Archive for January, 2010

Many of you have probably already received this in your inbox.  But for those who somehow missed it, it’s too good a giggle to miss.  It’s also the only post I can imagine where I can apply the two tags “humor” and “terrorism.”  If anyone knows the source of this witty little piece, please share it.

New threat levels declared worldwide after recent terrorist activity have resulted in the following:

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats and have raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.”  Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.”  The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the Blitz in 1940 when tea supplies all but ran out.  Terrorists have been re-categorized from “Tiresome” to a “Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was during the Great Fire of 1666.

The Scots raised their threat level from “Pissed Off” to “Let’s Get the Bastards.”  They don’t have any other levels.  This is the reason they have been used on the front line in the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from “Run” to “Hide.”  The only two higher levels in France are “Collaborate” and “Surrender.”  The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.  It’s not only the French who are on a heightened level of alert.  Italy has increased the alert level from “Shout Loudly and Excitedly” to “Elaborate Military Posturing.”  Two more levels remain: “Ineffective Combat Operations” and “Change Sides.”

The Germans also increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.”  They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbor” and “Lose.”

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual, and the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy.  These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Americans meanwhile, as usual, are carrying out pre-emptive strikes on all of their allies, just in case.

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Lord of the Dance

Last Tuesday evening I had the opportunity to take delivery on my birthday present from the Cap’n—tickets to “Lord of the Dance” in Jerusalem

It was “gargious.”  Twenty-five dancers, a pair of fiddlers, and a singer entertained a near-capacity house at Binyanei HaUma (nearly 3000 spectators).  Celtic music, dance, and scenery (stone-looking arches through which the dancers entered and exited), lights, torches, and fireworks, wigs, costumes, and drama dazzled the audience for two hours.

I had seen “Riverdance” on television years ago, but the Cap’n knew nothing about the show or style of dance, except what he saw on a Muppet Show special feature where Kermit the Frog—dressed in early Michael Flatley white peasant blouse—danced his little webbed feet off.

The real thing, live, was beyond anything I could have imagined.  Yes, the experience was a bit of a barrage on the senses, but the sight and sound of so many people moving their feet in unison, the grace and speed of their movements, and the natural stirring-ness of Irish music (who can resist it?) was electrifying.  Those who want the subtlety of ballet or the avant-garde of modern dance might not have been moved by it.  But the Cap’n and I love dance, period, and this show was in a class of pleasure all its own.

If dance tells a story, this one tells of a love of dance.  It opens in the early morning, with a gold-clad sprite awakening a group of women dancers.  The program gets progressively more energetic, with the men dressed in bad-assed, military-looking clothing (drab or black trousers, T-shirts, nearly always with a Celtic knot insignia on them) and the women nearly always in brightly-colored dresses.  Rivalries break out between the two principal female dancers, one in a Madonna-like white dress and luscious blond wig, the likes of which the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders would kill for, and a dark beauty in a fire-engine red dress.  Another, the title rivalry (for the title of “Lord of the Dance”) also develops between the two principal male dancers (one with the bulky build of a Gene Kelley, the other with the much slighter build of Fred Astaire).  Things get pretty hot in a “Breakout” dance which starts with the chaste, armless, feet-only Irish dancing of the Madonna and her troupe, but goaded by the raven-haired one, the troupe rips its Velcro-closed dresses off and completes the number with rapid foot-drumming, arms-akimbo, bra-and-panty-clad energy.  (I couldn’t help but hear Peach commenting in my head, “Ima, that’s not very tzanua.”  Then I looked around and counted the dozens of couples where the women’s heads were covered and the men’s heads sported crocheted kippot, and realized there are plenty of couples like the Crunches in our Fair and Holy City.)  After intermission, the rivalry between the two principal men (and their respective posses) gets going, with the buff one and his henchmen deciding it’s time for his rival to “get whacked.”  They pummel him to soften him up, then toss him in a backstage pit.  But the gold-clad sprite returns and restores the wounded principal to floor-clacking health, and as he re-enters the stage, his feet move with such speed it sounds like water flowing.  He recovers the coveted “Lord of the Dance” belt, peace breaks out, and the night comes to a close.

There were a few parts of the show I found annoying.  The singer, whose raison d’etre was to keep the audience from getting restless during costume changes and breathers, was woeful. She could carry a tune, and had clearly had some training.  But her singing lacked expression and though she was singing in English (for two of the three songs), I could hardly understand her.  Another beef was that the sound was cranked up to the max (definitely up to “11”), which caused my ears to ring for several hours after the performance, and the liberal use of strobe lights felt like a serious assault on my vision.  And finally, I was irritated with the audience more than once when they would applaud when a dancer was doing a particularly impressive piece of speedwork; though the floors are miked for these performances, I still couldn’t hear the dancer’s feet at all.  Despite these drawbacks, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, from beginning to end.  And as for the singer, at any given time, there are a few LOTD troupes on the road at a time, so perhaps some of the other singers are better.

