Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Guest blog: A letter to bubbe (grandma) Gittel


A letter to Bubbe (Grandma) Gittel, May Her Soul Rest in Peace – M.H.S.R.I.P (The peace that was denied to her bodily remains)

Dear Bubbe

You certainly remember that when I was still a youngster, with my cousin Shalom (M.H.S.also R.I.P) we hiked to the village of Neve Yaakov, north of Jerusalem, to visit our cousins. Our hike took us across the Jewish cemetery in the Mount of Olives, and by chance (and what a chance!) we came to the gravestone of our grandfather Yaakov. When we came back and told you about it, you inquired whether there is an open grave beside. When we answered in the affirmative, you smiled and said, "Well these fellows from the Hevra Kaddisha (Burial Society) have kept their word". You then told us that this is your place and when your time will come, your dream to be buried on the Mount of Olives, facing Jerusalem, the Holy City, will be fulfilled.

You then told us that with our grandfather and six children, you left your home in Lithuania, towards the end of the 19th century, because of the pogroms, which spread all over the Russian Empire. First you went to Liverpool in England, where your three sisters, married to three brothers, were living. But after some time staying there, you decided that it is not a place for you to live. You took your six children and sailed to Eretz Isrooel (as you pronounced it). Grandpa stayed for a while as he was a rabbi, teaching Hebrew, and had to fulfill his term.

The reasons you gave us for your decision to leave England and emigrate to a forlorn place like Palestine under Turkish Government at that time were, as I remember the following:

  1. You did not like the wet-cold drizzly English climate.
  2. You came to the conclusion that the English do not differ much from the Lithuanians in their love for the Jews, and if they wiould have the opportunity they would launch a pogrom against the Jews, but would come up with an original English way to do it.
  3. You wanted to be buried on the Mount of Olives, so when the Messiah will come on his white donkey and blow his horn and there will be resurrection of the dead,  there will be no need for grandpa's and your body to roll from the tomb in the land of exile to Jerusalem in order to rise up from the dead, but you will just get up and join the Messiah, watching how the temple comes down from heaven.


Well, Bubbe Gittel (M. Y. S. R. I. P) I have some news for you:

    1. The climate in England is changing as the globe becomes warmer. They claim that they grow grapes in Southern England and produce wine, which competes with French wine. Well, I guess that compared to English food and drunk with it, it may be the right wine, but I prefer to stay with Israeli wines, especially those from the Golan Heights.
    2. You were right about their love for the Jews. Indeed they demonstrate it once and again. Just lately, they seized the opportunity to demonstrate this love through the organizations of British academicians, which boycott Israeli academics in protest against the occupation of Palestinian land.

      (As you remember, in your time, they demonstrated their love to us during World War II when they avoided bombing the railways transporting Jews to the gas chambers and prevented ships carrying Jewish refugees from reaching our land. Later, during our War of Independence, British soldiers collaborated with the Arab gangs)

      Now, the boycott by the English academicians is claimed to be a gesture of demonstration of sympathy with the poor Palestinians, living under Israeli occupation. With all due honor to this humane gesture, did you hear of British professors boycotting Chinese academicians because the democratic Peoples' Republic of China occupied Tibet and erases Tibetan culture? Or did you hear them threatening to boycott Russia (another democratic republic) because of the occupation and destruction the Russian Army inflicts on the Moslem Inhabitants of Chechnya? and what about the occupation of Iraq by American and British forces?

    3. Now, I have some sad news about your grave. I would have come to your place to read this letter to you, but after the Six Day War, after we conquered the Mount of Olives (which is still under Israeli jurisdiction), I tried to find your grave and all the family's graves, but discovered that all the cemeteries of your "Kolel" (community), have been destroyed. During the Jordanian-Arab occupation of the mountain, after the War of Independence, a hotel was built on the cemetery of your "Kolel." I do not know what they did with the bones. I only know that they used the gravestones for pavements and new buildings.

So Bubbe Gittel, you were right about the love of the English for the Jews, which brings me to thank you for having the courage, to get up, about hundred and twenty years ago, and travel with six children over the seas to this wonderful land of Israel. Were it not for your strong 'Jewish Mother' character, I could now be a British Jewish professor who is afraid to stand up and tell his fellow non-Jewish professors what he thinks about their boycott.

Your grandson

Prof. Emeritus Arie S. Issar

Ben Gurion University of the Negev


P.S. As a geologist I have to disagree with the theory that when the Messiah comes and blows his horn, the Jews buried abroad will roll in subterranean caverns to reach the Mount of Olives to be resurrected.

Arie Issar is a leading authority on hydro-geology, and the author of several books. His latest book is "Climate Change - Environment and History of the Near East" by Arie S. Issar and Mattanyah Zohar. He lives in Jerusalem.

