Your Brain is Green
Of all the brain types, yours has the most balance. You are able to see all sides to most problems and are a good problem solver. You need time to work out your thoughts, but you don't get stuck in bad thinking patterns. You tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the future, philosophy, and relationships (both personal and intellectual).

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Are You SURE You're Bluish? (part 1)

Prepare to be very confused. The title above comes from "Yellow Submarine", the Beatles' animated feature where they confront the Blue Meanies, and at one point the Blue Meany leader asks them querulously "Are you sure you're Bluish? You don't look Bluish..."

Shades of an old Jewish joke. But this isn't funny: see "Glad tidings for the lepers" in today's Haaretz.

And I think it's time to tell my own story.

First, some background. My mother was born to a Jewish family that left Russia in 1905 for the Lower East Side. She alone of her three siblings was born in the US. In her 20s, which was during the "Roaring Twenties", like many other young Jewish women, tried hard to obliterate all traces of her heritage. She was a "flapper"; she anglicised her name, did not date Jewish boys. When the Depression hit, she kept her job with the Veterans' Administration by moving to Washington, where she met my father.

Dad came from the Black Hills of Dakota--Sioux Indian country. Two of his grandfathers had fought against one another at Gettysburg, and the family, on his father's side, could trace its American roots to before the War of Independence. He was something of an oddball for his time and place, however: he voted Democratic, considered himself an agnostic, hated everything to do with horses and cowboys, affected an Edwardian look about 2 decades too late. His plans to become an engineer were sidetracked by the Depression, and in the mid-1930s found himself also forced to move from the Chicago branch office of the Weather Bureau to Washington, DC.

My mother, who thought Zelda Fitzgerald was simply the bee's knees, the height of exoticism, thought my Dad looked a lot like F.Scott Fitzgerald, and they fell in love. They were married in a civil ceremony, although it became obvious pretty quickly that Dad knew quite a bit more than Mom did about Judaism, he had no desire to convert. In fact, my mother's family accepted him much more warmly, in that day and age when intermarriage was a major crime, than was usual.

In due course, I arrived, but I was not told I was Jewish until I was 7. I then had 4, very disorienting, years of cheder. Shortly after refusing to go to Hebrew school (the afterschool variety) any more, Leon Uris published "Exodus" and, Halleluyah! I could be Jewish without being religious.

Fast forward to my 20s. Now a registered nurse, I met a young Frenchman on holiday, and we decided to get married. He was as irreligious as my father, but nominally was Catholic. The marriage (civil) lasted 4 months before being annulled (civilly). He had married mainly to convince himself that he wasn't homosexual, and had discovered that indeed he was. I later heard, via a third party, that he had committed suicide. I don't know if that was true or not, and never bothered to investigate.

When I opened a file at the aliyah center prior to making aliyah, I told all the above story to the shaliach. He thought he was doing me a favor by noting my marital status as "widow" because it gave me a double aliyah grant. At the time, I didn't know that. I don't remember supplying any evidence of my Jewishness, by the way. The shaliach took my word for it.

Fast forward again, to 1979. My mother was terminally ill; I had met the sabra who would become DH, and we went to the US for the wedding. The ketubah, an artistic one, was actually written here, to be signed and filled in as necessary in the States. I went to the only Orthodox mikvah in the DC area, but the wedding itself was going to be performed by a Reform rabbi, who was not only a very close friend of mine, but my parents' main support (Dad had never converted, but Mom dragged him to services every Friday night) during her illness. Rabbi Lipman had a lot of experience with Israeli bureaucracy and the Israeli rabbanut, and made sure the ceremony was halachically correct.

When we got back to Israel, DH said he wanted to get an isshur nisuin--a certificate from the Israeli rabbanut--that acknowledged our marriage. And that's when the fun began. The rabbis wanted me to prove (1) my Jewishness, and (2) the Jewishness, or lack of it, of my former spouse.

(to be continued)

Friday, July 20, 2007


It's such an evocative word. Westward Ho! and Ward Bond (although most of today's immigrants to Israel were born after Bond died). Little House on the Prairie and all that. Building one's own home in The New (Altneu?) Land--the Holy Land. Gee whillikers, gosh darn, what could be more noble than that?