We were lucky enough to find that some of the dances are watchable on YouTube.  Here are the men in their amazing “Warriors” number,

and the women in their “Breakout” dance.

God love him, the Cap’n knows to keep his diamond earrings and dozen roses, and take me to the dance!

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Partial eclipse

This morning, the Cap’n and I hauled the kids to the Dekel, the most central neighborhood in Efrat, to view a partial solar eclipse.  They got to miss a bit of school (we were there from about 7:45 to 8:15), and enjoyed viewing the eclipse through thick cellophane filters, through a telescope which projected the sun and moon’s images onto a file folder, and with an old-fashioned, low-tech method of two pieces of white paper, one with a pinhole in it and the other behind it acting as the “screen.”  The morning’s viewing was courtesy of AstroTom, a local amateur astronomer who keeps interested Efratniks informed of interesting astronomical events via email.  It’s also thanks to Tom that we saw the Space Station pass overhead a couple of nights in the fall, and know which planets are appearing in the sky at a given time.  He told us that if one were in South Asia or Central Africa this morning, one would have observed a total eclipse.

A partial eclipse is not as dramatic as a total eclipse, but it is still amazing to see how nature works.  I witnessed a total solar eclipse when I was a kid in Oregon back in the late 1970s.  They talked about it in school for weeks beforehand, and showed kids how to make the white paper projector to watch it safely.  I had trouble getting the papers to work back then; today it worked beautifully.  (Though AstroTom’s image from his telescope was much bigger and easier to see today.)

I suppose most kids went to school as usual this morning, and either didn’t know about the eclipse or didn’t take much interest.  But these things don’t happen often, and while our kids may not take a huge amount of interest right now, we still think it’s important for them to see and learn about the wonders of nature.  And we had a good time chatting with a real star-gazer and accosting passers-by, handing them filters to view the likui chama themselves.

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Going back in time (sort of)

Peach has been devouring (through my English reading skills) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series.  These were some of my favorites as a child, and it’s been wonderful to pass them on to the next generation.

My mother was musing about what their appeal could be to a little Orthodox Jewish girl living in Israel, and it got me thinking.  Peach is a particularly inquisitive child, and while I think the lengthy explanations of how things were made and done back them (i.e. how sap was drained from maples for syrup-making, how to construct a sled, how a horse-powered thresher works) would be boring, her attention never seems to flag.  Occasionally, I point out differences to her between how they live and how we do, such as what they eat (i.e. on the Oklahoma prairie they subsisted on meat, and almost no vegetables for a year), but most of the time, she is just rapt, hearing about a family that had three little girls (like hers), that moved long distances to new places, got to know new people, and had adventures.  Not exactly like Peach’s, but worth hearing about nonetheless.

And I’m appreciating hearing the stories again, since with the Cap’n between jobs just now, the Crunch family is on an austerity plan.  No more restaurant food, no more movies or unnecessary purchases.  We’re making much more of our own fun, and I’m spending more time in the kitchen.  Tonight was homemade pizza night with homemade sauce and crust.  We’ll be having chicken tenders for Shabbat, homemade instead of from the Burgers Bar.  And when my in-laws come to visit in February and bring our new ice cream maker, we’ll be having homemade ice cream instead of either the wretched stuff from the grocery store or the Ben & Jerry’s that costs us our firstborn.  The girls know that after-dinner entertainment for the Ingalls family was when their father took out his fiddle and played and sang.  No computer, no TV, and nowhere near the stock of toys, puzzles, dolls, and craft supplies they have in their very own playroom.

I used to love to imagine how my family would fare as settlers on the prairie.  My father is quite handy, my mother a hardy laborer who makes a mean homemade bread.  I thought we’d probably do pretty well.  There would be plenty of hard work, but I figured we could handle it.  I thought, if my dad could make a smoker (for meat and fish) out of an old refrigerator, what couldn’t we accomplish?

Once in a while, I’ve found myself having to rough it and getting a tiny taste of that life.  When I was traveling around Asia or Europe, I could only take what I could carry, and sometimes found myself strewing things along the way that I couldn’t carry or didn’t need anymore.  When I was in Asia, most bathrooms were a hole in the floor instead of the fancy porcelain commodes we have in the West.  When I stayed in England for a few months, I had to wash all my laundry by hand.  (The pub I worked at didn’t pay enough for me to go to the laundromat around the corner.)  When we made aliyah, the Cap’n and I had to do dishes by hand for two years, since we waited until we had a place of our own to buy a dishwasher.  And now that we’re cutting back on our expenditures, I’m making much more of our food than I used to.  It’s nothing like living in a house we built ourselves, sleeping on a bed of straw on a frame made by the Cap’n, and subsisting on game we catch ourselves.  (Thank God for that.)  But it’s a little reminder that most people in the world don’t have what we have, or live like we do.

