Monday, October 15, 2012

Body Art

Looking past the 10-foot chain link fence in the early morning while scanning the daily paper an apparition appeared, stunning you. The fence, topped with barbed wire was intended to create a protected environment, a bubble, demarcating you from them. There was no more than seven yards separating the two of you and although the fence kept him out, you still felt uncomfortable. This was your sanctuary, a two acre protected garden closed off from the riffraff, homeless and errant roaming the streets. You had experienced a similar feeling when visiting your grandparent’s graveside one early fall morning at a cemetery bordering the periphery of the city. Lifting your eyes from their graves two stags appeared in the clearing appearing more mystical than real. But by the time you reached for the Apple 3 they had disappeared back into the woods. This time it was different. 

He didn’t disappear when reaching for your Apple, although you hesitated photographing him. Would he take umbrage for taking his picture as though he was a curios? He stood there, arrogantly on the other side, poised and daring and you starring into him like an infrared missile locked onto its target but wasn’t convinced he was looking at you: his eyes masked by the brim of his hipster style hat. He wore it in a haughty, jaunty angle the way Frank Sinatra wore his; tilted slightly to his right, low and over his eyes giving him the look of mystery, perhaps trouble. What attracted you to him was not his untoned naked torso, but the body art so extensive that it seemed his singular purpose was to be a canvas leaving little skin exposed. 

Why, would anyone irreversibly mutilate his body, you wondered as you gazed at this errant young man? And why was he strutting his stuff, shirt off as if anyone really cares? Approaching him from the safety of the fence had been a consideration but before doing so he sashayed off with the swagger of a man who could care less about what you thought. 

Although he was gone he wasn’t forgotten; you were left considering why any human being would subject himself to that kind of pain and permanent disfigurement. Was he so uncomfortable in his own skin that he had to create a new one as though reinventing himself?  Was his tattooed body an attempt at hiding his shame or who he really was from the rest of the prying world? Perhaps you were being too profound, reading too much into this city urchin, giving it too much thought, giving him too much credit. Perhaps his body art was meant to be nothing more than a series of bumper stickers. After all, the images displayed on his body were tawdry pop art. Perhaps he was the product of the proverbial self-indulgent American culture, narcissistic too a fault, concerned only with himself: the here and now, the moment.

Pausing momentarily and considering the occurrence it dawned on you that the vision of those two stags on the perimeter of your grandparents’ space was similar to his appearance on the perimeter of your sanctuary disturbing your solitude.  The stags were in their last bastion, fighting extinction; He seeking distinction from the monotony of his perceived culture. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Fork in the Road

Sitting in the cinder block windowless anteroom waiting for the appointment to commence, Ben felt clammy in spite of the chilled air. He had been summoned by the dean’s secretary a few days earlier for as meeting at 11:00 AM, which was highly unusual and worried him. The dean of the rabbinical college Rabbi Streitz rarely had personal contact with students outside the classroom since he was teaching, flying off to New York for meetings with National Jewish Leadership or lecturing at another rabbinical college where his brother was the dean. Rabbi Streitz was distant from his students; few social skills, no sense of humor, puritanical in his sense of esthetics, and principled to a fault. Ben wasn’t flattered by being summoned. No, no. In fact Ben was stressed and hadn’t slept very much since receiving the phone call. He intuited that the purpose of the meeting was to formally inform him that his conduct unbefitting a rabbinical student and could no longer remain a student at the yeshiva. He was being thrown out, aborted; an ignominious end to something that should never have begun. Nervous, he arrived at the dean’s office a full half hour early, which was a mistake, a miscalculation. The dean was notorious for being unreasonably late for meetings, which meant that Ben might be waiting an hour or longer. 

Ben had considered the option of not showing up; he was in no mood to face the dean and the dreaded consequence he must bear for demonstrating such an awful lapse of judgment. What difference did it make? He was convinced that he was being dismissed. And for what? For having convictions, Ben asked himself. What was so terrible about believing in something so strongly that he was willing to go to the wall? Weren’t rabbis, Ben considered supposed to be principled, allowing their god inspired conscience to guide them rather than politically correct considerations? Screw it! Just send me a letter, he thought, and be done with it. All this meeting would do is add insult to injury. What a way to blow a career that hadn’t even taken off yet? What a way to start life, with this on his record. His real fear was his father who begged and borrowed to scrape together the tuition for his promising son. Ben’s dad had big plans for him. His father, living vicariously through his son saw ordination as just the first stage. A PhD would round him out preparing him for a combined academic and rabbinic career; something that Ben’s father had desired when he was a young man; while he had the brains hadn’t the stamina. Ben, on the other hand had both, a winning combination. His father had been grooming him for this career for as long as he could remember. As a matter of fact, Ben had never been asked if this is what he wanted.

Sitting on a hard wooden chair in that chilled anteroom, the fluorescent light casting a yellowish glare added to the already depressing atmosphere enhanced by the grey painted cinder block. It was dead silent. All he could hear was the buzz of the electricity flowing through the fluorescent lighting. Biting his inner lip till it was raw, trying to stop his left leg from a trembling nervous reflex Ben considered flight at that moment. Just leave, get out. It would be preferable than having to face the wrath of Rabbi Streitz. Seeing the dean angry on few occasions was memorable to this impressionable student. Rabbi Streitz had a gift for slicing straight to the heart of the matter. Ben shuttered at his propensity for fulminating, his mouth moving at speed that causing his cropped beard to quake didn’t serve him well. Ben knew him too well, having been his student for the past two years. Those were tough years. He was an exacting, demanding teacher, who got caught up in the detail without seeing the larger picture. It was with the trivia that he would dig a rut that before long became a trench, which became a trap, difficult, almost impossible to extricate oneself. Lost in a maze of worthless information was how Ben saw it and not infrequently trapped and lost in detail with little hope of finding the kernel of information, the message to be taken away. A severe consequence of his daily three hours marathon lectures was his halitosis insidiously filling the room with a stench that was nauseating to anyone with a sense of feng shui as Ben had. The morning lectures never started out that way. In fact at 8:30 AM when class began, the twelve students sitting around a “u” shaped table arrangement so that all of us were eye to eye with the dean, none further from him than three feet, eager, alert and full of anticipation, which dissipated within a short time. It was only after he ranted straight for two hours with no end in sight did the smell began to become pervasive and oppressive. It was a test of one’s stamina to be able to think critically and take notes with the stench of his breath combined with the mist of his spittle hitting you if you happened to be in the path of its trajectory. Paused periodically for a sip of water would have mitigated the fetid air. No not him. Carried away by the subject at hand he would go on for three hour marathons - non-stop. When he finally stopped out of sheer exhaustion the feeling was nearly indescribable. Leaving the room was life affirming as the delight in breathing fresh air gave Ben an added appreciation of clean air and the need to cherish it always.

In those years Ben unlike his classmates but like so many others of his generation was deeply concerned over the injustice and manner by which the Viet Nam was being waged and prosecuted. Sitting through those lectures, Ben envisioned himself as a soldier ambushed by the Viet Cong in a swamp pinned down for hours with no option other than waiting for reinforcements. In Ben’s case reinforcements came in the way of the dean collapsing in exhaustion, as the tacticians of the war was hoping that would happen to the enemy. Relief. Live another day. 

Those three-hour intellectual assaults were nothing more than mental gymnastics, an intellectual slight, the apotheosis of useless information. Ben recalled one particular instance when he wished to challenge the rabbi in the midst of a learned discourse on the timely and crucial subject of catching a fly on Shabbat: the circumstances under which one is allowed to lower a box over a fly, while not violating the shabbat, Ben’s lack of confidence as always got the best of him remaining silent knowing that this lecture wasn’t worthy of his time especially when the world around Ben was burning down. There was no end to the war in Viet Nam where the death toll of US combatants was staggering; as obscene as the daily blood baths of innocent civilians. 

This wasn’t all that was bothering Ben. He was deeply concerned with the alarming rate of assimilation among American Jews. Ben was sure that his unique style and approach to teaching Judaism would help staunch the hemorrhaging.  Ben passionately cared about the future of his people and was flummoxed by these inane lectures on catching flies or opening umbrellas on Shabbat. He’d have no trouble swatting the sucker if it happened to land on his chopped liver. Perhaps this lack of interest in the detailed minutiae of Jewish law, the legalisms and the loopholes that hammered the Jewish people into a formidable nation that had survived thousands of years was at the root of Ben’s problem. Ben however decided to take a pass deferring to another time the need to challenge his teacher.

