Philadelphia Daily News
Jul 30, 2008
|Your Brain is Green|
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Sunday, July 27, 2008
A History of the Jews by Paul M. Johnson
This is an absolute "must". Mr. Johnson is a conservative Catholic, the former editor of The Spectator newspaper. I believe that histories of religion must be written by someone of another religion if they are to have any validity and objectivity. Mr. Johnson's grasp of the subject is stupendous, and, being a journalist, his writing is lucid, succinct, and very approachable, without jargon. It is the best history of the Jews and Judaism available today.
From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine by Joan Peters
Ms. Peters set out to write a book about the Palestinian refugees of 1948, but what she found changed her viewpoint entirely. One of the book's strengths, and its main weakness, is the degree of documentation she provides. The actor John Barrymore is reputed to have said that "footnotes are like running downstairs to answer the doorbell on one's wedding night". Every single assertion Ms. Peters makes is so fully annotated that it becomes annoying after a while--but since she so fully documents her sources, you easily see that she is not simply giving her personal views.
The Closed Circle by David Pryce-Jones
Mr. Pryce-Jones is also a newspaperman, but he is also an Arabic speaker, and spent a lot of his childhood in Arab countries since his father was a British diplomat, and has made the Arab world his specialty. This book is an explanation of the psychology of the Arabs, which I think is essential to understanding their world view and their aspirations, and also why they seem to cling to a pre-modern ethic. Rafael Patai's The Arab Mind is also an exploration of the Arab mentality, and very good, but Pryce-Jones' book is better, in my opinion.
Two books about living as a Jew, written by two observant Jews but designed to be read by anybody, are To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life by Hayim H. Donin, and How To Run A Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg. Rabbi Donin gives a very concise run-through of the major tenets of Judaism, with explanations, while Ms. Greenberg describes living in a Jewish household, from the standpoint of the woman of the house. There are a lot of anecdotes about day to day situations [such as suggesting that a woman put in her curriculum vitae how many times she's "made Pesach", it's such a major task].
For a world tour of Jewish cuisine (which some would say the Jews haven't got, but they're wrong) coupled with extensive commentary on the various communities from which the recipes are culled, nothing beats The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York by Claudia Roden. Ms. Roden, who is Sephardi, is a bit of a food snob, especially when describing Ashkenazi food, which she feels is inferior (a "folk cuisine") compared with Sephardi cooking, but she's still very comprehensive.
One of my cousins asked for books to help him learn Hebrew, which seems very daunting [it isn't, really, but that's another topic]. I recommend How the Hebrew Language Grew by Edward Horowitz, and 501 Hebrew Verbs : Fully Conjugated in All the Tenses in a New Easy-To-Follow Format alphabetically Arranged by Root by Shmuel Bolozky. Hebrew is based on an entirely different system than Indo-European languages, and so seems sometimes very difficult for those who've never "thought outside the box". But Hebrew is actually quite easy, IF you understand the logical underpinnings, which are that words have roots from which one can, if one follows certain rules, derive almost all the necessary forms and parts of speech.
Part II will be about what I'm currently reading, and some of my "desert island books"--the books I can't be without.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
I sat at home for two months with a broken left wrist, unable to do anything (because I'm left-handed) more complicated than push buttons on the TV remote control. After the first week, I stopped pushing. Thank God for my iPod, which doesn't reduce everything to a 30 second sound bite or repeat itself every hour. I listened to the entire Ring Cycle. I listened to a number of audiobooks, and watched the lemon tree that stands next to the path from the front gate while listening to baroque and early music concerts...
Now I'm back to "normal", whatever that is, and I'm taking my ulcer medication again...
Friday, July 25, 2008
Monday, July 21, 2008
For as long as I've been in Israel, which will be 33 years this coming January, there has been The Great Washing Machine Debate, between proponents of large American machines which need a specially-sized niche and a hot water hookup [but are supposed to do a load in less time] and the smaller, European ones which heat their own water, fit into the niches in older apartments, etc.
