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A fond farewell

This summer has been unlike any other.  Rather than scrambling to find camps to send all my kids to, I’ve kept my bigger two home and plan to have my third home for August as well.  (Bill is campin’ it as long as I can arrange it.)  As my kids have been growing older, I have found their company to be easier, more joyful, and their needs less physical and more emotional.  Where during the school year I can barely find the time to sit and help a kid with math or Torah homework, this summer I’ve been effectively home schooling my big girls in English, working at keeping their reading up in Hebrew as well, teaching Beans cursive writing, working on multiplication tables and time-telling with Peach, and helping Banana keep up the leyning skills she just learned in kindergarten.  I can sit at the piano and help the big girls practice their lessons, take walks with them and stretch afterwards (where I kill them with my 100 situps and they reassure me with their gymnastics stretches, “It’s supposed to hurt, Ima!”), and teach them the eye-killing art of cross-stitching.  It’s been a pleasure.

This means that my online editing work has been bumped to nights after they’re in bed, and I am spending less time on the computer – a state I’ve wished for for some time since realizing the hypnotic power of the computer screen.  The fact is, I believe the computer is an addiction, not unlike caffeine or cigarettes.  It troubles me to realize that I can sit down to it with a particular task to perform, get up two hours later and still not have done what I set out to do.  I’ve checked email, written one or two, looked at my Facebook page, maybe left a comment or two on postings by friends, gone and looked at stuff from links, read a few blogs, the news, researched a few facts and checked out Cake Wrecks – and completely forgotten what I’d sat down to do in the first place.  There goes two hours I could have spent knitting the fabulous Norah Gaughan sweater I’m working on (pictured at right), listening to a collection of CDs of the essays of Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein (a delightful Scots rabbi), doing small maintenance projects around the house, taking a walk or reading one of the half-dozen books sitting on my bedside table waiting to be read.  Or working.  (But let’s not take it too far.)

Of late, too, I have not had much to write about.  The news is still packed full of the same old dreary tidings, bad PR for Israel, boycotts and counter-boycotts but I have little to add to what is being said elsewhere.  I find that when I spend my time reading what happens in the world and think of all the things I have to say about it, I do not find it satisfying to have sat down and written about it.  Sometimes I feel the opposite.  A friend told me that she had once attended a seminar on how to increase happiness in one’s own life.  In the facilitator’s opening remarks, he said, “I haven’t read a newspaper in 10 years.”  I don’t think I could ever go that far but reading to be informed feels different to me than reading to digest, process, and analyze or comment.  The latter feels too invasive to me nowadays.  I remember after 9/11 it was a good year before I would read a newspaper; I just couldn’t take it in.  It was too much.  Living in Israel sometimes feels as intense as life in America in the recent aftermath of 9/11.  We don’t have disasters on that scale every day but we have many smaller ones much more often.  That, combined with the scrutiny Israel lives under and the internal divisions that exist in Israeli society, can tax one’s patience and good humor without the added absorption in writing about them.  The news sources and well-informed blogs (many of which I link to on this blog) are there for those who take an interest.

So I have decided to sign off from blogging, if not forever then for the foreseeable future.  I feel my life calling me and would like to answer the call while upping my filter of the outside world for a while.  I’ll miss the writing outlet that it’s been and gratefully thank my readers for their kind, supportive readership.  May the road rise to meet you.

The Shabbos goy

While technology (warming trays, thermostats, timers, X10, Shabbat settings on refrigerators and ovens) have largely made the Shabbos goy an anachronism, it was once a necessity.  Illustrious personages such as Martin Scorcese, Mario Cuomo, Colin Powell, and a teenaged Elvis Presley once assisted Shabbat-observant neighbors in the US.  My paternal grandmother (whose parents in America were no longer Shabbat-observant) reported back from a 1930 visit to family in Poland that the Polish Catholic Shabbos goy still faithfully executed her duties every Saturday morning.  The following account by Joe Velarde, posted on Batya’s old blog, is a lovely tribute to the friendship that once existed in Brooklyn between Jewish and Christian neighbors.  Enjoy.

