Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ignoring the elephant in the room

I've been putting off writing this post since midway through last week. I still don't want to write it but how can I call myself an Israeli blogger if I keep ignoring the elephant in the room?

Early last week the press latched on to a truly unfortunate story. One of the most respected and admired rabbis in Israel had finally admitted to an uncontrolled compulsion for inappropriate relations with boys who were studying under him.(I'm not being intentionally vague, but until the details are clear, I am trying not to put words into anyone's mouth.)

According to the top-ranked listing in Google for his name: "Rav Mordechai Elon is a highly regarded rabbi and a teacher of enormous popular appeal. Not only is he renowned for his learning, he is a distinguished leader, admired and respected by people in all walks of life. With his ready smile and attentive demeanor, he is never too busy to listen to others, to explain, to advise and to teach."

I think you can fairly assume that that posting is going to have to come down.

I am not going to discuss what the rav did. If it turns out to be as bad as it seems, he is going to have to answer to a much greater power than me and my blog. The ripple effect of his actions will be felt far and wide for a very long time. Anyone sharing his last name might want to consider changing it.

What I am going to discuss is some of the fall-out that I did not initially consider. In greater Israel, this has more to do with religious people covering up for each other rather than a person in a position of authority and respect taking advantage of weaker individuals. The organization that came forward with the story is comprised of some very impressive rabbis who may, in fact, have taken the risk of a professional lifetime by publicizing it. They did the exact opposite of what they are being accused of doing.

What the secular Israelis are focusing on is the belief that the rabbi's proclivities were known to them three years ago and that, instead of going public then, they gave the rabbi the option of moving out of the center of the country and into what I like to call the suburbs of Syria. They also insisted that he was no longer able to interact or teach children.

While that may not have been enough --and if it was your child who was harmed, it surely wasn't enough -- it was better than the Catholic Church in Canada who simply move their deviant priests to another diocese and let them loose on other innocents. Interestingly enough, the parents of the victims did not want the religious authorities to go to the police sooner than they did.

What this one man's poor choices have done -- besides all the obvious damage to the victims, their families, his family, his followers and his friends -- is drive yet another wedge between the two factions of Israelis: the religious and the secular.

For a rabbi who was considered by many as the the most popular rabbi in Israel, his abrupt departure did not go unnoticed. Everyone assume that he was sick or emotionally tapped out. No one considered the sexual deviance option because he was just too big and too holy.

Some people are now saying that he should have controlled his urges. I am not defending the rabbi in any way, but I think that that is much too simplistic an answer. I can't even turn down a bowl of ice cream.

I think the bigger lesson is that even the biggest of the big and the holiest of the holy are still people. We can't put them on pedestals because absolutely no one deserves to be placed there. It's a dangerous practice whether you are religous or not. This includes sports stars, religious leaders, doctors, entertainers, volunteers -- everyone.

People in glass houses should not throw stones and as it turns out, everyone lives in a glass house. Even the elephant in the room.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Taking your life in your hands in Bnei Brak

Once a week for the past three years I have been driving carpool an early morning carpool to my sons’ school in Bnei Brak. How early? Put it this way, rule number one of this exercise is that we have to be on the highway by 7:00 a.m. otherwise the traffic backs up to the point that you might as well stay home until 10:00a.m. because you could walk faster than the cars are moving. That’s how early.

Driving in Israel is a life experience that I could live without at the best of times, but out there on the highway – and later, in the tangled streets of Bnei Brak – you need nerves of driving steel.

If you have the good fortune to find yourself on the highway in non-rush hour traffic, you most likely will eventually witness the driving finesse that I can only attribute to fighter pilots or people with a death wish. The problem in Israel is that the country is full of people who have high-end military basic training. Not the run-of-the-mill stuff that the average soldier needs, but rather, the kind of training that takes months and months, if not a year, to complete. People die in this training – no, not often, but there are some who just don’t make it. And those who do eventually leave the army and get cars. And then, they decide to drive those cars on the highway at the same time that I am out there.

I have seen people cut into another lane without the slightest hint that there is either room to do so or that the driver they are cutting off is inclined to give way. I have seen people driving so fast in the pouring rain, that they spin out, then correct the spin and drive away. If that happened to me, I would pull over to the side, thank God, and call a cab.

So, having survived the craziness I often see on the highway, we usually manage to arrive at the Bnei Brak exit at about 7:10. Here, you meet the exact opposite problem. No one is moving because everyone is trying to move – into the exact same spot – at precisely the same second. In case it isn’t obvious ... this is physically impossible. However, this does not deter people from attempting the same move over and over again.

