Thursday, November 8, 2012

When the Imperfect Plan Met the Perfect Storm

It seemed at the time to be the best of all possible plans.  Barbara was going back to The States last week for her mother’s unveiling. (An aside: Why is it referred to as “her mother’s unveiling?”  Gwen Cole was not going to be ‘unveiled.’) As she (my wife, not her mother) would be gone for a week, why shouldn’t both Natania and I skip out of town – at least for Shabbat?  We, in fact, had received an invitation to join our good friends the Glazers in their new spacious accommodations in Elazar, a community of about 500 families in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem; and, if nothing else, I was curious to check out their new digs.  Plus, as both Natania and I are busy Friday mornings – she is working for the local vet and I am involved in set-painting for the forthcoming Encore! production of The Gondoliers – it would be just as easy to throw a few things into a suitcase as it would be to throw a chicken or two into the oven at the last minute. 

From the timing of this literary effort, anyone could deduce that Barbara didn’t get to go anywhere.  Actually, she did get to go from Tina and David’s apartment in Givataim to Ben Gurion airport, where she was told the equivalent of, “fuhhgedabowdit.” She would have been able to complete the first leg of her journey, from here to London’s Heathrow airport, but no farther. There seemed to be some kind of a problem on the other side of The Pond and the airports were shut down.  So I received a phone call at 7:30 Tuesday morning.  “Guess who’s on her way back to Ma’ale Adumim?”

A plan is a plan; an invitation is an invitation – at least as far as I’m concerned.  So e-mails went out to both June and Jeff advising that their guest list would be increased by one.  As I expected, no problem. On Thursday, Natania decided to spend Shabbat with a dear friend in Jerusalem.  Guest list back to two.  No problem. (It turned out to be providential that Natania stayed with her friend, as she wound up taking the friend to an emergency treatment center at 2AM Shabbat morning.)

Barbara wound up spending the entire week on the phone, in order to reschedule her flights and all her arrangements to meet people for the following week, so that she would be flying out of here on the American election today.  The ‘unveiling’ was being rescheduled for that Thursday.  (The rabbi would be available then; needless to say, Barbara’s mom would be too.)  After having packed and unpacked, Barbara was not highly motivated to fill another suitcase with stuff for Shabbat, but, like a trooper, she did it anyway.  I took the bottle of wine with me; she carried her home-made desserts.  I spent Friday morning “set-painting,” although I am often asked to do tackle assignments that would be too boring for anybody else – in this case, gluing pieces of canvas together. 

As pre-arranged, the two of us met up at the Central Bus Station about 1:30, so that we would have time to have lunch before we got on the bus.  Our first order of business was trying to locate a place to sit in the food court, which at that time on a Friday was like finding a parking spot at a shopping mall in New Jersey the day after Thanksgiving.  So, it was awhile before I sidled up to the counter at Holy Bagel to place our order.

Now there are those who intimate that my level of functional Hebrew leaves something to be desired.  The fact is, for something really important like ordering a meal, I can do just fine.  “Two bagels with ‘tuna light with celery’ with lettuce, tomato, and cucumbers on both, and olives on one – but definitely not the other.  And two ice cafés.” No problem for me in Ivrit. But I was at Holy Bagel, where I was the only customer even making the effort.  The collection of kids ahead of me assumed – quite correctly – that their American will be understood. Who else but Americans goes to Holy Bagel?  The stack of bagels, originally placed neatly in separate bins by type, was vanishing in front of my eyes faster than a new model iPhone on Day 1.  Again, it’s Friday afternoon at the Central Bus Station!  Barbara didn’t get her ‘everything’ bagel, but she did get something before there was nothing left.  Ten minutes later and Holy Bagel, along with many of the other establishments, was closing up shop.

It was time to go up to the third floor and get on what passes for a line to board the #160 bus, heading down through the Gush to Hebron.  If you know when to press the button, the bus will stop along the way to let you off.  We, of course, had only a vague idea.  “Press the button as soon as you get to Neve Daniel.” But the #160 doesn’t stop in Neve Daniel, so you’d better keep your eyes peeled to the road signs directing the traveler to Efrat, Hebron, Be’er Sheva, and even Beit Shemesh – every place in in The Land except where we needed to get off.

