Tuesday, July 05, 2011


Spend a year in Israel, and you encounter many questions from curious Israelis and Americans. As we prepare to fly back to Baltimore tonight, let me take some time to answer the most frequently asked questions.

Are you going to stay in Israel?
This surprising question was the most common one asked by Israelis. They must be used to Americans who make aliya (move to Israel) because our response was often greeted with disbelief. Many Israelis whom we barely met resorted to arguments and bribes in an effort to persuade us to move here permanently. For example, the bike shop owner who rented us our bikes for the year offered that we could keep the bikes for another year at no charge if we stay. The bookstore owner where be bought the kids' school books promised us that we would be back and that we would stay for good the next time we returned. And many of the teachers at the children's school and the parents of their friends cajoled us with the good life that is to be had in Israel.

After almost a year in this country, I now expect some comment about staying in Israel when I meet someone, and it is the unusual Israeli who does not broach this subject. In fact, at this point, I am insulted when I meet someone and they do not ask me to stay. "What's the matter, you don't want me here? You don't like me?"

We had a great year; we learned a lot; we made great friends and spent time with old friends, but this country is not our home. I expect that we will visit many more times, and that we will perhaps have another extended stay some day. But our permanent home is in the United States, and we can't wait to get back there.

What were the highlights of your year?
There were so many incredible experiences that it is hard to limit this answer to just a few. Here is a summary of the most memorable aspects of our time here:

  • Passover Seder at the Gevas: We sat outside in a beautiful tent and shared the Seder with 31 friends and relatives of the Gevas. It was a traditional Seder in the deepest sense, and I gave our hosts the ultimate compliment when I told them that my father would have loved it. We had all of the customary foods, games for the kids, four questions, stimulating discussions, a major power outage, delicious food in outrageous quantities, amazing desserts, afikoman, and singing late into the night.
  • Negev trip: We took several long trips this year, and none as interesting, exciting and fun as our weeklong trip to the Negev and Eilat. We visited Timna National Park, one of the most wondrous places I've ever been; slept in a Bedouin tent village; rode camels; hiked Ein Avdat, with its harrowing trails; toured Sde Boker, the burial place of Ben Gurion; drove through Mitzpeh Ramon with breathtaking views and colorful sand; and of course stayed in Eilat, one of the most gorgeous and fun places on Earth. We snorkeled, took an underwater boat ride through coral reefs, ate amazing meals, and celebrated Hanukkah each night, lighting candles at various sites that we visited and in our hotels.
  • Trip up North: The week before Pesach, we went North to the Upper Galilee. These were some of the most gorgeous hikes I've ever experienced. My favorite was Tel Dan, which I liked even more than the most popular Banas. We visited Fort Nimrod, Mount Hermon, and many other beautiful natural wonders.
  • Yehuda Poliker and David Broza concerts: These two artists have been among my favorite lifetime musicians. We had the good fortune of seeing Poliker at the intimate Zappa club where we set 2 meters from the stage and listened to almost three hours of him belting out old favorites while I and the rest of the crowd sang along. Yom Shishi At Yoda'at was unbelievable, and I got goose bumps during Kshetigdal. We then saw David Broza in concert with the Israel Philharmanic at the new Cultural Center auditorium downtown by the Opera building. A memorable evening.
  • Ari's Bar Mitzvah: My newphew had his Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel. My entire family except for Tova's branch came to Jerusalem, and we spend several days together wining, dining and celebrating in honor of Ari. Then, my sister Rachel and her family stayed in Tel Aviv for a week, and we got to spend a lot of time with them.
  • Receiving visitors: One of the mot enjoyable aspects of living in Israel is that many of our friends visited. Getting together in Israel is particularly special. I enjoyed spending time here with the Bellovins, Blavits, Getz, Whitemans, Malkin, Boneh, Leshinskys, Glazer, Greenberg, the Fortify gang, Jacob and Liz, and others as they came through Israel. The best part was spending six weeks with my parents. The kids really got to know their Bube and Zayde, and we enjoyed seeing them just about every day while they were here.
  • The Tayelet: The 11 km boardwalk along the West Coast of Israel spans from Yaffo to Tel Baruch beach, which is right near our apartment. During most of our stay, I biked on the tayelet several times a week. The views are breathtaking. Every Friday morning, Ann and I biked to the Namal (the port) and bought items at the market for that evening's Shabbat dinner, a ritual that I will sorely miss.
  • Chopping the top three spots in a big poker tournament: It took me a while, but I finally broke into the poker scene in Tel Aviv. I had a blast getting to know the game in Israel, playing at least once a week and sharing first place in my only tournament this year. I made some great friends at my regular games, and I plan on getting together with them again to play cards whenever I'm in Tel Aviv again.
  • Soccer at the Yarkon Park: Most Sunday mornings, I played soccer with a group from the US embassy. The game was fun and friendly, and hopefully kept me in decent shape to return to my regular games back in Baltimore.
What do you miss the most from back home?
You don't realize just how great life is in the United States until you spend significant time somewhere else. Perhaps the most difficult part of living in another country is the feeling that you do not understand how things work. The bureaucracy and the laws have subtle differences that place you in awkward situations, exacerbated  by the language barrier. I miss knowing how to get things done, realizing what resources are available, and being able to manage myself comfortably in most situations.

Are you glad that you did this?
Yes. This was one of the best years of my life, and one of the most important ones for my family.

How was the year in Israel for the kids?
I think the kids will appreciate this year more when they look back on it than they did while they were here. It is very difficult for a 12 year old to adjust to a completely new environment, a different language, and a set of classmates who are all new to her. Elana handled it like a champion, and although the first several months were very challenging, I believe she would agree that she is a better and stronger person for the experience. She now has a greater appreciation of the world and of her lot in life, and I believe being away helped her forge even stronger ties with her best friends back home. 

The twins had a much easier adjustment. Eight year olds accept new kids much more readily than twelve year olds, and there was at least one English speaking kid in each of their classes. Tamara and Benny each found a "best friend" here, and in fact, the separation as we head home is hard for them.

All three of our kids learned Hebrew and can now speak, understand, read and write fluently. This was one of our primary objectives in coming here, and I could not be more proud. Elana declared that she is going to speak Hebrew to her children so that they will have an easier time learning it than she did.

