Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Conversation, Part 2


I couldn't help but remember a wonderful newspaper article I had shared with Barbara a few months back in which the writer was bemoaning the gradual demise of the grand old Israeli breakfast. I'm not discussing the harried mother who spreads 'choco' on a slice of bread for her already sugar-addicted darlings to take to school.  We're talking here about the lavish spread that used to be standard fare in kibbutzim and public places like hotels.  Our author then set out to describe the behavior of one out-of-control middle-aged Israeli who had recently found himself at such an old fashioned breakfast, his stomach stretching his shirt to the limit, eating everything in sight.  After expressing his total disdain for such gluttonous behavior, the writer admitted, much to his chagrin, that he was the Israeli under such self-scrutiny!

We had entered the dining room at the Palm Beach Hotel the morning after the wedding we had just attended.  It had, from our friends' account, gone on for hours and hours, with the sort of merriment you could expect at such a gathering, diminished not one whit by my early departure.  Most of the participants at the wedding had returned to their homes, but there remained a cadre of folks, the ones who had stayed overnight at the hotel: the bridal party as well as guests from abroad and from the far-flung corners of The Land.  Our friends had decided to host a breakfast for these worthies, including themselves.  My M.O. at any such situation when there's an inordinate amount of food laid out buffet-style is to make an initial reconnoiter, to check out what's there.  That way I won't miss out on anything I would really want amongst the cheeses, salads, smoked fish, breads, and pastries.  This was no time or place for the faint of heart.  Even if we hadn't punished our stomachs to the max the previous night, there is no way I could have done full justice to the bounty that was set out before us.  Making what we considered a judicious selection, Barbara and I filled our plates and looked for a place to sit.  The bride and groom and their crowd were in one section, our hosts and assorted friends and relatives were occupying another area.  There were any number of empty tables, so why crowd in?  We chose a table adjacent to where our hosts were sitting and started to dig in.  We figured if anybody wanted to join us, there would be plenty of room.

Sure enough, within a few minutes, a fellow came over and introduced himself.  His first words to us were that he and his wife were also friends from the groom's side; he admitted that he was interested in striking up a conversation, something which is surprisingly difficult to do at weddings.  There' are too many people, too much noise and hullabaloo, too much food; in short, too much else going on to exchange more than simple pleasantries.  Here was his chance: a couple more or less of his generation sitting by themselves.  Of course, we invited him to join us; and this is how the conversation got started. It took no time at all for us to find out that Barbara and I live in Ma'ale Adumim and he and his wife live in Cherry Hill, NJ; i.e., that we were residents of The Land and they were visitors, here for the wedding, taking the opportunity to see a host of distant relatives.  My affable wife asked the obvious question: how were they enjoying their visit so far?  The fellow began describing what they had done ; to which I responded -- and I was immediately given credit for my perspicacity -- that in a way they hadn't been  visiting Israel, they were visiting the living rooms of assorted family members.  He and I agreed that they could just as well be in Denver, for all they had seen of the country so far.  They did expect to get to Jerusalem and possibly Eilat in the remaining time they had, and they were certainly looking forward to that.

His turn to ask a question: how had we adjusted in the four and a half years we have been here?  We never miss an opportunity to sing the praises of our community, a little bit east of Jerusalem, and here was a chance to extend our winning streak.  We always stress the wonderful Anglo community here and the many fine friends we have made.  That remark started us on a conversation about the kind of friends the two families' have and how we interact with those near and dear to us.  He mentioned that he had a circle of male friends and his wife had a group of women who regularly met to involve themselves in matters Jewish; and that they had been able to integrate the two groups and their spouses at Friday night dinners.  We could have and would have continued talking and talking, but we all had to deal with the impending checkout time at the hotel. Barbara suggested that the four of us try to meet for lunch in Jerusalem, but it became clear that the timing for that would not work.  So we went our separate ways; who knows if we will ever see him or his wife again.  Barbara ands I got a cab back to the railroad station, heading back to Tel Aviv, where we spent a few hours first in the newly expanded Tel Aviv Museum and later at a housewarming party in  Tina and David's new place in Givatayim, a nice but less expensive section than the center of the city where they had lived before.

There was something about this conversation that kept rattling around my brain.  It wasn't as if the gentleman from Cherry Hill seemed to be in competition with me as to who had better friends.  It was more like "Your needs are being met where you are; ours where we are."  Fair enough.  In fact, I was complimented for not giving him the typical pep talk on Aliyah, a topic which he and his wife were not prepared to entertain.  The truth is that I have over the years learned the futility of giving people advise which you know in advance they have no intention of taking.  I don't mind whistling in the wind; just not talking to a wall.

