Thursday, December 20, 2007

Steel Crazy (after all these years)

Jerusalem – Yesterday began Eid al-Adha and Tuesday is Christmas. Rather than slaughtering a sheep or attending Midnight Mass, the ritual I’m most focused on will take place at around 4:30 tomorrow morning. That’s the time that I’ll be waking up for the second half of the Steelers-Rams game.

There are two weeks left in the regular season and the Steelers basically need to win out to win their division. When I started this blog, I intended for it to be about Live from Jordan, travel, culture, people, and my little obsessions – Mexican food, Big Hair, and the Steelers. “Living on the Seam” in Jerusalem has yielded some colorful posts, but I’ve fallen down on the Steeler front.

I thought there would be posts about new coach Mike Tomlin and his separated-at-birth resemblance to Omar Epps, the heroism of Hines Ward, and a petition drive to get rid of Steely McBean, the embarrassing mascot introduced at the start of this season. But I haven’t written a single post dedicated solely to the Steelers, and the season is slipping away. So this week’s blog is devoted to my favorite team and my love for them from thousands of miles away.

When I lived in Jordan, I listened to the games free on or Yahoo. I have memories of Myron Cope screaming “Yoi and double yoi” while the call to prayer echoed outside. 1:00 games were the best. With a seven-hour time difference, it was my own primetime Sunday night football. Night games that started at 11:15 or 4AM were problematic, however. You gotta support the team, though, the next day in Arabic class be damned.

Besides Myron Cope’s retirement, things have changed in the last four years -- it is no longer free to listen to the game. I bought NFL Game Pass from Yahoo for about $200, which allows me and other fans outside of the country to watch a game a week on the Internet. Because Yahoo’s service is inconsistent, I’ve also subscribed to radio broadcasts with NFL Field Pass ($9.95/month) as a backup.

Silly you say?

Well, this last week, despite selecting the Steelers-Jaguars game on my menu, Yahoo broadcast the Miami-Baltimore game. I had a full meltdown. The only people who wanted to see the Dolphins-Ravens were the top five picks of next year’s NFL draft. I spent much of the first half of the game IM-ing with the Yahoo help team (who were helpless) and refreshing my screen. For the second half, I listened to the streaming voices of Bill Hillgrove and Tunch Ilkin while I wrote an angry email to customer service. The bitter loss to Jacksonville didn’t make it any better.

Still, in a few hours, I’ll be getting up to see what the Steelers have left in the tank after two awful losses. Why go through work on Friday in a stupor just to see the Steelers play the Rams you ask? Well, there is something special about football and the Steelers for Pittsburghers.

The Steelers transcend sports in Pittsburgh; they represent the heart of the city. I think it goes back to the 70s when mills were closing and unemployment numbers were skyrocketing. The Steelers won four Super Bowls and gave people a diversion that swept them away. The Steelers were America’s best, better than the glamor-boy Cowboys. They won with a style of toughness and grit that embodied the city. The Steel Curtain defense and guys like Jack Lambert and Mean Joe Greene represented the qualities of Pittsburgh’s everyday – and in many cases, unemployed – heroes.

The tradition continued in the 80s and 90s, as the mantle was passed to Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd, and Rod Woodson. They didn’t win the Super Bowl, but the Blitzburgh defense made us proud. And then, along came Jerome Bettis, the Bus, who just kept hitting defenders again and again until he ran them over. Pittsburgh has never had the “Run and Gun,” “West Coast Offense,” or Sharpie moments (which I admit are creative and funny). Instead, the Steelers have won consistently over the years by being tougher than their opponents.

For a working class city like Pittsburgh, success with that style of play has generated a love affair that has few comparisons in all of sports. I read a story the other day about a widow who brought her husband’s ashes to the game last week. It was his dying request to see a game at Heinz field and the family couldn’t afford tickets or the trip from New Hampshire. Donors helped out. In the realm of things Steeler, such stories aren’t out of the ordinary.

When you arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport, a statue of Franco Harris making the “immaculate reception,” greets travelers (click for video). Next week will be the 25th anniversary of the play that launched the Steel Curtain’s dynasty. What other city celebrates the anniversary of a play?

The Steeler Nation lives in Pittsburgh, across the country, and around the world. With the demise of Pittsburgh’s economy in the 70s, many Pittsburghers took their terrible towels to the road. As a result, there is a Steeler bar in every major American city and road games in some cities take on a home-game feel because of the number of Steeler fans in attendance.

When I lived in D.C., I followed the Steelers run to the 2006 Super Bowl at the Pour House in Capitol Hill. The Pour House is three stories of Steeler Bar packed with the Black and Gold faithful. It was the next best thing to watching at home. I drove home for the big game, though. My buddy Joe flew in from Boston and we watched the Super Bowl in a bar downtown. When Hines Ward caught the winning touchdown, it was the realization of a childhood dream. We danced in Pittsburgh’s snowy streets with people we didn’t know. Our generation had a championship too.

I’ve been a part of the Steeler Diaspora for 14 years. I imagine there is something great about a Pittsburgh Monday morning after a win. In Jerusalem, as I set the alarm to get up for the game this week, there is something equally great about tuning in from afar. While I didn’t lose a job in the mill and I am too young to have first-hand recollections of Lambert and Mean Joe, following the Steelers is being part of a storied tradition that is associated with all the good things of home.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Holiday Gifts

Jerusalem – The best gifts this season are being given by unofficial ambassadors who are using their resources – both financial and human – to make the lives of strangers better. Their efforts are providing hope not just for the people who they are helping, but for us all.

I decided that I’m not giving gifts to family and friends this year (and this is the first time that I’m sharing this information with them). Instead, I’m donating money to several organizations that are doing inspiring, humbling, and wonderful work with and for children. For family, friends, and other devoted Live from … readers, if you were trying to figure out what to buy me for Hanukkah, please make a contribution to one of these organizations instead:

No More Victims
is a non-profit organization that assists American communities in providing direct assistance and medical treatment to Iraqi children war victims. In the process, the organization -- which has an all volunteer staff -- creates personal linkages between the Iraqi children (as well as their families) and the community that has sponsored the treatment for the injured child.

I found out about No More Victims by way of a front-page story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about Abdul Hakeem, a nine-year old boy from Falluja, Iraq who returned to Pittsburgh this last week for follow-up medical treatment. Doctors at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh volunteered their services to repair his jaw, face, mouth, and eye. Prior to the original surgery, he couldn’t chew food well and had stopped going to school because other kids were making so much fun of him.

You can watch videos about Abdul Kareem and other similar stories from No More Victims by clicking here. Frankly, I wasn’t able to watch without getting choked up – not just from the beautiful story of a life saved, but also from pride in the Pittsburgh community. Regardless of your views on the war in Iraq, a donation to No More Victims – and even better, an offer from your community to take on a case and to help – can go a long way.

Another way to help child victims of war is by addressing the issue of landmines. I raised the landmine issue a few months ago on this blog and we tried to get a golf accessory company to donate to the cause. They never responded to our encouragement. Obviously, my Uncle Ed is not getting their product as a Hanukkah gift. Instead, $169, the cost of the product, is going to landmine victims.

Landmines maim or kill 15,000 – 20,000 people a year. Many of these victims are kids at play. Other times, these are family breadwinners, trying to work or access drinkable water. Landmines Blow and Adopt a Mine Field are two organizations that are making a difference on this problem. Follow the links for each to donate.

In one of my Live from Jordan radio interviews, I met Ali el-Hajj. Ali is an Arab-American, about my age, living in South Florida who came up with the idea of the Bethlehem Christmas Project after a recent visit to Israel. He, other Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians will be delivering Christmas gifts to Palestinians in Bethlehem from December 7 - 15. The project is bigger than just the individual gifts, though. On their website, they have a blog that details the experience as it happens and they are also working with Code 81 Films to put together a documentary that will hopefully take this great effort by a few individuals to a larger audience and promote mutual understanding.

I want to mention another great project working with children that is worth your attention and donations. This one is domestic, but it is an idea that would be wonderful to take abroad. Critical Exposure is a U.S. non-profit organization that buys cameras for inner-city kids, trains them in documentary photography, leadership, and advocacy, and gives them a platform and the tools to raise awareness about the conditions in their public schools. Critical Exposure has worked in four states as well as in Washington D.C. They have a terrific website that has more information as well as students’ pictures.

You can donate online at Critical Exposure's website and you can also participate in Jared and Stacey Schwartz’s project to raise money for them. All you have to do is go to their Audio Exposure website, and add your favorite song to a mix that they are making. They are donating $1 for each song added.

