The 11th Floor

A Perpsective Overlooking Jerusalem, Israeli Life, and Talmud Torah

Friday, June 05, 2009

A year back home, a year away from home.

It's just a year and a few days past our leaving Jerusalem. The questions we get are as varied as you might expect. "Do you miss it?" Yes we do- but not everything about living in Jerusalem. Money can't buy everything, but being poor is no mechaiya either. "Do you want to go back?" Yes, but just not right this instant. "Was it hard to re-adjust?" No, not really. Jerusalem life is city life, and so is our life here. "What do you miss most" is a terrible question to answer. There are so many things that are precious to us from our two years, although we do have an answer for what is #1, and the place/person/people/food/substance/site in question knows how we feel about it. At least, we hope they do.

Yes, the places and sites are missed, and the food is something we pine for, but the people, Dear Lord, the people are what we miss the most. Friends and teachers and program people and so many others, to have them fade out of our lives is painful. The two years may have been low on cash, but we came into the lives of so many people, and so many people came into our home. Homes. Two apartments and two schools and a hundred other places in the Holy City. How can you meet so many people who step into your life as if they always were part of it, and not feel their absence when you part ways?

Being a more cynical person than most would believe, the question that haunts me the most is "Was it worth it?" I lost gainful employment I have yet to replace; and while my lady love is employed, I can't say "Yes!" with true and furious clarity. My Hebrew did not become fluent; I still can't follow the Israeli news or read "Ha'aretz" in Hebrew. Israelis on the streets here still speak too fast for me to follow. I still can't read a page of Talmud in the Vilna format, let alone understand Tosfot. I never met martial arts master Yehoshua Sofer. I never walked on the Temple Mount (that is, the parts my Rosh Yeshvia said were permitted). And there are two years worth of savings that are not in our accounts that would have been very comforting to have in this economy. There are lots of "didn'ts" and "nevers" and "couldn'ts" hovering behind me from those two years. Yes, it's haunting, and yes, it's damned annoying.

But those "didn'ts" and "nevers" and "couldn'ts" don't haunt me unopposed. There are angels of better memories that remind me that the year was not without triumphs and joys. I can't read the page of talmud like I wish I could- but I can read it better than I used to. Hebrew, likewise, is not where I want it, but its not as utterly awful when it comes out of my mouth in years past. I learned about new foods and saw amazing sights (excluding the Bahai gardens in Haifa, which were closed on the day we visited) and got to be a student again just for the hell of it. We brought back books, a few gifts, and a good deal of learning. And the people we met, my oh my.... the people. If we had not gone, we would never had met so many people who amaze us, who make us laugh, who love us and care for us and whom we adore. The "didn'ts" and "nevers" and "couldn'ts" aren't dispelled in the face of their friendship and love, but they cower back into the shadows when those faces of friends and teachers come near.

So the view from the 11th floor after a year? A bit clearer, with the dawning suspicion that some experiences in life can't be evaluated without time, and some choices in the past are harder to evaluate when the future is in doubt. But I mark this moment in time with a thought that supported me and put me in a thankful state of wonder day after day in Jerusalem. There is a legend in my family that we came to Sloka, Latvia from Herschberg in southern Germany in the 15th or 16th centuries. The legend notes that the family came looking for a better life to Germany from Bavel in the 10th century, when the community of Jews there had gone into decline after so many generations. The Jews of Bavel, of course, had originally come from Jerusalem as exiles, weeping on the shores of her rivers.

What made me worthy to be the one to bring the family legend full circle, to be the Jew who lived in Jerusalem once again after so many generations? What did I do that made me more worthy than my Great-Grandfather, who somehow had the wisdom to leave Lativa when he did, learning American English from a custodian he worked with? How was I more worthy than my Grandfather, who came to America at the age of 10, took care of his 7 siblings and raised 3 children, was a lover of the Shul and Bies Midrash? Or my father, who bucked the trend and visited Israel as a struggling state in '63 but never got to visit it these days of the Kotel and the Light Rail and Kosher Sushi? How did I merit to be the one? I have no idea, but I am thankful for having parents who helped me be the one who did go, and am thankful for each day I had in Jerusalem.

Revisiting the view from the 11th floor is enlightening- and it shows that the two years were probably all worth it, despite the troubles and rough spots. After all, how often do you get to overturn exile, tragedy, and the darkest parts of history, just by living in a city, albeit one reborn from rubble and ruin?

In memory of my father, Binyamin Velvel Ben Meir, and his father, Meir ben Moshe.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Going home, Leaving home.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A bit of needed consolation....

Isaiah 54:11-12

"You suffering, comfortless, storm-ravaged city! Behold, I will set thy stones in fair colors, and lay your foundations with sapphires. I will rebuild your towers with rubies, your gates with sparkling stones, and all your walls with precious stones."

Thursday, March 06, 2008

We're okay... but we're not okay.

Jerusalem has been safe and quiet, terrorism-wise, since before we arrived nearly two years ago. In that time there have been no shootings, stabbings, or bombings. Tonight that changed.

We still don't know how many students were murdered at the dining hall of the Merkaz Ha'rav Yeshiva, but this was not a small attack in Eilat or far way Dimona that we could ingore. Those, we could say "were close to the border." They were "just a slip of security- they got lucky." Tonight was not such an event.

This was a planned event. The Yeshiva was scouted out, targeted, and attacked. The murdered boys and men were trapped in a library with only one entrance- many tried to escape from windows- they didn't have a chance. These were students, not so different than the students at my Yeshiva. And yes, it could have been us, however a far less likely target we are. We also are Jewish students, studying Talmud, preparing for Puirm, and not so far from East Jerusalem.

( I just heard- My Couisin was on her way to deliver a weekly torah portion brochure to Merkaz Harav as the shooting started. She was only a block away when she stopped, having heard the huge number of sirens coming her way. )

I'm not angry or scared as much as I am horribly sad. These victims were young men getting ready for Purim, entering a season of joy and celebration- and always with a good dose of silliness. They were part of a community of people who delighted in learning and had spent months learning and growing together. All of that has been ruined, and families have been destroyed.

And with the tensions between Jew and Arab so high in Israel as it is, this act by man from East Jerusalem has made the lives of law-abiding Arab Israelis even more bitter. Come tomorrow Arabs who are good Israeli citizens will find their daily lives filled with more hassles, more angry glances, more discrimination. The terrorists claimed lives and destroyed chances for peace and co-existence all at the same time.

Yes, Hamas and its ilk are celebrating in Gaza, handing out candy to kids. That's obscene, but the thugs who run Gaza want children who celebrate death more than they do life, and those are the people we expect to try and commit these acts. But this was a resident of East Jerusalem. The consequences of that fact will continue to affect events in the days and months to come. For now, though, on the eve of Judaism's season of parody, costumes, humor and celebration- this month of Adar- the city is wounded and bleeding. We are okay- but we are not okay.

That's life in Jerusalem for now. That's why we have to pray and work to change it- but that change, that peace, has so very many enemies. . . .

Thursday, February 21, 2008

There is nothing wrong with your scren.

You are entering another dimension.
Not a dimension of sight or sound, but of Israeli-ness… in this dimension the familiar is unfamiliar, and what you think you know… is bright pink.

You are in the Yerushalmi Zone.

Look carefully at the picture:
Yes, that is a "Best Buy." Stereos. TV’s. Appliances.

Israelis love English. Some verbs: L’sabseyd (to subsidize). L’fakses (to fax). L’kombak (to have a come-back). Some stores: Mister Zol (Mr. Cheap), Supersol Deal, Supersol Big, Super Deal, and Mega. So naturally, there is a Best Buy in Jerusalem. Nifty, eh?


Friday, January 18, 2008

My God, its'a giant . . . giant . . . Come to think of it, I'm not sure.

For several years there has been construction on a light rail system in Jerusalem, which has turned out to be fuller of graft and mismanagement than even Jerusalemites expected. That’s saying something, because Jerusalem’s government has so much corruption that even Chicago's Mayor Daley thinks it’s a bit slimy. Now scheduled for competition 2010, there are elements of the light rail visible, especially by the entrance to the city. Most notably, they are building this huge... thingy. (sorry it's sideways- just hold your monitor on a 90 degree angle until I can rotate it) I asked dozens of people what it was, and their reply as always the same: "Some thing to do with the light light rail."

