Thursday, March 30, 2006

Here he is! My new cookie! Posted by Picasa

Here is a photo of my new nephew. I'm not sure how well this will come up on the blog, since I had to crop it (I don't think my sister would like me putting up HER picture without asking). Another picture (bigger file) is coming up. Posted by Picasa
I'm a Doda again!

My sister had a new baby boy yesterday! Now I'm Doda times three! (Yes, that is what they call me. It means "aunt" in Hebrew, and I'm their only aunt, so there's no point in being redundant by calling me "Doda Sarah.") I've seen pictures and he is so cute! He weighs almost 9 pounds and has very round cheeks and lots of brown hair. My brother-in-law thinks the new baby looks just like his big brother, Nathan, but I think he looks like a mixture between Nathan and Ilan, and bottom line looks like a totally new little person. It's so exciting! He's really adorable.

Luiz, the proud Abba, told me what they are naming the baby, but I'm not sure it's public knowledge yet, so I'll wait before announcing it. Thank God, it's a name I was rooting for.

With a nod toward "Friends" and a hat tip to Treppenwitz, I just want to say to my tiny new nephew: Nephew, as your Doda, I promise I'll always have gum.

That is, when I see him. They live in California, and I live in Israel, and I'm all travelled out. Having gone to the USA five times in the last 2 and a half years, if I see the inside of an airplane again anytime soon, I'll have to scream. So I think we'll be using a lot of jpg files, web cams, and phone calls to stay in touch. Not that he cares, but I will.

I have a good friend here in Israel who is also expecting a baby, and it's strange to think that I'll probably have a more intimate relationship with her child as he or she passes through babyhood, than I will with my own nephew.

But, that would have been true even if I'd stayed in the USA. It's not like New York, which is where I used to live, is so close to California either. Closer, but not close at all.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

One small step for Israel, one giant leap for Sarah

If I'd been expecting trumpets to sound and fans to throw confetti at me while I voted for the first time in an Israeli election, I'd have been sorely disappointed. Save for two elderly ladies who held me up a bit while climbing to the second floor of the high school where my voting station was located, I had absolutely no wait. I just went into the classroom, showed my National ID Card to the four good folks sitting at the table, and went into the lone booth with the envelope they'd given me. Actually it wasn't really a booth, but a table set up with a blue cardboard screen for privacy.

Behind the screen were about 30 sets of little slips of paper, each with the name of a party on it. My job was to pick my party, put its slip of paper into the envelope, and then go back to the table to enter my envelope into the ballot box. It doesn't get any more lo-tech than that, but at least we don't have to worry about dimpled chads. Envelopes with more than one slip inside are discounted. I've heard there are problems sometimes when people walk away with all the slips for parties they don't like, but I'm sure the four people at the table had extras of everything just in case.

(I should note that the four people included a charedi man, a woman who did not appear religious at all, and two men of vague demographic standing. I suppose that they have different parties represented at each voting station, so they can watchdog each other. They were joking around between themselves - it seemed like a nice atmosphere. It was odd, because any other day these people would probably be pointedly ignoring each other, but here they were, thrown together by circumstance, and having a nice chat over coffee and a ballot box.)

Right up to when I voted, I wasn't 100 percent sure whom to vote for. Like I said, I'd been wavering between Big Party A and Small Party B, but had pretty much discounted Small Party B a few days ago and was planning to vote for Big Party A-- not because I love Big Party A, but because I liked it more than any of the others, all things considered. But just yesterday, I started thinking that maybe Big Party C would be a better choice. So, right up to my walk up the stairs behind the old ladies, I was wavering between Big Party A or Big Party C. I got to the booth, and took so long staring at the two slips of paper, trying to feel what my heart was telling me and to feel if either of those papers had a better "energy" than the other, that the election reps at the table asked me if I need any help.

Finally I realized that if I vote for Big Party A, I'd spend the rest of my life wondering whether I'd done the right thing, whereas if I vote for Big Party C, I could just vote and leave the rest up to the cosmos. So I voted for Big Party C. As I dropped the envelope into the box, I mentioned that I'm a new immigrant voting for the first time here, and the big charedi man immediately behind the box pretended to be snapping my picture. They all congratulated me, and that was that.

By the way, if you want to see some much better election blogging, Allison has been keeping her thumb on the pulse of voting day.

And the Jewish Agency is having a life webcast.

Thumbnail info on each of the medium-to-large parties here.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Overcoming the Paper Monster

I am sure I'm not the only one who has a big ol' paper pile. Not the neat kind, with everything organized in labeled hanging-folders (though I have that, too). I mean the shopping bag full of accumulated mail, magazines, and random papers that you don't want to throw away, but you haven't quite gotten around to filing. Every so often you find yourself needing something from the bag, and you rummage through it, thinking "I really should file this stuff." Please tell me I'm not the only one.

Well, today I went through the whole bag and filed things, created new hanging folders, threw away stuff I don't need anymore, and consolidated a much smaller, much more innocuous, "file later" bag (which I'll get to in, I don't know, about a year maybe . . . )

I have to do this at least once a year. Because tax season rolls around, and my accountant is coming tomorrow, and, despite the neatly-labeled hanging file folder for "Taxes 2005" which I created over a year ago, I still have to make sure that no pay stubs or W2's ended up in that bag.

Passover, and tax season. Two great neatness motivators if ever there were any. Too bad they come around the same time of year, or my paper monster would never get more intimidating than Grover.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Bearer of Bad News (of special significance to my NER NCSY buddies)- Now with update!

I get a lot of requests to post various things on my blog, particularly from other bloggers asking me to post links to their sites. Since I only blogroll those sites which I myself read regularly, I generally respond to those requests with a polite but firm "thanks for contacting me, but . . . "

But sometimes, a personal friend makes a request to pass along some news through my site, and I usually agree to those since, hey, what is nepotism for if not to blog each other's news? In the last week or so I've gotten two such requests, and I do mean to post the material, but I haven't gotten around to it.

And now a third request came in that just can't wait, since the news is only "practical" for another two days.

You know that tour bus that tipped into a canyon last week in Chile, killing 12 people? You know how 8 of the dead were members of a Bnai Brith tour?

Well, the news always feels more important when it affects someone you know . . . and I just found out that Ira and Linda Greenfield, z"l, of Stamford, Connecticut, were the parents of Amy (Greenfield) Stark, formerly of Stamford and now of California (I hear possibly LA, but I'm not sure).

Amy was Regional Vice President for Programming of New England NCSY before I took over the job from her my senior year of high school. We weren't best friends, but knew each other pretty well, and I was always fond of her. I still have a photo from my "installation" onto the Regional Board, in which Amy is passing me a soda bottle . . . the ceremony is supposed to involve the outgoing board members passing a flame from their own candles to those held by the incoming board members, but despite being NER region we'd run out of candles! So the soda bottle stood in to symbolize Amy's passing me the torch. ("Ner" means "candle" in Hebrew, and also stands for New England Region.)

How terrible to lose two parents in one day, so suddenly. The funeral was held this morning. May the Greenfield and Stark families be, as we say, "comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

Here is the shiva information:
Shiva will be held in Stamford through Wednesday at the home of Linda's sister. Mincha/Maariv is each night at 6 pm. The address is 59 Auldwood Road, Stamford, Connecticut.

I hope we can share happier news in the future.


Amy will be sitting shiva at that Stamford address only until 1 pm today (Monday). After that she'll sit shiva at her home in Los Angeles. I have her phone number in LA, should any other old-time but out-of-touch friends wish to call her.

(Hat tip: Thanks to Judy (nee K.) R. for keeping the NER bunch from the late 80's connected to each other.)

Coughing up a lung. Can't sleep at night. Is this stuff supposed to be green?

Good thing I brought Triaminic and Vick's VapoRub back from the States in January, so it was on hand.

Chicken soup taken out of the freezer to defrost.

Luckily there is a pharmacist around the corner. Hot water bottle. Guaifenesin.

No fever. Just coughing. And my tonsils look like they were run over by little tiny trucks.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Appreciation Wednesday on Friday- Hodgepodge of Different Thoughts

I was going to write a post about how this week has been all about my trying to reach a state of equilibrium. I've been quite stressed and somewhat anxiety-ridden the last few weeks, and have been trying to figure out why. I think in general it's a stressful time for anyone who lives in or cares about Israel, what with Hamas in power next door and elections coming up. Plus, I have to come to terms with the fact that Purim is not all it's cracked up to be, and it's better to simply accept that than try to fight it and make it my favorite holiday. And I have to accept, also, that I am not perfect and that certain things I'd like to change about myself are harder than I would like.

