Tongue Tied

28 02 2011

Just ask my parents and they will tell you how much I hated Hebrew school.  There I was, little eight-year old me, in the Hebrew school classroom playing with my pencil as if it were some kind of rocket ship while Mrs. Schonfeld tried to hammer the alef-bet into my stubborn little head.  Had I paid more attention, perhaps I wouldn’t have asked my wife yesterday if she wanted to burst into flames.

Let me clarify one point: I love Anat very much.  And in all truthfulness,  I really do not want her to spontaneously combust.

Anat is Israeli, and in our new Israeli household we are trying to speak more and more Hebrew.  Yesterday morning, as we were getting ready, I asked if she wanted to ignite.  She burst out… not into a human bonfire, but in a lovingly derisive laugh.  At least I didn’t have to grab the fire extinguisher.

Hebrew can be a maddeningly difficult language.  Not being a Romance language there are very few cognates between Hebrew and English.  One word that works in both tongues, however, is idiot, which is what I often feel like when I open my mouth and try to wax eloquently in the Holy Tongue.

Actually, I already speak a pretty good intermediate-plus Hebrew, but usually it is just enough to get myself into trouble and here is why: by reversing a single letter, or mispronouncing a vowel, or transposing a single syllable, or applying a masculine qualifier to a feminine noun, you can render a word, or a whole sentence, completely, utterly and fantastically wrong.  So, yesterday morning when I meant to ask Anat, “Do you want to shower?” (lehitkaleach) what I asked instead is, “Honey, would you like to burst into flames?” (lehitlakeach)

There are other such examples.  Like the time I wanted to say “artillery” but instead said “underpants.”  The difference?  One syllable out of place: totachim vs. tachtonim.  Yes, it is a really good thing I’m too old for the Israeli army.  I can only imagine a scenario where Pvt. Santis spots an enemy column and calls on his radio, “Enemy tanks spotted!  Quick! Shoot the underpants!”

This is really a problem, a matter of pride.  Speaking of which, after I take my combustible shower I will  need to dry myself off.  So, do I mityabesh or mitbayesh?  The former means to dry yourself, the latter means to embarrass yourself.  Exactly.

Also, for the life of me I can’t remember the difference between teka and sheka.  One is an electrical outlet, the other is the plug.  Do you put the teka into the sheka, or the sheka into the teka?  I can rest easy on this one: I’ll be right 50% of the time.

Now, as an exercise, say “sheka, teka” ten times fast…

Or, imagine me teaching a history class in an Israeli high school.  Here I’d be talking about the pioneers that founded the state, only I don’t get it quite right.  Instead of describing the efforts of the chalutzim, I lecture patriotically about the chamutzim (pickles) who built Tel Aviv.

Without a doubt, this is Mrs. Schonfeld’s revenge. Mrs. Shonfeld, wherever you are, I am sorry!  I’m sorry for that rocket ship pencil.  I’m sorry for the spit balls shot across the classroom at Malka.  I’m sorry for bringing that dead bird to class one day!  I’m sorry!  Just, please, untie my tongue!

So, it is off to ulpan with me, where I will frequently consult a Hebrew-English hotel, whoops! dictionary (malon vs milon) while snacking on a melon (melon).



Duct tape nation?

11 02 2011

Israel has more companies on the tech-oriented NASDAQ
stock exchange than any country outside the US – more than all of Europe, India, and China combined. Nor is Israeli innovation limited to computers, security, and communications; the Jewish state leads the world in medical device patents, and is a strong global player in cleantech and biotech. (Excerpt from Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle)

For the last twenty-one years I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Silicon Valley.  Our neighbors were Apple, Google, Facebook, Maxtor, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Intel, Cisco, Pixar…

As could be expected, when Start Up Nation hit the bookshelves it was all the buzz in “The Valley.”  And why not? An estimated 40,000 Israelis live there, and most of them are in high tech as entrepreneurs, engineers or v.c.  So, here in the start up nation itself — where innovation, invention, and out of the box thinking reigns — a lesson in improvisation was just learned.

Israel is a small country where space is at a premium. Our laundry room is no exception: a side-by-side washer/dryer is not possible.  What to do?  What to do? Go vertical, middle-aged man!

One problem, though.  The dryer has wheels and nothing to lock it into the washer.  No brackets, no screws, no nothin’.  It positively teetered.  What to do?  What to do? Aha!  The Owners Manual, which instructed:

“Do not stack the tumble dryer on top of other appliances without the correct stacking kit.”

Stacking kit?  What stacking kit?  What to do?  What to do? Why, call customer service, of course.  Purposefully, that is exactly what Anat did.  And, here is how the conversation went:

Anat: We bought a dryer yesterday and Asi the sales person helped us.  So, I asked him what kind of dryer I should get and where do you install it in our small laundry room?  He said, ‘Just put it on top of the washer.’  I asked him, ‘What if it doesn’t fit the washer?’  He said, ‘All the dryers fit on top of the washers.’  So, after it was delivered we put it on the washer, but it looks very unstable.  What do I do?

