Saturday, July 02, 2005

My shitty little country

Hi all

Still here in Tel Aviv, having a glorious time in the beautiful weather. The longer I stay, the more I realise that Israel is where Jews belong, and we are just on loan to the rest of the world. In the words of the French Ambassador to the UK, "that shitty little country Israel" is MY shitty little country, and I love it, warts and all.

Some of the little anecdotes from my trip may shed some light on why...

The Velvet Katyusha

From this episode, we learn that my shitty little country is home to a remarkable cultural clash between old-style orthodoxy on which Judaism was built, and the hi-tech modernity on which the State of Israel has thrived.

I visited Jerusalem for a couple of days last week, taking in some sights and decent food, including the excellent Indian business buffet at the Kohinoor restaurant in the Crowne Plaza (thanks Webber, Brahms, Murray and Greg for the excellent company and for helping me through the second sizzler of chicken tikka - couldn't have done it without you).

Later in the day I joined my old friend Jamie in Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox area of the city (via a bite of sabich, the latest Jerusalemite food craze). We were on a mission to buy some velvet for a laboratory experiment involving the transfer of yeast. Don't ask, I don't know any more.

Jamie called his lab to ask what the Hebrew for velvet was, and was told it was something like khatysha, not unlike the word for an old Russian rocket, modified for firing over the borders by Hizbollah freedom fighters at their Israeli oppressors working in the Zionist orchards of the Galilee. Incidentally the link shows why we can't "just give it back to them" as many of my well-meaning and totally uncomprehending liberal Anglo friends suggest. More of which in a future posting.

Anyway, we went into the first schmatter shop and asked for khatysha. The frummer didn't have a clue what we were looking for until Jamie pointed at a roll of velvet...

Jamie: This
Frummer 1: OK, how much of it do you need?
Jamie: About a metre
Frummer 1 (suspicious): And what do you intend to use it for?
Jamie: I'm a scientist at Hebrew U, I need it for some experiments
Jamie: OK, bye then

So we removed ourselves sharpish, spent 40 minutes trudging up and down to no avail until we found a poky little place selling velvet. By this point, having asked a number of people, we had realised that part of our difficulty in locating velvet was that the word was actually "k'tifah". Jamie went in to negotiate:

Jamie: Good morrow, shopkeeper. May I peruse your fine selection of velveteen cloth?
Frummer 2: 'Ere, wot you want vat four? It costs four 'undged shekels a metre.
Jamie: I am a distinguished scientist at the seat of learning known as Hebrew U, I require said material for some yeast experiments
Frummer 2: Oh, a stewdent? Well ewe can ave it fer fawty sheks den.
Jamie: Jolly-o! I shall fold it into my knapsack presently and be on my way.
Frummer 2: Why we tawking like this instead of in Hebrew?

So we got our metre of velvet at a staggering 90% discount and went on our way. On the way back to his flat, we stopped off to see Meir and Ruth Rigbi (see blogs passim), where Jamie talked science and I ate cheese crackers. Once Jamie had left, I stayed to chat to Meir about life in the Diaspora, and mentioned the planned book (The Trouble With Anglo-Jewry) which I intend to write as a series of short, provocative essays on this blog and eventually discard when I convert to Zoroastrianism.

All in all, a stimulating day at the crossroads of religion and secularism.

Cornflakes for lockshen

From this episode, we learn that my shitty little country is home to the Sabra.

The following day, after a great dinner and overnight stay with the Rosenweins (hi!), I went to visit grandpa's sister Deb in the sheltered accommodation in Gonen. Now aunt Dvorah is a character - she is very blunt and politically somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan (RIP). Helen still hasn't got over the time we visited her, when I got a gummy peck on the cheek and Helen got "you're looking rather fat". Having said that, we both remember as kids how exciting it was to be served Coke for breakfast at her flat.