The truth was, Ben didn’t give a damn about orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.  He wasn’t like his classmates. Having been raised from the cradle in an orthodox environment, as his maternal bobbie was wont to say “in a strictly kosher environment” he found it awkward, feeling like an outsider. He simply didn’t fit into the orthodox mindset concerned more with social issues than the parochial concerns of the orthodox community. It distressed him that the liberal movements found their niche in social activism claiming it as their mandate. It concerned him that the institution, which he was attending, had started moving to the right, becoming more identifiable with the ultra orthodox institutions in the east. It didn’t bode well for Ben.

Had Ben the gumption, he would have applied to a more liberal rabbinical college. He had really wanted to attend the Conservative Seminary in New York, but hadn’t the courage to confront his father by coming out of the closet and announcing that he wasn’t, that he couldn’t in good conscience be orthodox any longer. He wanted to deemphasize halacha focusing on the philosophical and social issues. Granted, Ben reasoned, religion’s original purpose was to create order out of chaos. But society had advanced since then: the whole point of religion wasn’t to control people anymore but to spiritually enrich and uplift people through social action. He envied those of his generation who were able to shed the ties tethering them to their parents’ values breaking loose in the words of Bob Dylan, like a rolling stone. Ben hadn’t the fortitude nor had he the ability to do what was right if it meant alienating his father. Ben took the path of least resistance, the path of the submissive, the path that demanded little effort and no confrontation. He had been living in a fool’s paradise and at any moment it was going to blow up in his face, ending this charade that should never have begun.

At this thought Ben breathed a sigh of relief recalling the indomitable truth in the wisdom of Jesus when he said the truth will set you free. Finally after years of repressing his true feelings there would be resolution. The real problem still remained: facing his father, a formidable man. He remembered all too well being thrown out of the house one cold winter Shabbat when he vehemently disagreed with his father on the prosecution of the war and the policies of Barry Goldwater.  At Shabbat lunch, Ben had the temerity to challenge his father’s support of Goldwater referring to him as stalinesque. For the first time ever, Ben had to duck when his father took a swing at him calling him every name in the Yiddish book, concluding with: you “davar acher” get the hell out of my house!

His second hurdle would be finding another seminary to attend. True enough, the reform seminary would grab him. They loved his kind: the type that had a very strong authentic, Jewish background conversant in classic texts, Talmud, rabbinic literature and Hebrew language. Their typical students had little knowledge of Jewish text, finding their Jewishness at a Jewish camp one summer and the next season at camp discovering their calling. 

As Ben was considering all these issues and the fate that awaited him the spiritual advisor of the study hall, a rabbi from the old country, a survivor of the Holocaust poked his head in the room not acknowledging Ben who was responsible for his current predicament.  The first time Ben had encountered Rabbi Werner was when he first sent to the yeshiva at the tender age of 13. He was assigned a seat in the bet midrash, which also served as a chapel, close to where the rabbis sit. At the moment when the prayer leader reached the “shema”, the declaration of faith, the rabbi’s face contorted, scarring the living daylights out of Ben. It was as though the rabbi had seen a horrible monster and in absolute and consuming fear began to quake and distort his face into a grimace that made him look grotesque. In despair and fright Ben turned to his neighbor asking him if someone was going to help the rabbi as he was in terrible pain. His neighbor, not answering since it was forbidden to talk during this phase of the prayers merely shirked, rolling his eyes, suggesting that it was the rabbi was fine.  To young Ben watching the rabbi depart at the conclusion of services seemed old, of another age and another world, which contrasted with his gait that had a youthful carefree bounce.

Rabbi Werner had never liked Ben because he was different than the others. His parents, American born, didn't speak authentic Yiddish marked by a European accent resulting in Ben having a rudimentary knowledge of this antiquated language, that he considered more a badge of shame. His classmates, Yiddish speakers, had no trouble following other talmud classes which were in Yiddish, giving a greater authenticity to the classes than having them lectured to in English. Yiddish was venerated; more so than Hebrew, the holy tongue, since it was base being the spoken language of Israel. It wasn't only the lack of Yiddish that set Ben off from the others and from the study hall rabbi, it was the clear cultural divide that marked him as modern, contaminated by American culture. As there were no clearly defined dress code other than wearing a fedora during services thrice daily Ben wore chinos, a button down shirt topped off with a corduroy sports jacket giving the appearance of one identifying with the college set, giving him the moniker "college Joe". In itself this wouldn’t have been too heretical. What set him apart wasn’t the beard that he sported because most of the students grew beards for religious reasons. Ben's however was deemed religious because it was offset by shoulder length hair, giving the impression that identified with the notorious Chicago Seven radicals than with conservative rabbinical students in the tradition of their European parents. Typically his classmates wore dress pants and a white shirt, giving the appearance of older people, clearly set off from the American college type.

That was how Ben appeared on that fateful morning when he walked into the study hall, except for the fact that his right arm was draped in a black armband. Demonstrating his solidarity with students nationwide in mourning for the slaughter of students at Kent State, a bold demonstration, but out of character for Ben. Known as the Kent State Massacre, four students were gunned down by the National Guard and nine others horribly wounded for demonstrating against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Students all over the country were wearing black armbands on May 4, 1970 and Ben did the same on that fateful morning. Had he known that he too would be mowed down in perhaps a different manner, but nonetheless taken out of action would he have reconsidered his act? Ben hadn't the foresight to think it through. Within minutes of him entering the study hall the spiritual advisor yelling in broken English from across the large vaulted room for him to leave “immediately if not sooner”. Stunned, Ben stood there frozen like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck when a friend of his nudged him into leaving before the rabbi lost it altogether.  Ben's hesitancy for a split second prompted the rabbi to race over to him yelling a quoted biblical text "behukoseihem lo seilechu", roughly translated as "in their footsteps you shouldn't walk". In truth this text referred to the Israelites not following customs of other nations who practiced body tattooing, body piercing as well as refraining from dietary customs of other nations; all this with the purpose of creating their own unique culture.

That was a month ago. It was now mid June and Ben, being shunned from the study hall hadn't been back since. Actually he appreciated the opportunity to move his books out of the study hall and set up shop at his carol at the university where he was a graduate student. In the solitude of the library he was able to continue studying his rabbinical and graduate studies at a clip that surprised even him. The only catch, a blessing in disguise, was that he had to absent himself from Rabbi Streitz’s marathon lectures, the room accessed through the bet midrash which he was banished from.  The dean hearing of the bet midrash imbroglio summoned Ben to his office with the intention of bringing this episode to a conclusion. The dean, a zealot, principled to a fault regardless of the political fall out determined to enlighten the entire faculty and student body of the complicated issue needed first to speak with Ben.

And so, on that fateful day in mid June 1970, Ben found himself sitting on a hard wooden chair, nervous, with damp arm pits staining his button down when he was finally beckoned into the inner sanctum of he dean's study one and a half hours after first arriving. The dean was visibly upset with Ben for having missed a month of lectures. With one pithy sentence the dean brought to a conclusion the entire episode when he said, "you were clearly within your rights to identify with those students who opposed a war that had no legal justification". It was a Thursday and the dean intended to give a lecture that night in the study hall to the entire student body denouncing the war. Ben was instructed to be there, overriding the rabbi’s ban.

Exiting the meeting, Ben felt vindicated and leaving, felt a bounce in his own gait, having been reprieved from termination. He wouldn't have to face his father and he could go on as before. On the other hand perhaps this episode was meant as a sign, an indication that it was time for Ben to stand on his principles, face his father and make application to a college that reflected his values. Would he be rejected or respected by his father? Reaching the proverbial fork in the road Ben returned to his room to think.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Yisgadal V’yiskadash Shemeh Rabbah, may His great name grow exalted, were the first words I heard when entering the synagogue chapel, not the accepted Sephardic enunciation of Yitgadal V’yitkadash, but the Ashkenazi corrupted pronunciation, which not only assaulted my ear but also seemed sacrilegious. I hadn’t prayed in this shul for forty years and the synagogue while older appeared neglected, in tandem with the neighborhood. Back then, in its beginning the shul and the neighborhood was crisp, youthful, populated by conservative and modern orthodox Jews. That changed years ago. At first It was the Indians who discovered this neighborhood, moved in and created a little Mumbai with ethnic food shops, clothing stores selling sarongs and saris; jewelry stores dotting Devon Ave. displaying in their windows rings, bangles and anything else that could be fashioned into 22/22 carat yellow gold. 

