Monday, October 7, 2013

Road Hogs


Before going any further, it might be good for you to read my daughter's musings on the subject at hand – why her over-age daddy would want to open a Facebook account. ( – Aug. 6, 2013)

If I wanted to be flippant (not me!), I might say that I got onto Facebook because I was bored one day and had nothing much else to do at the time. When Natania was faced with a similar situation, she went out and had her hair dyed blonde. That didn't seem like a reasonable option for me, so I sat down at BigMac and went to the Facebook home page.

It was something I had been thinking about for a long time. I knew there was this beast out there that was taking over the world and causing people to waste a lot of time in idle chatter. What would be the benefit to me? Did I need to continue my boycott in order to maintain my curmudgeonly image? Things to consider.

There was, I had come to realize, a lot of information and social discourse that I was not privy to. Many of the cultural events in Jerusalem that would be of interest to me were promoted primarily on Facebook. Aviella's concerts, Shakespeare in the Rough. Good stuff like that, things that were coming and going without my knowledge or involvement. Even though there is still a heavily monitored and cumbersome MA-chat e-mail group, most of the give and take here in Anglo Ma'ale Adumim goes on within the confines of the MA Facebook group. You want to exchange opinions about the up-coming municipal elections or ask questions about the bus service here in town? It's either Facebook or stand on the merpeset and holler. I wasn't sure how, but I figured I could also publicize my own efforts, both my articles and, in the future, my web page of photographs – may I live long enough to do it. Then there's a time-tested maxim: If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. There's no point in standing outside the stadium wondering what the score is on the field.

Believe it or not, up to that point I had never even seen a Facebook page and was fairly clueless as to how the thing worked. Yes, you can post things on your page and you have “friends,” but that's sort of nebulous; there's more to it than that. One way to find out. So I opened an account and entered my information.

There's one thing that concerns any Facebook neophyte: how do you hook up with other people? Of course, it's as easy as pie; in fact, it may be too easy. Facebook will help you connect with any of the billion or so people around the world who have accounts. You can start with anyone and everyone on your e-mail list who has a Facebook account and anybody they know or you know or you might know or someone thinks you may want to know. Or someone decides they want to be your friend. There's a delicate bit of etiquette in play here. You can't just be someone's Facebook friend. You have to ask permission, and you have to be accepted. Of course, the reverse is also true. You get a little note: somebody wants to be your friend. What do you do? It may be a long-lost friend from high school, and you're delighted to be in touch. But what if it's a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend and you have no idea who it is? Or even worse: you have a very good idea who it is and you're not so sure you want them involved in your daily affairs? Is it rude to say no thanks, have a good day? Or to ignore the request? Would that be considered unmannerly? As they say around the Volga: “Vat to doooo?”

At this point in time, I have ninety-two Facebook friends, who can be divided – unlike Gaul – in five unequal parts: the locals (friends and acquaintances from Ma'ale Adumim), Encore! (people who I've met doing through our shows), a few other people I know in Israel, folks back home (from Passaic and Teaneck), and a miscellany (a few friends from the old days and school mates). It did occur to me one day: what do all these people have in common? The answer: not a lot, except for having the dubious privilege of knowing me.

I also began to wonder: I have (as I said) ninety-two Facebook friends. But there are people who have more than 500. I get more stuff on my home page than I can possibly handle, even if I wanted to make Facebook my main preoccupation. How much stuff would you get if you had 500 friends? I shudder to think.

When I refer to “stuff,” I'm alluding to the posts that people see fit to send out to the multitudes: all kinds of information that my Facebook friends seem to feel I need to know about. A lot of it is about them and their families: photos, anecdotes of various kinds. Some of it is well worth sharing, but some of it does not seem of much consequence: how well a person did or did not sleep the previous night, how much one is in need of a cup of coffee, a pet peeve that only one's immediate neighbors might relate to – like a bus not showing up on time, or some other frustration of a garden variety. Then there's the political stuff: a lot of it regarding the current occupant of the White House, by and from people who are even more politically conservative than I am (How is that even possible?). Throw in a collection of recipes and the usual potpourri of things humorous and bizarre floating around the world wide web, and you get an idea of what I'm bombarded with on a daily basis.

It's not any particular post that bothers me. (That's not true: I have an almost irresistible urge to impair the typing fingers of all those who insists on informing me that they beat so-and-so in Candy Crush or some other mind-numbing activity.) The problem, as I see it, is what I affectionately refer to as the “road hogs.”

One of W.C. Fields' best remembered screen roles was in a 1932 film entitled “If I Had a Million,” the premise of which is that, on his death bed, a multi-millionaire directs his secretary to select eight people at random from the telephone book and give them each one million dollars. Hence, eight episodes, the relevant one being “Road Hogs,” with W.C. and his partner, Alison Skipworth. The two of them are set to take their new (vintage 1932) automobile out for a spin. No sooner do they get out of their driveway, when their vehicle is totaled by some fool who ran a stop sign (this being before anybody ever though of car insurance). Shortly thereafter, our couple is given a million smackaroos, and they buy another car plus a fleet of old jalopies. They hire a crew of drivers and set off down the road, looking for road hogs. Whenever they find someone who is a menace on the road, W.C. cries out, as only he could,“road hog,” the signal for his team of demolition experts to go to work. You've seen videos of car crashes? This is way funnier. At the close of the scene, their own car is again wrecked. Nonetheless, it has been a “glorious day.”

Look at it this way. Let's say you have 100 Facebook friends. Some of them you're hoping are still breathing because you never hear from them. Some you hear from – if nothing more than to indicate a “like” – once in a blue moon. Still others post once in a while: once every few weeks. Some more frequently: every couple of days. And so on. If you were so inclined, or had nothing else to do, you might plot the frequency of other people's posts arriving on your home page. What I suspect is that most of us would wind up with the well-known bell-shaped curve, meaning most of your friends would be somewhere comfortably in the middle, people who post with some frequency but don't get carried away with what they're doing. But if you have the Silent Sam's on one end of the chart, what about the other side? That's where you find the compulsive posters, the ones who overwhelm you with their own musings and whatever else they can dig up to entertain and enlighten you.

Now I'm sure that everything that is posted is of interest to some of the recipients. The question is, how many? Suppose you had the ability to rate each post you get for interest to you – more than just “like.” How about the one to ten scale, descending from “thanks a million” to “why are you even thinking of wasting my time?” Perhaps, in certain special circumstances one needs to be assertive in protest against absolute irrelevancy– if not quite as aggressive as W.C. Fields. When I was first writing this, I noticed something on my home page, in which the poster wrote X that he was not going to speak to her until she apologized (for what I don't know). To which I responded, “This seems to be a private conversation that a lot of people don't need to see.” Within one second of hitting the enter key, I got a “like” from another friend of the friend.

But in less provocative situations, how do you tell someone you know, “The first two/three/four/five (political cartoons, recipes, articles, pictures of your pet, cute things your child has said) were fine, but don't you think you're overdoing it a little? I know you don't mean to, but you're simply hogging the road, so I'm no longer in control of my own home page.” And it's not just the original post. Someone else decides he likes it and “shares” it, so you may see it a second or third time. Then there's the post that gets everyone's attention, prompting dozens of `'likes,” and on a good or bad day, comments up the wazoo, both to the original post and the comments on the comments – all taking up more room.

So now, I'm in the middle of the virtual highway, trying to catch up with the one post that interests me – say, Mark Steyn's weekly column that Ron punctiliously send out or Rachel Miskin's imaginative “Cake of the Week,” describing her latest incredible creation. Or posts from people on the special interest groups I belong to: “Hot Jazz Records,” “Film Noir,” or “Pre-Code Hollywood.” Yet when I find something intriguing, should I turn away for a moment, that post is gone because ten other posts have arrived and have crowded mine off the road. I don't want to start up with people I know. Again, “Vat to dooooo?” Fortunately, for all concerned, there are ways of protecting my lane that are less drastic that W.C. Field's solution. I don't have to start smashing other people's keyboards – even if I have the irresistible urge to do so. A discrete, well placed click of the mouse will remove a lot of the traffic on my Facebook highway, so I can “drive” safely and have “a glorious day.” “Road hogs,” beware!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Light We Ain't


I've decided to go on strike. After all, everybody else here in The Land reserves that right, port workers government functionaries, and the like. So why not me? To be accurate about it, what I'm proposing is not really a strike, more like a work slowdown – a work-strictly-by-the-rules job action.

