Archive for January, 2011

4 good things and 1 bad thing about Israel you won’t see on the New York Times’ front page

January 26, 2011

When it's snowing in Boston, head for the beach in Jaffa.

First the good things.
1) In the United States record lows had Northeasterners shivering in their boots and down coats this week, but Israelis were enjoying the balmy winter by going to the beach. Guests at the outdoor tables of a seaside café in Jaffa asked the waiter to put up the sun shade to protect them from the strong rays. Sailboats and yachts headed north and south, lightly clad walkers made tracks in the sand, and swimmers carved their way through the water.

2) Despite the long drought in Israel, Tel Aviv managed to produce a record crop in 2010… of media reviews. More than 200 journalists from the US, Britain, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Italy, Spain, and China visited the city that never stops, according to the daily Ha’aretz. The Lonely Planet declared Tel Aviv the third-best city to visit, National Geographic ranked it one of the ten best seaside cities, and Playboy, predictably, reported that the women are beautiful.

3) Another bumper crop in 2010 was medical tourism, according to Ha’aretz. Half of those visitors came from Russia and Ukraine and were undoubtedly happy to discover that so many hospital staffers, at all levels, are native-speakers of Russian. In March, Israeli doctors and hospital personnel will fly to Moscow to participate for the first time in an international conference on medical tourism.
These tourists put more than $55 million in the coffers of the country’s hospitals in 2010. But Israelis paid the price, forced to wait longer than ever for hospital treatment.

Looking south from Zion Square: The light rail train is doing trial runs, at last.

4) The light rail train is coming to Jerusalem! I’ve seen it coming down the track with my very own eyes. The trains set out on test runs every 15 minutes, carrying an assortment of sleepy workers. By summer they should be carrying paying customers.
Moribund Jaffa Road, tortured to death by the never-ending laying of the tracks, is showing signs of renewed life. All buses and cars have been rerouted to other streets, and Jaffa Road is now a pedestrian mall. One café already put tables and chairs out on the sidewalk, and others are sure to follow.
New buildings are going up everywhere, and old buildings are adding stories. It’s a heartwarming sight after years of agony, and there’s a touch of nostalgia for anyone who remembers the days when the only Saturday night excitement in Jerusalem was window shopping in the downtown triangle, with an ice cream cone or a bag of sunflower seeds in hand.

And now the bad part.
5) Comparison shopping can be injurious to your health. In Bnei Brak, a largely ultra-Orthodox city adjacent to Tel Aviv, the deputy manager of a branch of a large supermarket chain stepped into the neighboring competitor to check out the prices. When the competition’s staffers realized what he was doing, they ordered him to leave. He reportedly picked up a container of fabric softener and dashed it on the ground. He then called in his employees and, in the ensuing fracas between the staffers of the rival chains, he was allegedly threatened with a knife. The fists kept flying until the security guards fired warning shots in the air.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.

4 reasons it’s hard to be a woman in Israel

January 20, 2011

1) Israel has been famous for its tough women who were not feminists, including Golda Meir, the “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics.

But in 2011 it’s unsettling that a female Knesset member can be rabidly anti-feminist. Kadima’s Yulia Shamalov Berkovich made headlines today for her remarks last month at the conference of an anti-feminist group called Familist.

She blasted unmarried single mothers who seek welfare assistance (conveniently ignoring the fact that many so-called single mothers who need such assistance are divorced from men who are abusive or are serving time for a variety of crimes).

Shamalov Berkovich also insinuated that complaints of sexual harassment are unfounded and declared that she had never been sexually harassed.

Just note that her place on the Kadima list was one of those reserved for women. And that she came into office in 2009 to fill the seat of MK Haim Ramon, who had resigned after being convicted of indecent assault, a sex crime.

2) Laugh and men will come running; cry and they’ll droop away. This startling finding is from Israelis scientists at the Weizmann Institute. Specifically, they found that merely sniffing a woman’s “emotional” tears—even when the crying woman is not present—reduces sexual arousal in men.

A team led by Prof. Noam Sobel collected tears shed by female volunteers while watching sad movies in a secluded room. Each male subject had a pad dipped in tears applied under his nostrils. Though the tears have no distinctive smell, they caused the men to rate faces of women they viewed on a computer screen as less sexually appealing.