I consulted the oracle of our day, Wikipedeia. Sure enough, it's a big public project with no practical benefit to anyone besides the artist and those involved in tis construction. There's no money for schools, but as always, there is money for a 220 million shekel (that's about $58 million bucks) sculpture. It’s called the "Chords Bridge." It has nothing to do with music and it’s not a bridge. It’s a monument to rest at the entrance to the city in a base of glass and local stone. It will be the highest feature of the city, visible almost everywhere. This is a nice thought- it is sure to be very pretty.

Jerusalem is a city with problems. It remains divided along racial and religious lines (I'm sure you're shocked) to begin with, and the city faces massive challenges to infrastructure. For example many homes still use sewer systems last repaired during the Ottoman Freakin' Empire.

Shamefully, on the fringes of the city of Jerusalem there are Bedouins - and Jews - living in squalor. There are schools without the supplies they need. Affordable housing is disappearing, as more and more luxury apartments go up. As more and more of this city becomes empty for 50 weeks of the year, the economy dies a bit more, and life becomes a bit more of anightmare for local retailers. The makolet down the block can not survive on the influx of jews from Teaneck who come in for Passover and Sukkot. Its getting too expensive for students and families to live here-- crisis is looming over the city's future.

There are all these real problems in addition to the fact that the light rail is several years (years, not months) behind schedule and several tens of millions of shekels over budget. Yet this thing can go up with no problem? Yes, art is critical to the development of a city. But if it was your house, you would make sure there was food and water and light before you went shopping for replicas of your favorite Picasso print. Massive civic artworks should wait when kids don't have what they need to learn and when families are hungry.

In the words of Tevye, "There is no other hand." This thing is a shameful waste, no matter how pretty it will look.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Is there a blessing... for the Tzar?

President Bush canceled my Talmud class.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But not by much. After all, with all the security precautions in Jerusalem for the President’s visit, my Talmud teacher would not have been able to enter the city by car if he hadn’t left home at 6:15am. There are no trains that work from the suburbs of Jerusalem. Busses have been rerouted in ways so complex even the kabalah teacher can’t explain them. And if you are a reform rabbinical student, your Talmud class really was cancelled along with every other class you have; the authorities shut down the entire Jerusalem campus of HUC (Hebrew Union College). So things are a bit messy in terms of getting anywhere in Jerusalem while Mr. Bush is in town (until Friday).

The core of the city is shut down, even to pedestrians, with kilometers of blue metal barricades. Where are these things kept? These are not stackable wooden horses- these are metal gates with wide feet to prevent being tipped over. They have sealed off the streets with thousands of the things- they must have their own suburb. Oh, and there are 8,000 extra police in town, in addition to the local Jerusalem constabulary.

What are they all doing? First and foremost, they are freezing their buts off. It’s not that cold per se, but its’ been drizzling rain all day and they have to stand in place. And of course, most Israelis are made miserable by temperatures that would find most Canadians outdoors in shorts. So they shiver in place and perform and a few other tasks, some more obtrusive than others. For example my Hebrew teacher went home to her apartment across from the Israeli’s President’s residence between jobs. She found a policewoman waiting in the doorway to her building. When she wanted to leave, she had to wait for a police escort from the area. Note that when she came in, there were no questions, but to leave she needed to answer a questionnaire and then wait for two officers to walk her down the street. What was usually a 5 minute walk took her over half an hour. She didn't mind, though. I think the message is clear: most Israelis like Mr. Bush, and they don’t want anything to happen to him.

The center which houses us has put up a banner welcoming Mr. Bush (sorry mom, but I’m still going into the building to study). We get a side benefit from all the chaos. Normally our intersection is one of the most noisy and dangerous in Jerusalem. Part of that comes from the fact that it is a point where 6 streets come together. Also, on the east-west avenue, the middle of three lanes in both directions is the left turn lane. To review, the street works like this: right lane, ahead or straight; left lane: ahead; middle lane, TURN LEFT THROUGH THE LEFT LANE. Makes for a fun intersection and endless honking, no? But today, there was a delightful silence around the Yeshiva. Not a single honk could be heard, which I must say was great.

Also around the yeshiva are the products of the local side of the fight to release Jonathan Pollard. Kikar Paris (Paris Square), which is scheduled to have a 30 meter high replica of the Eiffel Tower built in 2009, has been renamed “Freedom for Jonathan Pollard Square” until he is released. Also, there is a 50 foot wide banner on the building across from the Yeshiva. Frankly, his sentence is so lopsided and unfair that even Caspar Weinberger, who as SecState made Pollard into a target of his patriotic wrath, is saying it is time to let the man go (which it is). People are hoping Bush will free him from prison, but I think that won’t come until President Bush is on his way out.

One of the most ironic parts of the visit remains the political polarization. Here, the left is welcoming Bush’s mission and his efforts (in general) , and the right wing is telling him to not say anything and please go home soon. The right wing only wants him to praise Israel; they are furious that he is saying that any settlements should be stopped or that Palestinian prisoners should be released. I’m not saying they are wrong or right- but it is ironic how much of the right wing of American Jews must be uncomfortable with the rhetoric from the right wing of Israel these days.

I’ve never heard of English being on the front page of Israel’s largest circulation paper “Yediot Achronot.” But today, this flagship of modern Hebrew placed a greeting for Bush on the front page in English. Hell, they didn’t just greet him, they called him “righteous among the nations.” That’s putting him on the same level as Oscar Schindler and Chiune Sugihara. 50 years ago, this would have been seen as the worst of heresy; a Hebrew paper wouldn’t have put English on the page even for Truman.

This visit is costing the Israeli government $25,000 every hour. It’s costing Jerusalem economically, as all sorts of stores and cafés are empty- nobody can get to them. Major bus lines are being re-routed all over. In what must be a nightmare for those running group tours for American kids, Pizza is not available for delivery, no matter how much money you offer. Nobody can enter King David street, with its high- end stores and restaurants. I hope that the trip is worth it, because Israelis are footing quite the bill. I fear that Israelis may come to feel about this visit what many Americans have begun to feel about Mr. Bush’s presidency- ripped off.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

I wonder if they get a better connection OR When Judaism is the dominant culture #17

From the land where Condaliza Rice's name has become a verb (l'kandel, to talk a lot and achieve nothing) we bring you this example of "signs you know it's a Jewish country." These things continue to surprise us, even after a year and a half. Of course, we did not go looking for something to remind us we are in a country where Judaism is the dominant culture. We went to get a phone line.

No, not a phone- a phone line. Without an Israeli ID number, you can't get a DSL line set up over the phone- you have to go in the store and get one. The store is in the bezek headquarters. After waiting in line, you set up the line, and then wait for the technician to come to your place in 2-5 days. Once the guys shows up (this time it was 7 hours early) then can you come back to the store and get the DSL modem- and and since the ISP in this country is a separate venture from the DSL line service in and of itself, you then can call the ISP.

But this is all an side- knowing just what we would have to do, we walked to the Bezek store. This is located in their main building just behind the central bus station. We were just in time for mincha at the Bezek synagogue.

Yep. Bezek, Israel's phone company, has a synagogue just inside the front lobby of their building. The minayn was pretty full, let me tell you. Feel free to bring up whatever jokes about phones and God you care for- but even at Bezek, the the sign on the shul door asks you to turn off your cellphone when you come in.

There you go: the Israeli phone company telling you to turn off your phone when in the official Bezek synogogue.


Monday, November 19, 2007

A strange treasure on Rosanes street.

Not too far from the Shalom Hartman Institute is the kind of block that seems part of a bygone Jerusalem, as if taken from a short story by Amos Oz. About a five minute walk from the shops of Emek Refaim Boulevard,with its exceptional bakery (Pe’er) and immaculate butcher shop (Shoshani and Sons), Rosanes street is quiet, secluded, and drenched in greenery. The old stone buildings feature large lots with gardens and patios, fenced and walled in from noise. The street dead-ends, and it’s intersection is set far enough back that if on a bike or in a car, you could miss it easily enough.