The “Nine Days” are upon us, the days from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, up to and including Tisha B'Av, the day we mourn the destruction of both the first and second Temples as well as a whole series of other calamities – like the expulsion from Spain and the start of W.W.I. There are all kinds of stringencies that are in effect as to what you do, wear, and eat, culminating on a Yom Kippur-type fast on Tisha B'Av itself. I will do what I have to, no more, no less. I'm going to explain what I'm not going to do, but first a little introduction.

Every year, organizations here put out announcements that go something like this:
Big Tisha B'Av Bash
Fun for the whole family!
Music and Dancing!

And then underneath it says something like: in the event Mashiach has not arrived and Beit HaMikdash rebuilt by then, we will read Eicha and recite Kinot the way we always do, as per the attached schedule. (Can you imagine the following conversation: So and so is calling Shloime Schwartz's Simcha Band. “Hello, Shloime. I'm calling from Congregation Shomrei Galus. We'd like to book your band for erev Tisha B'Av. Just in case.......”)

Starting from right after Tisha B'Av last year, I began paying attention to various events in the Jewish world. What gevaldig things would be happening this year to merit the miraculous events we have – in theory – been waiting for since the second Temple was destroyed almost two thousand years ago? Have we collectively upped the ante, so to speak? Are we in any way, shape, or form, doing better in our efforts to be a “Light Unto The Nations” than we were a year ago; are we just plodding along without much to show for our efforts; or are we in fact worse off than we were last year – our spiritual flashlights getting dimmer and dimmer?

If we had any reason to believe we really, truly, did merit seeing the fulfillment of this dream that so many generations longed for, and then it didn't happen..... that would be a reason for reflection, introspection, and mourning. But for real? We may merit that we all live wherever we are in relative safety, but that's as good as it gets and not a drop more. A Light we ain't.

Let's calmly consider what has been going on regarding the Children of Israel, both here in The Land and by extension in the Exile. Most recently, the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi (not any old rabbi, but the one, for better or worse, who is supposed to represent the entire Ashkenazic community here) has been forced to suspend himself because he and his staff are being accused of financial impropriety. Granted, the police and the media here have a habit of accusing people of things they are unable to prove in a court of law, but...... It is well understood by those who study our texts that our officials are supposed to be beyond reproach in any way, shape, or form. We can all think of rabbis and other leaders who fill the bill, whom no one would dare accuse of any wrong-doing – just not the one who is in fact in charge.

Then we have the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi, a man universally regarded for his amazing erudition in matters of Torah …... and for his willingness to utter the most derogatory words of rebuke about persons and institutions he doesn't cotton to. At this point in time, when there are supposed to be “elections” for the positions of Chief Rabbis, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, this F.S.C.R. (taking time out from deciding which of his own two sons he should support for his former position: the one who is under police investigation or the other one) vilified an Ashkenazic rabbi, the candidate of choice of another faction. Some of the F.S.C.R's mind-numbed followers then physically attacked the second rabbi – in a shul on Shabbat. Nice. But, for reasons I cannot fathom, shul on Shabbat seems to be an opportune place for followers of certain rabbis to rough up other rabbis. It does happen, even though it's not a regular occurrence.

The icing on the cake, though, are the doings at the Kotel. Many years ago, a small group of women began showing up there every Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the Jewish month) raising their voices in prayer, some of them wearing, for reasons I really and truly cannot quite fathom, a tallit and, for a few, tefillin – paraphernalia usually associated with the male of the species. Having as I do a relatively high tolerance for eccentric behavior, I would have just ignored them, let them do their thing, and go on their merry way. No big whoop; the heavens would not have split; the world would not have come to an end. Not so some of the “locals.” They thought the best course of action was to yell at the women, spit at them, and throw things in their direction. The police thought the best course of action was to begin arresting them (the women not the “locals”).

At that point, the issue stopped being one of what is appropriate conduct and became an issue of “Civil Rights.” More and more members of the distaff side began to join in. Women who under normal circumstances would never have been caught dead at the Kotel started showing up to support the Women of the Wall. The battle began to escalate. Local rabbis encouraged and even brought in yeshivah bochers to oppose the women. Some of these budding talmudic scholars began hurling pre-used diapers at the women; after all the Kotel is a holy place and we can't permit women desecrating it by singing out loud. Finally, a judge decided that nothing WOW were doing warranted their being arrested and tossed in jail, and that the police should maintain order. As the sign in Musar Avicha says, “please put your nappies in the can.”

Not to be outdone, the rabbis decided to bus in schoolgirls to prevent WOW from getting into the women's section at the Kotel. Most recently, the police did prevent WOW from entering because the crowd was so large, wall to wall people. You might have thought that with all these folks at the Kotel, the Mashiach had finally arrived, that there really would be the world's biggest celebration on the 9th of Av – but sorry, no, not this year. But look at the bright side: So the Levites will not be singing in the Beit Hamikdash; at least WOW won't be singing either.

Lest you get the wrong impression, every year, every day, every minute, we find here in The Land the most amazing acts of kindness, good deeds by the bushel, Torah learning to beat the band, all by the finest people living anywhere on the planet. Just the kind of activity that you might hope and even expect would bring the Redemption. But let's say you were going for a job interview and you had on your best clothes. Just as you were about to meet the boss, who would decide whether or not to hire you, you realized you had egg salad on your tie (or a coffee stain in the front of your blouse). It's not like having a hole in your sock that nobody would notice! You might want to do something about how you looked in front of your prospective employer. All the more so, regarding near-rioting at the Kotel or rabbinic dust-ups on Shabbat: these are not the kind of references we want on our resume to show we're ready for the Final Redemption.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – that's basic physics. It's also basic human nature. So what happens when the “defenders of the wall” show up en masse, and the police look the other way? Certain “supporters of WOW,” mostly liberal American groups, the ones who usually just kibbitz from afar about everything that we're doing wrong, are threatening retaliation, up to and including a financial boycott. They're even talking about airlifting in their own protesters, Jews coming to The Land just to show up once a month at the Kotel. They are not planning to live here or stay here; in fact they rarely get here – certainly not when there is any real trouble and the tourist economy is in the tank. So why are they considering coming now? Don't we have enough rings in the circus at the Kotel as it is?

But at least these liberal groups don't go around this time of year kvetching about sinat chinam. Tikkun olam, maybe, at least in the way liberals see it, but the enmity between Kamsa and Bar Kamsa as described in the Talmud is not standard fare in the sermons in their temples or the talks at their J.C.C.'s – the way it is in our shuls. Sinat chinam, unreasonable, “baseless” hatred of one another: that's what we talk about. It's out there somewhere, lurking in the text of most rabbi's pre-Tisha B'Av sermons. It's in the air, like the dust in a hamsin. We know it used to happen: we know when, where, and how. We know we're supposed to avoid it like the plague. Then Tisha B'Av is over and done with, and nothing has changed. Even during the “Nine Days,” nothing seems to change. They're still fighting a turf battle over the Kotel the same way as the Priests in Temple times fought to get up the ramp so they could be the first to get inside to do whatever they needed to. They still have their knives unsheathed over who will be the Chief Rabbis – as if that position meant anything to most Israelis. And there are only a precious few people of stature willing to stand up and say “Enough of this farce. What's the point of all this palaver if we are ignoring the mess that's staring us in the face – like the well-traveled elephant-in-the-room?”

If anyone was in shul recently and paid attention to the haftarah from the beginning of Isaiah (I admit I wasn't one of those dedicated souls), it does say something to the effect that G-d was somewhat less-than-impressed with the sacrifices being brought to the Temple. What I want you to do most of all, He says, is behave yourselves. Don't pray to me if your hands are full of blood. (Or other waste material?)

Derech eretz (loosely translated as appropriate behavior) comes before Torah learning. I'm going to take that to heart and follow that by the book. If you can't behave civilly to other Jews (let's not even consider other people), then I don't care how good your daily Talmud shiur is or how many books you have written on some exquisitely esoteric point of Jewish law; as far as I'm concerned you can stuff it royally.