A further stage of the experiment revealed a pronounced tear-induced drop in physiological measures of arousal. A fourth trial using an fMRI machine revealed a significant reduction in activity levels in brain areas associated with sexual arousal after the subjects had sniffed tears.

The findings may evoke a smile, but it’s hard to keep smiling when we have people like Shamalov Berkovich making the laws in this country.

3) Weizmann Institute scientists have also discovered that although antioxidants—which can be found in everything from orange juice to face cream—may slow ageing and promote health, they may also reduce fertility. This finding has special significance in Israel, which has the world’s highest number of IVF treatments per capita.

According to Prof. Nava Dekel of the institute’s Biological Regulation Department, applying antioxidants to the ovaries of female mice caused a precipitous drop in the number of eggs released.

Dekel’s work has focused on fertility, but the finding could also have implications for those seeking to avoid pregnancy. “Further studies might show that certain antioxidants might be effective means of birth control that could be safer than today’s hormone-based prevention,” Dekel said.

So women could be facing a toss-up between staying young and having children. But heck, any mother could have told you that. Which mother hasn’t complained that her kids’ antics have given her gray hair?

4) There is even more hope for infertile women, but this method has yet to reach Israel, so (and here’s the travel connection) one has to be able to afford a trip to Los Angeles—or Korea. The latest in spa treatments in the City of Angels is chai-yok, a vaginal steam bath.

According to The Los Angeles Times, this treatment, whose name sounds like a drink one would best avoid, is said to reduce stress, fight infections, clear hemorrhoids, regulate menstrual cycles and aid infertility, among many other health benefits. In Korea, many use it as regularly as Orthodox Jewish women elsewhere use the ritual bath.

In her Santa Monica spa, Tikkun Holistic Spa (,
Niki Han Schwarz and her orthopedic-surgeon husband Charles Schwarz reportedly offer a 30-minute V-Steam treatment for $50; a similar treatment for the perineal area is available for men. In the city’s Koreatown, the same treatment (but without the Jewish twist) can be had for a mere $20.

And for $75, one can find such treatments in Manhattan (or DIY with a $330 kit bought on-line).

It’s a long way to go for some herb-flavored steam. Surely some Kabbalah-inspired Israeli spa will pick up the gauntlet?

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

TAMA 38: When architecture can’t fulfill everyone’s dreams

January 18, 2011

Grudges, old hurts, and mutual suspicions kept the residents of this building from realizing their fantasies; the film 'Naphtali 23' depicts the process. (Image courtesy of Oren Reich)

Israel is under threat of a massive catastrophe that has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear reactors. The Syrian-African fault line—stretching from Syria to Mozambique—passes through Israel and makes it earthquake prone. The last major quake, 6.2 on the Richter scale, was in 1927; it killed 500 and injured 700. An even more destructive quake occurred in 1837.

Yet building to an earthquake safety code became standard practice only in 1980, and 96,000 residential structures built earlier are in danger of collapse in a 7.5 magnitude quake, which could occur at any moment.

Knowing that Israel is unprepared to deal with the consequences of such a quake, planners came up with a preventive idea that should have been a hit. Many of the cooperative apartments built before 1980, especially in public housing, are small, some no more than 500 or 600 sq. ft. The plan, known by its Hebrew acronym as TAMA 38, would increase building rights so that apartments could be enlarged. And there would be additional perks, including elevators.
Most important, the buildings would be retrofitted to meet the earthquake safety code. And none of this would cost the residents a penny. Developers would undertake the work in exchange for the right to build and sell apartments on the roof of the building. In short, a win-win proposal.

But filmmakers Vered Yerucham and Oren Reich, whose new movie Naphtali 23 documents 18 months in the life of a public-housing building in Jerusalem trying to negotiate a TAMA 38 enlargement, discovered that no negotiations in Israel are easy, nor is a win-win proposal a guarantee of success.
The building is in a very desirable location, just off trendy Emek Refa’im Street, which is lined with cafes, restaurants, and boutiques. But many of the building’s residents are poor, and though most of them have fantasies of enlarging their apartments, some have grudges, old hurts, and mutual suspicions that get in the way of seemingly simple and obvious decisions.

“What we learned in the end is that more than people wanted to fulfill their fantasies, they wanted to be heard,” filmmaker Reich said. “People who felt they’d never been listened to wanted someone to listen to them.”