Now there's a new debate: Can I survive aliyah with Israel substitutes for American products? Or maybe it's not so new. When I made aliyah, there were lots of items--food, cosmetics, cleaning items--that Israelis simply didn't know existed [like string mops and Brillo pads, beef frankfurters and real cheddar cheese] and didn't miss. Immigrants had their eyes opened to the gumi and sponja even while they eulogized the sponge mop and the Brillo pad. There was ONE brand of locally produced abrasive cleaner, maybe two or three brands of laundry detergent--essentially all the same. And lo and behold! we all ultimately stopped salivating after those Brillo pads and somehow--amazingly! managed to clean without them! Ditto American deodorant. There's always been soap, water, and talcum powder for those whose skin was too sensitive for Israeli deodorants [like me]
You know what's really eye-opening? Take a trip to NY [or anywhere else in the US] when you've only got an Israeli income, and you find yourself muttering "do I REALLY need this?" when you go shopping because you've got half the budget you had five or ten years ago. You'll be amazed at how different your priorities become. You'll live with the Israeli product rather than the American equivalent and keep your money for the odd gadget that DOESN'T exist in Israel. When I was in NYC about 18 months ago, I bought cunning reusable little bottle corks that really keep air out of wine bottles and the carbonation in soda bottles [I was sick of throwing out half- and quarter- filled bottles of Coke gone flat], and 10" plastic knitting needles [because I only find the longer ones here]. So I've got to use a bit more elbow grease with Sano-X cleanser than Comet! I'd rather spend my limited cash on something for which there's no Israeli equivalent! [I thought I'd buy medicinals like 1000 tablet bottles of ibuprofen, but at $15-24 per bottle, I eventually settled on getting Israeli prescriptions for smaller, but very much cheaper, amounts via the kupah]
It takes time. Some people take more time to adjust, some take less. I personally think food nostalgia takes the longest to overcome, and as others have written, while at first Israeli items seem to taste odd, invariably and eventually it is the American item that tastes too rich. Brillo pads are nice, but Israeli steel wool, dipped in Israel soap paste or cleanser really works quite well, but as long as you mutter "how will I manage once this box runs out?" or "which family member in the States can I hit on for the next Care package?" you only make life harder for yourself.
Some of this undoubtedly goes back to what I've called in a previous post "the homesteading instinct". Some of it is related to the perceived superiority of American products. Some is due to simple familiarity with American items, but some, I suspect, is due to a fear of losing one's American identity, in spite of a committment to Israel. That's a real tough one. Why were our grandfathers so very anxious to leave all remnants of their Eastern European identities behind and become as Americanized as possible as quickly as possible, but we want to remain as American as possible while clutching our Israeli passports? Can it be that we still have doubts about our choice to make aliyah? American Jews are almost unique among Jews because the choice is being made without oppression or persecution, or indeed coercion of any kind. In fact, most of us have had to surmount objections from our American families, who begged us, overtly or covertly, not to leave America.
I think that is one of the biggest things that has changed with aliyah in the three decades I've been here. Once it was "we've come to Israel to build (it) and be built (by it)". Now, it almost seems that we've come to Israel to build it as much as possible like where we came from, and only to be built by it so long as it doesn't threaten our American identities. This doesn't make me very optimistic about long-term aliyah success.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
For two years no one in Israel knew if they were alive or dead. The Hezbollah, which considers itself to be an organization comprised of human beings, refused every attempt by the International Red Cross or other humanitarian organization to visit the soldiers. Hezbollah did not provide information of any kind about whether the soldiers were alive or dead, well or injured, treated well or badly. They refused to accept any mail from the parents for their sons.
Unlike the Hezbollah, we Israelis ARE human beings, and civilized ones at that. We know what it means to grieve as a mother must, not knowing the fate of her child. Dogs are treated better by the Hezbollah than our soldiers, and that just shows just how sub-human the Hezbollah is.
