the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at:

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Foreskin Gang

In the oddball Israeli news category, Yisraeli, a relatively new Israeli paper handed out for free at central bus stations and train stations, reported today that police are investigating a group of Haredim suspected of giving "attractive presents" to uncircumcised teenage boys - mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union - as inducements to get them to undergo circumcision under unsanitary conditions in a Jerusalem apartment.

According to the report, the suspects have fled the country, and police are searching for them in the hope of charging them with proselytizing to minors. The article said the boys involved were 16 and 17, but did not say how many teens had been targeted.

The article leaves readers in the lurch about a few intriguing questions. For instance, is proselytizing to minors really the most fitting charge police could come up with? After all, if the boys were Jewish, is it really proselytizing? Surely the crime shouldn't be talking to them about their own religion but operating on a minor without the guardian's consent? (I haven't looked into it, but that sounds like something that should generally be illegal in a non-emergency situation.)

And if the boys weren't Jewish, it doesn't strike me as likely that the Foreskin Gang would want to circumcise them. Judaism sees no virtue in circumcising Christians; on the contrary, brit milah is a sign of belonging to the Jewish people.

The article also left me wondering: What exactly were those presents??

I'm also kind of curious about the method the Foreskin Gang allegedly used. The paper says members of the "Haredi network" sent representatives to schools to locate uncircumcised students, offer them the presents and get them to agree to be circumcised. Then the Gang is said to have whisked the boys off in the middle of the night to a "hidden apartment" that police found lacked "basic sanitary conditions for carrying out the operations."

Umm... Locating uncircumcised students in schools? Does this mean they were spending their time lurking in the locker room? The whole story sounds pretty creepy to me.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Good news, hoping for better

The good news is that Tzachi Hanegbi has finally been indicted (hip hip hooray!). It now remains to be seen whether he'll rot in jail or become the next prime minister. Or maybe president or chief rabbi? After all, the whiff of corruption appears to be a necessary condition to reach a high level of power in this country - and boy, does Hanegbi stink.

Hanegbi, a long-time Likudnik who was welcomed with open arms into Kadima despite the stench, is accused of making as many political appointments as he could - i.e. giving jobs to Likud Central Committee members and their relatives and friends - while serving as environment minister between 2001 and 2003.

Hanegbi is refusing to resign as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and is still pissed that he was basically forced to quit as public security minister in 2004. Mind you, the public security minister oversees the police force, which was investigating him at the time, and he was allowed to remain a minister (without portfolio). Yeah, he was really mistreated there. The tears are flowing.

And you know what Hanegbi has to say in his defense? "That he did not deviate from the norm that had been in place for dozens of years, and by which dozens of ministers had abided," as Haaretz reported today. Oh, and there's more: "Hanegbi didn't try to hide his actions, even going as far as publishing ads in the Likud newsletter to describe his efforts on behalf of central committee members."

I only wish I could say there was something refreshingly honest about Hanegbi's indicating that he views rampant and blatant political cronyism as a proud tradition that must be upheld.

But all his ardently unapologetic defense does is show exactly why he should be put behind bars for a long, long time.

What Hanegbi is right in pointing out is that his behavior can't be viewed in a vacuum. The Likud Central Committee system is notoriously corrupt. While the public votes for a specific party, the 3,000 Likud Central Committee members have been the ones to decide which candidates get top billing on the party's Knesset list and have a greater chance of becoming MKs. The more jobs a politician gives committee members, the more likely they are to vote for him (or her) and the more likely he is to score yet another favor-filled Knesset term.

Benjamin Netanyahu took a crucial - if still largely untested - step in turning over a new leaf for the Likud when, a few weeks before the last elections and after the Knesset list was already in place, he convinced the central committee to limit its own excessive power. The central committee, apparently hoping against hope that this would stem the tide of former Likud loyalists moving over to Kadima and even Labor, agreed to allow all members of the Likud party to decide the order of the Knesset list.

But just because the swamp that bred creatures like Hanegbi is starting to be drained, that is no reason to exempt him from the personal responsibility he is too shameless to recognize he has. The cleanup has to start somewhere, and the longer people like Hanegbi are wandering around bragging about how well they treat their buddies (wink wink), the longer the entrenched corruption will find a way to perpetuate itself.