For some odd reason they were followed by a huge immigration of Pakistanis which, I found odd, since the Pakistanis and Indians could hardly stand each other in their respective homelands. Pakistanis I mused, chose to live next door to Indians since they were genuinely homesick, wanting to recreate a familiar cultural / religious atmosphere. To make matters even more puzzling the Pakistanis who are Muslim, hate Jews like Stalin hated doctors, especially these Jews, who were a super orthodox enclave, very ethnic and very Zionist, so why move into their neighborhood? Now the neighborhood was a hodgepodge, a microcosm of this troubled world with rows of taxis parked on side streets markers where the drivers lived. Indeed, times had changed and the synagogue was in sync with the neighborhood like a couple growing fat together never really noticing their changing contours. 

The worshippers too, those that were leaving as the service concluded and those waiting to enter for the beginning of the service to begin anew all looked soft, faded and humble. It was as though I had entered a time warp, a 5th dimension, perhaps the parallel world I had heard about in midrashic texts. I was familiar with all the accoutrements that accompanied the worshippers like the tallit and tefillin, but nevertheless something appeared off center. The attendees, ranging in age from 30 to 70 all seemed to be timeless, with no defining characteristics that would label them American Jews of the 21st century. They were Jews defying the march of time, the pull of western civilization. They were committed to maintaining the nexus to their eastern European heritage by investing their money not in spas, health clubs and designer clothing but in expensive religious paraphernalia, the best of the best that purportedly enhanced their beseeching prayers, giving them credibility before god. That, in stark contrast to their worn shiny seated black pants, shabby jackets and beat up lint speckled black fedoras, the kind with a three inch wide brim, giving the appearance that they would be taking off together with the flying nun at any moment. 

Finding a seat in the chapel was also no easy task. When I first entered I was drawn to the first available table that happened to have three chairs; two of which were unoccupied. Receiving a puzzling stare from the occupant of the first chair I felt as though I was a home invader, worse, I had irreverently entered the holy of holies where only the high priest had entry. Before I had a chance to don my tefillin another time traveler approached cautiously occupying the second chair, immediately readying himself for his one on one with god. The table was fully occupied so when another parishioner approached he hovered over me reminding me of the custom that daily worshippers had their own sense of entitlement - reserved seats. Understanding the unspoken taboo of violating his space I slithered away finding myself in the very back of this sanctum where I should have gone initially which proved strategic: I’d be able to observe the goings on without inhibition and concern that I was being monitored, the stranger that I was.

Astonishing how things have changed over last forty or so years. When I was growing up, religiously attending services thrice daily, I distinctly recall the casualness of the encounter between the I and Thou. Having donned the tefillin we soon forgot that they graced our arms and crowned our foreheads being in deep concentration, involved in the meditative practice of the service. In this parallel world I took note of the rigid mechanical devotion of these bots to the service. Slowly but methodically the men periodically withdrew pocket mirrors from their tallit bags with the purpose of eying the correct position of the tefillin on their head, every so often making a slight correction, moving the little shiny black box to the left or a little to the right, pushing it up or pulling it down. 

Towards the conclusion of the service in unison heads drop on folded arms as a submissive supplication to god, the existential question popped up again “what am I doing here? It’s amazing how technology has managed to shackle us instead of liberating us. Sitting as a passenger in a car waiting languorously in a parking lot for the driver to return, my mother in law, who wasn’t a religious woman reached me by cell phone entreating me to chant the mourners kaddish for her recently deceased husband. The irony is that my father in law detested ritual, the ultra-orthodox spin, rarely if ever entered a synagogue, observed none of the mizvot, fasting only on Yom Kippur. And here I was, attending a haredi synagogue service in order that I say the kaddish in his memory! How could I ever refuse my mother in law!

My grieving mother in law wanting to do the right thing for her husband whom she loved deeply was ripe for the likes of Shmuel, a recent reborn Jew. There is an aphorism “a little knowledge is dangerous” in his case it was practically lethal. I was reminded of a Rasputin-like type, advising my mother in law over the past year regarding the mourning ritual, unlike Rasputin though without personal gain.  He had insisted that she hold a memorial service for him on a specific date. It had to be on the date he noted otherwise the service would be fruitless. Similarly he instructed her that the appointed day for chanting the kaddish prayer had to be said not on the anniversary of his death but on the anniversary of his interment. Not following these precise instructions he warned, may render the prayers ineffective. In such an event his soul, Shmuel warned, would remain consigned to a state of suspended animation, hovering over this world not being able to cross over to the next. And so she was desperate to reach me with only a few days to go before the appointed time to recite the kaddish, in need of my assurance that come hell or high water, I would be at the synagogue on that appointed day to recite the Kaddish.

Interesting how events take on a life of their own sometimes becoming larger than life. The kaddish had been a prayer developed in Babylonia after the last exile –that’s why it is written in Aramaic, the lingua franca, then of that part of the world. But that prayer was said not after the dead, but at the conclusion of group Torah study. It was only after the Bubonic plague ravaged Europe was the custom adopted to recite the kaddish. It was a way of reaffirming life and faith. Nowhere is death mentioned nor is it the theme of the Kaddish. But as I said, things tend to take on their own life and so too the Kaddish became larger than life.  If there was an afterlife, which my father in law was skeptical about you couldn’t get there without having the kaddish recited for you. Kaddish is like an ATM bankcard all you have to know is the code and wallah, you’re in.

There is a story that if one says the kaddish for the dearly departed the transmigration from this world to the next by way of Jerusalem will be enhanced. Others believe that this is the case for reincarnation: that the soul doesn’t do a physical burrowing underground as though it were an uber groundhog but that a process of reincarnation takes place whereby there is tikkun. So I had two good reasons to say the kaddish for my father in law, a lifelong inhabitant of Haifa who deserved the best life had to offer. I was honored that I could provide for his transmigration, hopefully at warp speed.  I incidentally wondered what effect if any, reciting the kaddish for my father in law would have on me.  

Sitting patiently in the back of the room decked out in my tallit and tefillin, waiting expectantly to recite the kaddish at any moment I was having a hard time following the service. The reader was hardly audible above the din of noise created by little klatches of two and three people waiting for the reader to finish his chanting. Apparently they were bored. Really? I mused. How can that possibly be the case, after all they have been reciting the same prayers for decades day in and day out, six days a week, with little variation except for Shabbat when the routine was amended. Something else was amiss. The order of the service didn’t conform to the prayer book. They were including all the prayers but rearranged the order of things, which threw me off. It reminded me of the difference between philosophy and theology within the Jewish orthodox world where it was permitted to study theology but not philosophy. The difference between the two was significant: In Philosophy one was allowed to remove furnishings as well as move the walls and change the orientation of the room. In theology one was allowed only to rearrange the furnishings but never allowed to remove anything or change the interior walls. Realizing that they were permitted to shake it up I had been caught off guard confused and lost my place in the prayer book resulting in a missed Kaddish. 

Yikes, I missed a kaddish. I hoped my father in law wasn’t suffering or slowed down the pace of his reincarnation because of my incompetence I thought. I wondered how many times kaddish would have to be recited on his behalf if he opted to burrow through the earth on his way to heaven via Jerusalem? I assume the kaddish is like a cosmic renewable energy source propelling him forward. By missing a kaddish would his progress grind to a halt or just slow down? I was determined to be more attentive and not miss another kaddish. After all there were only three or four more opportunities. I wanted to get in as many as I could before rushing home. Also, I wasn’t sure if I could make up the missed one if I stayed for the next service, which would start in 30 minutes. I decided to defer that decision to the last possible minute, determined at least at this point to credit my father in law with the max allotted him from one service. 

