Monday, April 16, 2007

Yom HaShoah

It's been almost 2 months since the last blog, I guess a good sign that I stopped observing and started participating. I know that the juggling's become much easier--work, family, Israel. I'm just here rather than thinking a lot about being here. At least most of the time. The city drew quiet last night, and the t.v. became serious--all holocaust-related programs. We watched the ceremony from Yad VaShem. It's hard to know where the Holocaust ends and Israel's suffering begins. A friend said "everyone here feels touched by the losses in our wars" a literally true statement that doesn't hold true for the holocaust. It moved me to here survivors speaking Hebrew--a rebirth for them and for the language and for our people all at the same time.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Place of Refuge

Lunched with new friends from Boston: both grads of a famous dayschool high school in NYC area. Both distanced from that world, philosophically and in their life style; both committed to giving their kids enough knowledge/exposure for them to make an informed choice about Jewishness. But will that work in Diaspora? They had lots of historical/ethnic/religious experience; their kids will be that much further from those sorts of people/places/senses. So they come here and I can tell they're feeling as if "wow: here we wouldn't have to work so hard at all of this stuff." Just to be. Hebrew, Shabbat, the air.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Charley on the MTA

I rode the bus today, for the first time. A city bus that is. We promised our mother we wouldn't--at least the kids and my wife--which presumably included me as well. The Gemara on that Mishnah is that we don't apply that restriction to inter-city travel. The central bus station seems well secured, it's fast and cheap and we feel a safe and practical mode of transportation. We avoided renting a car; the trains get poor reviews for speed, so the bus seems the best bet. But in the city felt scarier. On this bus security types came on at some point downtown; with German shepherds to boot. I'm not used to feeling joy at the sight of a big dog but in this case I liked it. We live right on a bus line, and I took a nice tour of the city, literally going at least half way around it, from our part of southern Jerusalem, past the King David Hotel, up Jaffo St, then all the way up into the hilly outskirts. Why? Because I wussed out and didn't ask the bus driver where I should get off, and the little the taciturn man provided I didn't fully make out. But I eventually found my destination. People looked thoroughly buslike--staring out the window, talking, sleeping, the normal range of what people express on buses. Amazing: the human ability to compartmentalize/forget/rationalize call it whatever you want. Wonder if that'll happen to me.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

1 + 1 = 0

This may read like Berenstein Bears for Adults, something like "Berenstein Bears and Too Much Sabbatical." File this away dear reader in the "stop whining about doing something that most of us never get to do" category, by all means. Allow me my self-indulgence for the moment. I spoke with an old friend tonight, who's lived here for over twenty years, is raising 4 kids here, etc. His youngest is in the States right now, with her mother who's on a sabbatical of her own. The 8th grader faces a nice choice of high schools. So does my daughter. So why am I envious? Because I'm unresolved about my daughter's options, Jewishly and otherwise. Real three bears stuff and I don't feel any of the choices taste right. Bottom line is that the Jewish thing in America is inorganic in some deep way. The street isn't Jewish, the language, the time of day, etc. It's not a moral criticism, it is what it is. A non-Jewish space and time. It's just different here. Yes the split between religious and secular exists, and yes the state-run Orthodox mafia does violence to Judaism, but in spite of those problems this is a Jewish place/space. And the educational possibilities for kids to grow Jewishly are tremendous, in spite of the overburdened underfinanced school system generally speaking. And my kids aren't going to benefit from those, not in any real sense.
That's a way of stating my ambivalence about my own place in the universe. I'm here for too long to be a total tourist, yet for not long enough to be here, dealing with things like "where's your kid going to school next year" kind of stuff and everything else. Like I said, I know it sounds like sourgrapes: the point is I'm so lucky to have two places to live in both of which I'm doing interesting things, yet it feels like they add up to less than one whole place. Leah Goldberg wrote a poem about pine trees where she reminisces about her native Lithuania and its forests. The pines, ill-advisedly planted here by incompetent planners, suggest to her that maybe she's neither place: she's the pine tree planted in the wrong soil, stuck somewhere between Lithuania and Tel Aviv. As much as I hope and intend for this time to be precious for me and for us as a family, I cannot see how this feeling will subside. If anything the opposite.