No harm in that.

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Litter rant

From the time I first set foot in Israel in 1996, I have been mesmerized by the beauty and history of this place.

At the same time, however, I’ve been appalled at how people have chosen to maintain it.  Coming to Israel is like going back in time in many ways, and unfortunately one of those ways is reflected in the amount of trash dumped everywhere and anywhere.  (Remember the Keep Britain Tidy movement?  And the fake Indian crying on American television to get Yanks to stop throwing their garbage out of the windows of moving cars?  Where’s Israel’s weeping King David?  Or Keep Israel Tidy?)

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I came up with a little photo essay.

Bill and I set out one morning last week to make a round of playgrounds, ironically one of the worst places to play or sit and converse with one’s adult peers.  Here’s an overview of the playground.  Pretty nice, no?

This is a particularly sought-after playground because of its zipline (something we never had at playgrounds in the US).  Kids play ball here, swing, climb the structure.  But what is that green stuff on the gravel in the foreground, at the base of the sandbox?  Clover?  Grass?  *Gulp* Weeds?  No, it’s…

Broken glass!  (With some weeds mixed in.)  The popularity of Crocs, which look like great gardening shoes but are very poor shoes for running and climbing, means that kids often kick them off on the swings, or shed them in an attempt to play barefoot.  Fortunately, Efrat’s Emergency Medical Center is located down the road for stitching up tender little feet that get sliced and diced by all the broken glass here.

Parks and playgrounds are supposed to be fun for everyone, and families often choose to bring their dogs with them.  Unfortunately, they don’t always remember to take all their dogs’ belongings with them when they leave…

Bill and I left that park and tooled on down the road to another playground.  On the way, we passed by Efrat’s shopping center, which contains several eateries, among them Burgers Bar.  Of course, one doesn’t actually have to see the Burgers Bar to know it’s in the vicinity; one has only to look in the rosemary shrubs lining the sidewalk for sufficient evidence:

If you look closely, you can see that this scrupulously kosher person also enjoyed a parve dessert after his or her dinner: a lollipop!  B’teiavon.

Efrat is not all litter, I assure you.  This time of year one can spot some hardy roses, blooming rosemary, and I saw the first blooming almond trees yesterday.  (I haven’t yet gotten pictures of them.)

Even the empty lots in Efrat have a loveliness to them.  While overgrown and rocky, one can often spy cyclamen growing out from between the stones.  In the winter (i.e. now) the grass and weeds are green, and wildflowers bloom.  Here’s an empty lot next to another playground:

And on closer inspection, we see the seamier side of this stony, grassy lot:

Trash, trash, and more trash…

When the Cap’n and I were on our program nearly 14 years ago, any tiyul we took was capped off at the end by our being asked to scurry around and pick up the hundred or so water bottles that had been scattered around whatever natural or man-made wonder we’d just visited.  Tourist, immigrant, Sabra–there appears to be no difference between them when it comes to littering.  Some places are much worse than others, but in a yishuv with the amount of civic pride that Efrat boasts, there is no excuse for the littering and vandalism which mar the streets, playgrounds, and open spaces here.

For nearly 2000 years, the Jews languished in exile, praying to return to our land.  For all that time, we were subject to the laws (or lawlessness) that held sway wherever we were.  We lived an existence fraught with denial: to own land, to join professional guilds, to attend universities.  Anything we had could be (and sometimes was) taken from us at any time.

But here we are at last, in our own land, where everything is of, by, and about the Jews.  It’s ours again.  Some would argue that because it’s ours, we have the right to foul it up if we want to.  But I don’t think that’s what people really want.

Like so many things, it’s a question of education.  If parents and teachers were to instill in children’s minds the values of cleanliness, of safety, of beauty, Israel might look different.  Parents should be aware that just because they live in a yishuv packed with religious Jews, many of them immigrants from the West, does not mean that their children will automatically absorb those values; they have to be taught explicitly.

I personally don’t fancy the idea of passing a filthy, garbage-strewn country on to the next generation.  It’s for kids like Bill…

…that we need to teach our children good habits and civic pride.  On our way home from our photo tour, we passed by a parked car with the following sticker in the rear window:

So do we.

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Teaching teachers

My father recently sent me an article from The New York Times critiquing the way teachers are prepared for their profession in the US.