We need to do one thing. Exactly one thing. Learn how to live together with all our differences. We need to figure that out before the folks still hiding in Shomrei Galus begin showing up en masse and are horrified by what they see. That is one tough assignment. We'd better be up to it.

(“Shloime Schwartz, it's me again from Shomrei Galus. I know I've called you every year since 1986, but erev Tisha B'Av........ Just in case”?)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Not Eilat More To Say


That would be a perfect job for Natania. Sometimes, when couples have been married as long as Barbara and I have, they, in effect, have the uncanny ability to read each other's mind. It was Sunday morning, and Tina and David were on their way back to Tel Aviv, to the humdrum world of commerce, leaving the two of us on our own to wind up our min-vacation in Eilat.

We started the morning by heading off to Dolphin Reef, a little bit of Paradise on the outskirts of the town. This is not the kind of commercial venture, the combination of zoo and circus that is so popular in The States. At Dolphin Reef, nobody, human or aquatic mammal, is there just to entertain you. Nobody does any tricks; nobody jumps into the air in unison. There are no trainers or trainees. It's just where eight or ten dolphins happen to live, and a select number of human staff are there to interact with them and give them part of their daily requirement of fish (the rest they have to hunt for on their own). It's an interesting selection process: a human candidate arrives and has to gain the good will of one or more dolphins. If the dolphins approve, you get to stay; if not, you are free to return to the humdrum world of commerce (or whatever else you were up to before).

We arrived at a propitious time, when the humans go out to their designated spots with buckets of fish, and the dolphins arrive to rendezvous with them. As we watched the humans feed their aquatic friends, all the while scratching the dolphins' heads and stroking their dorsal fins, that's when Barbara and I articulated our thought that this would be a perfect job for Natania – although it would obviously involve a rather long daily commute. Our daughter has been working part-time at the local vet's office here in Ma'ale Adumim, and we are constantly being regaled with tales of her interactions with various animal patients: dogs, cats, ferrets, miscellaneous rodents, assorted birds, and even a sheep that was brought in on a blanket. It's taking her (Natania, not the sheep) a while to get through college, but when she's done, I have no doubt she will find a way to make use of her training in biology for something that will interest her the way communing with dolphins would. (Speaking of whom, our daughter's latest posts can be read at

While one part of my brain was mulling our daughter's possible future, another part of me was in a different zone altogether.  I was rapidly moving around, photographing a happy couple, a young woman kneeling next to her dolphin buddy, whose head and fins reached out of the gulf water up to her.  As they changed positions, so did I.  But all the while, there was someone next to me – at least in spirit – my photography teacher, Lou Bernstein.  I had spent more hours than I can remember out with him in different places in NYC, one of them being the aquarium at Coney Island, where he kept coming back on and off for over thirty years.  So taking pictures of dolphins was nothing new to me – even though I was several decades and thousands of miles away from when and where I had learned my craft.

But there was something especially fortuitous about my being there at this time.  Through a series of events, which I don’t need to go into here and now, I have been in touch with Lou’s son, Irwin, who has taken on the responsibility of keeping his father’s legacy alive – no small task in a world where everything is TODAY and anything that vaguely hints at yesterday runs the considerable risk of being passé.  I had already written an Appreciation that will shortly (?) go on his website,, and had begun preparing a detailed biographical article to go into Wikipedia.  So for days on end, I had gone through a loose-leaf binder (about four inches thick) with information about Lou’s career that Irwin had sent me, together with “Reflections on an Aquarium,” a book of Lou’s photographs put together in conjunction with the Coney Island institution, which I had never seen before.  In addition, I was rummaging through my bookshelves and boxes of prints to put together all the material by and about Lou that I had saved over the years, going on-line to acquire several books that seemed useful, and madly googling The Photo League and Sid Grossman, where and with whom my teacher studied for many years and whose influence on him was critical.  So, as I stood near the shore of the sun-drenched Gulf of Eilat, part of me was recycling a life-time's worth of knowledge and memories from a world of long ago when an older man took the trouble to teach
a neophyte photographer all he knew about his craft.

Then, just like that, it was time to go; the bus back to Jerusalem would depart at 1PM with or without us. We had time to get a decent lunch at the mall we had visited the night before, pick up our luggage at the Astral Seaside, and get a cab back to the bus terminal. This time, we would be going straight up route 90 with the Hills of Moab and the Dead Sea on our right and the stark landscape of the Negev on our left. A direct route with not much to see – unless you close your eyes and imagine the Children of Israel crossing the River Jordan somewhere along the way to capture The Land so many thousands of years ago.

Two months later, completely out of the blue, we were given the opportunity to travel to the opposite end of The Land (even though it's not that big a distance). What happened is this: We got a call from our friends Ian and Thelma, inviting us to join a group of families spending a Shabbat at the Youth Hostel and Guest House at Shlomi, a town of about 6,00 souls, smack dab next to the Lebanon border in the Upper West Galilee. It seems that Avi needed at least one more couple to make this venture a go.

We would, of course, get to meet Avi, who takes it upon himself about twice a year to organize a group of people to go someplace for a Shabbat. He takes care of all the arrangements, and all you have to do is send him the required amount and show up. There has to be at least a certain number of couples or families to make the trip economically feasible for the place the group is staying in and to ensure that there will be a minyan for davening. When our friends called Barbara, Avi was short one or two families, and the ones who had agreed to go were asked to canvass their friends to find some additional recruits. That's how we wound up in Ian and Thelma's car going to meet the others first for a two hour hike through Admit, a park area literally on the border with Lebanon (the arbitrary line on a map agreed to by two diplomats, Sykes and Picot, as W.W. I was coming to an end and the Ottoman Empire was being carved up). Later in the afternoon, we would head down to the Guest House, where we would all spend Shabbat.

It wasn't just that we were up in the top of the Galil, looking at the Mediterranean instead of the Gulf of Eilat, surrounded by green hills instead of the sands of the Negev. Or that we were looking into Lebanon, not Jordan, Saudia Arabia, and Egypt, all across the Gulf of Eilat. Everything about this trip seemed different. There was something comforting about having everything planned for us, having our meals waiting for us whenever the minyan finished davening – instead of worrying that there wouldn't be anything left when we got to the dining room. Plus we would get some decent wine to drink, courtesy of some of our trip-mates. Instead of relaxing by the pool or strolling leisurely on the promenade, we would be going on some reasonably serious rambles huffing and puffing through the woods and up and down some some formidable rock formations. One good thing, we didn't have to worry about reservations on a bus; we were getting two guaranteed places in the back seat of Ian's car! So it was a very different kind of vacation – not better, but different. I only wish we could have gone nearby to Metula – so I could say that we got to both of Israel's ice skating rinks within so short a span of time.

In a better world than this one, while we were gallivanting the length and breadth of The Land, the hole in our bedroom wall and the trench in front of our bathroom would have disappeared.  In this world where the sun rises and sets on all of us, both the hole and the trench stubbornly remained where they were.  It would take more phone calls to get Alon-with-a-smile-and-a-song and his side-kick, Osama, back to repair the small dripping pipe and tile the bathroom wall and the floor.  We could still use the services of a competent painter, but I can live with the water stains and the newly plastered area behind the door in our bedroom.

While we’re discussing home repairs, our man Dan, along with his son Ariel and his Arab worker, Isa, arrived at 7AM on a recent Wednesday morning to redo our merpesot (remember the porches we discussed several articles ago, the ones that were leaking, the ones Barbara was telling our friend Varda that it would cost us big bucks to fix, so we wouldn’t have the money to deal with our bathrooms until they sprung a leak – which then happened, as if on cue?).  Within a week or so, this crew (to be brutally honest, Isa did 90% of the work; Ariel helped shlepp the heavy stuff, and Dan, who had just undergone surgery on his knee, sat and supervised) had ripped up the tiles, removed the sand underneath – which was still wet even though there had not been any rain for a month primed the foundation, placed a layer of tar over that, added double the amount of new sand and then another layer of something before laying and grouting the tiles we had just bought.  There’s no way the slightest trickle of water would even think of penetrating that barrier. What worries me is the thought that, now that it’s over and done with, we’re sure to have a drought in Ma’ale Adumim, so we’ll never know for sure……..