We care so much for our own that we have now freed a real animal, an Arab who abducted a father and his 4 year old daughter, killed the father before the child, then killed the child, in cold blood, just to get the soldiers back, on the tiny chance they weren't dead. Samir Kuntar should be returned to Lebanon in a box, or better still, as a living suicide bomber, with a microchip embedded in his body so Israel can annihilate his entire family, to teach others a lesson. Because that is the only lesson you can teach animals like the Arabs: we will exterminate hundreds for each one of ours.
Being civilized has gotten us exactly nowhere. It's time we spoke a language sub-humans can understand. 60 years of trying to deal with our enemies as if they were humans has only convinced them of our weakness.
I won't apologize, either, for being "politically incorrect". Millions in Europe would not have died if the British hadn't been so eager to show how civilized they were with Herr Hitler in the 1930s.
In case it doesn't show, I'm really angry.
Most of these movies are eminently forgettable. The entire production is amateurish. Working on infinitesimal budgets, they were shot entirely "on location"--the streets and even the apartments of ordinary Israelis. Very few, if any, of these places still exist. Quite a few were already gone by the time I made aliyah in the late '70s.
The stories weren't much, either. But they appealed to simple people. Since the actors also lived among us, we knew them almost as if they were family (and the same couple of dozen were in most of the films). Some of the movies were classics: Sallah Shabbati, Policeman Azulai, Charlie-and-a-Half. The best scripts were written by the Ashkenazi satirist Ephraim Kishon, but very often told stories of the Mizrachim, who were, at the time, a very large but largely ignored "underclass". One or two, such as Daughters, Daughters, were shown internationally at "art house cinemas", usually with some form of explanation. In Daughters, Daughters, it was necessary to explain why having a son was so important to the father.
The Baby, who is 25, recalled a scene in Charlie-and-a-Half where a Mizrachi family is visiting a relative in hospital. To the annoyance of the Ashkenazi staff (in the Sixties, virtually all professionals and academics were Ashkenazim), the whole family camp out around the bed, eating pots of Mizrachi foods, and then all together make the Grace After Meals out loud. Baby said "No one does that any more".
She's right. Hospitals have become "civilized" places--although trying to get visitors to leave when visiting hours are over is still a trial for the staff, since Israelis all think that rules are meant for the other fellow. Many of the second and third generation of Mizrachim are noticeably less religious than their parents (in this, they are very similar to the Ashkenazim; as indeed was the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side).
That made me think of a scene in Policeman Azulai. Played by Shaike Ophir--himself a 10th generation Jerusalemite whose real name was Goldberg--Azulai was a sort of Israeli Clouseau. The name Azulai is Moroccan, and in the Sixties, to be a Mizrachi policeman was a considerable achievement. He bumbles around, rather pompous, more often than not screwing up, but you know his heart is always in the right place. One night, doing his rounds, after being demoted for general incompetence,
to walking a beat, he looks longingly at a black and white TV in a shop window, knowing that he can never afford such a luxury on a policeman's pay. A prostitute accosts him, offers him a freebie, but he declines with great courtesy: "I can't, I'm sorry, I'm a Cohen (member of the priestly caste)". She understands immediately and bids him goodnight. It was amusing because of the reason he declined--not because he was a straight cop, but because he was religious. There are plenty of religious cops today, but somehow one doesn't think they'd refuse for that reason.
Another scene was "the telephone call". Israel is second only to Hong Kong in cell-phone saturation these days. It seems impossible that barely 30 years ago it could take ten years to get a land line. (Israel's telephone system infrastructure was laid exactly before optic fiber replaced copper wire, so the number of available lines was strictly limited) It was common, when placing an ad for an apartment to let to note whether there was a telephone line in the apartment or not--it made the apartment much more valuable. But the line would be on your landlord's name, so you would have to tell friends who wanted to look you up in the phone book that name, not your own. Policeman Azulai is getting a ride back to the station in a police van which has a "motorola", as the mobile phones in cars were called, back then (of course, this was several decades before the invention of the cell phone). Rather shyly, because of the novelty of it all, he asks the driver if he can call his wife to tell her he will be home for dinner. When the driver says yes, Azulai dials not his home, but the neighborhood corner grocery store. The grocery store owner sends his young son to run across the street and shout the message up to a woman hanging laundry off her porch. The woman goes through her apartment, shouts across a courtyard, to Mrs. Azulai, that her husband won't be late getting home. That was the way it was.