So, my holiday message is to be an unofficial ambassador and to give your time, your expertise, or a financial contribution. Whether it is one of the causes listed above, Darfur, or something else, it makes a difference, both on an individual and communal level. As everyday Americans, there is a lot that we each are able to offer to not just improve our standing abroad, but to make our shared future better.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Friar on the Road: A December Rant

Jerusalem – Last night, on my way home from a Bat Mitzvah in Haifa, I was almost run off the road, three times. That isn’t bad. It is a two-hour trip each way and one potential incident every hour and twenty minutes is much better than what I face every morning on my 2.5 mile, 20 - 30 minute commute to work.

The driving here is awful.

According to Israel’s National Road Safety Authority, there were 428 fatal crashes leading to 480 deaths inside the Green Line in 2004 (most recent stats). There were also 3,091 drivers involved in “serious crashes.” That might not seem like a lot by American standards, but by Israeli standards, that is a ton. By comparison, 471 Israeli civilians, inside the Green Line, were killed by Palestinians between the start of the second Intifada (9/29/2000) and the end of last week.

I only realized the extent of my developing road rage a few weeks ago when I took a cab home from the Pittsburgh airport. The experience was nothing short of lovely. The driver and I talked about the Steelers for a solid half hour – the success of Mike Tomlin, Ben Rothlisberger’s comeback, and our distaste for the newly created mascot, Steely McBeam. As we spoke about the prospects for the Steelers’ post-season and cruised past yellow and red leaves on a wide-open three-lane road at a steady 55 mph, I realized that I was relaxed in a car for the first time in months.

Traffic was moving, there was no one bearing down on us from the right or left lane, and the traffic that did pass us (on the left no less!) used turn signals when changing lanes. When the road was empty, my fellow Steeler fan didn’t gun the engine and go 85 mph. We had a connection not just to our destination but also to other cars on the road.

What do I mean by that?

In Israel, the only thing that matters is your destination. There are speed limits and other cars, but for too many Israeli drivers, everything is about getting there (wherever it may be), as fast as you can. There is no driving etiquette – zero, zilch, bagel. Honk, cut off, honk, swerve, honk, make a u-turn, and honk some more. Just do whatever it takes to get to your destination three minutes earlier.

The worst thing that you can be in Israel is a “friar,” Hebrew for sucker. Little guardian angels fly around here, sit on people’s shoulder and scream, “al taytseh friar!” or don’t be a sucker! I’m convinced that the “al taytseh friar” factor affects how people drive.

If you let someone in ahead of you, you’re a friar.

If you wait in the turn lane to make the turn, you’re a friar.

If you don’t block the intersection at rush hour, you’re a friar.

Every morning on my way to work, I wait in a designated left hand turn lane to cross a major street. The lane usually has 10 to 15 cars in it and it takes two to three light changes to make the turn. Without fail each morning, per every light-change, at least one car drives all the way to the front of the line and shoots into the intersection before the first car and cuts it off. Actually, usually two cars do this per light, with the first one going fully perpendicular to the line of waiting cars. What are you going to do, T-Bone him? A couple of weeks ago, a van carrying kids pulled this move right in front of me. That’s great. They must have been late to homeroom.

The swerving and passing is just as bad. It is all a game of chicken with drivers thrusting between lanes and lurching into intersections. They put the onus on you to slam on the brakes or your car will be in an accident. Mopeds are the worst. They fly in and out of traffic, brushing between side mirrors and weaving back and forth between lanes.

I have a good friend in Pittsburgh who used to own a VW Jetta with a broken driver side window. Anytime he’d want to roll down his window and yell at a driver who’d irked him, he’d have to fumble around in the ashtray, grab the handle, attach it, and then roll down the window. Frequently, the driver would get away before the window had made it down and my friend would be left shaking his Jetta window handle at the windshield.

I wish I had a window handle to shake.

Instead, I pound the horn; long honks, double honks, and the rapid-fire repeater with a long blast of “I hate you” at the end. I swear, I point my finger, and then I grip the steering wheel until my knuckles turn white. I yell at the radio and the fingernail-on-the-chalkboard morning show DJs from RAM-FM (the only English language music station and the subject of a different diatribe).

And then, when I’m done, after a 30-minute, 2.5-mile drive full of fluster, I arrive at work to start my day.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Pittsburgh Today Live

Pittsburgh - The Book Tour II has finished, and I'm home in Pittsburgh for a couple of days before returning to Jerusalem. I have a little bit of a turkey or maybe book tour hangover, but I was still able to get out of bed this morning for an interview on Pittsburgh Today Live.

To watch the interview, click on this link. Here, on the right, is a picture of me speaking with the nice hostess of the show, Kristine Sorensen. I think I was explaining to her how I make some of my favorite shadow puppets or I could have been telling her about my last bad haircut.

The best part about the interview was when Kristine asked me to explain to the hometown crowd about the Heinz Ketchup Eaters. If you haven't read Live from Jordan, the Heinz Ketchup eaters are the elites of the developing world who cruise around town in their Lexus Jeeps, wearing designer jeans and eating burgers covered in Heinz Ketchup. I'm now waiting by the phone for either John Kerry's wife (Theresa Heinz) or the CEO of Heinz to call.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Book Tour II – Adventures at Jewish Community Centers Across America

Richmond - “Who are you here for?” I asked the driver of the stretch limo outside my Miami hotel.

“Orbach.” The 40-something driver replied, as he gave me the once over – New Balance sneakers, worn jeans, and a button down shirt with a wingy collar.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, Orbach. Is that you?”

“Yes it is,” I said with a big smile as I handed him my bag and stepped up to the glory.

My Miami-Fort Lauderdale limo ride might have been the highlight of my Jewish Community Center book tour. It’s too bad I fell asleep during the ride; that shining moment could have lasted longer. Or I guess the moment would have lasted the same amount of time, but I would have been awake for more of it.

Whatever. I’m exhausted.

Last night wrapped up my Jewish Book Council tour. I visited five cities in five days and shared with mostly Jewish audiences my experience of living the American-Arab relationship 24-hours-a-day for a year following the 9/11 attacks.

When people hear that you are on a book tour, they think of limo rides and top-shelf hotels -- like the Jefferson in Richmond, the beautiful 5-star hotel where my very kind hosts put me up last night. But there are a lot of airport security, frozen Lender’s bagels, and dirty-sock-detection moments, too. There is also the “expectations of a grand performance” aspect. I guess you eventually adjust to it, but there were a couple of nights that had me wishing I could juggle or tap dance.

It probably isn’t the same for all authors on the Jewish Book Council tour, but my topic is a little different, especially given the audience. For example, in Richmond the night before I arrived, EllyAnne Geisel presented “The Apron Book: Making, Wearing, and Sharing a Bit of Cloth and Comfort.” In Deal, NJ, I was part 2 of a doubleheader with the very funny AJ Jacobs, author of “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” That was a tough act to follow.

I speak about the diversity that I found traveling to different places in the Arab World, the conversations I had with young men about their future, the daily struggles that “bus riders,” i.e. the common man faces in Egypt, Jordan and other places, and – most important to me – the popular opinions that people hold of America and Americans. From Cherry Hill to Miami, I received some excellent questions about the difference between the opinions of young people and older generations; the status of women in each Arab country; and popular views on terrorism in general, and the 9/11 attacks in particular. In a couple of places, I stayed 30 or 45 minutes after the talk ended to answer the bubbling questions of curious readers. So, I found that there was definitely some interest in what I had to say, but there was also some hostility.

For some vocal book-talk goers, my message and experience missed their desired mark. My shades of gray in explaining the anti-Semitism that I found, and the differences I sketched between places with a history of Jewish life and places where Jew = the Israeli army (in the minds of locals) were more exacerbating than satisfying. In almost every setting, there was a request for me to explain what I mean by the word “Palestine.” I was also asked in almost every stop about Arab countries’ education curricula, popularly viewed (here) as dehumanizing Jews and demonizing Israel.

I took away two main things from these book discussions with American Jewish communities. First, from the post-talk comments and the follow-on emails that I’ve received, there is an interest and a skeptical hope for better interactions with the people of the Arab World. Second, the everyday people in Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria have a long way to go in creating a more positive impression of their communities among Jewish communities in the United States.

Just as Mark Twain, Mariah Carey, and the Matrix make it to the Middle East, the information flows this way too. Egyptian newspaper cartoons, various countries’ textbooks, and stories of honor crimes are common knowledge on suburban Jewish Main Street. I’ve written a lot about the role unofficial American ambassadors should play in the Middle East. It is clear that there is a role for unofficial Arab ambassadors to be playing here, too.