After months of efforts by a small but determined group of residents to move the project along, another developer appears, offering to raze the building and put up a new one, giving each of the residents a larger, brand new apartment. This effectively derails the original plan, but very quickly the raze-and-build developer disappears. Eighteen months after the initial proposal, the residents are still living in their cramped apartments.

The failure of TAMA 38 in the Naphtali Street building, and in most other buildings in Jerusalem where it has been proposed, cannot be attributed only to poverty, grudges, or ignorance. I live in a building of 10 co-op apartments where one couple, who were living with three children under the age of four in less than 650 sq. ft., thought TAMA 38 would solve their problem and benefit their neighbors.

But each neighbor had a different demand. No sooner was a one-room enlargement proposed than some people asked for two. A resident on the top floor wanted an elevator but no extra rooms; another wanted an extra balcony. We never reached agreement.

Perhaps it helps explain why peace negotiations are such a problem… and why Israel will continue to be so unprepared for the next Big One.

Text and copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. Image used by permission of Oren Reich. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. No part of the image may be used without written permission of Oren Reich.

Ain’t gonna sit in the back of the bus

January 12, 2011

Men and women board a bus in Jerusalem through the front door; on some lines women are expected to board through the rear door and sit in the rear.

Jerusalem had a pretty good bus system until some marketing jerk in Egged, the government-subsidized bus company, got the idea that the ultra-Orthodox community (one of the largest population sectors in Jerusalem) was an untapped source of revenue. All the ultra-Orthodox men were asking in exchange for their custom was that women board the bus through the rear door and sit in the back. And that they also be “modestly” dressed.

Soon Jerusalem had a bunch of mehadrin (“super-kosher”) bus lines, some of which were the only lines going to certain neighborhoods or cities, on which women who tried to sit anywhere but the back or whose clothing was not up to ultra-Orthodox standards of modesty were harassed, harangued, and even physically assaulted. Egged instructed its drivers not to intervene, since the separation was ostensibly voluntary, but sometimes they made women get off the bus—even late at night—because their clothing was not deemed sufficiently modest.

Four years ago the Israel Religious Action Center, of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and five women who had been harassed on mehadrin bus lines petitioned the High Court of Justice in an attempt to put an end to this discriminatory practice.

It took four years to get a ruling, but now we have it. I’ve read all 12,185 words of it in Hebrew and I’m pleased that the honorable justices have declared, loud and clear, that enforced separation by sex on buses or in any other place of business is a violation of the Basic Law: Human Liberty and Dignity.

And yet, this ruling is not the last word. In an attempt at even-handedness in recognizing the alleged needs of ultra-Orthodox men, the justices have mandated a year’s test run of opening the rear doors to allow “voluntary separation,” that is, so women can get on the bus in the rear and sit in the rear. Thus, the justices have opened the back door in more ways than one to a perpetuation of the system of coerced separation (and social pressure is just another form of coercion).

What does the attempt to enforce sex segregation on buses, in shop queues, on sidewalks—and now even in Hechal Hatarbut, a bastion of secular culture in Tel Aviv—tell us about the kind of Judaism the would-be enforcers profess? It has a very bleak view of human beings, of both men and women.

Sex separation involves two issues. One is an ancient blood taboo. Women are considered unclean when they bleed vaginally (because they are menstruating, or have just given birth, or have some gynecological problem). A man who touches an unclean woman becomes unclean himself and is forbidden to participate in ritual practices until he has undergone ritual cleansing.

The second issue, and this is the larger and bleaker one, is that men must be protected from themselves. If not, though their thoughts should be focused on Torah at all times, lustful thoughts will intrude.

The solution to this problem in traditional, patriarchal societies has always been to put the burden of responsibility on women: to force them to cover their bodies from head to toe and to separate them physically from men by making them pray in the back of the synagogue, sit in the back of the bus, or just be confined to the home.

One of the arguments for sex-segregated buses is that the buses are overcrowded and that physical contact between men and women is inevitable. So why aren’t ultra-Orthodox men demanding the obvious, more buses?

If a man aspires to ritual purity, that’s fine with me. But let him take responsibility for himself, rather than dumping the responsibility on women.

And next time I hope the honorable justices make sure they find out what women want before they knock themelves out trying to protect the men from themselves.

Text and photo copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

Ruddigore, or Do One Hateful Thing a Day

January 10, 2011

At the risk of appearing frivolous, I’ve taken inspiration for my own life from one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lesser-known operettas, Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse, which I took a taxi to town last week to see.