Welcome to the black hole of Israel

It has come to my attention that Maariv reported that the Jerusalem municipality has distributed thousands of flyers that translated the Hebrew tag line "Jerusalem, there's no other city like it" - ירושלים, אין עוד עיר כזו - into a catchy slogan that was apparently devised by very crafty reverse psychologists: "Jerusalem there is no such city!"

You just can't make this stuff up.

Anyway, I'm glad to know that my tax shekels are at least going toward the highest-quality mistranslation possible. Even if the city that collects those taxes won't admit to its own existence.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Leap of logic

Someone I work with tells of a particularly excellent mistranslation, which he saw as a subtitle on a TV show aired in Israel.

"I think we have a winner for worst mistranslation of all time," he wrote. "A BBC comedy had 'a queue jumper' translated as... wait for it ...
'בעל סוודר חמוד.' I kid you not."

In English, this means that "a queue jumper" was translated into the Hebrew equivalent of "someone who has a cute jumper." And in American, it means that "a line cutter" was translated into the Hebrew equivalent of "someone who has a cute sweater" (hmm, that doesn't really translate so well, does it?).

Someone else suggested an alternative error as contender for the Worst Mistranslation (sub)title. This one rendered a "pink slip" an employee got from her boss as - you guessed it - "תחתונים ורודות," or "pink underwear."

I feel compelled to come out in favor of the Queue Jumper, and will proceed to wring all the fun out of it by overanalyzing just what makes it such a great mistake:

The surprise factor
While literal translations of idiomatic expressions can sometimes be funny, rarely are they unpredictable. Queue Jumper, on the other hand, delivers a laugh precisely because the leap is so large.

Some of the surprise of the punch line (fruit-and-rum queue?) has to do not just with the huge transformation of meaning, but also with the translation's switch in spoken emphasis. Even if a native English speaker heard one of the phrases divorced from context, he would be unlikely to confuse it with the other, at least in part because the emphasis is placed on the first word in the original phrase and the second in the mistranslation. In the words of an imaginary Brit: "She may be a bloody QUEUE jumper, but at least she has the decency to wear that wicked cute JUMPER!"

The distinctly British part of each phrase somehow gets flipped in the translation. I can just see the translator patting him/herself on the back, thinking, "Isn't it great that I know that 'jumper' means 'sweater' when the word is used on BBC shows?" - when actually the meaning of "jumper" as "one who jumps" is the right one in this case, and it's not "jumper" but "queue" that's the key British word in the original phrase.

To my ears at least, a "pink slip" - whether of the layoff or the lingerie variety - has no particular resonance for Israeli society. Cutting in line, on the other hand, most certainly does. Israelis have, to put it politely, a rather abstract interpretation of linearity - and I think this subtext adds to the humor. After all, is it any surprise that the phrase "queue jumper" failed to make it into the Hebrew intact when a real-life queue has yet to make it onto an Israeli bus intact?

All in all, this mistranslation is both so fantastically wrong and so culturally relevant that ultimately, it just feels right.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

And the veenerrrr is...

The road to good English in Israel is often fraught with translation potholes.

Sometimes that's because the company, business or official state agency doing the translating is just not all that interested in, well, translating.

Take the package I recently saw for a sponge for the shower, the kind that's soft on one side and a bit bristly on the other. In Hebrew, the package described it as a "two-layer sponge to refresh and encourage circulation." I was a bit startled to discover that the English translation was... "toilet sponge."

But other times, there are obstreperous obstacles that crop up in a translator's path - words that exist in the twilight zone of Hebrish, that come from English but aren't really English, that are transformed into Hebrew but aren't exactly Hebrew either.

I came across such a mongrel last week, while translating an op-ed by Haaretz writer Doron Rosenblum.

In Hebrew, he wrote about "the feeling of veeneriut" ("וינריות"), which has its roots in that most classical of Hebrew words, "veener," a.k.a. "winner." This derivation led to the logical conclusion that "veeneriut" could mean only one thing: winnerness.

There was just one problem, which native English speakers have doubtless already identified: "Winnerness" is not a word that exists in the English language.

That's right, the losers stole our word and put it in a form we can't even use.