Thirty years ago, when I made aliyah, it was quite true that Israel lacked many American luxuries. Electrical appliances--those which were available, in pre-microwave and pre-VCR eras--were so highly taxed as to be almost beyond the reach of Israelis, with the exception of small refrigerators (not self-defrosting) and rather basic, and also small cooking stoves. Lots of women still did laundry by hand, although the washing machine (also small by American standards) was somewhere between "luxury" and "necessity". My sister-in-law, who lived on a moshav built to house Jews from Middle Eastern countries in the 1950s still only had one tap, for cold water, in her kitchen. Dryers and dishwashers were still regarded as luxuries. TV was black and white and there were only three channels anyway: Israel, Jordan in English, and Jordan in Arabic. All the channels closed down early enough in the evening to ensure you got a good night's sleep. To have one's own car--a "private"--was definitely a luxury.

So immigrants, clutching their precious "rights", prepared to abandon America for Israel as if they were going on a kind of Mayflower in reverse, bringing everything they could possibly want for the next 50 years with them. Lifts were packed, for example, with disposable diapers (unknown in Israel) and jars of instant coffee (expensive and although locally available, not very coffee-like to the American palate). Soft toilet paper was also a favorite. In the 1980s it seemed water filters were an indispensable item (tap water is safe to drink in Israel).

Appliances were bought en masse from export shops on the Lower East Side. The "rights" allowed you to import one of each kind of item from your country of origin without Customs duty or purchase tax (usually 110% for electrical items). The only way you could NOT pay tax on a German-made washing machine was to import it from a 220 volt electrical appliance shop in the US. Having "rights" for tax exemption had another consequence: it made you buy locally more than you needed, since you only got "one". I am lumbered today with a 2 X 3 meter carpet I can't begin to shift because it's so heavy, but had I bought two smaller carpets back then, I'd have had to pay tax on one.

And the Americans came with everything, from stashes of vitamin tablets to a five-year supply of sponge mop refills. Not just what they had owned in the Old Country, but everything they could possibly imagine needing in future. Questions on the Tachlis email list, which I joined in 1997, often were about items veteran Israelis had never even heard of, nor felt the lack of. Diaper Genie bags? GPS units? Pressure cookers?

In the past decade prices have plummeted on nearly all electrical appliances, and at the same time the shops all began to carry wider and wider varieties of brands, from excruciatingly expensive to el cheapo Far Eastern junk. My first PC cost me close to $2000; I replaced it a few months ago for a much better one for about $700. My first TV was also well over $1000 for a small, 14" B&W one; you can now get a 37" LCD one (HD ready; there's no HD in Israel yet) for about the same price and the average price for a 29" standard TV is around $500. DVD players can be bought for less than $100; my first (Betamax) VCR was about $2000.

It's ALL here, folks! You may not get the tax discount, but it hardly matters, when you add the shipping costs to the "cheaper" item you bought in the States, from a narrow range and without any certainty of local service.

Israel isn't the end of the world. It really annoys the heck out of me that olim are still being duped into shipping massive amounts of stuff in the belief that they are going to some benighted desert like sub-Saharan Africa and the "natives" sit around outside thatched huts, rubbing two sticks together to make fire. And it annoys me even more that, now that Nefesh b'Nefesh is giving money to olim, businesses are actually starting up to relieve them of it, by making claims that the services they provide will actually save the oleh money and/or distress. 90% of it is so unnecessary.

The latest cause for oleh panic was the reduction in the discount given to olim buying a new car. Life in the US (except maybe in central Manhattan) without a car is unimaginable. Here, it is a very mixed blessing. The cost of gasoline, insurance, and maintenance is extremely high. Local incomes, however, are relatively low, in most cases. A car is a convenience, no doubt of it, but once the grace period for income tax reductions, etc. ends, and the oleh is living on an Israeli income, a car can become a huge burden. Try telling this to an oleh; he won't believe it until it actually happens. So, to counter the payment of purchase tax on a car, olim now are increasingly attempting to actually ship their cars from America! Besides a huge amount of bureaucracy and regulations to cope with, it costs about $8000 to do so. But of course, those homesteaders in the Old West moved west with their wagons and livestock, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that today's olim want to bring their MPVs and vans with them...

Sunday, July 08, 2007

M*O*H*A*M*M*A*D K*A*P*L*A*N ?

