Most of us do whether we realize it or not. Living in a world without superheroes, princes and princesses, angels, wish-granting genies and fairy tale endings would just be too harsh and one dimensional. Furthermore, it's precisely through stories and fables about make-believe worlds with flying carpets, frogs that turn into real live princes, friendly winged-dragons ready to whisk us off to safety and wish granting genies that we're taught, as children, that we can achieve the unachievable, conquer the unconquerable. How many of us didn't ache to hop on the train that led to Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Our belief in the unbelievable is precisely what allows us to dream our own dreams, reach for our own stars and aspire for things that are just out of reach.
When the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight others went down a few days ago, I joined millions around the world in grieving. I plunged into a funk I couldn't manage to shake off. The claim, from several of my more "grounded" friends that, although terribly sad, it hadn't been quite worth the attention it received world round, got me thinking about why I, and many others, had taken this particular loss so hard; about why I was moved to see the lights illuminating many Philadelphia monuments changed in Lakers' purple.
The truth is, I'm not especially fond of basketball. It's probably one of the only sports that I've never followed--something to do with the difficulty I had learning to dribble back in Girls' Gym at Germantown Friends School in the 70s. But that, apparently, has nothing to do with my fascination with this particular legend. Kobe hails from Philadelphia and, in the City of Brotherly Love, we are nothing, if not faithful, sometimes even fanatical, fans. It was impossible to resist his charismatic personality, his superhuman athletic abilities—the man absolutely defied gravity--and his presence, both on and off the basketball court. His devotion to educating, during and most definitely after his career with the Lakers—that last fateful trip en route to coach the girls’ Mamba basketball team--inspiring youngsters all across the US and possibly even the globe to strive more, to be the best that they could be, to love and respect the beautiful art of the game, any game, can only be admired. It is impossible not to mourn his loss.
But the world reaction to his death has more to do with his status as superhero, joining the ranks of others who have managed to amaze, to inspire wonder; those who have worked magic before our eyes and, accordingly, attained our capacious adulation. Our need for superheroes, for individuals who somehow seem bigger than life, manifest in a fascination bordering on obsession, extends well beyond athletic greats. Royalty have somehow, despite for the most part having lost much of their power as rulers long ago, gained a similar status. The latest fascination with Harry and Meaghan, at root just a young couple who’ve decided to break from their family and make their way on their own in the world and with Andrew, a young man with terrible judgment and worse behavior, all boils down to their position in the royal kingdom. We can’t get enough of them, raking their actions over the coals as we watch them crash and burn. We never consider applying normal, human standards to their behavior as they are, most definitely, not a part of our world. Belonging to that of fairy tales with golden carriages, jeweled crowns and happily ever after, they're forever held above and beyond all normal, human criteria. It’s not for nothing that Kobe’s death brought back that of Princess Diana, so many years ago—another superhuman, larger than life, struck down tragically too soon whose death continues to haunt us.
Our incredulity, shock, horror and distress over such tragedies are all part of a desperate need to believe in the divine; to believe that there are those who exist beyond the strict boundaries of our own, quite ordinary, lives. These days this need has become almost hysterical; offering a way to cope with nitty-gritty realities that are completely unbelievable besides being, in many cases, undesirable. Our need for heroes, superheroes, royalty that doesn’t necessarily wear a crown, is as great as our need for oxygen--providing an escape from the untenable reality in which we are mired: indicted individuals running countries; cruel dictators with unchecked power; the complete denial of global warming despite obvious proof of its existence; casino moguls becoming world leaders; entire continents burning out of control; Lady Liberty turning her back on the tired and the poor; institutions of sanity and justice becoming playgrounds for the overindulged; convicted felons escorted like royalty; a democratic nation that can't manage to elect a prime minister; the implementation of a peace agreement that has been outright rejected by one of the relevant sides. While writing this blog, I made a list of all those things my father, now gone almost eight years, simply wouldn’t believe. There is no end.