We did somehow manage to get off at the right place, at the stop by the entrance to Elazar.  We walked through the security gate, made a left, walked part of the way, and met June, who took us to their house.  I knew that they had moved from their small apartment in a great location in Jerusalem to much larger quarters, which they are sharing with their son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren.  But you don’t necessarily consider just how big something is until you get to see it with your own eyes. When the community of Elazar was founded as a moshav in 1975, the first few houses put up were tiny stucco cubes, three or four rooms, all exactly alike.  And over the years, each owner added this here and that there – sort of like Levittown on Long Island.   The house that June and Jeff are renting is one of those original structures – with a little tinkering along the way.  Their kitchen is now as large as ours – if you throw our living room and dining room. The one bathroom has been replaced with three and a half. The two bedrooms have become seven, with a few extra rooms for good measure.  You get the idea.

There is a reason why Elazar is called by some “The Beverly Hills of the Gush.”  The houses are larger and the streets cleaner than in most places; there are no stray cats foraging for non-existent garbage.  There is a startling homogeneity of the residents, all of whom seem to be part of the National Religious crowd, something typical of many of the communities in the Gush Etzion bloc, which one can either find refreshing or disturbing, depending on your outlook.  When Shabbat rolls in over the hills, there is absolute and total quiet.  (You know the old expression, so thick you can cut it with a knife.)  Elazar is far enough away from the highway that there’s no sound of an occasional car speeding by.  Where we were there are no cell phones going off, no flickering of a TV screen in anybody’s house.  All you can hear is the murmur of people talking as they walk to a neighbor’s house or to shul.  (During the day it’s just the opposite: the place is filled with kids, who are rarely quiet.  Jeff says it’s like being at camp.)  Some of what you hear will be Ivrit, but there will be a lot of English, perhaps because where June and Jeff are located is the heart of the Anglos neighborhood.

I don’t imagine it would surprise you to learn that a lot of the Anglos present have connections to Northern New Jersey or Long Island.  And so on this perfect Shabbat, weather-wise, the temperature just right, not a cloud in the sky anywhere in Gush Etzion, the conversation invariably reverted to friends and family living in The Exile who were being seriously inconvenienced or, worse, wiped out completely by this interloper named Sandy.  The fellow in shul who read the Torah Shabbat morning told us that his company, a jewelry concern on Long Island, lost two million dollars in inventory and their whole holiday season.  Needless to say, their insurance companies will find every possible excuse to limit the compensation they offer.  What else would you expect?  But there was something bizarre about this situation.  Here we were in a community guarded ‘round the clock, many of whose residents walk around with pistols – or M-16’s if they are soldiers, a place we reached in an armored bus.  We were in a place most American Jews would consider almost as dangerous as Sderot, worse than certain inner-city neighborhoods back where they live; yet there we were Shabbat morning at a Kiddush, without a care in the world, nibbling our way through a platter of fish, tossing back a few shots of Single Malt, yet worrying about the well-being of our brethren back in The Exile, where everyone knows it’s perfectly safe.

Most weeks, the Ashkenzi shul has its own Kiddush, which they set up, for want of any other place to have it, on the little street outside the premises.  This week was something different. In honor of a number of occasions, one of the congregants, in fact a retired rabbi from Chicago, was doing the honors at his house, and so all manner of people walked the few blocks there – nothing in Elazar is more than a few blocks from anything else.  Probably close to a hundred people showed up at one point or another, and all of us fit comfortably in his yard.  A number of us noticed the same thing, with the obvious question:  Why did the table with all the desserts on it have a mehitzah in the middle? Oh, of course.  It’s a ping-pong table!

