Used To Be Home Pt. 1

Marcel and the Customs Agent

Everyone seems to think that you can find just about any information you'd ever want on The Web. Well, up to a point; still, you can only go so far with this. I have located the lyrics from well-known obscure songs from the 1920's (There goes the girl I dreamed all through school about, There goes the girl I'll now be a fool about,Ring down the curtain, I'm certain my future just passed ...-- Richard Whiting/George Marion, Jr); but what about undiagnosed phobias? There are a number of places you can go to to search for the scientific (Latin) names for rare maladies: for example, if you have a fear of raw sewage, you are suffering from seplophobia. Supposing, however, you have morbid dread that you will be left with nothing to read, that you be thrust into a situation in which you will have six hours at your disposal with nothing to do but stare at the walls. I don't know what it's called, but that's me in spades. Whenever I go on a trip, I invariably shlep along three times as much reading material as I could get to, even if I were going to be stranded at an airport during a major blizzard.

With that in mind, there we were on a plane heading from Ben-Gurion to Amsterdam, the first leg of our recent journey to The States. I had hoped to finish the last volume of Marcel Proust's À La Recherche du Temps Perdu before we left; but I still had 150 pages to read; so I brought it along and was perusing it as the plane was heading north over Europe at about 8AM Israel time. I had reached page 229, at which point, Marcel, the writer's thinly disguised alter ego, is about to enter the drawing-room of some very swanky people. He has been away from Society for some time, and when he walks in, he notices something very strange: "To begin with I did not understand why I was so slow to recognize the master of the house and the guests nor why everybody seemed seemed to have put on make-up, in most cases with powdered hair which changed them completely." Proust goes on describing his astonishment as he is introduced to people he knew so well and now hardly recognizes. "...Time, which is normally not visible, which seeks out bodies in order to become so and wherever it finds them seizes upon them for its magic lantern show." (p. 233) Marcel, you have this uncanny ability to put words in my mouth. Could anyone else have expressed why I was so dreading this trip?

Barbara had gone back to The States several times to see her mother and once to see her terminally ill aunt. Except for our ten day cruise to Greece, I had kept my two feet firmly planted in The Land since we arrived in July 2007. I'm not one of these fanatics who insist that once you're living in The Land, you may never, never, set one toe outside our boundaries even long enough to sneeze. My approach is much narrower, more pragmatic. Why would I want to be sitting in an airport at 3AM when I could be sound asleep at home? Why would I want to be sitting on an airplane at 10AM when I could be sharing my laptop with our two latest felines, Moby and Kookie?

We were originally planning a trip to The States in May to coincide with Barbara's mother's 90th birthday, but Gwen was doing poorly, shuttling back and forth between assorted hospitals and a rehab center. At one point, we were not certain she would pull through, so we advanced our trip by two months. At least that way I could have a belated 70th birthday celebration with my fraternal twin brother -- in between his rounds of chemotherapy. There was a host of family and friends we could see. One friend who was still grieving the loss of his wife who died inexplicably following an operation just before we made aliyah. Another who, after a senseless accident, was now a paraplegic. Some had lost elderly parents; others were burdened with caring for them. I had wondered how they were faring. I wondered what time had done to minds and bodies that weren't so young to begin with. We would soon find out.

Let me digress and throw in a little tip about air travel. If you're going to be stuck in an airport in Europe for more than twenty minutes, as good a place as any to be is in Amsterdam -- as long as you aren't looking for kosher food. The duty-free shops are well stocked and reasonable. If you have the time, you can get on a bus and be at any of the fine museums in the city in half an hour. Being more cautious, we chose to stay in the airport. Not to worry; there's even a museum there! Actually a gallery space, exhibiting 'Old Masters' lent from the local museums. From the sublime to the ridiculous: there is also a life-size interactive TV display in which the friendly virtual bartender will show you how to make dozens of cocktails, all using a gin-like beverage called Bols Genever. I prefer my booze straight up, but I appreciate the sentiment.