Continued (Permanent Link)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Update: Hawking video wins prizes

Earlier this year, we called your attention to a 35-second public-service video in which Stephen Hawking appears on behalf of Access Israel.

This modest production has just won our local advertising industry's top award, the Golden Cactus, as Israel's best advertising campaign of the past year. It also won a separate award as the best advertising idea of the year.

Hawking volunteered his time, and a local advertising agency wrote the script. The filming took one-half hour at the British ambassador's home in Givatayim, a Tel Aviv suburb.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Inertia: The last Jew in Afghanistan

It always amazes me, that so many Jews want to live anywhere but Israel. I can understand why someone might prefer to live in San Francisco, or Los Angeles or Paris or London or Florence, or in the beautiful countryside of Vermont, especially if they are famous, or rich or doing important work in science and academia.
It seems to make rational sense not to sacrifice a career, a secure future for your children, a language and culture you know, to go off to the unknown in the untamed wilds of Dizengoff center and the dangerous Ramat Gan jungle or to return to them. I can even sympathize with the tragic Vienna Jews, who would not give up the "safety" and "culture" of their Austrian homeland to be launched on dangerous adventures in Palestine.

Israelis go abroad too. Sometimes they stay many years: until the wife gets her degree, and then until they have enough money to buy a house in Israel, but then the children must finish university, and then  the grandchildren must finish university... My parents and paternal grandparents were Israelis (or rather Palestinians) of that sort.
But I have always suspected that there is something more to this reluctance to move than material comfort and familiarity. After all, the Jews of the Russian Pale lived in abject poverty, in miserable conditions, and yet many of them were not interested in coming to Palestine.
In Armenia and Iran, Jews persist, sometimes in the most miserable conditions, isolated from their communities or with no community, surrounded by Jew-hate Some might be rich, and some might be too old to move or have no contacts abroad.
Still, this phenomenon raises the suspicion that the real problem is some fundamental force of human or Jewish character, a force that is not rational in any way and that is beyond rational considerations. Here is a report that seems to bear out the suspicions. As I recall, Marcel Proust, who was a homosexual and a Jew, wrote that if the Sodomites ever establish their own homeland in Sodom, they would not want to live there. They might visit from time to time, or perhaps send money to relatives, but they had such fundamental self-contempt and insecurity, that they would not want to really live in their own homeland, among their own kind. That summarized the relation of many Jews to Palestine and Zionism 80 years ago.
The last Jew living in Aghanistan does not want to leave, even though his wife and family are in Holon. Holon is not the best place in Israel, but the worst place in Israel is arguably better than Kabul, especially now, especially if your wife and family are living in Holon. Nonetheless, he persists, the quintessential Diaspora Jew to the very end. 
Tzur Sheizaf reports:

"Shalom aleichem," I said. Hebrew in Afghanistan. "Shalom alaichem," he said... Zevulun Simantov is his name. He wore a white undershirt and looked to be a little over 60. He looked at me with suspicion; perhaps he was calculating what he would get out of me.

...I climbed the dark, broken stairs after him to the single room where he lives, in what was once the building of the Jewish school.


"What do you want?"

"To speak to you."

"And how much are you paying?"


"You'll go to your country, write an article, and get money. I want money too."

...He wanted $500. I explained to him that I am a freelance journalist and that we are not funded by the authorities. He agreed to take less. A hundred dollars to sit with the last member of my tribe in Kabul.

After receiving the money (he held it up to the sunlight to make sure it was genuine), he went out and brought me what every Afghan serves his guests, even if they don't pay: a tray with sunflower seeds and pistachios and raisins and almonds. Local hospitality. On the wall were verses and photos of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

"I have family in Holon," he said, "a wife and children."

"And are you going to see them?"

"I went once."

"And why do you not go to see them?"

"I live here."


"Will you write in your newspaper that I need help from the government, from the Jews in America, England, and the whole world? That I need money?"

"I'll tell them."

"So come and I'll show you the synagogue."

Simantov has received a great deal of help, from even more generous Jews who have come to Kabul on various occasions. But the man will not give up his profession in his old age.
We went out to the balcony that surrounded the neglected inner courtyard. The building was in the process of falling apart. Simantov opened the synagogue's locked door. The hall was deserted. He pointed to the glass cabinets broken by the Taliban and the Torah scrolls that were taken. On the surrounding walls were notices in Hebrew thanking the person who donated a lamp.
This man has a career, you see, and a profession. He is doing important work that he cannot leave. He is the last Jew in Afghanistan - a full time job that keeps him abroad...
Ami Isseroff

Continued (Permanent Link)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sitting shiva for Ezra

Maybe you remember Ezra (not his real name). He was the subject of a post at this weblog earlier this year. Since 1985 he had washed the stairs and tended the greenery every week at the small Tel Aviv apartment building where I live.

