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:

Monday, May 28, 2007

Forget retail therapy

Back in the old country, clothes shopping generally involved entering a store that was significantly larger than my living room and trying on clothes in a fitting room conveniently equipped with both a door and a mirror, so I could decide whether I wanted to purchase the clothing. And if I wasn't sure, I could always buy it and then return it if it didn't turn out to be what I wanted.

I'm not a huge shopper, but just thinking of such an idyllic scenario brings tears of longing to my eyes. That's because here in the Holy Land, if I don't time my shopping expeditions so they coincide with absolute wardrobe desperation, the only thing I end up getting is frustrated. Forget retail therapy - I need psychoanalysis just to recover from my shopping sprees, rare and often aborted though they are.

A couple of weeks ago, I was trying on some clothes in the designated fitting corner in the back of a store in downtown Jerusalem, which some depraved curtain-hanger had decided should pose as two dressing rooms - in much the same way that a tiny studio apartment I once saw in Nachlaot was being marketed as a 1.5-bedroom apartment because it had a bunk bed. (The reason should be obvious: the bottom bunk was the bedroom and the top bunk was the half a room.)

The two mini-cubicles of the dressing room in question, meanwhile, were more or less separated from the shopping area by two curtains, but were separated from each other by a curtain that ran only halfway down the changing area. As long as I didn't move around too much and practiced self-delusion really hard, I could almost sustain an illusion of privacy. On the plus side, I did not have to share arm space with a sink (definitely not something to be taken for granted). On the down side, there were, naturally, no mirrors on the inside of the fitting room.

I could not possibly overstate the degree to which I hate this absurd Israeli concept of walking out of the dressing room to parade around in an article of clothing that probably looks awful on you but you don't actually know because you can't see how awful it looks on you until you parade around in it in front of a whole buncha strangers, who - along with their husbands, children and pet rabbits - suddenly all seem to be staring at you.

In this case, though, I had an extra burden: Every time I stood in front of the mirror, I had to keep one eye on the clothing I had painstakingly picked out, in an effort to keep it from falling into the greedy hands of the hired harasser. Said harasser, who had the misleading title of saleslady, really, really doesn't like it when customers have the chutzpah to bring clothes into the dressing room to try them on, and was far more interested in putting away the clothes before I got a chance to figure out whether I wanted to buy them than in actually making a sale. It was like trying to eat at a restaurant when the waitress is standing with her hands on her hips in front of your table and snatching away your fork when you pause to take a sip of water. All in all, an experience I'm dying to repeat.

My sister tells me, though, that sometimes that much-desired mirror inside the fitting room can create more trouble than it's worth. She was once in a dressing room in a Jerusalem store that had a single mirror on the inside that was meant to serve two cubicles. Of course, the curtain separating the cubicles didn't quite reach the whole length between them, and to her surprise, when she looked in the mirror she found herself seeing the woman in the next cubicle undress.

But the highlight of my Israeli fitting room experience actually took place in the Malcha mall, not some hole in the wall in town. To my undying shock, a door at the back of the dressing room, which I hadn't noticed before, flew open without warning as I was changing, and a store employee strode through my cubicle and out the curtain before I could even comprehend what had just happened.

The obvious solution, of course, is to buy something without trying it on, see how it looks in the privacy of your own home, and return it if it doesn't fit right. The only problem with such a neat approach is that refunds are virtually unheard of in Israel. Most stores will, however, do you the favor of allowing you to exchange the item for something else in the same store - if, of course, you can be bothered to go looking.

And don't think it gets any better once you actually purchase something you like; the next hurdle is keeping your belongings both intact and looking new.

Take the purple flip-flops I bought Friday. It didn't take long for a bald spot to appear on the left shoe, as the decorative stripes under my big toe faded away after all of an hour or two of wearing them around the house.

I'm hoping my new flip-flops make it through the summer - but even if they don't, the good news is that at least I won't have to brave the dreaded dressing room to try on a new pair.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Blog award finals - voting closes Wed.

The final round of voting in the 2007 Jewish & Israeli Blog Awards closes Wednesday, May 16, at 10 p.m. EST (5 a.m. Thursday, May 17, in Israel). If you want to vote for me, head on over to the following links:

Click here to vote for this blog in the Best New Blog category.

Click here to vote for this blog in the Best Jewish Personal Blog category.

And if you want to see all the categories, click here.

Thank you!

Monday, May 14, 2007

From black to white: the lifecycle of a mass email

An email circulating in Israel last week urged Israelis to wear black on Monday, May 14, to protest the fact that the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped over the summer have still not been returned home.

The Hebrew notice attached to the email I received reads, in translation:


"On 14.5.07, all residents of Israel, we will wear black shirts, to protest the ten months of abduction of the Israeli soldiers.

"In July 2006, 10 months ago, Ehud Regev, Gilad Shalit and Udi Goldwasser were kidnapped. ...
Almost a year has passed, and no one knows when the nightmare will end.
We won't let this subject come off the agenda!!
We, all the residents of Israel, will unite together and do everything so that the soldiers will be returned to their homes quickly!

"These are 3 soldiers who went to defend the state!! To defend us!!

"On 14.5.07, Monday, we will all be in black shirts, and we call on you, Ehud Olmert – return the soldiers to their homes, and to their normal lives as they were before!!"

I didn't pay too much attention at first, primarily because I tend to ignore mass emails, hysterical notices and the seemingly endless protests that Israelis love to hold. I did, however, point out to the friend who sent me the email, which she received from someone at her large Jerusalem company, that the three soldiers were not all kidnapped in July, as the notice said they were. Regev and Goldwasser were abducted by Hezbollah on the Lebanese border on July 12, setting off the Second Lebanon War, but Shalit was kidnapped by Palestinian militants near the Gaza border on June 25. I attributed this distortion to an oversight on the part of an overzealous protest organizer with a possible addiction to hand-lettered signs and megaphones.

