We all know what those initials stand for. Some of us aren't willing to say the full phrase out loud, many of us can't stomach the individual who spouts it at any given opportunity, but most of us don't know that this "concept" was co-opted. No, it's not a Trump "original."
My husband and I had a crash course on this subject just a few weeks back as we huddled, along with a small group of other freezing tourists, at the Portico d'Ottavio in Rome. Our lovely guide, an extremely thin, young Italian woman, chock full of information but desperately needing a warm pair of boots, was speaking about how Mussolini had changed the face of the city. She explained how he'd cleared out (i.e. demolished) entire neighborhoods in order to unearth the ancient monuments buried beneath (an obvious attempt to establish himself as the natural heir to the ancient Roman Republic--just one more esteemed Emperor) and designed grand avenues that sliced through distant parts of the city, physically connecting his own center of power at the Piazza Venezia with, not only the historically-significant Imperial Forums but, the Vatican, effectively aligning himself (and his Fascist government) with the only other major power within the city. In short, one hell of a megalomaniac! Mussolini was a kind of modern-day Sun King, manipulating his physical surroundings to serve his goals precisely as did Louis XIV back in seventeenth century Versailles.
It was all interesting enough to stave off the bitter cold that accompanied the setting sun.
That's when she landed her bombshell. "He wanted," she articulated carefully, "to make Italy great again." There was a pause, a long one; long enough to segue into an uncomfortable silence. Our guide stood there, mouth sealed shut (perhaps trying to keep her teeth warm?) and let us take in that phrase, clearly interested in our reaction.
Mine was mixed. First, I frowned. Then, I smiled. I frowned once more. I wasn't sure about the proper response or even, how to express it. Our guide stood there and waited. Knowledgeable, pleasant, obviously suffering from the cold but equally intrigued by what she'd detonated; there was something about her creepy smile and the dramatic pause she'd used to deliver her comment that was definitely provocative.
I smiled again. It was actually impossible not to smile at this charming woman. It didn't really matter that brain freeze had begun to set in. I looked around the group. There was an uncomfortable nodding of heads, a shuffling of feet, what sounded like a chuckle or two. It was hard to imagine that anyone present, save the handful of children in attendance, didn't understand that she wasn't referring only to Mussolini; that she wanted us to make the connection between this insidious Fascist ruler and the present American president.
I need to explain that we weren't one cohesive group but rather, a random collection of individuals gathered to tour the Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere on a Friday afternoon. There was a large, three-generation family from England, their ruddy cheeks attesting to a hardiness that accounted for the lack of proper, warm hats, a few Israeli women looking miserably cold in puffy winter coats, a young, Spanish-speaking couple (he, impossibly tall, she, impossibly short) who sweetly held hands the entire tour and an older American couple that, according to the continual boasting of the husband, already knew whatever the guide might want to impart but was happy to come along and help out. My husband and I rounded out the bunch.
It wasn't surprising that an actual verbal response to our guide's comment came from the know-it-all. Breaking that pregnant-to-bursting pause, he repeated them back to all of us with a huge smile, nodding from one to the other with a knowing look. I wondered where he stood on the political spectrum but was fairly sure it wasn't with me. After more than two rough-rod years skirting certain political conversations, I stayed silent, mortified by the fact that, these days, absolutely everything seemed to circle back to Donald Trump and his warped vision of the world. Just minutes earlier, I'd been really enjoying my visit to Rome, soaking up the sights, the history, the flavors, the aromas and the language. But at that moment, all that beauty was ruined by the reminder of an American president I cannot stand and the association he continues to seek with the father of fascism and a regime that sustained the concepts of supremacy, nationalism, loyalty to state and obedience to a ruler that I find abhorrent.
I shook it off. I had to.
The tour ended soon thereafter with a hearty grazia to our guide and my hands wrapped around a very welcome, warm cappuccino at a little caffè in Trastevere. Firmly putting the chill of that moment behind me, I thanked my lucky stars that this American president hasn't yet succeeded in erecting any official monuments to serve his own glory. I tried to imagine how one might look and stumbled over the image of a huge chunk of concrete running along the American border: bland, shapeless, empty of meaning and ugly. How very fitting.