For those wondering, my limo riding etiquette is terrible. When the driver sneezed, I said, “Bless you.” He didn’t hear me, so I yelled it, not wanting him to think that I was too good for such niceties. Except, when I yelled it, he just looked at me funny, like I was some kind of religious freak doling out the goods. Worse, perhaps, when we pulled up to the hotel in Lauderdale, I didn’t wait for him to open the door. I just hopped out, like a jack-in-the-box. The hotel doorman, from the look on his face, thought I was going to attack him.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Big Mexican Food, Little Hair

Eatonwood, NJ – The waitress deposited the black granite bowl of fresh salsa and the basket of warm, fresh chips before me. As Jerry Seinfeld once said about his reaction to fresh bread in a restaurant, “it was like I was alone in a hotel room in Milwaukee.”

She was lucky to get her hand away fast enough.

It has been too long since I had a good Mexican meal. Israel is a nice country, but I haven’t found a decent burrito, nacho, huevo, or enchilada in four months of searching. I tried to pretend like I had a good burrito a few months ago. But who was I kidding? There were no beans or cheese, it was a wrap (made by a nice lady), and I was desperate.

It wasn’t a hotel room in Milwaukee, but I was alone in the dining room of a Mexican restaurant somewhere near Deal, NJ last night. The restaurant had a small bar area with a couple of TVs, and I would have bellied up, but there were eight obnoxious JETS fans screaming their faces off. The JETS weren’t playing, but there were fantasy football issues at stake. Clad in green shirts and JETS baseball hats, they needed Peyton Manning to throw six touchdowns, not six interceptions. They wanted LaDanian Tomlinson to run for four touchdowns, not four yards. Obviously, the outcome of the game didn’t matter.

So I sat in the empty dining room and attacked my food. Not just for the speed and ferociousness with which I ate those chips and then my enchiladas, but for my anti-social tendencies, I felt a little like an axe murderer who hadn’t eaten in a few days. I finished my food in seven minutes and then had to wait for George, the town’s cab driver to come back and get me.

While I waited, I positioned myself so that I could see half of a TV through a little window into the bar. I sat there quietly, in my coat, for 25-minutes while the JETS fans lived it up in the bar.


Axe murderer.

I just haven’t gotten much sleep since I wedged myself into the second to last row of a Tel Aviv-Atlanta flight in the wee hours of Friday morning. Tired, cranky, and a little sick, the prospect of hearing “J-E-T-S JETS! JETS! JETS!” from close range was enough to make half a TV screen ok.

Besides a good Mexican meal, my trip home has also included a good haircut. My overgrown mullet has been corrected. “The September Surprise” i.e. “the Massacre at Damascus Gate,” i.e. my latest bad overseas haircut, never really grew in. The sides just didn’t come back and the top and back kept getting longer. This past year, Israel started professional baseball and football leagues. If they do hockey, I would have been a first round draft choice on looks alone. They at least would have found room for me as a mascot; until Friday afternoon, I looked like the missing Hanson brother.

My brother’s wedding is next week and those pictures are going to be for life. I couldn’t take the risk of having the haircut fixed in Israel. So I waited for my trip home and went to Gino’s in Squirrel Hill. Here’s an exact quote from Gino:

“What happened here in the back?”

I just don’t know.

Gino fixed me up and I’m now ready for the wedding. But here’s an interesting twist – they confiscated my hair product at the Pittsburgh airport yesterday on my way to my first book talk in New Jersey. It was 150ml and the limit is 100!

Aside: In Israel, where a guard checks your bag at the entrance of every building, you don’t have to take your shoes or belt off at the airport. Here, I think we are one step away from walking through airport metal detectors in our underwear.

I understand that we are working off of the premise of “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me,” and I cooperate because people are doing their jobs and the intent is right. But when you are on a plane, do you feel safer because you know all the other passengers have had their shoes and belts run through a metal detector? Or can you fall asleep because you know that the person next to you doesn’t have more than 100ml of contact lens solution or hair gel with them? I just hope some would-be terrorist doesn’t try to get on a plane with a bomb stuck up his ass.

So, they took my gel -- which left me at a NJ supermarket last night trying to find some product. There were so few choices that I ended up with Queen Helene Cholesterol Conditioning Styling Gel. According to the back of the tub I bought (no travel sizes), I am now conditioning and protecting my over-processed and chemically treated hair with Cholesterol.

Talk about living dangerously, forget backpacking through the Middle East, I’m rubbing cholesterol into my hair!

I guess I really only have one question, whose cholesterol is this?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jewish Book Month

Jerusalem – After six mini-altoids, my tongue was encased in a minty fresh numbness. The room was hot and I was glad to be wearing a sports coat. It covered the pools of nervousness spreading through my shirt. There was an audience of about 120 Jewish Community representatives and 35 authors packed into the Hebrew Union college sanctuary last June at the Jewish Book Council audition in New York.

The Jewish Book Council is an organization that is devoted to the promotion of Jewish-interest literature. In advance of Jewish Book month (which occurs the month before Hanukkah), the JBC invites a hundred or so authors to a gathering where each writer has two minutes to convince an audience of representatives of Jewish communities from across the country that he or she is worth taking home, for a book talk to the community.

I happened to arrive late to the audition. I actually fell asleep on the subway, going the wrong way no less. So after rushing in late, I sat stuffed between a couple of fellow authors whose last names were somewhere in that meaty part of the alphabet, between “Michaels” and “Rosen,” and waited my turn. A short female MC with glasses and a no-nonsense demeanor introduced each author, announced who was "on deck," and then relinquished the floor for exactly two minutes. As each author pitched, the MC held up signs indicating that one minute was left, then 30 seconds, then 10 seconds, and finally that time was up. Once time was up, she stood and walked towards the podium, quite effectively signaling to the gasping author of the moment that his or her time was up.

It was nerve wracking to watch. What made it worse was that all the other writers' topic were so different and so much more connected to Jewish things than mine – there were books about teaching the bible, combating anti-Semitism, preparing a spiritual Friday night dinner, and telling the history of Jewish sweatshop workers in America. Further, the other authors seemed so accomplished. This one had won Jewish book of the year three times, that one had a public television show, and something like five of them had radio shows. And here I was, psyched to have hit the top 7000 books on Amazon the week before, that is after I’d bought 20 books myself. As my neighbor’s shaking legs made me seasick, I couldn’t help but get nervous about how my “human face of the Middle East” shtick was going to go over with an exclusively Jewish crowd and whether I would be able to get it to go over in less than two minutes.

I had prepared a two-minute speech according to what I guessed people wanted to hear. But when it was mercifully my turn, I stood up, popped in another mini-altoid, and winged it. I apologized for being late, I made fun of my ability to fall asleep on public transportation in any country, I referenced my Safta in Queens and her homemade Matzah ball soup, and I simply said that Live from Jordan was about the questions we all had on 9/11 and my pursuit of answers to those questions.

Somehow, it worked out. There was a lot of interest in me and in Live from Jordan.

Maybe it was because I was different than the other presenters; I like to think that I said something funny. Or maybe it was just that I seemed young and unattached and some nice people wanted to bring me home to meet their neighbor or niece. After the event, there was a buffet dinner and a chance to meet the representatives of different communities. I was speaking to a young woman in her 30s from the Atlanta Jewish Community Center and somehow it came up that I had just gotten engaged the week before. Her face literally fell and she said, “Oh.”

After a pause, she added, “I had the perfect girl for you. Mazel Tov.” She then walked away.

I wasn’t invited to give a book talk in Atlanta. But I was invited to NJ, South Florida, Richmond, NY, and Philly (sort of), and I’m looking forward to a trip home in about a week. If you are in the area, please stop by. Here’s the schedule:

November 11, 2:30 PM, Betty & Milton Katz JCC, 1301 Springdale Rd. Cherry Hill, NJ

November 12, 7PM, Ruth Hyman Jewish Community Center of Greater Monmouth County, 100 Grant Ave., Deal Park, NJ

November 13, 8PM, Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center 11155 SW 112th Ave., Kendall, FL

November 14, 7:30 PM, David Posnack Jewish Community Center, 5850 S. Pine Island Rd., Davie, FL

November 15, 7PM, Weinstein Jewish Community Center, 5403 Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA

November 19, 7PM, Bay Terrace Jewish Center, 1300 209th Street, Bayside, NY

November 20, 7:30 PM, Shir Ami Bucks County Jewish Congregation, 101 Richboro Road, Newton, PA

Saturday, October 20, 2007

So Smart or So Ridiculous?