But something occurred to me about our respective endeavors.  It's one thing to have friends.  It's another to have a group of people who, for any number of reasons, get together on a regular basis.  It's still another to commit to a common cause requiring the expenditure of effort and money, perhaps even creating a permanent organization or structure that you hope will outlive your personal efforts. Every step of the way, it gets harder and harder.  If you've ever had to sit through a Board meeting or try to deconstruct some organizational by-laws, you know what I'm talking about.  But if you think trying to forge a consensus on an eighth grade curriculum for a few hundred students is no easy task, how about growing a nation?  Especially when the only thing the six million occupants have in common is that all of them are stiff-necked.  It is a common source of amazement for all of us how much has been accomplished here when it would seem day-to-day that nothing ever gets done -- that everyone is arguing, that someone is always on strike, that no one can agree on anything.  Whenever I read about the shenanigans of some politician, rabbi, labor leader, or malcontent, I need to remind myself to take a deep breath and consider the enormity of the enterprise we're involved in and how many different points of view there are that need to be satisfied.

And that's what it comes down to.  It's not that what you're up to in The Exile to build friendships, organizations, and communities isn't worth much; it's worth a lot. But it's nowhere near as difficult as what is being accomplished  here almost despite ourselves, and therefore it can't be as rewarding.  I have no idea what the state of things Jewish will be in Cherry Hill twenty or fifty years from now, and I suspect that a lot of people scattered throughout The Exile are not giving that matter much thought.  But the future of Jerusalem and environs -- that's another matter.  You get my drift.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Purim After All

This incident happened a while ago, sometime in the fall. We were sitting with Tina and David, our 'kids' in Tel Aviv, having dinner at a kosher Italian restaurant. At one point in the conversation, Tina reached into her bag and took out an iPod Touch. She turned to me and asked if I wanted to borrow it for an indefinite period. Why the sudden generosity? My daughter and her husband both have MacBook Pro's; she has an iPad, and then she was given an iPhone from her job. She felt she was over-i'ed and wanted to share the wealth.

I was a bit hesitant at first. A year or more before, I had an original iPod imported from The States. I had downloaded about 110 vintage recordings, but I rarely took it with me. Would this new one be another gidgy that would sit unused in my sock drawer? However, one of my fundamental principles of life is "Never (or hardly ever) look a gift horse in the mouth." So I agreed and pocketed the tiny marvel. At first, my prophecy seemed self-fulfilling. Even though one of our friends showed me how to use it, the little iPod Touch was seeing more of my footwear than it did the light of day. But at some point, I came to realize that I was wasting a wonderful opportunity. Try it; you might like it!. If I could learn to handle a mouse, I could learn to take the first finger of either hand and move it to good effect up and down and around a little screen -- even achieving a minimal proficiency with the tiny keyboard that you can make appear on the bottom. There was a lot I could do with this instrument. Of course, e-mail, contact info, appointments, notes to yourself, and zillions of pictures of your family to bore your friends with. Like a plain vanilla iPod, you can load music onto it and listen to your heart's content. But all the apps! You can download a siddur to pray from and a level to make sure your pictures are hanging straight. You can get the NY Times or the National Review -- you can even get both! If you're walking around town and you espy a word in Hebrew you don't recognize on a billboard, in a jiffy, you can look it up. You can play games on-line with people you don't even know -- assuming you have no other life. But what really blew me away was all the Internet radio stations you could tune into. Tina had left me an icon for NPR radio. One click and you're at a menu listing dozens of stations, some big, like WQXR in NYC, some small, like a college station in the middle of Idaho. You want classical, you want blues, you want jazz, you got it.

There was one night when I was lying in bed with Moby nestled on my right side and Cookie sitting on my chest. I decided to pick out a station at random and came across a station from Boston that played old-time jazz and tuned into the middle of a program. There was a guy hosting the show, and he was focusing on Joe "King" Oliver's 1923 composition, "Chimes Blues," by which I mean he was playing every extant version he could lay his hands on (each version lasting about three minutes) for an entire hour. You don't do that sort of thing on commercial radio, something which would only be of interest to weirdos like yours truly. Not only was I listening to a radio program that was being aired in Massachusetts, but I was doing so using a device which is officially listed as being 4.4 inches high, 2.3 inches wide, 2.8 inches deep, which weighs 3.56 ounces, several thousand of which would have fit into the 12 inch console black and white TV my parents purchased in 1953. By this point, I was contemplating getting a the kind of speakers that you can connect to an iPod so I wouldn't have need to listen through earplugs, with Cookie batting at the cords. Then, the ceiling fell in. Tina needed her iPod back. She had switched jobs and had to return her iPhone. Her new company, for some unfathomable reason, was still using Blackberrys -- even though most of the known world is abandoning these devices. Well, fair is fair. A loan is a loan.

All of the above is by way of explanation as to why I was paying more than casual interest in the product launch of the latest rendition of the iPod's bigger sibling, the iPad, even though it was Purim morning here in The Land, and I had other things to deal with. I had just come back from hearing the Megillah reading and picking up our basket of goodies from our shul; and while most of greater Ma'ale Adumim would soon be involved in one way or another in the town's annual Purim parade, my focus -- as is often the case -- would have to be on matters culinary. In a few hours, the usual crowd would arrive at our doorstep, bringing their share of the food for our Purim seudah. For my part, I had already prepared the kufteh sabzi, Persian meatballs (a keeper) and now had to start the chicken and pomegranate khoresh, pieces of chicken breasts stir fried and then stewed in a liquid of pomegranate juice and toasted ground walnuts (tasted good but I don't like the way it looked). I also needed to mix the pomegranate sparkler, a punch made from the etrog liquor I had started after Sukkot, with seltzer, orange, and more pomegranate juice.