I've lived in Israel for almost thirty years and I still haven't figured it out. Although Jewish by birth, by history, by practice (back in the States)--there are times here in Israel, that I feel primarily Jewish by association.
When I came here as a tourist, decades ago, it all seemed so simple. I spread my palm on the Western Wall and felt something intense: a blessed connection with a people, with a heritage that stretched back millennia. It was powerful, it was strong, and most significantly, it was crystal clear.
Growing up in Philadelphia, I felt much the same. I knew where I belonged and to whom. I attended Sunday school and spent every summer at a Jewish (UAHC then, URJ now) camp in the Poconos. High holidays were spent in an awe-inspiring sanctuary on North Broad Street. By the time I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah, I knew most of the prayers intended to welcome God and sing his praise, those sprinkled throughout the services as well as those which preceded and followed reading from the Torah. I knew when to stand up and when to bow my head, and, even more significantly, knew that these were signs of respect and adoration. The way to acknowledge a spiritual connection to an embracing heritage, something beyond the purview of my life, was clear and my religious affiliation, my place within the Reform community in Philadelphia, was strong and undeniable.
It was also, in its own way, life-giving. And it is precisely for this fact, that I presently feel its absence so intensely. Since moving to Israel decades ago, although most obviously connected to my religion, my calendar organized by a relatively-even sprinkling of holidays as well as the weekly Shabbat, I have been unable to find a proper way to practice my faith.
Putting that sentiment down on paper is awkward and I imagine, in the reading, quite ludicrous. But a fact is a fact. And, although for some time I figured this situation would sort itself out, that I would somehow discover a way to observe my religion here in Israel, to reaffirm my connection to this ancient heritage in a more active manner, this has not, to my great dismay, come to pass. Instead, there are certain times of the year, most obviously the High Holidays, when I find myself completely unmoored, even a bit envious of my “religious” friends, active members of our community synagogue. They seem to benefit from that layer of protective, life-giving spirituality that I remember enjoying as a child; a kind of second skin akin to that purposefully developed by the Eskimos to protect them from their harsh environs.
When I raise the subject with local friends, they tell me I'm being ridiculous; that the life I live in Israel is, by definition, a Jewish one; that living here counts as practicing my faith. They insist that, having pitched my tent in the Holy Land, I no longer need to attend to all those "trappings" that defined my religious life back in the States. But somehow, the concept that "place," albeit this extraordinary place, is enough, falls short. Without being part of a ritual, taking the time to step out of my everyday life, bow my head, and engage in those customs that were part and parcel of embracing my faith back in the States, a holy day feels just like any other.
I take full responsibility for this vacuum. I admit that I've bought into the idea that digging one's toes into the holy firmament of this land, that same precious soil that's collected worldwide in tiny glass vials and lovingly displayed on a shelf, is enough and have consciously neglected any official kind of religious affiliation. The reasons, or rather, excuses, have been multiple: other commitments, inconvenience, too much Hebrew, not enough English, discomfort with orthodox seating arrangements and, alternatively, just as much discomfort with some of the various local progressive approaches. And these are, of course, only the tip of the iceberg.
I have chosen, instead, to be a secular Israeli, celebrating my faith like so many others here by partaking in a meal sporting one or another traditional offering; by wandering over to the local synagogue to hear Kol Nidre, by fasting on Yom Kippur and refraining from leavened bread on Passover. How fortunate that our religion offers such a wealth of traditional practices.
But as I watch my children enter their adulthood, go off into the world (and by that I mean beyond the borders of this tiny country) and figure out how to incorporate the religious birthright they've inherited into their daily lives, I realize that our life in Israel--albeit replete with a dedication to tradition, no apple left un-dipped, not one line of the Haggadah left un-recited--has provided them with a rather tenuous connection to their faith.
I worry that knowing they're Jewish, may not be enough.
But that will be their issue and not mine. Just as the void left by my past is mine and not theirs.