Jerusalem – My bonus time in the Rhodes airport gave me a chance to do some thinking. In between writing my blog and text messaging my (coincidentally Greek) friend Chronis who I was supposed to play poker with that evening, I had the chance to ponder some of life’s bigger questions. Here are four of them:

• What is the attraction of duty-free shops at the airport?

The Johnny Walker, Marlboro, and Cadbury are still marked up, even if you aren’t paying taxes. So, where does duty free euphoria come from? Nine Russian-speaking men and women polished off a bottle of Absolute Vodka and Bacardi Rum in 45 minutes at Gate 11 while I waited for my flight. As they did shots, snapped pictures, and hurled bawdy encouragement at each other, it occurred to me that perhaps some alcohols aren’t available for them back home. Maybe random gates at the airport are the equivalent of a hometown bar that they remember with nostalgia.

In my little world:

Boris, stretching out on a set of attached red airport chairs: “Ahh, Gate 11, they only serve the good stuff, not that awful rail vodka we drink at home, in the cold.”

Natasha, lounging on a set of chairs across the aisle: “Oh, yes. The times we had at Gate 11! I wish it could last forever!”

(In the background, an intercom voice whines, “Last call for flight 732 departing for Kiev. All passengers please board at Gate 12.”

Boris: “Last call! Last call for alcohol!”

On the other hand, if it were a question of denial at home, wouldn’t there be some cartoon-like character smoking five Marlboro reds at once, or eating bricks of Cadbury chocolate?

• Where does belly button lint come from?

My theory: undershirt lint intermingles with chest hair and then seeks out a nice warm spot to call home. But does that mean that people who don’t have chest hair don’t have belly button lint build up (BBLBU)? And what about people with outies? Are they immune to BBLBU? What if you have an outie, but chest hair too -- what’s the belly button occupancy situation? Of no surprise, Wikipedia has an explanation.

• Do foreigners come to the United States, get terrible haircuts, and bemoan their follicle miseries to their friends back home?

“I can’t believe he evened out my mullet!”
“Where is my line? This gradual fade is wimpy!”
“She straightened my home perm!”

If yes, then it means that if there was a fashion police, there couldn’t be a fashion Interpol. We have no common standards. There could be no agreement on who deserves a ticket, and in more severe cases, who needs to be extradited and incarcerated.

• What would it take for the smart car to succeed in the United States?

All over Rhodes, there were little fuel-efficient cars with names I’d never heard of before. I felt like Gulliver, surrounded by a fleet of Lilliputian bumper cars. Of course the headliner of them all is the Smart Car.

One day in Germany, a couple getting divorced couldn’t decide on who would get possession of their prized, new-aged, lime VW Bug. The couple, Helga and Bob Lingen, went to arbitration and the judge told them to cut the Bug in half; they each would get a slice. Unlike the Solomon story, they agreed. Helga got the back seat and trunk – she turned it into a hand-puppet theater. She is now performing Hamlet with a couple of argyle socks in a Stuttgart park. Bob Lingen got the front half of the Bug. A few little red wagon parts later, the Smart Car was born.

Honestly, the Smart Car just looks silly. It counterbalances its ridiculous appearance with practicality and fuel efficiency, though. It gets 60 miles per gallon (5mpg better than the Toyota Prius), costs $12,000 ($10,000 less than the Civic Hybrid), and it is 2.5 yards long – meaning that if it was an NFL running back, it would get cut during the preseason.

I pay 250 NIS ($62.50) to fill up my Subaru Forester here in Israel, and that is after a 50 percent discount on gasoline because I don’t pay the national tax! With such a financial gasoline burden, would I ever consider driving a Smart Car? Good thing for me, my cheapness will never be put to the test – I’m too big for the Smart Car.

Other, smaller, Americans will soon face this very question. The Smart Car will be available in the U.S. in a matter of months. Will gas guzzling SUV driving Americans, whose cars are a part of their patriotism, ever buy the Smart Car? Or will we just pick those Smart Cars up and throw them at each other like crumpled cans? I guess it depends on how desperate the gasoline situation becomes back home. I just don’t know.

If you have answers to any of these questions, and you don't work for Wikipedia, speak up!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Life and Times Stranded at a Greek Airport with an Israeli Charter Group

Rhodes – He was looking for someone to wag his finger at, to make an accusation. Dressed in black, his sliver hair swept across his forehead, there had to be someone new for him to bark at somewhere in the terminal. He’d made a point out of making a point all day. The best part about being delayed 11 hours on our return from Rhodes was not being him.

At 7:40 on Sunday, our Israeli charter group found a sign in the lobby of our hotel that said we’d be delayed three hours. Whether this was the opening act of a strategic ploy by Tsila our travel agent, or information that she actually thought to be true, I’ll never know. Either way, I learned a lot about the behavior of aggrieved and desperate charter groups over the next fifteen hours.

10:40 came and we were told that the delay was now until 2:30. While I worried about missing my 5:00 poker game, others in the group grew more cranky. The man in black paced the lobby, staking out a claim to the most suffering. He led a small group of vacationers who employed “peer around the corner” bus-stop logic. While others sat by the pool or went to Rhodes’ quaint old city, they waited in the lobby, believing that it would put them closer to their destination.

When Tsila showed up to answer questions, the man in black led battle cries of “People have to work tomorrow!” and “We need to get home!” He jabbed his finger like he was Robert Deniro in Taxi Driver.

At 3PM, they took us to the airport – probably at the hotel’s request, as abandoned vacationers had taken over the lobby, some sleeping off hangovers on the green pleather couches. At the airport, the group stampeded into the security line. It was like a game of Bingo where everyone has the same card and the person who gets to the front of the podium first is declared the winner.

To me, the worst thing about the Middle East is fighting with locals in line while carrying stuff. Unencumbered, I can hold my own, but weighted down with luggage, I’m toast. I get packed into the middle, where strategic angling movements are impossible. Or I’m flung to the margins, with no one agreeing to stand behind me and validate my position.

The line just didn’t go anywhere though, and when it finally did, it led to another amoeba shaped line to check bags, and then another line for passport control. At the passport control line, European citizens cut in front or went to a special line for EU passport holders, infuriating our group. There were mumbles of special anti-Israel treatment and a yell of “Where is Tsila? She is scared of us!” Tsila had disappeared a few hours earlier, collecting her new charter group and ridding herself of our plight. $385 for three nights in Rhodes didn’t include her soul.

By 5PM we had reached the gate area. I can’t say a specific gate because there was still no information about our flight. The vacationers bomb-rushed duty free, worried that they’d missed their chance at tax-free whiskey, perfume, and cigarettes. Little did they know that they would have the chance to shop to their hearts’ content.

Over the next five hours, we sat at gates and we went through a Lord of the Flies like lifecycle short only of the murder. If Tsila was there, however, I can’t confirm that she would have made it. There was frustration with the lack of information about our flight. There was panic, hunger, and feelings of abandonment. There was an attempt to organize and issue demands. There was a period of quiet after the good-natured Greeks gave us each a cheese sandwich, a bottle of juice, and a piece of chocolate pound cake. There was tiredness and resignation as people slept on the red benches of gates 10, 11, and 12. There was sorrow at a missed poker game and the opportunity to watch the Steelers beat the Seahawks 21-0.

There was rumor-mongering as passengers called home and reported back to the group of vacationers. “My mother said they are sending a plane for us at 8:30!” called out one guy. “My brother said that a plane was arriving at 8!” yelled another. And then there was debate about the sources of information. Laughing, the first guy demanded that his mother had never been wrong in her life, she was a Polanit (a Polish Jew)!

And of course, there was continued anger led by the man in black who stalked the terminal and confronted anyone in a uniform, demanding answers and justice. Periodically, he’d press his mug against the windows of the gate, block the fluorescent glow of the overhead lights with his hands, and look for signs of the El Al plane that would take us home.

Throughout it all, time stood still. The clocks in the terminal were stuck at noon. At one point, the PA system turned against us as well, crackling loudly and intermittently. Was it all a psychological experiment?

Sometime after 10, an El Al plane landed on the Rhodes runway to the cheers of the abandoned vacationers. We were saved from another Duty Free shop meal of chocolate Riesens, cinnamon pita chips, and black olive dip. As the wheels of the plane touched the ground, solidarity was lost, though. For the umpteenth time that day, the vacationers swarmed into a fitful line, trying to be the first to get home.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Holiday Season III – Jerusalem’s Ramadan Nights

Damascus Gate – Amid the parade of Jewish holidays – it is now Sukkoth – Ramadan is still going strong. It really is the holiday season here.