I ended up going with "the feeling of being a winner," because we are, after all, supposed to be translating into English - even it's not always clear which language we're translating from.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

9/11: The envy factor

On a recent trip to the United States, I found myself in the New York State Museum in Albany, looking at mementos hanging from a section of the fence that once surrounded the World Trade Center site. It was one element of an exhibit - the museum's most prominent exhibit, in fact - dedicated to the 9/11 attacks.

As I wandered around, taking in the woman who was silently crying her way through the exhibit, I was struck by an unexpected feeling: not sadness or anger, but envy.

Having lived in Israel for five years now, I couldn’t help trying to imagine a similar exhibit here. But I came up against a mental block. I mean, an entire museum exhibit for just one terror attack? It was inconceivable. Any halfway decent terror exhibit would have to include a lot more than that.

I started cataloguing the major ones, starting from when I moved here, about nine months after the second intifada began and three months before 9/11: The Sbarro bombing on the corner of Jaffa and King George streets, in the center of downtown Jerusalem; the bombing of the Moment café, around the corner from the prime minister’s residence; the Park Hotel bombing in Netanya on Seder night (a city I happened to be in that Passover). I knew I was missing many more, but all those terror attacks on Ben Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem and various buses in the city, not to mention the bombings in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Haifa, and other parts of the country, kind of blurred together in my memory.

That’s where the envy came in. When 9/11 took place, in the midst of the intifada, Israelis had reason to worry every time they went out for coffee or boarded a bus. Even now, we know the next bombing is just a matter of time. So all this obsession over one terror attack, however dramatic it may have been - it made me kind of wish for the luxury of being able to think of terrorism as embodied in a single event, unique enough to justify enshrinement in a museum.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Only in Israel

As I walked out of my apartment building yesterday, I encountered a middle-aged man with a beard and knitted kippa clutching the last millimeter or so of his cigarette and speaking to the garage. Or to God, as the case may be.

"Yud kay vav kay," he told the garage, using a religiously acceptable shorthand to spell out the ineffable name of God. "What do you want in the world? You want peace in the world. I also want peace in the world."

As I walked down the street, I could hear him break into song: "Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol yisrael" ("May he who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us and for all of Israel").

Only in Israel.

The Sunshine State of Gaza

This blog was first posted July 7, 2005, on Haaretz Underground. Slight changes have been made to the original post.

For obvious reasons, coverage of last week's evacuation of the Gaza Strip hotel-turned-outpost centered on the disengagement plan and opposition to it. But let us not forget the all-important issue of identity - in other words, what to call the rundown hotel?

Even in Hebrew the question has more than one answer. Right-wing activists moved into what Israelis call the "Hof Dekalim" hotel in the Gaza settlement of Neveh Dekalim to protest the pullout. Then the hotel residents declared their abode an outpost they decided to call "Maoz Yam," also known as "Maoz Hayam."

So far, only three options. But that's before we tackle the English version.

The two major English-language wire services, The Associated Press and Reuters, seem to have confused the Gaza Strip with Florida. After all, there's sand, there's sea - and there's the Palm Beach Hotel, the literal translation of "Malon Hof Dekalim."

Other options include translating only the word "malon" and going with "Hof Dekalim Hotel," or translating the two more common words in the name, leaving us with "Dekalim Beach Hotel." I lean toward the latter option, which retains the original sound but translates the most relevant words.

I have heard tell, however, of a sign outside the Neveh Dekalim hotel - as Haaretz sometimes calls it in a bit of a copout - that gives the name in English as Palm Beach Hotel. If that is the case, then the wire services can be forgiven for their literalism, since institutions, like people, have the right to decide their own names in whatever language they choose.

But what about the right-wing activists' decision to change the name of the hotel to Maoz Yam/Maoz Hayam?

The CNN Web site replicated (one version of) the Hebrew name, saying in an article from June 30, the day the hotel was evacuated: "Video showed police and Israeli soldiers hauling screaming protesters from the Maoz Yam hotel in Neveh Dekalim."

The Washington Post, on the other hand, applied the lessons of the Sunshine State style used in determining the hotel's original name, writing in a June 2 story: "About 30 families have moved into the former Palm Beach Hotel, renamed Strength of the Sea by its new occupiers."