My children may never feel the need to step out of their world to connect to their spirituality as do I, their year organized by, and chock-a-block with, get-togethers featuring holiday-appropriate fare. Growing up in Israel has, ironically, given them a way to lead a Jewish life that I can only envy, their faith firmly confirmed through a casual "Shabbat Shalom" uttered as they leave the gym on Friday afternoon, the sudden flare of light as a Hanukkah candle is kindled, the hearty chanting of "Who knows One?" at the annual Seder.
Tangled up in this narrative is a lesson about abundance; the understanding that having a great deal--say, a wealth of tradition--might just be enough. There's more than a little precedent for this in our history. To start with, there was that very small quantity of oil...
I typed in "Tree of Life Pittsburgh." The "thinking" swirl came on the screen of the search window for a second before being replaced by a network of streets near Pittsburgh labeled: Squirrel Hill. Squirrel Hill. The gears and cogs in my head swung instantly into action and a clear image, and name, popped into mind. Lovely homes, tree-lined streets--a residential area like many others--and the Apples. I'd felt fortunate to get such a good placement for the weekend I spent there, back in the 70s. The "Apples" were sure to be a smiling bunch with welcoming round cheeks and ruddy, energetic personalities to match their complexions. They didn't disappoint. They were just one of the wonderful parts of a youth group retreat held at Congregation Rodef Shalom--a congregation that whose sanctuary was gorgeous and bedecked as my own back in Philadelphia and, auspiciously, had the very same name. My recollection of that weekend ends there, vivid only to a point, but fixing that spot in Pittsburgh firmly in my memory bank.
Staring at the map on my phone I scanned from one synagogue to the other. A short distance separated a place of fond memories from that plastered across news' flashes worldwide. The warm memory that had filled me just a few precious seconds earlier, disappeared--replaced by a chill.
My husband and I had just left the movie theater. We’d watched “First Man,” the story of Neil Armstrong and his obsession with the moon. Before pulling my phone out of my purse we'd been deep in conversation, discussing one of the simple pleasures of our youth: those models we'd both (albeit on two sides of the world) enjoyed building. The thrill of bringing them home from the store, the lovely anticipation of the activity soon to follow: an entire day spent carefully arranging the various parts on a clean surface, cutting the balsa to size according to the enclosed instructions, popping the premanufactured plastic elements out of their molds, gluing the elements with a firm hand in order to ensure smooth seams; the satisfaction of sticking on the tiny stickers at the very end and gazing with pride at our own miniature lookalikes, whether rockets, space capsules or lunar landers.
It was such a simple pleasure at such a simple time. Bemoaning the loss of a generation that could devote itself to quiet, time-consuming activities able of producing the makings of a dream, ones that held no space for attention deficit disorders; maligning the newer technology that has made such archaic activities seem redundant, if not downright lame, I ingenuously reached into my purse and took a look at my phone.
Three clicks and all thoughts of the movie, and activities that demanded concentration and had nothing to do with moving colors on a screen, were gone. I'd moved from model spaceships to the massacre of innocents; from Zichron to Squirrel Hill. And that momentary warm rush brought on by the memory of that neighborhood? It was erased just as quickly, a magical weekend transformed into the scene of unimaginable carnage.
There in the car park I craved any way at all to take one giant leap backward; to retreat from the progress so proudly pronounced by Armstrong as he'd put his foot down on the crumbly lunar surface that memorable day in 1969; to turn the clock back on the kind of advancement, be it the abuse of social media or the manipulation of the press, that fanned the flames of hatred; that has, somehow, played a role in thrusting civilization back into the dark ages. Way back when, crouched over pieces of plastic and wood, I never imagined this to be my children's reality. Baby steps may be the only way forward.
I wrote a book. Count those words. There are only four. Such a simple sentence.
But in reality, they add up to something quite monumental—at least in my life. I’ve got a real urge to climb the tallest mountain and shout them out to the high heavens: “I wrote a book!”
A lot of people have written books. In fact, I’ve actually written one—another one. But this one feels completely different. It feels more like an act of creation, more like the product of a real live birth--equally miraculous, almost as painful.