Some of you may remember the wonderful books by Leo Rosten, "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N" and "The Return of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N", set in a 1930s night school, an "Americanization school" in New York City, which not only taught immigrants to the US English, but prepared them for citizenship. Hyman Kaplan, from some unidentified Eastern European country, who always wrote his name in colored pencils and with stars between the letters, drove the WASP teacher, Mr Parkhill (Mr. "Pockheel") to the brink of despair. Rosten created other characters with equal distinction, such as Madame Olga Trasha, a Russian who could imbue the word "hello" with tragic overtones, but it is Kaplan we remember. His sheer exuberance, his logical but very odd English, his great love of America, his unique literary style (when asked to submit an autobiographical sketch, he began with "First, I was born." Even Mr. Parkhill couldn't find a way to criticize that, although he wanted to).

Most of us with parents who were first generation immigrants remembered how they worked long hours every day, and then went to night school, if at all possible, to "become Americans". My mother, the last child and the only one born in the US, after her family left Russia in 1905, was the "Amerikanska" and it was so important to leave the shtetl behind that no one ever spoke to her in any language but English, even though my grandmother's English was very poor. And she herself rebelled against her birth name of Luba and Anglicized it to "Lenore" when she was in her 20s. It was only with the rise in "Black Power" in the 1960s that ethnicity became "chic" in the US.

Something similar seemed to be happening in the UK. When I lived in Cambridge in 1975, the British comedian Dick Emory had a very popular sketch on his weekly program in which, dressed as a bucktoothed, elderly Indian gentleman in Nehru cap and jacket, he would give his grandson heavily-accented advice, every sentence beginning "We British..."

But the similarities with the two immigrant experiences end quickly. The US, at the beginning of the 20th century, took in vast numbers of immigrants from all over the world, and had lots of space for them. Even while trying to become "American", just about everyone had roots not many generations back somewhere else. Britain had a very homogenous culture and not a lot of room. In fact, one of the raisons d'etre for the Empire had been its solution for masses of young Britons looking for work they'd never find in the home island. Emory's Indian gentleman wasn't applauded for wanting to identify as British; he was laughed at. And color mattered, in the UK, too. (It did in the US, Asians and blacks, getting the worst of it, so that the "white races" like the Irish and Jews fared better). But whereas the average American had at least some sympathy for the "greenhorn", the British were patronizing, secure in their Britishness. At least until after the Second World War, when the wogs and darkies decided they'd rather be independent .

Both Christianity and Islam are proselytizing religions. Judaism stopped being one so long ago we are almost anti-conversion. Our Sages tell us to honor the convert, but we have a certain degree of ambivalence. Jews tend to find the confrontation between Christians and Moslems a bit ironic and a bit funny: "a plague on both your houses", is the way we see it, although, from a strictly theologic viewpoint, the Islamic Allah and the Jewish Yahweh are closer to One Another than the (to Jews, totally incomprehensible) concept of the Trinity. A religious Jew can step inside a mosque; he cannot enter a church, because of the images.

Christianity eventually spread by the sword, but not at first. It was a religion of the downtrodden, the powerless, and it percolated upwards, after initial persecution, from the lower classes, preaching a doctrine of passivity and respect for authority. "Turn the other cheek", "render unto Caesar", etc. It was also a very syncretic religion, incorporating aspects of just about every pagan cult it encountered (Jews tend to think this may be due to the central tenets of Christianity, which bear distinct resemblance to certain pagan myths). Islam, however, did not have the same experience. It began in armed conquest and never found much value in being the underdog. "Christian" values of humility and self-abnegation never struck a chord in the Islamic soul. The very fact that its armies walked over most of the civilized world for a couple of centuries was the vindication of its "truth". Islam never developed anything resembling Christian monastic life, either, with its emphasis on non-violence.
I don't believe that the Crusades were basically a religious movement, but due to other factors, political and economic and that the defense of the Holy Places was really an excuse (in the way that "restoring democracy" to Iraq is--heaven forfend that someone mention oil). The Eastern Christians were always uneasy with the idea of Warriors for Christ, and it can be argued that many of the Crusader leaders and soldiers were hardly Christian. But in spite of the ultimate failure of the Crusades leading to the Reformation and the Renaissance and the flowering of Europe, the failure of Islam, to extend its hegemony beyond the Balkans, had an opposite effect: causing a reappraisal which turned it inwards. The Islamic world became Fortress Islam: no dissent, no ambiguities. "Myself and my brother against the world; myself against my brother". The essential constellation of Islam is the extended family, the clan, the tribe--not the nation.

