Tuesday, June 9, 2009

BUSTED

No it's not what you think, but its close. The other day I got an unsolicited email from a co-worker at my new job, saying that he had recently read my blog. I had no idea who this guy was and of course I immediately worried that I had said something offensive. I have religiously avoided making political, sexual or personal comments that could get me into trouble, specifically to avoid this very situation. As it was, the new reader made some constructive comments on the level of observing that the term "B.C." (Before Christ) was not used in Israel because it tends to acknowledge the deity of Jesus. (Does this mean that Jews are Christ-deniers and isn't that the kind of thing that would really piss off a Christian)

Anyway, it got me to thinking that it was time to put this whole blog thing on hold. Now that I am working 24/7 (well, actually not on Shabbat, for "God" sake). I'm not supposed to comment on my job as it involves a product not yet released and I have virtually no insights into the "Palestinian" question which is the only thing my American friends ask about. "What was the reaction to Obama's speech?" Do you really want to know what was on the front page of the Jerusalem Post during the Obama speech, a huge group of ultra-orthodoxes have been protesting the opening of a free parking lot in Jerusalem on Shabbat. They throw stones, which is specifically identified as one of the 39 things a good Jew can not do on Shabbat. The thinking goes like this, if there is no place to park downtown, then nobody will drive on Shabbat and if nobody drives than the purity and integrity of the Sabbath will be maintained. That's what they are thinking in Jerusalem, while in Tel Aviv 20,000 people participated in the Gay Day parade culminating in the "religious" marriage of 5 same sex couples. Oh and as always finding parking was a problem.

So the bottom line is I am going to take a blogging break, should the messiah come or some other significant evidence of the Apocalypse show up, I promise that I will immediately resume blogging. In the meantime, here are a few photos that were left over and I never got to use.

One of my very favorites. This is an amusement ride in Tiberias where ulta-orthodox families go to vacation. A very religious looking father has strapped his young son to a bungee cord contraption, the kid is then pulled downward and flung high into the air. The way the ride is set up, there is the image of a Christ-like child with arms extended, scared shitless, hurdling high up and down into the air while his parents laugh and shout encouragement from the side lines.


Food, food, food everywhere. This has got to be the worst place on earth to go on a diet. Every ethnic group brings its own favorites, cooking and eating are an integral part of every social interaction. Even a picky eater like me, can noshe himself to death.


Caffeine is of course a basic staple of the type-A Jewish personality. Here an espresso comes with a personalized message written in Hebrew script, which unfortunately I have no idea what it says.

This is a picture from dockside at the Sea of Galilee. In the not too distant past, the water was up to the level of the white railings at the top of the dock. You can see where the old tires were used as bumpers to stop the boats from hitting the pillars. According to a recent (disputed) study, Israelis use about 4 times as much water as Palestinians and this is where a lot of it comes from or used to come from.
And finally one of my most cherished possessions. I am addicted to Matzo with butter and this is a great country to be so addicted. Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages of this addiction is matzo crumbs all over the house, which upsets Vardit no end. So the solution was a special paper plate in exactly the shape of a matzo and conveniently disguised as an American football. These paper plates were on sale at the surplus store which specializes in products that Americans no longer chose to buy. So from now on, the unbreakable rule of the house is that all matzo must be eating on the appropriate "football" plate.

Ok that's it for awhile. These are heady times for Israel politically and everyone is waiting to see how this U.S. v Israel v. Settlers v. Iran thing finally sorts out. It should be interesting and a great time for the Messiah to show up.





Sunday, May 31, 2009

9 to 5: Got to Earn a Living

I got a job! ugh! Just when I was getting into the"Jerusalem syndrome" of having Vardit working day and night while I studied the Torah, along came a job offer I couldn't refuse. Here I was within inches of resolving the age old question of whether there are 8 or 9 angels on the head of a pin and now I have to go to work and will never know the answer.

