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.