The key to moving forward under these maxi-grid-conditions is to continue to inch forward consistently. It also involves ignoring all the people yelling at you and trying to out-inch you. You need nerves of steel for this move.

And then when you finally get past this little impasse from hell, you are in Bnei Brak. For those of you who do not know much about Israel, let me tell you that BB is one of the poorest, most crowded cities in the country primarily because most men from BB don’t work. They send their pregnant wives out to work at low paying jobs while they spend their days avoiding their national army service and choosing, instead, to study Torah. As a result, they have no money. However, they have many children.

Many of these men are also responsible for getting their kids out the door to school in the morning, which explains why I almost kill a child at least once per trip. Apparently these fathers are not familiar with the “look-both-ways” concept of my youth. Actually, I still use it with my kids but it is not a common phenomenon in BB. Of course, most of the kids are out on the streets alone and without that looking both ways thing, are prone to running out into what is already the biggest jumble of traffic you can imagine.

I am no fan of the ultra orthodox who populate these neighbourhoods, but I am not interested in killing any of them – particularly the children. I don’t agree with their lifestyle choices but I am not a vigilante correction force of one. We have enough killers just outside our borders. I have no intention of reducing myself to their tactics.

Finally, there are the stupid bus drivers who bully their ways into spots they have no right to be. In Israeil traffic – and particularly in BB traffic – might does make right and the bus drivers live by this motto completely.

I really need room for a diagram here so I can show you how even if I have the right of way and the road is incredibly narrow with cars carelessly parked on either side, the oncoming bus will always lurch forward and position itself so that it is impossible to pass without taking all the paint off the drivers’ side of your car. (I know this from experience.) All they had to do to be decent people and good citizens was give you your God-given right-of-way for all of 10 seconds, and none of the fiascos that occur daily would exist. But nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. That is not the Israeli way.

The Israeli way means not allowing yourself to be a fryer. A fryer is a sucker. And being a sucker is the most anti-Israeli thing an Israeli can do. Eating pork on Yom Kippur is a weak second to being perceived as a sucker in Israel. Therefore, no self-respecting, Israeli-born bus driver is ever going to give way to a stupid CAR (heaven forbid). Of course, I doubt they would give way to a monster truck either. It’s just not in their collective character.

By the time I arrive back in my driveway, I am always amazed the I made it home in one piece. Other than a little shaking and a racing heart beat, I am usually ready to hit the road again for the next week’s carpool.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Real Story

Last night my synagogue held its grand opening. Never mind the fact that we have been in the synagogue for about a year now; in typical Jewish fashion, that makes it about time for the official opening. Most of the kinks are already worked out and the new sanctuary chairs are delivered. The timers on the lights and the air conditioning work most of the time and everyone has already chosen their unofficial favourite spot to sit.

Now since we are a big community of mostly immigrants – and I don’t mean your Ellis Island brand of immigrants circa 1945 – we tend to do things the American way! Having grown up in Canada I am more familiar with the American Way than the Canadian Way. I still have no idea what the Canadian Way is. But the Americans ... when they do something, they do it right. They pull out all the stops. They do not believe in doing things part way. They do not believe in being understated.

If that sounds like a complaint let me assure you that it is not. I don’t think our synagogue would be the place that it has become without the American ‘Can Do’ attitude about pretty much everything. The Canucks would just line up and wait their turn. The Aussies would have a barbie. The Brits would smile a lot but roll their eyes after you left.

And that is why our synagogue is what it is today. Americans are simply incapable of seeing roadblocks that cannot be overcome. Frankly, in true Canadian fashion, I get tired watching them but there is no denying the results.

Back to the event. By the time I left the building last night I was a glob of tears and chocolate. The program, which honoured the building’s namesake Ari Weiss z”l -- a young American-born Israeli soldier who was killed in the line of duty fighting those relentless Fatah and Hamas crazies in a town called Schem.

I live about 20-25 minutes from Schem but it might was well be on another continent. That is, of course, unless your son is one of the Israeli soldiers who is frequently stationed there keeping an eye on the Israel-hating, trigger-happy terrorists.

The program was very touching and provoked more than a few tears. However, I guess I can't help myself because I always notice the tangential weird things that are going on when I am supposed to be paying attention to the program.

The one light moment in the whole event was the Vice Prime Minister of Israel. He was an invited guest and speaker. While he was previously a brigadier general, apparently that job doesn’t come with either a sense of humour or a decent skullcap. Most Israeli bigwigs are not religious, but since this IS Israel, they all know that once in a while they will be called upon to show up in a religious location. Therefore, I don’t see any good reason why each and every one of them (the male bigwigs that is) shouldn’t own a decent skullcap.

