Monthly Archives: May 2016

In Praise of Footsteps

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OK.  So.  There are some things you’re not going to see from your car.  Or the bus.  Or the train, etc. , etc, and so forth.  There are some things you are only going to see while on your feet.  And, pretty or not (and I wouldn’t call Ben Gurion pretty),  you’ll be glad you did.

Praise Ha’Shem who has prepared the footsteps of a man.

It is one of of the morning prayers.  And like all of them, it forces us to think about that which we take for granted.  Now I’m not going to be overly theological here — maybe not even theological at all.  But there are things worth remembering.

Most of us are lucky enough to be blessed to be able to walk.  Some are not.  I have a beautiful twenty year old niece who has never walked.  While she seems to live a happy life, knowing her keeps me always in mind of the blessing of footsteps.  They are nothing to take for granted.

I also write as a former runner — injured in my 40s and thereafter years in the gym.  I never enjoyed the gym.  Footsteps — yes, of a sort.  But not the kind of footsteps that acquaint you with the world.

I have always been a walker.  But in the past year I have taken myself out of the gym and onto the streets.  It has been a wonderful blending of revelation and exercise.

Now I’m a bit excessive.  Well, about almost everything.  So why should walking be different?  At home I average eight to ten miles a day. In a new city that can easily grow to fifteen or even sometimes twenty.  The last two days in Tel Aviv have seen me cover 35 miles.

Why?  Well, yes, there is the exercise. But there is so much more than that. If you are really afraid of missing out, think of all you miss by using transportation.  I know.  Sometimes you have to.  And I understand that recently I have been blessed with the luxury of time that permits excess.  But even if you wander around for half an hour a day, it will make a difference.

How else would I have come across young girls in several neighborhoods  in Tel Aviv — no older than eight or nine in groups of two or three — out wandering with their friends, not only fearless but apparently unaware that there might be anything to fear.  From this I learned a lesson about Israel — everybody takes care of the children, so really there is nothing to fear.  (Random terrorism aside.)  Or wandered into a children’s park in Shanghai, hidden among enormous towers and buildings, to see the escape hatches that Chinese kids wear on their pants pre-toilet training?  How to have wandered over to the far end of Grand Street in New York, a little bit of Lower East Side preserved in 1950s-era apartments and public housing.  Or seen the pre-adolescent Hasidic boy , tzitzis and peyes flying behind him as he was running home alone between the Chinese fishmongers?

Photographers know these things.  But why leave all the fun to them?  Walking brings you down to the ground.  It inserts you right into the middle of places you’ve never known and places you’ve been a dozen times that maybe are just a bit different today from yesterday.  Walking forces you to confront people face to face, even if you shyly avert your eyes, not to mention if you smile and try to engage even if only in passing, if only for a moment.  Walking takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to see the abject poverty of a Beijing neighborhood hard against a prosperous middle class development and, more to the point, forces you actually to look at people, to see people,  who might make you sad or uncomfortable.  You can’t escape.  You are there, and so are they. Walking places you in the middle of life.  It keeps you from just passing through.  It gives you understanding.  It forces you to confront the world that is.

There will come a day when I cannot walk.  Perhaps I will be instantly deprived.  Perhaps it will go slowly, so that I must go slowly, and perhaps less far, and perhaps less often.  When that day comes, I will be sad (except if I go instantly, of course).  But I will remember the world I have engaged by wandering around on my feet.  I will have some memory of life as it is.

We can read the prayer as one of direction — Ha’Shem determines the footsteps of man — and that is a common reading.  As for me, I prefer to understand it as acknowledging that Ha’Shem determines that we do in fact have footsteps.  We take them, and the result is imprinted on our minds and our souls.

What a terrible thing to waste.  Get out and walk. You’ll be a better person.

The Diplomacy of Real Estate

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I believe I have found the explanation for a problem that has bedeviled Israel and  the so-called United Nations.

The problem — the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The solution. Real Estate!