Those Moslems, whether from Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, who emigrated to the UK, are the heirs of that denial of intellectual freedom, that indoctrination that Islam Is Best. Beyond certain material benefits, they don't see what Westerners see; they find the personal freedoms we cherish to be threatening, even if at first they try to adopt them. They don't want to be like Hyman Kaplan and his fellow students--instead, they want to convince Mr. Parkhill to become like them. Assuming they're willing to go to night school at all.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Dr. Death, PLC (public liability company, in a real sense)

When Sister Luke, in "The Nun's Story", tells her Mother Superior that she can no longer keep her vows, the Reverend Mother Emanuel says "You entered the convent to be a nun. Your love of God must be greater than your love of medicine". To which, because her love of God isn't as great as her love of being a nurse, Sister Luke has no real response.
Now we've got a bunch of doctors whose love of God--however odd that love, or that God, may be--is definitely greater than their love of medicine, and everyone seems shocked by the arrests made in the last few days of the Moslem doctors who tried to set off several car bombs in the UK.
Several generations ago, among immigrant families, largely Jewish, in the US, having a son become a doctor was just about the most precious dream out there (yes, women too, but to a much lower degree--the young lady should marry a doctor). Even today, among Asian immigrants it is a big thing. Why? For the mitzvah aspect? Or for the status aspect? To be a doctor shows that you've got intelligence--or that, at any rate, you've got enough smarts to master the curriculum (the obverse being the assumption that if you are in a skilled trade you aren't really very smart at all), that you are due respect because you have the power to save life in an almost magical way (and to the uneducated, it really is magical), and that, in the West, at least, you make a good income, and having that MD (and maybe some more initials after your name as well) give you a passport into the institutions of the rich and often the famous. The opinions of doctors carry more weight, even when discoursing on subjects remote from medicine, than the average joe. Don't ask me why. I know some doctors who are excellent physicians but absolutely clueless otherwise. Some of them are in the US Congress, for example.
None of this has anything to do with vocation, or with being a good, decent, moral human being. One has only to look at various medical publications that offer reams of advice on managing one's practice for maximum efficiency and profit to see that being a doctor is a business to a certain degree, sometimes big business, and for some doctors, it may be far more a business than a way to serve suffering humanity.
So why should those UK doctor-wannabe-terrorists be any different? Add to the mix the fact that they probably are vulnerable to a kind of subtle racism (Is Dr. Mahmoud really as good as Dr. Jones?) because they come from the "third world" and who knows what kind of education they got back in the boondocks/jungle/desert? "Can't you give me an appointment with a doctor who speaks English?" (Even when the doctor in question may speak better English than the patient). They are tolerated, rather than accepted, whereas, back in their original countries (or countries from which their families came) they would be looked up to as gods (if not on a level with Allah, peace and blessings be upon Him). How easy to turn the paranoia and feelings of inferiority into a desire to annihilate those who are really the inferiors if one only interprets the Koran in a certain way.
It's been noted that a large number of suicide bombers in our intifadas came from relatively well-educated middle class Palestinian backgrounds and they should have "known better" than to fall for the extremist propaganda. But that is exactly what makes them vulnerable: they don't know who they are. They can't identify with the peasants, they've left them behind, but they don't belong with the Western cultures they long to adopt. So, with the zeal of converts, they construct an ideal world which isn't tainted with "foreign" values (but which never really existed--A Thousand Nights and a Night is as realistic as A Fiddler on The Roof) and decide they must "re-establish" something that never was.
One hopes that, on the wards at least, these doctors had a better grasp of reality. They are really rather pathetic.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Where AM I?

Last week we all went to Herzliya, to a restaurant called Papagaio. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but not only were we en famille, both daughters and their fiances, and DH, but I very rarely leave Jerusalem. I just never seem to have the time to go anywhere, which is ridiculous, in a country as small as ours.

Besides, I intensely dislike the humidity of the coast, and if I were to go to the Tel Aviv-Gush Dan region, I'd go in December. But who am I to refuse a free meal? (Nurses, it should be noted, never refuse free meals.)