As I have written before, Jerusalem is a city of hidden palaces, a veritable kingdom of secret gardens. Walls and fences are built thick or high to keep the world at a distance. On occasion, you will peer through an open gate and discover displays of horticultural skill that evoke dreams of garden oases and Mediterranean spas.

But on this street is a remarkable, perhaps singular treasure in Jerusalem: a water spigot for passers-by. The spigot is tarnished brass, the setting is done in a pale blue which leaps out at the eye from the limestone of the wall. "All those who thirst, come to the water,” reads the Hebrew (Isaiah 55:1, the start of one of the most comforting chapters in Tanach). The water gushes out with force, and the unused water trickles back behind the wall into a garden.

On one hand, the street dead ends, and this water is not along a known shortcut or regular path. Who would stroll by? There is no through traffic here. And yet, in this dusty mountain town, where water can be scarce and heat can be scorching, what a gift to a lost wanderer on foot. Which is, after all, how I found the place, when in the heat of an August day I was trying to find a shortcut home so I could get a drink.

The rest of the verse in Isaiah reads "and all who have no money; come, buy, and eat; yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." If they had something in the wall for that part of the verse, I have a feeling Rosanes Street would be a horribly crowded place.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

the next big update

It finally got cold here. Cold by Jerusalem standards, I should say, because the weather that they call winter in Jerusalem is better known as Autumn in the parts of the USA that are not infested with fire ants. Even last week was a day with a high in the 70’s- and now that the days

only make it into the low 60’s Jerusalemites are wearing several layers. These are the layers
most northerners in the US have had on since
September, but would never bother to wear if it was still this warm back home. Please note I did not call it “Fall”, because leaves here don’t normally turn colors before falling off trees. They just turn brown and die.

Its not all bad, mind you. Flowers still bloom in riotous bunches, as pictured here.

Please don’t tell them that its November, and it's too cold. After all, they are Israeli flowers; if you tell them its too late in the year to be blooming, they might just glare at you, and say “And who are you to tell me how to bloom- and when?

Still, people feel colder here in December than they do in Milwaukee or Toronto. What makes a

Jerusalem “winter” so chilly is a three fold process.

  1. Damp. It is rarely cold enough to snow, but it is usually humid enough to cause mold to grow indoors. Damp+ Dark= Bleeeeuch. It's also a windy time of year, so umbrellas are of little help when it rains.

  2. No forced-air central heat. If you are lucky enough to have central heat and you are renting, heat is through radiators that warm up once a day. One corner of the room is always decent, and the rest of the room will keep your beer cold all day.

  3. Stone floors. These damned tiles that make up the floors in almost every Jerusalem home are cold, cold, cold. Whatever heat you may get rises right up, leaving your tootsies clammy. There’s not a nice wooden floor in sight. Even gym floors in this country are on plastic or composite materials- but not wood. The best bet is a good rug- and a good rug costs big cash, so most students do without.

Of course, the first rain was cold and made big puddles, but it was not forceful enough to wash away a summer’s worth of plant debris and cat feces from the streets and gardens of Jerusalem. All this rain did was rehydrate stuff that had been desiccated for a long time, making a funky musty smell reach out at unexpected moments. Eeeech.

Israeli high school teachers and professors have been on strike for nearing a month or more at this point. They don’t picket the schools here, where nobody would see them. Teachers here stand on the corners of intersections with signs that read “Cheap Education is costing us a fortune” and “Honk if you support the teachers.” And people honk back, because as I’ve noted before, Jerusalem drivers will honk at anything, even signs that say, “honk you moron.”

The teachers stand with whistles and horns and beat out the same rhythm each day- ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta ta-ta. People honk it back, shout their approval, and the strike goes on. One moring last week, the teachers were on a nearby corner. I could not see them, or even hear them all that well, but I knew it was teachers by the beeping and drums- ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta ta-ta.

The latest tactic seems to be signs plastered on trash bins everywhere that read in clear black print “Olmert! Take [the] Education out of the trash!”

Ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta ta-ta.

In close, I wish to share my prayers and best wishes to my cousin Phil, who just survived a heart attack. Refuah Shelaeymah.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Octoberfest! (includes free recipie)

“What is going on with you two?” is probably the question some of you are asking, although some of you have also wondered “why aren’t they writing, posting, or at least shipping us back food?” The answer has to do with the fact that we only moved into this current apartment barely a week ago. Phone/DSL service is not set up, and getting the phone guy to come out at a reasonable hour is a tricky business. In that, Israel is not so different from the States- you have to wait all day to get a guy to take 30 seconds, plug his utility phone into a junction and make a computer switch the thing on. When DSL gets in place, updates will become more regular, but for now, we only have internet at school.

School has us very busy learning and setting up a new program for next year (our pet project). Part of a young adult education in the Orthodox world is a year in Israel learning the classical of Judaism. While a night watchching the hot-spots of Emek Refaim will reveal that many yeshiva boys and girls at “seminary” (women don’t go to places called yeshivot in most of the Orthodox world) are not pious young Talmud scholars only interested in learning, many are absorbing skills and texts that will be with them for the rest of their lives. The Orthodox world sees the education of teenagers as a matter of necessity; most non-orthodox congregations saw dealing with teenagers as pointless. Those that held on to such views long enough have often times “Greyed out” and aged into nothingness. Part of what we are doing is making that worthwhile experience for pre-college kids available to progressive Jews. This means setting up contact lists, designing a brochure, setting up people to attend program fairs and a whole list of other tasks.

We have been learning about the ethical and spiritual (and of course, the technical) aspects of the Shemitah year, which in the Torah is found as a year of the land lying fallow and the remission of debts, which I have blogged about before. But now, at long last, we are beginning our studies of Tractate Shabbat, and the whole school is giddy with glee to be beginning this new subject.

And of course we had to move. Twice. We left the holiday apartment we had rented just after Sukkot, and stayed at my sister-in-law’s place. She and her roomies were most generous. She lives on a street that becomes a pedestrian through-way for the block she lives on, a block according to every cabbie in Jerusalem does not exist. Of course, they can take you there and pick you up from there. They just will tell you that there is no intersection like that- and then they show up 2 minutes later exactly where they said there is no such place.

The holiday apartment we had was a treat- and a bit of a pain. It was a delight not having to take the laundry elsewhere and being two blocks away from school. Waking up for morning minyan is much easier when there is no 30 minute walk beforehand. We even went home for lunch a bunch of times.

We did not have our own sukkah, and the school sukkah which had been dormant for two years, rusting in place, needed a good deal of work. But with elbow grease and strong hands- and some decorations made from the same tinsel used for Christmas trees, it became a lovely space. It hosted several meals for the whole student body and a birthday party as well.

The holiday place also had cable, which led to our watching the BBC’s “The Mighty Boosh.” There is nothing like this on American TV. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but those who enjoy British humor at its weirdest should get a look at this show.

As for being a pain, construction work woke us up every morning in the holiday apartment- and set loose very large roaches from beneath the building. In an area that was once the YMCA’s athletic field, a new luxury condo complex is going up called “Keter David”, or David’s Crown. They are still drilling into the sandstone bedrock for foundations as the buildings go up. First the trucks with raw materials came in, around 5:30am. That was bad enough, especially as they backed up , and we all know how soothing the “Shbeeep! Shbeeeb! Shbeeb!” of a large truck moving is reverse is. Then the drilling started around 6:30am, and it was the kind of low, powerful drilling that you can feel even if you plug your ears. According to the guys who live in that apartment year round, the drilling stopped the day after we moved out. It resumed a week later, though.

We currenlty are not too far from congregation Kol Haneshama. You could call it Reform, but that might be a misnomer. This place is not like a Reform temple in the states (or in the UK, from what I understand). I think, to be honest, it would scare the hell out of many reform jews in the US- and while the Reform movement is vilified in Israel in terms that aren't even used for drug-dealers, the congregation continues growing and draws in Israelis from all walks of life- not just Russians of dubious ancestry or Reform olim from the US.

First of all, everyone speaks Hebrew. The whole service is in Hebrew. The announcements are in Hebrew. Second of all, the singing is in rounds, with glorious harmony. Third, the place has a beit midrash. Are the services touchy-feely? Sure- a bit, and there are the usual Reform alterations to the traditional liturgy. But the congregation is unified, active and their services are packed every shabbat.