Ezra has died. He was 80. They buried him Sunday, and his family is sitting shiva.

Two neighbors and I hire a taxi to go pay a shiva call on the family. On the way, the neighbors talk about the army. One neighbor is the wife of a reserve officer. Her husband cannot join us because he had to go to reserve duty. He commands an infantry battalion that fought in Lebanon last summer. The other neighbor in the taxi is a veteran of an elite commando unit. He and the officer's wife chat about prospects for another war this summer, while she nurses her four-month-old son who is along for the ride.

A black-bordered poster announcing Ezra's death marks the entrance to the house of mourning. Someone has placed stacks of white plastic garden chairs in the courtyard to accommodate overflow visitors.

The family greet us warmly. The religious son sits on a cushion on the floor, Everyone else sits on chairs. Soon we are telling the mourners our stories about Ezra, his dedication to work, his concern for his family, his toughness and tenacity, his austerity, his fierce pride. At each anecdote, they smile and agree that this was typical of Ezra.

I tell them about a telephone conversation with a Galilee Arab who used to live in Tel Aviv. Informed of Ezra's death, he recalled him as a good person who gave him water. That was our father, one of the sons says. Ezra gave water to many people, they say.

Ezra's widow, who smiles too, despite her painful joint disease, tells us that children are a treasure. She and Ezra had six children, who gave them 26 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She keeps all of their names and birthdates in her head, she tells us.

An old photo on a wall shows a handsome couple, the young Ezra and his even younger wife. His hair and mustache are black. A portrait from later in life shows Ezra looking as if he might be a diplomat or prime minister. His hair and mustache have turned gray and he has a distinguished look. He is impeccably groomed, as he is in all of the photos on the wall. Another photo shows Ezra dancing at a family celebration. Children and grandchildren have formed a circle around him. Head tilted back, arms flung outward, he dances by himself and smiles.

This house of bereavement is filled with smiling people.

On the way back to Tel Aviv, one of the neighbors expresses surprise that Ezra had a nice, well-appointed house with a modern kitchen. At our place, he did menial work. At his place, he was the head of a strong family who remember him fondly and with smiles.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv


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Sunday, May 6, 2007

Notes from the May 3 rally in Rabin Square

Here are some impressions from the big May 3 anti-Olmert demonstration in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square.

1) The program began one hour later than the announced starting time of 7 p.m.

According to media reports, the organizers decided on the delay because people from outlying areas were arriving slowly. At previous Rabin Square events, whether of the Left or the Right, large numbers of demonstrators arrived in fleets of buses. Fewer buses were evident at this rally, which billed itself as a grassroots, non-political event.

2) People who arrived before the late start heard loudspeakers playing recorded music, interspersed with a live voice declaring repeatedly that the program would begin at 8 p.m.

The gathering crowd heard a recording of Bob Dylan performing his 1962 protest song "Blowin' in the Wind."

Other mood music included a recorded song by Shalom Hanoch, a great Israeli rocker who has performed live at peace rallies in the past. This evening they played one of his old songs, about a messiah who doesn't come and also doesn't telephone.

3) One reason a song like "Blowin' in the Wind" endures is that it doesn't purport to supply the answer. Such songs leave the answer up to the beliefs and imagination of the listener. So it was with the central message of the rally, that Prime Minister Olmert should resign. No speaker proposed an alternative to Olmert.

4) What made this demonstration different from others was the crowd's diversity. Members of opposing political factions shared the square. Young men wearing National Religious knitted skullcaps prayed in groups alongside secular Tel Aviv residents.

Also unlike some other Rabin Square crowds, this throng lacked the intensity that can come with commitment to a political cause. The one theme around which the crowd rallied---that Olmert failed in the Second Lebanon War and should resign---was not enough to keep people energized through two hours of standing and listening to speeches on the same message.

The only time the crowd seemed genuinely in unison was during a minute of silence for the dead of the Second Lebanon War.

5) Bereaved parents and army reservists did much of the speaking. They spoke pointedly and sometimes eloquently.

Speakers did elicit cheers and applause, but these came from parts of the audience at various times, and never from the entire crowd at once.

The closest the audience came to a display of vocal unanimity was when Eliad Shraga, a reserve paratroop officer who heads the Movement for Quality Government, exhorted them to act as judge and jury and answer whether Olmert was guilty. They found the Prime Minister guilty, of course, but the performance lacked spontaneity. It was nothing like what sports fans show when they disagree with a football referee's decision.

Cheerleading aside, the only words that seemed to evoke a genuinely spontaneous reaction were uttered by Meir Shalev, the novelist. He mentioned 40 years of occupation in a disparaging way, and some people in the northwest part of the square started booing. Later, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria (Yesha) commented that Shalev's remark showed "his hate of settlers."