I took the 5 a.m. train up to Haifa this morning to get my work permit which was languishing in the Jerusalem visa office. Suddenly about 20 religious men barged into my rail car, put on their prayer garbs and began chanting and dovening (rocking back and forth) all the while facing the rising sun. I kind of recognized what was going on, this is the early morning minion I had heard about. In order to be a good sport, I also started chanting (actually humming along) and rocking (and rolling) with everyone else. When I got to Haifa, my permit was issued in about 5 minutes, even though I was told it would take 2 months in Jerusalem. Go figure, God works in strange ways.



National Library: I am sitting in a big fluffy chair facing the enormous window mosaics at the Israeli National Library. The mural is called "eternal peace." Actually, everything in this city has some kind of "peace" angle which is especially depressing since Jerusalem is one of those cities that has never been at peace. You know the mural is about peace because on the blue panel there are "plowshares" (or as we Midwesterners call them "shovels") which the swords have been beaten into. Get it?

Anyway, in my left hand I am reading the book, Looking for a Hero: Joe Ronnie Hooper written by my 1962 college roomate Pete Maslowski, a great Viet Nam era biography which captures everything that was wrong with that war. In my right hand, I pick up the International Herald Tribune and read the first line of Tom Friendman's column, "Stan Greenberg, one of America's most experienced pollsters..." Stan was another good college buddy who introduced me to the woman I lost my virginity to in one of those early 1960's Washington, DC summers. All around me were "weird" Jews in long beards arguing loudly in Hebrew (maybe Yiddish) about esoteric questions of Biblical law. Part of me is in Oxford, Ohio, circa 1960 and part of me is in Jerusalem, circa now. It is truly a time warp moment.
Beitar Update: When we last left my soccer team they were going crazy on the field following their Israeli Cup victory. Their owner had disappeared into Russia while hiding out from an arms deal to Angola that soured. Now it seems that one of its stars, Amit Ben Shushan, was video taped at the celebration singing, "I hate you Arabs." He explained that he had gotten drunk and was singing along with everyone else, not understanding the words he was saying. This is exactly the same excuse (except for the drunk part) that I used to explain my lapse in judgment while cheering at games. But I REALLY don't know what the words mean, just as when I prayed with the men on the train. It's easy to get into trouble when you don't know the language!
Birthday Gift: I turned 65 this week and had my birthday in Jerusalem, which is kind of cool. Everyone wined and dined me; really I drank wine, can AA be far behind? The best part is that I now qualify for HUGE senior discounts, everything is half price, bus/movies/shows, even the front seats on the buses are reserved for "seniors only."
I have been obsessed with a song I heard on the bus last month; the bus drivers get to listen to the radio as they drive, usually loudly. When we went to Krakow, the classical version of it was played at one of the concerts. Vardit went on a mission to various record stores and hummed the ten notes that kept running through my mind. After many, what must have been very embarrassing encounters, she found the song and gave it to me for my birthday. Enjoy:

Friday, May 29, 2009

BOOK REVIEW

I was walking down the street when I heard loud noises as if a thousand students were engaged in a heated argument about how many angels were on the head of a pin. I looked up and saw this building, "The Rabbi KOOK Universal Yeshiva." What more can I say!


Ultra-orthodox Women: When an Ultra woman gets married she puts on a head covering, either a wig or a scarf. I have just learned to my dismay that I (actually, no man) is allowed to touch this woman (except her husband). That includes no handshakes, however a Heimlich maneuver would come under the "life or death" exception. Some women extend this prohibition to hugging their own sons. Before marriage an Ultra can grow and groom her hair presumably so she can attract a husband. I asked my female, secular haircutter the reason for the rule and she got really embarrassed and said, "you don't want to know." Which, of course, made me want to know more. Then she said, "the hair on a woman's head is the same as the hair (and then she pointed to below her waist)" She turned beet red, I hesitated, not quite getting it, and then we both broke out into laughter. As she explained a bit further, if a man sees the hair on a woman's head, it is the same as if he had seen her naked. I guess this is why one needs a Rabbi Kook to have all of this explained.


Great Book: I just finished reading The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes by Avraham Burg who is a prominent Israeli politician and former head of the Labor Party. It was a fantastically insightful book and here is a short review of the highlights.