Our landlord seems like an actually decent guy. Built us a special shower rod to fit the half-bath space we have. There is no heat, but also no va’ad bayit. Literally “building committee,” most Va’ad Bayit fees are spent on heating and groundskeeping. Paying for your own heat is not cheap, but it means you turn it on when you are cold, and not use it when you are not home. The apartment came with a powerful heater/radiator combo- we’ll see how it goes. We probably won’t have to use it for a week or two.

The stove in the apartment is very interesting. There are six dials on it. Four for the gas burners and two for the oven; but there are no numbers or markings to indicate what does what. Want to cook that lasagna at 400°F? Good luck! You may get it right, or you may be putting the oven on broil or setting the temperature at 363°F.

(photo: puppy on the beach at Cesarea)

We are still looking for how to do our laundry. There is only one such place in Jerusalem you could call a laundrymat. We heard that some places rent laundry machines-but we have yet to find such a place. We have managed to get our folding tables and chairs out of storage, along with books and some warmer clothes. We hosted 8 people this past Friday night, many of whom had provided us with meals over the past weeks. We served chicken drenched in rich paprika, and our guests brought wine, booze, and of course, halva. It was a delightful time. Here’s the appetizer we cooked up. Enjoy!

Double-Sun Phyllo Rollups ( Makes about two dozen pieces)

14 sheets phyllo, medium thickness (two will always tear, so there are extras)
10 washed, large sunchokes, a.k.a. Jerusalem Artichokes.
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes (not in oil) ½ cup basil leaves, fresh
1 cup roasted garlic "salad" (roasted garlic cloves in oil and thyme)

Garlic powder
Olive oil
Oil spray or melted butter

Pinch of Sugar, Ground pepper
Egg Wash

Pastry Brush

All measurements are estimated. This surprisingly tasty appetizer was made with mostly leftover items. Jerusalem Artichokes are in season here, and a popular local “salad” at markets is roasted cloves of garlic marinated in oil, thyme, and seasoning. There is no salt added in this recipie due to the fact that phyllo dough here has a good amount of salt, as do the sun-dried tomatoes. A pinch of sugar is needed to cut a bit of the sourness of the tomato. This recipie is untested, so Caveat Essor- eater beware .

1) Cut sunchokes into ½” thick inch rounds or slices. Toss with splash of olive oil, pepper and garlic powder. Roast at medium-high heat for 25 minutes or until browned and crisp at edges. Let cool until workable.
2) Slice basil and sun-dried tomato into thin strips.
3) Mash Garlic “salad” into rough paste with dash of sugar, then mix well with basil and sun dried tomato.
4) Cut full phyllo sheets into 5” strips (usually halve the sheets). Place 6 rounds or 2 strips of Jerusalem Artichokes at bottom of phyllo strip, and add a spoonful of the garlic/tomato/basil mixture. Brush exposed or spray lightly with oil/butter
5) Fold up and roll into egg-roll shape. Place on greased baking sheet. 6) Bake in 375-400 degree oven for 10 minutes, brush with egg wash, bake for 5 more minutes.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

He’s behind me, isn’t he? AND He lives next door.

Look, it’s not that bumping into celebrities is uncommon in Israel. It’s the way it happens that is so strange.

After our pre-fast feast, a small number of the diners were walking together from the apartment of the host to the minyan for Kol Nidre. The host’s street in Jerusalem connects directly with “Hanasi” street. Literally “president” street, the street was renamed when the president’s official residence was moved from the elegant British-planned neighborhood of Rechavia to a new compound on the edge of nearby Talbieh.

We have nothing like the Israeli Presidency in the US- some people would say the Surgeon General is close, but even the Surgeon General has more power than the President of the State of Israel. After all, the Surgeon General can address the public and put warnings on things. Plus they get to wear that snazzy retired-Admiral suit. Being President of Israel is kind of like being first lady and trying to help your country, but with the president living in another house and never telling you anything- similar to the Roosevelt Presidency.

Unlike 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, where the main resident doesn’t mind having the whole world know he’s leaving the house, the Shabak staff watching the Israeli president these days takes a very different approach. Which is how the following occurred…

We all crossed onto the street just a few feet past the entrance to the residence. We kept walking down past the edge of the residence with it’s stylized fence.. There were a few dozen guards about, barricades and a receiving line set up opposite the street. One of our party asked what all the barricades were for. I ventured “that’s probably where the president will be davening.” The student at the head of our group, turned around to say to me, “well, why don’t you ask him? He’s right-“ “Behind me, isn’t he?” I turned around, and there was Shimon Peres in a Royal Blue suit, flanked by two of the tallest, best armed Jews in the world. Holding his tallis bag under one arm, a black velvet kippah on his head, and the very weight of the world on his shoulders. It was that expression that stopped me from greeting him- that and the two huge guards.

We must have walked 50 feet before any of us knew he was behind us. And he followed us for two blocks “Right. Well, he’s still behind us,” I mentioned to the group. “Maybe he’s coming to shul with us.” That’s when he crossed the street. You know, he’s shorter than I thought he would be.

Of course, we are still apartment hunting as our current location is just through the holiday season (Sukkot). The last place we saw tonight was a few blocks away from the Jerusalem theatre. As we look for the apartment (which turned out to be a converted garage or workspace), N. mentions that one my favorite teachers says a famous Israeli lives next door. We get to the end of the block, searching for street numbers in the cool of the evening. Of course, there aren’t any. I take a few steps down a lighted pathway to see if there is a number for the house on the side of the building, but there isn’t one. Lots of light and many voices are coming out of the house.

I duck back quickly towards the road. A cab is waiting in front of the home. A voice comes form behind me, warm and curious. “You have something for me?” he asks. I recognize the face of this man and try to explain, stumbling over my own bad Hebrew, that we are looking for an apartment at #4. That’s when my wife takes over, calmly naming the family we are looking for. “This is #4- you just want down at the corner.” Israeli style, he walks us down the block a bit. “Here?” we ask. “no, no a bit further down,” he adds. Having regained my wits, I wish the man a flurry of year-end greetings, and he heads back to his house.

“You know, our teacher said that he will be our neighbor if we get this place. I wonder if we could ever have him over ?” Realizing what didn’t click for her, I tell my wife "um… that was him.” “No, it couldn’t be,” she replies. I ask the cab driver, who has pulled over to make a call. “That was him, right?” He looks at me with a smile. “Yes, yes, he lives right there.” I’m not sure she really believes that it was him. She is still a bit sad that while the landlady was so nice, the apartment was a dump. I feel we did great; after all, how often do you get directions from Natan Sharansky while apartment hunting?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Gmar Chatimah Tovah

In Israel on Yom Kippur, even cable stations go off the air, Russian-language cable stations included. Quite the thing to see- all those stations off the air. Except MTV, but since it's like one long commercial these days, who over the age of 16 would notice if it did go off the air?

To all those I could not call or write, and to all our readers, May you be sealed in the book of life for prosperity, health, security joy and hope.

We hope the coming week will show a start to a new season of blog entires of substance and with lots of funny. Oh, and new photos- if we can find the camera.

Shana Tovah!

Monday, September 17, 2007

No, no! That avocado is traif!

The seven year sabbatical cycle, or Shmitah, has come full circle again. Consequently, one of the most bizarre quirks of Jewish life in the land of our Ancestors comes to the forefront: In modern day Israel, the meat is always kosher, but the vegetables can be traif.

Even Iwo Burger, the Jerusalem chain which serves burgers with bacon and blue cheese proudly lets customers know that only top quality kosher meat is served at their establishment. Of course, to get non-kosher meat in Jerusalem is a sysiphisian feat (yes, I went there), but the leading brands of Israeli cold cuts? Kosher. Army bases? Kosher. Wedding halls? Major café chains? You get the idea; Kosher meat is no big deal. But with the shmitah cycle, the Jewish dietary laws turn a circumlocutious eye towards the evil red bell pepper.