It was a delightful production by Encore, an excellent local amateur company, though the plot—like all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s—was predictably silly, involving the descendants of one Rupert Murgatroyd, persecutor of witches. One of his hapless victims has cursed Sir Rupert, Lord of Ruddigore, and all his descendants, thus:

Each Lord of Ruddigore,
Despite his best endeavour,
Shall do one crime, or more,
Once, every day, for ever!
This doom he can’t defy
However he may try,
For should he stay
His hand, that day
In torture he shall die!

Relax. You don’t have to call out the National Police or the Shin Bet. I’m not about to start robbing banks or sending out Nigerian scam letters (though I do pilfer candy daily from my grandchildren, telling myself I’m doing it for their own good). I’ve simply resolved to do one hateful thing a day. Hateful is that which I hate doing.

Those hateful things are like fertilizer. Spread out, they can be productive, or at least tolerable, but kept in a heap to be done all at once, they stink to high heaven. Calculating bimonthly tax estimates, writing the monthly accounts of our apartment building, collecting building maintenance fees from neighbors who “forget” to pay, and calling to make doctors’ appointments are just a few of the things I hate doing.

So today’s “crime” was responding to a letter from the postal service informing me that it is unable to trace a registered letter containing a check that I mailed to the United States four months ago. The postal service asked me to state the amount of compensation I believe is due me, but in the same breath informed me not to expect an agora more than its maximum compensation, which is pitifully little.

The letter had been staring at me for days. How does one respond to such calculated nonsense? This morning, because it was the only hateful thing I planned to do, I was able to figure it out. I wrote a polite letter demanding more than double the maximum, citing the aggravation and expenses incurred. So what if they give me less? At least I’ve got this aggravation off my chest.

Like the Murgatroyds, I suppose I’m doomed to carry on doing these hateful tasks forever, but my consolation is that each day there will be only one. And I can always hope that I’ll wake up to a day when the curse is broken, and at least for that day, I will do only things I don’t hate.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Sliced strawberries and lessons in mourning

January 7, 2011

A bowl of strawberries – a gift of love to friends celebrating their son's life.

There is no good way to lose a child. But there are many ways to mourn.

Our friends Jeff and Judith Green lived through two months of agonizing uncertainty until the body of their son Asher was found in Peru’s Colca Canyon, where he had fallen to his death while hiking. And though their pain is in no way diminished three years later, they have turned their mourning into a celebration of his life.

The invitation to join them on the third anniversary of Asher’s burial in Jerusalem, where he grew up and where they live, included an Emily Dickinson poem, the first stanza of which reads,

They say that “time assuages”,—

Time never did assuage;

An actual suffering strengthens,

As sinews do, with age.

And yet the invitation was to an informal gathering at their home with a tapas bar, prepared by Judith and their daughter Chana, according to Asher’s recipes. Asher, who died when he was 28, had many talents—he was a chef, a filmmaker and an actor—and he had worked at a tapas bar in New York’s Lower East Side. While in Peru he had loved visiting the colorful open-air markets and collecting new recipes.

When we arrived at the Greens’ last night bearing a bowl of sliced strawberries, their friends were busy eating the many tasty dishes Judith and Chana had prepared, including dates filled with slices of parmesan cheese.

“Thank you for eating so much,” Judith said when she spoke to the group. “Thank you for eating so much,” she said again. She was not being sarcastic. Feeding the friends who had been so supportive during the family’s ordeal and since, and seeing their enjoyment of Asher’s recipes, was a way of making his life tangible.

Jeff, who channeled his grief into writing a blog for a year after Asher’s death and, more surprisingly, into mastering the pottery wheel, spoke about Asher’s many talents and the ways in which he might have surprised his family in these last three years.

The evening included a screening of some of Asher’s films, as well as one of him presenting his vision for a pub/restaurant based on smoked foods, and a film made by his brother-in-law, Ofer Israeli, about the attempts to find Asher.

Ofer and Asher’s brother Boaz had joined the High Mountain Rescue Unit of Arequipa for ten days of the strenuous and dangerous search, which continued long after the two left Peru empty-handed.

They had distributed fliers bearing Asher’s image and offering a reward. By chance, a dirt-poor villager from Cabanaconde stumbled on Asher’s belongings. He knew from the flier that a hiker was missing and he notified the police. Again the members of the mountain rescue unit, knowing how important it was to Asher’s family to bring him home for burial, risked their lives to enter the steep ravine and retrieve his body.