Floor Wax and Butterscotch Pudding

"It's a Floorwax; no it's a butterscotch pudding" proclaimed Dan Aykroyd on an early SNL skit about a product that tasted great and cleaned floors too. Here it's gas stations that double as bakeries: we fill up a car with gas at the filling station, run inside to get sesame rolls, baklava etc. And its all kosher to boot. Elsewhere in Israel they might not be kosher meaning they might sell milk and meat products, but everything would most likely be kosher. Whatever happened to filling stations just carrying Sourpatch Kids and Wrigley's Gum?

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Streets Dark with Arabs

We live on a main thoroughfare, a six lane road, well lit I'm glad to say. I went around the corner tonight to the local supermarket to buy some items. Still loving being able to go to the market, hit the meat market, and see all that kosher stuff. And wishing the checkout counter person a Shabbat shalom. Walked home with the stuff, dark out. Two men ahead, young men. Not sure if they're Jews or Arabs: we live fairly near an Arab neighborhood quite close to the Old City. If I walk at my pace I'll catch up to them and then I'll know by what language they're speaking (Arabs of course speak Arabic when they're not with Jews). On the other hand if I'm closest enough to them to hear that then I'll know for certain that they're Arabs and then I'll freak out a bit. I thought the Jewish state existed so we wouldn't be afraid of non-Jews? Joke's on me. And on my phobias. Or on the world. Or both. But I brave thing, walk at a normal pace, catch up and pass them, and sure enough they're Arabs. And couldn't care less about me in their midst. And my heartrate returned to normal, as I reached our building. But not after nightmaring that they'd pick up a stone and throw it at me.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

All Wet

Went on our first tiyyul yesterday, the Fellows that is. All the way to Haifa practically, and back in one day. It rains here everday lately; I keep remembering Joseph's dream of 7 fat and lean years. The rain matches my mood and present physical state, a bit sick and sick at heart. We sat through two sessions, one on teaching peoplehood, the other on community building. The first seemed a bit vague and simple too simple for us; the latter too rushed to be more than interesting rather than rewarding. Bottom line is that this country, this people constantly worries about how to build peoplehood and community precisely because it needs those things desperately. The revolution failed meaning that not all Jews came here, and those who didn't don't connect deeply to the revolution. They may cry when they hear HaTikvah, and when they come and go from here, but the daily engagement isn't there. And Israel's growing up, becoming more complex, more divided, less mission-driven. Probably inevitable. But given that some Jews get there mission from Torah and think THEY'RE ABSOLUTELY POSSESSED OF TRUTH, where does that leave the rest of us humble uncertain types? Hence the need to talk about community building, as an intellectual and organizational imperative. A colleague said "all nationalisms worry about their existence: who they are, what they're becoming, etc." Ok, maybe, but most of them aren't dealing with homicide bombers and tiny spaces.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Poor People of Color

E played with a friend yesterday, a little Ethiopian girl. It never occurred to us that the mom wouldn't pick up the 4th graders and take them home--but she works and the kids walk home by themselves. The 4th grader supervises the younger kids; at home the teenage son supervises all. Great that they're integrated into the school; my wonderful daughter sees color but sees through color. I kept asking her where her friend came from; she insisted "from Israel." Tried to tell her that all Israelis come from somewhere else, she mercifully fails to see that. I picked her up at the apartment--a cramped messy affair in which the kids watch tv after school. No stressed out parents trying to help their kids become lab rats to get ahead. But will they be able to "compete" for the goods when the race starts I ask myself? The old freedom/equality thing.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Life, Text, Art

Went to my first artsy thing last night, on a cold rainy evening that reminds me of our wintry prayers for life-giving moisture. Scenes of Judean stone soaking it up out in the hills somewhere so we'll get to enjoy the waterfalls in Ein Gedi a bit later on. Tucked in at the beginning of D. Bet Lehem and stretching to D. Hevron, the yard could be a venue for the Sopranos. Dark and desolate, old buildings now occupied by edgy clubs with names like Negro, and The Lab. Not for old married fogeys I think. A colleague's wife wrote a play based on a medieval Jewish story about a complicated relationship that begins between strangers, involving courtship, commitment, abandonment, loneliness, death, reconnection and procreation, all with God present somewhere in the saga. The players, all or mostly all I think religious, sat with some of us afterwards to discuss the play. A great Jewish dialectic ensued: the tensions between artistic truth and religious truth; textual truth and existential truth, God and man, man and woman, the works. What does it mean to be religious here? When a woman covers her hair she signs something, but what? Depends on how precisely she covers: all of her hair/head, only some, hair cascading to her shoulders in plain sight or not, endless variations all suggesting some sort of allegiance to some affect, some community, some tradition, some fad. So many "little things" signing bigger things. Hard to discuss things with Jews: like an adult ed class run amok some audience folks won't let others talk, not even the cast. One guy accused the players of liberal religion: God should serve us rather than the other way around, and that secular/hilonim have no sense of service. It's never boring here.