Anyway, in thinking about certain things I'd like to blog about, I realize that almost each one brings up something I appreciate. So, here goes, Appreciation Wednesday:

JOB SEARCH: I've decided to look in earnest for a part-time job in journalism, PR, grantwriting, program coordinating, teaching, or anything else that sounds interesting and uses my skills. The freelancing thing has been great and I love it, but I'm always in a state of just not quite making ends meet. I've come to terms with the idea of giving up some of my freedom in exchange for regular work, being part of a team of people I see every day, and having some stable source of income (which my freelancing can supplement a bit).

So as I spruce up my resume and embark on a job search, I'm ever grateful to God for endowing me with so many marketable skills. Yes, it's true that I myself did some hishtadlut (my own effort) to learn them, but I do not take for granted even for a second that it is God (and my parents) who gave me the opportunities to learn those skills, the interest in doing so, and the ability to learn them. It would be arrogance of the highest order to think that the things I can do, I can do only because of my own desire to do them. There are many people who would love to learn new skills and cannot because they do not have the opportunity, or for some other reason that has more to do with circumstances than their own drive. So, thank you God for giving me these gifts. And thank you to my parents for all those years of private school, college, and for the help with graduate school. I really appreciate it.

ELECTIONS: Yes, the process of deciding for whom to vote has been stressful for me, this being my first election since making Aliyah. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be to find English-language information about all the party platforms (thank God for Wikipedia!). For a long time I had it narrowed down to two choices: Big Party A, whose platform strikes me as at least minimally acceptable, but I'm sort of lukewarm about it, and don't really love the personalities who are leading the party . . . . Or Small Party B, most of whose platform I love and agree with almost completely. But but BUT! It includes one thing that I cannot in good faith vote for. It goes back to the "acceptable collateral damage" idea I've discussed before. If I love everything else, but the party advocates one thing that I find absolutely unconscionable, what should I do?

I considered voting for the smaller party anyhow, since if they win a lot of seats, the winning party (probably Kadimah) would probably try to make a coalition with them, and then probably incorporate some things I like without implementing the thing I hate. But there are two problems with this: a) After what happened with Hamas, I believe in voting for a party that you wouldn't mind seeing in power. If, for example, everyone who supports Kadimah assumes that Kadimah will win anyway and therefore votes for smaller "boutique" parties, then Kadimah won't win. And b) Kadimah has said that they would never join a coalition with Small Party B. That could be bunk, but I'm trying to navigate some complicated waters here and have to go with the information I have.

So it looks like I'm probably voting for Big Party A. I'm only 75 percent OK with it, but in this part of the world, 75 percent is already pretty good.

And regarding the elections, I appreciate two things. First, I appreciate that I live in a democracy at all. That is huge.

And second, I appreciate all the people and institutions who made my aliyah possible. Because without having made aliyah, I'd be watching this game from the sidelines. Instead, I have a place waiting for me at a polling station and I can play the game myself. There are so many supporters of Israel around the world who are watching this story unfold from outside. But I'm here, and I'm playing. It's just one vote, but it is a vote.

I gave up a lot to be able to cast that vote. Left behind my language and culture and family and friends . . . mostly to just live here and be part of the story every day as I buy my breakfast cereal and talk to taxi drivers. But also, so I could vote. So I appreciate myself for having picked myself up and become an Israeli citizen. And I appreciate Nefesh B'Nefesh, and my parents, and all the people who have supported me and helped me to be able to come and to stay, and to vote.

And I really appreciate whoever it was that listed all of Israel's political parties on Wikipedia. Thank you!!!!

CHAVRUTA: In these crazy times, one of the things that keeps me sane is my three-times-per-week gemara class at Pardes. I've loved it all year, but a few weeks ago there was a development that made it even better. Due to a requirment in her program, my previous chavruta (learning partner), Nili, with whom I learned very well and whom I like very much, went to America for a month along with several other members of the class. So many chavrutot (sets of people who puzzle out the texts together, in pairs) were switched around. I ended up with a lovely recent Cornell graduate and marathon runner, Elana Brochin. And I have to say, learning with Elana is like magic. There was no way that anyone could have known in advance -- we're very different from each other in many ways -- but when it comes to learning Gemara, we have this great wavelength going. For some inexplicable reason, as soon as I started learning with Elana, the Talmud started speaking to me much more understandably. Yeah, half the time it's still completely frustrating and we sit there going "OK, this is really hard material." But the other half, we just get it. Elana claims that it's me who is getting it and telling her what's going on, but in that case, Elana must be my muse, because this has never happened before.

I think it's because we both give each other time to think. We have a good "flow" in terms of who looks up various words in the dictionary, and we do this little dance where we read ahead through material we don't understand, hoping that a line that comes later in the text will illuminate a previous line. So it's a lot of backwards and forwards, one of saying "maybe it means this" and the other saying "hm. But then what does that mean?" and then each of us silently perusing the text until one of us says "eureka." I appreciate having that silent time to look it over and letting the words coalesce in a way that makes sense. I also appreciate that Elana often reminds me that sometimes we don't have to understand everything, and it's more worthwhile to move on than to break our heads over something that we understand "well enough."

And, she's very sweet. She models certain behaviors for me that I think will make me a better person if I can emulate them.

So, thanks Elana, for being an amazing chavruta. I'll really miss you next year!

Shabbat shalom, everyone.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Ethiopia Dreamin'

Yesterday was really special. The Lipton family of Greenwich, CT sponsored a Bat Mitzvah party and day-trip for girls in the Merchavya Absorption Center (in Afula), and I got to escort them. It was a group of 18 Ethiopian girls, ages 12-15, their parents, a few babies, and a few staff members of the Jewish Agency. The Jewish community in Ethiopia does not celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties at all -- they may have an idea that 12 or 13 is the age at which one is religiously obligated to fulfill Torah commandments, but they definitely do not mark the occassion with any special sort of ceremony. Then the families make Aliyah, and the kids experience the lavish Israeli (though not nearly as lavish as the Americans') bar and bat mitzvah parties, and they feel very left out. So this was an opportunity to give them something to lift their spirits and make them feel more like "normal" Israelis.

We're talking about an immigrant population that arrive in Israel with pretty much nothing but the clothes on their backs (well, actually, I learned yesterday that they have three sets of clothes: One for weekdays, one for Shabbat, and one that had been passed down from generation to generation, not to be worn until the return to Israel. Those are the outfits they wear on the plane to Tel Aviv.) They are completely untouched by Western culture or technology: They have to be taught that a toilet is not a local water well; that it is OK to turn on a fire in the house by igniting the gas stove, but it is not OK to turn the gas flame off by blowing it out; what a lightswitch does and how to change a lightbulb; how to effectively use a shower. A few weeks ago I was at another Absorption Center taking photos of children with my print camera, and they were stymied about the fact they couldn't immediately see a digital photo in the back: since they never had seen a camera before moving to Israel in the last year, they assumed that all cameras are digital ones. They'd never seen any other kind.

We started the day piling into a bus -- I should note that they played Ethiopian music over the loudspeaker, and it was "different" for me but very rhythmic and cool-- and going to Arbel, up in the Galilee, where we ate a scrumptious breakfast of hot pitas, salad, tea, and cookies in a Bedouin-style tent. Interestingly, the women and men ate in separate parts of the tent without being asked to do so. With the mothers wearing their traditional Ethiopian Shabbat clothes (all dressed in white, white being the traditional Ethiopian color worn on festive occassions such as this Bat Mitzvah party) and the men sitting across from them, in a Bedouin-style tent, I had a feeling that I'd just stepped into another country entirely.

I want to add here that an amazing thing happened when we got to the breakfast site. The family who was sponsoring the event had not yet arrived, and there was some discussion among the staff about whether we should wait for them before starting to eat. Now, what do you think happens when you have a large group of Jews, a table of food, and people in charge who speak a foreign language? I took it as a given that they would storm the food table. It's not as if there was any obvious reason for them to wait. What Jews could resist a table full of food? Well, not so with the Ethiopians, who waited patiently until the staff formally told them they could go ahead and enjoy themselves. They are that polite.

From the breakfast site, the girls each got to saddle themselves onto a donkey, and to the sounds of 18 girls squealing and laughing, we took a donkey ride to the Arbel Cliff, which has a stunning view of the Galilee. (One of the fathers told me that in Ethiopia, he'd used a donkey every day to haul merchandise from the city to his village, where he sold his wares. But most of the girls obviously had never ridden a donkey themselves.) All along, the tour guide connected sites we were seeing with Biblical history - such as the fact that a mountain we passed on the bus, Mount Tabor, was the very one from which Devorah the Judge had made her prophesies.

After the donkey ride, we rode to Safed, where the parents had a little history lesson in a park while the girls changed into their new outfits. The sponsors had paid for each girl to receive a new blouse and skirt (all in festive white), underclothes, and shoes. The parents returned to the bus to find their daughters lined up in a row, their sparkling white blouses setting off their beautiful dark-brown skin. Everyone clapped for the young ladies, who giggled with embarrassment, and the staff members took lots of pictures of the princesses. It was a beautiful moment for people who are so rarely made such a fuss over.