Israel is celebrating Sukkoth this week, a 7-day holiday that centers around building outdoor, booth-like structures in which Jews eat, hang out, and in some cases sleep. Sukkoth’s roots trace to the exodus from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering in the desert. Sukkoth is a pilgrimage holiday, and in the days of the Temple, Jews traveled to Jerusalem to make religious offerings. Today, Jews from all over Israel (and actually the world) still travel to Jerusalem. While they don’t make sacrifices, they sure cause a lot of traffic jams.

I took some visiting Pittsburghers to the Old City yesterday and the Jewish Quarter resembled the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, except without the beads, floats, or debauchery. Okay, it wasn’t Fat Tuesday, but there was a band and I’ve never seen the Jewish Quarter so crowded. Israel’s chief Ashkenazi and Sephardic rabbis were at the Western Wall yesterday, too. A mob of stroller-pushing well-wishers swarmed them and security had to push back the crowds. It was a scene more reminiscent of a concert than a holy place.

Jewish pilgrims aren’t the only people in town these days, though. Jerusalem is the third holiest place in the world for Muslims, and tens of thousands of Muslims have come here for Friday prayers, break-fasts, and celebrations.

When I lived in Jordan, where more than 95 percent of the population is Muslim, everyone fasted or at least appeared to fast during Ramadan. The holiday was in full effect everywhere. Besides the closed restaurants and lack of food in public, afternoon crankiness and lethargy (which accompany fasting) hung in the air.

Here, things are different. Similar to Jordan, the work schedule has changed, there is a conspicuous lack of public snacking in East Jerusalem, and break-fasts have become regular events on my social calendar. Still, the impact of overlapping Jewish holidays on Ramadan in the Jewish state creates an interesting co-existence and some surreal scenes.

Walking home Monday night, I came across one of those scenes, a lively post-break-fast celebration in the Damascus Gate area. Since the start of Ramadan, Damascus Gate has been adorned with lights and half moon decorations. At about 8PM, though, there was more going on than the usual outdoor market. Vendors sold ground meat and chicken kababs from smoking hibachis. Young men hawked boiled corn, calling out “dooriya!” At impromptu coffee shops on the landings of the Gate’s entrance, men with gelled spiky hair and others with less hair drank tea, coffee, and sahlab, a milky and nut-filled drink. Some of them smoked water pipes as huka attendants stood nearby, twirling iron hot coal baskets and keeping the flavored tobacco fires burning.

The bee-bop of popular Arabic music filled the night, and a clown on stilts wearing a blue balloon hat danced through the crowd. Little kids ran back and forth, some attracted to the clown, others repulsed. Women in colorful red or white hijabs milled through the crowd, shopping for Ramadan deals, but hanging out too.

A normal Ramadan scene, no?

Well, at the top of landing’s steps, Israeli soldiers and policemen looked on. For the hour that I sat on the steps, a young ultra orthodox boy no more than 12-years-old stood at the top of the steps, a few feet away from the soldiers. His fedora was pushed back on his forehead, and he stared with wonder at the action below, transfixed and catching flies. Words couldn’t capture what he was seeing or feeling.

Just a few feet away from the clown on stilts, older Yeshiva boys had emerged from the Old City. They wore black suits and hats and as they walked up the steps, people began to clear away. It wasn’t for them though. A very small boy, wearing a denim jacket and blue jeans was motioning for people to move off of one of the landings. As the crowd, including the teenage Yeshiva boys, looked on expectantly, the denim boy took a running start and somersaulted his way fearlessly across the stone landing, ending in a full body flip to the cheers of the crowd. Another young boy break-danced in his wake and then walked on his hands. The Yeshiva boys, like everyone else watching, smiled in disbelief and admiration.

An hour earlier, 500 yards away, up Jaffa Road, a crowd of a few hundred orthodox Jewish families were watching Sukkoth fireworks in the municipality’s square – home to the Sukkariah, a giant Sukkah made of candy. Ultra orthodox men with curly paot, their wives clad in shapeless dresses, and the many young children with no school in the morning spilled out of the courtyard and into the street. When I walked past them on the way to Damascus Gate, they were rendering the city’s traffic laws meaningless. The road rage of Sukkoth and Ramadan car horns filled the air.

500 yards -- that’s only a thumb or so on Google Earth. In a Jerusalem filled with sukkot fireworks and Ramadan clowns on stilts, however, it is a world away.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Holiday Season II - Yom Kippur

The American Colony – Israel shut down yesterday for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

On Yom Kippur, Jews ask God to forgive the sins they committed the year before and the sins they’ll commit in the year to come. As part of our contrition, we fast from sundown the night before Yom Kippur to nightfall the next day.

Aside from the fasting and soul-searching, Yom Kippur is known as the “Bicycle Holiday” in Israel. Since Israel literally puts up the shutters – TV and radio stations, stores, and roads all close – the country’s roads become a playground as children and adults cruise city streets and highways on their bikes. Some even bike the steep road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

No bicycles for me, though. Instead, I went to the holiest place for Jews in the world, the Western Wall. The Western Wall is the western outer retaining wall of the Second Temple’s compound. The Second Temple was built on the site of the first temple and on the hill that Abraham is believed to have offered his son Isaac to God for a sacrifice (God said, “no thank you). Today the Haram al Sharif, the compound that houses the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, sits on the site of the Temple’s ruins.

The Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall, is an interlocking puzzle of rectangular boulders mixed with tangled greens sprouting from spots in between. Hand written notes, detailing the hopes and pleas of Jewish pilgrims from all over the world, fill the cracks among the giant stones. In the plaza beneath the Western Wall, Jews have gathered to pray since the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

On Friday night, as the sun set, Jews dressed in white – a sign of purity – began to arrive at the Wall for prayer. Some ultra orthodox with long beards wore kittels, or white religious overshirts. In other cases, it looked like an army of milkmen was invading. Leather is a Yom Kippur no-no, so there were lots of canvas belts and gleaming white sneakers, out and about, enjoying an annual cameo. The big hit in Yom Kippur fashions this year though was white Crocs. Crocs are popular here and the full color wheel was on display, but a local shoe store definitely made a killing on white ones.

With the sound of the Ramadan cannon, which fires each evening to signify that it is time to break the fast, I descended to the men’s section of the Wall for prayer. The plaza had filled considerably, but not into one service. Instead, congregations gathered together in spots around the plaza. The sounds of staggered prayers, each at their own pace, echoed throughout the evening.

The crowd was diverse, not just by dress but by skin color and place of origin too. Besides the men in white, the plaza was filled with Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews wearing fedoras, black suits, and Windsor knotted ties. Some European Jews with shaved heads and long curly pa’ot sported yellow robes, while others wore black silk robes, fur hats the size of flying saucers, and white stockings pulled to their calves. For a while, I joined a Sephardic congregation, where I sat behind a guy who looked to be from India and two others who appeared to be from North Africa. To my left were two Ethiopians, about ten years older than me.

Interestingly, the prayer books were as diverse as the worshippers. As I searched for the right mahsor for Yom Kippur, I found a book of psalms with Arabic-Hebrew translation, a siddur with English commentary, and finally a Hebrew-Russian mahsor.

Fifteen feet from where I finally settled, the leader of a Carlebach-looking group – each member had an untamed beard – thrust his fist into the air repeatedly as he led Friday night prayers. A few feet away, thirty Sephardic men clustered around a rabbi with salt and pepper hair, big brown glasses, and a long grey beard. The rabbi leaned against a reader and delivered a sermon on the need to feed the soul, not just the body. He enunciated each word, competing with the singing of the smaller group to his right.

Directly in front of the wall, an assortment of lone individuals, from a blonde 20 year-old in shorts to a thin black guy wearing a black baseball hat, braced their palms against the smooth hand worn stones that are more than 2000 years old. Their lips, just inches away from pieces of history, mouthed silent and private prayer. Others, with prayer books opened, shucked and swayed in more formal devotion. I wondered how it would be if everyone was on the same page, chanting the same prayers at the same time.

Despite the cacophony of services, though, the night was magical. The wall was sprayed with light from tilted floodlights that cast spelling-binding shadows and induced a moment of spirituality outside of time.

The strangeness of a country collectively paused in reflection returned, however, when I exited the Old City via Dung Gate. The city’s walls were lit against the mostly quiet night. Outside of Zion Gate, a group of Spanish-speaking Christian pilgrims sang hymns. From Silwan, lit by Ramadan lights and crescent moon decorations, came the sounds of Palestinians celebrating the Ramadan break-fast. Other than that, the Jewish side of the Old City was still. The roads leading to the center of town were blocked with barriers.