The same rabbi would be speaking at the shul later in the afternoon.  Just enough time after lunch and the requisite nap to take a little stroll around town before heading back to hear the rabbi speak.  I especially wanted to take a gander at the other shuls in town – there being a total of four, including the new one, which is being used even though it’s still being built.  The original plan was to have one large, well-appointed shul for the entire community.  They had a vote: should they daven Ashkenaz, Nusach Sefard, or real Sefard?  (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry.  It’s not crucial to your life.)  The winner was Nusach Sefard, and for many years, this really impressive synagogue was the only game in town.  A few years ago, the authentic Sefardim decided they wanted to have their own place to daven, so they created their own beit knesset, not as large as the main one, but nothing to sneeze at.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  If the Sefardim could do it, why not the guys who want to daven Nusach Ashkenaz?  The town wasn’t too keen on finding a space for another shul, and the town rabbinate was opposed to the idea.  But to their eternal credit, the guys stuck to their guns, and now if, like me, you want to daven Ashkenaz, you’re in luck. Even though it’s the least imposing of the three, the guys still managed to furnish it with the standard Kibbutz Lavi benches (these are the kind with comfortable, upholstered seats, similar to what you’d expect in a theater, and with  a little shelf in front to put your stuff – made to order at Kibbutz Lavi, here in The Land). I couldn’t but help feel a little jealous; the mismatched chairs we have at Musar Avicha look like they were borrowed from a homeless shelter.  I guess if there’s no will, there’s no way. 

We even had time to get over to the new shul, which, as I said, is being used even though it’s far from finished.  Do they really need a fourth place to daven as there are only 500 families in the community?  There is actually a new neighborhood, mostly finished and lived in, but with a few homes still being built.  It’s at least ten minutes – maybe fifteen, tops – from there to the center of town where the other shuls are clustered.  Who wants to walk that far?

If you’re getting the impression as you’re reading along that Elazar is no more than a few hops, skips, and jumps in any direction, you’re on the right track.  There is one grocery store in town, and the mail is delivered; but if you’re in need of a postage stamp or you want a slice of pizza, or you have to do some serious grocery shopping, then you’d better get in your car.  The problem is, June and Jeff don’t own one; their kids do, but most of the time, that’s not much help.  The good thing is, that they’re in The Gush, where hitchhiking will get you most anywhere you need to go.  Six mornings a week, Jeff assumes his position at the side of the road just inside the guard station.  He has never failed to get to his destination, the learning group he goes to in Efrat.  And he has always made it back to Elazar without a search party going out to rescue him.  If we had any doubts about how easy it is to get around by sticking out two fingers (that’s what you do in The Land instead of waving your thumb), they were dispelled when we left the Yishuv after Shabbat.  June and Jeff walked us down to the bus stop across the highway where we would get the #160 back to Jerusalem.  Except that before the bus could arrive, several cars stopped without our even asking.  One guy was going right by the bus station, so we hopped in, and voilà, we were on our way. Traffic ground to a halt a ways down the road; I looked up and said to myself, “Oh, we’re at a toll booth.”  Then I remembered where we were. “That’s not a toll booth, that’s a checkpoint.”  Remember, we’re in The Land – in The Gush – and we all know what it’s like here.

POSTSCRIPT: Barbara did arrive safely in Baltimore, where she will be joined by a few friends and family members at the gravesite of her mother, of blessed memory.  She (again, my wife, not her mother) left here with these words from Natania, “Don’t come back until you’ve actually gone somewhere.”  Good advice.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ani Nishba'a.........

How is it that certain images seem to stick in your mind, even the fleeting expressions that you’ve seen on people’s faces? I suspect that Barbara and I will always remember the looks of shock, bewilderment, and utter exhaustion that tipped us off that Bryna Lee and A.J. were literally right off the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight and had no idea which end was up.  We had gone into a local store here in Ma’ale Adumim, one that sells low-end housewares, for something or other, who-remembers-what.  There were the two of them, with their mouths open – not knowing what they needed, and even if they did, what it would be called in the local lingo.  We were able to help them out, and then the four of us headed off to the main mall for a bite to eat.  That was about three years ago, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bryna Lee and  A.J.  have one son, whose name is Sam.  For a while, he was back in The States, having a good time, hanging out with his friends.  He finally returned to The Land, helped the family select a new dog, located some female companionship, and worked at the Holy Bagel in the food court at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, all the while waiting for the moment to arrive. Sooner or later, the I.D.F. would get around to calling him in, although the time kept getting put off.  Finally, the word came; Sam was given a date – and not with the girl of his dreams. 