1. The expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries (after 1948) was a very significant and traumatic experience, where many of those families had roots and traditions going back hundreds of years, more than most Israelis. This experience is trivialized by the European Jews who claim it was insignificant compared to their REAL and only Shoah.

2. Arab Jews who came to Israel missed a great opportunity to bond with the Arab Palestinians who they shared a language and at some points a common culture. They could have been the bridge between the European Jews and the Palestinians.

3. When Burg travels abroad he adopts a cooperative style of discourse; he negotiates in good-faith and looks for win/win outcomes to negotiations. When in Israel, he is much more competitive, he fights for win/lose outcomes. He realized that he felt more comfortable with his “abroad” personality than his Israeli one.

4. Before the Holocaust Israelis had a positive, can do attitude. They believed in themselves and the ideals of a nation. After the Holocaust, the country became filled with Holocaust survivors who were “damaged” in many ways. There was a feeling of “victimhood” and every political crisis became a matter of life or death containing the claim of another Holocaust, i.e. the Iranian crisis is a good example.

5. The Israelis forgave the Germans too fast. Within a short period of time, (by 1950) the Germans expressed regret; there were reparations and soon normalized trade relations. Underneath, however there was still much Survivor hatred and that was directed in exaggerated force against the Arabs whose crimes (if any) were hardly as significant as the Nazis.

6. The Eichmann trial could have been a universal message to the world that Jews oppose genocide and totalitarianism everywhere for everyone. Instead, the Israelis turned the Eichmann trial into something that was just personal to Jews; condemned exclusively was the Nazis' actions against European Jews, not the inhumanity of people to people

7. This process not only raised the European Holocaust in importance above all other genocides, but other similar crimes against humanity in Armenia, Africa, Cambodia and Serbia were either trivialized, ignored or even found Israelis on the side of the perpetrators



Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A ZEALOT

Religion: A friend suggested the theory that God answers the prayers of non-believers first because they are most in need of convincing. Since the believers are already hooked, they have the patience to wait their turns. Today I decided to go up to the Old City and test this idea. As I walked down into the caverns, I passed a group of about 30 Indian tourists (from India) dressed in colorful native garb. As I listened to their guide pontificating in Hindi, I wondered what God could they possibility be visiting here? Anyway, I quickly arrived at the hand print of Jesus on the stone wall of the 5th station, placed my hand over it and thought, "God(s) and/or Goddess(es) may thy will be done." I thought that was a safe prayer, who am I to tell God what to do, other than to just "do" what you want.
I then walled the several hundred yards to the Western Wailing Wall and as I put my hand to the stone was grabbed from behind by the "Morals Police" who gave me a stern look and handed me a kippa (which I had forgotten) for my head. I repeated my prayer. Note: at Passover all of last year's notes were cleaned out, but it appears that new ones have taken their place.


I looked at my watch and realized that the noon Muslim prayers were over so went the couple hundred yards to the court yard of the Dome of the Rock. As I prepared to enter I saw people taking off their shoes and I immediately thought, "is some Arab worshipper going to steal my expensive orthopaedic insert from my shoes." But I was stopped in mid-deshoeing by another "Morals Policeman" who asked if I was Muslim. (Do I look Muslim?) When I said "no" he indicated no entrance to the Mosque for me. So I put my hand on the nearest pillar and prayed, but I'm not sure I was as close to the "source" as I could have been.

I should note at this point, that it seems to me that the governing of the Old City, at least as far as the logistics for tourists goes, is handled pretty smoothly under the Israelis. It was terrible under the Jordanians, (1948-1967) barely tolerable under the Ottomans (1600-1900), disastrous under the Christians (1200) and well, you know how the Romans did (100BC-200AD) killing Christ and sacking the Jewish Temple and all. I still think Disney would do the best job, cute Bible characters mingling with the crowd and those efficient zig-zag lines which move people quickly through the rides.