Customer Service Representative: Oh, it fits, don’t worry.

Anat: Are you sure?  It doesn’t look stable, it has wheels on the back.

Customer Service Representative: Lady, I have the same thing in my house.  It’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.

Anat: But Asi didn’t even ask what kind of a washing machine we have.  What if it falls down?

Customer Service Representative: It won’t fall down.

Anat: But the instructions say, ‘Don’t stack the dryer.’

Customer Service Representative: It doesn’t matter. Most homes in Israel have the dryers on the washers.

Anat: What if it moves?

Customer Service Representative: Just put a towel under it.

Anat: What? Put a towel?

Customer Service Representative: Of course! I put a towel between mine and its just fine!

Taking this as our cue, here is our solution…

What is the “take away” from this episode?  We just aren’t in America anymore.  Making aliyah is more than just changing geographical location, it is a very big cultural shift.  We new immigrants have to reorient our expectations.  In the U.S. a customer service representative would never tell you to stabilize your stacked dryer with a towel.  Instead, they would help you find the correct stacking kit.  Here, however, the culture is: If it doesn’t work, make it work.

And that, my friends, is what makes this country tick.

Shabbat shalom!  !שבת שלום

The sales person at the store told us, “Of course it goes on top of the washer.  No problem!”

I left my heart in San Francisco… and Los Angeles and Munich and Phoenix and Boston and San Jose and San Diego

7 02 2011

Without a doubt the most difficult part of making aliyah is leaving behind those you love.  You can argue all the points about joining in the great Israeli experiment and going forth to build the Jewish future in the Land of Israel.  But, when all is said and done, you are left with the reality that you are indeed far from many of those you love.

Don’t get me wrong!  I am not having second thoughts about moving here.  Indeed, just the opposite.  Israel is my home now and here is where I intend to remain.

But, aliyah is not only about what you are coming to, but also what you are leaving behind.  The first “oleh hadash” (new immigrant) to Israel was Avraham.  Our tradition (Genesis 12) has God telling Avraham:

Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.

My coming here has focused my mind on this narrative, giving me deeper insight into what Avraham may have been feeling when he left behind his homeland and family on a journey to a land he had yet to see.  While the text in Genesis is silent on what was in Avraham’s heart, the original Hebrew hints to what may have been his inner voice.   “Go forth” is the English rendering of the much more personal Hebrew  לך לך (lech lecha), which  is better understood as “Go for yourself” or “Go to yourself.”  This journey of aliyah is deeply personal, requiring the oleh to dig down deeply into his or her very core.

And yet, I cannot ignore the holes in my heart for my family and friends left behind.  My beloved father and mother, living in Boston and Phoenix respectively, who do not really comprehend my decision to make aliyah, even though I have been talking about it for over thirty years.  I love my parents deeply, and I miss them very much.  I know they are unhappy and fearful about our aliyah.  And, I do understand their sadness and wish there was a way I could make it easier for them.

Then there are my two oldest daughters, Yasmin and Allegra, my precious little girls who are now young women and “launched” into the world.  Yasmin is living and thriving in Los Angeles after having graduated UCLA last spring.  She turned twenty-three the day before we left for Israel.  And my eldest Allegra is on her own adventure in Europe – currently Munich – aiming to take up the exciting and challenging career of gemology.  I am joyously proud of them both for their respective accomplishments in their young lives, and there is not a day that goes by when I do not miss them.

My wife Anat’s family has become my family, too.  And, I left them behind as well.  Her parents Pola and Zvi have always been so loving and supportive of me.  Although they live in the Bay Area, they are Israelis and know what Israel means to us.

Where else have I left my heart?  In Boston with my kid brother Neal.  In Los Angeles with my cousins Avra and John and their sweet little boy Zev.  In San Jose and San Diego with my brother-in-law Micha and sister-in-law Dana and their spouses Kaye and Daniel and all their beautiful children, my nephew and nieces.  In Phoenix with my Uncles Marvin and David and Aunt Marilyn.  And, of course, I left my heart in San Francisco, with all my dear friends.

If you already made aliyah, no doubt you left your heart in many places as well.  If you are contemplating aliyah, you need to know you will leave your heart somewhere.  Yes, it is hard.  And yet, I am at peace knowing that I am home and made the right choice in coming to Israel.  There is no right or wrong answer; one size does not fit all.  Listen to your heart honestly, and let it lead the way.  Maybe, just maybe, you too will לך לך (lech lecha) to this land.