We had a walking tour of the artists' colony in Safed, as well as the synagogue of the Ar"i (Rabbi Isaac Luria, a major figure in Kabbalah and subject of a recent song by Madonna). The girls also made Shabbat candles at the Chabad Center and learned about how Torah Scrolls are made and inscribed. Then we entered the Rimonim hotel, where a three-piece band welcomed the girls with festive Israeli songs, and where we had a scrumptious lunch while the band played "dinner music." (I'm pretty sure the Ethiopians found the Western music as "different" as I'd found theirs.) It was really something to see these new immigrants, who were so impoverished and had never experienced such a thing, being fawned over by waiters for the first time in their lives. I saw some of the girls glancing at staff members and then, in imitation, putting their linen napkins on their laps.

Oh, and, by the way, when a hotel representative announced that the buffet was in another room and we were all welcome to make our way there and take what we want, what do you think the Ethiopians did? Get up and rush to the buffet, like normal Jews? No. They sat still and waited, until a Jewish Agency staff person realized that they were waiting for the staff (the absorption center administration, etc) to go take food first. It was only after their social workers, translators, and program directors got food that they themselves got up to eat. I really like these people. They have manners.

After everyone had eaten, the sponsors wished the families Mazal Tov and gave each girl a Bat Mitzvah gift of silver candlesticks and an intricate Star of David necklace charm. Mr. Lipton said something very beautiful about their having sponsored the event because "we're all one family. Though we've been scattered to Africa, America, Europe, and all over the Middle East and the world, we've always looked to Israel as our home, and now we are back together again after being separated for 2,000 years." His speech, like everything else said on the trip, was translated twice- once into Hebrew and once into Amharic. (Things said in Hebrew were translated into Amharic for the newer immigrants and English for the Liptons.) One of the girls, who made aliyah three years ago and already speaks wonderful Hebrew, gave a short speech thanking the Liptons and speaking of her and her friends' happiness at passing through childhood and reaching the adult stage of their lives.

Then someone turned on more Ethiopian music, and we got into a crowded circle and clapped and watched some of the parents dance in the middle. We tried to get the girls to dance but, being 12-15 year-old Ethiopian girls, they were too shy. I discovered that Ethiopian dancing is all in the shoulders. To me it looked, at first, more like shrugging or the chicken dance, but one of the fathers got really into it and I wished I could move my shoulders that way!

By 5:30 all the girls and parents were back at their Absoption Center, changing back into their regular clothes and getting ready for their 6 pm English class. I left them feeling really happy that, in addition to all the nourishment these immigrants need in terms of knowledge and skills and clothing and food, that someone had also thought to give them something to feed their hearts.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Breast-feeding in Shule

A couple of commenters took me to task for indicating that breast-feeding in shule is inappropriate.

My feelings about breastfeeding in public, and specifically in a place of worship, are actually more complicated than those commenters give me credit for.

I don't have time right now to write a fully comprehensive, logically-ordered post, so I'll just make a few points for everyone to digest:

1- Breastfeeding IS a necessary, natural, and beautiful way to take care of one's child. I hope to do it myself one day.

2- Western society does indeed often make it uneccessarily uncomfortable for women to feed their babies. Often there is no appropriate place provided to do it (and no, a toilet is not an appropriate place), and women are given flak (flack?) for doing something that they need to do - or, more specifically, that their babies need for them to do.

3- Relegating mothers to nurse in back bedrooms, in hallways, etc means that they will miss out on just about any adult conversation or adult activity they can ever do - which just makes mothering even more frustrating and lonely than it already is.

4- Breastfeeding is NOT a sexual act.

5- Asking men to "get over it" and not be distracted by the sight of a woman's bare breast is, frankly, asking too much and belies a certain fundamentalist attitude about breastfeeding among certain women. Just as babies are wired to suck, and women are wired to produce milk, men are wired to be distracted by the bare breast. That is how babies get into the world in the first place. Just as it is unfair to tell a woman to leave just because she needs to nurse, it is unfair to tell a healthy man to just look somewhere else. Personally, I think it would be very sad if all the men in the world became immune to the site of a bare breast.

6- I personally think that breastfeeding anywhere is OK as long as the mother and baby are covered up with a blanket. At that point, if men can't help but think about what is going on under the blanket, then it's in the same league as men thinking about anything under a woman's clothes. The woman is covered up, you can't see anything - if the men's minds are wandering, then at that point, in my opinion, the woman has done her part and it's now the man's issue to deal with.

7-In the case mentioned in my last post, the woman did NOT use a blanket, and I think that bare breasts are inappropriate in most public places, but particularly in a place of worship, no matter why they are being bared. Marital sex is also natural and beautiful- and inappropriate for shule. Changing a diaper, while not beautiful, is a natural part of taking care of one's child- but you wouldn't do it in the sanctuary of a synagogue. If a person has a condition in which they always feel hot, I wouldn't tell them it's OK to strip naked in shule, either, even though in that case it is similarly NOT sexual.

8- My friend who breastfeeds tells me that some children will not nurse under a blanket. So, to be very dan l'kaf zchut (giving the woman the benefit of the doubt), since I later found out she's married, we'll assume that this 12-to-18 month old child nurses more than once an hour, and therefore must be brought to shule with the mothern while she hears megillah for 60 minutes; that he refuses to nurse under a blanket; and that the woman already knew there were no chairs right outside in the hall, outside the sanctuary, where it is still perfectly possible to hear everything going on.

9- It is really unfortunate that so many women are given a hard time about breastfeeding in public, when all they are trying to do is feed their children, and that they are made to feel "dirty" for doing something non-sexual and a necessary part of mothering.

10- It is also unfortunate that so many women are fundamentalist about their breastfeeding and insist that baring their breasts in public must be OK, by definition, no matter where they are (in shule, at a press conference with the president of the United States, in an audience with the Dalai Lama . . . ) or who else is around (TV cameras, single 25-year-old Orthodox men, Prince Charles . . . ), as long as there is a baby sucking at it. Not every natural behavior is appropriate in every circumstance.

11- I do not mean to equate breastfeeding, which is beautiful, necessary, and natural, with diaper-changing, which is necessary and natural but NOT beautiful . . . . but I'm thinking that a good rule of thumb is: if you are in a place where it is inappropriate to change your baby's diaper, then you are in a place where it is inappropriate to bare your breast. (Again, I think nursing under a blanket is OK just about anywhere that you would bring your baby to begin with.) Thus, baring your breast (for example if your baby will not nurse under a blanket) is OK in a crowded airplane where there is nowhere else to go, or at a mommy-and-me meeting, or in a public park when you are on a picnic. But it is not OK at the Shabbat table (under a blanket is OK!), or in the sanctuary of a shule, or at a business meeting, or in the middle of your graduate-level Economics class, or in front of Queen Elizabeth. My rule of thumb leaves some grey areas-- do you want to be breast-feeding at a Red Sox game in front of beer-guzzling fans? Do people bring babies to Red Sox games to begin with?-- but some things just have to be left to individual circumstances.

11a. Actually, to refine my rule-of-thumb further . . . . or maybe change it completely; I reserve the right to change my mind after thinking about this further . . . . I think the issue with baring one's breast is mainly that it is distracting. So, in a place where distracting other people is impolite (in the middle of Economics class, in the middle of megillah reading, etc) it is impolite to nurse a child without using a blanket. When I was a college instructor, one of the rules in my class was that you could snack, but not on hot food or food in packages that make a lot of noise when you open them. Grapes or a peanut butter sandwich were OK, but not piping-hot lasagna or potato chips -- because they are distracting. Now, eating is a natural process of being alive, and I certainly did not want my students to be hungry in class, which was why I allowed snacks. But their need to eat does not, in my judgement, supercede (supersede?) the need of other students to concentrate on my lecture. What I'm saying is, an action can be perfectly natural and wonderful, but not in every environment under the sun.

12- I'm sure there will be lots of arguments that my rules-of-thumb don't work, and I'm not claiming that either of them do work in all circumstances. But to those who vehemently disagree with me, I just have to say again, the world would be a much better place if everyone would just listen to me and do what I say without question. :-)

13- Telling me "your opinion will change once you are breastfeeding" may be correct but it is irrelevant. Everyone feels that their needs are more important than those of others. And, probably, before you breastfed, or before your wife did, you found it incredibly distracting and sometimes impolite, too. Women who breastfeed have to deal with a world that includes people who are not breastfeeding, or who do not have breasts . . . . just as men, and women who have never breastfed, have to deal with a world in which babies nurse, and have to eat. The needs of mothers and babies are really, really important, and we should be as understanding as possible about the fact that when babies get hungry, their mothers have to feed them. But that doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate reasons that bare breasts make other people uncomfortable, and I think the "just get over it" attitude on the part of some mothers is just as insensitive and unhelpful as the "go nurse in the bathroom" attitude of others.