6) Someone I know refused to attend the demonstration. He said he did not want to help Benjamin Netanyahu become Prime Minister.

His meaning became clear from the scene at Rabin Square.

Dark-blue signs calling for "Elections now" were everywhere. They competed against the red-and-black logo that displayed the demonstration organizers' motto, "Bunglers, go home." Many members of the crowd wore dark-blue "Elections now" stickers on hats and shirts. Young demonstrators displaying "Elections now" signs took over the top of a Holocaust monument that dominates the southern part of the square. "Elections now" was clearly a message from the organized political Right.

7) Despite the "Elections now" infiltration, people did seem to be making a real effort to keep the non-partisan spirit of the demonstration.

Political parties refrained from displaying party signs, and few people in the crowd wore t-shirts with party slogans or symbols. No partisan politicians were invited to speak (unless you include Uzi Dayan, the demonstration organizer, whose Tafnit movement failed to win a Knesset seat in the last election).

8) It has become a tradition at Rabin Square to claim attendance figures that would make Pinocchio blush. As this rally began, the organizers announced that 100,000 people had arrived. Less than an hour later, an update doubled the number to 200,000. As the rally was ending at 10 p.m., they announced that the crowd had swelled to 250,000.

News reports set the total at no bigger than 120,000.

A walk through the crowd made it evident that the square did not contain more people than attended the big anti-disengagement rally in August 2005. At that event, Pinhas Wallerstein of the Yesha Council claimed 350,000 people were there but bumped the total up to what sounded like 600,000 as the program ended. A more realistic estimate set that total at no more than 120,000.

9) Ari Shavit of Haaretz wrote that "it doesn't really matter" whether 100,000, 150,000 or 200,000 people attended. He termed the May 3 event Israel's "first inter-tribal demonstration."

"It was the start of the uprising of the Israeli public against the unworthy elites," he wrote. By the time his article appeared, aides to the Prime Minister had already characterized the rally as irrelevant.

10) Before the program ended with the national anthem Hatikvah, pop singer Aviv Geffen performed his "Shir Hatikvah" (Song of Hope), a traditional closing number at big leftwing events. Its lyrics include an exhortation to "conquer peace and not the territories."

As the crowd dispersed, recorded music took over, with John Lennon singing "Imagine," his vision of a world at peace, without war and without religion.

If these songs offended National Religious members of the audience, they objected quietly. No booing was heard.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Tel Aviv can be expensive

Another survey showing that Tel Aviv is more expensive than some of the world's other great cities has come out.

This survey is different from your ordinary Tel-Aviv-Costs-Too-Much analysis. The standard surveys measure the cost of hotels, restaurants and dry cleaning to business travelers who move around the globe on expense accounts.

The new survey, which appeared in a Hebrew newspaper's business section, deals with local people who pay their own way. It covers some ordinary expenditures and shows that Tel Aviv is difficult for two reasons --- high prices, and lower incomes.

The survey finds that Tel Aviv is more expensive than Stockholm, Chicago, Toronto, Prague, Madrid and Berlin. This puts Tel Aviv in sixth place among 12 cities surveyed. The most expensive cities surveyed are London, Geneva, Oslo, New York and Shanghai, in that order.

When it comes to money to pay the bills, Tel Aviv is in last place. The survey ranked after-tax income, from high to low, as follows: Geneva, Oslo, New York, London, Chicago, Berlin, Toronto, Stockholm, Madrid, Prague, Shanghai, Tel Aviv. These rankings do not show amounts of after-tax income. In Israel, median personal income is below $2,000 a month, before taxes.

According to the survey, people in Tel Aviv pay:

- $850 monthly rent for a two-room apartment in the heart of the city (vs. $3,200 in London, $1,300 in Oslo or Geneva, and $680 in Berlin)

- $75 a month per-person for food (vs. $200 in Berlin and $95 in London)

- $3,000 for one year of college tuition (vs. free tuition in Europe)

- $6 for a beer in a neighborhood pub (vs. $2.60 in London and $2.50 in Berlin)

- $1.50 for a cup of coffee (vs. $2.50 in Berlin and $1.80 in Geneva).

A popular Israeli radio commentator took issue with the finding that a cup of coffee in Tel Aviv can be had for $1.50. The typical price is twice as high, he said. (Personal research: I paid a little more than $4 for a large iced coffee in Tel Aviv the other day.)

A conclusion of the survey is that middle-income Israelis find it increasingly difficult to hold their own. Discussing this on the radio, a newspaper analyst attributed Tel Aviv's high prices to geography, lack of competition, small market size, and lack of assertiveness on the part of consumers.

The survey attributed its cost data to Mercer, a consulting firm, and its income rankings to UBS investment bank, a Swiss concern.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv


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