Driving home I felt energized and invigorated, speeding as though I was in a cosmic race with my father in law. It was an unfair race with the advantage to him: undoubtedly he must have received added torque this morning as the kaddish was recited.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Big Fish in a Small Pond

Sitting in his courtyard admiring a magnificent but modest dwelling that Fred and Blossom built after innumerable heartaches and aggravation he began to wax philosophical. How lucky can a man be, to have found a soul mate and together with some imagination and chutzpah create a Garden of Eden here on earth, in Jerusalem, the center of the spiritual universe, in the middle of a Farsi slum? And a slum it was in every sense of the word – drug dealers who would steal your sweaty old gym shoes for a hit, a convicted rapists found guilty of incest and other unmentionable crimes. Closed off and protected from all that sat Fred in his courtyard pondering whether it was better to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond. It was an existential question for Fred, a question that wouldn’t give him any peace; just like the question Jews were really obligated to fulfill the commandments of the Torah if one lived in Israel. These and other existential questions didn’t allow Fred the peace that his soul yearned for, marring the beauty of his creation. Sitting in his Garden of Eden was really a fool’s paradise that to the casual observer wouldn't be obvious. Shiloh 16 was like a diamond tossed casually in a drawer filled with costume Jewelry. It shined, but it didn’t get the justice it needed in that tangled mess of junk jewelry. Like a rose in a field of thorns, just like it says in Song of Songs, mused Fred. 

Anyone passing in the street above would never be able to imagine what lies just beyond the steel door separating off Shiloh 16 from the grimy streets of the outdoor markets of Machane Yehudah. Not only that, but anyone entering the courtyard wouldn't have the slightest idea what lies below the smooth and warn flagstones in place for generations that cover the courtyard like a smooth carpet. The exception of one oversized oblong stone among the others, set off center in the rectangular courtyard broke the geometric symmetry of the space. The oversized flagstone was semi camaflouged with an old toilet and sink converted into flowerpots filled with geraniums and sweet scented jasmine resting on that single flagstone as though it were a tombstone marking its gravesite.

On the one hand, perhaps Shiloh 16 could be seen not as a diamond amidst a pile of junk, but a piece of zirconium that appears to be something that it really isn’t. Shiloh 16 appeared to the naked eye as one harmonious home system synchronized, offering its dwellers peace and tranquility blocking out the din of the market and its pollutants, but did it really? On the other hand, mused Fred, perhaps it was a diamond, but an imperfect one, at that. And what is so terrible with an imperfect diamond. How many diamonds are truly perfect? Is there anything in creation that is truly perfect? Even the world we live in, considered Fred, wasn’t perfect. And if one believed the Kabbalists it was intended by God to be imperfect: so that us humans could partner up with Him and make this a more perfect world: Tikkun Olam, Fred laughed referring to that idea as a load of crap! 

As Fred was pondering these weighty thoughts, his vision fixated on that singular, oversized flagstone he was distracted by a jarring echoing knock on the steel door, disturbing the quiet and peacefulness of Fred’s morning. He’d have to  climb 17 stairs to street level in order to unlock the steel door, since Shiloh 16 was built on a downward slope as though part of it was built into the road above with entry from grade level. To access the stairs he first had to exit his Garden of Eden via another decorative gate made of steel bars rather than a solid steel door, walk down a narrow path bordered by an imposing apartment building, which had a storeroom level with the path. That warehouse, a major blight in Fred’s tightly controlled environment, stored spices, extremely pungent and a health hazard due to the prodigious number of vermin and cockroaches that fed off the spices.

Unlocking the solid steal door to his Diamond in the rough was no simple task, for the door opened on to the stairs rather than out to the street. Had the door opened to the street it could slam into passerby or worse, slam into a car. Stepping into the street from the doorway was no easy task either with cars whizzing by in an extremely narrow alley that could get a pedestrian smashed like a bug if one wasn't extremely cautious. 

On this particular early afternoon the man banging on the door was a  problematic neighbor, always accompanied by two huge, filthy and threatening dogs resembling canines that could double for a werewolf thriller. Fred had met Shmulik a few weeks earlier at an early morning excursion to the local neighborhood grocer. Wanting to appear as a hail-fellow from the neighborhood, a ben bayit, he befriended Shmulik, not realizing that this unkempt, bearded, middle-aged man had a past that would cause him and Blossom sleepless nights. Buying a loaf of fresh bread and sour cream he shook hands with Shmulik inviting him over for a cup of coffee, never realizing for a moment with whom he was dealing. Warning bells should have gone off when Fred smelled a slight scent of whiskey from Shmulik and when he saw Shmulik buying a bottle of arak, wrapped in a paper bag instead of the typical diaphanous plastic bag so ubiquitous in Israel.  Shmulik accepting the invitation entered Fred’s domain with his dogs, taking over practically the entire living room, sniffing around including Fred's crotch, which brought him into an frenzied panic and a cold sweat. For a fleeting moment Fred was debating what chair to offer Shmulik, and at the last minute offered him a straight back wooden chair, avoiding the richly upholstered antique easy chair which remained unoccupied during the visit. It wasn't as though the chair had any unique provenance, but it did have a history and wasn't offered to every guest gracing the pride of this Farsi slum. The dogs circled the chair, sniffed it relentlessly, with a nearly uncontrollable passion, stunning Shmulik. Fred of course understood the spell that the dogs were under and was enjoying the spectacle.

Since that first visit, Fred and Blossom had learned the sordid details of Shmulik’s history. He had just been released from prison, having been away for the past twenty-five years on rape and incest. This wasn't alleged - no he was a convicted violent felon of the worst kind, and he had been a guest in Fred and Blossom’s home. In retrospect, his very presence seemed to have violated the beauty and innocence of this veritable Garden of Eden, this imperfect diamond in a field of thorn bushes. Having heard this news Fred was compelled to find confirmation from a reputable source, by seeking out his neighbor, Gideon. Gideon, a convicted drug dealer had for a short time shared a cell with Shmulik and the facts were facts. Gideon was a different sort; it was hard for Fred to imagine him in a prison cell with a convicted rapist. Gideon had a heart of gold, protective of Blossom and Fred, instructing the neighborhood toughs to lay off of them. It wasn't always like that. As a matter of fact there was a time when Gideon allegedly snatched Fred's gym bag, which normally wouldn't have been a big deal because what's in a gym bag anyway? The problem was that Fred had just sprung for a new pair of running shoes that set him back a month's salary. He ran in them just twice. Forgetting his bag on the street one day, he ran back to retrieve it only to find that it was gone. Fred had placed it down a few feet from where Gideon lived and knocking on his door asked him if he had seen it. When Gideon realized whom the bag's owner was he said that he'd look around for it and put the word out. Within an hour the bag and all its contents had been returned. It was obvious that Gideon took it with he intention of fencing the new Nikes, but having a heart of gold returned it to his neighbor.

Figuring out a way to defriend Shmulik without insulting him became another of Fred’s pressing problems, perhaps more so than considering other crushing issues of the day like whether Israel should have remedied the Palestinian issue immediately after the six-day war when the opportunity presented itself and when Israel was in a strong position to do so.  Fred certainly couldn’t find peace of mind either when considering that the preponderance of Jewish law may have become obsolete with the creation of Israel’s version of the Internal Revenue Service, negating the need for rabbinic Judaism, an invention of the Diaspora. How liberating that would be! More liberating perhaps would be the method by which Fred could defriend Shmulik without fear of reprisal. It was with this concern that prompted Fred to greet Shmulik and his dogs with a toothy smile welcoming him to his quaint home. He was determined however not to invite him in where it was closed to prying eyes, but to host him in the courtyard where they could be viewed by the yeshiva students who studied in the other three story building that towered over Shiloh 16.

The yeshiva and its leering students located on the third floor overlooking Fred and Blossom’s courtyard presented Blossom with a thorny problem: her inability to sunbath in a bikini. In fact the spiritual guide and leader of the yeshiva, Rabbi Meloomad advised her that she was expected to dress modestly as long as the yeshiva was in session and students were present, notwithstanding that it was her personal property. For the sake of maintaining good neighbor relations Blossom complied. Another troublesome problem was the custom of sounding the shofar daily during the month of Elul at the crack of dawn, denying Blossom and Fred elemental sleep that all sentient beings needed for survival. Notwithstanding these minor ripples, Fred was happy that he kept good relations with those fanatics. At least they would serve as reliable witnesses and perhaps for once, Fred would be able to appreciate the logic of the rabbis when they always argued for the necessity of a Mashgiach Tamidi, a permanent religious overseer: to prevent the possibility of committing a sin. Here to, Fred reasoned, by virtue of the fact that they would be in full view of the prying eyes of yeshiva students they would serve unknowingly but convincingly as religious overseers, and Shmulik would be reluctant to do something untoward.