Accordingly, when I first held a copy of my book a few days ago, right there on the loading lock of a small printing press tucked into a corner of the Talpiot section of Jerusalem, one I’d randomly chosen from a stack of a thousand, it reminded me of what I’d felt, almost 24 years ago, when I held my first infant boy. Just like then, I wondered at its color, its weight, and the beauty in the details that, in this case, meant the font, the formatting and the binding. I thrust my nose right inside and took a deep breath. Yes, this creation smelled absolutely divine. Don’t they all?
Four years of searching for the right words to express an idea, a moment, a feeling, a sentiment; four years of massaging sentences while underwater at the pool, while pounding the pavement in my Asics, while biking along a dusty road and while waiting in line at the supermarket. One glance at my children, who’ve gone from adolescence to nascent adulthood over the course of that time, spreading their wings and beginning to follow their dreams, is enough to understand just how much time has passed. When I first began this project they were still, for the most part, tucked safely close by, now they have each migrated to one part or another of the North American continent, far from my reach.
But the significance of that passage of time, quite significant in terms of my own life, pales in comparison with the immensity of this personal achievement. I sought to write about a phenomenon I felt deserved attention, one I’d been discussing for years with anyone who’d listen. I wanted to throw a spotlight on just how challenging it is to move from one country to another, to start again in a foreign language, to establish a life in terra incognita, to not only set up house, but actually create a home. And just 24 hours after holding that first book in my hand, I received an hint that I had reached my goal.
The proof arrived in the form of a photograph, one of those unexpected ones that just pop up in a WhatsApp feed, unannounced. And what a beautiful photo it was. There sat Muhammad, side by side with his mother Fatma, my housekeeper of 23 years, holding my Count to a Thousand open, as if in mid-read. Mother and son were seated in a beautiful garden that looked very much like my own, same bougainvillea, same palm trees, no surprise considering that their neighborhood, in Jisr az Zarqa, is just adjacent to mine. Fatma doesn’t read, write or speak English. I don’t read, write or speak Arabic. But we communicate perfectly in Hebrew and have shared a lifetime of conversations ranging from the miniscule to the monumental: discussing the heat, the rain, the snow!, laundry, personal health, death, weddings, engagements and births. You name it; we’ve covered it. And as the publication of my novel approached, Fatma was among the must excited, eagerly waiting to pick up a copy for her son, the eldest one, who just recently graduated from college and was an English reader. And so, when the books first arrived, Muhammad was the first to receive his copy and thanked me with this beautiful message sent alongside that lovely photo: “Congratulations! Thank you for the book. I have begun to read it and I’m translating it for Mom. Best wishes for great success. We’re awaiting the next one as well!”
Another string of simple words. Just a handful. But these actually left me breathless. What could possibly mean more? What sentiment, conveyed through this photo and that short note, could better tell the story of how multiple cultures, languages, customs and traditions can come together? Of how challenges can be overcome and the impossible be made to work; of the importance of sharing a story you never imagined living in the first place; of how affection, interest, and devotion naturally emerge from living any life at all, whether anticipated or accidental.
I wrote a book. So small, so minimal. Yet right out of the gate my Count to a Thousand has gone farther than I ever imagined it could. In the end, those four little words have grown large enough to fill my heart completely.
For whatever reason, most people agree that everything Italian, is, automatically, bellissimo. It doesn't matter whether one's referring to the linguini, the gelato, the focaccia, or the pizza; whether to those tiny little cafés that specialize in minuscule cups of espresso, those magnificent piazzas graced with flamboyant marble fountains, the fashionably-dressed local population or the leather! Worldwide consensus holds that if something's Italian, it's simply magnifico!!
So when the Giro d'Italia landed in Israel last week, lock stock and barrel--sporty little cars decorated in bright colors and sporting bold logos representing one team or another, tens of bicycles finely tuned and lined up at the ready, hordes of young men in colorful lycra with enormous quads, calves and glutes--we, the locals, welcomed it with jubilation only on par with the greeting of the Pope at the Vatican on Easter morning.
Much of the excitement was, no doubt, due to the event itself, albeit unless viewed on television, this experience was primarily characterized by much time spent standing in the middle of a crowd sporting an overabundance of pink Giro gear and clutching cell phones preset on video mode in anticipation of the actual peloton. The race itself, boiling down to an impressive procession of escort vehicles, a smear of bright color and the clacking of gears, lasted something in the range of twenty seconds.