Despite the fact that it happens in so many families here in The Land, taking several years out of one’s life, subjected to military discipline, is a big event for any young person.  At least the families who have been living their lives here know what to expect.  By the time the children finish high school, they understand what their options will be; they have an older sibling, a relative, a friend of the family who has been there, done that.  But here are A.J. and Bryna Lee, who with a little effort can read the label on a package of soup mix, and Sam, who is skilled at piling lettuce and tomato on a bagel and other related skills – none of which is of much use in planning a military career.  So now, Sam was coming home with something for his parents to sign (which of course they can’t read), giving their consent for him to join kravi, a combat unit – in his case, the tank corp.
Talk about mixed emotions!  On the one hand (as some of us pointed out), “Hey, you’re the ones who wanted to make Aliyah.  It was important to you.  Now your son wants to defend The Land you brought him to.  That’s important to him.  How can you say no?  He doesn’t want to be a Jobnik, hanging around in an office for three years, doing diddlysquat.”  On the other hand, Sam is their only child and…………… (You know the rest).  In the end they signed, perhaps with hands trembling and hearts throbbing.

So off Sam went several weeks ago to the same induction center on Rashi St. that Natania had gone to some four years before, and now it was time for his official swearing in tekes. Bryna Lee sent around an e-mail inviting us (no pressure!) to join them at the ceremony on the Thursday afternoon at Latrun – or more specifically, at Yad Lashiryon, the Armored Corps Memorial Site and Museum (on which site occurred a rather important series of battles during the War of Independence in 1948).  Of course, they didn’t just invite us; lots of other friends wound up driving or taking a bus to the junction and walking from there.  Barbara had signed up for some courses at Nishmat, an institute for women in Jerusalem, so Natania and I were the designated representatives for the family, and we set out for Latrun to help celebrate Sam’s big moment and possibly re-live some of our daughter’s own experiences.

When you’re in the IDF, you get to have two ceremonies: one, like this one, when you’re sworn in and one when you’ve finished basic training several months later.   Natania’s swearing-in ceremony was held at a base near Ginosar, by the top of Lake Kinneret, very hard to get to by bus.  At the time, Barbara was doing a volunteer stint nearby, so she was able to attend.  Both of us were at the second ceremony at Natania’s training base (only three bus rides away), so I had some idea what to expect at Latrun.

All of these ceremonies have a lot in common: soldiers marching, then being given orders to stand at attention and at ease over and over again – as if it were a big deal to do so.  Lots of speeches; military sounding music; the works.  There were hundreds of people assembled that afternoon, the usual assortment of family and friends, sitting in the big outdoor theater (with concrete seats) trying to ignore the heat of the day.  A few announcements were made, meaning it was time to start.  A small number of recruits marched onto the stage, then some more, until the entire pluga (whatever that is in English), several hundred men, had lined up in formation on the upper level of the stage.  This, no doubt, was someone’s idea of adding drama to the moment.  Then a smaller group of men appeared on the lower level, no doubt, the mefkadim, the guys whose job it will be to yell at the recruits for the next three months – even when the recruits are several years older than they are.  Nest to appear where the “mem-mem’s,” who are one step up from the mefkadim (they’re certified big shots, so they don’t have to do as much yelling). Assorted and sundry other higher-ups also arrived, but I have no idea who they were.  Nobody gave us a program.

Looking from afar at these several hundred raw recruits, I remembered a thought that had crossed my mind any number of times in the last few years.  I would be walking through our town or riding a bus into Jerusalem, and I would come across some young kids – they could be eight or fourteen – acting like total jerks.  It would have to remind myself that, in a few years, each of these young pseudo-delinquents would be wearing a khaki uniform and would be making a nation proud.  How many of their mothers were sitting on these stone slabs, thinking, “Six weeks ago he was driving me crazy; now look at him.”  Something amazing happens, as if several hundred caterpillars had suddenly become the butterflies they were always meant to be.  And then, “Ani nishba’a.  Ani nishba’a.  Ani nishba’a  (I swear to defend my country…….) Hundreds of voices responding together, each time louder and with more conviction. 