14- I probably would have been a lot more on the side of nursing mothers in this post if the commenter Margalit had not displayed such a huge amount of bad attitude in her comment to my last post. So, I apologize to all the mothers who engage in behavior I may otherwise have more readily defended, but when someone writes a comment in such a condescending and judgemental tone, I take umbrage. I wish I were better than that, but I'm not, especially since I've had a hard week.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Purim Grinch

It's been an unusually grumpy sort of Purim this year. Sarah Smile blogged about Purim grumpiness. Orthomom made many important points about Purim's ugly or just annoying sides here, here, here, and here. I called an otherwise very frum friend on Tuesday, and she was so grumpy that she decided to skip out on megillah reading altogether. And one of the Jewlicious bloggers had every reason to be grumpy, but I can't link to his post because their site isn't coming up right now.

Luckily, I managed to evade any signs of drunkenness this year among my neighbors and acquaintances. On Tuesday evening (we in Jerusalem celebrate Purim a day later than most of the world) I attended the megillah reading and Purim spiel at Pardes, and it was all in good fun. The only alcohol was in a very clearly-labeled bowl of punch, which I noticed was not any more popular than the "virgin punch" on another table. The spiel was well done and managed to make fun of a lot of students and faculty members without being hurtful. On Wednesday, after megillah reading, I brought mishloach manot packages to the hairdresser and makolet owners around the corner, and to my dry cleaner, who were all very happy and loved my costume (I was decked out in my Shabbos robe from Monsey and wore a tiara and a scepter . . . as the Shabbos Queen . . . ). When I got home I found that I had received food packages from a couple of friends, including one with a whole coconut and instructions for opening it! How fun!

The two seudas I attended were similarly "clean." One was at the home of a friend, who kindly made a delicious buffet for about 30 guests- mostly singles. There was a little wine, but perhaps since almost all the guests were women, people generally limited themselves to about one glass or less. Then I went to my haredi relatives, and though they'd put out plenty of liquor, no one there was drunk either.

So what do I have to be grumpy about? In the grand scheme of things, very little. But all throughout the holiday were little annoying things . . . .

1. While the reading at Pardes was very nice, there were some women sitting around me talking the whole time. It was obvious that this was the first megillah reading they'd ever attended, and that they simply did not realize that it's very important to be silent during the megillah reading, since part of the mitzvah is to hear every single word. I couldn't be angry, since they obviously didn't know. But it was still very frustrating for me.

2. The reading at my Orthodox shule the next day was no better, because several women came with small children, and two of those children were whining or talking almost the whole time. One woman, in order to silence her child, started breast feeding in the middle of the megillah reading, right in shule. More about that some other time -- but at least the child was being quiet. The other woman allowed her son to talk at normal conversational pitch until they got up to Chapter 6. She then took him out to the hall, and returned with him about a chapter later, upon which he resumed his chatter. I happen to know this woman, and so my internal dialogue about the other, breast-feeding, woman ("Maybe she's a single mom . . . who can't afford a babysitter . . . and is really lonely . . . ") wouldn't work. I know she has a husband who is perfectly capable of watching the kids during an 11 am megillah reading. And I know she knows that we're supposed to hear every word.

Today I did an unscientific survey among my friends, and found that 100 percent of them knew that the reason shules have more than one Purim reading is so that parents can switch off babysitting the small children at home. And 100 percent of them also knew that, if you decide to take a risk and bring your child to megillah reading, and that child starts making noise, it is your responsibility to take your child out of the sanctuary. Period. I know it's upsetting to miss out on a mitzvah, but believe me, it's more upsetting for the rest of us for your kid to be making us miss out on a mitzvah.

Ugh!!!! If I'm going to be distracted during megillah reading, I wish it were by more cheery thoughts, rather than just by someone else's whiny child who clearly is too young to be brought to a megillah reading to begin with. Ugh!!!!!

3. I made "themed" mishloach manot packages this year, with a combination of foods that worked really well and in general made life really easy (and cheap) for me. Each bag contained a pita, a container of hummus, some Israeli salad, and a few falafel balls. Instant lunch! Some assembly required! And it only cost me about $2.50 per bag to put together! But I decided in the last minute to buy ready-made falafel balls from a stand, rather than deep-fry my own and risk burning myself (again). But, because I'd overslept and then found I didn't have enough cash, I had to do some running around, going to the bank, etc . . . and then didn't have enough time to bring mishloach manot to a specific family that I'd really wanted to see.

4. First purim seudah . . . very lovely atmosphere, very delicious food, very nice people . . . about 25 single women and 3 single men . . .

5. Second purim seudah . . . very nice relatives, plus another family and their many, many children . . . . about 15 kids under the age of 12 running around the three-bedroom apartment . . . it was very loud . . . and the other mom decided that 5 minutes after meeting me was a good time to ask me if I'm dating, and to tell me "comforting" stories about other "older" women she knew who had finally gotten married, although one of them had to "settle" for marrying an Israeli . . . uuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrgggggghhhhhh . . . .

5. And finally, the worst part . . . on the way home I had a huge argument with my Palestinian taxi driver. The ride started out nicely enough. Not knowing what ethnicity he is, I asked him what he was drinking, since it looked like it might be beer, and I was afraid that he was a Purim-minded Jew who was drinking on the job. Understanding why I was asking, he showed me that it was an energy drink, and said he's Muslim and never drinks alcohol. So we started talking about Purim, and about Islam, and about Judaism, and I found him to be very knowledgable and respectful, and at first there was peace on earth and love between men.

But then he kept talking . . . about how none of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about religion, and despite any evidence to the contrary among Muslims here or in Europe it has nothing at all to do with anti-Semitism . . . and in the 10 blocks before my house he said the following two sentences:

"What the Israelis don't understand is that the problem is the occupation. If they would end the occupation, there would be peace."

And, in response to a question from me asking for clarification:

"The occupation started in 1948."

I pointed out that what he's saying is that there cannot be peace as long as there is a Jewish state, and he tried to backtrack and say that everything will be alright if Israel retreats to the 1967 border, and that despite anything going on between Jews and Muslims in Europe, this is about politics, not religion, and that it must be about the occupation because before 1967, Jews and Arabs got along just fine.

Basically we sat outside my building yelling at each other for 10 full minutes before I paid him the 26.50 shekels on the meter and wished him a good night. Then I went inside and cried my eyes out, I was so frustrated and angry.

And that was my Purim.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Four days a week I'm in a class on Neviim Rishonim (Books of First Prophets). We recently finished Samuel I and II and had an amazing field trip to the City of David, just outside the Old City (who knew that the Old City walls were built by the Turks? Not I. You learn something new every day.) I have tremendous new respect for the ancient Jebusites, who inhabited Jerusalem until they were overthrown by King David. Their technology was incredible.

It is very cool to be able to study the Bible and then go to the very places where the stories took place-- to walk through the very tunnels that David's soldiers probably used to get into the city and overthrow it, and to admire the very water spring at the opening of Hezekia's amazing aqueduct. They've even recently uncovered a room with dozens of seals (the kind used to protect important documents in ancient times), some of which bear the name of a man who is mentioned in the bible as being a king's scribe. Wow. It is all so very very cool.

But today I will present a specific Bible lesson (don't worry, this will have a point):

In class today, we got up to the chapter in Kings I where King Solomon builds the First Temple. See, his father, David, had handled all the wars with the neighbors that established a proper Israelite kingdom. And Solomon built on that stability, entering into commercial treaties with the surrounding nations, and ushering in a period of economic prosperity and peace. Every man to his fig tree or vine . . . 100 percent employment . . . and Israel as a cultural and commercial center for the Middle East. And to cap it all off, the wise and God-fearing Solomon builds a gorgeous Temple in Jerusalem. . . . the Temple that was the religious culmination of all of his and his father's military, economic, social, and cultural work.

According to Kings I, they started building the Temple 480 years after the Exodus from Egypt. In other words, it took 480 years from the time they left Egypt for the Jews to get their act together, set up a state, reach peace with the neighbors either through military action or through mutually beneficial treaties, enact intelligent economic and social policies, and finally reach a cultural zenith to the likes of which we aspire to return.

480 years is a long time, but it happened eventually.

Probably, the people who lived in the 100th year or the 354th year were thinking pretty much what we're thinking: that they don't want to read the Israelite newspapers anymore because it's too depressing.

So just think! Give the modern State of Israel another, say, 420 years or so, and everything could be fine!

Maybe not. But maybe yes.