The Torah is explicit about this: every seven years let the land lie fallow. In return, God will give and abundance in the 6th year to see you through, and won’t that 8th year be an agricultural hootenanny (my spouse is forcing me to use that word lest people get confused). What grows on its own can be eaten, but no active cultivation or agricultural commerce is allowed. This has never been an easy mitzvah to observe in a land where rain is sparse, soil is finicky, and between the sun and insect world crops are often not long for this world without a great deal of human help. Even in mishnaic times the limits and loopholes surrounding this commandment were being tested.

There is of course a scale of how people react to this mitzvah in the modern world. On one side there are those for whom Judaism is never difficult enough as it is, and Israeli life is simply not stressful enough. For them, food can never really be kosher enough- especially if someone who does not go to their synagogue will eat it. These folks say that during shmitah there are no loopholes, no leniencies, no exceptions, no exemptions and no common sense. The literal law will be observed with its authority unabated, and there is no growing, buying or selling crops grown in the land. Fasting twice a week and public hangings are badly needed again in the mind of such folks, as for them Torah must be soul-crushingly difficult to observe, or its not the real deal. In their harts I am confident these halachic masochists would love to see people flogged for even looking at a bell pepper this year.

Are there those on the other side who say that if there is no Temple and no divine blessings over crops, the gig is up and for now we should only make symbolic actions and study the mitzvot for future implementation, as we do with sacrifices? Of course. The Rabbis of Provonce, whom we listen to for any number of Chumrot (stringencies) , said that to observe this law is midat chadisut, an act of peity, and not currently in force. As with anyone who says that there is an lenient way in the halakha, they are dismissed like the Reform, reconstructionists, Rav Moshe Finestein (when he ruled meikiel) and the Ringling Brothers, and therefore these rabbis are completely ignored. But we do pay attention to the crazies just mentioned.

Which leaves us in a right middle ground, saying that we only have to observe the law by rabbinic fiat. Every seven years, a loophole in this middle ground that makes growing and harvesting permissible, the Heter Mechirah, is supposed to be evaluated and implemented as needed. Naturally, it is besieged by that first group of “It’s not Torah unless it kills you” people. This year, the chief rabbi of a major city in the north was sued by the attorney general of Israel for refusing to allow people to work under this loophole as they have for the past number of decades.

I’m glossing over the fact that the loophole requires selling the land to a non-Jew for the year, and some people go nuts over that very notion. And there is another loophole called Otzer Biet Din, which is seen as preferable to the heter by many scholars. But the foods grown under heter exemption are still sacred and have some ritual restrictions on them. You can’t just waste them with impunity, use them in an abnormal matter, or dispose of their remains without consideration. So even with the heter, you still have to treat the produce of the land with added respect- and that takes time and money. Without allowing the heter, the economy of modern Israel would shatter. Furthermore, there is always reliance on imported produce from abroad and even more distasteful to some (but not us), buying from local Arab farmers. Without the heter, these two food sources become predominant, and both of these rile people up just as much as the notion of selling the land to a non-Jew.

And since elements within the Rabbinate seemingly wants to be more strict than Torquemada this year, no progress has been made on using the heter, and the markets still do not have signs saying where the vegetables are from, which standard or loophole is being used, and who is keeping an eye on the avocados. So at this time guacamole may be traif.

At least the chicken is still kosher.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Now introducing Rule #14

The ad was for a place that was too expensive, but after some delicate negotiations, we were told we might get the price down to a cost we cold almost afford. And the ad listed a number advantages. All that remained was to see the place and the owner.

Before we met, she asked us if we had a TV. We said “No.” “Well of course you don’t need one,” she noted. “You’re newlyweds.” At first, we dismissed this under the experiences that show how many Israelis have no tact, and feel free to comment about your family life with impunity. But then came the follow-up which she dropped on us while we were looking around (and discovered the bedroom was bigger than the rest of the apartment):

“It’s such a beautiful apartment. You must have your first child here." When I said that our parents would kill us if we had a child so far away from them, she said, “No, no, but you should just conceive it here.” So as much as we wanted to finally have a lease for the rest of the year, we knew this was not the place for us, because we just couldn't rent from someone rather kind, but way too interested in our reproductive cycle. Which leads us to our new rule for living in Israel...

RULE #14: Never rent from someone who wants you to conceive children in their bedroom.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

“Go. Bye.”

Greetings 11thfloor readers! Wishing you all a sweet new year and a chatimah tovah, this will be a post-a-day week, we hope.

Our journey back to jerusalem finally began with a Jet Blue flight , which was fun and half an hour early into JFK. I recommend flying with them when you can.
Now the line at JFK had taken us two full hours to finally get to check-in counter- and we were there early. The line had formed at shortly after 7pm --for a flight due to leave at 12:20am. The airline recommends getting there 3 hours early, so naturally people were lined up 5 hours beforehand. Now the line stretched so far away from the check-in desks it seemed hard to believe that there were only 260 passengers on the plane. It doubled back upon itself so many times it cut off access to three other airlines including Kuwaiti Air, who welcome their first class and business passengers with fine rugs in the waiting area.

So after the interview by Israeli security staff, lifting, tagging, retagging, waiting in line and shuffling bags for two hours, we finally had our boarding passes, finished screening, and got ready to have the bags passed through the x-ray. This required standing in another line for 45 minutes. We finally got to the front of the line, and got ready to hoist the bags onto the conveyor for the X-ray. One look at us, and the Israeli security guy (certainly not TSA) takes the bags, gives them a swipe with a magic wand, and just says “Go. Bye.” No interviews, no searches, no question on the bag’s contents. No X-ray. It was almost comical. Other students were quizzed aggressively: “Yeshiva? But you are done with university! You are too old for yeshiva!” or to a young woman: “Girls don’t go to yeshiva!” But for us? “Go. Bye.” It made us wonder if we should have just skipped to the head of the line. Maybe next time…


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Once more, with feeling!

More adventures from the 11th floor are soon to come, dear readers! More Jews behaving badly! More essays on Jerusalem life! More.... long essays and entries that make little sense.

We arrive in Jerusalem, with God's help, in just over a day and a half, so stay tuned!

Monday, June 04, 2007

A farewell banquet and then some.

Often, kosher consumers temporarily living in Jerusalem indulge in farewell (or arrival) dinner centered around meat. Considering just how cheap kosher meat is here -as compared the rest of the world- its no surprise that people seem to loose their minds and attempt to eat 3/5ths of a steer. After all, Israel is a land where wine is usually cheaper than beer and meat is less expensive by kilo than cheese. Compare that to the US where a kosher steak often costs as much as a semester at a big 10 college and you get the picture.

As a consequence, folks love going to the all- you can eat meat places, where there are scenes of kosher carnivores happily chewing through enough meat to give a vegetarians a massive fit of apoplexy with even a single glance. These are lovely places for such beef-based ogries (angry vegans, please post your complaints at including the Red Heffier, El Gaucho, and Vaquiero. The latter two are modeled on churrascarias, where roving waiters bring endless servings of roasted meats, stews, and grilled cuts until customers have a coronary or leave to have one elsewhere.

With nothing against any of these, I’m going to suggest you try a radically different place for a farewell banquet- Eucalyptus. On the borders of fine dining and regional cuisine, the food is about as authentically “etertz yisrael” as you can think of. And their “Shir Ha’shirim Dinner,” which includes wine, house made lemonade, and as much food as an Israeli wedding banquet is a simply fabulous meal. When you leave, not only will you have learned a lot and be stuffed, you won’t feel bloated or ill.

Yes, there was meat- nicely done at that, but greens and vegetables were the early star of the show. And as a meat-eater, I assure you, this was damn fine food no matter what the ingredients. This all starts out with flatbread and a selection of salatim, but not the heavy, oily, salty ones were are used to getting in the supermarket. These are light and well seasoned. After his is when the chef comes out to talk Tanach with you- not a likely event at El Gaucho. He shows local herbs and produce warns you not to eat too much of the bread, because you won’t have room to enjoy what is coming.

He means it. Which is a shame, since the salatim are light, and the bread is just baked, and you feel cheated that you cant eat everything in front of you. But that quickly evaporates, because cold salads come out, including potato salad that is rich and creamy with nary a hint of mayonnaise. Then come warm dishes, most notably Khubeisa. This green, a relative of the mallow, was among what little that the Jews of the old city had left to eat at the end of the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. As with other forms of soul food, tasting this green makes you feel grounded and at home.