Culture: Next stop was to go with Vardit and a friend to opening night of the Jerusalem Festival which is about 3 weeks of non-stop cultural events all over the city. Tonight we went to the Mayumana Dance Troupe which was an incredibly high energy, creative, "Stomp-like" production before about 500 older, whiteish, patrons. It was fantastic and Vardit said she heard the lady behind her say, "This reminds me of Clockwork Orange." :-) Check out this Youtube clip to get an idea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6mLD3sIbyk&feature=related

Sports: Then it was off to a sports bar to watch the HUGE soccer game between Beitar Jerusalem (My Team) and Macabi Haifi (the heavy favorite) for the Israeli Cup. Beitar won! And the town (or should I say the non-religious, non-cultured part) went wild. All roads led to Teddy Stadium which was great since I live (much to Vardit's dismay) right next to the stadium. At midnight almost 12,000, including me, poured into the stadium to celebrate. People (mostly young men who, as Vardit would claim, have no life) were going nuts. Multiple yellow (our colors) smoke bombs were being thrown into the crowd, the PA system was cranked up all the way and a great time was had by all (except those old farts in the neighborhood who did have a life which began early the next morning. What a day and what a moment to suddenly realize that God could be a Beitar fan and his/her WILL might actually have been "done." In the morning the owner of Beitar issued a message of congratulations from an "undisclosed location in Russia." I figured that was a bad sign, but he is on the run for selling guns to Angola and pocketing the money (or some such thing) Anyway, WE'RE NUMBER ONE!!

Check out this great video:

video

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Karkow, And Now the Rest of the Story

What would a trip to Poland be without a walk down the worst memory lane, EVER! Rather than add more words to an already indescribable experience, I will offer my brief impressions associated with the following pictures.


Let me start off with the mother of all images. I am standing with a group of tourist on the railroad track that dead ends into Birkenau. For those of you who are not familiar with Holocaust logistics, Auchwitz was actually a "camp" with minimal "killing" facilities. Next door was Birkenau with 4 crematoriums and one of the Nazi's official extermination centers. Our guide has just made the following statement. "This train track was formally completed on May 30, 1944 and for the first time brought the victims right to the door of the crematoriums. Within one hour of their arrival, they were dead!" I stood there stunned, that was the day I was born. Enough said! As the group moved on, I stood on the platform contemplating how different the day must have been in Aurora, Illinois from what it had been here at Birkenau

Vardit and I walked into one of the many antique stores in the old Jewish section of Krakow. The store is packed with family heirlooms, kiddish cups, old books and piles and piles of dishes and silverware. I think, who owned all this stuff? We read the cute inscriptions in the books from parent to child, from lover to lover. And suddenly it hit me, the owners died in the Holocaust. These are all looted treasures, the thousands of empty apartments, doors left open, valuables sitting in the cabinets and the owners all gone. What an incredible transfer of riches from Jews to whoever came along and claimed the booty. I see the above picture which is made out of silk and recognize it as the poster that my daughter always kept in her room in Berkeley. This tapestry was last displayed in the apartment of a comfortable Jewish family circa Poland, 1940 and now sits on sale for $30 in a Jewish memorabilia store in a tourist strip in Old Krakow.The Kashimer section of Krakow housed the Jewish population and with the Polish economy in shambles, there is a successful tourist business in both Holocaust and Jewish cultural tours. The area has been completely renovated with museums and great Jewish restaurants surrounding the old town square. As I sat eating pirogi, matzoh ball soup and potato pancakes, I looked up and saw one of the few buildings that had not been refurbished. As with every other experience in Poland, one part of me imagined the vibrancy of this neighborhood, the food, smells, intellectual discourse and then I stared up at the empty window and imagined the families being suddenly dragged out onto the street and marched off to their deaths. This contrast between a rich cultural life that I feel part of (at least through my grandparents) and the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust dominated my feelings throughout the entire trip.
This image caught my attention at Birkenau, and reminded me of the escape scene in the movie The Great Escape. There is the boundary fence, the guard tower and the limitless surrounding forest. If you recall, in the movie the tunnel does not come out in the forest, it comes out in the clearing just beyond the fence. We see the dirt move, a shovel and then a head pokes out and the prisoner looks up to see they are completely exposed to the guards in the tower.