Instead of which, I was sitting at my laptop, looking at the technology section of Wall Street Journal website, which featured videos of the previous day's product launch for the new iPad. There was one clip of Apple's new CEO pacing back and forth on stage, unveiling the new product and proclaiming the beginning of the post-PC world. Other clips showed young technologists discussing the virtues of the new version compared to the previous one, how the new product would affect Apple's stock, and how the new CEO had performed at the launch compared with his predecessor, the late Steve Jobs. Mind you, none of the web journalists had even laid eyes on, let alone used, the new device, but that didn't stop them from rendering their opinions. I had to admire Apple's publicity efforts. They had taken the marketing of an upgrade to an existing product (faster processing speed, better screen resolution) and turned it into a major event, front page news everywhere you turned.

It occurred to me that a few days before I had seen a video clip on YouTube for another product launch: the digital edition of the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud, which will be available starting this summer. The original print edition which was begun in 1990 and reached a total of seventy three volumes, was as revolutionary in its way as the various i's from Apple. It featured, along with the original text, a lucid translation and commentary, so that a huge number of people with a limited background could actually immerse themselves in this vast compendium of Jewish law and lore.. Now, trumpeted the announcer to the music of Richard Strauss's tone poem Thus Spake Zarathustra, "This will change everything....again."

This digital version -- which will probably cost a pretty penny -- uses "cutting edge technology." For example, when you scroll down a page of the original text, the opposite page with the translation and commentary will automatically follow along; and if you highlight something in the original, the corresponding translation will be highlighted automatically. The dots to indicate the vowels in the Hebrew and Aramaic will appear when you need them. The pages, which in the original have no punctuation or breaks for sentences or paragraphs, can be broken down into sections. If I understood them correctly, future versions would allow multiple users studying together from different locations to synchronize their texts. In short, the kind of interactivity that we will come to expect from digital publishing in the years to come. Did I mention that this digital version will first be available for use on any iPad -- old or new?

It was time to turn away from my laptop and head the few feet into the kitchen, where there was a kilo of chicken breast waiting for me. For that, the only "cutting edge" I would need would be my trusty Cutco blade along with two well-used frying pans. Decidedly low tech. Plus the work, sautéing onions and chicken pieces, didn't require my full concentration. Plenty of time to think about the story of Mordechai and Esther, which took place at about the time when the Jewish people had the opportunity to return to The Land and build a second Temple. Seems kind of relevant today, don't you think?

Now as I was mixing the ground-up toasted walnuts, pomegranate juice, sugar, and cinnamon and pouring the mixture over the chicken, visions of what a Third Beit Hamikdash -- which almost sixty-five years after the creation of the State seems both nearer and farther away than ever before --would look like started to flash through my brain. Normally, I would go with traditional model, one based upon what its predecessors looked like, with marble columns and the like. But after spending half an hour focused on iPads, I began to envision a futuristic Temple,something more in keeping with the 21st century (22nd, 23d????), using cutting-edge technology. One with huge moving ramps (like the kind in airports) to move the enormous crowds that would throng to the Temple Mount; video cameras mounted inside the areas which only the Cohanim can enter, flashing closed-circuit images onto the Western Wall so all can see what is going on inside; the Levites playing their psalms on electronic instruments; people paying on-line for the offerings they would be bringing, using PayPal or the like........ You can fill in the rest if you have a mind to.

And then I thought: this would be the greatest moment in modern Jewish history, a seminal moment in world events. The building of the Third Beit Hamikdash would need...... a product launch, a PR campaign to end all PR campaigns to spread the word. You would see clips all over the Internet, with less-than-knowledgeable reporters interviewing anyone they could get their hands on to explain what was going on. How does this edifice compare with the one Herod built thousands of years ago? Who gets to be the Cohen Gadol (High Priest)? What is the point in this day and age of people bringing offerings? How long did it take to build it? How many people are expected on this opening day? To clarify what was really going on, we would need an official clip to send to YouTube with the High Priest intoning, "This will change everything.....again," the beginning of the post-exilic period.

Just then the doorbell rang. I had told everyone that the bar would officially open at 2:30, one hour before meal time; and it was exactly that time when Michael announced his presence. Just in the nick of time! I needed to mix the punch, and I could use some help taste-testing. The grain alcohol I had started with was too strong, and I had put in too many etrogs. I'll know better for next time. More seltzer; more orange juice. Still a little off. A little more pomegranate juice. That's the ticket! Even though Barbara couldn't drink it no matter what I did, some of our guests did enjoy it. Ron and Esther usually bring over a bottle of gin and some tonic water, and I had several bottles of Lambrusco (four for 100 shekels at one of the stores near the shuk) cooling their heels in the fridge. It was Purim after all.