Smiling At Strangers

One needs to concentrate extra hard here on traffic, bearing in mind the notorious reputation Israelis possess for fast and tragically reckless driving. In the USA as a pedestrian I rely on the rules of the road, and making eye contact with drivers, and even a smile to connect to them so they won't moe me down. I tried the same here: forget about it. I smile the goofy American smile--the driver justs look back at me hard and vacantly. Israelis live on either side of conventional American politeness. Rudeness brusqueness bluntness counterpointed by "WELCOME WE ARE YOUR FAMILY HERE'S A CAKE OR CHALLAH WE BAKED FOR YOU SHABBAT SHALOM." The driver in the car's preoccupied or looking at me thinking why the hell is he smiling at me--he doesn't even know me. It's a relationship or not, substantial or not, none of the I just met you and I think you're the greatest person I've ever met facile stuff. Charm doesn't work here--I think the likes of Clinton would have a tough go of it.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Teaching History

Presented today with Leon on this re. adult learning in America. The Israelis know little or nothing about the so-called "Renaissance" in American Jewish life. Gave some postcards and snapshots of our programs, and talked about how history works. Torah and peoplehood tie us together, hopefully with some content as well as mythologically. That's about it. We lack a common historical narrative, that's for sure. Historical study both creates a safe space and yet carries danger for us--heretical stuff.

"May I Go to B'nei Akiva?"

So said G after her FIRST DAY at Rebbetzin Milon's alma mater!!! I think she competed with her little sister, who made lots of playmates just in the first few days. So number one child went off to school with nary a complaint, and got right into the swing of things. We picked her up after school, wondering what we'd find and there she was on the curb looking like any normal young teenager among her peers. All seem like nice girls. And number one daughter asked us, per her new friend's invitation, "May I go to B'nai Akiva tomorrow after school?" A young frummock ideologue in training? I think not. We (old lady and old man) trailed behind the pack as it wound through Rehavia into Katamon, like the scene where the townspeople trail Michael Corleone and his intended on their first date in Sicily. That made two new walks home all the way from Rehavia to the Colony to Baka to home in one day, in the morning wife and I hit one of the little bakeries that provide the caloric energy that make such nice tiyyulim possible and necessary.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

I'm a crab

As usual my wife figured me out before or right alongside of me: she said something to the effect that I'm not so happy we're all here together. Usually I'm here alone, hanging out with friends and doing my thing. Now I have to share Israel with them, and myself with them. Right on target. But that seems to be abating now, as we get into a routine. Leon and I discussed our presentation this week; we both feel the frustration of sounding like someone not quite us in a foreign language. I don't feel ready to give a full frontal talk in Hebrew, though I know that trying is part of the battle though I'm not certain how much. I'm shooting for the March presentation to wow them with flawless nouns and verbs if not adjectives and adverbs.


We're settling in. Zonked on Thursday; E went to school on Friday. Gutsy kid--mixed right in. She told us she understood little or nothing, but the Anglos helped her through. She'll pick up the lingo faster than I will, that's for sure. Tomorrow's G's turn. Dinner with our best buddies here: kubbeh soup, lamburgers, chicken, the works. They're the closest thing to family for non-family that I can imagine. Sleep deprived; we woke up at 2 and talked to 4, read cookbooks. Barely made it to shivyonim minyan this a.m.--I heard the haftarah and the ladies heard hymn of glory. Had a hard time following the drasha--to much noise. I'm getting there though just have to stick with it and stop thinking about it. Great lunch with the lobbyist en famille. Just a beautiful first Shabbat. Met another family in our building; everyone's so nice--friends of friends brought a cake over before shabbat. Sure enough, E played with a bunch of kids all afternoon and by the evening was trying to talk to us in Hebrew. The whole country feels like one big family. Comforting and exhausting all at once.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


We arrived, nice and early in the morning. I feel myself in a state of shock, can't believe that something I wanted so much to happen happened. Now the hard part: not driving the family crazy and letting them love this place on their own terms. Avoid controlling behavior? Why start now? G may have broken her toe hence we couldn't walk too much, but took care of more registration stuff, brought E to school where she'll start tomorrow, and got a sense of the neighborhood. Our lovely French neighbor and daughter came down, with homemade challot in tow, to welcome us.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Did I mention that I'm going back to school for another degree? This one in cellphoneology. That's what it takes to figure out what kind of phone to buy, what carrier to use, and what plan to have. I took a walk to what Israelis call a Kanyon--a mall. A nice young lady tried in vain to help me, at a kiosk of a carrier located in front of a drug store. Hopeless. I need a manservant--19th century style. I think this one I'll give to my wife to handle when we arrive...