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Eilat To Do


So much to do; so little time. Truth to tell, there wasn't that much to do the Fri. afternoon we were in Eilat. But the “little time?” We all know that, no matter how late Shabbat kicks in, it seems as if there's precious little time left. Of course, if you're at a hotel, and you're not doing the cooking, it doesn't seem quite as frenzied. Once we stocked up on sushi at the Ice Mall for our Shabbat lunch, we headed back “home” to the Astral Seaside. Tina and David got ready for some serious pool lounging. (I should correct an earlier impression that only David was willing to use the pool; Tina did also.) I, however, had another item on my agenda.

For reasons that I don't pretend to understand, the Israeli government does not impose the V.A.T., now at an almost confiscatory 17%, on anything you buy in Eilat. (Sort of like the 3% sales tax zone in NJ.) Needless to say, lots of folks come to this little seashore town waving their credit cards, with high hopes of saving money while they are spending it.

There were a few computer related items I needed, and, wouldn't you know it, there were two (not one, but two) KSP stores in Eilat. Long-suffering readers may remember my thoughts about KSP. They are the folks who import a lot of computer stuff into The Land, so they can charge less than the competition. Just don't buy anything from them that they would have to service if it stopped working (at which point, their command of the English language also stops working).

When we arrived at our hotel the day before, Barbara and I were standing on our little merpeset, admiring the scenic view of the hotel parking lot, when I suddenly realized something. On the gleaming white facade of the big hotel nearest to us was inscribed in two languages the legend, The Rimonim. Isn't that where the KSP store is? Sure enough, the store I needed was around the corner from the hotel about fifty yards from where we were staying. Good to know, in more ways than one – as you will soon see.

Needless to say, Friday afternoon found me heading over there as fast as my rapidly aging legs would carry me. I've been to the two Jerusalem locations numerous times, and there are usually two or three customers ahead of me in the store. So I was not prepared for the pre-Shabbat mob scene in Eilat. As I said, lots of people waving their credit cards, essentially overwhelming the sales staff. When it finally was my turn, I pointed to what I needed (if anybody cares, it was a 2TB WD external hard drive to use as a backup for BigMac – my 27” iMac, purchased second hand). Ze hu! That's all; take my credit card and I'm outa here, saving about 80 shekels on the deal. Plenty of time left in the afternoon to dip my timid body in the unheated hotel pool.

Earlier in the morning, Barbara, my ever-attentive wife, had gone down to the hotel lobby and picked us up a Shabbat key – an old-fashioned room key to use on Shabbat instead of the electronic device ordinarily used – and a sheet of paper announcing the times of services for Shabbat at the Astral Seaside. OK; let's see what happens. Somewhat skeptical, I headed down to where the “beit knesset” was on the lower level, timing my arrival at exactly one minute before the evening davening was supposed to start. Hmm. Nobody here. Let's wait and see.

The room certainly had all the accoutrements of a shul: an ark, presumably holding a torah scroll, a bima on which to place the torah scroll – assuming it ever emerged from the dark recesses of the aron kodesh, shelves of prayer books, rows of chairs for the people who weren't there, even a container for tzedekah, which I noted had one half shekel coin inside. There was also a musty smell. I had plenty of time to locate the source of the problem, a slight drip from a water pipe in front of the room. How long had this minute amount of water been plopping onto the rug, I would not want to speculate. Possibly quite a while, given the amount of foot traffic in and out of the beit knesset. Where was Alon-with-a-smile-and-a-song when we needed him? Probably back in Ma'ale Adumim, turning people's water valves on and off.

After about ten minutes of enforced solitude, my reveries were interrupted by the arrival of an Israeli woman, dressed for Shabbat. Was there an ezrat nashim, a women's section? she inquired. A women's section? There's not even a men's section; there's nobody here. Sit wherever you like; it's fine by me. I continued perusing my siddur; she did whatever she was going to do. This went on for a few minutes until a second guy showed up. As the de facto usher and gabbai, I indicated that he had his choice of about thirty seats, not counting the section in which our Israeli woman was sitting – in case he was fastidious about such matters. Finally, another Anglo arrived with glad tidings. There is a minyan at – you guessed it – The Rimonim. Clutching my handy-dandy Koren siddur, I accompanied the two guys across the parking lot to the bigger hotel. The doorman told us where to go, and we went down a long corridor, past the exercise room, down a flight of stairs to a beit knesset. You could hear the sounds of Mizrachi davening from a distance. Yes! There were about thirty or forty Sephardim (I'm guessing they came to Eilat with their families as part of a group). That's more like it. The little hotel shul was even more crowded than the KSP store! They had just gotten started; still we were done just in time to get back to our hotel for dinner.

There would, of course, be a minyan in The Rimonim the following morning. I was also given to understand that I could even find an Ashkenazic minyan at another hotel a little farther away – exact location and commencement time uncertain. But even if I figured out the details, would there be enough time – at either minyan – to finish and get back in time for breakfast? Yes, breakfast on Shabbat does end later than the rest of the week, but when the food is gone, it's gone. Maybe I should just daven by myself in our room. It's crazy to have to adjust your davening time around the hotel meal schedule instead of the other way around; but we were by ourselves, so there was nothing much we could do – except not eat.

Shabbat was relaxing, although hardly newsworthy. There wasn't much to do besides eat, rest, do the requisite amount of praying, sit by the pool, and take several walks up and down the promenade, trying to vary our itinerary slightly each time. One thing I did notice: how many of the shops were closed over Shabbat. Unless you're serving food, you're not going to need or get a certificate of kashrut from the rabbinate that you're shomer Shabbat. There's no economic benefit to doing so in an area chocked full of tourists to whom Saturday is shopping day. If your store is closed on Shabbat, it's because it's important to you. Ze hu.

Shabbat was over, and now it was our last chance for a family shopping spree. But first, dinner. The dining room was closed at the Seaside, so the nice folks at Astral gave us a voucher for a cab to one of their sister hotels, which we could have walked to. We were quick to notice that this Astral was a tad classier than the one we were staying in. The food was about the same.

Then it was off in the opposite direction to another mall, our last opportunity to save 17% on all the money we could spend. Natania had not been able to come, so she sent her shopping list along instead. Sometimes you get lucky. The Gap store in the Mamilla mall in Jerusalem often has stuff on sale, but only in anorexic sizes. In Eilat, they actually had jeans for normal shaped people....on sale! So Barbara got a few pair for our daughter, while we all wandered around the store. There were lots more places to inspect, but it was a foregone conclusion that David and I would spend some quality time together at the iDigital store. That's where Apple products are sold in The Land. I was able to show him an exact replica of BigMac, ask a few questions of the store personnel, and pick up something I needed – saving the 17%. Looking at the prices here and elsewhere, it occurred to me that if you were planning to drop a bundle on a big ticket item or a lot of small ticket ones, you would actually save money by spending the day traveling back and forth to this resort town. I wonder how many Israelis actually do this?

There was one thing more we simply had to do. It would have been impolite, even downright rude, to leave Eilat without having a night out on the town. David went back to the hotel, and Barbara, Tina, and I headed off to The Three Monkeys, one of establishments along the promenade in which you can order a drink or two, enjoy the balmy breezes coming from the Gulf of Eilat, people-watch to your heart's content, and feel appropriately decadent. The next morning, the two “youngsters” would catch an early flight back to Tel Aviv and head back to the hum-drum world of business. Barbara and I would spend the morning examining another facet of the aquatic world that makes this little corner of the gulf so special.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Thanks, Eilat


I've always wondered what it would be like to stay at a “classy” hotel, which I define as a place where someone takes your luggage when you get there and brings it up to your room for you, and the accommodations are so tasteful that you never want to leave. To be fair, you have to be willing to dip into your cash reserve to afford such luxury. If you're not (and I'm not called Frugal Fred for nothing), you have to lower your standards a teensy-weensy bit. One thing about Eilat, they have a full range of hotels from one-step-up-from-Motel-6 to some p-r-e-t-t-y extravagant establishments.

