Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas in my Israel

Last Thursday I sent a business letter to someone I work with in Canada. Hours passed and I didn't hear back from him despite his normally prompt responses. I commented to someone in a second email that I was surprised by the first guy's silence but that person didn't write back either! Okay, I was now perplexed.

A few hours later, I received an email from the first guy telling me that he was in British Columbia (and not Toronto) with his family and he gave me another contact for my URGENT request.

First of all, it wasn't an urgent request but after I read between the lines (and yes, it took a minute or two) I realized what he was really saying: It's two days before Christmas, don't you have anything better to do with your time than bug me for work information?

In retrospect I couldn't agree more but at that moment I got my annual Christmas shock. Had Christmas snuck up on me again? Who the hell knew it was Christmas anyway?

The answer to the last question is approximately two or three billion people in the world. However, the truth was that I wasn't one of them.

Yes, I was embarassed. I wrote a profuse apology letter acknowledging that while I live within an hour's drive of both Bethlehem and Nazareth, I just had not realized that it was almost Christmas -- and yes, I would talk to him in January. For the records, he didn't write back. However, I started to think about Christmas ... for about five seconds. Maybe 10. And then I went back to my day.

Friday I went to the club to exercise. Not something I like to do at the best of times, but every now and then I run out of good excuses so off I go. Christmas didn't surface again until I was standing in the shower, tangentially listening to the music being pumped into the shower area over the loudspeakers. And then, there it was again. A Christmas tune. Not a Christmas hymn, but a well-known Christmas song.

By this point I was starting to feel overwhelmed with Christmas. I was up to two Christmas incidents in two days! In fact, I was so inundated with Christmas that when I finished getting dressed and left the change room at the club, I went to the office and said: "What's with the Christmas music? This is a Jewish country!"

The receptionist in the office just looked at me like I had come in ranting about the Messiah being at the front door of the Country Club. It was one of those 'what-exactly-is-your-crazed-religious-problem' looks? She told me that whatever it was about the music that was bothering me, I should take up with the radio station that was playing it. And the truth was, she was totally oblivious to my Christmas music concern. Living one's entire life in a Jewish country makes one totally desensitized to such things. All she heard was "music".

I soon realized that this was only a problem for me -- the ex-Canadian who was highly sensitive to Christmas in Israel. For the receptionist, it was simply Friday, December 24th.

Saturday I sat in synagogue as I do every Sabbath. No Christmas moment there. But when the Sabbath ended and I turned on my computer, there it was, in the Jerusalem Post and Ha'aretz. Fortunately, it was all good. After years of war and the resulting destruction of the Bethlehem economy, the tourists are flocking back for Christmas and the city is happy. So happy, in fact, that the people quoted in the Jerusalem Post article, wished hopefully for on-going peace.

Now THAT would be a Christmas miracle in Israel worth experiencing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Parallel universes

Last Shabbat we were in Jerusalem staying at nice hotel and celebrating the bar mitzvah of friends of ours. The bar mitzvah boy's father was originally from Montreal and since he recently did a post-doc in his professional field in Toronto, the family has many ties with the Toronto Jewish Community.And as a result, there were a significant number of Torontonians at the bar mitzvah.

As with any good celebratory event, the speeches began not long after the main course of the first meal on Friday night. And that was when I first noticed that although we were all sitting in the same room, eating at the same tables, and talking to each other, we were apparently doing so from the vantage point of parallel universes. So close, yet so far away.

When the first non-Israeli speaker referred to what a sacrifice the family had made by choosing to live in Israel, it caught my attention. He went on to talk about the fact that the bar mitzvah boy got up so early every morning to get to his yeshiva-of-choice in far-off Bnei Brak. (I am sure that if snow were a common element in Israel, we would have heard about how the poor bar mitzvah boy had to trudge to school in the snow without proper boots -- all because of the gigantic sarcrifice his parents had made by choosing to live in Israel.)

I looked around the room and none of the other Israeli residents seemed to notice, so I thought I was being hyper-sensitive, and dismissed the comments.

Then the second Toronto speaker got up and lo and behold, the entire routine started all over again. This time, with a little more drama. Let me paraphrase here: 'the family had made the ultimate sacrifice by choosing to live in Israel when they could have stayed in Toronto, quickly become millionaires, been part of an amazing Jewish community, yada yada'. And then: 'kudos to the bar mitzvah boy who must get out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, earlier than all of his friends at lesser schools, so that he can travel to his yeshiva in Bnei Brak and study until much later in the evening than said friends'.

Okay, that was it for me. My sons are at the same yeshiva and as far as I can tell, no one does much work until 10th grade -- well past the age of the bar mitzvah boy. And as for their hours -- there are many days that I turn around and there they are. I say: "what are you doing here?" (fair question at noon) to which they often respond one of the following: "I didn't want to go to gym so I came home", "the class was cancelled", "I didn't feel well", "I wasn't in the mood for school", "the rav had to leave" ......