The Jerusalem Post settled for using the Hebrew name along with its English translation, which differs from the one the Washington Post chose. "The radicals had barricaded themselves in the Gush Katif hotel, which they called Maoz Hayam, or the Seaside Fortress," it wrote on June 30.

Perhaps the switch to Seaside Fortress, or any other variant of the name, was a tactical mistake on the part of those who briefly lived there. After all, if elderly Floridian Jews could accidentally vote for Pat Buchanan, surely they might have been persuaded to vacation at the Hof Dekalim Hotel - even if they did think they were heading for that other Palm Beach.

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Strange bedfellows

This blog was first posted in June 2005, on Haaretz Underground (in the old days, before Peretz was Labor chairman, not to mention defense minister, and when Kadima was still a Sharon-led Likud). Slight changes have been made to the original post.

What if the Senate minority leader, Democratic National Committee chairman and head of the AFL-CIO were one and the same person?

The myriad conflicts of interest inherent in such an absurd arrangement combine to make the situation seem too odd to seriously consider. But in Israel (read: Tammany Hall), the guy with his finger on the strike button, the man who controls every union in the country – in a place where garbage disposal, health care and bank service are only some of the areas within the unions' reach – is not only a Knesset member representing one of Israel's two longest-standing parties, but is also a contender for chairman of that party.

That's right, I'm talking about that mustachioed Sderotnik from a bygone socialist era, Amir Peretz: Histadrut labor federation overlord, Labor Party chairman candidate and MK. Probably also student council president ("Vote for me and I'll make sure the teachers go on strike during midterms AND finals!").

Granted, you wouldn't think anyone in their right mind would actually vote for Peretz to represent the Labor Party - which recently completed its merger with One Nation (previously headed by... well, I'm sure you've guessed by now), thereby paving the way for you-know-who to make his takeover bid.

Come to think of it, Amir, why don't you just scrap Labor and go for the Likud chairmanship? Okay, so it couldn't work while Arik is still heading the country, but he's pretty old and under a lot of stress. Anyway, the way things have been going lately, that party is so split you just might win. And there are two advantages: You get to go tooth and nail with Bibi, the finance minister you love to hate, and we all know those Likud Central Committee members will do just about anything – even vote for you – to get that juicy government job they've always wanted.

Pundits like to say that politics makes for strange bedfellows. But here, politicians just get in bed with themselves. The problem is that the only ones who get screwed in this union are the people whom power-hungry leaders like Peretz purport to represent.

Speaking Hebrish

This blog was first posted May 29, 2005, on Haaretz Underground.

Hebrew has a strange way of absorbing English words. Some of them get swallowed whole, like "bye" and "okay." It's a little funny to hear one Israeli saying to another, "See yoo toomorrrrow," but at least the appropriate meaning gets transmitted in the linguistic jump.

The phenomenon I find more interesting is when Hebrew steals English words and uses it for its own ends. One of the more ubiquitous such words is "happening." Native English speakers generally use this word as an intransitive verb, as in: "What's going on? I don't know, but something's happening." This usage falls into Merriam-Webster's second definition of "happen": "to come into being or occur as an event, process, or result."

But Israelis go straight to the noun form, preferring the little-used meaning of "occurrence," as in, "There's a major happening in town tonight." This word is particularly beloved of advertisers, I guess because it sounds oh so much hipper than "eru'a," the Hebrew word for event. There's even a store called Happening that sells greeting cards, gifts and other party-related items, in case you happen to be going to a happening happening.

My new favorite Hebrish adaptation, though, is the one I learned before I moved into my new apartment, when the landlord told me he was replacing the broken toilet tank.

Don't get flushed if you thought the word for that was "aslah," the Hebrew for toilet bowl. If you're North American, the word you're looking for is actually much closer to home. That's right, it's a Niagara. But my landlord will have no idea what you're talking about if you pronounce it like the Falls, so be Israeli and call it a Nee-ah-gah-ra.

The lesson here is that even when it comes to words that have their roots in English, native Hebrish speakers have simply got us over a barrel.

The eternal game

This blog was first posted May 24, 2005, on Haaretz Underground.

I saw a live cricket game for the first time this weekend.

I was playing frisbee with my South African husband at the Gan Sacher park in Jerusalem when he suddenly began gazing intently at a group of Indian guys making their way toward us while schlepping cricket bats and stumps. Before I knew it, he had joined their pick-up game.