How would you summarize your experience?
Leaving home for this much time is not easy. We took a big risk, and as a result, we experience a year of immeasurable value. All five of us improved our Hebrew language skills. Ann studied at an Ulpan and can now understand any simple conversation and can communicate the basics when speaking. I feel entirely fluent, and the kids have a very good grasp of the language. 

Israel is a unique and wonderful place. But, it is full of cultural, religious, and racial tensions. There is a persistent terrorist threat, and the people of Israel have as much trouble getting along with each other as they do with their neighbors. It is sometimes easy to forget that all of the Jews in Israel share a heritage. The country is at the same time divided and yet more united than any other place. When missiles fly in from Gaza or Lebanon and when neighboring armies threaten to invade, people unite as though family.

It will take a long time to fully process this experience. I will miss many aspects of living in Israel, while at the same time, I am relieved to head home, back to our normal lives in the States.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Advice for Israelis coming to the US

Congratulations, you've received an offer from a US academic institution, and now you're going to spend a year or two abroad. I have prepared some advice for you to help you adjust to the cultural differences between our two countries. My observations are by no means exhaustive, but hopefully provide enough guidance to get you through your year with minimal discomfort, awkwardness, and embarrassment. Here is a top ten list, in the spirit of David Letterman (Don't worry, you'll know who he is pretty soon.).