We drove through the chaos at the exit from Jerusalem that is the building site of a very modernistic Calatrava bridge that the city needs like a lok in kop, just as the sun was setting behind the Judean Hills, and everything seemed normal (the road's been improved a bit, I confess) until we got to the Shaar HaGai interchange, where the mountains suddenly change to flat land. What had been fields seemed mostly now to be road construction sites, with unfinished tunnels and flyovers and bridges and the landscape totally ruined in just about every direction. I had hardly taken this in, as we passed the exits to Ben Gurion, when one of the red double decker trains rushed by, and I had the feeling I had been transported suddenly to Queens, or the Jersey approaches to Manhattan. Tony Soprano would feel right at home. The entire approach to Tel Aviv now looks dreary and run down, with large billboards, often almost entirely in English, advertising Sony or Chevrolet. The roads are full of shiny, large cars, and in between hi-rise buildings like the round Azrieli Tower there are strip malls with Office Depots and McDonalds.

The restaurant itself is at the marina, just outside a shopping mall that could have been anywhere in the American Southwest, with its "Mexican Mediterranean" theme. For a fixed price you get an endless amount of 11 varieties of beef which has been grilled on rotating spits "in the Brazilian manner". Except that I ate too much meat and not enough roast potatoes, so that I awoke hypoglycemic and sweating at 4 a.m., it was a pleasant experience--I might think about going again in about 5 years or so.

But I felt so sad, seeing the Israel I made aliyah to disappear under the Trans-Israel Highway and skyscrapers and malls a la East Coast USA. Time was, as you drove from Jerusalem to the coast, Shaar HaGai was an intersection, where (after waiting for an age and with your pulse racing that you could get your car in gear and cross the dual carriageway before some other car came, like a bat out of hell, across your path) you turned left to go to Bet Shemesh. This "intercity highway" was actually two lanes in each direction at this point. As it went around the Taggart fort, dating from the British Mandate, now the headquarters of the Tank Brigade (with a tank up on a high platform, looking very odd indeed) and the Trappist monastery at Latrun, the road narrowed to one lane in each direction. It crossed a ravine by way of a single lane wooden bridge, causing traffic buildups in each direction, then rose out of the ditch by a series of hairpin curves, to enter an area of moshavim, mostly subsisting by selling produce and flowers at roadside stalls.

There was no such thing as an "express" Tel Aviv-Jerusalem bus when I arrived in the 70s. There were several varieties of "local" depending on whether the bus stopped at every stop or every second or third stop, or merely when flagged down or a passenger (who then would often trudge a kilometer or more to his yishuv) indicated he wanted to alight. There was no airconditioning--the buses resembled the yellow and black school buses one sees in rural American areas (except these looked a lot more banged up and dirty) and the back third was empty for baggage, goats, chickens, or Yemenites, who felt more comfortable squatting on the floor, apparently, than sitting on the fiberglass (hard to vandalize) seats.

The road was lined with eucalyptus trees, bark peeling, leaves always--even in the winter when it rained--looking dry and tired. Every so often there'd be a black and white sign, like an arrow, pointing to a clump of houses in the midst of fields that, depending on the season, were either plowed earth, green with growing grain or sunflowers, or yellow as harvest approached. "Gezer" was about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and it was always something of a shock to realize that the modern kibbutz was barely a stone's throw from Solomon's chariot city. A lot of the place names, such as Mikveh Israel, had distinct resonances to any student of Zionist history, not to mention ancient history.

The closer to Tel Aviv and the coast one got, the more the fields gave way to orchards. The Nesher cement factory intersection was where one really felt the approach of the city. And the old central bus station in Tel Aviv! A world in itself. I think I'm the only person around who actually misses the old Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. It was, so, well, Israeli. It was so grimy and uncomfortable, open to the elements, with convoluted railings and splintery benches designed to keep the passengers from mobbing the driver when the bus (finally) opened its doors. But prior to the everyone-has-his-own-car era, the Egged bus co-op was a real leveler of society and you met everyone (and not infrequently their pets and/or farm animals) on the bus. Thank heaven Tverya's bus station still hasn't been "modernised".

I don't mind good highways, and fancy restaurants and malls. But so much of the flavor of Israel is going, soon they'll have to build theme parks to remind us what the earlier decades of the country were like ("Experience life in a ma'abara! Work in the fields by day and dance around medurot at night like a chalutz at the Tzena-World! Group discounts for students and pensioners")