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?