420 years isn't so bad, right? Personally, I plan to pass the time watching Babylon 5, blogging, and trying to get another story published in the New York Times. Oh, and doing what I can to get us closer to the goal, by contributing to society as best I can, voting as intelligently as I can, and staying involved as much as I can.

I probably won't live to see the end of this movie, and right now the beginning scenes are looking pretty gruesome. But I like to believe the end will be a happy one, and someone, someday, will be there to enjoy it.

Pass the popcorn.
Problems, problems from head (figuratively) to foot (literally)

Well, I've been thinking a lot about the upcoming elections, trying to decide who to vote for. And of course, that gets me thinking about a possible future disengagement-- Good or bad? If good, now? If good, and now, is it doable?-- geez, you could think yourself in circles over this issue alone!-- and the Israeli economy, which are the two issues most important to me. Like most other Israelis, I have no pretence of voting for a party that might bring peace at this point, but rather thinking about what is the least evil of our options right now . . . given that there can't be peace in anyone's wildest imaginations . . . because Hamas won the frickin' elections next door. So it's about disengagement. And the economy. And, boy, is my head is full of election-related thoughts. Must. Write. An. Election. Post.

I'm also thinking about the humanitarian crisis among the Palestinians, but every time I think about that, my mind reminds me that they voted in Hamas, and then an internal struggle ensues in which I try really, really hard to focus on the children who are about to run out of food, instead of mentally giving their Hamas-voting parents the finger. Mentally giving them the finger is really immature and unproductive. It's just that, well . . . even if they voted for Hamas because to them Hamas represents stability and lack of corruption, it means that for them, the destruction of Israel -- the destruction of me in a bombing or a stabbing or a shooting-- is acceptable collateral damage. And so all the brain cells that I used to spend worrying about their humanitarian crisis, I'm now more inclined to spend worrying about any of the other dozens of humanitarian crises on this planet. Except that the Palestinians live next door, and our lives and economies and destinies are so intertwined with each other's, that their crisis is our crisis. I actually really don't want them to go hungry-- we must be better than that-- and yet . . . and yet . . . they voted in Hamas. The voters have spoken, and they don't really care if I die. So why should I care if they are hungry? Why should I expend effort voicing concern for them, if my death is something they were willing to vote for? And yet . . . if small children are running out of flour and other basic necessities, right next door, then how can I not care?

Damn, damn, damn.

. . .

. . .


. . .

Anyway, back to the election, I definitely have a lot of posts about this. However, they'll have to wait because I seem to have sprained my ankle this afternoon. It's not very bad (doesn't even look swollen), but it hurts to stand on it. So instead of writing an election post, or doing anything else productive, I am sitting at my desk with my foot on a chair with a bag of ice, watching the first four episodes of Babylon 5 on DVD.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Visit to the Other Side

On February 27, I wrote about how I think a lot of the perceived animosity that Orthodox people supposedly have toward the non-Orthodox is just that -- perceived, but not real. Meaning, in many cases, non-Orthodox Jews, and non-Jews, assume that Orthodox people are closed, unfriendly, condescending, etc etc and therefore don't even try to get to know any Orthodox Jews. Many of those people, when they do get to know Orthodox Jews, find that their stereotypes were all wrong, that it wasn't Orthodox Jews who had the problem, it was they who had the problem. If you meet people halfway, they will often come to you.

Now, I thought I'd qualified my post enough, but I got skewered in the comments anyway. Obviously, much depends on which Orthodox community you are talking about. I can't vouch for everyone's friendliness or the hospitality of every synagogue. I also know that many synagogues have a very cold atmosphere, and you'd have to spend a lot of time there to find the people who would be nice to you and open up to you.

I just know that the Orthodox people I hang out with are very cool to everyone, whether they are Orthodox or not, and the synagogue I attend is very friendly and welcomes everyone, no matter how you are dressed or how much or how little you know about Judaism. And no matter how much money you have. And no matter what your marital status is, or your color, or if your kids are adopted, or if you are disabled, or whatever. There are Orthodox Jews who are way cool. Yes, I myself have had to search to find a community I like, but it's there. My point being, I work hard not to wear the "veil of mystery" that I complained about in that last post, and I resent the stereotype that just because I'm Orthodox, my lifestyle is a state secret and that I'm somehow exotic and enigmatic, or backward.

Anyhow, last week I had a chance to put my idea to a test. The wife of my Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) third cousin, S., recently gave birth to their ninth child, and invited me to a kiddush (sort of an after-synagogue party with cakes, cookies, soda, and a little alcohol) at their home. Now, you have to understand some background:

  • These relatives live in an extremely cloistered Haredi neighborhood, the kind with signs everywhere that say "Ladies! Please respect the residents of our neighborhood and dress modestly. Modesty means long sleeves and skirts, skirts without slits, and married women should cover their hair. Do not lessen the sanctity of our neighborhood. 'Those who love Torah will be blessed with long life.'"
  • In this neighborhood, I stick out like a sore thumb. Sure, I was wearing long sleeves and a (very) long skirt. But . . . I can't describe this . . . my clothes just obviously are not the same style as that worn in the subculture I was visiting. Technically it was alright and wouldn't offend anyone, but stylistically it said "outsider" all over it. Then there was the fact that I was wearing sneakers, a clue-in that (driving on Shabbat being prohibited) I had to walk from way, waaaaaaay outside the neighborhood (an hour and a quarter each way, in fact -- thank God the weather was gorgeous last week!). And finally, my hair is uncovered. Since I'm clearly over the age of 19, my having my hair uncovered means I'm either single (and what business do I have being single at my age, and what else might I be doing with my time?) or I'm married but - gasp!- have not covered my hair. Either way, I'm an oddity.
  • I've been to S's house on a few occasions, so the kids know me. Apparently, they really love it when I come over. The parents are nice to me too.
  • For all that they are nice to me, I have never been in the homes of these cousins without overhearing them say something so offensive it makes me want to burst into a long lecture-- which I do not do, since a) there is no point and b) it's not polite to lecture people in front of their kids, or to lecture kids about something that contradicts directly with something their parents are trying to teach them. They are very different from me. There is no way we'd be close if it weren't for the fact that we're family. But we are family, so they are nice to me, and I'm nice to them, and we maintain a relationship. They have not tried to "mekarev" me to their ways, and I have not tried to change their minds about things (much) . . . I go, I play with the kids, we share stories (carefully avoiding certain topics) and that's it.

But would their neighbors, who have no obligation to be nice to me, even acknowledge my presence? What would they make of me? I felt like I was entering the lion's den . . . that is, I felt, going into this kiddush, what I bet a lot of not-Orthodox people feel when they are going into an Orthodox environment. Of course, I had the advantage that, being in S's home, I clearly had some connection to them - I had an "in." But still, just how weird would I be perceived to be by S's friends, who had never met me? How uncomfortable would I feel . . . and how uncomfortable would I be made to feel?

The kiddush was a very sweet little affair. S and his wife, C, had invited over several families from the neighborhood. The dining room was set up for S to receive the men, and a large table was brought into a bedroom, where the women hung out. (S and C live in a three-bedroom apartment - there's not much room for anything, so improvisation is key. And of course the men and women can't mingle, God forbid!) The baby had been born two weeks before, and the neighborhood ladies had pitched in with making cakes and cookies and kugels. S's oldest son, who is 11 1/2, also made a delicious cake (leading to a discussion by some of the women about how, even though they think it's weird for a boy to want to cook, some of them have sons who really want to try, and they don't want to squelch their childrens' creativity, so they let the boys cook sometimes). Between the hours of 10-12, people came in and out, stopping by between synagogue services and Shabbat lunch at their homes.

Since I was staying for lunch, I was introduced to every woman who came in. It was hard for them to ignore me, since the room was small and S's kids were climbing into my lap. Obviously I'd been there before. Almost everyone asked "So, how do you know C?" and I would say "S is my third cousin."

Here is my report about the reactions:

The first woman I met responded "Oh . . . I didn't know S had . . . such a relative . . . here." Wo. How am I supposed to respond to that? I just said "Yes, he does." The woman seemed to realize that she'd made a faux pas and recovered as quickly as she could, making polite conversation. After a few minutes she went home for lunch. Not a good start!

Most of the women said "oh, that's nice" and then, unless they were busy tending to their own kids, asked me more questions like where I live, what I do, etc. As happens in most polite social situations, they responded simply with "oh, how nice," and didn't register any opinion about what I'd said. If they thought that I'm strange, they kept that to themselves. I had no way to know what they thought.

Finally, I was vindicated. Close to the end of the kiddush, I'd moved to the end of the table to make room for more ladies, so I was sitting next to the wall. Across from me was a woman about my age (it turns out she's a little younger than I am) in a white snood, and her three children were running around on the porch with S's kids. Since we were both trapped near the wall, we had no choice but to make conversation.