My children, aged in their twenties, cannot even imagine an Israel like this, and I for one think it is sad they cannot. Change in Israel comes so very fast it makes one's head spin. Until the mid-80s the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots was much smaller; no matter whether one had money or not, what you could buy with it was very limited. There was, for example, two kinds of coffee: "nes" which was an instant beverage made by Elite which vaguely resembled real instant coffee (the name came from the word "Nescafe", but also means "miracle" in Hebrew), and "botz" (mud) which is Turkish coffee put into boiling water and stirred. At certain, very posh, cafes one could get a real espresso. Now we have a full variety of lattes and cappucinos (but Starbuck's fancy-shmancy, and expensive, coffees did not succeed in Israel) A single black and white TV cost the earth? Now we have 5 color TVs, two DVRs, (and three VCRs we no longer use). Who would foresee the VCR, the microwave oven, the PC -- not even in the US were such appliances available in the 70s and 80s because they hadn't been invented yet. But there is a limited amount of television addiction possible when you've only got one channel, and that one shuts down at 11 p.m.
In my opinion, the three really giant changes in the country came with victory in the Six Days' War, the advent of cable TV, and the hyperinflation of the 80s. Of course the economic purchasing power of Israelis in general has greatly increased--even with massive taxation, Israelis have embraced the "private" (personally owned automobile) with a vengeance. When I made aliyah it was sufficiently enough of a luxury that no one passed a "trempiada" without picking up hitchhikers (now, no one in his right mind stops) and if someone did give you a "tremp" you invariably offered something toward the price of the gas. The hyperinflation created, as I wrote above, huge disparities in the Israeli population, however, and made conspicuous consumption a way of saying "I've got it made, mate", where previously it really hadn't mattered all that much; that the country simply survived was much more important than one's personal possessions. The Six Days' War relieved that anxiety to a large degree, and provided a very large pool of very cheap Palestinian labor. The influence of this labor force has been in several big areas. One, of course, is the accomplishment of huge amounts of building. Another has been the very corrupting idea that the "proper" path for Jews to take is into the white collar world--where once the Mizrachim largely filled the skilled trades and the blue collar jobs and Ashkenazim gave at least lip service to the philosophy of "avoda Ivrit" (Jewish labor) it is now so much easier and cheaper to get an Arab to do it. The Arabs, in turn, have become used to being almost completely dependent on the Jews for their income--so much so that their outcry on the security fence is directly related to their possible unemployment in the country they want to destroy, which is a completely absurd situation. And cable TV brought the wide horizons of affluence, mainly American, to Israel. I can remember when "Dallas" and "Dynasty" and the "Bill Cosby Show" were the main "examples" of American life on Israeli TV. The former two programs were so obviously the lifestyle of a favored few, and bore so little resemblance to anything in Israel, it was almost like watching science fiction. But once we got cable, we got lots of sitcoms which purported to be the lifestyle of the "average guy"--which still had Israelis' tongues hanging out. And let's not get into what Israeli teenagers thought/think of MTV. When I came to Israel, there wasn't really a "youth culture" because the youth grew up very fast (until almost 1980 high school wasn't free and by 18 a teenager was in the army) and in any case, because the country was young everyone perceived themselves as young. MTV showed that a certain kind of behavoir previously thought here to be "degenerate" was really "magneev" (cool).