Many hours and a change of planes later, we arrived at Dulles International Airport outside Washington DC. Home. Or what used to be home. Or more precisely, close to what used to be home. Clutching our American passports, we avoided the agony to which foreigners are subjected when they choose to enter The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Not so fast. We had filled out the standard customs form stating that we had nothing to declare. With our turquoise suitcases -- the easier to find them on the the luggage conveyor -- and our carry-on bags, we were standing in a long corridor with lots of other people waiting to exit, when a customs official with the cutest little Beagle you'd ever want to see came walking our way. The dog got to our stuff, started sniffing, and climbed onto Barbara's backpack. Uh-oh! On the general principal that you never have too much food with you, Barbara had packed three Granny Smith apples (yes, you can get them in Israel) as part of of our just-in-case snack. She also took two cucumbers that would have rotted if left for another week in our fridge. We were well fed on the KLM-Delta flights and we still had them with us. We were attempting to bring unauthorized agricultural products into the U.S.. for which a fine of up to $500 may be imposed. Yikes! We offered to eat the apples right then and there; but that would have meant destroying the evidence. We were taken into a separate room and made to face the sternest federal official you'd never want to meet. In front of us on line was a middle-aged man, his head bowed in contrition, holding in his hands a solitary red-delicious apple cradled in a napkin. He was ready to accept whatever punishment the official would mete out: a week in Guantanamo, having to write "I will never again try to smuggle Agricultural products into the U.S." ten thousand times, or being force-fed fifty gallons of Starbucks worst coffee. He got off lightly; the woman simply confiscated his red-delicious apple and the napkin, giving him a scathing look in the process. But we....we... had three (!) apples and two (!) cucumbers. We might be members of some agro-consortium. Would they retroactively revoke our citizenship back three generations -- even for my Uncle George who fought in W.W.I? The official took our passports and proceeded to check them.. Our information was probably entered into some data-base of would-be Johnny Appleseeds, to be interrogated should we return at some future date to what used to be our home. We were finally released and allowed to go on our way. Welcome to the USA!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

You Ain't Gonna Rain on My Barbecue

“I remember back in the States the ongoing disputes as to what prayers to say on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Here in the Land, pretty much everyone understands that we are living a miracle and acts accordingly — at least on this one wonderful day of the year.”
Fred Casden of Ma’aleh Adumim (2007 from Teaneck)
It started with a request from our good friend, Abby Leichman.. Among her other journalistic pursuits, she seems to be the 'foreign correspondent' for the New Jersey Jewish Standard (an aptly named newspaper, as I will explain below). She was writing a series of articles for them about Yom Haatzmaut, and she hoped to collect a series of short statements (ostensibly one or two sentences) from former New Jerseyites about “How do former North Jersey residents feel about celebrating Israeli Independence Day in the land of Israel?” Being a sensible person, and having a deadline to meet, Abby sent out an e-mail to a selected group of ex-pats, people like me who always have something to say and are willing to say it at a moment's notice (cynics might describe this condition as “diarrhea of the mouth”).

What choice did I have, but to rise to the occasion, having about three days, including Shabbat, to ponder the matter? The first sticking point was the desired length. It is hard to be brilliant and brief at the same time. But, before there were sound-bites, there were aphorisms to give us inspiration. (“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde; “Lead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself” – Mae West) Nothing I could come up would be as clever or poignant as these examples, but I would give it a shot. Then I thought, even if I can make it short and snappy, what would there be to talk about that would grab the attention of the intended audience?

The New Jersey Jewish Standard, a very 'standard' American 'Jewish' newspaper. It would not be fair to say that every paper of its kind in The States is the same; they vary widely in coverage and quality. What they have in common is a standard starting point: 'Federation Judaism,' a sort of liberal, cure the world, big tent kind of approach. By design, a lot of lukewarm commentary and not much punch. Often, the most interesting items in The Standard were the Letters to the Editor, taking the paper to task for what the paper wrote or failed to write. But consider The Standard's readership: a heavily Orthodox readership in Teaneck, divided into liberals and conservatives, and a larger amorphous non-Orthodox constituency throughout the rest of Bergen County, politically liberal and percentage-wise less involved in things Israeli. What would I, could I say about Yom Haaztmaut that would resonate with any sizable percentage of them?

Giving a description of what goes on here on this holiday is relatively simple. Doing it in a way that doesn't make or draw misleading comparisons with holidays in The States that purport to have the same purpose is much harder. Explaining what the day is all about is very, very difficult – even if your readership has supposedly bought into your value system.