It has nothing to do with all the bubbamayses about occupation, conquer, territory, whatever.  Any serious thinker knows that those arguments are non-starters.

It has nothing to do with the protection of Islam’s holy sites. I mean, the best argument the rest of the world has is that Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest site. i mean really?  My third best friend doesn’t even talk to me.  I’ve got two who are better.

I haven’t even heard of hundreds of people being crushed to death on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So how cool can it be?

It is Israel’s holiest site.  Doesn’t that count for something?  Maybe not if you hate Jews.  But at least note that  the Israeli government has a perfect record of protecting the Dome of the Rock. Those who call it holy?  A storehouse for Molotov Cocktails.

And I’m not going to get into war, conquest, and all of the other issues that world government’s throws up.

So I don’t have to.

The answer is simple.

It’s all about the real estate.

Let’s take a hypothetical.  Let’s say your job requires that you live in, oh, I don’t know, maybe Malibu. It’s only a short drive to your office in Santa Monica and, anyway, you don’t have to do the driving.  And so your employer insists on giving you an all-expense paid beachfront mansion in Malibu so you can be close to but not quite on top of the office.  All expenses.  Mansion.  Beachfront. Barbra’s your neighbor.

Really?

Sweet.

And let’s assume you come from kind of a lame country. Let’s call it Sweden.  Yeah, you’re rich, you’re European which makes you somehow superior to the rest of the world (except it doesn’t and you’re going bankrupt so you try to chase out the Jews whose fault it is) , blah blah blah.  It’s ok with you that nobody actually cares about you. But you spend half your time in darkness and cold.  And you have voting power at the UN. And now you get to a place where your shattered dark Strindbergian soul – the soul that hates Jews even though you don’t really have any — is in MALIBU!  Sunshine.  Light. Warmth. Turquoise seas.

Awesome hummus.

Barbra.

Yay!

Now let’s say you have to move your office to Palm Springs. That will add a few hours to your commute, assuming traffic is light (which it never is).  Now don’t get me wrong.  Palm Springs is lovely. And it might even be fun because maybe you’re cool enough (in an irrelevant second-rate European sort of way) to join the Norwegian Rat Pack.

Frank SinABBA?

But . . . Palm Springs is in the desert.  Sure, there are people who like desert more.  But who doesn’t love the beach? Especially a perfect, turquoise water white sand Mediterranean beach, where you have an actual mansion?

And awesome hummus.

And Barbra.

And now your employer is telling you that maybe you should move closer to the office and give up that beautiful beachfront mansion and live in a kind of cool but smallish faux-Neutra three bedroom near the swinging lights of the desert.

How would you feel?  Right. You don’t want to move.  Now how would you feel if you come from some loser developing country that could never even imagine a place like this and hates Jews even more than you do even though they don’t have any either because they’ve killed them all or chased them out or are so lame that even desperate refugees wouldn’t live there?

Right. You’re not moving, no matter how unfair or irrational your position on the capital is.

Location, location, location.  (By the way, I am very proud as a citizen of the populist republic of the United States to note that our ambassador’s mansion is waaaaay shabbier than others, at least as far as you can from the street behind the walls.   And if you take a look at India’s, you might have some idea why they are so friendly with Israel.  Just sayin’.)

So you demand that Tel Aviv be the recognized Israeli capital rather than Jerusalem.  It’s a short commute.  You can justify the mansion.  You can stay in Malibu  . . .um . . .Herzliya.  Same thing.

The solution to the problem is easy.  Any New Yorker could figure it out.

Let the ambassadors keep their real estate.  The commute to Jerusalem isn’t that bad.

Home

Well, it’s been  . . .um . . . a long time since I’ve last written.  Fortunately I know that none of my readers are sitting on the edge of their respective seats waiting for my next installment.

That said, and by way of explanation, not excuse, a lot of stuff has been happening in my world. Some of it I’ll mention — I finished writing my first novel and am looking for representation; more poems are being published; a few family things that have joyfully resolved — and some of it I’m not yet ready to talk about.  I will soon enough, from a venue perhaps unexpected.