Welcome to the neighborhood

3 02 2011

I came to Israel with eyes wide open. I am very familiar with the history of this region, the years of conflict and strife.   For nearly three decades I worked in the American Jewish community, first with the Anti-Defamation League, and then the last twenty-one years with the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council.  The Bay Area is home to over 100 active anti-Israel groups.  Being smarter than the average bear, I decided to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Moving here at this time took some talent, I must admit. Since we arrived, there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the virtual takeover of Lebanon by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, unrest in Jordan, Syria and Yemen, and the release of the “Palestine Papers” which has rocked Palestinian politics.


"Nittany, the medic who conquers!" (Sounds better in Hebrew)

Here in Israel politics is personal.  Intellectually I’ve always been aware of this, but now it is me who has “skin in the game.”  My daughter Nittany is now serving in the Israeli army.  As a newly minted IDF medic she will serve on a base that trains paratroopers and combat dog handlers where she will be called upon to mend broken bones and dress dog-bite wounds.  As luck would have it, however, her first patient was not a paratrooper landing poorly, but rather King Klutz (that would be me) who sprained his ankle tripping over a rock in his front yard.  (No worry, my ankle is will be fine.  It is my pride that is suffering.)

What this has to do with our new neighborhood is that she lives on Kibbutz Shamir, just meters from the pre-1967 border with Syria.  Located at the bottom of the Golan Heights, the kibbutz has a gorgeous view of the Hula Valley opposite the town of Kiryat Shmona, which sits upon the foothills of a mountain across the valley.  Going further east, to the other side of that mountain, Israel ends and Lebanon begins.  Lebanon’s master is now Hezbollah.


Ahmadinejad's dream: a world without Israel

Iran’s President Ahmadinejad — who denies the reality of the Holocaust, declares that his country’s top foreign policy objective is to destroy Israel and is developing nuclear weapons — just last October came to this border as a “guest” of his Lebanese vassals.  His message to Israel was clear: this is now your border with me.

Meanwhile, our southern neighbor Egypt is roiling in revolution.  The most populous and most pivotal Arab country, Egypt has been in a state of peace with Israel for 32 years.  It has been a cold peace, to be sure, with full normalization having long evaded the Israel-Egyptian relationship.  But, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is the cornerstone of all peacemaking efforts in the region.


Logo of the Muslim Brotherhood's Hamas, Gaza's rulers.

I actually lost sleep last week thinking about the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Cairo.  The Brotherhood is the parent body of the Hamas terror organization now ruling Gaza.  Like Hamas, it is a purveyor of radical Islamist ideology, is fundamentally anti-democratic, and is deeply antisemitic to boot.  The Muslim Brotherhood wants nothing more than to annul the peace treaty with Israel, and ultimately destroy Israel.  Jordan also has a strong Muslim Brotherhood that seeks to overthrow the government of King Abdullah II.  And, Jordan is the only other Arab state to have a peace treaty with Israel.

Without question this situation in Egypt is a game changer, but it is still too early to tell what the new game is in Cairo. Judging by past experience in the Arab world (where there is to date no history of democracy and open civil society) it is unlikely a western style democracy will emerge, and highly likely the Muslim Brotherhood will play an important role in the new government.  Having said that, however, probability is not inevitability; there seems to be a true desire for democracy in the streets of Cairo, and it is just too early to predict anything with certainty.

Welcome to the neighborhood!

Toto, I don’t think we’re in California any more…

31 01 2011

After 14 hours in the air, we arrive in Israel. Four hours later, we come to our new home at Kibbutz Hannaton.

“Life is either a great adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller

For most of us our days are not very memorable.  One day melts to the next, leaving a blur of often unconnected events; an endless pile of “to do” lists.  We revel in the small things, try to capture them with a photo. But then always move on to the “next thing.”

Sometimes, however, a particular day stands out among all others.  Most recently, for my wife Anat, my ten year old daughter Tamar and myself, this particular day was January 10th when our El Al jumbo jet touched down on the runway at Ben Gurion after a 14 hour direct flight from Los Angeles.  In our hands were one-way tickets. We made aliyah.  We immigrated, to Israel.

Just before leaving the Bay Area, I wrote a “farewell” piece in the Bay Area’s JWeekly.  I described Israel this way:

I remember an old Jewish Agency aliyah poster with a photo of a beautiful rose nestled among many thorns. “We never promised you a rose garden,” read the slogan. Yet while some people prefer only to see the thorns, I have never stopped seeing the rose.

I never blogged.  Ever.  That is an odd thing, some may think, given the amount of writing I do.  But now, after three full weeks in Israel as a new citizen, I find there is indeed much to write about.  For all I know I may only have an audience of two: me writing to myself.  That would be fine.  Everyone needs a diary, a personal narrative, to remember the less adventurous days.  But, I invite you — my family, friends and even strangers — to read and comment on my entries.

I will describe both the roses and the thorns.  I will include observations on daily Israeli experience, whether its the “excitement” of buying a washing machine, or upheavals such as what is going on now in our southern neighbor, Egypt.

Stay tuned, the adventure has only just begun…

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