The no-weekend thing here's annoying to us spoiled Americans; we must make do with Fridays which gets tied up with Shabbat. Went to the new school for E; felt the stress of "will they make me go to the municipality?" Told me to return Sunday. Fell asleep and woke up just in time to make dinner, as the guest of DG and family. Lovely people; nice guests also here on sabbatical. I felt at home. Missed my family; as usual the first day or so aloneness feels like a relief then loneliness sets in. I guess without them I'd be miserable being with people dramatically happier than I. Went to the S's newish minyan--nice but froze my butt off in an underheated matnas gymnasium. Lunched at Yehuda's--more good chow including cholent with bones!!! and pupiks au vin. Quite haute cuisine. I made a playdate with Nehara. Good conversation featuring Orthodox mendacity: one of my favorite lashon hara topics. Saturday night with the Friedmans. Here's what I love about this country: I call her and she says "where were you on Shabbat? I expected you to come by." I muttered something to the effect that I didn't want to become a pest, which she dismissed as probably untrue and certainly irrelevant. People visit here, spontaneously and casually. Sounds like community to me.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Lots of good energy there: met with two folks, one an educational researcher and the other a philosophy/text/lit person. How to unzip knowledge of teachers; train them to get the narrative and create public knowledge shared by professionals. It's lonely being an expert sometimes. And create too little "case knowledge" to share. I realize I'm a Kantian about this project: I created Me'ah in my image; Me'ah created me. And that's what this project will be too: an act of self-reflection and reflection on the Other, and an act of self-re-creation and re-creation of the program which in turn will re-create me. There's a mouthful.


I walk a lot in Israel. One reason I feel no need for a car. It would render me a suburbanite again: driving to the market, to friends, etc. The best exercise and the best way to feel the city. Yesterday I walked around Talpiyot, today around Katamon. Just to be a part of things. My Hebrew's improving, slowly but surely. A bit less afraid to inflict it on others, a bit more able to express myself. Today I had my first downer conversation with a friend from the states who returned here after several years in the USA. He seems unresolved about Israel: wonders about its viability and survival and reluctant at best to commit to it and risk going down with the ship. He'd as soon leave. Wonder how many feel that way. I restrained myself feeling how inappropriate it is for me to lecture him on his Zionist obligations. Only an American Zionist would be so stupid.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

An End to Cold Showers

Can you believe it--I may have been turning the faucet in the wrong direction. Enjoyed my first hot one this morning. So now all feels right with the world, hygienacly and otherwise. Have some food in the fridge, money in the new bank account. The small pleasures. Today at K discovered the bureacracy of Israel: only one person can register E--only that one person, trained in theoretical physics of course for this high-level work. It'll have to wait till tomorrow when she'll be there.
Did I mention I shopped at some store the name of which I still cannot remember, on Derekh Hevron. The basics: not even fleish.


I want most to learn Hebrew. Period. I met the tutor at Mandel and I hold high hopes--realistic but high. Damn the embarassment: full speed ahead. Today Oshrat accompanied me to the kids' schools; we registered the kids or at least G anyhow. I talked some; she talked the most. I need to overcome the passivity that overtakes me. Just push myself all the time, and it'll become less of an effort. Then we bought a choco and croissant at a cute place Nocturna on Bezalel in Nahlaot near Bet Ha'am.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007


Great way to begin this blog: talking about cold showers in Israeli apartments. Can't write much now: waiting for the plumber to arrive to check the dud shemesh. My wife's not here anyway; nothing wrong with a few cold showers. I'm so busy doing things that only last night I glimpsed the Jerusalem sky pinkish as the city went to down to sleep. Earthly and heavenly. And then there's the kubeh soup at Hamusta. So through my myopia of thought reality the place and people intrude once in a while. Great learning with Halbertal on the Jewish welfare state. What I wouldn't give to flip pages of the Bavli looking for the apropos story the way I flip through Jane Austen...