But I feel compelled to write because I am, once again, in the only place that makes me happier than New York.  As readers do not have to guess, I am in Israel.

I might have written earlier — I arrived late Sunday — but for some reason I had a case of the kind of jet lag I haven’t had in years. (Note to self– never arrogantly believe that you have defeated jet lag — it doesn’t happen.)  And I had to teach on Monday.  And Tuesday. And tomorrow.  And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .

My reason for being here is very different than last summer when I was a Hebrew student.  This time I am the teacher, teaching a course at IDC Herzliya on The Pathologies of American Corporate Capitalism, based largely on my work. There are many differences this time, but one constant:  This remains the place I belong.  Project Aliyah has not ended.

And . . . this is the really exciting thing.  I have spoken English only to teach (and in a few more complicated situations).  I have otherwise negotiated everything — cabs, restaurants, shops, hotels, conversations with new people, etc — almost entirely in Hebrew.  Bravo to the teachers at Hebrew U Ulpan and to Haggai at JTS.  Even though it’s been some months since I engaged with the language, whatever they did managed to sink in.  And it is wonderful.  It’s to the point where my eyes first go to the Hebrew, not the English, on all of the signs, and I always use the Hebrew menu (and haven’t yet been shocked at the result).

But this trip is particularly special because it has put me in a very different context.  Last summer I was a student, with other foreign students.  Our teachers were Israeli, we encountered Israelis in Jerusalem, but it was relatively limited.  This time, I am engaging with 65 Israeli students, not to mention the 25 or so who attended my “Master Class on Legal Theory” on Monday.  I am talking with Israeli professors (including, delightfully, a couple of old friends) and staff — insisting on Hebrew until I think I’m going to get into real trouble — and of course the students.  In fact I spent the first five minutes or so of my introduction to the course speaking to them in Hebrew.  And nobody laughed.

So I don’t quite understand why everybody starts speaking English to me BEFORE I open my mouth.  Whereupon I insist on Hebrew and they are happy to oblige.

To engage with Israeli students is a revelation.  They are older.  All have served, or are serving, in the army.  They exude a confidence I generally don’t see in American students, which leads them actually to talk in class as if we were having a conversation.  Yes, by this I mean they interrupt, they don’t raise their hands, they are highly opinionated,yada yada yada.  I’m going to insist that part of this is ethno-cultural — it is quite familiar to this New York Jew — and part of it is as a result of the aforementioned.

They have shown themselves to be friendly and warm — no matter how rude I perceive their sidebar conversations in class to be (see above). They have shown themselves to be engaged with important world issues.  And they have been very sweet to me. Obviously not all of them — there hasn’t been time.  But enough to make me so proud that they are the future of my people, and so humble to know that they already have done more for the Jews than I will in my life.

Herzliya is not Jerusalem.  I am staying in the Industrial District of Herzliya Pituach, a collection of old factories and spanking new high-tech companies (the Apple building across the way from my hotel is an engineering marvel).  The temple here is dedicated to technology, innovation, and commerce.  The restaurants are almost as trendy — seriously –as any you’re likely to find in New York, although far cheaper and with beautiful food (I’ve eaten more vegetables in three days than I have eaten in three years).  And the beach is just a mile down the road, where resort Herzliya presents itself.  This is a town of the Israeli one percent, of beautiful houses behind protective walls and gates, of luxury beach hotels (I was fortunate to stay at the Dan Accadia the last time I was here), a town of trendy shops and fashionable bars. In these dimensions, of course, it is vital to the future of Start-Up Nation, vital to the normalcy of an almost-developed country, and vitally preserves the beauty of neighborhood hummus joints fast against restaurants that require reservations long in advance.

So, in a word, I’m home.  Having finally slept for more than an hour or two, I’m up for some significant exploration and, as is my nature, reflection.  I understand that this entry is a bit disjointed, perhaps not as elegant or thematic as I’d like. But I will continue to report as I observe.   Reveling in the joy of a land of milk and honey.