Of course, the chef’s story of the siege is interrupted by whole roast eggplant, and soon steak tips in a rich brown sauce made their way to the table, which I really can’t do justice to; lets just say I would eat the steak dish for dinner for a week straight ant not get that tired off it.

All this time, the fresh made lemonade and wine kept flowing. And a few dishes later…Ma’abula. Accompanied by a gong and much fanfare, the sous chef asked one of us to aid with the unmoulding of the dish. “If it unmoulds in one piece, that’s good luck, and if not… that’s also lucky!” With a cloud of fragrant steam, rice rich with spices and chicken were unveiled. Potato slices and eggplant were melt-in-your-mouth tender, and there was enough of it to feed a platoon of Golani infantry.

The dessert was called “Solet be’ulal b’shamen,” a phrase from the Torah regarding the cakes offered alongside animal sacrifices in the Temple. The moistest cake I’ve eaten in years, the simple sauce of tehina and silan (date honey) was rich and sweet, but not so much as to cloak the taste of the cake(pictured here). A carafe of herbal tea redolent with roses and herbs was provided. And after the bill, a shot of homemade Arak, far smoother and complex than the cheap clear stuff that has the subtlety of deck varnish.

While we still have a few meals here, this was a great send off for us. No deep fried dishes were served, and olive oil was used with a deft touch; only the lamb dish in pastry was heavy, and that came more from the strong flavor of the meat more than anything else. We walked away full but not bloated, and having leaned much about local cuisine and its ancient roots. As they say here in Jerusalem, “me’od mumlatz” — very recommended!

Shalom from Jerusalem and Btey-avon!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

An update of sorts

Things in the holy land? Up here in the small mountain town of Shalem, its quiet. The heat of the last Sharav has passed, and with last week's unexpected downpour of rain (the intensity of which stunned most natives) the landscape is still green with the occasional bunch of flowers. Last night, Emek Refaim was closed to traffic, and all the restaurants (including the two traif ones) had streetside booths, offering meats and treats of all kinds. There was Rikudei Am at the local arts high school, rock bands, blues performers, and all sorts of crafts for sale. A charming time with half of Jerusalem and every Seminary girl mulling about.

But the attacks on Sderot and the reprisals by the IDF are making everyone a bit nervous. Couple that with a Prime Minster that everyone loathes but that nobody wants to move out or replace, and a defense secretary too stupid to move the lens caps of his binoculars, and the Qassams are worrying (and killing) people. Thankfully, the west bank has been quiet- one of the few advantages to the pullout from Gaza is that the loonies in Gaza are cut off from their slightly less loony friends in the West Bank. It's kept the IDF out of more trouble, and the longer calm prevails in the West Bank, the better the chances are for helping people in that area find their way to the negotiation table

Lag B'omer found us in Peki'in, the home of R. Shimon barYochai's cave. Pekiin is a lovely town where until 1948, Jews had lived for 2000 years (the people of the town could not stop the arab mobs that came from elsewhere in the gallil to kill jews). When those jews that fled did not come back immedaiately, the town made sure the synagogue was kept safe for when their neighbors finally did return. It does not hurt that the whole village is mostly druze and that the whole down relied on a single well until well into the 1970's. A religion of tolerance and a single water source can go a long way to promoting tolerance.

When we returned to Jerusalem late that night, the smell of burning .... everything was in the air. Every corner had a fire of some kind, and Sacher park was more like a vision of Gehhenna with fires on the paths every 5 feet. It's a rather pagan event here in God's city, and if Rashbi saw it, he'd put half the city in cherem. he would have much more preffered Yom Mangal ( or should I call it Yom Ha'atzmaut?).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

One hell of a qoute

"Secular Israelis are the only people who think that secular Israelis are secular."

--- Sir Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

Here the full YHZ address here. New posts coming next week!

Monday, April 30, 2007

"V'af al pi sheyitmameiha, im kol zeh ani ma'amin"

What would you do if you only had one Sunday afternoon for the whole year? For those who live in the US and Canada, it's a strange exercise. What would you do if you only had one afternoon with no fixed obligations, no set schedule and no musaf? How would you handle it?

Welcome to Yom Ha'atzmaut, friends, the only Sunday on the Israeli Calendar.

There are plenty of Yomei Rishon, but that aint Sunday, folks. Yes, Thursday night/Friday morning here has some vague connection to Saturday night/Sunday morning overseas, but like a joint initiative in congress, the link is tenuous. When you finish brunch at your milchig restaurant in Manhattan on Sunday morning, you can go anywhere- at least until the kids are out of Hebrew school. When you finish brunch in your swanky Jerusalem eatery, you have Shabbat to think about. And don't start with the "Chilonim don't have Shabbat" crap. Over 2/3rds of Chiloni households still have some form of dinner *With Kiddush* on Friday nights. It might not be legitimate in the eyes of the Moetzet, but then again, in their eyes, neither is anyone who is not a) dressed only in black and white, b) supporter of Degel-Hatorah and c) a man. So even those who don't identify as dati still have Shabbat. And that means Shuk, Makolet, Doar, cooking, cleaning, and snacks for the kaduregel game after dinner.

As Judy Balint put it, "It's the one day in the year that feels like a Sunday. Pure recreation with no major religious obligations. No newspapers, banks or mail to take the mind off the all-important task of finding the best place to set up the portable barbecue."

Many people talk about the switch from Yom Ha’zikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut. It is startling- mournful music on the radio evaporates and all of the sudden, its all classic hits, all the time. It is hard to imagine people can manage it- my ulpan teacher no longer has big parties. She and her husband spend the day at home- they’ve lost too many to go out and have a celebration. The number of people who feel that way, she tells me, is growing. Others still try to plunge from grief into celebration. For those who say hallel at night, it may be one key to transitioning. Starting with Ma'ariv and the Amidah can out one in a place where one can make an attempt at the inner work of packing away all the pain and loss that has been set out for the day, and Hallel can help bring a bit of joy back to the psychological forefront. That being said, I feel as if the party and the show are for kids and tourists, and the real Yom Ha’atzmaut is a day spent trying to rein in the grief and bitterness that is given reign to express itself the day before.

Of course, Israel is a country where patience is not a virtue (there has yet to be an Israeli Ieyasu Tokugawa), so profound mourning followed by fireworks at night and cooking over fire by day is not so incomprehensible. Maybe the shock of the transition is what lets Israelis be so relaxed and less cynical for the day. These classic happy songs of Israel that you hear on Yom ha’atmaut are normally poo-pooed the way a rock critic derides "Frampton Comes Alive.” Suddenly, these same songs are on the lips of those same people who the week before were calling them "anachronistic leftovers from an era of naiveté and groupthink." It is Israeli society gone crazy! Gone are the faces with hard edges, the grim glances, the impatience the aggressive driving- okay, the drivers are still nuts with honking and speeding uphill the wrong way, but the rest is gone. Romantics blossom for the day, and people bloom with love for their country. Its like the drunk guys at the bar. You know them- the macho guys who during their first game of pool were making the bartender make sure the shotgun under the vodka bottles was loaded. Suddenly they are now all leaning on each other's shoulders, say "I love you, man!"

Erev Yom Ha’atzmaut, we saw pre-teens roaming town unescorted, shaving cream in hand to spray targets immobile (stores) and mobile (everyone around them). There are two groups of parents who would never let this happen back home; the safety conscious, who would fear for their children's safety, and the good parents, who know that unsupervised teenagers are agents of mayhem, Satan, and the Republican party. In Israel, they are let loose by two groups of parents, those who belive that Israel is a safe country for kids to roam about in, and those who would never say no to their kids.

Yom Ha’atzmaut was picture perfect. Idyllic. Warm. Cobalt edged Turquoise skies. The scent of grilling meat was aloft. We hit three different BBQ's, and we could have gone to many more. The Americans finished with… well, they didn't really, they just kept eating. The Israelis, by contrast, put the leftovers away, brought out halvah, coffee, Turkish delight, and of course, a hookah.

