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.