The one thing that struck me coming from Israel to Poland is that this is a Catholic country with almost no Jews. (There are about 4,000 in a population of 38 million) I was walking in the woods looking for the site of the Plaszow Concentration Camp and stumbled across this weird memorial cross; Jesus with a crown of barbed wire thorns, what's with that.
Here is the actual memorial for Plaszow, a camp to which most of the Krakow Jews where march and killed.
The gates of Schindler's Factory. This actually wasn't much of a tourist trap, I walked down a fairly obscure and quiet neighborhood and there was the gate from the movie and a small plaque; the movie was actually filmed on location here.
There isn't much to see of the old Jewish Ghettos of Warsaw and Krakow except in the exhibits of the many fine museums. I specifically made it a point to take the train up to Warsaw and walk through the ghetto. As a 10 year old boy in Aurora, I read The Wall by John Hersey which was the story of the Warsaw Ghetto and also a book called, (I think) the Theory and Practice of Hell which was about Dr. Mengela's experiments. Why my parents let me read that stuff, I'll never know. But I have been obsessed with Holocaust minutia ever since.

I was walking through a fairly sterile neighborhood of Socialist apartment architecture which my map said was the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto. Suddenly I saw a mound of dirt and this sculpture in the middle. This was all that marked the heart of the Ghetto. I kept walking with my head down trying to feel the vibrations of the neighborhood and suddenly stepped on the granite strip that wound its way around the streets. I'm guessing this marked the barrier of the Ghetto. What distinguished the Warsaw Ghetto of course is that there was a rebellion of about 7000 remaining fighters and after the uprising the Nazi's completely leveled and burned the place down to the ground. There is no "there" to refurbish, it is history.


Finally, all that remains of the Krakow Ghetto wall is a small section that was preserved for us tourist. The Krakow Ghetto was noteworthy because it was self-regulated for several years, had a health system, soup kitchens, industrial activity and despite the fact that it was the repository of tens of thousands of inhabitants of destroyed stetels around Poland, it held itself together amazingly well. That all came to an end when the remaining populations was march down the road to Plaszow for extermination.

I don't know if it was necessary for me to make this trip. I was not overwhelmed by "tsuris" (Yiddish for grief), but neither was I underwhelmed. I just couldn't stop thinking (as all Jews do) of that knock on the door and the sudden transformation of a pleasant, middle class life into a total, incomprehensible living hell. As we used to say, "I groked it." ( To grok (pronounced GRAHK) something is to understand something so well that it is fully absorbed into oneself: from Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

TRIP TO KRAKOW: First the Good Side



Welcome to Krakow! This huge soccer shoe greets the many tourists at the Krakow International Airport. (This isn't my specialty, but I didn't think soccer players kick the ball on the tip of their shoes, isn't that how old white guys like George Blanda used to kick field goals?)

Initially, I went to visit the camps and the Jewish ghetto, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that long before Krakow became covered in blood, it actually was (and is) a delightfully cultured city. One is initially struck by the fact that Easy Jet flies a ~$100 round-trip weekend flight from London to Krakow which fills the city with British tourists who are only interested in the cheap food and unlimited beer. This is not a Holocaust tour group, but a "get out of Britain, cheap" crowd.


The town is just packed with fun things to do and it is hard to believe that not too many years ago this was a dreary Soviet satellite. The Poles must have really hated it and the city is filled with timeless Gothic architecture intermixed with Soviet style lifeless block housing. There is a new mall Galareia Krackowia which is the largest I have ever seen (except Mall of America) it is three floors of just modern stores and a food court with part MacDonalds and part authentic Polish food. I ate Polish sausages non-stop and when I did stop I ate Pirogis (12 for $4)


I know this is racist (sorry) but I saw the most incredible Polish bookstores. (oxymoron?) This picture was of a coffee shop with probably every Holocaust book, new and used ever written. I was told the Poles read more books than any other Eastern European country. BTW: The Polish language is impossible except for Scrabble enthusiasts and actually a Yiddish speaking Polish Jew invented Esperanto here which lost most of its followers in the Holocaust. In addition Krakow is a university town and the home where Copernicus began his studies in the 1500's.