They sat in the patio for an indeterminate amount of time, Fred getting bored as Shmulik hadn't much to say, other than the fact that he kept on commenting on his dogs’ infatuation with that oversized singular flagstone as evident by their tireless circling, sniffing and barking in a sign of frustration. Shmulik insisted that there was something that the dogs wanted to get at, but Fred was dismissive of his curiosity. Shmulik too getting up from his comfortable spot in the shaded part of the patio joined the dogs, circling the flagsone trying to figure out what was irritating the dogs. Not being able to solve the problem he and the dogs departed:  Fred heaving a sigh of great and bountiful relief, promising himself that he must find a way to avoid this malefactor.

Fred was reminded of the adage when in doubt do nothing, and fortunate for him that he did nothing to curb his relationship with Shmulik. A few days later, running into Gideon, he learned that the Jerusalem police arrested Shmulik for burglary. Sitting complacently in his patio, protected and feeling safe from the likes of that sex offender and contemplating whether there was a cosmic connection between the holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel Fred was disturbed by a knock on the door. Feeling confident that it couldn't be of a threatening nature he opened the door to be greeted by the sewerage department of the municipality. They had come for two reasons: scheduled annual maintenance of the cesspool and to inform him that this would be the last time this service would be rendered. Henceforth he was obligated to hook up to the city sewer system. Frustrated, Fred claimed that for the past year he and Blossom had tried but were met with resistance from the neighbors who refused to allow the hook since Fred and Blossom were Ashkenazi. Without the good will of their Farsi neighbors there was no way they could connect to the city sewerage system. They were boxed in. 

Normally, Fred wasn’t mindful of the cesspool holding all their waste was just below his pristine courtyard. There were times however, during a hamsin when there was a slight detectable odor that Blossom found unsettling. Imagine, she chided, having a party with the barbeque going and invited guests begin inhaling the most unsavory of odors mingled with the delicious aroma of smoking meats. How, she asked do you explain to invited guests that a foot below where they stood was a cesspool; the flagstone on which they are standing is the only thing between them and the unvarnished reality?

And once again, Fred recalled that adage, because ultimately he believed a pleasant solution was always found; the kind where there minimal friction, what is known in Sanskrit as sug-shema, frictionless. Those are the best solutions. That fall, a solution screaming sug-shema came in the way of a professor who wanted to buy the house, sight unseen. In a rush, he waved the right for a building engineer to check out the structure, mechanics, electrical, water and plumbing. Perhaps there was a god after all, giving pause for a moment to Fred’s agnosticism. Headed to New York, Fred once again began pondering the question whether it was better to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a very large pond. Fred was about to find out.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Crepe Paper
Shael Siegel

It may be counterintuitive but Jerusalem on the Shabbat is an awful place to be stuck, especially if one is not ritually observant in the conventional sense of the word. Worse however is being stranded in Jerusalem during two of the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover and Succot. The third festival, Shavuot doesn’t count. It was orphaned, abandoned by the righteous pilgrims, not deserving of a trip to Jerusalem. Apparently Shavuot is an afterthought as it was thousands of years ago when it was first parlayed into the pilgrimage festival circuit. Besides, it’s only a one-day holiday in Israel, insignificant compared to the other two pilgrimage festivals each 7 days. Being a one-day holiday it doesn’t seem worth the effort and money to celebrate the giving of the law in Israel. 

During Passover and Succot Jerusalem is subjected to an unsustainable influx of American religious Jewish pilgrims. It is these two holidays of the Jewish calendar when American frum* pilgrims blanket Jerusalem in their finest and frankly, are in your face. It is their opportunity to flaunt their blessings, displayed eagerly, promenading bombastically in their exquisite outfits and jewelry totally unsuitable for a middle eastern climate, as if to be saying to the hoi polloi, take notice, admire me. The men outfitted in black Borsalinos, no feather, the type with a 3 or 4-inch wide brim as though competing with the flying nun.  Their pomposity knows no limits as evidenced by their keen swagger when walking to synagogue their lulavim* and inflated priced and oversized etrogim encased in fine silver, in hand. 

For those who own apartments in Jerusalem this is the season when the otherwise deserted apartments comes to life; the rest of the year they sit vacant and dark, contributing nothing to the community but soaring real estate prices. But for those less fortunate, nothing but the best for these religious, modest, but not humble pilgrims, who will hotel only in the best establishments. These 5 star luxury class hotels were built and designed to enhance their religious experience providing them with the cushy accoutrements of spas and the like for no other reason than to aid them in processing the profound impact made on these souls by their spiritual encounter. 

These and other unsavory thoughts were going through Fred’s mind one Shabbat afternoon after Passover during the counting of the Omer*, as he was strolling through the quiet and frankly depressing streets of Jerusalem, which weren’t exactly the most esthetic. It was he thought the religious American Jews which create this striking contrast between the “haves and the have not’s”. During the holiday season their presence is a stark backdrop to the lackluster, financially strapped modest religious locals, challenged in fulfilling the commandments and ritual observances accompanying the holidays made even harder by the high bar established by these bombastic pilgrims. These thoughts prompted Fred to recall a New Years Eve blowout party years ago where after the guests departed and all that was left was the clean up crew, the nebbishes making minimum wage. That, in many ways, mused Fred was one of the dynamics that moved religious Jerusalem. It was akin to the chalukah, the Diaspora Jews supporting the religious communities in Israel, in the late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. In spite of the fact that Israel was an independent powerful state with a growing economy, for the religious there was still this mentality that the wealthy Americans Jews will take care of us, as they did in the old days. And Fred was thinking to himself, you bet they will take care of us, and slowly an idea began to germinate. 

No matter how cosmopolitan one views Jerusalem, no matter how international one would like to imagine Jerusalem it is a backwater town, not much different than Haifa with the exception that it prides itself on being the home of Hebrew University and although in the same postal zone its light years away. On second thought, Fred reconsidered, Jerusalem is really no different than Safed, Tiberias and Hebron, the other three sister cities of Jerusalem that have been rendered holy by the sages. The one exception of course is that Jerusalem boasts of the great Lithuanian rabbinical yeshivot gracing the city as jewels adorn god’s crown as he sits on his throne, admiring his creation. And it has one other feature conspicuously absent from the other holy cities; magnificent hotel accommodations, the last word in luxury living, catering to the idiosyncratic needs of the meticulously observant Jewish pilgrims.

The obsession over Jerusalem, the quintessential religious experience for the Jewish pilgrim made palatable by the luxury accommodations stood in stark contrast to Fred’s reason for living in Jerusalem who a decade before, moved to Israel. Unlike, these fair weather pilgrims, Fred believed in the Zionist ideology   and its consummate political expression, Israel and was willing and able to act on his principles. Unfortunately, like his co-religionists he was tangibly spoiled, unable to acclimate fully to Jerusalem’s spartan standards. Truth be told, Fred lived in Jerusalem not by choice but by default.

When Fred first arrived in Israel as an oleh* he was sent from the airport directly to an immigration center in upper Nazareth. In the middle of his first night at the center not able to sleep well he thought he was having a religious experience, a vision of someone standing at the foot of the bed as though it was an apparition. Coming to his senses he realized this was no apparition but his roommate, a middle aged single Russian oleh standing at the foot of his bed stark naked. Trying to befriend Fred he showed this frightened young immigrant his numerous scars from different Russian battles as though they were campaign ribbons on his dress uniform on parade. In a state of shock Fred got his stuff together early that morning and hitched a ride to anywhere. Asking the driver where he was headed, Yerushalayim, the driver said. Fantastic, Fred replied, that's where I am headed. That in a nutshell, is how Fred landed up in the backwater religiously oppressive spiritual center of the universe, the holy city of Jerusalem. That was ten years ago. 