And you know what, this woman was really, really nice. She asked me questions that went beyond superficial things -- like she was really interested in my life -- and she shared personal stories about herself and the way she sees things. I don't mean that we became best friends, just that she obviously is a person with whom it's easy to connect. When she came to understand that one of the reasons I don't visit S and C more often is that it's a little overwhelming for me to spend 25 hours with their 9 kids, she immediately invited me to stay at her house (she has more room and only three kids) any time I want. And she was so friendly, I felt genuinely excited about taking her up on the offer.

Yes, it's true I had an "in." But what I learned is if you stick around long enough, you might find the cool people. And there usually are cool people. No stereotype will "stick" 100 percent of the time.


This episode brings up another question for me.

In the Modern Orthodox world, people sometimes throw a party called a "simchat bat" in honor of a new daughter. See, when a boy is born, there is often a party called a "shalom zachor." This is in addition to the bris, when there is another party in honor of the new child. Orthodox feminists raised the question: Why should there be parties when a boy is born, but not when a girl is born? So instead of a "shalom zachor," they throw a "simchat bat" to acknowledge their happiness at having a new baby daughter.

This is all very nice and good and sweet and feminist, but what I don't understand is how is this some feminist revolution in Orthodoxy? The ultra-Orthodox, as I noted above, throw a kiddush in honor of a new baby girl. Maybe not all haredim, but definitely many. There is even a superstition that if a woman is having trouble getting married, it's because her parents didn't throw her a kiddush when she was born (depriving the new baby of having people wish her and her family "mazal tov"). Throwing a kiddush for a girl, while perhaps not universally expected, is clearly not unusual in any way.

So the haredim call it a kiddush, and the Modern Orthodox call it a simchat bat, but what's really the difference? A party is a party. Obviously people in both communities are thrilled when they have a new baby girl, and get their friends together for nosh to celebrate. How is the simchat bat a new idea? It seems to me that it's an old idea with a new, more trendy, name.

If any of you readers can explain this to me, please educate me!

Have a Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

We Ogle. You Decide.

There are so many things wrong with this whole picture, I don't even know where to start. So I'll let the report speak for itself.

And then we wonder why teenage girls become anorexic.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Appreciation Wednesday

Next week is the Jewish holiday of Purim. For those of you not in the loop, Purim celebrates the events described in the Book of Esther. You can read the whole thing -- it's very dramatic!-- but to sum up, there was this powerful politician in ancient Persia named Haman who, with the cooperation of King Ahashverosh (not sure how to write that except to transliterate from the Hebrew) plotted to kill all the Jews of Persia. At the time, that was pretty much all the Jews, give or take. This took place while the Jews were in exile from Israel during the period between the First and Second Temples. I'm not an expert in Jewish history but I think we're talking about something like 2,500 years ago.

Anyhow, unbeknownst to Haman, the Queen herself, Esther, was a Secret Jew. When she revealed to her husband, the king, that she herself would perish under Haman's plans, the king (who had other Reasons of State to be upset with Haman at this point anyway, at least if you read between the lines and believe the midrashim) got enraged, sentenced Haman to death, and gave the Jews carte blanche to defend themselves against any Persians who dared to take advantage of the death-to-Jews decree. Thus the evil decree was overturned, and the Jews narrowly avoided what would have been Persia's "Final Solution." There are some other interesting subplots in the story regarding how it is that Esther came to be Queen, the input of her uncle Mordechai into the events, a conspiracy by two of the King's servants to kill him, and some personal animosity between Haman and Mordechai. But the gist of it is: There was going to be a Holocaust. And then there wasn't. And so the Jews Were Glad.

An interesting feature of the Book of Esther is that God's name does not appear anywhere in the book, which is unusual for a book in the Biblical canon! One of the themes of Purim is that, after the age of prophets, it's up to us to recognize God's hand in events. He doesn't speak to us from the heavens and tell us what's going on; we have to look and listen and trust Him, and try to figure it out on our own. As the events in the book were unfolding -- and the events take place over many years -- things were looking mighty bad for the Jewish people. And yet, if you step back and look at the sweep of those years, you see that there was a plan unfolding all along, a very intricate plan, and that eventually justice prevailed.

The Book of Esther is a great comfort to me when I get upset over things going on in Israel right now. From up close, things look very bad. But I do believe that from God's standpoint, everything will turn out OK, that justice will prevail -- whatever that means-- and ultimately the Jews Will Be Glad once again. It might take hundreds of years-- who knows?-- but time means nothing to God. I don't mean to say that I think the State of Israel is necessarily a step toward a Messianic Age, any more than any other event in history brought us one step closer to some sort of nirvana, but rather that I do believe there is a plan, a very intricate plan, and it's simply impossible to see it from up close. You have to be able to step way, way back -- which is impossible in our limitations of time and space.

So, on this Appreciation Wednesday, one thing I appreciate is that I was brought up to believe in The Plan, because when I feel helpless and like things are out of control, it's nice to remember that things don't have to be under my control, they just have to be under Someone's control. Sure, sometimes I have doubts about the Someone and The Plan, but most of the time I do believe in it-- even if it's just because believing in it feels a lot better than not believing in it, and isn't any crazier. I don't know what The Plan is, but it's nice to think that one exists.

Second, I appreciate the time and energy some people spend to make Purim extra fun. It's a really joyous holiday, with people wearing costumes, bringing food baskets to each other in a sort of reverse trick-or-treat phenomenon, and eating and drinking themselves silly. There is also a tradition to make "Purim shpiels," that is, skits that satirize our lives. High school kids write skits making fun of their schools, the YU newspaper puts out a special Purim edition with funny (fake) articles . . . think April Fools Day, but it goes on the entire Hebrew month of Adar. It's sort of tricky to write satirical material that is funny without being hurtful, but when people succeed it's great for a laugh. (Personally, I really want to write a parody of Sheryl Crow's "Are you strong enough to be my man" called "are you Ach enough to be my Ayd," which you understand if you've learned the eighth perek of Bava Kamma . . . but I don't know if I have time.)

So, I wish also to acknowledge "Jameel" of "The Muquta" for creating hilarious spoofs of various Jewish blogs. Some of them are really fantastic. You can see the whole list at Jameel's blog, or click here for my favorites, spot-on spoofs of Orthomom, RenReb, The Rabbi's Kid(a bit biting), and Ask Shifra. Oh, and Dov Bear. Putting together these spoofs must take a long time, and it's nice that Jameel and his team of writers have gone to the trouble. Thank you, people, whoever you are!

I'll try not to be hurt by the fact that no one has spoofed Chayyei Sarah. Perhaps it is because my words have blinded you all with their wisdom? Perhaps this blog is simply beyond satirizing? Perhaps no one dares to spoof the sacred?

This, I can handle. :-)

Happy Wednesday, everyone.

Monday, March 06, 2006

You can't buy love, but you can buy discretion

Yesterday I went to a press event at the very posh, very beautiful, very service-oriented King David Hotel, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The owner, the Dan hotel chain, brought together a bunch of reporters to learn about the history of the King David - which was, indeed, extremely interesting. I hope to pitch a story about it -- yes, these press parties really work, I guess-- so I won't write too much here, but I'm sure a little Googling will reveal much, for those interested in the history of Jerusalem.

Anyhow, after breakfast (in the wise words of a New York Times columnist, "if it ain't catered, it ain't journalism") we learned about the significance of the hotel in Jerusalem's history, and the Sales and Marketing Director gave us a lovely pitch about the high quality of service at Dan hotels.

Point: a man arrived without his luggage because his airline had misplaced it. In the middle of the night, the airline called the hotel to say the luggage had been found. Rather than wake up the guest, the hotel manager drove to the airport, picked up the suitcases, and deposited them outside the guest's door.

Point: A jetlagged woman woke up at 4 am and started working in her room. The switchboard operator noticed there was phone activity all of a sudden in that room, and took the liberty of sending up orange juice, coffee, and a croissant at 4 a.m.

Point: For $1800 per night, you too can rent the two-floored Presidential Suite, complete with sauna, large jacuzzi, and tremendous art-work thingy in the middle of the room. Sleep in the very bed that Clinton stayed in when he came over for Rabin's funeral. Sleep in the very bed that Madonna was going to sleep in, except that she made her reservation on too-short notice and so the hotel could not provide her with an entire floor to herself and her entourage. As they were entering the Presidential Suite, a guest across the hall emerged and snapped Madonna's photo, proving that just because you have enough money to stay at the King David does not mean you have any class. So Madonna switched to the Dan Continental in Tel Aviv. The very bed Madonna was going to sleep in! If that sort of thing is worth $1800 to you. Per night. And if it is, I want to know: Do you have a son? Who is single? And remotely cute? And not the bearer of any contagious diseases?