Snow came early in the winter of 1933 when our extended Cuban family moved into the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  I was ten years old.  We were the first Spanish speakers to arrive, yet we fit more or less easily into that crowded, multicultural neighborhood.  Soon we began learning a little Italian, a few Greek and Polish words, lots of Yiddish and some heavily accented English.

I first heard the expression Shabbes is falling when Mr. Rosenthal refused to open the door of his dry goods store on Bedford Avenue.  My mother had sent me with a dime to buy a pair of black socks for my father.  In those days, men wore mostly black and navy blue.  Brown and gray were somehow special and cost more.  Mr. Rosenthal stood inside the locked door, arms folded, glaring at me through the thick glass while a heavy snow and darkness began to fall on a Friday evening.  “We’re closed, already”, Mr. Rosenthal had said, shaking his head, “can’t you see that Shabbes is falling?  Don’t be a nudnik!  Go home.”  I could feel the cold wetness covering my head and thought that Shabbes was the Jewish word for snow.

My misperception of Shabbes didn’t last long, however, as the area’s dominant culture soon became apparent; Gentiles were the minority.  From then on, as Shabbes fell with its immutable regularity and Jewish lore took over the life of the neighborhood, I came to realize that so many human activities, ordinarily mundane at any other time, ceased, and a palpable silence, a pleasant tranquillity, fell over all of us.  It was then that a family with an urgent need would dispatch a youngster to “get the Spanish boy, and hurry.”

That was me.  In time, I stopped being nameless and became Yussel, sometimes Yuss or Yusseleh.  And so began my life as a Shabbes Goy, voluntarily doing chores for my neighbors on Friday nights and Saturdays: lighting stoves, running errands, getting a prescription for an old tante, stoking coal furnaces, putting lights on or out, clearing snow and ice from slippery sidewalks and stoops.  Doing just about anything that was forbidden to the devout by their religious code.

Friday afternoons were special.  I’d walk home from school assailed by the rich aroma emanating from Jewish kitchens preparing that evening’s special menu.  By now, I had developed a list of steady “clients,” Jewish families who depended on me.  Furnaces, in particular, demanded frequent tending during Brooklyn’s many freezing winters.  I shudder remembering brutally cold winds blowing off the East River.  Anticipation ran high as I thought of the warm home-baked treats I’d bring home that night after my Shabbes rounds were over.  Thanks to me, my entire family had become Jewish pastry junkies. Moi?  I’m still addicted to checkerboard cake, halvah and Egg Creams (made only with Fox’s Ubet chocolate syrup).

I remember as if it were yesterday how I discovered that Jews were the smartest people in the world.  You see, in our Cuban household we all loved the ends of bread loaves and, to keep peace, my father always decided who would get them.  One harsh winter night I was rewarded for my Shabbes ministrations with a loaf of warm challah (we pronounced it “holly”) and I knew I was witnessing genius!  Who else could have invented a bread that had wonderfully crusted ends all over it — enough for everyone in a large family?

There was an “International” aspect to my teen years in Williamsburg.  The Sternberg family had two sons who had fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain.  Whenever we kids could get their attention, they’d spellbind us with tales of hazardous adventures in the Spanish Civil War.  These twenty-something war veterans also introduced us to a novel way of thinking, one that embraced such humane ideas as ‘From each according to his means and to each according to his needs’.  In retrospect, this innocent exposure to a different philosophy was the starting point of a journey that would also incorporate the concept of Tzedakah in my personal guide to the
world.

In what historians would later call The Great Depression, a nickel was a lot of mazuma and its economic power could buy a brand new Spaldeen, our local name for the pink-colored rubber ball then produced by the Spalding Company.  The famous Spaldeen was central to our endless street games: stickball and punchball or the simpler stoopball.  One balmy summer evenings our youthful fantasies converted South Tenth Street into Ebbets Field with the Dodgers’ Dolph Camilli swinging a broom handle at a viciously curving Spaldeen thrown by the Giants’ great lefty, Carl Hubbell.  We really thought it curved, I swear.