The next morning, I returned to the Old City. It was a little after 7AM and Ramadan hangover was evident throughout East Jerusalem’s streets and the Damascus Gate area. Two empty falafel cauldrons stood at the top of the Damascus Gate stairs amid the previous night’s litter, and young boys were setting up lines of shoes for sale. In the Muslim Quarter, stores were beginning to open as shopkeepers put out sweets from the day before, hung articles of clothing outside their shops, and put on Koranic tapes.

At the Wall, morning services had begun, each congregation forming in what I realized were their respective spots. The Wall cast a shadow across the plaza and as the sun rose higher, the shadow receded. With the shrinking shadow, each congregation slid forward, pulling plastic white chairs and readers along. By 10AM, we were packed within 20 feet of the monumental stones. Most men were still praying but others sat in circles, listening to a Rabbi’s lesson. Above, in the shadows, birds darted back and forth between the cracks in the upper stones, nesting amid the holy weeds.

After services, I walked to the center of town. Saw-horses blocked the streets and Arab boys rode their bikes down King George and Jaffa Road – downtown Jerusalem’s main thoroughfares. Ben Yehuda Street, the usually crowded pedestrian mall off of Zion Square, was empty. The sounds of singing poured out of a nearby Yeshiva, but the stores were shut and the usual sounds of business were missing.

The only people downtown were Arab kids on bikes and foreign workers. The kids – mostly from the Christian Quarter – did tricks and jumps, and workers from South Asia and Thailand walked the streets casually, laughing. It was the Israeli version of the Saturday Night Live skit, “Christmas Time for the Jews” -- the claymation masterpiece where the Jews of New York celebrate Christmas eve and “control the night” playing professional basketball, driving tractors, and doing all other sorts of things that they never get to do as the city’s Christians celebrate at home.

So Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have come and gone; Sukkot is next and Ramadan continues. If you’re wondering how any work gets done amid days off, half days, fasting and the rest, you’re asking a good question. I’ll let you know in October, after my Columbus Day vacation.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Holiday Season

French Hill, Jerusalem – This last week was full of religious observance, and a little time travel too. Rosh Hashanah started Wednesday night, and Ramadan began Thursday.

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the ten days of repentance before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews’ prayers include hearing the blowing of the Shofar, a ram’s horn. The sound of the Shofar is meant to remind Jews to wake up and repent. The holiday isn’t all gloom and preparation for judgment, though. It is a family holiday (lots of food) and dinner is preceded by eating apples and honey, which symbolize the hope for a sweet new year.

Ramadan is a month of heightened religious observance and one of the five pillars of Islam. The month marks the revealing of the Koran to the prophet Mohammed and is a time for self-reflection, increased prayer, and spiritual cleansing. During daylight hours, observant Muslims don’t eat, drink, smoke, or have sex. The evenings though, are full of social events like breaking the fast with family and friends and staying up late playing cards. The month of Ramadan begins with the first crescent of the new moon, so sometimes the holiday starts or ends earlier in Morocco than in Kuwait or Indonesia.

This year, the stars – or actually the moon – aligned and Jews and Muslims in Israel began their holy days together.

To accommodate Ramadan fasting, the Palestinian government decided to “fall back” early. Iftar, or break-fast, begins with the sunset, so to make the sun set sooner, Palestinians turned their clocks back an hour. In Israel, the government decided to wait until yesterday before “falling back.” I’m not sure whether this was because Yom Kippur (a fast day) isn’t until next week or whether sunrise at 5AM is a bit early.

Personally, I’m thrilled with the change. I’m now only six hours ahead of Pittsburgh so when I wake up at 6:15AM, the Post-Gazette sports page has already been loaded on to the PG’s website. I no longer have to wait 46 minutes to read about the Steelers.

Though it only lasted for four days this year, I was fascinated by the hour time difference between Israel and Palestine. Let’s say you were in Jerusalem and had a 1PM meeting in Ramallah. You leave your office at noon, drive 30-45 minutes (assuming you don’t wait at checkpoints) and arrive in Ramallah at 11:45AM! You’re an hour early and you arrived before you left! To a liberal arts major, that’s time travel.

With the joys of time travel, though, comes confusion. To learn how locals deal with time travel logistics, I stopped in at the American Colony, a graceful hotel with an Arabesque style and a wonderful collection of old Jerusalem photographs. The Colony has been a fixture of Jerusalem life for more than a hundred years; today it is where Palestinian elites sip tea and meet with $16-hamburger-eating gringos like myself.

It was the first Friday of Ramadan and I passed hundreds of Palestinians, on foot and in buses, on their way to the Old City for Friday prayer. Local stores and restaurants were shut (for Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah) but the Colony is a secular oasis that bends to no doctrine. So after a coffee, I stopped at the front desk and asked the time. The answer was Israel time so I replied, “what if I had called from Ramallah?”

The time remained the same.

“What if I wanted to make a dinner reservation?” I pestered.

The receptionist smiled and said, “we’d have to ask you whether you’d changed your clock yet.”

Most interesting to me in this time vortex are the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, like Beit Hanina and Shufat or the Muslim Quarter in the Old City. I live in French Hill, a mixed Palestinian and Israeli neighborhood that Palestinians consider a settlement and occupied land. Prior to the 1967 war, French Hill was under Jordanian control. Israelis, consider French Hill, home to Hebrew University, as no different than any neighborhood in the western part of the city.

My apartment is Palestinian owned and the landlord lives across the way. I was dying to know, however, whether he was an hour behind me. Or in the Muslim Quarter, does the time depend on your religion? Does it change when you enter the Christian or Armenian Quarter?

Besides my fascination with holy land time travel, the best part about the start of the holidays was the feeling of entire communities coming together to do something spiritual and meaningful. Somewhere between 40,000 and 90,000 Palestinians prayed at al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City on Friday. It was a sight to see, the hoards of older men in white khaffiyehs and muhajiba women in traditional dress walking through East Jerusalem to Damascus Gate.

In West Jerusalem, Friday evenings are special. Downtown’s usually crowded streets are empty, as people are already at home preparing for Shabbat. On Rosh Hashanah, it was even better, somehow quieter and more serene. Everyone was at home, at synagogue, or with family, starting the New Year together.

Shana Tova and Ramadan Karim –

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Bad Overseas Haircut

Jerusalem - If you’ve traveled overseas, then at some point you’ve overpaid at the local market, found yourself inside a dungeonesque bathroom (damp and dirty) at a time of need, and confronted the unfortunate choice of wearing a frontal backpack, neck pouch, or fanny pack. There are experiences that every tourist overseas shares, no matter whether the destination is Delhi or Paris.

Similarly, if you live overseas, there is another range of experiences common to your life, whether it is learning to drive offensively or becoming a regular at Karaoke bars. Somewhere between getting passport photos (a task undertaken at least every other week in third world countries) and complaining about how deodorant is cheaper in America (a current pastime of mine), there is the bad overseas haircut.

The bad overseas haircut is a tradition for American ex-pats akin to Thanksgiving, apple pie, and football. Following the Barry Bonds debacle, I’ve unilaterally decided that baseball is no longer our national pastime.

Mushroom head,” “the mullet,” “Kojak,” “a tail,” and “the helmet” (aka the “bad fade” or “ill fade”) and the circumstances surrounding such fates come in all shapes and sizes, from the Asian Parlor to the Arab Salon. I’ve suffered all of these except for the tail – a regrettable destiny for its first few hours, but one that is easily remedied.

Americans usually fall within one of two bad overseas haircuts categories, Language Barrier Casualties (LBC) and Fashion Police Victims (FPV). An LBC cannot communicate his needs to the haircutter in question. He uses hand gestures or shouts words like “just a trim,” or “fade,” slowly and clearly. He may even try to actually show the haircutter how to cut his hair. Sadly, the outcome remains socially disastrous for the LBC.

For an FPV, communication is not a problem. He speaks the local language or has found a haircutter who speaks English. After the FPV engages with the barber, he is confident that he is going to get the haircut requested – making his plight more tragic. FPVs have no way of accounting for the local stylist’s Fashion Police sense.

You see, the local stylist knows best. Even though the FPV has clearly stated what he wants (usually a haircut uncommon to local trends), the haircutter cannot risk the potential disgrace of having the local Fashion Police pull over the badly groomed American and pepper him with questions like, “Who did this to you?” or “Why are you out in public looking like this?”

So, the haircutter gives the FPV elements of what he requested, but he localizes it, assured that his client will be happy in the end. If you asked for a fade, you get a helmet. If you have long hair, you get a mullet.

Well, I’m here to tell you that I’m not happy with my “baby Jagr” mullet.