Top 10 Cultural Differences

10. Dress code
On my first day of work at Tel Aviv University, I arrived at the office wearing dress slacks and a button down shirt, what I would call business casual. I got the casual part right. Needless to say, on the second day, I showed up in shorts and a T-shirt. The US is a lot more formal than Israel, so don't throw out those flip flops or sandals, but before you wear them to work, see how the others dress.
If you are invited to dinner at someone's house, I would not recommend jeans or shorts, especially if it's Shabbat dinner. In a fancy restaurant, you may need a coat and tie. I have been in Israel for almost a year, and I have not worn a tie once despite experiencing Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, a Bar Mitzvah, and an upcoming wedding, to which I will not wear a tie. We easily spotted the American students in shul on Yom Kippur - the only ones wearing ties except the Rabbi (and he's American). Every one of those occasions in the US requires a suit. This advice is geared towards men, as the complexities of the female dress code are well beyond me. For expert advice on this topic, I refer you to my 9 and 12 year old daughters.
9. Respect for advisor
Even if you do not respect your advisor or mentor in the US, you should pretend you do. In Israel, it is not uncommon to tell your advisor that he is wrong to his face. A proper Israeli advisor will respect your candor before yelling at you and explaining why he is never wrong. The correct way to express the same sentiment to an American advisor is to hesitantly ask if he might have considered another way of looking at the issue. Then wait for him to ask what you mean. You will then have an opportunity to give your opinion, after which a proper American advisor will thank you and politely explain to you that he is never wrong.
In lab meetings in the US, it is customary to let people finish what they are saying in a discussion. The more people in the meeting, the more formal the behavior. It is not uncommon to have brief intervals of silence as the participants look towards those higher in the pecking order to see if they want to speak, and only then, if the opportunity presents itself, make their contribution to the discourse. Of course, I'm exaggerating, but if you are used to the way lab meetings run in Israel, this is a close approximation of what it will look like.
8. Driving
Lay off the horn. In most American cities, you will hear cars honk their horns fewer times in a year than in one afternoon in Tel Aviv. Drivers in the US are much calmer and more laid back than the ones you are used to. However, as you approach bigger cities, especially in the Northeast, you will start to feel more at home on the roads.
You will not have painted sidewalks encoding the parking rules, so you will have to observe signs to figure out where you can and cannot park. Also, while you are used to pulling up onto the sidewalk when street parking runs out, this is not advisable in the US, as your car will get towed.
Slow down. Speeding tickets are much more common in the US, and speed limit signs are not there only to provide humor and irony. If you see a car has the right of way, do not try to avoid eye contact with the driver to see if you can sneak in ahead of him. Americans will not look upon that as favorably as Israelis (although they are less likely to honk at you). Whatever you do, make sure you do not drink alcohol and drive. In many states you will go to jail, and in some states you will lose your license and possibly even your car. In many cities there will be checkpoints at night, especially on the weekend. The checkpoints are not there to check for legal documents as they are in Israel. Rather, someone may administer a breath test or ask you to walk in a straight line. It is not advised to joke around with these people under these circumstances. More on that later.
If you have no experience driving on snow or ice, do not attempt to do so. No matter how much confidence you have, and no matter how pressing the trip, you are better off hanging out at home in front of the fire. (Most houses have fireplaces in cities that get cold in the winter.)
7. Food and drink
In the States, social events tend to center more around alcohol than food (with the exception of Jewish events, which more closely resemble what you are used to). The typical home BBQ in Israel tends to resemble a gourmet 7 course meal. However, if you are invited over for a BBQ in the US, you can expect lots of beer and soda, hot dogs, hamburgers, potato chips, and if you are lucky, maybe potato salad or coleslaw. (Unless the people are Jewish, in which case you will get a huge spread that will always include 7 different flavors of cream cheese and a wide variety of bagels.)
While it is safe to try a random, unknown restaurant in Israel even if it is not very crowded, the typical, average restaurant in the US is quite bad. Unless you have a recommendation, the likelihood that you will get fresh ingredients and a chef with more training than at McDonalds is pretty low. The flip side is that the best restaurants in the top cities in the US are quite a bit better than in Israel, but they are very expensive. In any restaurant, you will also have to almost double your tip because you are expected to tip about 18%, give or take, depending on the service. (For that matter, tips are much more common in the US and are expected by taxi drivers, by the hairdresser, by the car valet, and by pretty much anyone in a hotel who makes eye contact with you.). 
Here are some other aspects of eating in a US restaurant that you may find unusual. You can leave the tip on your credit card, and in fact it is expected. When you reserve a table for 7 pm, they will not tell you that you will have to clear out by 9. The waiter will not give you a hard time if you request a substitution of mashed potatoes for fries. In general, restaurants in the US are much more accommodating of substitutions, and they will actually put the dressing on the side when they say they will. If you ask if the chicken dish contains white meat, they only say yes if it is in fact white meat, whereas in Israel they always say yes, and it never is.
When I asked my wife for input on this blog posting, she said to make sure to mention that the desserts in restaurants are much better in the States (except for crepes, which are served widely in the land of milk and honey). When I asked an Israeli living in the US to comment on the differences between restaurants in the US and Israel, she said to be sure to mention that desserts in Israel are much better. So, we'll call this one a draw.
The following foods are better in the US: Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Mexican. Be sure to eat these often, as you will miss them when you return home.
The following foods are better in Israel, so be sure to have your fill before you depart: Hummus, pita, hummus, falafel, shawarma, eggplant, and hummus.
Americans eat earlier in the day than Israelis, perhaps due to the time difference. Lunch is at noon, and dinner is usually around 6. You are probably accustomed to eating a large lunch around 2 or 3 pm and then a light dinner. In the States, lunch is typically a sandwich or a salad, and dinner is the big meal. (Since I'm a dual citizen, I split the difference by eating a large lunch and a big dinner.) If you want to have dinner in a restaurant at 10 pm, make sure that it is open that late, and good luck finding someone to go with you. I suggest seeking out a European, a South American, or another Israeli as your dinner companion. Most Americans do not like to eat that late.
If you want shakshuka for breakfast, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, you will typically find cereal, eggs, french toast, pancakes, or waffles. When you get back to Israel, you will miss skim milk, low fat yogurt that tastes good, the variety of cereals, and having any fruit you want any time of the year (but not nearly as fresh as in Israel). Did I mention that the Chinese food is very good in the States?
6. Guns and security
When you start living in the US, you will wonder how Americans survive. It will seem that there is no security anywhere, and you will not see any guns (If you do, run for cover.). At the shopping mall, no security guard will go through the trunk of your car, and there will not be a security check at every external doorway. College campuses do not have walls and gates around them. Nobody will look through your purse as you enter a building - if someone tries, alarm bells should go off in your head. The only places where you will feel at home are in government buildings and at the airport. Speaking of the airport, when you fly, you will have to take your shoes off at the security line. This accomplishes nothing, but please make sure to wear clean socks that day.
When you do see a security guard or a policeman, do not try to joke with them, as humor is not their strong suit, especially when they are dealing with Middle Easterners. Don't think that your Israeli accent will protect you, as most Americans cannot tell the differences among accents from the Middle East, and anyway, given the average education level of a security guard, he might not know that Israel is an ally.
In America nobody really thinks about terrorism. The culture shock is in the other direction, when Americans go to Israel. So, be prepared to have to re-adjust to security when you return to Israel. It is easy to get used to complacency, an unappreciated luxury in the States.
5. Grocery shopping
Grocery shopping is much less stressful in America. First of all, you will not be subjected to a security screening when you enter. Furthermore, the store will not hold 5 shekels hostage to provide you with a cart. People at the checkout line will be civil and will wait their turn. It is a lot less likely that there will be a mix-up at the checkout scanner than in Israel. In the rare instance where such a complication occurs, you do not need to worry about the people in line behind you starting to yell and complain that you are holding everything up. In fact, in many grocery stores, you will simply check yourself out at a self service station.
At the deli counter, most often, you will take a number and wait for your turn. If there is no number dispenser, then you can count on the customers keeping track of whose turn it is. When you return to Israel, you will have to re-acquire your pushing and shoving skills so that you are not shut out entirely at the deli counter.
The bread will never be as fresh as back home, but you will have many more choices of almost every product. For example, there are at least 40 different dry cereals to choose from, and any large supermarket is likely to stock all of them. So many options are available because unlike in your homeland, there is no boycott against companies that sell to the United States, and thus no spineless corporations conceding to the pressure not to sell to you.
In many states, supermarkets are not allowed to sell alcohol, so you will have to go to a liquor store for wine or beer. Some states, such as my home state of Maryland, do not allow stores to sell any alcohol on Sundays. So, make sure to stock up before then. Of course, since you are Israeli, you probably don't drink that much, and you are used to working on Sundays, so this is not really a big deal.
The express line operates differently in American grocery stores, and might take some getting used to. The 10 item limit is strictly enforced. It would not be considered normal for you to haggle and argue with the sales clerk and to raise your voice because you only have 11 items. It is even less likely that as you stood your ground, the people in line behind you would start to call you names and to yell at the clerk for not moving on. And do not expect six people to simultaneously yell at each other at the top of their lungs as a result of this unlikely confrontation. As you can see, the express line requires an adjustment period for any Israeli, and is perhaps the place where you will first start to feel homesick.
4. Smoking
If you smoke, you might want to skip this section. Not only because you might find it offensive, but also given that you do not have as long to live as the rest of us, you should probably do something more fun than reading my blog in your remaining time on Earth.
In the US, there are many more non-smoking places than in Israel, despite the fact that smoking is no longer allowed in most buildings there. Americans take their non-smoking rules very seriously, and they get very annoyed if people smoke where they are not supposed to. Most buildings are not only non-smoking, but require those partaking in this practice to stand a fixed distance from the entrances.
Among native Americans (not to be confused with Native American Indians), you will find very few smokers in the educated, academic community, and in fact, there is a social stigma associated with the practice of inhaling nicotine in many circles. It is highly unlikely that you will find a house where smoking is permitted, and most people will not let you even smoke in their yard, and definitely not around their children.
I might add that smoking is not good for you.
3. Sports
If you do not play any sports then you can safely skip this section. Also, you should really try tennis. It's so much fun.
I used to play soccer in Baltimore with a group of Israelis. There was always a lot of yelling, cursing and blaming throughout the game, after which everyone parted best of friends. Any American who plays soccer with Israelis for the first time is in for a culture shock. This cuts both ways. If you have the opportunity to play soccer, basketball, tennis, or any other sport with Americans, you will have to contain yourself. If someone makes a mistake, try "better luck next time" rather than, "what kind of pass was that, you idiot!" If someone doesn't pass you the ball, try "by the way, I was open" instead of "your mother is a billy goat!"
Ironically, I am now living in Israel and playing soccer in Tel Aviv with a group of Americans from the US embassy. The game is polite and civil as one would expect from your typical group of American adults. In most cases, friendly sports games played by grown ups in the US are cooperative, supportive and sportsmanlike. So, leave the yelling at home. If you are loud and confrontational, you will be very unpopular, and you will not be invited back, even though you are probably better at soccer than any of them (another reason they may not want to invite you back).
2. Gatherings and meetings
Two situations. Very similar, yet so different. Both true stories.
It was 2010 and the day before the children started school in Ramat Aviv Gimel, and the teacher held a meeting with the parents in the classroom. Most of the parents were wearing sandals, shorts and T-shirts. I felt overly dressed up in my jeans. The teacher managed to get through the first 3 minutes of her prepared remarks unscathed. 
The first outburst came from the back of the room, "You are absolutely wrong! This is what's wrong with our school and with our educational system and with our government. This is why our children cannot learn anything!" The second outburst came from the other side of the room. "Shut up, she's trying to talk". Another parent offered up, "Can you guys stop arguing so that I can hear what the teacher has to say?" At that point, the teacher attempted to recover, but she did not get another chance to speak, as I remained the only person in the room who was not yelling. This went on for almost an hour, after which I went home and took some Advil.
It was 2009 and the day before the children started school in Stevenson, Maryland, and the teacher held a meeting with the parents in the classroom. The parents were dressed nicely. Some of them came from work in their suits, while others wore slacks or skirts and dressy shirts. I felt a bit under dressed in my jeans. The teacher went over the curriculum for the year. The parents all sat in attentive silence, most of them taking notes. The teacher then explained what the children needed to bring on the first day and what the parents needed to buy for them. The parents scribbled. After 45 minutes, the teacher asked if there were any questions. One of the parents stated, "I just wanted to tell you how excited we are that you will be teaching our children. We have heard such great things about you." There were nods of agreement. Another parent asked a question about the dress code for gym. After the teacher answered, she said that if there were no more questions then she thanks us for coming, and looks forward to a great year. 
When you go to a gathering or a meeting in the US, you will need to act more like the parents in the Maryland school than in Ramat Aviv Gimel. Most meetings at the university in Israel degenerate to shouting matches at some point. This rarely, if ever happens in the US, and when it does, relationships are broken for life. In Israel, you can yell and scream at your friend or colleague, and then pick up where you left off the next day. In the States, if you yell and scream at someone, they will think you are a lunatic, they will be offended, and they might not consider you their friend anymore.
You might get cut some slack for being an Israeli, but I recommend, before arguing too enthusiastically with someone, that you see how others are behaving and follow suit.
1. Bureaucracy
In a previous blog posting, I wrote about bureaucracy in Israel and our nightmare story with the ministry of the interior. While it is true that the amount of red tape in Israel is overwhelming, the US has its own brand of institutionalized insanity. 
Take the department of motor vehicles.
In Israel, the clerk will not necessarily be nice or polite (and in most cases rude), and might automatically say "no", but will bend the rules wherever possible (and impossible) to help you, once you go through the requisite arguing, lose your temper and start yelling.
In the US, the clerk will greet you nicely. So nicely, in fact that you will feel he is an old friend, and that you are likely to get whatever you want. But, still smiling, the clerk will tell you that he can't fulfill your request. No amount of pleading will sway him, and in fact, raising your voice will get you thrown out, and he might call the police (with whom you must remember not to crack jokes). Any increase in effort on your part to get your way will strengthen his resolve. You will be denied. In Israel, raising your voice is not only acceptable, it is somewhat expected. In the US, it is counter productive.
In the States, when you encounter resistance from a service representative on the phone, never raise your voice, but rather politely ask to speak with his supervisor. This may at times immediately result in getting what you want. Or, if the higher up gets involved, you may or may not get your way, but you will probably be treated with great respect, and that's got to be worth something.
Bureaucracy is not fun anywhere, and anyone who travels feels that the system is worse in the new country than back home. So let me assure you of this. Yours is worse. 
I hope that my top ten list has provided you with some guidance and a rough idea of the major cultural differences between Israelis and Americans. Have a wonderful trip, and I assure you that you will return to Israel as a more well rounded person who can poke as much fun at the American culture as I have at the Israeli one.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Yom Hashoa

