Archive for July, 2011

Aspiring to be a … banana?

July 22, 2011

My breakfast cereal talks to me. It doesn’t snap, crackle, or pop, but the packaging is full of important messages. The front of the box informs me that the cereal contains real bananas. Wait, is there any other kind?

The box also informs me that the cereal contains specially selected walnuts. Does that mean that the manufacturers (or, more likely, underpaid workers from Mexico) stand there and inspect each walnut, saying “I’ll take that one and that one and that one, but not the others”? Do they taste each one to make sure it’s delicious?

But the nonsense on the front of the box is as nothing compared to the “inspirational” message on the back.

“We should all aspire to live like bananas,” it begins. “They are on a permanent vacation, living in lush, tropical rainforests.”

I won’t even get into whether rain forest should be one word or two (Merriam-Webster on-line has it as two), or whether “multi grain clusters” (which appears in the continuation of the message) needs a hyphen (it does). So the company is too cheap to employ a copy editor (copy editors can’t agree whether that should be one word or two) but it can waste money on a copywriter who spews mental garbage.

If I aspire to anything, it’s to eat cereal that doesn’t try to tell me how to live my life. And anyway, I hate humidity. Rain forests, feh!

More Hebrew inventiveness

The onomatopoetic Hebrew word bak’buk (bottle, flask) is as old as Methuselah: It appears in the Hebrew Bible in Jeremiah 19:1. Today, when wineries talk about bottling, the verb they use comes from the same four-letter root, actually a doubled two-consonant root (bet [b] and kof [k]). So if you wanted to order people to bottle some wine, you would say “Bak’beku!”

And that seems to be the inspiration for a new construction I came across recently in a message from an organization that was trying to stir up a grassroots response. Modern Hebrew has incorporated the loan word “talkback” for a reader’s comment on an item on a Web site. The organization suggested a variety of means of getting its message across, and one of them was “Talk’beku!”

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

Building a house for the righteous

July 21, 2011

Israel, like several other countries, has a full-size replica of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe’s red-brick Brooklyn home, where his successor also held court. As if one replica of the home of a famous rabbi weren’t enough, a solicitation to build a home for the Righteous One appeared in my mailbox yesterday and had me wondering why the righteous are doomed to homelessness, like those young people camping out in tents around the country to protest the outrageous price of housing.

Then I started reading the eight-page brochure and discovered, first of all, that the Righteous One in question was the Hassidic rabbi (in Yiddish, rebbe) Avraham Matityahu Friedman (1848–1933), who held court in a Romanian town called Ştefăneşti (which his disciples render as Shtefenesht). That town once had a grand study house (beit midrash) where the students also received all their meals. In a palatial building next door the rebbe dispensed advice and blessings. The rebbe’s dying wish was that the buildings remain places of prayer, Torah study, and benevolence, and so they did for a decade after his death. But the Holocaust changed everything in Ştefăneşti, as it did throughout Europe.

Now the rebbe’s disciples hope to fulfill his wishes by creating a similar place in Israel from which blessings will rain down as they did in his court in Ştefăneşti.

Why now? Because according to gematria (Jewish numerology) this year (the Jewish year 5771, but the brochure has it as -776), there is divine support for the construction of this house of salvation, to be built between Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv, at the intersection of Jabotinsky, Hahalutzim, and Haim Landau streets.

The building is to include a large events hall, to be available to all free of charge (as long, that is, as they contribute to the cost of construction); a mikveh (ritual bath); a large synagogue with a women’s gallery; a house of study; and a warehouse for foodstuffs to be distributed to the needy.

The laying of the cornerstone is scheduled for this coming Sunday, July 24, 2011, and the entertainment will consist of the greatest singers, world-famous cantors, and renowned paytanim (chanters of religious poems). The brochure doesn’t say, but it’s a safe bet that women will not be welcome at this event.

Now the brochure produces a downpour of miracles. Mrs. N., for example, tells of her married son who was childless for 17 years, until he and his wife visited the rebbe’s grave and bought an amulet that they hung on their living room wall. The next thing they knew, they had a baby boy.

Then there is H.B., who organized an evening in honor of the rebbe, and 30 days later was blessed with the engagement of his daughter. Amazingly, the young man’s name was identical to that of the rebbe. Even more amazing, the following year H.B. held another evening in honor of the rebbe, and 30 days later yet another daughter was engaged.

Now comes the pitch. For NIS 395, you get a lucky stone. For NIS 1,800 you get a lucky stone on a wooden-and-epoxy tray with a picture of the rebbe and of the building. You also get to be inscribed on a golden page, along with all the members of your family. In addition, you get a set of amulets, for prosperity, health, a blessed home, and to ward off the evil eye. For NIS 5,200, not only do you get a miniature Holy Ark with a miniature copy of the rebbe’s very own Torah scroll, you will also be safeguarded from all evil in your home and on the road.

The temptation to obtain such blessings is great, but I can’t help thinking of all those young people in tents, who may soon be on the streets. We might all benefit more from building housing for them, and it doesn’t have to be palatial.