Point: The breakfast at the King David is incredible. Oh. My. God. This was actually my second time at breakfast there -- I'd done an interview there once before, for a story unrelated to the hotel itself -- and I must say, it's the lap of luxury. It is amazing. Having breakfasted at the King David, I can die a happy woman.

Point: Half the rooms have perfect views of the Old City.

Point: Did I mention the marble bathrooms? The bidets? The unobtrusive waitstaff? The clerks and waiters who treat you like royalty?

Point: Looking out the window from one of the luxury suites, onto the hotel's pool, tennis court, landscaped gardens, and garden cafe, I thought "this is the way I should live." I think in a past life I was an Edwardian-era socialite, a la Kate Winslet in Titanic, and standing in this room brought back latent memories. I also think I was a General in a war-time cavalry somewhere in Europe hundreds of years ago, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, luxury is something I could get used to, if only I were an heiress to a large fortune instead of a freelance journalist.

I used to want to be a hotel manager. Betcha didn't know that, now did you. Yes, I did. If I couldn't stay in a luxury hotel, I wanted at least to spend all day in one, providing to others the type of service that I myself deserve. I searched fruitlessly for a job in a good hotel where the fact that I can't work on Saturdays didn't matter. Such a thing does not exist. So I started working for NCSY instead. But this meeting at the King David brought it all back. I seriously thought for about 5 seconds about begging for a job there. But, you know, working at the King David, lovely as it sounds, would involve having to be somewhere all day every day. That is, giving up the life I have right now, in which I earn peanuts and live in one room and can't afford to buy a laundry dryer but can do whatever I want with my time. It is a tough call.

Anyhow, the Sales and Marketing man had been boasting that every room in the hotel is different, and that he is familiar with the layout of every room. And that he knows which rooms are the favorites of which "regulars." So as we were about to embark on the tour, I said "All I want to know is, which room was Natalie Portman's?"

Sales Guy: "Natalie Portman?"

"Yes, I'm a huge fan of hers."

"The movie star?"


"When did she stay here?" (He looked serious.)

(Dude,) "She lived here for six months. Remember, she was studying at Hebrew University for a semester? And lived here?" (Sheesh)

"Well, I am not familiar with that . . . but it is possible, of course, that she was travelling incognito."


Chayyei Sarah: "Herschlag. Natalie Herschlag."

Sales Guy: "Ah, yes, Miss Herschlag. Of course. Second floor. A lovely young lady."

Which just goes to show, money can't buy you love, but it can buy you a hotel staff who won't admit to knowing you. If I were a movie star . . . or an heiress to a large fortune . . . I would value such a thing. And I would look out my window onto the Old City every day and think "Wow, I'm in Israel, and I have everything I need."

. . .

Oh, yeah. I do that now.

I live in Israel, and I have everything I need.

And I had breakfast at the King David.

Not a bad life.

And now, for a funny sketch with Natalie Portman in it, click here.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Ah, a NYTimes Editorial I (almost) Fully Agree With

From today's Times:

America cannot bankroll a Hamas government that preaches and practices terrorism, denies that Israel has any right to exist, and refuses to abide by peace agreements signed by previous Palestinian governments. That should be blindingly obvious . . . .

Hamas won the recent Palestinian election fair and square. American officials, who say they are so forcefully committed to the cause of expanding democracy in the Middle East, should not even entertain the idea of doing anything to try to somehow undermine the results and install a different government. But that does not mean continuing to provide the subsidies that help pay for the Palestinian police, civil servants and other employees . . . .

. . . . Money should continue to flow to nongovernmental relief organizations for humanitarian projects, provided that the recipient organizations have no links of any kind to terrorist activity or organizations. The same thing goes for independent foundations that remain committed to the principles of the Oslo peace agreements and peaceful dialogue with Israel.

No one should imagine that this strategy is likely to convince average Palestinians that they made a mistake in picking a Hamas government. The withheld American aid will very probably be replaced from less scrupulous sources, like Iran or oil-rich Arab countries.

Still, the United States would make a resounding diplomatic and moral point by cutting off aid . . . .

The only part I disagreed with was this:

And Washington should continue to press Israel to resume turning over to the Palestinian Authority the Palestinian tax and customs funds that Israel collects on the authority's behalf. This is not aid, but the Palestinians' own money.

No, no, no. For any Israel Treasury check to be made out to the Palestinian Authority right now would just be ludicrous. In the Times' own words, this should be blindingly obvious.

However, I do agree that if the money came from PA-resident Palestinians' pockets, then the money should should somehow get to their government, even if their government is evil.

The answer is simple, or should be. Israel should say "We're having nothing to do with you. You can collect your own damn taxes and your own damn customs. Your money, your business." Israel shouldn't be doing anything "on the authority's behalf" right now. Why should we? They won't even recognize our right to exist.

Let the true, badly-needed humanitarian aid roll in . . . I'd be the first to donate money if I knew for sure it was paying for flour, medical care, and diapers. It's true I'd feel even better if the first in line to receive those things were people who didn't vote for Hamas . . . but fine, I won't split hairs to that extent. But don't ask me or the government that represents me to do anything, anything at all, to bail out a government led by murderers of innocent children. The very idea is a joke.

Now, regarding the idea of the PA getting their aid from Iran instead . . . yes of course that will be bad. However, there are times when one has to consider the ramifications of one's actions not only on others, but also on oneself. For the US to say "well, the PA is going to get their aid from somewhere, it may as well be us rather than Iran" may sound reasonable at first, but it means that the US would be throwing money to, in RenReb's words, "murderous bits of filth." How can the US be waging a "war on terror" and then make out checks to a government led by Hamas? It's just a joke. It doesn't matter what would happen instead.

The US has to stand by its values, even if the result is ugly. That's called "having integrity."

Thursday, March 02, 2006

What Chayyei Sarah is . . .


Writing about

Wearing right now and recommending highly to all the ladies, because it smells so incredible you could get drunk on it.

Also writing about

Happy to have finally published, because now I can blog some other stuff about it.

Enjoying tremendously, because it's so gorgeous!

Trying not to wallow in depression and anger and sadness and confusion and fear over: examples from a quick Google search and my own blogroll here, here, here. There's lots more on all sorts of details but you get the picture.

. . .

::sniff, sniff::

. . .

[sorry, that was me smelling my forearm, because I smell frickin' amazing.]

. . .

Right. Anyhoo, I've recently connected with an old work acquaintance from VH1 -- as I've said, one of the best officemates a person could ask for -- who is now going to school here, taking a journalism class, and picked me, Chayyei Sarah, to be the subject of a profile! So I got to talk to her for two hours about my life and my opinions about stuff. Me: Wow, I love talking about myself! Her: Most people do. Thanks for picking me, Jeca, and it was really great to catch up!

. . .

::sniff, sniff::

. . .

OK, bye!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Appreciation Wednesday

(Wow, three posts in one day.)

There was an article in the New York Times recently -- one of those "mysterious cases brought to a doctor" columns-- about a woman who turned out to have scurvy. The physicians almost missed the diagnosis, because who gets scurvy these days? Everyone eats some fruit sometimes, right? Or drinks OJ now and then? And even if they don't, plenty of foods are enriched with Vitamin C. It's almost impossible to be so deficient in Vitamin C that you'd get scurvy. Turns out this lady has, or thinks she has, a long list of food allergies, and her diet consisted pretty much of gluten-free bread and peanut butter. That was it. And so she almost died.

The story got me thinking about the vitamins I take every day to supplement my diet. I do make attempts at a healthy diet, and do eat fruits and vegetables, and whole grains, and lean proteins -- in addition, unfortunately, to lots of unhealthy things that I should stay away from. I'm very educated about what I should eat, and though I do not always succeed in maintaining the diet I should stick to, things could be a lot worse.

Still, it always helps to supplement, just in case. And so every day, I take one multi-vitamin and at least 1000 mgs of calcium. (Note: It's important to take these things spread out over the day -- no more than 500 mgs of calcium at once, and I also split the multivitamin and take the halves a few hours apart -- because the body can't absorb it all at once!)

The calcium supplement is really important for me, because I'm somewhat lactose intolerant (still exploring what milk products I can and cannot have -- and it seems to change all the time!) and my kitchen is entirely fleishik. I use Rice Dream in my cereal, and the only dairy product I consume on a regular basis is a certain type of Israeli cheese which I love and doesn't seem to make me ill. Every so often I have some milk, but I usually regret it later. If it were just a matter of my diet, I'd probably be in the hospital sooner rather than later with some horrible bone problem, just like that woman who got scurvy.