Our neighbors, magically transformed into spectators kibitzing from their brownstone stoops and windows, were treated to a unique version of major league baseball.  My tenure as the resident Shabbes Goy came to an abrupt end after Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941.  I withdrew from Brooklyn College the following day and joined the U.S. Army.  In June of 1944, the Army Air Corps shipped me home after flying sixty combat missions over Italy and the Balkans.  I was overwhelmed to find that several of my Jewish friends and neighbors had set a place for me at their supper tables every Shabbes throughout my absence, including me in their prayers.  What mitzvoth!  My homecoming was highlighted by wonderful invitations to dinner.  Can you imagine the effect after twenty-two months of Army field rations?

As my post-World War II life developed, the nature of the association I’d had with Jewish families during my formative years became clearer.  I had learned the meaning of friendship, of loyalty, and of honor and respect.  I discovered obedience without subservience.  And caring about all living things had become as natural as breathing.  The worth of a strong work ethic and of purposeful dedication was manifest.  Love of learning blossomed and I began to set higher standards for my developing skills, and loftier goals for future activities and dreams.  Mind, none of this was the result of any sort of formal instruction; my yeshiva had been the neighborhood.  I learned these things, absorbed them actually says it better, by association and role modeling, by pursuing curious inquiry, and by what educators called “incidental learning” in the crucible that was pre-World War II Williamsburg.  It seems many of life’s most elemental lessons are learned this way.

While my parents’ Cuban home sheltered me with warm, intimate affection and provided for my well-being and self esteem, the group of Jewish families I came to know and help in the Williamsburg of the 1930s was a surrogate tribe that abetted my teenage rite of passage to adulthood.  One might even say we had experienced a special kind of Bar Mitzvah.  I couldn’t explain then the concept of tikkun olam, but I realized as I matured how well I had been oriented by the Jewish experience to live it and to apply it.  What a truly uplifting outlook on life it is to be genuinely motivated “to repair the world.”

In these twilight years when my good wife is occasionally told, “Your husband is a funny man,” I’m aware that my humor has its roots in the shticks of Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, entertainers at Catskill summer resorts, and their many imitators.  And, when I argue issues of human or civil rights and am cautioned about showing too much zeal, I recall how chutzpah first flourished on Williamsburg sidewalks, competing for filberts (hazelnuts) with tough kids wearing payess and yarmulkes.  Along the way I played chess and one-wall handball, learned to fence, listened to Rimsky-Korsakov, ate roasted chestnuts, read Maimonides and studied Saul Alinsky.

I am ever grateful for having had the opportunity to be a Shabbes Goy.

Sometimes movie lines stick with me decades after I hear them, and I don’t always know why.  I have half of “Tootsie” in my head, bits of “Thelma and Louise” (“Darryl does it, how hard can it be?”), “Steel Magnolias” (“I haven’t left home without Lycra on these thighs since I was twelve”), “The Corn Is Green” (“A female Master of Arts?  How long is this going to last?”)  and dozens of others.

One, though, that I can safely say I understand is a speech Jimmy Rabbitte has in “The Commitments” (1991).  It goes something like this: “The Irish are the Blacks of Europe.  Dubliners are the Blacks of Ireland, and the northside Dubliners are the Blacks of Dublin.  So say it once, say it loud: I’m Black, and I’m proud.”

This is not to say that I’m anything but European in descent, but I get what Jimmy’s saying.  The Irish were always the undesirables, the unsavory element, looked down on as low-class and troublesome.  When they were snatched off the boats in New York and sent to fight the Mexicans (1846-48), many of them saw a bitter irony in being sent to fight for the WASPy US government against fellow Catholics who stood to lose their land at the hands of an imperial juggernaut.  It was all too familiar to them.  Some even risked hanging and changed sides.

As Jimmy describes the Irish, so I’ve followed a similar trail of suspicious alliance and membership in a reviled people.  First I converted to Judaism, which made me very different from most Americans (and sometimes suspect, especially to secular born-Jews).  Then I made aliyah.  Then I moved to the West Bank.  If our kids’ educational needs could be met by living in Hebron, we might even have entertained the thought of moving there.  (But I also don’t feel great about packing a pistol with very young children in the house and for me, that would be a given living in Hebron.)