If we don’t believe in magic, in the possibility of miracles and the existence of the unimaginable, how will be ever be able to take the enormous leap of faith needed to eventually attain peace in the Middle East; to work for an end to sexual and racial discrimination, religious persecution and poverty--as Don Quixote said, "to dream the impossible dream." And much closer to home, how would we ever fall in love, crown our children princes and princesses and place our spouses on pedestals without the absolute faith in the divinity and magic of their existence in our lives. Granting superhuman status to certain individuals, based on the way they lived their lives, their contribution to others or their incidental birth into a royal or famous family, goes hand in hand with a receptiveness to hope and crazy dreams. I admit it, I'm a believer.
One more beautiful night in Tel Aviv. My husband and I were spending that Shabbat, like many others, walking around, absorbing the vibe, trying to figure out whether it might be time to dump our Suburban life and move to the city. We were continually amazed by how different it was from the one we'd left almost thirty years earlier: dusty, shop windows more chaotic than appealing, a hodge-podge of joints offering mostly fast-food: hummus and shwarma, pizza, burgers, and fries. This Tel Aviv was positively buzzing with energy, each street bursting with enticing offerings: culinary, cultural and commercial.
Our itinerary that evening focused on the area near Rabin Square, a portion of the city chock-full of tree-lined boulevards: Chen, David HaMelech, Ben Gurion. Especially entranced by the fact that dogs were as integral to the local scenery as pockets of lush greenery and pop-up cafés, we had our Spaniel Georgia in tow. Every now and then we stopped mid-stroll along the midway and gazed up at the rows of low-slung apartment buildings, admiring the signs of decay: crumbling concrete, rusted banisters, smeary water marks, and the omnipresent traces of the city's Bauhaus roots: ribbon windows, limited ornamentation, rounded corners and whitewash.
I remember smiling. How could I not? All of this, every bit of this city and what it had to offer, appealed to me in spades. But that particular night, the memory of my happiness stands out primarily because of how quickly it evaporated.
All it took was one step backward.
I'd wanted to get a better view. It wasn't too much to ask. After all, we were standing on the sidewalk, an area reserved for pedestrians.
With absolutely no forewarning, there was a loud pop, a smear of dark colors, and something brushed my side strongly enough to cause me to lose my balance. That feeling of pleasure? The one I was enjoying? Gone! Instantly replaced by fear and incomprehension.
I whipped my head to one side, and then the other, trying to understand what had happened, from what threat I'd escaped, gauging whether I needed to prepare for another go-around. I pulled Georgia closer.
By the time I discerned the retreating back of a tall man on an electric scooter, he had already moved quite a distance beyond us. My initial surprise, fear and relief were replaced by anger.
"What the hell?"
"You stepped into his lane." My husband's voice cut into my shock.
"I did what?"
"His lane. Their lane. They get a lane."
"What does that even mean?" I looked down at my feet, eager to affirm that I was in the right. Yes, I was still standing on the sidewalk. I looked over, into the street and checked. Yes, cars were passing. Things were as they'd always been, as they were meant to be: my space, their space. Clear as could be.
That's when I saw it, the white line. I followed it backward, along the paved pedestrian walkway, to where we'd begun our stroll and then forward, to where we were headed. I took in the painted white bicycle clearly demarcating a cycling zone. Although I didn't want to admit it, he was right. The sidewalk, that traditional safe haven for pedestrians, had been carefully divided to incorporate a lane designated for small-vehicular traffic.
Six months have passed since that first near-miss and I cannot begin to count the time I have spent negotiating precisely those sidewalks which I originally found so embracing, frequently forced to jump out of the way of one threatening contraption or another (more often than not an e-scooter), gauging whether it's safe to cross the sidewalk, counting my blessings, and constantly tugging poor, confused Georgia back to safety. The facts speak for themselves: Sharing our so-called "safe space," has effectively meant its erasure.
Don't get me wrong. I understand the multiple charms of these electric vehicles (officially, PLEV: Personal Light Electric Vehicles): their contribution to lowering emissions and making the city greener, the ease with which they can help people get from one place to another, and, of course, the fun factor. I'm also certain that there are certain areas where they can be used properly and without endangering or threatening pedestrians, say beach communities or suburban areas (such as the one I call home); areas where they can be contained to proper bike paths. But their transformation of this magical city--within just a few months!-- making it another version of the wild west, is anything but positive; their presence on the streets of Tel Aviv has surpassed that of being a "nuisance" and moved on to a "clear and present danger." My first encounter, and others I've had in the interim, are nothing compared with the kind of carnage, and no, I do not use this word lightly, going on out there. Just take a look through YouTube!