Fred enrolled as a graduate student at Hebrew University arranging his schedule as such that he would never spend Shabbat in Jerusalem. For Fred, it would be inconceivable to pass 24 hours each weekend in Jerusalem, where the city came to a dead halt, no public transportation, little entertainment in west Jerusalem, bars closed. In short, other than visiting a yeshiva for schnapps and to attend a shir to study Torah there was little to do. Yes, there were parties on Friday night, rotating through different apartments, but this too became routine and predictable. He yearned for the energy pulsing through a city, like Tel Aviv, where bars were open all night, where there was an abundance of women, where you never knew how the night would end. And then Saturday was always promising with a bright sun and a day at the beach, or just a casual brunch at a small bistro in a bohemian neighborhood before heading back to the holy city. On the rare occasion that he was stranded in Jerusalem he slept as late as possible, knowing that there really was no point in getting up. How long can you read the weekend paper until you go nuts?

On that particular Shabbat between Passover and the orphaned holiday Shavuot, regrettably stranded in Jerusalem, Fred was still obsessing over having witnessed once again the spiritual pillage of the American pilgrims. Recalling their prancing with arrogance through the city streets as though they owned it, triggered another negative thought. Certain things were clearly absent from his life - things that Fred liked and missed desperately. Certain foods, different scents and sights were things that he occasionally missed, but one thing that he couldn't overcome was the choice and variety of toilet paper that could be bought dirt cheap in any city in America. The poorest of the poor in America, thought Fred, had infinitely better toilet paper than he had. The toilet paper in Israel typically an ugly shade of grey, had the consistency of crepe paper, stretchy, course and hard on the skin reminding him of the bread of affliction, the poor man’s bread celebrated in the Passover Haggadah. This was poor man’s toilet paper, it was afflicting. True enough, one could buy a better quality paper but the cost was prohibitive and Fred being a full time graduate student was budgeted.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Pondering those issues on that hot and boring Shabbat, Fred realized that perhaps he could cash in on these religious pilgrims. These weren't like the deeply pious Jews or righteous Christians who stayed in modest accommodations. Seeking out religious transcendence didn't prohibit these pretentious Jews from staying at the best hotels that Jerusalem could offer. Those hotels were noted for the luxuriously appointed public bathrooms stocked with name brand toiletries catering to guests to lazy to return to their rooms when in need. They weren’t public bathrooms in the typical sense of the word: a schnook off the street would be blocked from entering. Fred realized that he could gain entrĂ©e to the public space in these hotels if he approached the entrance as though he was an American guest. Who would stop him from entering? All he had to do was dress appropriately and greet the doorman in colloquial American English and he' be in. Naturally on his back would be slung a backpack that he'd need later.

Fred never had the gumption to execute his plan because essentially he had a strong moral compass, a system of ethics that guided him into doing the right thing. Fred torn between his need for soft toilet paper and his sense of doing the right thing repressed his nefarious plan until meeting Blossom who rocked his world. He had never felt about a woman like that before and never wanted to be away from her. Whenever she went back to Haifa to visit her parents for a Shabbat he felt like a lost puppy. He would even walk over to her apartment knowing that she was gone for the weekend and leave her notes under the door. She too was a student at Hebrew University but unlike the other students he dated she was totally unconventional with a very low fear threshold, which heightened his attraction to her. It was on one of those lazy Shabbat mornings that Fred bared his soul to Blossom. "Blossom" he said, " I know this sounds bourgeoisie but I miss having high quality toilet paper" he said sheepishly, not knowing how she would react. He quickly explained that although he missed fine toilet paper he didn't want her to think that he was a superficial, spoiled American. He argued the point that while the founding fathers of Israel had more important things on their minds it is conceivable that even though they stressed the value of simplicity, pashdut, they too possibly dreamt of the day when they would be able to afford soft, pastel colored toilet paper. Desiring high quality toilet paper definitely didn't diminish his ideological commitment to Israel he reasoned. Blossom not being spoiled since she was an Israeli, had spent many years in the African bush and was sympathetic to Fred's needs. As soon as Fred felt reassured he shared with Blossom his fool proof, fail-safe method of acquiring all the toilet paper he would ever need. Blossom loved the idea, underscoring the fact that having Romanian lineage she appreciated Fred's novel solution to a festering problem.

The following Saturday, which had coincidentally been Shabbat Mevarchim*, they casually walked over to one of the luxury hotels. Dressed in jeans, sneakers, a Blackhawks cap perched on his head, Fred holding hands with Blossom greeted the doorman with a midwestern accent, gained immediate access to the cool and comfortable lobby. After a few minutes of small talk but before a waitress came by for their order, Fred excused himself and with his backpack casually sashayed to the men's bathroom. Bending down on all fours he checked that the four stalls were empty. Quickly picking the simple lock on the toilet paper dispenser he placed the soft precious toilet paper in his backpack, but was surprised to discover that the toilet paper dispenser carried an additional emergency roll. Revealing this emboldened Fred to empty out the other stalls quickly before his opportunity was cut short by a pilgrim in search of relief. Collecting his stash he realized that due to this unexpected windfall he would be set for a few months, if rationed. 

Leaving the hotel with his backpack loaded, smug in his success he considered suggesting to Bluma that they hit another luxury hotel a few blocks away. Fred however was reminded of that old adage “pigs get slaughtered”. And so they continued on their way holding hands, all the while reviewing in his mind ways of improving his technique so that the next time the toilet paper heist would be more efficiently executed. Fred promised himself that next time he would enter with newspaper stuffed in his bag giving the impression that the bag was full, so that when he left he would substitute the newspaper for toilet paper, thus not arousing any suspicion. 

Niggling though at Fred ethical side was the troublesome thought that a hotel guest in need of a public bathroom off the lobby might find himself in an embarrassing situation with the toilet paper and reserve rolls gone; on the other hand, it was Shabbat Mevarchim, the holy Shabbat preceding the new moon when we beseech god for among other things, material blessings – a life of wealth.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Raising Cain At Shiloh

Shael Siegel

The cement truck slowly pulled up to Shiloh 16 in the Nachlaot section of Jerusalem just before a moonless mid-night under a cloud cover as planned weeks before between the owners of the three room house and the one armed contractor who always enjoyed a challenge. The modest three-room house was tucked in low and tight between two, three story dilapidated apartment buildings one housing low rental units the other a Farsi rabbinical academy of questionable standards. 

The owners of the small house, Blossom and Fred had contracted the one armed builder, Froika two years before in what appeared to be an impossible task: To build a three-room house out of a one room 19th century shack that had no running water, electricity or plumbing for a paltry sixty thousand dollars.  That was all the money they would be able to scratch together through government loans and help from her parents. Their only other option had been to buy a one bedroom, government subsidized apartment in a depressing poured concrete block of apartments called “shikoonim” in an area that was considered occupied territory. Neither Fred nor Blossom had the inclination to live in a neighborhood where they weren’t wanted nor in a government subsidized drab, colorless building that reminded them of communist era building style ubiquitous in Soviet bloc satellite countries. No, this young couple, flirting with the bohemian counterculture was on the cutting edge. Weighing their limited options they decided to push the envelope, go for broke and buy a dilapidated hovel with no hook up to the municipal sewerage, no electricity; a shanty that was slated to be torn down along with the rest of the Farsi slum.

Fred had no significant input in the initial purchase of the property. He knew in general terms that they had optioned out of any government subsidized apartments on the west bank, but beyond that they hadn’t thought of a realistic option. As a matter of fact he hadn’t been aware that his beloved and trusted Blossom was doing this deal against all odds and on her own. Fred had been on reserve duty, without a worry in the world; unbeknown to him that their slim savings was about to be thrown to the wind. It was like an act of a desperate man gambling his last few bucks hoping against all hope that he will hit the jackpot. Upon Fred’s return from reserve duty and learning of this risky and unwise gambit, but believing that a husband should always be supportive, was one hundred percent behind Blossom’s insightful and wise decision to “steal” the property at a price that couldn’t be beat. When visiting the property for the first time upon returning from reserve duty and hearing of the municipality’s intentions to demolish the blighted area he for the first time in his young adult life felt hopeless unable to imagine shouldering this financial debacle. 