As an American chick with little to no interest in sports, I'm hardly a cricket expert, but I felt remarkably well-informed as Israelis strolling through the park stopped to stare at the game and figure out what it was they were watching. " Baseball?" one of them ventured.

But although I know cricket lovers will fiercely object to this statement, I have come to the conclusion that cricket is a far lazier game than its American cousin.

It turns out that in cricket you can get a home run without even moving your feet. Okay, so I'm mixing up my terminology a little, but this was the first time I learned that players can get four runs just for hitting the ball into the outfield. Silly me, I thought they were called "runs" for a reason.

You can accuse me of having a short attention span, but I find the whole concept of playing a game for FIVE DAYS to be just the other side of lunacy. But don't worry, it's not really five whole days, because the cricketers - basically Brits and those former colonists who have yet to cut their apron strings - actually stop the game for tea.

Cricket takes so long that apparently even the players get bored. Warren (the aforementioned South African husband) tells me that sometimes an inning (or an innings, as the excessive pluralizers like to call it) will be over for the simple reason that the side that's batting decides it has had enough and wants to switch. This can happen, he told me - with a straight face - if they've already been batting for two days and have only three more days to finish the game. Naturally, I burst out laughing.

People who need a whole working week to finish a ball game clearly need a bit more energy to finish up the job faster. Forget about those tea breaks - how about some coffee?

Update: It turns out they're actually Sri Lankan.

It was in my cab

This blog was first posted May 19, 2005, on Haaretz Underground.

It's not hard to knock Israeli cab drivers.

One of them recently told me he could get me to my destination faster if I would only agree on a fare instead of the (legal and inevitably cheaper) meter; when I challenged him, he insisted that there was no faster route. Another taxi driver once generously offered to charge me NIS 40 for a NIS 10 ride.

Basically, I'm at the point where if I get a cabbie who turns on the meter without my asking, gets me where I want to go and gives me my change (taxi drivers don't get tipped here), I feel privileged to have been driven by such a paragon of virtue.

But watch out, cab drivers: The bar has risen.

This week I was minding my own business at Yo-Ja, an Asian restaurant in Jerusalem's German Colony (recommended for carnivores dining with vegetarians, as this place has plenty of options for both), when two American girls entered the outdoor section, all the way at the back of the restaurant. They were there for only a few minutes when, lo and behold, an Israeli man made his way to their table. It was the taxi driver who had dropped them off a short time before, making his way through the entire eatery to find his former passengers.

Brandishing a key, he handed it to one of the girls, saying only, "It was in my cab."

The girl, too astonished to reply, stared at it openmouthed. I don't think she had even realized her key was missing.

And the hero of our story? His righteous deed accomplished, my new favorite cab driver turned around and drove off into the night. I wonder if he turned on the meter.

Time for a new Chief Rabbinate

This blog was first posted May 13, 2005, on Haaretz Underground.

For those who have not been following the latest scandal to come out of the Holy Land, the family of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar is involved in a strange and somewhat sordid affair - but it is his reaction that is even more troubling.

Amar's son Meir, wife Mazal and daughter Ayala, 18, are accused of involvement in the abduction and assault of a 17-year-old ultra-Orthodox suitor of Ayala, in an attempt to get him to stay away from the rabbi's daughter. The two reportedly met in an Internet chat room.

This week police questioned Rabbi Amar, who denied involvement. However, both the suitor and Meir, who is now secular, say the rabbi knew about the attack. The rabbi expressed his "anguish" at the beating of the youth, saying his son was responsible.

Amar has not taken the opportunity to issue a statement denouncing the practice of beating people up if they aren't deemed suitable suitors, or even a statement claiming that his family members would never engage in such barbarous behavior. But lest you think he is unaffected by the media reports on this incident, rest assured that Amar has issued a staunch clarification. It turns out that what truly disturbs the Sephardi chief rabbi about this whole story is that people think his daughter uses the Internet, when really, he says, she communicated with her suitor via SMS messages on the family's sole cell phone.

"Unfortunately, the family was hurt by unpleasant reports that we have the Internet," Amar said in an interview with the Ma'ariv daily that was published Friday. "I'm afraid of desecrating God's name, that yeshiva students or God-fearing people will think this is right. I don't know what the Internet is; I have never seen what it is. There has never been anything like this in the house, and there is nothing like this [here]."