Despite its brevity, the Giro had an extraordinary effect on its spectators who, whether family, friends, teammates or complete strangers, were seen actually smiling to one another, having shared an experience that did not disappointment. Those fleeting seconds had provided one hell of a mood booster!
This is because it wasn't entirely about the race. It was equally about how the fact of the Giro gracing our land, if only for a handful of days, enabled Israelis to put aside the stresses incumbent to living in the Middle East, the frustrations of politicians that don't represent their constituents, and an ever growing list of ordinary irritations, and pull together as one. Standing along a dusty road, perched atop a bridge overlooking the highway, nestled alongside a pack of camels on a desert bluff or squeezed among the hordes lining one of Tel Aviv's more glorious boulevards, we, the people of Israel, became a whole: one pack of admiration, excitement and positive energy. For once, we became quite like others in countries all over the world: letting everything else go and basking in the pride of what our wondrous nation has to offer. What a blessed change!
The fact that this world famous sporting event, the second largest cycling race after the Tour de France, was taking place right here in the Holy Land meant that Israel was, quite definitely, on the map! Okay, STOP! I know. We've been on the map before. In fact, if this "map" is based on the news, we're on the map just about every day. But this time was different. This time it wasn't because of military strikes, the stagnating peace agreement, or BDS. It was, plain and simple, because we'd stepped up and joined the rest of the world, becoming just one more country to host the stage of a very famous European race. Imagine that: for once, we were just a venue!
I was delighted to hear that Sylvan Adams, the man who organized the entire production, will be nominated for the Israel Prize. The immensity of his contribution to Israeli culture, the significance of his efforts to elevate Israel's global reputation are obvious to all. Thank you, Sylvan, for helping us truly see the beauty in this gorgeously-varied landscape we call home. Thank you for helping us draw together as one. And finally, thank you for letting us strut our stuff.
Yes, this was our first Giro, but I pray it won't be the last.
Today was one of those yellow days.
Anyone that lives in the Middle East knows exactly what I'm talking about. I'd expect that those of you who don't, have absolutely no idea. The best I can do is describe precisely what a yellow day is like: It starts when you look out the window and realize that that perfect cornflower blue sky, the one you're used to, the one that makes the tourists exclaim with delight, the one that signifies that we actually live on the Mediterranean Sea, is gone. Abracadabra--poor--gone. In its place, is one the color of an egg yolk that's been over-whipped; a kind of bland, pale, ugly yellow that you'd never want to wear, to drive in, to entertain on, or really, to have anything to do with whatsoever. Yes, the sky is the color of disappointment, banality, boredom and dearth.
And best of all, once you've spotted that sky, you have the lovely experience of knowing exactly what awaits you the minute you step out of the house and into the driveway. Stage two of a yellow day is about your car, the absolute epitome of disgusting. Now, I'm not a car person. I don't keep mine shiny and clean. I don't really care if it's the best looking drive around. But when it comes to a yellow day, I want nothing more than a lean, mean, driving machine. And instead, what I have is a vehicle covered with a brown sludge that defies cleaning. Any attempt to use the wipers makes everything worse, smearing the droplets of dried, sandy, yellow rain from one side of the glass to the other. And no matter how you try to move that sludge, to clear some kind of small opening so that you can actually get a view of the road, you're still left with a yellow world--this time framed by columns of brown instead of the window you gazed out of earlier that day.
There's no escape! I know I'm supposed to love the fact that I live near the beach, rejoice in the proximity to the sand and the sea, but on days like today--a yellow day--I want nothing more that to return to the clarity of bricks, concrete and tarmac. I want the kind of rain that makes everything seem shiny and new, freshly washed and glistening; the kind of rain that speaks of renewal instead of lethargy.
It's a cardinal sin to complain about rain in this country, and far be it from me to risk offending those on high, but if the next few days hold more of the same, I may be forced to pop some kind of psychedelic substance that will help color my world a less depressing palette.