Blossom, self confident and with a vision, wasn’t concerned that the area was earmarked for the wrecking ball leaving no chance that the city would agree to an electrical hook-up to the city grid and a water line to the sewerage in order to eliminate the outhouse. For Blossom, it was only a challenge to see how long it would take to charm the do-nothing vacuous clerks into giving her what she wanted. She knew the system and knew how to game it to her advantage.   

The building plans, pretentious as they were prepared by an elite architectural firm, friends of the family, recommended a Technion educated, high-end contractor, who enjoyed hobnobbing with the hoity-toity. The architect thought his recommendation appropriate since the design concept was a boutique style that couldn’t be understood by a builder that was anything but highfalutin. When Blossom and Fred met with the contractor, explaining that it would be difficult to receive a building permit due to the city’s plan for demolishing the neighborhood he backed out not wanting to associate with anyone or anything perceived as sketchy. Upon sensing their bitter disappointment he suggested sardonically that they buy a lottery ticket and pray to the Baba Sali, a known kabbalist and miracle worker whom every Sephardic obscurantist venerated.

Finding a contractor would be difficult since no self-respecting contractor would risk his license taking on a project without the building permits. With her back up against the wall, and encouraged by her luck in convincing the city clerk to approve of a water and electrical hook-up to the city grid she understood the power of persuasion she held over people. That coupled with the determination and chutzpah of a sabra to have her way Blossom systematically combed Jerusalem for a hungry builder in search of a project who would assess the imagined benefits as greater than the looming risk. 

After weeks of searching she met Froika who made little impression on Blossom. Her skepticism was compounded when she compared this “down on his luck” member of the hoi polloi to the smooth and schmaltzy contractor who sent her away wishing her luck. It was Froika’s naive enthusiasm that drew Blossom in for a second look at this odd man. Yet she was worried about doing business with a man who didn’t engender the professionalism that she was accustomed to. For starters he had one arm; the left had been amputated above the elbow and it was hard to imagine him in the construction business with one arm. “I mean”, she thought, “How can a one armed man pound a nail into a board, much less put up a wall”? How will he be able to unroll building plans tightly wound like a spring, spread them out and keep them from springing back like a slinky with only one hand? Furthermore his appearance was distracting and disturbing especially when he became agitated. His left arm, or what was left of it above the elbow would begin flaying like a chicken chased by a fox. Fred had commented to Blossom when looking at him that he was reminded of a beached penguin, helpless at first blush but quite resourceful when necessity dictated. 

Necessity for Froika presented itself when told by Fred and Blossom that there was no chance of pulling the building permits. You could see the adrenalin rise in him as his left arm began twitching in every which way as should be when Jews have for eons been conditioned to speak with their hands, as he began cursing out the mayor, the city, its inspectors and the entire bureaucratic apparatus. “Ach ach, not to worry”, Froika reassured the young couple. We’ll do this in the tradition of the pioneers who built settlements under the nose of the British and in spite of them: “Migdal V’choma” “tower and wall”*, remember, he asked as though testing their historical knowledge of pre-state days? “We will do what Jews under attack know how to do best”! Skeptical as Fred and Blossom were, one-armed Froika with his team of daredevil construction workers managed, under the watchful eyes of the city inspectors and police to build without a building permit a three room palace with electricity and water - but no plumbing connection to the municipal sewerage. 

That had been two years ago. But now Blossom and Fred, expecting their first child were in need of more space; hence the need for Froika’s considerable talents at obfuscation for they were in need of raising Cain – as Fred put it. “A second floor”, exclaimed Froika, “are you mad”? The city has gotten stricter 
and likely to execute the demolition order and tear down the whole slum. “My advice to you - don’t waste any more of your money”. Nevertheless Blossom and Fred prevailed, convincing Froika that this is exactly the kind of project that would cap his brilliant career as a master builder and champion of the “people” in the face of adversity.

Froika managed to get the rebar, pilings and other requisites in place and prepped for the pouring of the concrete without being discovered.  Froika met with Blossom and Fred to discuss the next and most challenging phase: pouring the concrete without being discovered by the neighbors. The locals were apt to inform the city if they realized that Ashkenazi yuppies were discovered building a second story. These Farsi poor were suspicious that more younger upward mobile couples would move in saving the city the expense of tearing down the Farsi slum. By upgrading the neighborhood in this fashion the city would avoid the expense of razing the slum, relocating the poorer tenants while realizing the added benefit of increased taxes – never mind the hardship to the local tenants who barely had enough to get through life with dignity.

Froika presented the alternatives: Call in the cement truck at early evening, before people got home from work, when traffic thinned out enough to be able to maneuver a ten ton, six axle cement mixing truck through the meandering narrow alleyways. Another option was to call in the truck at midnight while everyone was asleep, streets deserted, void of traffic, thus easier to get in and out quickly. He presented the options to the nervous couple as though he was a battle hardened field marshal preparing for an operation behind enemy lines, having to consider the cover of night, weather conditions, traffic and possible collateral damage. Having chosen option “B” Froika pointed out that there was an outside chance, that some of the neighbors may not be asleep or that perhaps the truck’s powerful revving engine would generate enough noise to wake the entire city. In that case however, the work would be so swift he rationalized that “we’d be in and out before anyone would really realize what happened” and, he added that he would instruct his crew to work silently. Froika also insisted that the designated night would be with little or no moon, preferably with cloud coverage to maximize darkness.

As zero hour approached, Blossom and Fred’s nerves were frayed frayed; they kept obsessing over being caught in the act imagining the worst. Not having the patience to listen to their concerns, fears and negativity Froika advised them to stay far away from ground zero and wait near a phone for the all clear.  Not being able to wait Fred suggested to Blossom that they take an innocent walk at around midnight. “There’s no law against eating falafel at midnight around the Nachlaot area, is there?” Fred asked Blossom rhetorically. And so they walked, falafel in hand through the dark, deserted market place to Shiloh 16. From a distance they heard the labored revving motor of the cement truck. The noise was so disturbingly loud that it caused the tenuous ancient buildings to vibrate since the cement truck had only inches of clearance from the buildings on both sides of the alleyway. “No one would be able to sleep through this” Blossom thought, breaking into a nervous sweat, beginning to hyperventilate. “Even the veteran Jerusalemites who went through two wars and constant shelling from the Jordanians couldn’t have slept through this”, she worried.  And sure enough their fears were confirmed when at first they heard the faint sounds of sirens, growing louder every second and then the reflection of the blue and red flashing lights reflecting off windows on Agrippa street becoming more prominent and ominous every second. 

Before Fred had a chance to calm Blossom she took off like a bat out of hell screaming at Fred to join her in an escape.  Fred catching up with her tried convincing her that the sirens were purely coincidental having nothing to do with them. He entreated her not to run, but to look calm as though they, two lovers, were taking a romantic walk through the market place at midnight. As the siren became louder and the patrol car drew closer, Blossom bolted for cover. Turning a corner, she ran into the arms of a waiting police officer who began questioning her. All the while, the laborers finishing the concrete work took off in every direction reminding Fred of cockroaches on the kitchen counter top scampering in every which way once the lights are suddenly turned on. What a scene! Faster than you can blink an eye the cement truck disappeared, not a construction worker to be found, total quiet in the neighborhood with none other than Blossom being questioned by the cops. Still holding onto his half eaten soggy falafel for dear life as tahini dripped down his hand Fred heeding his own advice held back in the shadows around the corner listening in on the police questioning Blossom. 

Apparently the cops thought that Blossom was a local drug-seeking whore servicing the Arab construction workers.  Anticipating some free action they forgot about the noise disturbance and construction work without a permit. Finishing the last morsels of his falafel Fred tried to digest all that had just happened and wasn’t sure at this point what to do. Trained in Talmudic reasoning and philosophy Fred began debating the problem rather than take action. Blossom was his wife – he couldn’t just leave without coming to her aid. On the other hand, he reasoned, why get dragged into a bad situation. It wouldn’t do Blossom any good he rationalized if he too was arrested. Better let Blossom take the heat in the short run while he think of what to do: she was tough and could take the heat more than he could. Nevertheless, Fred couldn’t leave her flapping in the wind.