Another family might have thanked everyone concerned and turned inward with their grief. Instead, the Greens turned to their friends to raise funds for the mountain rescue unit, which lacked the most basic equipment, even shoes that fit.

The family traveled to Peru in October 2008 and went shopping with the team for ropes, shoes, and other essential items. But there was another element that concerned them: the desperate poverty of the residents of Colca Canyon. In his three weeks in Peru, Asher “formed a warm and close friendship with these wonderful people,” Jeff and Judith wrote to their friends. “He would be so happy to be able to express this closeness.”

Teachers at the school in Cabanaconde had drawn up a detailed list of what they needed, from notebooks and markers to a computer, and the Greens went shopping with them to get everything on the list.

There was one final element that circled back to Asher and the potential of his life: The man in Cabanaconde who had found Asher’s belongings told the Greens he’d used part of the reward money for an operation for his wife, and part to send his son to culinary school.

Text and photo copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

Ashdod: A big little city with a touch of glass

January 3, 2011

Glass trim accentuates the rounded corners of buildings surrounding the large square from which a gigantic needle rises.

The people's choice: A replica of a synagogue in Soviet Georgia.

Pyramid power: Just like the Louvre.

First there was an idea for a power station, followed by an idea for a deep port. These were the inauspicious seeds from which the city of Ashdod sprouted in 1956, on a bare stretch of sand bounded by a boulevard of old sycamores.

There had been a city here in antiquity. The Canaanites, the Philistines, the Israelites—and all the other usual suspects—had come and gone. Until 1948 there was an Arab village here, Isdud, that became the Egyptian army’s northernmost position during Israel’s War of Independence.

But modern Ashdod, 20 miles south of Tel Aviv, was a whole new entity. It was to be built according to a plan chosen by competition. The neighborhoods would be ranged around a business and administrative center and each would be self-contained with all the necessary services. It seemed like a very green idea that was ahead of its time.

Then the city grew like Topsy. By the end of the 1980s it had 80,000 residents. Though it was originally envisioned as an industrial city that would absorb new immigrants, its planners came to realize the tourism potential of their coastline. In the 1990s they planned a new, impressive entrance to the city: a broad east-west boulevard that would be lined by high-rise buildings, pass under a large square, and eventually reach the sea and the new marina. Ashdod was a wannabe Tel Aviv.

The buildings surrounding the large square were to have commerce on the ground floor, offices on the next two floors, and apartments above. The developers were skeptical that Ashdod would ever need so many offices, said Niki Davidov, of Mazor First Architects, the firm that planned the new business and administrative center along the boulevard. But the developers were proven wrong, said Davidov, one of three architects and urban planners who, on the last day of 2010, led a tour that offered a glimpse of how the city had taken shape.

In the early 1990s developers were promised monetary incentives if they could put up inexpensive apartment buildings in just eight months to house the flood of immigrants who arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They cut corners wherever they could, for example by using cheap materials for the parapets on the balconies, which are now rusting and unsightly.

But the high-rises surrounding the square have a touch of glass to give them an inexpensive touch of class. Architect Haim Dotan said he showed the developers pictures of New York’s Flatiron Building to persuade them to use glass to accent the rounded corners of the buildings.

The raised square itself, which is nearly inaccessible, serves no apparent purpose except to support a giant needle that looks like a transplant from a provincial Russian city. Just off the square, residents have built a replica of a synagogue in Soviet Georgia. Ornamented with fluted pilasters and gilded capitals, it is everything their apartment buildings are not. The architects tsk-tsked, but Davidov reminded them that a city belongs to its residents.

And now back to glass, which was part of the sad story of Ashdod’s still-unfinished auditorium, in the culture complex farther west on the boulevard. The original design, by the well-known Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu, had a glass roof, perhaps suited to northern climes but impossible in Ashdod’s steamy summers. The city scrapped the design and handed over the project to Dotan, whose seashell-inspired building is still under construction.

But the city—now home to nearly 210,000 residents (and the third poorest in the country, after Jerusalem and Bnei Brak)—could not escape delusions of grandeur and the lure of glass-class. The Ashdod Museum of Art—Monart Center, which opened in 2003, has a glass pyramid entrance, which, according to one of the architects on the tour, is “just like the Louvre.” Well, almost.

Text and photod copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.