There are two elements of this response that I find incredibly disturbing. First, there is the obvious absurdity of Amar's implied contention that abduction and assault by the immediate family of the chief rabbi of Israel, and possibly with the awareness of the rabbi himself, doesn't desecrate God's name - but Internet use does.

Or, in the words of sources close to the chief rabbi who were quoted in Haaretz, the Amar affair is merely "a private incident, like a serious traffic offense."

This would explain why Amar is not considering suspending himself from his position as president of the High Rabbinical Court. After all, aren't people who assault others for the "right reasons" entitled to an ally - or, at least a perceived ally - in charge of the rabbinical courts?

In the same week in which the Amar case was unfolding, Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran saw fit to recuse himself from hearing petitions against the West Bank separation fence because two of the petitions involve the West Bank village of A-Ram, where Joubran's brother lives. Yet the chief justice of the rabbinical courts seems never to have heard of conflict of interest.

Then there is the second disturbing issue, which concerns Amar's heated opposition to modernity, in the form of the Internet.

The institute of the Chief Rabbinate has strayed a long way from the days of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who became the first chief rabbi of Israel in 1921 and was a pioneer in combining Orthodox Judaism with political Zionism as an extension of the traditional religious longing for the Land of Israel.

How is it that as we celebrate the 57th anniversary of the State of Israel, the current embodiment of the Chief Rabbinate fears that he will be defaming God if he accepts the modern world? Although I am specifically referring to the Sephardi chief rabbi here, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger is no less tainted by charges of corruption, and also identifies with the community commonly described as "ultra-Orthodox."

But while the English term connotes a high degree of Orthodoxy, the Haredim, as the community is called in Hebrew, are not a more religious sector of modern Orthodoxy or its Israeli equivalent, religious Zionism, but a sector that embraces an entirely different conception of what Judaism means.

A cornerstone of Haredi ideology is an explicit rejection of the modern world. That is why Ashkenazi Haredi men wear the clothing that was prevalent in Poland in the last century and speak Yiddish: They feel a religious imperative to retain an idealized past and keep out what they consider to be the negative influences of modern life, as transmitted by devices such as the television and Internet. As a rule, Haredim also reject the State of Israel as an expression of the Zionism of liturgy and religious tradition, refuse to celebrate national holidays such as Independence Day and Memorial Day, and do not serve in the army - believing, they say, that Torah study will protect the nation, and fearing the corroding influences of the IDF as a non-yeshiva environment.

Why, then, are Haredi rabbis representing the public face of religion in Israel in the first place? The Chief Rabbinate is a government institution, but Amar and Metzger represent a group of people who refuse to assign a religious value to the state. They represent a modern country 84 years after Rav Kook first embraced modernity, but they themselves reject the world of today. So who is it that these chief rabbis actually represent?

When Amar and Metzger were selected in 2003, Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a former Meimad MK, had this to say: "At the end of the day, the only population that related seriously to [the Chief Rabbinate] was the religious Zionist population, since the ultra-Orthodox population doesn't recognize the Chief Rabbinate and the secular population thinks the rabbinate is an issue for the religious. And if the religious Zionist population loses its faith in [the Chief Rabbinate], then we have a very sad situation."

The situation as it exists today is indeed a sad one. Perhaps the aura of corruption and criminal behavior that now surrounds the Chief Rabbinate will have one positive impact: a new rabbinate that is far more suitable to the nation of Israel and the State of Israel.

The long way around

This blog was first posted May 9, 2005, on Haaretz Underground.

A gaggle of forces has recently conspired to make my 15-minute walk to the central bus station in Jerusalem take just that little bit longer.

Perhaps I should explain that feet are generally the most efficient means of transportation around central Jerusalem, since getting from point A to point B tends to involve climbing at least one hidden staircase and/or traversing a pedestrian mall, park or other vehicle-unfriendly spot, not to mention heading the wrong way down a one-way street. (I have one friend who is so convinced of the shortcut value of these staircases that she will trek across the city to use one out of conviction that it will get her wherever she’s going faster.)