When I was 16, I traveled to Israel on a youth program through the Jewish Federation. As part of the trip, we toured Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. I remember being traumatized by the experience. For days I was extremely upset and could not get over the magnitude of the tragedy, and oddly, I felt guilty for not being even more upset.

Years later, as an adult with a wife and a child, I visited Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam. The famous hiding place was converted to a museum. Once again I was haunted by the images and the story. I had nightmares for weeks. More recently, I visited the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, and I marveled at the human capacity for evil, beyond what a rational person could fathom.

For the last couple of weeks, preparation for the upcoming independence day festivities have been in full swing. Israeli flags are everywhere, hanging from rooftops, on cars, on buses, and on street corners. There is excitement in the air! But today, the city takes a break from joy to commemorate those who were killed by the nazis. As Yom Hashoa (Holocaust remembrance day) approached in Israel, the weight of the moment was tangible. The evening before restaurants and shops closed, and the children prepared for a memorial service at school. Experiencing Holocaust Day amid the backdrop of the Independence Day preparations provides an interesting mix of patriotism, excitement and gravity.

This morning, I woke up thinking about the Holocaust and about the seriousness of the day. As is my custom here each morning, I walked to the gym, but as I should have guessed, it was closed for Yom Hashoa. So, I decided to take my bike for a ride along the beach. I would get some exercise and reflect about Yom Hashoa and being in Israel among so many people who were personally touched by the Holocaust. As I was ready to leave home, I looked on my cell phone and saw a breaking news alert. Osama Bin Laden was killed by US forces. Osama Bin Laden was killed by US forces. I had to read it twice to believe it. I checked that the date was not April 1, and I quickly yelled to Ann to inform her of the startling news.

My first reaction to the death of the most evil human being on the planet was excitement and joy. I felt a pang of guilt at rejoicing over someone's death, but I quickly got over that. I felt it was appropriate that on the day that we mourn and remember our lost souls from the Holocaust, that we can take comfort in the justice that was served to Bin Laden today. Yes, today is somber, but the news about the extinction of the leader of Al Qaida definitely eases the pain.