Passover in Israel is remarkable because of the products and being part of the majority culture. Yom Kippur is so very moving because of the lack of traffic and the socializing that takes place after synagogue. But these days are not purely unique in Jewish experience; one can have intense spirituality and moving community moments outside of Israel. But Yom Ha’atzmaut is different in Israel- not because of the mangal, not because of the fireworks and flags, and not because of the parties. In Israel, grief tempers the joy. The most amazing celebrations are those held in the kitchen of a family that has lost an uncle and a son, or a mother to terror, and yet… and yet they still try and celebrate. A part of them still echoes the Hatikvah, dreaming of being a free people in the land.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Try it- you won't like it.

Americans marvel at Yom Hazikaron – but we don’t want to have a day like it. Close stores and restaurants early? No theatres for 24 hours? No cafes? A near-obligatory nationwide moment of remembrance? We couldn't even make "Hands Across America" work. Getting everyone to stop for a second? Both sides of the political spectrum would complain:
The Right wing would complain about the limiting of free enterprise, the socialist overtones of the idea, and would demand the sirens be turned into a minute of prayer.
The Left wing would complain about the limiting of free speech and religion, the fascist overtones of the idea, and would demand the sirens be turned into a minute of interpretive dance to protest the war in Iraq.

Hence, the US has a memorial day that can only make us cry if we find out the clothes we wanted to buy are not on sale for %50 off, rather just %25. Only our veterans and citizens in uniform give a damn about the day in a manner with any emotional content. They deserve better, but Americans don't want Yom Hazikaron, impressed with it though we may be. We like our sales and day off of school, and we are quite happy not thinking about the soldiers who have died with the Stars and Stripes on their uniform- not even those who fought in the "good wars."

Can you imagine HBO having nothing on for 24 hours on memorial day? Long Island alone would riot and burst into flames. Yet in Israel, the radio, TV, even cable in Israel are behaving as if the day means something. Movies and kids programs are related to the day, and sad mellow songs are all that is on the radio. True, most people in the US don't even know someone who has served or is serving in the Armed Forces. In Israel, almost everyone knows someone who has been killed in action, and with every new war that "almost" gets smaller and smaller.

The numbers work against the US having a powerful and emotional day. But since most universities teach that patriotism is always questionable, the numbers aren't really the problem anymore. They teach the flaws of our founding fathers, and place their virtues in the trash can. Nobody can get away with saying "This is what it means to be an American" anymore. If you can’t say what Americans have in common, then you can’t have a day to honor those with the goal of defending that commonality.

And what does it mean to be Israeli? My guess knowing that even a person who is lucky enough to say "I have never lost anyone from among those who served in the IDF", will get out of their car when that siren sounds, stand at attention, and be still for the moment has something to do with it. Dalia Itzik has antoher part of it. During her speech at the Kotel which marked the start of the day, she said "Tonight, Israel weeps...We have no words of comfort, but we embrace you, the families, with endless love." Her own words? Perhaps, but she presented the fact that the sacrifice is understood. There are other parts as well, some based in the struggles of building a state, others in facing political and religious divides. To experience Yom Ha’zikaron is to gain insight into these and other aspects of what it means to be an Israeli.

There is nothing wrong with the fact we Americans want to shop and have fun on our memorial day; the shame is that we would not know what to say to the family of someone who died in service of the USA if given the chance. There was a time when Americans understood the small flags with gold and blue or silver stars that hung in front windows of homes across the country. How sad that there are more of those flags starting to appear again these days; how sad that those few that are in use are no longer understood. And in the state of Israel… in Israel there is no special flag for having a loved one in the service or lost in action; the flag of Israel is that flag for all families.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name

Emek Refaim street is dark. Normally flooded with cars and restaurants flooded with young students and older residents, the street is empty and the cafes are shuttered. I’ve seen this at 5 a.m. walking back from a Super Bowl party or after 11pm on Friday night, but this was at 9 in the evening on a weeknight. This was the eve of Yom Hashoah, and by law restaurants are closed. Some civil liberties folks are sure to find such limitations of commerce ghastly, but there is a powerful metaphor here. This is a real day of remembrance, not just a few banners and flags but a situation that forces people to break from routine and think.

The night was filled with TV related to the day. Ceremonies were televised, and some stations on Israeli cable/satellite went “dark” to mark the day- see Robbie’s post here for some great pictures of networks showing a bit of class- the last one may surprise you.

As many times as you have heard about it, the sirens sounding on Yom Hashoah are still powerful and surprising moving . We left the Bet Midrash a few minutes before the set time, and wandered down the corner. We saw traffic flowing at its regular pace, messengers on scooters defying traffic laws and common sense, cabbies cutting through red lights- the usual. But as the time came near, matching clusters of people appeared on opposing corners of the intersection.

It almost sneaks up on you. The sirens where we were did not all begin at once, but they slowly became clear. And the traffic became still. The city was quiet beyond comprehension, excepting the grinding wail of the sirens. People stood by their cars, at attention, in contemplation, the ever impatient Israeli now suddenly still in thought. Of course there was one truck that kept backing up and two cabs that did not wait more than thirty seconds, but there are schmucks everywhere, and we did not think to bring eggs with which to pelt the vulgar bastards with.

Two days after Yom Hashoah, the Yeshiva went to visit the new museum building at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum. The use of architecture and design is devastating; the winding path in and out of the exhibits in the wedge shaped museum is so compelling that although there are washrooms halfway through the path, you have to really walk against the flow of people and concentrate to find them. The exhibits are presented in marvelous clarity; the museum does not require tour guides to be effective. Remarkable innovation fills the museum. There artifacts you can touch, videotaped testimony from survivors, and models (real and virtual) of camps and attacks. The museum begins with a digital video montage of life before the Shoah and ends with an exit from unfurnished concrete and steel to the green panorama of Jerusalem. The design is powerful on multiple levels; it is nearly impossible to avoid breaking down into tears at least once while working your way through the space. It is a remarkable place.

And now the city has moved itself away from the Shoah to more recent losses. Yom Hazikaron, the Israeli memorial day is fast upon us. Flags are everywhere in J’lem; schools, cars, balconies, supermarkets and new flagpoles just for the week. There will be more sirens, more ceremonies, and more speeches this week. It’s very intense week, and the transition from Pesach to Yom Ha’atzmaut is not an easy one. It is wise to recall Israel is still a young country making a great effort to remember and not to forget. These are two separate things, and if the efforts get muddled from time to time, that’s to be expected .

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Magic Words and From Seder to Shoah

Some people would enjoy the life of a supermarket cashier. People come in weekly or daily, you get people what they need, and you know what is a fair price when it comes to food.

That being said, the average Kupa’it is not the most pleasant of women. Let’s be honest, most of them are downright surly. Who can blame them? Repetitive stress injuries, people trying to use expired coupons, folks who can’t read a label on a shelf, and management that… well, you get the idea. But there is a magic phrase that for a week will turn even the most grim of Kuapiyot into a woman happier to see you than your favorite aunt. “Aich Leyl Haseder?” How was your seder? This phrase, and various variations thereon will give you a feel of wizard- like power. Speak the incantation, and the grim sphinx who guards the way between your groceries and freedom turns into a aristocratic matron all too happy to speed you on your way.

The first time I used the magic, I was unprepared, and nearly brought the store to a standstill. “How was my seder?” Her expression transformed from wrinkled, prune like, in annoyance of having to deal with another American, into a beatific smile as she replied. Yes, it was lovely, 40 people, ended at midnight, what a delight. Then the chain reaction happened. “Shira! Shira!” she hollered to the next Kuapit, “How was it? Did Muki come in from the Army?” “Yes! And he brought this girlfriend!” Dana,” called Shira, “how did the seder go by you?” Another kupait stopped scanning cans and boxes. “Everyone wore white, we sang and sang…” It spread like a wave of giddiness, and it took a few minutes for the lines to get moving again. Powerful stuff.

Supermarkets on Pesach are a trip. Wine is on discount, sold in bonus boxes and 2-for-one offers. Wine here is cheaper than beer, strangely enough. There are shelves full of K4P cakes (see the photo- each cake is k4p), other shelves covered over with butcher paper (shown above), just like at home- very amusing and enjoyable shopping. And now Passover is past. The initial clamor for all things Chametz has died down- bakeries are not running out of bread, schnitzel is available in all its manifold forms, and the magic phrase has lost its power. Try it out next year if you can.