Jaromir Jagr
was an 18-year old Czech prodigy supreme who came to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990. A goal-scoring dynamo who learned English watching Married with Children, he was a child of the 80s, a small town (Kladno) boy taking that midnight train (flight) to anywhere (Pittsburgh). A puffy afro in the front, flowing curly hair in the back, and closely cropped sides, Jagr set the standard for a generation of hockey mullets. He dominated opponents with his speed and stick handling in the 90s and left a wake of fluttering mall chicks’ hearts in his wake.

Seventeen years later, I have the "baby Jagr," and I’m walking around Jerusalem, trying to stay out of people’s pictures.

Pre-haircut, my Big Hair situation was desperate; the Partridge Family was calling to ask questions about my hair product. So, I went to a barber a few blocks from Damascus Gate. Given my familiarity with Arabic haircut vocab, I thought I had a better chance for a good cut with an Arabic-speaking barber.

I found a guy with long hair himself. He understood English . . . I thought I was so smart. I told him what I wanted, we chatted amiably, and I sat in his chair, confident. When I left the shop, I really thought it looked okay. I’m not sure if it was the lighting or that I hadn’t gotten a haircut in almost two and a half months and forgot what it was supposed to look like. But I thanked the barber and continued on to a work event feeling well-groomed. When I got home, though, I looked in the mirror and saw a baby mullet.

Oh, the humanity.

The next day, several people commented that I had gotten a “nice” haircut. Haircut compliments are a fine thing, for women. Not noticing a woman’s haircut means that the changes are within a range of subtlety undetectable to your average guy, or that the haircut is so bad that a compliment is impossible; the charade of the lie is just too painful for all. When other men notice a man’s haircut, it just isn’t good. Several asked me where I got it. 100 percent they wanted to make sure that they never end up at the same place.

Fortunately, I have impressive hair regeneration powers. Once my sides grow in, I’ll be able to leave the house again. In the meantime, feel free to send in your bad overseas haircut stories. Misery loves company.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Silence from the Rough

French Hill -- Silence.

I’ve yet to hear from the Ballfinder people. I have heard from several of you, though, as well as from the Landmines Blow people.

The ‘power of one’ might not be enough. Why don’t you send an email to Mr. Lewis and Mr. Garrison asking that they make a contribution to the landmines cause? To make it easier, I’ve written a sample message for you below. Their email addresses are: and

Please either leave a comment or send me a message to let me know that you’ve sent the Ballfinders a message. I’d like to keep track of our effort.



September XX, 2007

Dear Ebby Lewis and Dennis Garrison,

I recently read about the Ballfinder Scout on “Live from . . .” at The Ballfinder seems like an innovative product and it is a gift that I’m considering purchasing for my ______ (insert appropriate golf playing friend or relative).

I have to say, though, I would be much more inclined to purchase the $169 Ballfinder (and mention the Ballfinder to friends) if I knew that the Ballfinder was supporting the cause of de-mining through,, or another similarly focused organization. We’re privileged to have the opportunity to spend our leisure time searching for lost golf balls in the rough. We shouldn’t forget others who face a different and desperate situation everyday, especially when we can so easily help them.

I look forward to hearing from you about the Ballfinder’s contribution to this cause – either directly, or through Benjamin Orbach’s Live from . . . blog.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Friday Paper

French Hill, Jerusalem – One of the nice things about Israel is that the Sunday paper comes on Friday.

Lionel Richie's “Easy like Sunday morning,” doesn’t apply here. The Israeli workweek is Sunday through Friday afternoon. For Israelis, Sunday is Monday, Monday is Tuesday, and Tuesday is rough. A six-day workweek, even with a half-day included, is brutal.

If you were wondering, the Palestinian workweek in the West Bank is Sunday through Thursday. Since the Gaza coup, Hamas has changed the workweek in Gaza to Saturday through Wednesday. So, if you are a civil servant in Gaza, you have to decide whether you are going to go to work on Saturday. If you work Saturday, the government in Ramallah won’t pay you your salary. If you don’t work, then the Hamas government fires you.

Since Sunday is Monday in Israel, there is no point in a juicy, thick Sunday paper. By the time Sunday rolls around, the weekend is over. Instead, the Sunday paper, replete with entertainment and opinions, is the Friday paper in Israel.

For someone like me who works an American workweek, this means that even if I skip the news on Friday morning, I still have two full days to spend with the newspaper. This past weekend, I devoted myself to the Friday paper, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. All were satisfying.

Digression: I drove about 50 miles (roundtrip) on Saturday afternoon to see The Bourne Ultimatum because the Jerusalem theater that was showing it doesn’t screen films on Shabbat. The film was edge of your seat good and blended perfectly with the others. Middlesex was good too. I fear that this is a famously well-regarded book (it is on Oprah’s list) that I’ve only just discovered, so let me just say how much I enjoyed the way that the narrator’s tone shifted gender back and forth throughout the story. End Digression.

Haaretz, my English language newspaper of choice, is full of articles and opinions on headlining issues – the peace process, negotiations, political violence, etc. – as well as feature stories on the human aspects of the absence of peace. This past Friday, there were stories of interest from Sederot and Gaza. In Sederot, they are trying to figure out how to start the new school year amid mortar attacks from Gaza. In Gaza, the clothes manufacturing industry is collapsing, strangled by the full closure.

These stories involve human suffering that the public should be aware of, but they are “conflict” stories. You could substitute different proper names for the people or cities, and it could be another part of the world. What I find fascinating are the stories that couldn’t happen anywhere, like the Palestinian workweek conundrum and these gems:

Pardes Hanna Mayor angered by Indian Jews’ Conversion Course in Town” According to the article, the Bnei Menashe who were lost 2700 years ago and who have returned to Israel from northeast India (where they maintained 40 synagogues) angered the mayor of this smaller town because they arrived in the town “secretly,” and did not coordinate with his office!

Shas (a religious political party) Seeks To Punish Cremation with Jail Time” This one isn’t about prison terms for the ashes of cremated individuals. Rather, the Minister of Religious Affairs wants a bill that will punish anyone who cremates a body with a year in prison and a fine of $7500. The minister accused those who cremate of “suckl[ing] their heritage from the annihilators of the Jewish people . . . [and] implement[ing] a renewed final solution here.” Outrageous comparisons to the Holocaust combined with grandstanding legislative power, what a combination!

One of my favorite sections of the Friday paper is the “Anglo File.” This week there was an article about the Israel Land Development Corporation, an American company selling pieces of the Holy Land at $118 a square foot. Last’s week’s section contained profiles and pictures of new immigrants from America. I was touched and amused by the smiling picture of seven-year-old Elisha Z. He is looking forward to not having to go to school during Hanukkah, but is also going to miss the treehouse he left behind in New York.

A story that I’ve been following, but that didn’t appear this Friday, is about the African refugees (some from Darfur) trickling into Israel through the Sinai. These refugees walk here, and Israel doesn’t know what to do with them from either a practical or policy perspective. There are almost daily reports and stories ranging from Africans wandering in the Negev desert looking for help, to Israeli students demonstrating for asylum for Darfur refugees. The issue is intriguing given the importance the Holocaust played in the creation of the state and the moral obligation that many here feel to offer shelter to victims of genocide. At the same time, there is the competing pressure of maintaining Israel’s character as a Jewish state.

This could be a good point of discussion – I’d welcome your thoughts.


I’ve gotten a few emails asking about it, but so far no response from the Ballfinder Scout people.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Scouting Landmines

David Citadel Hotel (downtown Jerusalem) –

900,000,000 golf balls are lost in the United States every year.

Earlier today, I was transfixed by an infomercial for the Ballfinder Scout, a device that finds lost golf balls in the rough through a combination of digital camera and GPS technology. In what looked like the Everglades, a polo shirt-clad Nick Faldo used the Scout to find lost balls. He then demonstrated how to take advantage of that saved stroke by hacking out of the treacherous terrain. The Scout works anywhere, as long as three little white dimples of your lost ball are showing. And for $169, you get the Scout, a handsome carrying case to add to the blackberry or cell phone holder already on your Batman utility belt, and a video of Nick Faldo battling it out in the wilderness.

The Scout, which captured my imagination, is sold in more than 20 countries, including the UAE (watch out for the sand traps)! For some reason, though, as I sat at the David Citadel swimming pool surrounded by Orthodox Jewish swimmers, some in sporty looking bathing skirts, I couldn’t shake my association of the Scout with landmines. Finding golf balls saves money, time, and a stroke on the course, but as I watched golfers find balls through various furry roughs with their Scouts, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this technology could be used for other things too.