I've been following the global debate over whether to allow the usage of these ever more popular e-scooters on the streets of congested cities. To date, they have already been permitted in several across American, albeit in far more restricted numbers, and a good number in Europe. Some estimate that there are already 25,000 on the streets of Tel Aviv! Yet, the growing spate of accidents, some fatal, associated with their use, has caused many cities to revoke their use or implement new rules intended to ensure a safer environment for riders and pedestrians alike.
In light of this situation, I was shocked to learn that there is a recent initiative in Manhattan, (where lawmakers have, to date, held an impressively tight line against permitting e-scooters), to permit them access to the already treacherous city streets. I can't even begin to imagine the chaos they'll create in the Big Apple when, after the honeymoon period, the serious accidents begin to pile up. Talk about opening Pandora's box! My advice to residents and tourists alike? Beware of wolves in sheep's clothing and hold on tight. You don't want this ride to be your last one!
The Shalva Band. If you haven't seen them perform: run, not walk. Or at least watch them on YouTube.
I'm not sure we've made a big enough deal of this group of eight individuals that, although challenged by a variety of disabilities, managed to pull Israel together last month, albeit for five and a half minutes. That accomplishment is no small feat in this divisive country. Their performance at the Eurovision competition--an event that, in itself, will be remembered as a national high mark, the country polished to a dazzling shine and extending an extraordinarily warm welcome to all those who came to be part of the sixty-four-year-old celebration--was nothing short of epic: illustrating Israel’s ability to appreciate its gifts, its miracles and its genius.
Living in a place that is so harshly criticized, not only from abroad but from within, surrounded by so many, close and far, who seem to go out of their way to find fault and imperfections, quick to hold an entire people up to a moral standard maintained by very few across this giant globe, it’s all the more critical that we acknowledge our genuine treasures.
The Shalva Band's performance of “A Million Dreams” deserves our admiration not only because of the wonder of the group's accomplishment, their ability to rise above the serious obstacles they face daily and produce such beauty, but even more so for the way they brought an entire nation to tears. Their performance struck the hearts of hordes of Israelis, filling them with an all-too-rare, sense of shared pride. As the band members dared to dream, hoping to exceed the limited options of their world (the words of that song written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul from “The Greatest Showman” so perfectly aligned with their own reality) so, too, do many of us here in this tiny, often-plagued and frequently maligned corner of the Middle East.
I recently came across the concept of collecting moments as a means of taking stock; of stopping at a major juncture and gathering words that encapsulate the facts and emotions of the instant as a means of better understanding its significance. The protagonist of Tara Conklin’s “The Last Romantics,” Fiona, does this in an attempt to recover what was, how things had been, immediately before an enormous loss. It enables her to reconsider the regrets, the anger and the frustration she experienced at this critical moment in her life in an effort to cope with the pain.
I believe that this action could be used in a far more uplifting fashion, as a means of acknowledgment, a way to clamber up to the light just when things seem black. By stopping a moment to consider what was going on precisely as the Shalva Band shone its impossibly bright light on millions of Israelis, their contribution to a people, their message of inclusion and their proof of the power of aspirations, become even more germane.
I followed Fiona's lead and made a list of the moments that characterized this roller coaster of a life we live here in Israel just around the time the Shalva Band took to the stage. It was more than troubling: the area surrounding Gaza was, yet again, being pummeled with rocket fire, citizens forced to stay home, ready to run into a shelter at any moment; hundreds of acres of arable land were being burned to the point of devastation daily; the religious right had gained unprecedented strength through the electoral process and was set to impose its Medieval practices on a modern nation; some of the most basic human rights, those upon which Israel has always prided itself--Israel: the ultimate defender of democracy in the Middle East--were under serious attack, threatened with rescission.