I rode my bike along the tayelet, the boardwalk that stretches for 11 kilometers and links Tel Baruch beach with Yaffo. I rode through the Yarkon park and then down to Yaffo. On my way back, I noticed that it was about 9:30 a.m. and I had been riding for two hours. I had heard that at 10 a.m., sirens rang in Israel, and that everybody came to a halt and observed a minute of silence and remembrance. I thought about the best place to see and observe this, and decided to time my return ride so that I would be at a busy intersection in Tel Aviv. I arrived at the intersection of Derech Namir and Keren Kayement Leyisrael a few minutes before 10 and parked my bike. I sat on the street corner at a bus stop and waited.

I was not sure what to expect, and when my watch read 10:00 a.m. and nothing happened, I began to suspect that I had been mis-informed. Traffic was crazy. Cars weaving in and out and honking at each other, buses all around, motorcycles everywhere buzzing past me. Pedestrians crossing at the intersection. A typical Tel Aviv morning. And suddenly, there it was. A deep crescendo, and the sirens were wailing everywhere. What followed was like a scene out of a movie or a dream. I can't describe it any other way. As though on cue, everything froze. All of the cars stopped in their tracks, and all of the passengers stepped out. Every bike, motorcycle and pedestrian froze as well. It looked as though someone had paused the DVR of life.

One of the cars that was close to me was driven by an elderly man, I am guessing in his 80s. He stood next to his car with his head slightly tilted. He looked like he was crying. I examined the faces of the people on the road. Young, old, middle aged. Male, female. Suits, shorts, sandals, long hair, short hair; religious, secular. Every type of person was represented. And they all just stood there and stared straight ahead looking somber. I stood there and felt that my legs were shaking. It was the most religious experience I have ever felt. Almost 70 years had passed, and in this country, for one minute, I could feel the weight of the tragedy in a manner that I did not experience as a teenager at Yad Vashem nor at the Holocaust museum. A minute where the world stands still and everybody remembers.

And then, as though God pressed Play again on the DVR, everything was back to normal. Drivers jumped into their cars and tried to beat out the car in front of them, motorcycles revved up, pedestrians crossed the street, buses came and went. I stayed in my spot and observed life in Tel Aviv. So vibrant. Did that moment of silence really just happen? It was so fleeting. The longer I stood there the more incredible it seemed. And then I felt a strong emotional connection with life. The joke was on you, Hitler. The Jews not only survived. We thrived. Look at this city. Look at all these people. There are children playing in the parks, babies being born, buildings sprouting up left and right. Hitler, you were a complete failure. A joke. I spit on the ground to curse your memory, and I laugh out loud that our people are vibrant and alive. Every generation will have its Hitler and its Osama Bin Laden. But good will triumph over evil, as it did today.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Did America really not vote for Pia?

Let me take a break from blogging about my Sabbatical in Israel to comment about an equally important topic, American Idol.  In particular, electronic voting on American Idol. In past years, I've picked the top two or three (as did everyone else), when there were around ten contestants left, and it was pretty obvious that we were all correct. This year, I picked (as I assume did most people) Casey and Pia as the top two, or at least two of the top three (along with James).

Now, American Idol airs in Israel several days after the show happens, so I have not seen this week's episode. But I have been following the excitement online. I have to say that one of two things (or both) must be true. Either I am completely out of tune with the American Idol audience, or something is messed up in their voting system. Interestingly, I'm just saying, American Idol adopted a form of Internet voting this time around (for a terrific description of how it works, see Ben Adida's blog posting). Unlike voting in public elections, people are actually encouraged to vote multiple times, up to a limit, and votes are not private.

So, a few weeks ago, Casey (touted by Randy as the most talented contestant ever on the show) was voted off early to everyone's shock. The judges saved him. Now Pia, my personal prediction to win the whole thing, was reportedly voted off. The judges have no more saves, but would clearly have saved her if they could. Is something going on with the voting? Who knows, but when Internet voting systems produce unexpected results such as this, questions will be asked. Personally, I'm very sorry to see her go, and I can't believe people really voted this way. I will miss Pia, and I am starting to doubt the integrity of the voting on American Idol. Or, maybe I'm just out of tune with pop culture. Yeah, that's probably it.

Friday, April 01, 2011

We're staying!!

This Sabbatical year has been a transformative experience for me and my family. While we always enjoyed our lives in Baltimore, there was always a feeling that something was missing. I was never able to put my finger on it. Was it a great, supportive community? No, we had that. Was it inner peace? No, we achieved that. Not until we spent some time in the holy land did we realize that what we were really missing was not a single, individual object or feeling, but something intangible, something bigger than all of us. There is an expression that you don't know what you had until it is gone (I think Shimon Peres said that about the Sainai desert.). In our case, we did not know what we were missing, until we had it. Humus on every street corner. Falafel on every plate. Shawarma wherever you look. But it's not just the food, it's the whole package. Israel completes us. They had me at "Shalom!"

So, it is with a heavy heart and a full stomach that I'm letting you know that we have decided to stay in Israel, and that we will be moving to Tel Aviv permanently. The heart is heavy because we will miss our home and our friends in the States. I will miss Sunday morning soccer, the Baltimore Ravens, poker with my favorite donkeys, the JHU computer science department, and two day weekends. Ann will miss her regular mahjong group, tennis league, Hadassa Gila meetings and events, ladies night out, and English. I would say what Elana is missing, but I'm having trouble finding out because we're currently not on speaking terms, and I've stationed a guard at the house and one at the airport to make sure she stays in Israel. The twins don't remember what it was like in America, so there's no issue there.

Since we're going to be in Israel, we have also decided to complete a lifelong dream and to become observant Jews. It is much more convenient to be religious in Israel, and given the shifting demographics in this country, we have decided to chose the team that is growing fastest and most likely to win. I'm not too thrilled about the whole not driving on Saturday aspect of this, or the daily leather straps, but I see advantages as well. For example, I've noticed an increasingly growing bald spot on the back of my head, which I will now be able to hide under my yarmulkah. As part of our transformation, we have decided to adopt more religious names. Going forward, Ann will be known at Tsirl. Please call me Mendl, and our kids will be Yentl, Tentl, and Bentl. We are also going to adopt a dog and call him Bob.

