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.