Think this is hyperbole?  Jews in the Diaspora are finding some of their core practices under attack, including circumcision in San Francisco and kashrut in the Netherlands.  (It’s already outlawed in several European countries).  Within Israel, there is alarm on the political Left at the surge of religious Zionists serving in the IDF (due in part to their own draft-dodging, but that seems to have eluded them as a possible cause).  The strengthened political Right as a result of failed Oslo, Arab terrorism, and the refusal by the Arabs of every peace proposal made them in the last 11 years has become a cause of concern to the Left.  I actually thought the Left had vanished as a result of the Arab Terror War (aka Second Intifada), but it seems there are at least enough left to write articles ruing their alienation of the haredi population (whose numbers and anti-Zionist philosophy they think could have helped them overcome the influence of religious Zionists in government), to call for European boycotts of Israeli universities (and themselves in the case of Leftist academics), and calling for open war (i.e. violence) against settlers.  That, of course, brings me to the view of settlers in Israel.  The narrative that has entranced Obama, Europe, and much of the world — that if the settlers just packed up and left their homes (or were brutally massacred, whichever is more expedient), there would be peace on earth, goodwill toward men — has also been adopted by the Israeli Left, and the chorus of incitement against settlers seems to be echoed by the Israeli Police, who are nominally here to keep order.  (Check out this video at the Muqata of police brutality against unarmed settlers in Amona.  The editing to include clips of Nazis beating Jews in beside the point; the point is really how the police treat religious Israelis here.)  According to my friend Nadia Matar of Women In Green, if there is an altercation between a Jew and an Arab out where we live, the army will take 20 minutes to arrive; the police will take three, but only if you tell them a Jew is attacking an Arab.

The day the beit din agreed to convert me, one of the rabbis told me, “The Jews are not a popular people.”  And that man had a cushy job at a university Hillel in the genteel city of Boston.  (To his credit, he is also a Shoah survivor, so he knows what he’s talking about.)  There was no need to tell me that then, and certainly no need to tell me now.  Then, as now, the hatred of Jews is more indicative of the pathology of the hater than due to anything Jews (or religious Zionists, or settlers) are or do.

I’m Black, and I’m proud.

A month or so ago, I took the train to Tel Aviv to look into the possibility of teaching online for Berlitz.  It requires more time than I can give right now, but my dad sent me this very amusing advertisement they’ve put out.  Enjoy.

I’ve become increasingly irritated of late listening to President Obama, former American ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurzer, and various Israeli politicians proclaiming that the road to peace now requires Bibi Netanyahu to make a concrete offer.  Had Israel been dragging its heels to come to the negotiating table, placing absurd roadblocks to the talks (like the freezing of Arab building in Jerusalem), or naming town squares after Baruch Goldstein, I could understand the need to pressure him to lighten up.  But Israel hasn’t been doing any of those things.

Instead, Obama tells Bibi he must present his own plan for peace, but without presenting any more preconditions.  These include, presumably, stopping the preaching and teaching of Jew-hatred, stopping naming of town squares after mass murderers (and murderesses), and disarming terrorists–forever.  Yet somehow, nothing is demanded of the Arabs.

This is not new.  It’s actually a continuation of the status quo.  I listened to an interview with Harvard professor Ruth Wisse by Mordechai I. Twersky recently that helps explain the reasons why Israel can’t seem to get any peace, and while she waxes eloquent on the use of anti-Semitism in Arab society to wage war against Israel and avoid the self-examination and embrace of tolerance that could lift up Arab society from the medieval mud it’s stuck in, she also observes that Israel’s plight is not just the fault of the Arabs.  Some of it is pressure from third-party sources like Obama and Europe which accept a paradigm of the situation which says that this is a war between equals over a piece of land, with Israel the more powerful of the two sides, and therefore the side better positioned to offer concessions.  Another piece is the worldview of the Jews which makes us feel compelled to find solutions to problems, even when we can’t.  Professor Wisse says,