We are so excited about celebrating all of the Jewish holidays in Israel from now on. The only real downer, and it's a big one, is that April Fools Day is not observed that much here in Israel. It's always been my favorite holiday. The time of year that I get to say, in a loud voice:  APRIL FOOLS!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Purim 2011 in Tel Aviv

Purim in Hebrew means "lots". Having lived in Tel Aviv now for over 7 months, I do not think it's unreasonable to celebrate parking lots. But actually, the story of Purim has to do with the evil haman (I prefer not to capitalize his name), who cast lots to determine on what day to kill the Jewish people. Queen Esther found out about it, and she and Mordechai managed to foil the plot. That's the abridged version, but there is literally a Megilah describing everything that happened. It is often said (and please forgive the cliche) that most Jewish holidays can be summed up in three short sentences:

They tried to kill us. They failed. Let's eat.

I wish I could be as brief, but my description of Purim in Israel requires a deeper exposition. This holiday in the land of the Jews is a complex cross pollination among multiple world events, with several mutations. Think Mardi Gras in New Orleans meets Carnaval in Brazil meets Halloween in the US, with a hint of Hanukkah and a dab of crazy. It's a week-long holiday filled with costumes, joy, parties, gift giving, parades, festivities, and rituals. A week I'm sure the kids will remember for a long time and will sorely miss in years to come. It's the Purim I grew up with as a young child in Haifa, and which is unique to Israel.

The week leading up to Purim was filled with holiday-related activities at school. The children dressed up in costumes one day, celebrated upside-down day another (I still haven't figured out what that means), wore special colors, and silly outfits yet another time. Every day had its theme. On the streets, people of all ages wore costumes the entire week. It was so strange to walk down a wide boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv and to encounter at least 30% of the adults in elaborate costumes, walking along as though nothing was unusual.



Sponge Tamara Square Pants

Like all Jewish holidays, the celebration begins at sundown the night before. On Erev Purim, we ate an early dinner with my parents and another friend from our congregation and then walked over to the community center that houses our conservative shul in Ramat Aviv Gimel. I was probably the only person not in costume. Even my parents surprised me by dressing up.

The primary ritual of Purim is the reading of Megilat Esther, the scroll containing the story of Purim. We arrived at services for the Megilah reading a bit early. The sanctuary consisted of a room with about 75 chairs by my estimation. By the time services were set to begin, it appeared that twice that many people showed up, including a delegation of high school students from the United States whose counselor was less than pleased about the accommodations. Our quick thinking Rabbi came up with a solution, and we began passing chairs from one end of the room out the window in the back, where someone received them and stacked them into piles. Soon, we had a side of the room with chairs for those who needed them, and most of the shul was standing room only. Ad libbing is one of the most crucial skills in Israel, and I give the Rabbi high marks.

The Megliah reading, if done properly, is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable activities in Judaism, and I dare say in the entire world, at least what I've seen of it. When I was growing up in Nashville, the congregants used to literally flip the Rabbi three times throughout the service, as the rest of the congregation cheered on. It is a mitzvah (commandment) to drink so much on Purim that you get drunk. In our Orthodox synagogue that I attended as a child, no mitzvah was observed with such dedication, fervor and enthusiasm as this one. After all, we were commanded to drink, so bottoms up!

As the reader recites the story of Purim from the Megilah, with a special tune that is only used on this holiday, the children are at the ready. Armed with noisemakers and groggers, they hang on every word waiting for that infamous name whose utterance will send the place into a wild and raucous frenzy. In my synagogue in Nashville, there was a game played where the reader pretended to try to say haman's name so fast that the children would miss it, and he would continue. Of course, the kids always caught him. But here, there was no such play. Before the first utterance of that evil name, the reader built up to a crescendo and exclaimed, "HAMAN!!" and then paused. And we broke loose. People shouted their boos, while others banged on anything that would make noise. The groggers spun while parents for once encouraged their children to make as much noise as possible. The remainder of the evening, every time the reader said, haman, the noise would repeat, the intensity rising, as the parents' enthusiasm for the noise level gradually decreased.

The Rabbi here added an interesting element to the reading. Between chapters, children performed Purim songs on various musical instruments. We were given two week's notice, but Benny and Tamara worked hard and prepared songs. Benny rocked the house with Chag Purim on the piano. It was actually pretty incredible. He played it loudly and really well, and the entire room sang along. I could see he was having a blast. Tamara decided to play her song on the recorder, an instrument that she learned to play in school here. She played the same song, and everyone sang along as well.

On Purim day, we went to the nearby city of Holon to view the largest Purim day parade in the country. The population of Tel Aviv is about 400,000, and it seemed all of them beat us there. I was unable to find legal parking, and rather than describe what I did with the car, let's just say that my photograph is hanging prominently in the Holon post office. Wanted! …for extreme parking behavior. We walked to the center of town where we utilized the cell phone algorithm to successfully find my parents, perhaps the latest in a string of miracles performed by God in Israel. It was the biggest parade I've ever witnessed. While I'm not a huge fan of crowds, this experience was worth it, except for the part where Elana and I freaked out as we were caught in a mob trying to go in the opposite direction of another mob. We were trapped for several minutes in a sea of bodies all seemingly with the intent of getting from one side of us to the other, with the incorrect assumption that going through us was quicker than going around us.

As fate would have it, Purim this year was also Elana's 12th birthday. We celebrated by going to dinner with my parents and our friends the Gevas. We had a long table at Max Brenners, and the kids (and their parents and grandparents) pigged out on chocolate-based delicacies. Outside, we were treated to a parade of party goers in outrageous costumes heading to a club next door where a high faluten Purim party was getting underway.

When we came to Israel for a year's Sabbatical, I anticipated that Purim, along with Independence Day, would be one of the highlights of our experience, and my expectations were exceeded. What a week!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Four months left

Parking at Tel Aviv University (and in this city in general) is not unlike my favorite hobby of playing poker. It requires patience, skill, and a decent amount of luck. In fact, for the last six months, getting into the parking lot at work was a test of wits. I arrived at the university gate armed with my letter from the Dean of Engineering stating that I am a visiting professor here. Most often, that did the trick. However, at times, the security guard was particularly prickly and would not accept the letter. "No sticker, no parking!" he would declare, sounding a bit like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. As the line of cars behind me grew, along with the volume of their honking, I would reason with him. "Listen, I am a visiting professor here. I need to get in to do my job. This is no way to treat visitors." Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Either way, I drew satisfaction from knowing that I was developing my negotiating skills in Hebrew, an important capability for day to day survival in Israeli society.