The Astral Seaside is “my kind of place,” not the lap of luxury we could easily become accustomed to, but what we can reasonably expect on our budget. Our room was large enough to move around in, plus a little balcony – overlooking the parking lot. By walking to the end of the corridor from our room, you’d get to the swimming pool, which, it being off-season, was open until about 4PM. with a life-guard on duty. Not a stressful job this time of the year. The pool was not heated, and the next afternoon when we went to use it, only David was tough enough (or crazy enough) to go for a swim. Having brought my bathing suit, I was determined at least to get wet, and I achieved my goal – to wade from one end of the pool to the ladder on the other end, hastily emerging into the warm, mid-day sun.

But first things first. Didn't I say it was just about time for dinner when we arrived? Let's get cracking! If you had any question at all, this is not the kind of establishment in which you need to “dress” for the evening meal. Just show up at the dining room in anything more formal than a bathing suit, and you're in. And so we showed up, along with everybody else who was staying at the hotel. I guess everybody got the same deal, half-board, meaning you get breakfast and dinner included in the tab. So everybody picked out a table and then sort of weaved his way through the several food tables, creating an individual, eclectic mix of dishes, hot and cold. It wasn't the insane over-abundance we experienced a year and a half before on our cruise to Greece and the chef probably will not be lured away to join the staff of the David Citadel in Jerusalem, but, all-in-all, the food was OK. No complaints.

I had wondered: who hangs out at a hotel like this, as opposed to some of the fancier places? Tourists? Locals? The kitchen is, of course, kosher. Would they be getting a religious crowd? So I made it a point to eyeball the crowd as they came and went and listen to the languages that were being spoken. Not much English. No Russian, no French. Lots of Ivrit. Looking around, I had the sense that I was looking at what has been called “Middle Israel,” the people who don't live in either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, who are not really religious but would not consider themselves hilloni (secular) either; who are neither part of the Tel Aviv left nor the Gush Etzion right. In America they might be described as “the silent majority,” but I have rarely met an Israeli whom I would consider quiet, let alone “silent.” I was also curious how many of these guys might show up for a minyan Fri. evening, but that I would find out the next evening.

Tina and David had already taken a walk in the afternoon and were more than content to hang out in their room after dinner. So Barbara and I ventured forth to take an evening stroll along the promenade, along with a sizable crowd of like-minded people. There's something about being in a place where essentially everyone is on vacation. There is, of course, another Eilat, the place where the “locals” live and work, but the area by the beach is definitely for the folks in the hotels. At some point along the way, my “I'm on vacation, might as well start enjoying myself,” mode must have kicked in. Maybe it's a subliminal feeling that becomes contagious in a large crowd. We walked along the promenade with the gulf on one side and a mix of shops, restaurants, and hotels that, once you cross the overpass over the lagoon, become increasingly “tony.” One of the restaurants had a solo saxophone player sitting on an outdoor podium, playing surprisingly good jazz, the sound of which contributed to a feeling of total and absolute relaxation. It was a pleasant evening after a warm day. No stress, no worries – except for the off chance that we might oversleep and miss breakfast the next morning.

In case you had the slightest doubt, none of us did that. The four of us had, in essence, one day to spend sightseeing – or whatever you want to call it – together, and we were going to make the most of it. By unanimous vote, we agreed to head off to the Coral World Underwater Observatory and Aquarium, a ten minute cab ride from our hotel. The main attraction there is the observatory, about three hundred feet off-shore, which gives you a wonderful panoramic view of what's swimming fifteen feet down in the Gulf of Eilat. It's kind of like being inside an aquarium looking out, except that the fish and whatever else hangs out down there are not looking in. They're just doing their thing, swimming back and forth in the little area they've staked out for themselves. If you've ever spent considerable time in front of someone's tropical fish tank, just watching some guppies go from one end of the tank to the other over and over again, you know the hypnotic effect it can have on you. We must have spent an hour down there, and by the time we finished looking at the other exhibits, shark feeding and the like, the morning was over, and it was on to our next scheduled stop.

If you have been playing close attention and thinking ahead, you might have anticipated our dilemma. I mentioned that we had half board at the hotel, breakfast and dinner included. So what about lunch? Not a problem on Friday; plenty of places to go and get a bite. But what about lunch on Shabbat? (Yeah, what about lunch on Shabbat???) Like most hotels in the area, The Astral Seaside has a solution. They provide for those who are interested an elaborate Shabbat meal – at 200 shekels per. That seemed a bit steep. The lady from Zion Tours, sizing up our level of frugality, had a more economical solution. Do what any self-respecting Israeli would do. Bring a bag with you to breakfast Shabbat morning and haul away enough vittles for a decent lunch. (There is a sign saying something to the effect that guests may may not remove food from the dining area; but of course that only applies to the other guests....) There were lots of reasons why that scheme wasn't going to work, not least of which was that the idea of having rolls and hard-boiled eggs for my Shabbat lunch seemed excessively Spartan. Vat to doooooo?

You know already that I would come up with an idea, dazzling in its simplicity and practicality, to save the day. If one is standing in the middle of an ocean-full of finny denizens, what's the obvious thing to think of? That's right: SUSHI!!!!!!!!!! There are several establishments in Eilat that prepare kosher sushi. Why don't we splurge and spend a hundred or a hundred and fifty shekels in total and get enough for a decent lunch for the four of us? We have a refrigerator in each room, so there'd be no problem in storing it overnight; we can get some drinks; I brought some grape juice from home; OK, we'll “borrow” a few rolls from the hotel, and we'll be set. Great idea! So off we went to Sushi Mushi (or was it Mushi Sushi?), a cab ride away in the opposite direction.

We were correct in our assumption that any self-respecting cabbie in town would be able to get us to any place in the tourist area. Atta machir et haMushi Sushi (or Sushi Mushi)? Of course he knew where it was. And so we were off without knowing it to that wonder-of-wonders, Eilat's own Ice Mall.

Israel has achieved a sufficient level of affluence that it can start creating things that are completely zany. For quite a while, there has been an ice skating rink in Metula, all the way up north. Now all the way down south in Eilat there is a large rink smack dab in the middle of a mall – with the stores on several oval shaped levels around it. (Admittedly, it's not as way out as, say, the Museum of Clean in Pocatello, Idaho; still, it's high up on my personal outré scale.) Midday Friday, there were a few people strutting their stuff on the ice when we came in. Shortly thereafter, the music started and the folks were treated to a skating exhibition. Most everybody stopped to watch. I, on the other hand, had my priorities straight. Sushi! And while our order was being constructed, off to one of the several other eateries for a bite of lunch. Why watch, when you can eat!

Shabbat was still hours and hours away, but I could relax and take a deep breath. If nothing else, we would have what to eat. Now about that minyan Friday night........

Thursday, May 2, 2013

On The Road To Eilat


(Before I forget, I've been asked to announce that the long-awaited episodes of Natania's tales of humor and woe can be found at

At the end of the last episode, we had averted a domestic catastrophe. Our apartment here in Ma'ale Adumim would not be turned into a swimming pool, a car wash, a mikvah, or a lake. The outfit that our insurance company engaged to deal with our broken water pipe was set to come back to replace the floor and wall tiles they had destroyed and fix the gaping hole in the wall they had dug through. On a good day, they might even do some painting.

To give them credit, they were all set to do the fixing they had promised. Except for one except. Barbara, in putting up a plastic sheet in the bathtub so we could use the shower, noticed that there was a small drip coming right before the bathtub faucets. Nothing to be alarmed about; but there was no point to re-tiling the wall and sealing in this dripping pipe. Let Alon-with-a-smile-and-a-song take a few minutes (that's all it would take) to fix the problem first and then get on with it. Our difficulty was explaining this to the contractor. They kept calling us up to make an appointment to fix the tiles. And Barbara kept telling them, No you have to fix the leak first. This went on for several days, all the while we walked over the trench in the floor on the way to the bathroom. I looked at it this way: if we were on an archaeological dig or a safari, we would have been more than content with our lodgings. At least we didn't have to go out in the hall or to a neighbor's to go to the loo. And.......Barbara and I would be going to Eilat in a few days.