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

Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’: a midsummer delight in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park

July 20, 2011

A full moon was rising over Tel Aviv. In the Ganei Yehoshua amusement park people were screaming with the thrill and the terror of a large ferris wheel and a bungee-like ride that dropped them in a cage that bounced up only to drop and bounce again.

Across the road, in Hayarkon Park, what seemed to be a party or a wedding reception was getting under way with utsa-utsa music. And next to that a seemingly endless number of people defied gravity by streaming uphill and then flowing down toward the enormous stage for the annual Opera in the Park; this year’s offering was Mozart’s Magic Flute, performed by the Israeli Opera. Tel Aviv was doing what it does best: enjoying life’s gifts in every way possible.

While the audience waited for the opera to begin, giant screens on either side of the stage offered up a cultural feast in miniature: a preview of dance, music, and theater performances scheduled for the “city that never stops.”

And as he does every year, Mayor Ron Huldai introduced the performance. Then—displaying a talent he has had since childhood—he pulled out a recorder and played a theme from the opera.

What followed were two magical hours of gorgeous melodies and ravishing stage sets. The Magic Flute is in the form of a singspiel, including spoken and sung dialogue. Much of the dialogue was cut in this performance, but it seemed that no one missed it. After all, the music and the spectacle are what set one’s heart on fire.

Bambi Friedman’s sets, using video to the hilt, were outstanding. In the opening scene in a children’s room, a TV screen showed animated penguins dancing to the overture; later, “real” penguins danced on the stage. And when the Queen of the Night appeared atop a giant bat with terrifying red eyes, a host of video bats with similarly scary eyes flapped their way across the stage. But the most beautiful use of video was a scene with time-lapse photography, in which winter-bare trees blossomed and then gradually lost their leaves again.

Papageno, the sly bird-catcher, was played as a comic figure by tenor Guy Mannheim with great charm; at one point he walked offstage into the audience to show off his panpipes. The Queen of the Night is a role notorious for its difficulty, requiring the soprano to reach the very high F6 repeatedly. The soprano (unfortunately there were no programs at this free performance and I did not catch her name), was suitably dramatic, breezing through those impossibly high nights with aplomb. And the three child-sprites who guide the prince Tamino through his many trials were surprisingly good.

The opera is said to be an allegory in which enlightened absolutism is pitched against obscurantism; that is, it is an ode to reason and humanism. But the message that rang out clearest for me, from the very beginning when Tamino and Papageno are provided with a magic flute and bells to protect them, is that music (especially Mozart’s) is the best protection against evils of the spirit.

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

On Mount Pantokrator, talking to the Almighty

July 10, 2011

Despite the wind, we sat on the cafe terrace in Strinilas to enjoy this view.

At the peak, the bell tower hides only the base of the main communications tower; the cafe menu is on the right.

The monk with a cell phone sat in the cafe at the peak.

There was a portent of doom, or at least of heavy rain, in the clouds gathering over southern Albania, just across the water from northern Corfu. I hoped to reach the peak of Mt. Pantokrator—at 2,972 feet the highest on the island—before those clouds and whatever they portended crossed the water.

On our rented 125 cc. motor scooter my husband and I began the ascent from the coastal town of Acharavi. At first we missed the turnoff because the road we were supposed to enter was no wider than an alley, and we had to double back.
On the map it all looked simple enough, but road signs—scarce enough on the coastal road—are even scarcer in the inland areas. Slowly we ascended from village to village, often stopping to ask where we were. Some of the villages that were marked on the map consisted of no more than half a dozen houses, clinging to the mountainside.

We passed through Agios Martinos and Strongili (about three houses), all the while surrounded by trees, then took a wrong turn at a fork. Realizing our mistake, we turned back only to discover that the village at the fork was Lafki, the one we were trying to find. From there it was clear enough to Eriva and Strilinas. The narrow road was paved most of the way, though it had plenty of ruts.

A wind had picked up, but when we stopped at a roadside café in Strinilas we sat outside on the terrace so we could enjoy the view to the sea. A British family with two adolescent boys also sitting on the vine-covered terrace had an interesting way of passing the time until their order arrived: The mother pulled out a pack of cards and they played a round of gin rummy.

The owner, in an apparent gesture of friendship and hospitality, put his hand on our backs each time he came to our table. I found it a little odd but didn’t mind, but I could imagine other Americans getting hysterical about being touched by a stranger.
The Greek salad, when it finally arrived, was good, as usual, and the slices of fried eggplant were divine.

Our scooter, which had done well so far, was less happy on the last stretch, from Petalia. It groaned and sputtered as it dragged its way up, grinding almost to a halt at the hairpin turns. The final, steep stretch was on ridged concrete, a kind of road cover we were familiar with from our visit to Cyprus last year. The scooter was nearly in tears.

At last, the peak came into view, and a bizarre sight it was: no longer a solitary monastery on a windswept mountain top, though I could imagine that in winter it would be pretty grim.

