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.