When I first arrived at the computer science department back in August, I filled out some paperwork requesting a parking sticker. I was warned that it takes some time because the bureaucracy is a bit slow (like Charlie Sheen is a bit nuts). After one month, I inquired about the parking sticker and was told that the form I submitted was no good as the process for obtaining parking stickers had changed, so I needed to fill out a different form. I happily complied. Two months later, as fate would have it, our rental car company offered to replace our car with a brand new one with 8 Km on the odometer, and I felt fortunate not to have received my decal yet. I inquired about the parking sticker and mentioned that I had a different license plate number. Well, that rebooted the entire process. Filled out forms again. Kept waiting. Mostly biked to work.

Last week, we had heavy rains, and I drove to work. My ability to negotiate and charm apparently faltered, as I was not allowed into the lot. After complaining to an administrator in the department, I was assured that my parking sticker would arrive shortly. Amazingly, on Sunday, I was told that my sticker was available for pickup at the university security office. I was working from home that day, but was so excited about the parking sticker, that I went into work. As I approached the campus security office, a little voice inside my head told me that it is never, ever this easy in Israel. I put the odds of my actually ending the day with a parking sticker near zero. Sure enough, while the security office was open, there was a sign that stated that parking stickers can be picked up on so and so days at such and such hours, and of course, I had missed the window for Sundays.

After only six and a half months in parking limbo, the story has a happy ending. I noted the hours for Monday and made sure I was at the campus security office at the right time. I received a beautiful blue parking sticker which I proudly affixed to the windshield of my car. That will get me in the gate from now on, I hope. Finding a spot once inside, well that's another problem. Meanwhile, I'll celebrate the small victory.

My experience overall at the university has been positive. I'm currently advising a masters student here, and the other day we had a meeting scheduled. He told me that he was in the miluim, which is the army reserves, so he would be a bit late. In Israel it is very common for people to have to suddenly leave their jobs or whatever they are doing and serve in the army for days or weeks at a time. It is part of society, and they are used to it. So, this student shows up in my office in full army uniform, and we had our meeting. When he turned to leave, I noticed that he was wearing a holster around his waist with a handgun. I couldn't help but think how different the dynamic would be with my students back at Johns Hopkins if they were packing heat. Lab meetings might have quite a different dynamic.

We now have less than four months left until we return to Baltimore. Elana is doing much better. She has a small group of nice friends, and is particularly close to one girl. I drove them to a Bat Mitzvah party last night (a weekly occurrence these days), and they were in the back seat giggling and yapping most of the way. She communicates with her friends mostly in Hebrew, and I think Elana is starting to enjoy being here. She is very excited about her upcoming birthday. However, she'll probably be the one most anxious to return home when this is over. Here is a picture of Elana and Tamara on the Tel Aviv Tayelet (boardwalk).

Ann is continuing her Hebrew studies at the Ulpan, and I've noticed now when we shop at the shuk (market), she often speaks Hebrew with the vendors when their English appears weak. Benny is enjoying his chess club and his soccer training and appears to be totally comfortable in Hebrew with his friends. Here is Benny leading a parade of Fulbrighters in the Lower Galilee.

Tamara has fewer activities now because her jewelry making teacher and piano teacher each gave birth and subsequently took breaks from their activities. Still, she has some very nice friendships. Each of the kids seems to have found a "best friend" that they hang out with a lot, and the nice thing is that most of the time we can walk to their houses. Here are the twins in the lobby of our building.

The last couple of weeks have been particularly fun because my parents are visiting. They have a great apartment downtown, and we spend time virtually every day either at their place or ours. Besides touring around, visiting the Nemal and the Shuk, we play a lot of bridge with them, and all I can say is that I'm glad poker is played for money and that bridge is not because my skills at the latter are quite lacking. My mom loves Israeli dancing, and she leads an Israeli dance troupe in Nashville at Vanderbilt University. Here is my Mom dancing along the Tayelet last weekend.

We are now very much looking forward to the upcoming holidays of Purim and Passover. These holidays are something special in Israel, and being here to celebrate them will be a highlight of my Sabbatical. In addition, my nephew, Ari, is having his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in a few weeks, and much of my family will be here for that.

We are planning a four day trip up North in about a month and a half to visit Akko, Rosh Hanikrah and the Golan Heights, places Ann has never been, and where I have not been for years. In May, we will visit with the Schechter 8th graders who will be on their Israel trip, and we've enjoyed the steady stream of visitors whom we have had the chance to meet and hang out with.

So, our trip is not quite winding down, but the finish line is in sight. We're in no hurry, but we'll be very happy to return home to our normal lives, and to see all our friends again.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Halfway & Hummus

A year is a long time. It may not seem so in the abstract, but it is enough time to really feel we are living somewhere and not just visiting. Now, halfway through our trip, most of the novelty is gone, and our lives have taken on a familiar set of routines, establishing a status quo. The kids have their regular activities, school, piano, jewelry making, soccer, chess club, and scouts. I have poker night; Ann has a book club starting next week, and we've begun attending events with the Israeli Michigan alumni club. Friday night is Shabbat dinner, and we've started a new tradition that is sure to continue when we return, date night on Tuesdays. So far, we've savored over a dozen of Tel Aviv's nicest restaurants, and we've got a list that should get us through the rest of our stay.

We found a great piano teacher for the kids. She's so good, that I started taking lessons again, and I practice just about every day. After taking lessons for 12 years, I had 26 years off, but I'm highly motivated and taking it much more seriously than I ever did when I was forced to play as a child. Meanwhile, our kids are thriving on the piano, and they had a really nice recital a few weeks ago. As luck would have it (bad for us - good for her), our teacher gave birth to a baby girl recently, and she is taking a couple of months off. Our first attempt at a replacement seemed decent enough, but the kids objected to his lack of personal hygiene, and having come in contact with him, I appreciated their position, and so we are continuing to look for a temporary replacement.