It's particularly a shame because such a huge amount has been created in the past 60 years. My kids ought to be proud of it, but instead, except when they see, in a film, what it was really like, they just take today's Israel for granted.
Friday, July 11, 2008
Monday, July 07, 2008
We are something of an odd family. My mother had two sisters and a brother, all older and all had been born in Russia. Her siblings married young, and had their children young, and Mother married late, and had me when she was 40, so I have nearly no other relative in the family who is my contemporary. This strange, sort of "split level" family tree, combined with our penchant for moving all over the world, means that we aren't a tight-knit bunch.
Sue, and her husband Rob, arrived first. Sue's father is my mother's older brother, but she's several years younger than I am, and because of family politics, I'd never met her before (or only once; we were unsure, not recognizing each other at all) I doubt they would ever have come to Israel except that Rob's niece was graduating from an Israeli university where she's an exchange student.
Commandeering my daughter's car, I took them for a day trip to the north, to the Crusader castle at Belvoir (Kochav Yarden) and to kibbutz Lavi, to lunch at the Pagoda, a very good Chinese restaurant on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and then drove them back to Jerusalem via Megiddo and the coastal road. The night before, picking them up at their hotel, I took them to the Sherover Promenade which overlooks the Old City, and had Rob make the "Shchecheyanu" blessing that is appropriate for having a new or unique experience, and then took them to the Kotel (Western Wall). The Wall at night is quite impressive, but I got the feeling that, for them, it was pretty much just a wall.
But they loved wandering through the Machaneh Yehuda open-air market, and seeing what a real kibbutz was like, even though I realized they had some difficulty in understanding why anyone would want to live in one (apart from the lovely landscaping). Rob told me he wasn't interested in historical places anywhere as near as much as seeing how people lived.
On their final day in Jerusalem I drove them to Masada, where we met up with more of Rob's family, including his married daughter. His son-in-law asked so many questions which showed he knew next to nothing about Jewish history that I asked Sue if he was Jewish (neither his name nor his appearance gave any hint). "Oh yes, " she said, "he's from quite an Orthodox home". What she meant by this was that he would go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur.
Then, just last week, the Los Angeles contingent arrived. There is a program, underwritten by American Jewish philanthropists in conjunction with the Israeli government, called "Birthright" which gives American Jewish teenagers a free, guided trip to Israel, lasting a week or so. That's how Lowell got here, several years ago. He's the exact contemporary of my son, but one generation further on, if you get my meaning. His mother Ellen's grandmother and my mother were sisters. He returned to the States so enthusiastic about Israel that he convinced the entire family to come on a visit.
They did it in style, taking a licensed tour guide with a van (there were a total of five persons, which made it impossible to stuff them all in my car) for most of the time. The guide must have had his work cut out, because they had even less knowledge of what they were being shown than my other cousins, and these cousins were interested in visiting all the de rigueur "places", like the Knesset, Yad Vashem and the Supreme Court building and rather obviously weren't all that keen on open air markets, etc.
It was nice, but tiring, and mildly depressing. I'm glad they came, and I'm glad I got to know them better. But if they are at all typical of the "average" American non-Orthodox Jew, and I think they are, I don't have a lot of hope for Jewish survival in the US for more than another couple of generations.
None of them could read Hebrew, not even enough for the prayers. None of them knew any of the traditional liturgy. None of them had more than the vaguest idea of Jewish history, either in the Land or worldwide. None of them knew what the Talmud consisted of (let alone had ever peeked inside one) nor of the commandments which are particular to Israel such as tithes, the sabbatical year, etc., or even many of the commandments at all. None keep kosher, for example. In other words, these very nice, intelligent people were entirely ignorant of their heritage, and quite happy to be so. It just doesn't have any relevance to them.
Long ago, my father predicted that while there would continue to be Jews in Russia, because of the persecution and anti-Semitism there, Israeli Jews would identify themselves more as Israelis than Jews, and that there would no longer be a Jewish community in the US because it would entirely assimilate. I fear he may be right, some day.