Now aunt Deb has been keeping her sporting prowess from her family for all these years. For her legendary poo golfing incident, see this previous posting. On this most recent visit, I found that her ability with the shot putt or perhaps basketball has been overlooked. Also, she may have discovered the missing link between an American breakfast and a Yiddishe supper.

We sat down to lunch and the staff brought out chicken soup. Without warning, Deb opened her purse, rummaged about, then shied a full hand of crushed Cornflakes across the table and perfectly into my bowl. As I sat there in amazement both at the technical feat and the peculiarity of seeing little orange knobbly bits of corn dissolving in anything other than milk, she added a generous handful to her own bowl, gave it a little stir, and chowed down. I followed suit, and dear Reader, I can tell you that I will never go back to those grim yellow cubes of Osem mandeln in my soup again.

Deb is believed by some family historians to have been one of the causes of the 6-Day War. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not because she threw Cornflakes in Nasser's molokheya.
She wrote to Golda Meir in 1965 advocating a policy of pre-emptive strikes against the surrounding hostile regimes, who were launching regular terror attacks against Israeli civilian targets in border areas and routinely blockading Israel's only link to the Southern Hemisphere, the Straits of Tiran. I asked her if she ever had any reply - Deb said simply: "the response was the 6-Day War". All papers and correspondence on the matter are on file at the Israeli national archive.

After lunch, she showed me some wonderful photos of our family from as early as the 1800s, including one of grandpa looking very dashing in his WWII uniform, on home leave. She has promised me a copy of this if she has one!

We also talked about her childhood and her life when she first got to Israel. She is a doughty woman who has been through considerable adversity but throughout has retained a sense of purpose and has not compromised on her values. Despite her best efforts to hide it sometimes, she is thoroughly well-meaning, generous and kind.

To me, she epitomises the Sabra spirit. A sabra is a cactus-like prickly pear indigenous to the region, and representative of the Israeli national character. It seems coarse, thick-skinned and prickly on the outside, but once you get inside, you find it sweet and refreshing, all the more impressive given its battle for survival in the harshest of climates.

Pals on the phone

From this episode, we learn that my shitty little country is so small that we get our wires crossed with our neighbours.

On Thursday night, a few of us drove south out of Jerusalem on Route 60, to Efrata and Matthew & Ilana's sheva brachot at Scotty's in-laws. We got there without incident, and enjoyed a magnificent feast, merriment etc. Chanit, if you're reading, please can I have your mum's recipe for those chocolate squares?

I also got a text message to inform me my phone had located a new network:

Marhaba. Smell the jasmine and taste the olives. Jawwal welcomes you to Palestine. For Customer Service dial 111.

Given that at the time we were
driving along Route 60, known as the "Tunnel Road", a favourite hunting ground of Palestinian snipers until Israel lined the road with alternating concrete blocks, I was thinking "Marhaba. Smell the cordite and taste the fear. Fatah welcomes you to Palestine." might have been more appropriate. Nevertheless, there was something quite encouraging to see the bright green numberplates and mustard yellow paint of Palestinian taxis, harmoniously sharing the road with Israeli cars and vans flying the orange tassles of anti-disengagement.

Somehow I felt driving along that road a strange sense of hope that we can unentangle from each other in a mutually beneficial manner. On the one hand there was a small sense of fear given where we were and the continued level of hundreds of attempted attacks a month (mysteriously unreported by the BBC). Also, walking around Efrata and especially singing at the Sheva Brachot, I had a profound sense of what it was like to be a pioneer deep in uncharted territory, and a slightly better understanding of how painful it would be to give it up. On the other hand, I saw the contrast between the smart villas of Efrata and the dusty Palestinian villages on the surrounding hills.

But also I could see how each side might have the ability to help the other, if only they would treat us as an opportunity for betterment instead of as an enemy to dislodge from their midst, and if only we would do more to bring forward voices of moderation on both sides.

In the meantime, I believe that good fences make good neighbours...

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