The jaunt down to Eilat was Tina's idea. Why don't we all do something together as a family? The original idea was for the five of us, me, Barbara, Tina, David, and Natania, to take a few days and head off to Eilat. Because Tina and David are working (someone has to!), they opted for a long weekend, from Thursday to Sunday morning. OK, but what about Natania? The weekend we decided on was supposed to coincide with a break in her classes. Sad to say, she mis-read her schedule and then one of her teachers rescheduled a final exam; so in the end, she wound up staying home, along with Cookie and Moby, our two Tonkinese cats.

The only real obstacle to this plan was me. There is often someone in a family who has to be overly concerned with the family's finances. My self-assigned task is to assume that any planned trip or excursion is too expensive and that we can't afford it; or that we should spend the money on something more mundane, like a coffee table. It is Barbara's responsibility to convince me otherwise. She is well schooled in the art of persuasion. Her gambit this time was to consider this vacation a combination Chanukah, wedding anniversary, her birthday, and my birthday present. Well, if you put it that way......

Who would have known that this would be a perfect time to get away and leave our worries – our broken wall and torn up floor – behind? The plan was as follows: Tina and David would take an El Al flight from the old terminal one at Ben Gurion Airport, arriving in Eilat in the early afternoon. (Travel time about one hour.) Barbara and I would take the 10 o'clock bus from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, which would get down there around 3PM.

There is some information that many people know, but no one thinks to share with you. For example: we got to the bus station about half an hour early. Normally for an inter-city Egged bus, you can buy your tickets when you get on. But we figured we have plenty of time, we might as well go to the ticket booths and buy them in advance. So we waited our turn, and Barbara asked the clerk for two tickets to Eilat on the 10AM bus. “Ein makom,” was his reply. No more room on the bus. When, pray tell, would there be makom? The 5PM bus. Being the helpful sort, he suggested we travel first to another city, say Tel Aviv or Beersheba, where there would be makom on a bus to Eilat. To give you a sense of what was happening, you need to understand that at this time of the morning there was only one ticket booth open. You can probably figure out on your own that there was a long and growing line behind us. And you can assume, if you know anything about the temperament of the average Israeli, that some or most of them were quite impatient. Someone – that's us – was holding up the works. We probably would have been better off going down to Beersheba, which is on the way. But the helpful clerk reserved us two seats on a bus leaving Tel Aviv at about 1PM. He also took the trouble to book us two seats going back to Jerusalem from Eilat on Sunday in the early afternoon. We had made no friends by taking so long, but we did have our seats. We scampered off the line, heading for the bus to Tel Aviv. The thing is that when we related this incident later on, a number of people seemed to know that you have to reserve your seats in advance if you're going to Eilat. Well, next time we'll know too.

Now it could have been a lot worse. We could have wound up getting to Eilat the next day, Friday – just in time for Shabbat – in which case there wouldn't have been much point in going. We could have wound up not getting there at all. As it turned out, we would arrive Thursday in time for dinner. It just meant a long day traveling for us and, horror of horrors, having to spend an hour and a half in the “new” bus station in Tel Aviv – the one we never, ever want go to, if we have a choice.

Natania read somewhere recently that the “architect” (I use the term loosely) who designed this nightmare, this stain on the city's reputation, had just died, and there's this thing about not speaking badly about the deceased. I just hope for his sake that his coffin is more accommodating than the bus station he designed for the rest of us. At least it must be harder to get lost in. We were able to find some kosher food there (in the depot, not the coffin), and we whiled away the hour and a half until departure time. We did find out when we finally boarded the bus that the seats actually are reserved, as they are on an airplane. A nice young chayelet told us we were sitting in hers; ours, we discovered, were farther back. Everyone scrambled on board, and finally we were off to Eilat.

If you're going to go by bus, even though it's longer, the route from Tel Aviv is a lot more scenic. The bus heads south and then zig-zags its way through the hills down to Beersheba before the road merges with route 90, the coastal road which goes from Mount Hermon down to Eilat. (It's sort of like The Garden State Parkway, which goes from the New York border all the way down to Cape May.) Because of all the late rain, the ground was a sea of green even south of Beersheba, the traditional entrance into the Negev, where grass is traditionally scarcer than a viable peace plan. The other thing I noticed was how much of this turf the Bedouins were squatting on. Let's just say that right now that this land-grab is a small elephant in a room. But the elephant is getting bigger and bigger, and, goodness knows, the room isn't.

Many hours, a few stops along the way to pick up more passengers, and one pit stop later, our bus pulled into the small, unprepossessing depot in the downtown center of Eilat. I had never been down to this port, which Ben Gurion had the good sense to capture prior to the ceasefire in 1948. Barbara had been there with her mother in the early 1970's, when nothing much was happening there. Things were a lot different last year when she stayed overnight with a tour group going to Petra (Jordan is one of the many countries that I don't “do.”) Tina gets to do a lot of traveling for her job, all over Europe and such, but there are no medical conferences schedules for Eilat (only auto races and chamber music festivals), so neither she nor David had been there either. When they got off their plane, they simply walked to our hotel, about five or ten minutes away. The bus depot is a little bit farther away, so we needed a taxi (and there are lots of them in Eilat!) to get us there.

Why did we stay at the Astral Seaside, one of a small chain of hotels in Eilat (they didn't build them; they took over a number of hotels from different chains, so each one was different). Barbara had stayed at another Astral on the way to Petra and was duly impressed with the food. So she was amenable to the suggestion by someone at Zion Tours (a highly recommended outfit, by the way) that the Seaside would be a good option, not too pricey and, as its name suggests, right by the beach. Like most or all of the hotels down in this resort town, the kitchen was suitably kosher. Tina and David, as I said, had arrived hours before and were just “chilling,” having taking a stroll along the beachfront. We, to our great relief, were just in time for dinner. Our vacation had officially begun, and none too soon.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Raindrops Were Falling on Our Heads


Everyone is familiar with adages that seem old but are of recent vintage – like “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Another one is “Be careful what you wish for............” The thing about these truisms is that sometimes they are all-too-true. Here's a case in point.

Our friend Varda was spending a Shabbat with us. It wasn't just any old Shabbat; it was the day before Purim most everywhere (two days before Shushan Purim in Jerusalem, just down the road). It was midway in the morning. I had come home from shul and was sitting in our living room with my buddy Michael, making kiddush with some Jack Daniels, herring, and a cup of instant coffee – which we do most every Shabbat (and why not?). Barbara and Varda were upstairs, as was Natania. And Barbara was regaling Varda with our travails as apartment owners. More specifically, she was describing the on-going saga of our merpeset.

A merpeset, which can either be a porch or a balcony, is a standard feature of many Israel apartments. We in fact have several, but the one under discussion is the large one off our dining room, the one with the view you could die for of the hills leading to Jerusalem. This merpeset is right above a bedroom, not as you would expect, from the apartment below us, but part of an apartment in the adjacent building.

The thing is, that every time we have a decent rainfall here in Ma'ale Adumim, water from our merpeset leaks into this bedroom. Now that we've been here awhile, we've learned that this particular problem is quite common in our building block. We're also convinced that the previous owners of our apartment knew about it and chose not to fix it. The first winter we were here, we got an angry phone call from Carmi, the lady who owns the adjacent apartment and rents it out to a tenant. When were we going to fix the leak? No doubt, she had heard that “rich” Americans (in The Land, it is assumed that all Americans are wealthy) had moved in, and she figured that if she called us and screamed, she would get further than she had with the previous guy. Maybe we aren't rich, but we are reasonably responsible, so when the rainy season was over, we called up our local handyman and had him come over and do some major re-grouting. We even had him go down to the apartment in question and patch up the paint where the water had seeped in.

Then we waited and waited. We wouldn't know until the next rainy season whether what we had done was going to work. Well, the rains did come the following winter and not a peep from either the tenant or Carmi. Yesssssssssss!!!!!! No more worries! So we thought. Months later, Carmi called and started screaming again. When were we going to fix the leak? There was one thing we hadn't counted on. Carmi's tenant couldn't stand her, wouldn't talk to her, or let her in the apartment. This may sound crazy, but the tenant would rather have rain drops falling on her head than complain to her about the problem.