Four elements grace the peak of the mountain: the church, the tiny monastery, telecommunications towers, and a café. It’s a weird combination of asceticism and modern comforts, and the monk sitting in the café talking on his cell phone seemed to symbolize the incongruity, as if on top of this mountain he was still not close enough to speak directly to the Almighty. For us, awed by the view of the Spanish-broom-carpeted slopes falling away to the sea, it was close enough.

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

Three baby steps toward sanity

July 3, 2011

I could swear I’d seen the Messiah’s nose poking just around the corner. Two announcements from the Government Press Office have made my day (and now you can see how little it takes).

Israel’s Daylight Savings Time to be extended

Hard to believe but true, Israeli DST is to be extended to an average of 193 days (as compared to 182 days now). Thus, local DST will run from the end of March to the end of September.

Compared to the United States, however, the change is but a drop in the bucket. There, DST runs from the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November.

But who cares about the US? “Extending daylight savings time will promote better coordination with Europe’s economic clock” the Government Press Office explained.

Coming your way: Uniform spelling of Israeli place names

Say goodbye to Herzel, Hertzel, and other variants of the surname of the Zionist visionary. Perhaps we can also bid adieu to Petach Tiqwa and Shavei Ziyyon. By prime ministerial fiat the country is to have uniform spellings. The official names are to appear in all official publications, such as maps and road signs, textbooks and guidebooks.

The communiqué from the prime minister’s media adviser said the new rules would apply to transliterations of Hebrew names to Latin and Arabic characters, and of Arabic names to Latin characters, “and vice versa.” Whatever that “vice versa” means, it will be nice as long as zealots don’t wield their paint cans to blot out the Arabic names, as they’ve done in the past.

But wait: The new names are to be determined by a 10-member ministerial committee. What input can Eli Yishai and Stas Misezhnikov provide on Arabic transliterations, not to mention English ones? And don’t these august ministers have anything more important to do with their time? Why isn’t the whole business being handed over to professionals? And most important, what’s the deadline for implementing the decision?

Another spin of the Carousel

Because the few words I wrote on June 29 in connection with the Encore theater’s production of Carousel were not a review of the performance I saw, I’d like to add a very brief review.

The soloists, including 17-year-old Miri Fraenkel (who played Julie Jordan), were delightful, and the chorus had a robust sound. The New Savoy Orchestra, conducted by Paul Salter at the piano, acquitted itself well.

But though the play itself had some interesting features, like the treatment of domestic violence, it was overly long and dragged in parts. In particular, the dance solo went on for too long.

Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to see so many people, from the very, very young to the (young) geriatric, having a wonderful time putting on this musical. That’s one of the things that keeps me sane in Jerusalem. Kudos!

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

At last, the ultimate café in the mountains

July 1, 2011

Dolce offers an unobstructed view of tiny coves and the bluest of waters.

A sultan-size portion of baklava is served with perfectly brewed Greek coffee.

I’ve always known that the perfect café in the mountains is not just a platonic ideal. One just has to search long and hard enough.

Ever since my husband and I met, eons ago, we’ve been looking for that café. We’ve found good ones, better ones, nearly perfect ones. But none of them was absolutely perfect.

I couldn’t tell you in advance what it takes to make a café perfect, but I knew I’d recognize perfection when I found it. And when we finally found it last month it was not at all like anything I had imagined.

The café is called simply Dolce, and it’s on the main road at the northern end of the village of Lakones, a few miles north of the resort town Paleokastritsa, on the island of Corfu.

Dolce juts out from a cliff, high above the amazingly blue waters and tiny coves of Paleokastritsa. The building is modern and sleek, with glass paneling to allow a full view. There are wooden and wicker chairs at marble-topped tables, but there are also plenty of wicker sofas with comfortable cushions. Maximum comfort, gorgeous view.

The view from the rooftop seating was even better, and unmarred by the faux-classical columns on the lower floor.
Besides the homemade ice cream, which we did not taste, this café has three kinds of baklava (served in sultan-size portions), rich-looking chocolate cake, three kinds of cheesecake, two kinds of apple torte, and an amazing array of other sweets, wrapped in gilt paper.

The baklava we chose, served on a large plate and surrounded with whipped cream and chocolate syrup (okay, we could have done without the additions), was flaky and just sweet enough. The Greek coffee, served in tiny white cups on wave-shaped porcelain saucers and with iced water on the side, arrived on a brass salver held from the top, the kind we’re familiar with from Jerusalem’s Old City. Though the salver was out of synch with the ultra-modern décor, it was charming. The background music was jazz, played at a comfortable volume. And the coffee was excellent.

Even the waiter, with his punk hairdo, was friendly. He took our picture as we stuck our heads through round holes to pose as a traditional Greek couple.

I could have stayed at the café for hours.

After we paid, the young owner gave us a map and two sweets wrapped in gilt paper for the road. We saved the sweets for later, and they, too—dark chocolate with nuts and bits of biscuits—were rich and wonderful.

If you’re ever in Corfu, run, don’t walk, to Dolce (tel. 26630 49278), in Lakones. Even plan a day’s outing around it.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the photos or text may be reproduced in any way without the express permission of Esther Hecht.