Deciding to come out of the shadows and confront the police Fred’s strategy was two-fold: Not to admit that they were married, but to make his presence known and thereby disarm them from any intentions of having their way with the Blossom. And demonstratively show disbelief that Blossom was a drug-seeking hooker since he recognized her as a student at the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University. He knew the police would buy it because Fred’s American accent and his preppy look would be totally convincing. 

After a few more minutes of convincing, apologies and handshakes, it seemed that she had become best friends with the Jerusalem police. They let her go: Blossom promising to invite them over some time soon for coffee. This seemed to be a stroke of genius on her part, considering the slum they lived in; having police friends could come in handy. As the patrol car left the scene Fred and Blossom jogged back to Shiloh 16 to cast a coin into the wet cement for good luck. 

Just as they completed their coin toss the intrepid Froika stepped out from the shadows appearing smug to Blossom and Fred whispering two words: migdal v’choma. The three of them standing before the freshly poured cement breathing in the damp air smelling of the pungent cement couldn’t help think that they made a great team: raising cain. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Shael Siegel

The first time I met Moshe Posnitz was in Jerusalem, 1977. He was walking down a half flight of stairs with a towel slung over his right shoulder. His attire consisted of an old pair of tan shorts reminiscent of the pre-state days and an old yellowed undershirt that should have been turned into a rag years ago. Incongruous with his age and apparel were his flip-flops from a different time. They were worn so thin as to resemble those paper throw-aways given to clients having received a pedicure. so they can shuffle over to the manicure chair without disturbing the polish. He was of average height and appeared to be in his 70’s; at least that’s what a fare-skinned, blue-eyed, short cropped-grey haired, pot- bellied man would seem like to a thirty year old—perhaps he was younger. I have no way of knowing, nor wilI I ever know.

In the three years I knew him, we hardly spoke a word to each other, which was odd considering we were so close in proximity. He was my next-door neighbor sharing a common wall. More than that, the common wall we shared was the divider between his one room and my bedroom. It was even more intimate than that: the wall that we shared had a door that was locked on my side, as I’m sure it was locked on his as well (sort of like a hotel room with the possibility of adjoining the rooms). I guess he may have creeped me out a little.  When I moved in, I intentionally shoved a  large, oak wardrobe up against the wall, a product of Beit Jalla in the occupied territory, making sure that it covered completely any sign that a door was extant except for the high arch typical of old Arab construction.

I had been traumatized earlier in my initial aliya when I was rooming in an absorption center in upper Nazareth. My roommate was a middle-aged Russian immigrant, who, in the middle of the night appeared at the foot of my bed naked showing me his various scars earned like medals and ribbons from World War II. It was undoubtedly a very lonely and difficult time for this immigrant who probably sacrificed so much in order to immigrate to Israel. I imagined that he suffered much deprivation and witnessed horrible things, having lived through World War II, the Stalin years and the harshness of communism. He hadn’t family with him and I was afraid to ask about that, fearing that it would be difficult for me to process his tragic past. Unlike me, who spoke passable Hebrew, he didn’t know a word and was reduced to a baby trying to make himself understood. In spite of my sympathy for him, I wasn’t thrilled when entering our room one day I caught him rummaging through my belongings.  He was trying to protect me, he claimed, making sure that my “documents” weren’t exposed since there were known thieves at the absorption center. He advised me to secret all of my “papers” under the mattress. Needless to say I didn’t tarry there much longer.

Moshe Posnitz struck me as a lonely man although he never confided that to me, nor was there ever a “show and tell” session where he exposed himself and his scars. In fact, he rarely spoke to me and when he did, it was to complain about something I had done. “Your music is too loud” he’d mumble, rarely making eye contact. Or he’d complain that I was impinging on his turf at the entryway, which was shared, but with no demarcation between what was his and what was mine.

I was single and it seemed typical of my generation to still be flirting with life and searching for fun—I was not quite ready to settle down, never feeling alone although perhaps lonely at times. I never saw a guest enter his room nor did I ever see him dress to “go out”. The contrast between his personal status and mine was stark but nevertheless ominous. I was curious about how he lived, as though having more detail would blunt the truth about my own future. Although there was a thick wall separating Moshe’s existence from mine, he nevertheless succeeded in penetrating my consciousness. To be blunt I was afraid that I was destined to become Moshe Posnitz in the years ahead; a lonely impoverished old man whose entire universe was packed into one room.  I tried convincing myself that I was nothing remotely like him. I was a healthy young man with a bright and promising future, living in this apartment only as a temporary pass through. Deep down however, I couldn’t help thinking that his presence in my life was a sign of my imminent future. His presence was an omen: a vision of who I was to ultimately become and I found the thought oppressive. Lying in bed, staring up at the arch above the wardrobe I tried imagining who Moshe Posnitz had once been. What was he like as a young man? Did he have promise as an artist, writer or intellectual? I didn’t think that he had gone through the Holocaust, since there wasn’t a number tattooed on his arm. But perhaps he was in a resistance movement during the war and suffered greatly, maybe loosing his family. Perhaps he had fought in the War of Independence, was severely wounded, and reduced to his current existence through no fault of his. Fate. I promised myself to engage him in conversation when the opportunity would present itself. It never did. In any case, I felt that I needed to be kinder towards him even though he wasn’t open to my friendship. 

His door was usually open along with the window opposite the door for ventilation. I don’t think he owned a refrigerator, because his one or two apples, and an occasional tomato or cucumber were always parked on the windowsill. One naked incandescent light bulb hung from a frayed wire, suggesting that this room could have been a movie set for a KGB interrogation room in a ‘b” movie. That was all I could see from the doorway, as I would pass by slowly, careening my neck nonchalantly in the hope of gathering other details that would reveal something about this unusual man. I was always disappointed that it only took a few small steps to cross the breadth of the doorway—his personal possessions hidden from my line of vision.  

Although Moshe Posnitz never interacted with me in a socially meaningful manner, he did relate to the elderly Mrs. Liebschitz who shared his other wall with him.  Moshe Posnitz, sandwiched between the elderly Mrs. Liebschitz and me. What a thought! They fought like cats and dogs, mainly about petty things like usage of the clothesline.  Sometimes the rage went over the line, perhaps suggesting to a time when they had been passionate and illicit lovers. Now, all that remained was scorn. Sometimes the complaints were legitimate, like how much time he took or she took in the outhouse that was a half landing above our floor.  

I could never understand how anyone could or would spend much time in there. It was drafty and not very comfortable. Most of all, it wasn’t very private. The outhouse was constructed on an outside stairway, what is referred to as “Florida” style construction like a motel, except this one was two stories and built out of rugged Jerusalem stone. Neighbors living on the second floor would have to pass the outhouse going up the stairs and could hear private sounds through the flimsily constructed door. Similarly, the occupant could also hear the footsteps approaching or receding causing anxiety, which would have played havoc on my colonic system.

Apparently, that is where Moshe Posnitz was coming from, the first time I met him. The image of him descending the stairs like his namesake Moses, descending Mt. Sinai, left an indelible impression on me. Except Moses, they say, was humble; Moshe Posnitz had an imperious, smug, satisfied look on his face, as though, and unlike Moses, was relieved from unloading such a great burden.  

Moshe was the cause of much of my consternation. Typical of my generation, I hadn’t the privilege of knowing my grandfathers, hence, no clear idea of what older people were like. In a sense, unaware to me, but known to my subconscious, Moshe became the living symbol of what old age was all about. I even fantasized that I physically resembled him, in an Ashkenazi way. Would I become like him when I got older? Would I still be living here, in these primitive conditions, alone in the world when I reached his age? Looking at Moshe Posnitz was, in a sense, looking into my future and that became a life long obsession. 

Coming home from a prolonged trip abroad, I noticed that Moshe’s door was closed which was unusual, considering the season. Later that day I learned that he was gone. Gone, but in no way forgotten. Over the years I have thought much about those three years. During the intermittent years I travelled, raised a family and more than occasionally thought of Moshe. Periodically, I visit that old Jerusalem address and imagine him descending those stone stairs alone without a friend in the world. I am quickly approaching Moshe’s age when I first encountered him. Although my life in no way resembles his, I oftentimes sit back and consider the little I knew of Moshe—the powerful impact he had on that thirty-year old who shared a wall with him for a short three years.