While this may seem obvious to some, apparently it does not included VPM Boogie Ya’alon who got up to the podium sporting what can only be called a conical rendition of a yarmulke from Saturday Night Live's Coneheads.

It’s hard to take a guy seriously, even if he is a retired Brigadier General and the sitting VPM, when he looks ridiculous in his kippa. I mean, he is Jewish. It’s not like inviting Barak Obama to Israel. Actually non-Jews frequently come more prepared precisely because they aren't Jewish. They do their homework!

Finally, there was Boogie's (btw, that's his nickname, not his real name. Even in Israel, people do not name their children "Boogie") body guard. I don’t want to minimize Ya’alon’s importance on the world starge and as a result, his assassinate-ability (Yes, I made that word up) but what the heck do these people think is going to happen to him in the middle of Ra’anana?

I think his body guard was thinking the same thing because he kept trying to look busy by talking into his jacket lapel. I couldn’t stop watching him. What on earth was he reporting? “Still all clear here in the synagogue in Ra’anana.” “Nothing happening.” “Oh wait, a middle-aged lady with a camera just stood up.” “Oh, never mind, she was taking a photo.”

I don’t want to jinx my quiet little community, but in terms of danger, it is not on the same level with Washington, London, Jerusalem, Hadera or Schem.... where this whole story began.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Batten down the hatches: winter in Israel

For the third day in a row the mercury has fallen to 12 degrees Celcius. For you Americans and Brits out there, that is 56 degrees Fahrenheit. For you non-Israelis out there, in Israel, this is simply cold.

When I was growing up there were many summers where the temperature never reached 75 degrees F. Of course, I was a different person then, and all it took was the slightest sign that the sun was trying to burst through the clouds, and we would all run home and put on our shorts ... and a ski sweater. We were desperate. Not stupid.

Since I grew up on the ocean's coast I just assumed that this was what summer was like in Canada. Years later, when I moved to Toronto, I found out exactly how misinformed I was. After 18 years without air conditioning -- who the heck needed air conditioning? -- I went to live in a city where one couldn't sleep without AC for a good three weeks every summer.

Actually, there was the one summer that I spent in Israel when I was 17. The day we arrived for our seven-week summer program it was 104 degrees F. I had no idea that such a temperature existed outside of the oven. Although everyone was speaking hebrew and I had no idea what was going on, the one thing I remember from my first week of the trip was that someone fried an egg on the street or on the hood of someone's car. Yes, it was that hot and I suffered. (I will spare you the details of my symptoms. Those of you who were there with me will remember and the rest of you don't need to know.)

Back to Toronto -- the place I lived when I bought my first air conditioner. Best $350 I ever spent. I sold it 16 years later for $100. Inflation was on my side.

So then we moved to Israel in the middle of August. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that I had no idea that I had so much excess fluid in my body until I started changing my clothes three times a day out of sheer necessity. Even antiperspirant didn't stand a chance for more than three hours.

I was so hot, so much, so long, that I prayed for winter. And this is yet another reminder of why one should be careful for what one prays for ... YOU MIGHT ACTUALLY GET IT.

Winter is Israel is nothing like winter in Nova Scotia, Toronto, Hamilton, or Syracuse (all the other places that I have lived long enough to comment on the weather). Originally I thought that everyone wearing a sweater when the temperature dropped to 18 degrees C was a wuss. Ha. I can be very stupid myself sometimes.

I was wrong. Period. There is no snow here. This is good. There is lots of sun. This is also good. But there is a dampness in the air that gets into your bones and because, generally speaking, houses do not have insulation, it is often warmer outside than it is inside. Particularly in older houses that aren't well constructed.

I spent many a winter afternoon sitting in my car reading the newspaper because at least there, the sun was beating down on the windshield and warming up the car. AT least I could read my newspaper in comfort in my mobile "den".

Eight winters later, I am less tolerant of the cold than ever. I dread having to travel to Canada in the winter because I might have to leave the protection of my mother's condo at some point. Once, during a winter visit, I went for a walk with my father. It was only five degrees C. below zero -- I complained the entire way and my father just kept laughing. By his standards it was a beautiful winter day. I almost fainted when it was time for the return trip.

Frankly, I find Canada too cold in May. By May I have been out of shoes and into sandals for a few weeks already. Maybe longer. I have probably been to the beach. And having to dig up a pair of pantyhose to wear is too horrific for words.

So here I sit. 12 degrees C outside and I am bundled up to my neck in several layers of clothing. Thanks to my husband's foresight, our house is warm, but even here I have to leave it now and then. If you saw me you would think that I was headed to the North Pole for a mini-expedition, when in fact, I am just preparing for my walk to the corner store.