We upped the ante and called in a roofer who had experience dealing with leaks. He did a better job of sealing the places where water might seep in. He changed the drain. Same thing all over again. It's still leaking. I'm taking you to court. A few months ago, we got the name of a guy who specializes in leaks. He came and ran around with an infra-red camera, taking pictures. Even before he prepared a written report, he was ready to start ripping up our porch and re-doing it. Fine, except he wanted an amount that was more than we bring in each month. There seems to be a special rate for rich Americans. It's called an arm and a leg.

Finally, we got one more recommendation, an American named Dan. He came over and sized up the situation. He looked at the other guy's report and said it was spot-on – except for what he was going to charge us. So Dan was hired and will be coming in about a month. He will rip up the tile floor and deal with the problem, laying new tiles (which we will buying) and replacing the entire drainage system. He'll also do the same for the small merpeset off our bedroom. It won't be cheap, but it won't be highway robbery either.

In a nutshell, that's what my wife was explaining to Varda. She lamented that we'd much rather use that money to replace the bathroom (off our bedroom), the one the geniuses who had the apartment ahead of us removed (rather than deal with the leaky pipes there), and maybe redo the main bathroom. But that, she said, would have to wait – until we had a leak.

End of conversation. Then Varda decided to take a quick shower before lunch. You may remember that Michael and I were relaxing in the living room, nibbling our herring and sipping our Jack Daniels. So we had ringside seats to what happened next. We watched in awe and then in horror as water started coming down through the big fluorescent fixture in our kitchen, which fortunately was not on over Shabbat. I don't mean a trickle or a sprinkle. We're talking here about carwash strength, enough to take a shower and shampoo your hair; in fact, a flood. Boy, did we have Barbara's leak big-time! We figured out pretty quickly that a pipe upstairs had burst.

We have three water valves in a little box of their own in our kitchen. We weren't sure which one went to where, but we turned them all off. Eventually the water subsided on its own. Mercifully, we did not need a raven, a dove, or a rowboat. Just a few buckets to collect as much water as we could.

Fortunately for us, we were invited out to Ron and Esther's for lunch. They offered us some great advise. Before you do anything else, call up your insurance company; let them handle it. There wasn't much we were going to do over Shabbat as far as calling anybody. The one thing we were able to do was play with the valves for the water. We figured out by trial and error that if we kept one of them on, we did have water on our lower floor. We weren't about to mess with anything on the top floor; let leaky pipes alone. Shabbat would soon be over; time for the Megillah reading and frantic calls to our insurance company. Let's see if their emergency number would be of any use!

Did I mention that on Sunday, Purim day, we were set to host our usual Purim meal? Well, we were. Every year, we have the same crew over: Ron and Esther (and Sara), Michael and Tehilla (and Yisrael), and another couple (with or without their son and his girlfriend). We make most of the meal and our friends provide the rest. As long as we had some running water in the kitchen, I figured we would be OK. So I called everyone and said we were on (by this time, apparently everyone we knew in Ma'ale Adumim was aware of our plight). First thing, though, Barbara wanted to clean up the kitchen before we started cooking. That involved lots of mopping, cleaning behind the refrigerator, the whole ball of wax. Finally, finally, it was time for me to start cooking; and then the inevitable happened. No more water. Not a drop. It turns out that what we had been doing, unbeknownst to us, was using up the supply of water stored in our dood shemesh, the water tank-solar heater that everybody in Israel has. (Now that I think of it, I don't know which valve controls the water supply going into the dood shemesh, but we must have turned that off as well.) Once the dood was empty, we were as dry as a county in the Bible Belt.

No water. Hard to cook that way. More phone calls. Ron and Esther were kind enough to a) loan us the use of their kitchen, b) host the Purim seudah at their house, and c) drive over and pick up me and all the food and everything else I needed to prepare the meal. Not to mention d) let me take a shower at their place afterwards.

By this time, at least one person out there must be wondering what the menu was, and usually I would remember what I had prepared. You'll have to let me slide this one time; I was somewhat distracted.
Most of you, however, are probably wondering what was happening with our water – or lack thereof. We were able to reach our insurance company, and Goldfoos was as as good as gold. With more than a little effort on their part, they arranged for a plumber to show up at our door on Monday. In walked Alon, the Israeli plumber, (which prompts me to begin singing, as if on cue, Alone, alone with a smile and a song..... which as you all know was written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed for the Marx Bros movie “A Night at the Opera,” where it was sung by Kitty Carlyle and Allan Jones – but I digress) with his Arab assistant, named – I kid you not – Osama.

Alon-with-a-smile-and-a-song is one of those guys who projects a demeanor of complete self-confidence – never fear, I am here. As those of us with a little life experience are aware, the fact that someone appears self-confident does not mean that he knows what he doing. Our Alon actually is a qualified plumber, but here he was a tad too sure of himself. The first thing he did when he came in was turn our water valves back on and then go upstairs to see what the problem was.

Would you be surprised in the least if I told you that within a few minutes we had a repeat of Niagara Falls in our kitchen? But this time, we had a witness – Osama. Alon had sent him down to get something-or-other from the truck, and the young Arab walked past our kitchen as the water began to flow. I imagine that the look of awe and horror on his face mirrored the expression on my face several days before. “ALON..........” Within seconds, our self-assured plumber was down the stairs to get a first-hand look as water gushed through our light fixture. Within seconds, those water valves were back to an off position.

I stayed downstairs to keep out of the way; but not so far that I couldn't hear the racket upstairs. Alon-with-a-smile-and-a-song was conducting a two-phase assault to reach the offending pipe. The first phase involved breaking through the wall that separates our bedroom from the pipes behind our bathtub. That wall, like all the walls inside and outside, is tromi, pre-poured concrete – not the easiest thing to demolish. Nor the quietest. The second phase involved tearing up a row of tiles in our bedroom and hallway in front of the bathroom. The result: a gaping hole in our wall and a trench a few feet long on the floor. However, they did find the offending pipe and do the necessary surgery. Water would again flow – through the proper channels this time – in the Casden household. Keep the bathtub wall dry for twenty-four hours. Alon and Osama would return within a few days to mend the damage they had created in their search and rescue mission.

Anyone who knows Israel realizes that it wouldn't be that simple........

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Gondoliers #3


As I have mentioned more than once, when rehearsals begin for a new Encore! Production (may there be many more!), those of us in the chorus always start out by learning our parts without the soloists. We get a lot done that way, but we are often left wondering for weeks or months who the principal performers are going to be. Even knowing their names doesn't always help if we haven't a clue who they are.

There are roles for – count 'em – nine principal soloists in The Gondoliers, taking the work out of the talent range of most theatrical companies. Three of the performers in our production were veterans of the company, including Aviella, she of the enchanting voice, the sunny disposition, and Romeo. The other six? We would get to meet them one by one, although rumors of their ability might proceed their actual sighting. For example, one of the women in the chorus mentioned a tiny soprano with an extraordinary voice who had appeared at their latest rehearsal. Ah, she must be taking the part of Cassilda; that's the only other soprano part besides Gianetta, and Aviella is doing that. Sure enough, on cue, Maria showed up several weeks later, probably about one-third the size of some legendary Wagnerian sopranos of the past but with a voice out of proportion to her petite stature.

I remember vividly the day when a number of us male choristers showed up for rehearsal a few minutes early, in time to hear Rafi singing one of the tenor solos and for our jaws to drop in unison. I waited patiently until set-painting on Friday to interrogate Robert Binder, as he sat at his sewing machine, preparing someone's costume. Who's that guy, and where did you find him? Turns out he found Rob. The son of a chazan in Leeds, this remarkably gifted young man had made aliyah on his own, recently finished the army, and was singing on the streets of Tel Aviv. He had called RB and asked for an audition. I asked Rob exactly how many bars Rafi had to sing before they tackled him, gave him a score and rehearsal schedule, and told him he was hired. My guess would be between four and six notes.

Jay, with his stentorian bass-baritone, absolutely perfect as the Grand Inquisitor, was found via RB's extensive network of friends and talent scouts. He is a conductor, a voice teacher, a composer, a writer about things operatic, and when he has nothing else to do, treks in Northeast Albania. (I couldn't and wouldn't make that up.) By way of contrast, Michael, who works in the legal profession by day and had previously led a band that played at simchas, never before appeared on stage. How did Rob know in advance that, as the comic Duke of Plaza-Toro, he would bring down the house as he trod ever so lightly through I am a courtier, grave and serious? How does a swallow know anything about Capistrano?