In keeping with the distinguished Jerusalem tradition of aliyah laregel, I have become accustomed to getting to the road parallel to Jaffa Street by squeezing around the phone booth across from the central bus station and cutting across the mostly vacant lot of dirt and trees, inhabited occasionally by flower sellers, police officers waiting to catch unsuspecting jaywalkers, and men who are disinclined to use indoor plumbing facilities. Perhaps one of the most valuable shortcuts in the city, this ad hoc path has saved me seconds that become all the more precious when I’m running to catch a bus.

But alas, this prerogative is mine no longer. That’s because the lot has been fenced off, with the signposted excuse that archeological excavations are underway.

Just as I was beginning to get used to going the long way around, I had a door slammed in my face. Sort of. The door in question is situated in the middle of the gate at the back of the gas station that I cut through to get from my Nachlaot apartment to Ben-Zvi Boulevard. But these last couple of weeks, to my horror, the door has been chained shut, compelling me to walk through the little playground next to it and climb over the wall to get to the road. I resent this because I am neither lithe nor graceful, and clambering over a wall to the undoubted entertainment of the many drivers on Ben-Zvi is not my favorite way to start the day.

Then again, it may be that the gas station I have come to think of as mine has a noble cause for shutting its doors - perhaps it too has decided that excavations are in order. If ever you find out that the lost city of Atlantis has been discovered on Ben-Zvi Boulevard, don’t forget: You heard it here first.

The fourth face of Israel

This blog was first posted May 2, 2005, on Haaretz Underground.

I discovered the other day just how sensitive Americans can be when they're exposed to the stereotype of the rich American businessman who loves to visit Israel and give money to Israel and come on an endless number of pro-Israel "delegations," but would never deign to live here himself. The caricature was depicted by Rabbi Benji Levene as part of an educational play run by the Gesher organization, which is aimed at bridging the religious-secular gap.

An audience of English speakers, many of them Americans eligible for senior-citizen discounts, made relatively benign comments on the first three of "The Four Faces of Israel": an elderly rabbi from Meah Shearim, an Egged bus driver and a French artist.

But the fourth incarnation of Rabbi Levene, himself an American immigrant, elicited an emotionally charged response. The audience's ire appeared particularly aroused by the character's signature remark, which went something like: "I don't want to tell you that I gave four and a half million dollars to Israel, not to mention what I gave last year."

When the moderator asked whether the character was an accurate representation of Jewish residents of the Goldeneh Medineh, the seemingly coordinated shouts of "No!" were a bit startling.

But the best response came from a woman in the audience who ought to work as a scriptwriter for Gesher. Speaking in a voice full of that righteous indignation and curious incapacity to laugh at oneself that, of course, only caricatured Americans possess, the terribly insulted woman in the back of the room made known her vehement objection to the portrayal of her ostensible countryman.

"I come from a community that gives a lot of money to Israel," she said. "But we don't talk about it!" To which I can only add: Not to mention what you gave last year.

Making pee-pee at Ben-Gurion

This blog was first posted April 28, 2005, on Haaretz Underground.

Airports seem to constitute the very symbol of transition, and that would appear to be all the more true for Terminal 2000, the new face of Ben-Gurion International Airport (just add much-touted sleeves and subtract shuttle buses). But it turns out that all the fancy terminal really does is demonstrate once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For some reason, the women’s bathroom saw fit to serve as the site of my epiphany, both on my way out of Israel and upon my return. First came confirmation of that occasionally lovable but always blunt approach that we may as well call “openness,” for which Israelis are so justifiably known.

Making my last pit stop before boarding the plane to South Africa, I overheard an Israeli woman speaking on a cell phone from her stall. Not content to merely use her toilet time efficiently, she also insisted on informing her conversation partner exactly what she was doing at the time. “Moti’s standing outside, the boys are wandering around, and I’m making pee-pee,” was her tell-all synopsis.

Then there was the way back, when I served as a guide to several frustrated South African women who saw the closed doors of the bathroom stalls in the Israeli airport as a sign that the ladies’ room was not in operation. Before they took a self-guided tour of the sleeveless terminal in search of another place to make pee-pee, I told them the secret: Push the doors open.

I hope they remember that clue, because their visit to Israel can only be eased by keeping in mind that around here, if you hesitate to elbow your way through, you’re bound to be standing around for quite a while.