When I backpacked in Cambodia a few years ago, I remember reading in Rough Guide about landmines all over the country. There were pervasive stories of children losing limbs in minefields, and landmine victims were a common sight in Phnom Penh. The problem of landmines – especially as they relate to children and agriculture – seem to be a constant in the background of books and movies set in Afghanistan too.

After doing a little internet research, I found out that the problem isn’t so much finding the landmines in these and other countries, it is coming up with the money to de-mine fields. So, the Scout’s technology isn’t needed, but a donation from their profits would certainly be welcome. I felt as if there was a common enough link – digging around in the weeds for golf balls and digging around in fields for land mines, that I sent the Scout people the letter below, inviting them to become unofficial ambassadors.

I’ll let you know if there is a response. In the meantime, the links (below) are worth checking out.

August 19, 2007

Dear Ebby Lewis and Dennis Garrison,

I recently learned about the Ballfinder Scout through an infomercial broadcast in a Jerusalem hotel. Congratulations on your success and remarkable use of technology.

As I watched Nick Faldo and other golf pros poking around in the rough and using the Scout to find their lost balls, I couldn’t help but think about children in Cambodia and Afghanistan poking around in the fields of their respective countries. Tragically, those fields are full of landmines. Did you know that 70 million landmines lie unexploded in more than 80 countries? Or that 15,000 – 20,000 people are killed or maimed by a landmine every year, a third of which are children?

I recognize that landmine victims and potential victims in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Bosnia are not your target audience for the Scout. Still, I’d like to ask that the Scout consider taking on the issue of de-mining as a philanthropic project. At, you can see that for $30,000, the Scout can support a full de-mining team in a high priority area in Afghanistan for two-months. At, you can find information about supporting the construction of wells (about $1500 each) and securing clean water for mine-affected communities.

As sporting goods entrepreneurs, perhaps you are wondering why this matters to you. Besides the positive publicity that taking on landmines would generate for the Scout (by the way, I’ve given you a nice plug on my blog), you’d be acting in a way that creates hope and opportunity for others. If there were neither hope nor opportunity in the 20+ countries that the Scout is sold, there wouldn’t be a lot of golfers.

I hope that you'll seriously consider giving to this cause. I look forward to hearing about your success in this and other areas.


Benjamin Orbach
author of Live from Jordan

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Old City

Borg al Luqluq -

ESPN probably isn’t going to cover it, but I put aside my basketball retirement for a few hours this afternoon to hoop it up with a couple of 14-year-olds named Mohammed in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. A stone’s throw from the Lions’ Gate ramparts, and with the Golden Dome of the Rock as a backdrop, the Mohammeds beat me 15-14. They also bought me a bright yellow popsicle afterwards.

I spent today at the Borg al Luqluq summer camp with some colleagues from work. The day was billed as a chance to interact with local kids as regular Americans. Summer camps are important here, as they are in any crowded city where kids don’t have anything to do during day-time hours. You’ve likely heard about some of the camps here, the places that offer indoctrination in addition to sports, games, and fun. This place wasn’t like that; it seemed very nice. The staff was committed and young and the hundred or so kids rotated from station to station, playing games like dodgeball, practicing for an end of the summer play about a wedding, learning the history of Jerusalem, and competing in different races and activities.

There was some confusion as to why a group of Americans had come to join the fun. Almost every kid I played with wanted to know if I was going to come back tomorrow, the next day, and the rest of the summer - a legitimate question. I’ll add "camp counselors without borders" to my list of needed unofficial ambassadors. Others wanted to know how long I’d be in Jerusalem, whether I liked America or Palestine more, and if I spoke Hebrew. At one point, a group of seven and eight-year-old boys peppered me with Hebrew words, like “girl,” “boy,” and “bread,” and I translated them to Arabic. They learn Hebrew in school.

Mansour, a cute seven or eight year old with a big scratch on his nose asked me if I liked Jews. I told him, “Yes, I am a Jew.” He almost fell over. I gave him my Depeche Mode line about people being people, regardless of their religion or nationality. The other little boys listening nodded, and Mansour didn’t have a problem continuing to play with me.

There was some weird stuff, too, like a game where kids raced to pull clothesline pins off a line using only their teeth – but is bobbing for apples really much different? I shouldn’t cast stones. There was also impressive diversity, with dark haired kids, blonde kids, and Afro-Palestinians playing together.

One of the camp counselors, an Afro-Palestinian named Hathum, explained to me that his great grandfather had come to Jerusalem from Chad after completing the pilgrimage to Mecca. A community from Chad, Nigeria, and a couple of other African countries settled in the Old City. Hathum told me that the Afro-Palestinians have relations with their “brothers” in Dimona, the Black Hebrews. The Black Hebrews hail from Chicago and claim to be one of the lost Jewish tribes. They came to Israel under the leadership of Ben Carter in 1969 after a two-year stopover in Liberia.

Aside from this relationship between “African brothers,” as Hathum termed it, I’m continually stunned by the lack of connections between peoples living in such close proximity. The behind the walls daily life I shared in today, is absolutely separate from the behind the walls daily life that I witnessed the day before, several hundred feet away.

I spent Saturday evening in the Jewish Quarter. Along the way though, I took some pictures at the Damascus Gate market and ate a bag of pistachios in the Christian Quarter.

The Damascus Gate market, in the early evening, is one of the most photogenic places in the city. Muhajiba women peruse bread and fruit, little kids rummage through toys or hawk goods (depending upon their economic status) and their fathers shop for neckties or shoes. Between it all, orthodox Jews, some speaking Hebrew and wearing black coats, Windsor knotted silk ties, and black fedoras, and others speaking Yiddish and wearing fur hats and shiny yellow or black robes, pass between them, through the market and the Muslim quarter, and on to the Western Wall. As Orthodox Jews bustle past Muhajiba women and an occasional Greek Orthodox priest, it’s like a joke where the punch line is that the world threw up religion, right here.

Over in the Christian Quarter – where an Israeli Palestinian attacked an Israeli security guard on Friday and was then shot and killed – tourist groups from Eastern Europe, Spain, and the Far East move in herds along the Via Dolorosa. Wearing matching hats or sometimes yellow stickers that identify them by their group in case they get separated, they crowd around each other and follow umbrella or placard waving tour guide shepherds. Some wear their backpacks in reverse like armor, as they wade into their battle against the shopkeepers and pickpockets of the Holy Land’s narrow allies.

In the Jewish Quarter, on Saturday, there is a different scene altogether. Stores are shut for the Sabbath and there is no commercial traffic. Young couples wander between each other’s homes for visits. Stroller-pushing women wearing limp wigs and shapeless dresses walk with their small children to the central square. Men aged 20 to 60 purposefully bustle to synagogue for prayer or for a lesson. Some have curly pa’ot or sidelocks while others' pa'ot are straight and flowing. Stylishly dressed teenage girls in long skirts and tight fitting long-sleeve shirts wander slowly in packs and settle in the square. Young men, pass through the square, too, sometimes stopping to talk, their black hats pushed back on their heads, the front rim slightly rolled, and their silk ties, with their bulging knots, slightly loosened around their collar.

As a boy no more than fifteen – about the same age as the Mohammeds that I played basketball with today but a world away – ran by my spot, his sports coat fluttering off his shoulders like a cape, I was left with so many questions. Do men curl their pa’ot, or are those tight curls natural? When does a man get his first hat, is it a Bar-Mitzvah gift at the age of 13? Do men curve their hats in a special way, the way we rolled our baseball caps in high school?

Pondering these questions, I wandered the roofs of the Jewish Quarter and stole a view of the Western Wall and its plaza, filling with white shirts and black jackets for prayer. From my roof-top perch, I looked into a hall filled with place settings for dinner, a pomegranate tree growing in someone’s yard, satellite dishes littering almost every roof, and laundry hanging on a line beneath an Arabic mosaic.

I walked out of the Old City Saturday evening through the Christian Quarter, past a salon I’m thinking about going to, an outdoor restaurant filled with Greek tourists drinking coffee, and several young Palestinian Christian men sitting in front of the New Gate, mixing RC and rum.

"Living on the seam" doesn't do justice to Jerusalem's Old City. The Jerusalem seam is between Israelis and Palestinians. The Old City is something different all together. Putting aside the existence of a basketball court that overlooks the Dome of the Rock or a clothes line filled with blue jeans across from the Western Wall, peoples and lives are scrunched together between history and religion. Surrounded by walls, real and figurative, they touch each other, but only in passing. Perhaps, within our communities, we live segregated lives in the United States, but these guys are literally living on top of each other, just on different planets.