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.