After a short speech by one of the mem-mem’s, himself an oleh from Canada, in which he discussed the entry into The Land in the time of Joshua, each of the new recruits was then given both an M-16 (although, in truth, they had already been using these weapons from day one of training) and a Tanach, the entirety of the Jewish Bible (unless he was a Muslim or a Christian, in which case he would be given a Koran or a “New Testament”).  Now you can say that handing each recruit some version of a holy text was a matter of routine, with no real meaning.  But I couldn’t help contrasting what I was seeing in front of me to the insanity I had watched on YouTube that same morning, (Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous) a short clip from the previous night’s Democratic convention – that infamous debacle in which a party official was trying to get the assembled faithful to a) suspend the convention rules, and b) revise the party platform (which everyone knows nobody would ever want to read) to return the word “God” to the document and reaffirm that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.  To be fair, I assume that the booing and attendant ruckus after the “vote” was due as much to the absurdity of the situation as anything else.  Maybe the delegates had just plain forgotten to mention the Creator who had endowed them “with certain unalienable rights?”  Perhaps the President and his staff had not noticed the change in the position of Jerusalem that was in the original document?  Could it be that we are as stupid as certain people think we are?

The tekes wound to an end with the ceremonial every-one-throws-his-cumta-in-the-air and somehow finds it again out of all the others – no mean feat.  The hardest part of the day’s activities was ahead of us: getting back to Jerusalem, standing at a road-side stop along with a milling throng of people, waiting for a bus to arrive that had room for some of us and was allowing anybody to board.    But in the days that have passed since that tekes, I keep thinking about the sight and sound of those several hundred young men.  “Ani nishba’a.  Ani nishba’a.  Ani nishba’a!  Do these young men have any idea how alone they are within the world community?  How few people would care if they forfeited their lives defending our Land?  Or if we all forfeited our lives by remaining here? Let us pray that these raw recruits meant what they said and will serve their nation with honor and distinction – Sam included.  And may the day soon come when the booing will stop once and for all and our enemies will be silent.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Russian Lady and the Bus Driver

It’s not the case that I have to go to the chiropractor on a Thursday, but it gives me a perfect opportunity to walk up Agrippas St. from the Maccabi office to the shuk on the day when my mind is focused on what to prepare for Shabbat.  That was the situation two weeks ago, which one addition. Our daughter Natania has a particular fondness for free lunches – in fact, I don’t think she’s ever met one she didn’t like.  Hebrew University is on recess until after The Hagim, but that morning she was at the gym on the Givat Ram campus, which is close enough to Jaffa St. to facilitate a luncheon date with her daddy.  So that was the plan: we would meet me for lunch and she would help me shlep everything back to Ma’le Adumim – although neither of us could have imagined what would happen on the way home.

This particular trip to our chiropractor was itself particularly memorable; he and I identified and named a previously unconsidered medical problem.  I explained to Dr. B. that I was once again having a problem with my left shoulder (the rotary or rotator cuff).  He asked me if I ever go swimming?  About as often as our Tonkinese cats, Moby and Cookie – even though there are indoor and outdoor pools about ten minutes from our apartment.  He inquired if my shoulder hurt when I go up to duchen (recite the priestly blessing which, because of our great joy at being in The Land, the cohanim [that’s me] recite every morning [assuming one is in shul], not just on the Hagim)? Yes, my shoulder hurts then.  In fact, I often need my right hand to help lower my left arm.  I must be suffering from Cohanic Shoulder Syndrome – somewhat akin to Tennis Elbow or Carpal Tunnel.  Consider that for thousands of years, distant relatives of mine have been getting up before a crowd and going, “Yeverechecha……,” and nobody has noticed the connection between raising your hands in that strange Star-Trek-like gesture and the ensuing pain in the shoulder – until now!  Here I have spent my life writing and photographing, and my lasting claim to fame will be this chance medical discovery?!!  “The discoverer of this strange malady never made it past Bio I in college….”)