I’ve called Jews a failed polity in the past very reluctantly because my main point is that Jews cannot solve the problems of which they are accused, and that’s the dilemma in which Jews have found themselves for many, many centuries and find themselves in today in a different form.  How can we solve the Arab situation?  How can we make them accept the State of Israel?  What can we do?  What can we do?  And it’s such a natural desire to solve this question because of course the aggression is being aimed mostly at you.  I think that the first thing that has to be recognized is that you are the last people who can do anything about this aggression.  The only way you can help is to make sure that the aggressor understands that he will never defeat you.  And if you can do anything to change the aggressor’s need for that aggression, if you can persuade the aggressor that that aggression is ultimately detrimental to him, then I think you have a chance.   But so far, neither Israel nor the Jewish people has ever understood its role in politics sufficiently to be able to begin that enterprise.

I think Wisse articulates this problem well.  Strange as it seems, Israel seems to be held responsible for solving its own problems as well as those of the Arabs around it, as though they are somehow helpless, infantile, and lacking in any resources at all (despite the decades of handouts they’ve received from the world community).  The fact that Israel withdrew from Gaza, leaving behind infrastructure for the Arabs to use to build their own nascent state went unnoticed or has been long forgotten.

Wisse observes that the expectation that the Arabs improve their own lot is often perceived as pessimistic.  People “think that it is more optimistic to hold Israel responsible. … If I really insist that the problem begins in this unilateral aspect of the conflict and that it’s the Arabs who have to decide that they will give up this instrument of their politics, it seems pessimistic because it’s going to take a long time for the Arab world to change in that respect. But I would say that I’m the optimist because I really do expect the Arab world to change.”

Listen to the whole interview here.  She has fascinating things to say about the current flotilla, the Arab Spring, her own study of Yiddish literature, what she calls “the history of Jewish mistakes,” and how Jews should endeavor to be less humorous.

Paraprosdokians

Contrary to my first impression, a paraprosdokian is not an Armenian.  It is, in fact, a “figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected; frequently used in a humorous situation.”  “Where there’s a will, I want to be in it,” is a type of paraprosdokian.  Here are some others to enjoy.

1. Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.
2. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on my list.
3. Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
4. If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
5. We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.
6. War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
7. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
8. Evening news is where they begin with ‘Good Evening,’ and then proceed to tell you why it isn’t.
9. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
10. A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.
11. I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted paychecks.
12. Whenever I fill out an application, in the part that says, ‘In case of emergency, notify:’ I put ‘DOCTOR.’
13. I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.
14. Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut and still think they are sexy.
15. Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.
16. A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.
17. I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.
18. You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
19. Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.
20. There’s a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can’t get away.
21. I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not so sure.
22. You’re never too old to learn something stupid.
23. To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.
24. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
25. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
26. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.
27. A diplomat is someone who tells you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip.
28. Hospitality is making your guests feel at home even when you wish they were.
29. I always take life with a grain of salt. Plus a slice of lemon, and a shot of tequila.
30. When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.

And finally, words of wisdom from Jon Hammond: “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

(Hat tip: Pop)

They are not happy in Gaza.
They are not happy in the West Bank.
They are not happy in Jerusalem.
They are not happy in Israel.
They are not happy in Egypt.
They are not happy in Libya.
They are not happy in Algeria.
They are not happy in Tunis.
They are not happy in Morocco.
They are not happy in Yemen.
They are not happy in Iraq.
They are not happy in Afghanistan.
They are not happy in Pakistan.
They are not happy in Syria.
They are not happy in Lebanon.
They are not happy in Sudan.
They are not happy in Jordan.
They are not happy in Iran.
They are not happy in Chechnya.
And where are the Muslims happy?
They are happy in England.
They are happy in France.
They are happy in Italy.
They are happy in Germany.
They are happy in Sweden.
They are happy in the Netherlands.
They are happy in Switzerland.
They are happy in Norway.
They are happy in the US.
They are happy in Canada.
They are happy in Hungary.
They are happy in any other country in the world which is not ruled by Muslims.
And whom do they blame?
Not Islam.
Not their leadership.
Not themselves.
But the very countries they are happy to live in!

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