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.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Lowest Point on Earth

Biankini Beach, the Dead Sea –

Salty, burning, knotted, mineral mud-laden big hair.

That is what I had after two days, three mud sessions, five floats in the Dead Sea, and no shampoo. This week’s post was going to be “Barbers without English.” Instead of confronting my barbershop fears, though, I took my mop-head to the Dead Sea for the weekend and offer observations from the lowest point on earth.

The Dead Sea is like no place on earth, and not just because it is lower than everywhere else. Lonely Planet says that the Dead Sea contains 20 percent more bromine (that’s the stuff of pickle jars, I think), 15 percent more magnesium, and 10 percent more iodine than your typical seawater.

Practically, this adds up to three things. First, all of these chemicals are supposed to soothe you. Second, the Dead Sea is in effect 33 percent solid substance, so it is almost impossible not to bob or float on top of the silty salty water. Third, Dead Sea water burns something awful if it gets into your eyes. Think about iodine in an open wound and multiply by 24. There is no better feeling in the world than the warm splash of the beach side shower’s fresh water flowing into your stinging eyes and washing out the Dead Sea after you’ve lurched from the water like a blinded sea creature, clenching your eyelids in pain. The purpose of the eye-washing station in Mr. Blough’s chemistry lab makes perfect sense to me now. We used to use it as a drinking fountain in 10th grade.

Besides people covering themselves in green mud and doing their best to look like the Hulk or Kermit depending upon their body type, the thing that makes the Dead Sea special is the collection of people that it attracts. On Friday evening, I sat on the dock and watched dusk settle with a group of older Sephardic, Hebrew-speaking women; an Arab family that included a muhajiba wife; several Nordic tourists; a Black Palestinian life guard; and several Russian speaking Israeli families – one with a very whiny adolescent named Alex who wouldn’t get out of the water and was determined to take Dead Sea mud home with him in the abused pockets of his red bathing suit. The next afternoon, the dock was crowded as well; mostly with Russian speaking Israelis but with other representatives of the Dead Sea mosaic too. Most of them were getting wasted in the sun. The number of empty Vodka, Bacardi, and Carlsberg bottles strewn about early Sunday morning rivaled the scene at a frat house.

On Friday evening, though, I looked across the Dead Sea and saw the lights of Jordan’s resorts. When I lived in Jordan and visited the Dead Sea, I looked across the way and wondered what people were doing on the other side. There seemed to be so many lights compared to where I was standing. It was close geographically, but far away in almost every other way, at least for me, at that time. So it was strange to sit on the Israeli side and to feel the reverse, trying to picture what was going on in Jordan. To think of my Jordanian friends, but also to wonder whether anyone there could imagine the details of here. I was again struck by how close very different things are here, but how separate they remain at the same time.

Which brings me to the best part of the weekend, the four Palestinian-Israelis, all in their mid-20s, who I befriended. Palestinian-Israelis, also known in Arabic as Palestinians from 1948, are about a 20 percent minority in Israel. They are Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) who are Israeli citizens and whose families lived in parts of mandatory Palestine, like the Galilee or Haifa, that had Arab populations but that became parts of Israel in 1948.

Alaa, Jarious, Wisam, and Hadi grew up in neighboring villages in the Galilee and are friends from college. A pharmacist, two law students, and a medical student home from Italy for the summer, they came to the Dead Sea for the weekend. Their cabin was next door to mine and they insisted that I join them for food and drinks each night, as they grilled out on a little hibachi, drank beer and vodka, and sang classical Arab music. It turned out that Alaa studied at a university in Jordan at the same time as I was there.

On Friday night, as we sat on their front porch and they sang Um Kalthoum songs, Shadi, a 22-year old from nearby Jericho who works at Biankini stopped by to drop off towels. The group urged him to sit, drink, and join the fun. They made introductions over the lamb and pork that they were grilling, and offered Shadi dinner, warning him off the pork that three of them were eating. Shadi asked them their religion and Jarious explained that three of them were Christian and one was Muslim. Shadi nodded, took a drag on his cigarette, and said, “Kol al nes, h’yar baraka,” or for all the people a good blessing.

Jericho sounds great in the bible, but it is a poor place. I was briefly there for the first time a few weeks ago and was struck by how much it felt like an Egyptian desert village. On the outskirts of town sits the towering Intercontinental Hotel, with its shiny wooden lobby fixtures, lingering staff, and its adjacent Oasis Casino. But Jericho itself seemed full of mostly dirt streets and squat buildings, few taller than three or four stories. The summer heat and dustiness recalled a pre-air conditioned time and the few people who I met mentioned a lack of opportunities beyond the dormant service industry.

Sitting there with Shadi from Jericho and the four upwardly mobile guys a couple of years older than him from the Galilee, I was again struck by closeness and farness of it all. All five are young Palestinian men living within a few hours of each other, but in such a different state and considered in such a different way. Jarious, Alaa, and the others sang the words of their favorite Um Kalthoum, Fairuz, and Abdel Halim songs – the icons of classical Arabic music – with such passion, joy, and ownership, but in Arab countries they would be considered sellouts by many on the basis of their Israeli citizenship. In Israel, on the other hand, the allegiances of Israeli-Palestinians are generally questioned, and some undetermined number of Israeli Jews regard them to be Palestinians, no different than Shadi.

Shadi, meanwhile, is considered a Palestinian by everyone. From the conversation both nights, though, it seemed as if his main concern was trying to figure out from Wisam (a future lawyer) how he could get an Israeli ID for his mother, who was married to a Palestinian with an Israeli ID. Wisam told him it would cost $4,000, an incredible sum for Shadi, but something that any of the other four sitting there would be able to afford with some saving.

There is a lot of stove piping here. Very different lives – whether it is Palestinians and Israeli Palestinians, the Russian Israelis and Sephardic Israelis at the beach, or Israelis and Jordanians even – occur in close proximity to each other, but do not necessarily intersect. In my case, this past weekend, there was a nice intersection. All five of these guys welcomed me for who I am, without bias against my religion and nationality. And there were more jokes about how good pork tastes (directed at me, Shadi, and Wisam) than I’ve heard in my life.

PS, I want to plug Biankini Beach, a nice, relaxing, and clean place with great breakfast and a nice staff. If you go, tell them I sent you.