Flush with excitement about my impending fame, I headed off up the hill to meet Natania at the Indian restaurant.  About a year and a half ago, I had read about this place and spent about an hour wandering around the shuk until I found it, on a little street near the “Iraqi shuk,” one of the neighborhoods in the larger Mahane Yehuda.  The food is simple and quite good – assuming you’re partial to lentils and curry – and we’ve been back on several occasions.  The first time we went, the only thing ‘happening’ on that street was a shop that sold Ethiopian specialties (whatever they might be; I’ve never ventured inside).  Today, the street has come alive, probably because the shuk is being revived.  You walk down the hill, and there is also a health food restaurant, a French bistro called Chez Mimi, a Georgian dairy restaurant (the country not the state), and a pub.  I should stress that none of these places are as big as your living room, but, like people, great things start in little packages.  Or, as it say in the haftarah we just read, “The smallest shall increase a thousandfold, and the least into a mighty nation” (Artscroll translation).  Come to think of it, Rami Levy, the owner of the eponymous chain of markets, started with one stall in the shuk.  So I’m not making this up.

The Indian food is as good as ever; the restaurant décor has been improved; and they even have real live menus now instead of scribbling the choices of the day on the wall.  Alas, the service was, shall we say, lackadaisical, and we chose to go elsewhere for our mid-day jolt of caffeine (for me, some of the thick mixture they call Ice Café, obtainable at the ice cream store in the crowded, closed part of the market).  Then, with glad hearts and bellies full, off we went to complete our shopping.

(Actually, I had started the ball rolling even before I stepped foot in the Maccabi clinic.  Stop one was to get some loose tea from a store on Jaffa where most people go to buy freshly ground coffee beans – except that I get my coffee from Debbie, a gourmand who lives five minutes away from us.  She doesn’t just grind her own beans; she gets kilos at a time and roasts the coffee to order.  But I needed some tea and there I was at the shuk.  Stop two was for a loaf of super-delicious bread from Russell’s, a boutique bakery right next to the best little cafe in Jerusalem, which, as a famous catcher once said, no one goes to anymore because they’re too crowded.)

We retraced our steps back to the Iraqi shuk for some serious produce inspection: tomatoes and cucumbers from one stand, peppers of every color from another stand, celery, mushrooms, and scallions here, green beans there.  There are several things to note about this section of the market. The prices are just a little lower here than in some of the other sections; it gets a zero on the upscale scale (each of these stalls has been there from day one); and it’s a great refutation of the Lunatic Left’s cries of “apartheid” in The Land.  Not only do Arabs work there – as they do all over the shuk – but there are Arab-owned stands side by side with others owned by Jews – and people buy from all of them.  If you want the best green beans in town, I’ll take you to the Arab kid who sells them. 

It’s amazing how fast one’s cloth shopping bags fill up.  By the time we have purchased grapes and other seasonal fruit in the “open shuk” (the watermelon is a real bargain, but who wants to carry one back to our neck of the woods?), there’s not an inch of space in either cloth bag or my backpack, not even enough for a sprig of parsley.  Time to head home. Take the light rail one stop back and get on the 174 bus early enough to get our choice of seats.  And now comes the funnest part of my day.

The bus ride back to Ma’ale Adumim was uneventful, until we got to the stop right by our big shopping mall.  There a woman got one with six kids.  Now no one gets on a bus by herself with six kids unless she’s on the way to or from the funny farm – if you get my drift.  You might be assuming that she was a fertile Hareidi type, but, in fact, she was a middle-aged Russian lady.  They clearly weren’t all her children; maybe none of them were – although all of them were blonde and shared a common genetic pre-disposition. They were all about the same age, and she was undoubtedly in the day-care business. The kids all scrambled to find seats, and the woman stayed in the front to deal with the driver.  I couldn’t hear the conversation very well, but I quickly figured out what was going on from its length and the way the two of them were talking.  This Russian lady was negotiating with the driver over how much she had to pay!
“How much for each child?”                                                                                                            
 “Four shekels.”                                                                                                                                          “I’ll give you three.”                                                                                                                                  “Four shekels.”                                                                                                                                            “I have six children with me; I want a discount.”                                                                                                  
 “Four shekels each.”                                                                                                                             
 “Twenty five shekels for all of us, not one agora more.”                                                                      
 “Four shekels for each of you.”                                                                                                              
 “We’re only going a few more stops…….”

No one else in the bus paid the slightest attention to this little scene – as if it happened every day. We had now gone the five stops from the center of town to where we have to get off, right around the corner from our building.  They were still going at it, and I have no idea what finally happened – except that we were in The Land, that surreal place where Russian ladies get to haggle with drivers over the cost of a child’s seat on a bus!