I can write plainly that Yom Haaztmaut is (in fact, means) Israel's Independence Day. People in The States can relate to that: Fourth of July. The day before is Yom Hazicharon, a day to commemorate the 24,000 men, women, and children who have died defending their lives and property since Jews began moving out of Jerusalem's Old City in the mid 19th century; this year there will be 240 or so more martyrs to add to the list. Everyone can relate to that. Americans have Memorial Day and Armistice Day; add on to that memorials to the victims of 9/11.

I can write that Barbara got the last inch of room on a second bus ( the first was way too crowded to stop for more passengers) on the way back from Jerusalem to Ma'ale Adumim at 1:30PM – six hours before Yom Haaztmaut would start. In The States, traveling around 'The Holidays' can also be a nightmare. At night there will be fireworks; all through the day, intrepid Israelis will be making barbecues anywhere they can drive to and get their grills going (as with Lag B'Omer, don't leave your laundry out on the line unless you really like the lingering aroma of meat patties in your BVD's). Again, fireworks, barbecues? Not unique to The Land.

So trying to squeeze a description of what takes place here into a few dozen well-chosen words is inherently self-defeating. Anyone who is reasonably interested in life in The Land already knows something about our holiday. Reciting the bare facts won't cut it for anybody else because we're still left with the next-to-impossible task of explaining what any of it means.

Consider these two very different scenarios, if you will. It was almost a given that sooner or later European nations would head off to the New World and subjugate the aboriginal population. It was likely that England, the strongest, most efficient nation at the time and the one most interested in colonization, would grab a large, usable hunk of the property. It was not surprising that the transplanted Englishmen would insist on their own form of government. It was fortunate that their leaders did a good job of it. There was no certainty that the nation would grow and prosper and remain united. Yes, you can see the hand of G-d in all of the above, in the sense that every time an infant comes out of a womb, the hand of G-d is present. But The Hand of G-d? Is anybody talking about obvious, overt miracles as being the cause of America's success? If you were ever at Gettysburg, did you see any signs near the battlefield, “Nes gadol haya po” (a great big miracle happened here)?

What about our situation: a people homeless for two thousand years, vilified and hunted down almost to extinction more often than we'd care to think about, returning to our home turf and seemingly making a go of it, despite the hostility of an awful lot of people – including some of our own. Two questions: are we dealing with the hand of G-d or The Hand of G-d? Is it even possible to describe Israel's sixty-three year history without making reference to the many miracles that seemed to have occurred both on battlefields and in beleaguered towns, kibbutzim, and cities during times of war and terror? And what difference does it make (and to whom)?

Before we moved to Teaneck, we lived in Passaic – a much more fractured community. Every year on the evening of Yom Haatzmaut, the remnants of the 'Zionist' community would gather at 'The Adas' for a community celebration. It was a fairly lackluster event, but you had to show up – just so the 'faithful' knew you were still there . In the morning, if you wanted to participate in a minyan, you certainly had your pick. I often thought about putting together a chart describing what was going on in every shul: some pretended that nothing was going on – regular davening including tachanun (a part of the service which is omitted on festive occasions); others eliminated it. Of the latter group, some included Hallel (psalms of rejoicing said on the holidays); some didn't. Of the ones that did, some included it where it normally would be; some put it at the end. Some included the bracha that normally precedes it; some didn't. (In Teaneck, there is always a small, private minyan that follows the special service commonly used in Israel. Most synagogues followed it only in part; but nobody said tachanun.)

If there is no community celebration of Yom Haatzmaut nearby where you live in The Exile, then the question of whether you're going to head over to it or not doesn't come up. If you're not planning to go to shul that morning anyway, it's kind of unimportant what prayers they're going to include. But when rabbis and synagogues on the west bank of the Passaic River make a conscious decision to maintain the regular prayer service on Yom Haatzmaut, you have to assume they're making a statement about how they feel – or don't feel – about the day and the event (that and a reflexive reluctance to tamper with the set order of prayers). Here in The Land, even our secular brethren are living the miracles that go on every day. Everyone is too busy fussing with the fire in their little mangal to worry about somebody in The Exile raining on their barbecue.