Because of Encore!'s growing reputation for the best in English-speaking theater, it became possible to pluck talent from JAMD (Jerusalem Academy for Music and Dance). Hence the appearances of Hanan (as Luiz, the drummer boy who winds up as king), who aspires to be be the chief hazan of the IDF, the aforementioned Maria, and Maya, the other principal contadine opposite Aviella.

All of these wonderfully gifted soloists, including returnees Daniel and Claire, would be introduced in my imaginary screenplay (the one I “created” in the previous article), probably as they made their appearances one by one at rehearsals. If one were to make a real live documentary of an Encore! production, a good way to do it would be to select one number from the show and film it, from the first rehearsal with the chorus fumbling through, then mastering the music and movements that are essential to any G&S performance, later rehearsing with the orchestra, up to an actual performance, with everyone is costume and stage makeup. Such a film might give a glimpse of what those of us in the cast already were aware, that Encore! rehearsals are themselves the best show in town, but that's another story.

But in my make-believe scenario, the performance would be filmed from the vantage point of the chorus, from the back of the stage when we were performing or from the wings when we were waiting to go on. Unlike My Fair Lady, when we were rarely on-stage and were often busy changing our costumes, here we got to see a lot of theatrical magic as well as a remarkable level of consistency each of the six (alas, only six) performances. Which brings me to a series of questions I had as I watched and participated in the production. How did I, with my legitimate yet modest talent, get to be on stage with such extremely gifted performers? Was I only dreaming, or had I arrived in musical heaven? Ultimately, I was asking myself how was it possible for this production to be so close to perfection, given its provenance in “community theater?”

This last question got somewhat revised last week, several weeks after the sets for the Encore! production were struck for the last time. I was able to find a competing version of The Gondoliers that I could download (and wouldn't disappear like other versions on Youtube), one of a series of G&S performances that were produced for British television. My revised question goes something like: how is it possible for a theater company in Israel (of all places!) with a very limited budget to do a better job with something so quintessentially British than an English TV production? They have a lot more money to spend. They should have a bigger and better talent base. They ought to have an almost proprietary sense of what to do and how to do it. So why is the British version so mired in mediocrity as opposed to the scintillating performance that 1800 patrons – give or take – got to witness at the Hirsch Theatre in downtown Jerusalem?

Some of it I simply can't figure out. The performers that RB assembled are at least as talented – and sometimes clearly superior to their British counterparts. That shouldn't be, but it's true. Six of the nine main roles are for characters in their twenties, and in the Hirsch Theatre production they actually were that young. (Hint to British production crews, whoever and wherever you are: if you're photographing the future Queen of Barataria, who “at twenty-one is excelled by none,” i.e., the most beautiful young lady in the land, and your performer is in fact closer to thirty-five, nor is she as attractive and ingenue-ish as our tiny Maria – then reconsider all those close-ups of your bored-looking prima donna.) For the life of me, I can't imagine why our rivals could not find in the British theater world a bass-baritone who could actually sing the role of the Grand Inquisitor – instead of reciting it à la Professor Higgins – or come up with a comic actor energetic enough to bring a bit of brio to the role of the Duke of Plaza-Toro.

But there's something else. The world of G&S is not only topsy-turvy, but in constant motion as well. If you're going to go onstage in one of their roles, be prepared for some high-stepping and cavorting. We're not doing Madame Butterfly here! You can't just stand there like a statue and trust your vocal pyrotechnics will carry the day. Not a chance. Also, if you're given a line or two to recite that's supposed to be funny, don't declaim it as if it were one of Cicero's orations against Cataline (O tempora, O mores). Finally, for the director, feeling free to ignore or edit the script is not, generally speaking, not a good idea – unless, that is, you have a better theatrical mind than William Schwenck Gilbert.

There were a few things in the British production that got me to start yelling choice expressions at my computer screen (as I'm working on my new pre-owned iMac with a 27” monitor, that's a lot of yelling). For example, it's time for the two gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, to choose their brides from among the twenty-four contadines. Being chivalrous, the two of them declare, “As all are young and fair, And amiable besides, We really do not care A pref'rence to declare, A bias to declare would be indelicate...” They will let themselves be blindfolded and “...let impartial Fate Select for us a mate!” Of course, a fix is in, and they're not really blindfolded, or at least they don't stay blindfolded. Surprise, surprise, they will wind up with Tessa and Gianetta, just the very girls they wanted. Everyone on stage can spot the deception. The women are singing, “You can spy, sir! Shut your eye, sir!” And the guys are singing, “You can see, sir! Don't tell me, sir!” With that amount of prompting, everyone in the audience at the Hirsch Theatre, even the legendary Mrs. Cohen in the twelfth row, who doesn't see or hear too good, soon figures out what is going on. But in the British production, Marco and Giuseppe must have missed their cue; they're standing stock still, with their blindfolds firmly in place, posing for their portraits in the National Gallery. A big Bronx cheer for that one.

During the course of the first act, the Grand Inquisitor reveals that one of the two gondoliers – but he's not sure which one – is actually the heir to the throne of Barataria. Until they figure out which one it is, the two of them must rule jointly as the king. As Act I comes to an end, the two of them, along with all the other gondoliers, are setting out for that island kingdom. “Away we go to an island fair, that lies in a Southern sea: We know not where, and we don't much care.......” At the Hirsch Theatre, a long, white ladder is brought out and placed on the stage. The men, in effect, climb into it; the ladder is lifted and transformed into a boat. Then they march off stage, setting out to sea (“.......away, awayyyyyyy!”); the contadines, left behind, sorrowfully wave good-bye to them. It takes a minute, but the audience – except for Mrs. Cohen in the twelfth row who by this time has woken up and is on her way to the Ladies' – figures out what just happened. At every performance, the audience burst into applause, exactly what you want to have happen at the end of an act. In the film version, the two men sidle into a boat that you can't really see. The other gondoliers silently drift away one by one. (Wait a minute, guys! You're going the wrong way; you gotta get in the boat. You're supposed to be going to Barataria along with Marco and Giuseppe. They're going to need you in the second act. If you don't believe me, ask Gilbert. He'll tell you.) The last thing the audience sees before the curtain descends is a shot of one poor shlub, the one who, whenever the gondoliers are on stage, is shown at a table in the café working his knife and fork; he's now finishing his plate of pasta. That'll send the audience out to the lobby abuzz with excitement!

There are many other examples, but I think I've made my point. As Abba Eban said about our Arab neighbors, the directors of this British version of The Gondoliers never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Every time there's a bit of comic dialogue, these guys either cut it completely or found a way to make it not funny. Every time there's a place to do something distinctive, these folks looked the other way. Every Encore! performance, I was in my place at the back of the stage (where I would be anyway in my imaginary screenplay),watching as Maya/Tessa would vehemently twist Daniel/Giuseppe's ear as she reminded him not to forget “You've married me.” Or in Act II, when the women finally arrive in Barataria, as she would take a flying leap into his arms from half-way across the stage. Or rebuke him with heartfelt indignation that “one cannot marry a vulgar fraction” (this after the discovery that three women, Tessa, Gianetta, and Casilda, are married to two men – hence two thirds of a husband per wife). That's what theater is about, a little excitement.

Maybe I should re-refine my question. Is it possible that Messrs. Binder and Salter are the only ones left alive capable of putting on a Gilbert and Sullivan production – with a little style, a little panache, a soupçon of gusto? Will Jerusalem become the G&S capital of the world? Only time will tell.

As for “time,” it became time when our six performances were over and done with. Just in time for three more performances of My Fair Lady, one of them in Givatayim, where our daughter Tina and her charming husband, David, live. As wonderful a show as that is, it was still anti-climactic after the once-in-a-lifetime production of The Gondoliers. It would be wonderful if Encore! could top that one, but I don't see how. Their next venture will be the musical version of the children's story, The Secret Garden, for which my services will not be required. I have other things to do and say, but not about a production that I may not get to see.