But then came a twist that made the message much more interesting, by seeming to add a cleverly manipulative spin to the exhortation to wear black. A second email went around stating that the original message was actually one big hoax perpetrated by Israeli Arabs with the intention of tricking Israeli Jews into unwittingly identifying publicly with Naqba Day – the anniversary of the secular date of the establishment of the State of Israel, which is commemorated by Palestinians and other Arabs as a day of catastrophe ("naqba" in Arabic).

"The State of Israel was established on [the Hebrew date of] 5 Iyar 5708," reads the second email. "It was a difficult and traumatic event for Israeli Arabs. Every year they commemorate a day that's called Nakba. This day is commemorated on the secular date on which the state was established: 14.5.1948. Therefore, Israeli Arabs will be very 'happy' to see us wearing black on their holiday."

According to this theory, such patriotic exclamations as "These are 3 soldiers who went to defend the state!! To defend us!!" were merely a way of cynically playing on widespread Israeli feelings.

The email also said the official Web site for the abductees - which lists a calendar of events held to show solidarity with the missing soldiers and their families - mentioned nothing about the protest, and noted a couple of linguistic mistakes in the original notice that it said indicated that the writer's mother tongue was spoken Arabic rather than Hebrew.

I was left a bit puzzled, though, as to why there was a date discrepancy in the hoax theory too: Naqba Day is generally commemorated on May 15, not the 14th, even though the State of Israel was officially established on May 14, 1948. Israel, for its part, celebrates its Independence Day in accordance with the Hebrew calendar, and pays no attention to the secular date.

Lo Relevanti, an Israeli Web site that aggregates mass emails and gives the opinion of site author Hanan Cohen as to whether it's worth passing them on, appears to set everything straight.

It turns out, according to Cohen, that there was no hoax at all - only a lack of awareness of the possible confusion with Naqba Day and a lack of coordination with the abductees' families, who put out a statement saying they don't want a protest involving black shirts because of the association with death. The problem with the original protest notice was further compounded by the absence of a name or contact information, spurring apparently unfounded suspicions.

The claim that the protest was a hoax, writes Cohen, is "a great example of a mistake upon a mistake upon a mistake." According to his version of events, the initiators of the May 14 protest only made matters worse when they got wind of the email arguing that it was a Naqba Day hoax: They moved the protest to May 15, which really is Naqba Day.

But the problems have since been fixed. In response to the wishes of the families of the abductees, the protest organizer, who has since identified himself, is now calling on all Israelis to unite next Monday, May 21, by wearing white - "which symbolizes, most of all, hope," according to the revised text.

This time, the event has been coordinated with the non-profit association that runs the official Web site, and now appears on the site's activities list. In addition, the protest notice has been posted on a separate Web site set up for the purpose, which now notes the organizer's name - Ilan Spector - and his contact details. Spector has also fixed the linguistic errors that had previously cast aspersions on his intentions. The text does, however, still say that all three Israelis were abducted in July.

So what I have learned from all this? To ignore mass emails, hysterical notices and the seemingly endless protests that Israelis love to hold.


Sunday, May 6, 2007

Neither here nor there

You know those annoying people on radio and television who insist on talking into the mike just to let you know that absolutely nothing is happening, but that - don't worry - something will be happening very shortly?

Well, as I was in a cab last week passing the Foreign Ministry on my way to work, the correspondent for the radio station my cab driver was listening to was describing the scene inside the Foreign Ministry, where Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was about to give a press conference on her response to the Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War.

Instead of waiting for the press conference to actually begin before broadcasting it, the radio station aired the incredibly inane patter of said correspondent, who was left to breathlessly report rumors of how Livni may or may not have greeted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when she met with him before the press conference.

The breaking news sounded more like 11-year-old girls desperately trying to squeeze some excitement out of an utterly yawn-worthy he said-she said conversation they had overheard.

"She said, 'It's good to see you,' or something like that," the correspondent related, to the best of my recollection. "And he said, 'Well, I’m tired.'"

And then came the speculation - because God forbid we should wait two minutes to actually hear what Livni has to say, when it's so much more informative to just guess.

The announcer predicted that, despite all the Israeli and international reporters impatiently waiting to hear Livni speak, the press conference was likely to be rather "pareve," since she wasn't expected to quit the government.

Pareve is a concept borrowed from kashrut laws, in which food is designated meat, dairy or neither - that is, pareve. Meat and dairy don't mix, but pareve food - like fish, eggs and pasta - can be eaten with either steak or cheese, giving rise to the idea that "pareve" is a rough equivalent to either "wishy-washy” or "bland" because it doesn't take a stance; it's neither here nor there.

But Mr. Radio was not quite satisfied with his careful assessment of what the foreign minister had not yet said, and quickly upped his designation to "pareve plus" (פרווה פלוס) - because after all, he noted, Livni did call the press conference, so she must be gearing up to say something.

The correspondent gave no indication, however, of whether he thought Livni's comments would be more likely to go with steak or with cheese.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Thanks for voting!

According to the "preliminary uncertified" first round results for the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards, this blog is a finalist in both categories in which it was entered. It got second place for Best New Blog, Group B, with 51 votes, and first place for Best Personal Blog, Group C, with 50 votes. (The top two in both groups become finalists.)

Thank you to all who voted for this blog! This is one of those cases where every vote really does count. Keep coming back and don't be too shy to leave a comment. (I appreciate them even if I don't necessarily respond.)