We are transitioning into the period of the “new” holidays, starting with Yom Hashoah V’gevurah. in Israel that last bit is stressed, unlike in the US where nobody uses it. That means that here in Israel people are not as likely to lament “Why didn’t they fight back?” In Israel, part of the day is remembering that people did indeed fight. Jews fought back in numerous ways- combat often came last. First came the greatest acts of resistance under Nazi oppression- remaining alive and practicing Judaism. When smuggling extra food or praying in a minyan are things that can get you killed, it is heroism to daven or to bring potatoes to your family. Not as flashy as binging bullets to bear on Nazi soldiers, but just as daring an act of heroism. We did fight back- and hence in Israel, the day has three words, ending with V’gvurah- and heroism.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Hasal Siddur Pesach

We hope, dear readers, your Passover (or Easter) week was a joyous one. An update on our Jerusalem Passover will follow soon. Here's a shot of our living room, where we spent the first half of the seder reclining, nibbling on Carpas of many varieties (one spring of parsley? I think not!) and discussing in fine Greco-Roman style. Sort of.

Tables came later. The meal was delightful (sorry about that vegetarian entree, folks, but I did not know I was making it until 40 minutes before seder), our company was kind, and my in-laws were the warmest of guests. A great seder.

Next year- here.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Who burned the biscuts, Or, The long line at the car wash

This morning, all of Jerusalem smelled like burnt bread. It's about as surprising a scent here the morning before Passover as incense would be surprising in a Greek Orthodox church on a Sunday morning. It may be the one day that pyromaniacs and people with an unusual hatred of baguettes have a ritual to celebrate together.

People heap leftover pita, dry challah and breakfast cereal into hastily made bonfires which let columns of smoke waft heavenward, if I may be so poetic. When it comes to some ultra-orthodox, the plastic bags these things come in also go into the fire, which makes the smoke change from the scent of burnt biscuits to the smell of a tire fire, which is not so poetic. Unlike parents in the US, israeli children are encouraged to poke the fire with sticks, get too close to the flames, and watch stuff burn at their leisure. Most of the bonifires are on empty lots, old train track lots and other public spaces, which allows one to see the cross-section of religious groups in J'lem. Everyone from Hasisim in gabardines and long side-curls to girls in jeans and university sweatshirts shuffle over to put their bread to the fire. Then they all shuffle away to leave the fire unattended by anyone. (I should contrast this with Baltimore, where all the Jews bring their chometz to one location and have it burned by people who know how to make a conflagration of dangerous proportions- the Baltimore Fire Department.)

There are only a handful of car washes in Jerusalem, and it seems that they are rarely put to task. This morning, they are getting a work-out as car owners here in the Holy City suddenly become neat freaks. Lines were long this morning, as Jews tried to vacuum out the chametz from inside thier cars- and wash three months of crap off the outside while they were at it.

Of course, bread may be burned, but few Jerusalemites have the stomach for wasting other foods that are not consumed on the holiday. Hence the artfully arranged heaps of lentils or mustard jars I saw set out on several fences, walls and driveways. Jerusalemites also don't throw out books; they leave them near trash cans or walkway fences in neat piles. You can also tell who is Sefaradi this way; those who can eat kitniyot don't have as much stuff piled up for the taking outside their homes before passover.

And now, your Jerusalem Moment for April:
You can buy Mezzuzot in the home supply store. They are at Home Center (pronounced "Ohm Senter"), just by the drapes and window dressings in aisle 8.
Hey, it's hardware.

Chag Sameach!

(photo: View of Jerusalem's Nachla'ot and Machne Yehuda from the Supreme Court Building)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Everything My Mother Told Me Was Wrong…

. . . when it comes to going around barefoot. We spent the weekend at Kibbutz Keturah, situated about 40 km north of Eilat. It is smack dab in the east of the Negev, with majestic views of the desert awaiting you from the front and back door of each room in the guest house.
Keturah is not a secular kibbutz per se; nor is it a kibbutz dati (religious); it is the one of two kibbutzim in all of Israel that is open to both lifestyles (Chanaton being the other). The dining hall is kosher, but few people attend Shabbat services. Friday night dinner filled every table in the chadar ochel, but there was neither table songs nor communal bentsching (grace after meals).

The kibbutz is more of a classic socialist endeavor than most, with a greater emphasis on egalitarianism than most, and salary is still based on need, not work. There is still plenty of evidence of the kibbutznik lifestyle is alive and well. Communal meals in the dining room are one aspect of it, as is the informality of dress (There we no ties to be seen on Shabbat, but there were 3 men who wore Jalabiays (the long Egyptian tunic). This includes kids going barefoot. Going barefoot outdoors in the city may be a bad idea, but my mom always told me that even going around barefoot indoors was unhealthy. You’ll get sick or catch a cold- and Jewish boys don’t go around barefoot; these and other statements were regular mantras chanted during my childhood.

Well, Mom was wrong about the barefoot thing. I saw plenty of healthy, happy, charming, giggling children running around barefoot, indoors and out. If these kids are sick, people will pay to catch what they are suffering from. “Perhaps it was just a few of the kids, then. An indulgence, if you will, because Israeli parents spoil there kids.” Nope. Kids were barefoot in all sorts of places, as were, of course, adults. Grown men came to dinner without shoes.

So my mom was wrong about going barefoot. But she is still right about plenty of other things, including eating before you go swimming and watching too much TV, as well as some of life's more difficult promblems.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Mommmmmmm! The TV's on strike again!

While there are commercial stations in Israel and any number of satelite and cable providers, Channel One is still one of the mainstays of Israeli TV. But it is a government channel, and so, when a strike is called, the station lets everyone know. And that's all they do until the strike is over. Here in Israel, Unions actually have some power. Yes, that does lead to occasional abuses and bullying by the Histadrut, and can lead to a bad situation for new teachers and other workers who are unable to change their fields because union regulations protect kludges and insiders. Blah, blah, blah. What is amazing is that Unions still work here, and that occasionally, the whole nation can come to focus on a group of people who would otherwise be ignored- and in the united states would be fired or left working for nothing. Its a legacy left from Israel's formative socialist days, and it is a significant difference between life here and anywhere else.

On the other hand, I won't get to watch the Simpsons tonight if the government workers don't get paid. Bastards! Arrrrrgh!

TV Screen reads "Today, Thursday, March 29th, a strike has begun in all government offices for all national services. The strike has been approved by the Histadrut [of] Government Workers.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Halva break.

With "Passover Madness" about to grip the city of Jerusalem, this shabbat is a calm before the storm. The whole city is a bit more quiet than usual, and from outside the school windows you can hear schoolkids (at the "dati" or religious schools) singing "Mah Nishtanah" and other seder classics.

While many products in the stores (photos to be posted soon) are already K-4-P, the real onslaught begins after shabbat. Matzot are in the stores, but not so much Matzo Meal. Soup mix but not cakes. Seasonings, but not dressings. That changes come sunday. Of course, for passover here the Salatim do NOT get made with cottonseed oil, which not only has to have a toxin removed from it to be eaten, but also has the most unhealthy balance of omega-6 to omega-3 you can find in an oil. Better you should eat butter. Of course since Israel is a Sephardi/Eydot Hamizrach kind of country, the Chummus is already marked Kosher for passover, as are cans of beans and other kitniyot-based dishes.

So enjoy a slice of Halva before all hell breaks loose. Marble Coffee? Mixed Fruit? There are so many kinds to choose from, but the regular favorite of many halva junkies is the layers of chocolate and vanilla halva separated and enrobed in thick chocolate icing. I think that one's a bit rich even for my sweet-tooth, but I haven't tried them all yet. It would take years.

The halva stand is run by a intimidating guy who has a LOUD voice (as so many hawkers in the market do); his head is clean shaven, he's all muscle and he does not smile when on the job. He has a giant 14" chef's knife in hand at most times, which is only one hilt away from a short sword. Put this all together and you would think that you would never want to buy from this guy. But he will let you try any flavor, he always has a plate of samples ready, and if you are a repeat customer, he will often shave you off a slice to wolf down as he carves out an order for someone else. What's not to love?