I have long believed that teachers are very poorly taught (after having gone through a well-reputed program myself), and have discussed this matter with other teachers.  I was pleased with this article because it validated many of the criticisms I and other teachers have of teacher training programs.  I and others believe that programs need to be more selective of the type of individual they accept, the programs must be free of charge, teachers need to continue their studies in the subject they expect to teach, student teachers need to be mentored more, with more time spent with cooperating teachers, supervisors, and fellow teaching students to analyze what happens in the classroom, including videotaping teaching frequently to review a student teacher’s performance.  And new teachers need to be supported through stipends and through hiring of other new teachers to create a supportive, energetic community of educators to keep new teachers from burning out quickly.

If this interests you, have a read of this article, and let me hear your comments on it.

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I just finished a book called Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It is the story of a Derbyshire village whose citizens agreed voluntarily to quarantine themselves to contain the Plague that had infiltrated it.  It was recommended to me by a friend whose shares my interest in English history and historical fiction.  While our tastes do not always coincide, she and I are in perfect accord about this wonderful book.

The author is Australian-born and was a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, covering Bosnia, Somalia, Gaza, and Baghdad in the 1990s.  During one of her breaks between assignments, she became aware of a town in Derbyshire (called Eyam, pronounced “Eem”) which, in the years 1665-1666, had severed contact with the outside world until the Plague had passed.  Brooks’s novel is based on the sketchy but compelling events of this year.

Her story unfolds gradually, its revelations paced evenly throughout the novel.  The first chapter begins at the close of the year of quarantine, with the heroine/narrator describing the appearance of the village:

It is a strange prospect, our main street these days.  I used to rue its dustiness in summer and muddiness in winter, the rain all rizen in the wheel ruts making glassy hazards for the unwary stepper.  But now there is neither ice nor mud nor dust, for the road is grassed over, with just a cow-track down the center where the slight use of a few passing feet has worn the weeds down.  For hundreds of years, the people of this village pushed Nature back from its precincts.  It has taken less than a year to begin to reclaim the place.  In the very middle of the street, a walnut shell lies broken, and from it, already, sprouts a sapling that wants to grow up to block our way entire.  I have watched it from its first seed leaves, wondering when someone would pull it out.  No one has yet done so, and now it stands already a yard high.  Footprints testify that we are all walking around it.  I wonder if it is indifference, or whether, like me, others are so brimful of endings that they cannot bear to wrench even a scrawny sapling from its tenuous grip on life.

There wasn’t much I didn’t like about this book.  (The epilogue was a bit far-fetched, but after what the heroine went through, it’s hard to be truly surprised by anything she does afterwards.)  The characters are truly engaging, her descriptions of the village and countryside beautiful, her sense of what people felt and went through together and alone felt right-on, and her vocabulary and grammar (meant to sound like that of the 1660s) seemed much more natural than many other authors’ clumsy attempts.  I tried to think of other novels that were poignant and full of simultaneous evil and humanity, and thought of The Kite Runner.  Yet while Year of Wonders was a grueling story with plenty of gruesome, disturbing events (decimation of a population by a highly contagious disease, lynchings, attempted murder, actual murder), I never felt beat up by the novel as I did reading The Kite Runner.  The difference, I realized, was that while the evil in The Kite Runner is nearly all of man’s making (and a pretty bleak commentary on what inhumanity humanity is capable of), the evil in Year of Wonders nearly all stems from the disease and people’s reactions (emotional, religious, social) to it.  The flow of events, feelings, and reactions among the community felt natural, and the novel had a wonderful heroine.  I got teary in parts of the book—not something that happens often, but the heroine loses her two babies to the Plague, and that wasn’t easy to read, lying in my bed and nursing my nearly-one-year-old son.

There are many things to admire in this book: courage, hope, the bond of community, the attempt to place suffering in a context of faith.  One of the many things Brooks gets right that I particularly appreciated were her descriptions of motherhood—of childbirth, nursing, and sleeping with one’s babies.  One particularly apt description of motherhood is that of the heroine, nursing her younger son while watching her three-year-old boy play in a stream:

He had lately reached that age when a mother looks at her babe and finds him a babe no longer, but a child full formed.  The curves have turned into long, graceful lines: the fat and folded legs stretched out into lithe limbs; the rounded belly slimmed to a straight-standing body.  A face, suddenly capable of the full range of expression, has smoothed its way out of all those crinkled chins and plumped-out cheeks.  I loved to look at Jamie’s new self, the smoothness of his skin, the curve of his neck, and the tilt of his golden head, always gazing curiously at some new wonder in his world.

I highly recommend this novel.  I’m an incredibly slow reader, yet got through its 300 or so pages in two days.  It was well worth the break from the other books I was reading, providing as it does a chunk of social history that, while not entirely based on a single specific event, deals with the life of a community which chose to face the Plague alone, to depend on no one but each other.

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