The kids are getting more acclimated to their school, but they really miss home. They work with a tutor who comes to our house four days a week to help them understand and complete their homework.  We were very proud when Tamara received a 95 on a science test that was entirely in Hebrew, the same exact test taken by the rest of the class. We're not sure how much Benny is getting out of this year academically, but he's made a lot of friends and is constantly playing at other kids' houses and inviting friends over. He's even starting to speak to them in Hebrew on occasion. Elana made a determination to speak Hebrew to her friends, and this has helped her socially, although she still longs for Baltimore and her close friends back home. Parents are asked to volunteer in the carpool line. Here I am, ready for service:

Although we are at the halfway point of the trip, the first month or two were spent adjusting and so the next five months should be much more normal and productive than the first half of our stay here. Also, in a few weeks, my parents are visiting for six weeks and getting an apartment downtown, so it will be great to spend time with them - more time than I've spent with them since I left home in 1985. Ann & the kids are also very excited that they are coming. In March, my sister is having her son's bar mitzvah in Jerusalem and most of my family is coming to Israel for a couple of weeks. So the second half will definitely be much more interesting and fun.

The kids' Hebrew is getting noticeably better (mine too). I also find that I'm rarely using the GPS to get around town, and navigate pretty easily around most of downtown. A typical day begins around 6:45 when the kids start getting ready for school. I head down to the gym next to our building and kibbitz with the regulars there. By the time I get back upstairs, the kids have already left for their 10 minute walk to school, and Ann is getting ready to leave for her Ulpan class downtown. After showering and breakfast, I usually practice the piano for a while and then head to the university. I either bike (13 minutes), walk (30 minutes), take the bus (12 minutes) or drive (5 minutes). I love having these choices. I also work at home quite a bit, an even shorter commute. On Sunday nights, I play poker at an apartment downtown and usually get home around 1:30 or 2 a.m. So, Monday I'm usually tired and sometimes take a nap in the afternoon. Tuesday night, our tutor comes in the evening, and Ann and I celebrate date night.

Around 4 or 5 pm, I start receiving loads of email from the States. Most evenings, I spend quite a bit of time over Skype with colleagues in the US, and often I find myself working past 10:00 pm, my preferred bed time. At first I had a tough time dealing with this schedule, but I've gotten used to it. One thing I look forward to when I return to the States is having more relaxed evenings.

Now, let me say a few words about a very sensitive topic. It's such an important and yet delicate topic that I hesitate to even go there, at the risk of alienating my Israeli friends who might read this posting. But, a good journalist does not shy away from the truth, no matter what the risks. The topic is, of course, Hummus. There, I've opened up a can of worms, let the genie out of the bottle and closed the barn door after the horse already escaped.

I had no idea how important the topic of Hummus was before I came to Israel. The first hint of the gravity of this subject matter came when we first arrived, while we were waiting for our luggage at Ben Gurion airport, but we were not in tune enough to register the import of the discussion. A gentleman standing beside me struck up a conversation. "Where are you going? For how long? Where will you be living? Oh, Ramat Aviv Gimel, that's a great place. Pause. There is an excellent Hummus place there." A seemingly benign observation. From my perspective, he might as well have said, "There is a great pizza place there," or "There is a good coffee house in Gimel." Only now, with the benefit of hindsight do I realize how he went out on a limb with that comment. He took a position; drew a line in the sand. Indeed, those were fighting words. You do not praise a Hummus place lightly in Israel.

Over time, I came to realize that while there are many religious debates raging in this part of the world, few are as ferocious or as universal as the wrangling over Hummus. Take Rosh Hashana. We were invited over to the Israeli parents of friends of ours for one of the evening meals. Before dinner, we're sitting in the living room, and one of the locals declares that the best Hummus in Israel comes from an Arab village outside of Jerusalem. This was followed by a silence that would have made E.F. Hutton uncomfortable. It was eventually broken by a somewhat timid and yet defiant Israeli who opined that while that Hummus was definitely above the bar, it was nothing compared to his place of choice in Yaffo. Everybody stopped what they were doing and looked back at the original speaker. This was a critical moment. The fate of our evening seemingly hung in the balance. I was nervous, but also curious to see how this would play out. The battle lines were clearly drawn, and neither side seemed likely to concede an inch. Fortunately, the host was able to dissolve the tension by declaring that dinner was ready, a sure fire tactic for breaking up any confrontation among Jews.

The Rosh Hashana Hummus debacle was a forerunner of things to come. One day, I noticed that our corner grocery store had dozens of Hummus containers with every flavor one could imagine.

I took a picture with my phone and posted it on Facebook musing that there were so many types of Hummus to be found, "And none of them are any good!" was an immediate comment posted by one of my Israeli friends, causing a chain reaction of replies that made me wonder if the topic was going to end up on Mark Zuckerberg's desk and cause a change in Facebook's tolerance policies.

Perfectly reasonable people continuously surprise me by their passion for Hummus and their close mindedness with respect to anything but the Hummus that they believe in. On several instances when I had lunch with faculty at the university, the topic turned to Hummus, and I observed reasonable people discussing the ins and out of this delicacy (who knew that Hummus had ins and outs?). How Hummus should be prepared, how it is served, where to buy it, how long it keeps. The level of intensity and passion people bring to this subject is stunning. Thus, it was no surprise to me when I mentioned to a colleague that I sometimes bike to Yaffo in the morning, that he sent me this link to his favorite Hummus place there.

One of the funniest moments came when Ann and I were in services during the high holidays. The Rabbi was giving his sermon and making some announcements in Hebrew. I was simultaneously translating for Ann. At the end of the speech, the Rabbi announces that on Sukkot, there is going to be a potluck dinner. He then went into some detail about how there was a need to coordinate what dishes people bring because "we can't have everybody bringing Hummus". Clearly this had been a problem in the past.

I actually really like Hummus. But to me, it all tastes the same. I'm sure that for writing this, I am now on a Mossad watch list, and that a more heretical statement could not be made. Ann tells me Hummus is fattening, so I'll be limiting my consumption, to the extent that it's possible to do that in Israel.

If you visit Israel, you should look forward to having great Hummus as well as great Hummus discourse. I'm told that it's much better than the packaged stuff you get in the US. I wish I could taste a difference.