And so, these calcium pills are my only defense against osteoperosis and other bad things. And today I'm appreciating that my vitamin and mineral supplements are available to me, and that I've been educated enough to take them. Someone went to the trouble of researching what nutrients our bodies need, and someone went to the trouble of developing pills that could provide nutrients we're otherwise missing. And even if some of those people are only doing it for the money, and even if nutrients in pill form are not as easily absorbed as food sources, it does make me feel a lot better to know that I'm getting something healthy out of these pills -- that, if for some reason, I go a little too long without eating enough selenium or chromium or vitamin K, that I'm not going to become deficient in those things. Of course it's not an excuse to eat a bad diet, but every good thing we do for ourselves is . . . well, one more good thing!

So, I appreciate all the scientists and pharmaceutical people and public health folks and nutritionists who get vitamin and mineral supplements into our drugstores and into my cabinet and into my mouth. I especially appreciate the folks who provide me with a way to get some calcium without ill side effects - my bones thank you!
Additions to my blogroll

Wow, two posts in one day.

This one is just to point out that I've added four blogs to my blogroll. I want to especially point out three of them:

What Would Phoebe Do? is by a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, who describes herself as a "Francophilic Zionist." Gosh, that's a tough one, Phoebe. I feel for you! She's smart and has interesting things to say about France, Israel, her alma maters, and being young in New York.

Ask Shifra is home of one of the funniest series I've seen yet, a "soap opera" entitled "The Modern and the Orthodox." See the first five "episodes" by going to her sidebar. I've been laughing so hard, my sides hurt. Her other posts are entertaining and/or thought-provoking as well.

Last but not least, I finally went to visit the blog of one of my frequent commenters, Step Ima, and spent about an hour last night reading every single post. A 36-year-old divorcee with no children, she's been dating a rabbi, also divorced, who has four children. The blog follows her through her journey toward possibly becoming a "Step Ima." ("Ima" means mother in Hebrew.) If you are interested in blogs about dating, relationships, and family dynamics, this one is just riveting.

Read and enjoy - and remember, always be respectful when commenting!
Now that's SOME whiskey!

A distillery in Scotland is rolling out a 184-proof whiskey. For about $700, you can pre-order a case of 12 bottles (that's around $60 per bottle) of this not-your-mama's-kiddush rocket fuel. Delivery is estimated to take 10 years. I, personally, cannot stand whiskey, but I know some of my readers will be very excited by this announcement (cough, cough, Judah, cough, cough).

Now, you are probably wondering why I care. Well, I care, because this reminds me of one of the best freelance gigs I've ever had, which I may as well share with you.

I do not remember how I got this job at all, but somehow, the marketing company for a major brand of Scotch (famous for their White Label), found me. They were looking for journalists in various parts of the USA to help them find suitable candidates for this Scotch company's print ad campaign. To be chosen to be featured in the ad campaign, one had to fit a very long, very specific list of criteria, and finding people who met all the criteria was proving to be a challenge. They figured that reporters were good at finding out things, and hence Chayyei Sarah was offered an investigative challenge.

At my interview in Connecticut, one of the last questions they asked me was: Do you like Scotch? I sort of waffled and said something like "um, yeah, sure." The marketing lady leaned over to me and said "I know. I can't stand it either. Are you willing to be seen sipping it and smiling?" To that, I could agree. (This reminds me of the interview I had at VH1, where they asked me, offhandedly on my way out, "You like music, right?" and I was like "oh, yeah, definitely." But the thought bubble over my head was saying "if it's by an 18th-century Austrian, that is.")

Anyhow, I had to do a little soul-searching as to whether to take this gig, since I not only do not enjoy drinking, I'm sort of anti-drinking. I don't understand why it's fun to lose control over your faculties, and unfortunately I know people whose lives have been harmed by alcoholism, either their own or their family member's, and so I wasn't sure I wanted to be involved in helping to market a Scotch whiskey. I talked to a lot of people, including Scotch hobbyists and various religious and career mentors, and decided in the end to take the job.

I have to say, once I decided to waive my moral concerns, this was a most excellent gig. First of all, I got a free trip to Las Vegas. There, on a Friday morning, all six of us campaign-ad-candidate hunters were assembled, and schooled in the ways of Scotch. I still have all the materials from our full-day session on how whiskey is made, how it gets different flavors, etc. And, we had a Scotch tasting of all the major brands. This was where the sip-and-smile came in. Of course we all oohed and aahed over the superior quality of our client's product - and the fact is, the White Label was the smoothest and therefore the easiest for me to get down without choking. And, by then, I actually knew what "smoothest" means in reference to whiskey, so I felt so much more cosmopolitan already.

During the meeting, they threw us gambling chips whenever we participated by speaking up or getting a question right. After, the rest of the journalists and the reps from the client company went down to the casinos to have fun, and got a free night in this awesome hotel. I, however, had arranged to stay at a motel a few miles away, because the meeting was on a Friday and I wanted to be near the Young Israel of Las Vegas for Shabbat. The client had been more than happy to put me up at the (much cheaper) motel. So, at about 3 pm, I excused myself from the post-meeting chatter and headed downstairs.

Of course I had to walk through the lobby-level casino to get out. And I had two gambling chips in my pocket. Now, as much as I'm anti-drinking I'm even more anti-gambling. I'm anti most addictive and pointless behaviors. But, you know, you can't be in Las Vegas for the weekend and not gamble. So, to fulfill my chiyyuv (obligation), I went over to a slot machine, put in my two "hard-earned" chips, pulled the lever, and got . . . nothing. Shrugging, I went outside to hail a cab.

As soon as I got outside, I realized that I'd left my garment bag with my Shabbat clothes next to the slot machine. So I ran back in to find it. But you know, they design these casinos in such a way that once you get in, it's hard to get out. There were three wings, each of which looked exactly the same. There are no clocks or windows anywhere, so that people don't realize how much time they've spent gambling. And there are no landmarks or clear signs showing where anything is, to encourage people to get lost and spend more of their time and money in the casino. I had absolutely no way of identifying which bank of slot machines I should be heading toward. It took a security guard, who radioed to his office, to tell me that my bag was at the security station - and he had to walk me there, and then walk me outside again, or I'd have gotten lost for sure.

I now had about 20 minutes before sunset to get to the motel. Suffice to say that I walked in about 2 minutes before Shabbat, and the wonderful clerk, who was used to Orthodox Jews staying over Friday night because the motel is, after all, located next door to an Orthodox synagogue, volunteered: "Oh, you're Sabbath observant? No problem. We'll leave your electronic key here at the desk, and whenever we see you coming in we'll automatically send a non-Jewish employee ahead of you to open your door. I'll tell the maid service not to turn off your light. Don't worry, your room is only one flight up. Have a pleasant stay." I had reached motel nirvana. If only the hotel employees in Eilat were as knowledgable.

I should say here that the Young Israel of Las Vegas is one of the friendliest shules I've ever visited. By the end of services on Friday night, I had invitations for both dinner and lunch, one at the rabbi's house and one at a congregant's. The weather was a bit warm for my taste, but the residential area of town (outside of the casino strip) was very pretty, and the people were exceptionally nice.

Anyhow, my mandate was to find five people or sets of people who displayed, shall we say, a certain go-getter quality. Six journalists finding five candidates each would give the client 30 choices to pick from. I would be paid a certain (very generous, from my starving-writer perspective) amount for each candidate I found. Remember, the list of criteria was very long and specific. It had to be people who had given up a significant measure of material security or physical comfort in order to pursue a passion. This passion had to be unique in some way, and something "relatable" to men between the ages of 25-35. The set of people who had together made sacrifices to follow this passion had to have, ideally, two or three members, though in theory it could be up to five people. They had to have already achieved some sort of notable success, and yet still be on a "journey" toward their goals. The "passion" they were following could have nothing to do with children or with the homeless (duh). If you think about it, it's pretty hard to find people who meet all those requirements!

At first, we six journalists were split up by geographic region, and so I was trying to find candidates in New England. But then, due to the difficulty of our task, we soon were told that we could each cover any area we wanted - just find people! So, I sent an email to my 300 closest friends (ah, Jewish Geography is a wonderful thing!) outlining what I needed. In the next few weeks, I found about 10 potential candidates, of whom five were approved by the marketing company - and so I was set.

But it turned out that some of the other journalists were having trouble filling their quota, and so I got an email saying that if I was able to find up to three more candidates, I would be paid extra for each one. In the end, I found eight approved candidates, and got paid more money than I have seen from any one client, before or since. I was, like, the queen of this print ad campaign.

Sigh. Those were good times . . . .

Oh, and by the way, the client did choose one of my candidates to form a partnership! I don't know if they were included in a print ad, but they did form some kind of marketing collaboration. I was invited to a party (in Boston, it just so happens, where I was staying with my parents) to celebrate at a huge Scotch tasting, but in the end I declined. I hate Scotch, I hate drinking, I didn't know how I'd get home afterward . . . frankly it was easier and more fun for me to stay home watching television.

But still, those were good times!