One of the more chilling scenes was of the old Jewish cemetery at the edge of the city. There were thousands of unkempt graves going back to the 1800's, a gap during the war and then hundreds of new tombstones erected recently by children of Holocaust survivors in memory of their parents. Overlooking this wooded and very spooky cemetery was an imposing and equally unkempt Soviet-style apartment complex with very old people hanging out of the windows watching us take pictures. Everyone of these onlookers was the type of person you wanted to ask, "what did you do during the war?" You could feel the clash of vibrations between the war survivors in the tenement and the souls of the departed in the graveyard.

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Every night there is some kind of classical music concert at each of the about 10 local churches as well as folk and klezmer bands. The recital we saw at The Church of Peter and Paul not only featured the haunting song I had heard the harmonica players perform at Yad Vashem (theme from Gallipoli) but they also played another song which I couldn't get out of my head and we finally identified as the theme from The Scent of a Woman.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

PILLARS OF ZION: PART 3

Just when it seems like one is memorialized-out, the mood changes radically and we are into the 3rd foundation of the county-INDEPENDENCE DAY. As the last night of Memorial Day arrives I start to see teenage boys with shopping carts filled with wood for bonfires. At 8:00p.m. sharp the radio starts playing rock-n-roll, the candles disappear on TV and are replaced with comedy shows.

video

We go up to Mt Herzel, the Arlington Cemetery of Israel, to watch the fireworks which are pretty spectacular, although no Washington DC Mall on the 4th. After the big show, all around the city there are mini-shows. I think, "this must be what Gaza was like only from the top down and not the bottom up." (or is it the other way around) Next day, everything is closed (again) and the entire country is taken over by barbeque's. I ask if this requirement is found in the Bible, but Independence Day isn't a religious holiday (probably the only one) and its the seculars' day to celebrate. There is so much smoke in the area that warnings are given to people with lung problems.

Ah, and now the seamy underbelly of the holiday. Amidst all the jubilant Israelis celebrating their independence are the Arab Israelis who celebrate (on the next day) the Nakba or "catastrophe" Maybe this is like our Thanksgiving on an Indian Reservation. But the "good news" is that because all the Israeli car washes are closed, everyone goes the to Arab car washes so they can arrive at their barbeque's in style. Like going to an Indian Casino on Thanksgiving.Couldn't resist this image. An Israeli guy pulls up in a new Chrysler SUV with Independence Day flags. He opens the door, and quickly changes the diaper of his kid in the back seat and then throws the diaper on the street (behind the front wheel) He see me taking this picture and pauses, then reluctantly bends down, picks up the dirty diaper and takes it over the the trash. I feel like the morality police and the consciousness of my people.

BEITAR JERUSALEM: WE'RE NUMBER THREE

This is a big deal, I have FINALLY figured out what is so exciting about soccer; I won't bore you, but it has something to do with knowing the places on the field where goals are scored and then letting your mind wander until the ball gets to that point and then screaming hysterically. My team is Beitar Jerusalem which plays its games about 200 meters from my house in the 20,000 seat Teddy Stadium. I go all the time and come home smelling like cigarette smoke and hoarse from yell. I often cheer, "We're Number One" and Vardit corrects me and points out that Beitar is really number three, so I still shout "We're Number One" but hold up three fingers because everyone knows that Beitar fans can't count.

I have learned, however, that BEITAR (may God bless and keep them) are the bad boys of the soccer league; kind of the Oakland Raiders of Israel only worse. I have also discovered that the cheers "we" sing, are along the lines of "Kill the Arabs." Honestly, I didn't know this. So yesterday, the team was penalized 1 point for its fans yelling "Mohammad is Dead" (which is technically and legally correct) AND worse of all, they have to play their next home game WITHOUT fans. How mean is that. The game of course will be on TV but not only is it unsatisfying to yell at a TV, I'm sure Vardit has a NO Beitar TV rule in the house.
Just before I learned of the Beitar punishment I went out and bought myself a Beitar Wastebasket for my room. I actually bought it for the living room, but (as above) there is also a NO Beitar Memorabilia rule for the living room.