This gathering of moments didn’t add up to anything I wanted a part of, it felt foreign and ugly. It was black, so very black. Yet there it was, a moment that was part of those others; one that begged to be acknowledged: a moment when the baton swung wildly high and Israel pulled off a spectacle that would make us all proud, featuring an exquisite exemplar of achievement and tolerance, acceptance and embrace, all of those things that we were desperate to remember were part of this country as well.
We have so very much for which to be thankful, so many reasons to stick it out and fight the fight. Embracing a moment, gathering the strands of our existence at a critical junction, is a wonderful way to help us recognize our blessings, cling to those beams of light and maintain hope of realizing our dreams.
"They can say...it all sounds crazy. They can...say I've lost my mind. I don't care...so call me crazy. We can live in a world that we design."
A million thanks to the Shalva Band for reminding us of what we have and encouraging us to dream.
"Where's the butter?"
It's a Friday morning like any other. I'm sorting through the groceries, putting away the items that need refrigeration. My husband shops for the family on Fridays. I get to skip that all-too-boring weekly ritual and he gets to chat up the neighbors. Win-win.
"There wasn't any."
“How is that possible? Where's all the butter?"
This conversation had become as regular as our Friday morning shopping ritual. There was no butter to be found and our stock was running seriously low. While we’d let the situation slide, convinced it would sort itself out, we now knew it was time to take action.
First: The survey. We asked around, inquiring whether others knew why butter had disappeared from the shelves. No one had a clue and worse, they seemed rather complacent. This made no sense. Who could possibly accept a world without butter?
Second: The research. Ends up that one company, Tnuva, basically has a monopoly on butter, Tara having stepped out of the race some time ago. Their attempt to raise the cost of butter in response to the recent rise in the cost of milk fat (due to a shortage of cows!) had been rejected by the government, concerned about keeping consumer prices affordable and steady. Unable to cover their production costs, Tnuvadecided it would simply be easier to stop producing butter (How I hate even writing that sentence!) and simply stick with milk. Quelle horreur!!!
Third: The search. We branched out, expanding our network of grocery stores to include those we happened by at any time of the day or night. The ability to get that precious commodity, were we lucky enough to find it, into proper refrigeration, was no longer important. We just wanted to score some butter.
The upshot? Still no butter.
About me and butter: It's nothing short of a love affair. I'm probably one of butter's biggest fans. And when I say butter, I mean butter. I don’t cater to substitutes: no spreads, no margarine, nothing that smacks of being a wannabee. And although I dropped it cold turkey a few years ago, after noting my climbing cholesterol, I have since come crawling back. Blood fat be damned.
My search has had some interesting moments. A few weeks back, I ventured into a large market run by a kibbutz. I was excited, confident. Weren't kibbutzim synonymous with dairy? I combed the refrigerated shelves, walking briskly back and forth with anticipation, my pace only slowing with the growing understanding that my quest had come up empty. It was early morning and I had the place to myself so I tracked down someone who looked official.
"That's right," he said. "There's no butter." After trying to assuage me with one substitute or another, all of which I firmly rejected, he visibly brightened, his smile spreading wide. He'd obviously remembered something that might fit the bill. I followed him to the end of the dairy case, my heart rate quickening with anticipation.
Maybe, just maybe…
There before me, in a simple plastic container that looked like those handed out in ninth grade biology for cultivating beans, was a square of yellow matter, small enough to fit into the palm of my hand, that looked very much like butter. I cradled it like a rare gem, flipped it over and then back again. There was no label, no date stamp and the container was just barely “sealed" (if that's what you would call it) with a flimsy white plastic lid. My brow furrowed and I hesitated for just a moment, questioning its origin, authenticity and freshness, wondering if it were pasteurized, trying not to wonder why he hadn't offered this to me in the first place before making the rounds of the dairy case. I smiled, throwing caution to the wind, and marched toward the checkout triumphant. It looked like the Real McCoy. That was enough for me.
That was then. This is now. That precious square of butter is long gone. My search has resumed. Four months and counting. If this terrible, horrible wrong doesn’t right itself very soon I’m going to search for greener pastures, preferably those occupied by a proper herd of cattle. Normandy is looking very good.
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.