Although this well-intentioned man didn't know it, there are lots of kids in this neighbourhood who go to school earlier and get home later than our kids. I know because I see them sitting on the curb waiting for their rides at 6:30 a.m. They are dressed for school, but mentally they are still in bed -- or hospital since many of them look comatose.

At this point in the evening, I no longer cared if anyone else noticed the first two speakers' comments. I couldn't stop snickering to myself about how well-educated, Israel-committed Jews living outside of Israel have absolutely NO idea what it is like to live here. And they have filled that void with the most ridiculous stories. I mean, it is nice to be perceived as heroic but I think it is best to actually have done something to earn the title.

So now, let me set the record straight.

We live in a small city of approximately 70,000 people, 25 minutes from Tel Aviv. The city has two movie theatres that show approximately 10 recently-released movies between them on any given night. There are more restaurants in Ra'anana than I can visit in a given month. All the large Israeli banks are here. There are at least 30 traffic lights, 10 religious schools, as well as the only (secular) school in the country to produce four pilots for the IDF last year. You can get a manicure, pedicure, doctor's appointment, new bra, new Italian shoes, new hair dryer, new computer, new GPS and on and on and on. I think you get the point. And don't even get me started on Tel Aviv ... where, yesterday, a Southeby's auction sold a painting by a living Israeli artist for almost US$700,000. If that isn't civilized I don't know what is.

Obviously, neither of the speechmakers intended to insult Israel, but the sad truth is that they have no idea what our lives here are like. After a visit one year from one of my old Canadian friends, she looked at me and said: "Basically, you live the same life as you lived in Toronto but without the snow and with the greater potential for danger." I am not even sure I agree with her assessment, but heaven knows, it was closer to my reality than what I heard the other night.

That's the tricky thing about parallel universes. They seem so close together when, in fact, they are so very far apart.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What? Do I have a guilty looking face?

Have you ever heard of Halifax, Nova Scotia? I only ask that because most of the people I know have never been there and many of them only know of it because of the little digital map that they show on airplanes so passengers can see where they are at that moment. The little airplane icon flies over Halifax on planes en route to Toronto and New York. And I am confident that until many of my friends here met me, they had never given that insignificant spot on the map a second thought.

The key word here is "insignificant."

Well, after I travelled back to Israel from Halifax, via New York, last week, I realized that regardless of how world travellers may perceive it, Halifax definitely sees itself as the front line of combating terror in the region.

Because I was flying directly to a US destination I had to go through US customs in Halifax. Remember ... Halifax: Fighting Terror on The Front Line.

I got in line to get my boarding pass and then entered the baggage xray line. They sent my two suitcases through the xray machine twice. When I asked if there was a problem they said "no". If that had been the end of it, I probably would have believed them. But it wasn't.

Next, I had my hands tested for explosives residue. Yes, some over zealous customs agent ran a little machine with a square of white cloth on the end over my hands. I asked her if it also detected pot or cocaine -- not that I was doing either but at least that seemed like something I might do, at least in comparison to bomb building or schlepping. I don't have shifty eyes and I surely wasn't behaving nervously, so I couldn't understand why I was checked.

Next, I was sent to the customs check line that ended with yes ..... the body scanner. I have been through many major world airports and not once -- not once -- have I been scanned. I like to think that that is because nothing about me says DANGER.

After what seemed like a half hour wait, it was my turn to be body scanned. Of course they offer you the choice of getting that scan the old fashioned way -- some stranger in rubber gloves runs his or her hands all over you in search of something dangerous -- and something that the previous three tests have demonstrated I have nothing to do with.

I opted for the bloody body scan. At that point, I would have happily undressed and just stood there naked if they would just let me go.

I passed the body scan -- big surprise (not).

So, you would think that that would be enough. Well, not in Halifax, the Front Line in the fight against terror. No siree.

Next, they went through all my hand luggage. Why? Because, according to them, I forgot to put a half used tube of face cream in a little plastic bag.

When I finally said to them: "You know, I live in Israel and I travel regularly. I have never been through anything remotely like this."

Here's what the nasty customs chick said to me: "My husband is from Israel and it is definitely a lot worse (getting checked) there."

So, I profiled her and decided that given her inherent worldliness she had never been outside of Nova Scotia. Then I asked her: "Oh, have you been to Israel?" I thought that was a fair question under the circumstances.

She -- oblivious to my set-up inquiry and coming sarcasm -- said: "No". And since I never like to miss an opportunity to hit one out of the park I responded: "Well then, I can see how you would know that." One point for me.

She tried for a come back but I cut her off and said, I just came through JFK and they didn't look twice at me. I also haven't been through anything like this in Heathrow. Why, pray tell, does Halifax have to check me like I was already guilty?

No answer.

This is an excellent example of why I should never leave Israel.