Archive for August, 2011

The bar mitzvah boy and the vampire

August 26, 2011

Yesterday I attended a synagogue service that was part of the bar mitzvah celebration of a boy who lives in a moshav (cooperative rural community) about 35 miles southwest of Jerusalem. The tree-lined road from Jerusalem, part of which passes through the West Bank, is green and beautiful even at the end of August, when the region is parched and sere.

Jews from Kurdistan settled this moshav. The older generation is very traditional and religiously observant to some degree.

The synagogue appeared to seat about 100 worshippers. On this Thursday morning there were about 30 men in the main section and 20 women seated in the rear behind a half wall topped by a wooden grate. One of the women commented with dismay that the grate was a recent addition. It meant that in order to see the proceedings, the women, including the boy’s mother, had to stand and squint through an opening in the grate.

From time to time, the women ululated their good wishes and flung sweets over the grate, aiming for the boy but always falling short. A handful of young children scrambled under the chairs in the men’s section, collecting the sweets. By the end of the service, each of the children had a bulging bag of candy.

The men mumbled their way through the prayers. The women, many of whom by their dress appeared to be religiously observant, chatted and gossiped throughout. Not one of them had any role beyond ululating and throwing candy. The boy’s mother stood with her nose to the grate, but it was hard to follow the service and impossible for her to hear her son.

“Quiet, girls!” the beadle would shout from time to time. There would be a moment’s silence, and then the loud chatting would resume. The beadle would shrug his shoulders in exasperation and return to his prayers, until he again felt the need to admonish the gossipers.

The scene reminded me of Orthodox synagogues I have attended abroad and some Orthodox synagogues in Israel that are similar to the one in the moshav. In the Orthodox world, only in highly educated Western congregations have women demanded and achieved an active role.

No one but me seemed to be very bothered by this arrangement at the service in the moshav. I, on the other hand, was dying to say to the beadle, “Give these women a role. Jewish law allows it. Involve them, and they won’t sit there and gossip. Most of all, let the woman who gave birth to this bar mitzvah boy and educated him have a part in this milestone of his Jewish life.”

Instead, I smiled and shook hands and kissed and congratulated everyone. I was a guest, an outsider, and a dues-paying member of a Reform congregation; I had no way of knowing whether the moshav women really wanted anything more, but I knew my comments would be unwelcome.

I did do one subversive thing. I gave the boy a book about vampires, probably the only topic that might get him to look between its covers, and my card wished him exciting voyages of the imagination. Was I being patronizing in hoping his world would be more open?

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

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Not only sheep get shorn

August 14, 2011

My husband and I got a haircut today. Not the kind that the financial analysts have been talking about for the past week, but a real lowering of the ears.

For almost a decade we’ve been going to the same barber to get our hair cut: His name is Ya’acov, and he looks and moves as though he’s over 80, though my husband assures me he’s not a day over 72.

I first met Ya’acov in 1985, when I was researching a story on Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter, where he grew up. But it took me more than 15 years to try his scissor skills.

I see Ya’acov about three times a year, when my hair has reached a length that makes me hate it. Then I get shorn as short as Ya’acov can manage, and I’m happy for the next couple of months. The third month is transitional; I can still live with my hair. But the fourth month is awful. I hate looking in the mirror and can’t wait to see Ya’acov.

Each time I see him, he’s a little more bent over, and his shuffle is more pronounced. His shop is on trendy Gaza Road, but there is nothing trendy about him or his shop. It has real barbershop chairs, but they show that they’ve been sat on for more than half a century. The furnishings are shabby and the only light comes through the front window.

And yet, professors, Knesset members (even two generations in the same family), and a host of others keep coming back. The radio is always on to a news station, so you can keep up with the latest while you wait. And there are plenty of books, not to mention Newsweek and a couple of Hebrew dailies.

Some women relax at the hairdresser’s. I don’t. I’ve met hairdressers who think they’re entertainers. I can’t abide them. But I like Ya’acov because he remembers where my children live, even the ones he hasn’t met, and where I was going on my last work trip. I like him because he doesn’t gab or gossip. He’s an intelligent, well-read man who doesn’t impose his views on anyone who doesn’t want to hear them. And he does a damn good job on my hair.

I hope he lives and keeps his shop going to 120.

A word about where words came from

Today I also took the giant step of signing up for a 15-session course on the origins and development of language. It’s being offered by the Bible Lands Museum, where I took a fascinating course on the ancient Near East a few years ago. The lecturers are top-notch, but the talks are not overly technical.

You will be hearing more about this course, which begins November 2.

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

A three-finger revolution

August 8, 2011

With three fingers in the air protesters sing, 'My Bibi has three apartments ..."

If the success of a protest depends on clever slogans and gimmicks, Saturday night’s anti-government demonstration in Jerusalem was clearly on the right path.

“Put your hands in the air!” ordered one of the leaders, and thousands of hands shot up.

“Put three fingers in the air!” was the next order—admittedly a
puzzling one—and thousands of fingers were raised.

“Now sing!” came the order. And hundreds of voices joined in a song that was a parody of the children’s song, “My hat has three corners.”
And these were the words:

“My Bibi [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] has three apartments.
If he didn’t have three apartments, there would be an apartment for me.”

How different are today’s politicians, one wealthier than the next, from the founders of the country, and how far have we come from the founding principles. In a historic film clip screened at the protest, Ben-Gurion read Israel’s declaration of independence, which promised that the state would ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.

Were 300,000 people really on the streets in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem Saturday night, as the newspapers announced with glee the following morning? Half that number might be a better estimate, but one thing was certain. More people protested Saturday night than did the previous week. And my guess is that even more will protest next Saturday night. And soon, I hope, there will be a critical mass that will force change.

Protester stands near a sign that says, 'Gilad, too, wants a home.'

Gilad Shalit wants a home, too
Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has been held captive by Hamas for more than five years. His family and supporters are now permanently esconced in a tent near the Prime Minister’s Residence, just where the big demo was held Saturday night. They displayed a poster that added yet another aspect to the expression of dissatisfaction with the government.

Young architects speak out for the cause
The young architects branch of the Israel Association of United Architects has announced plans for an exhibition on public housing, with a focus on “original and unusual solutions” for affordability, mixed uses (including residential), sustainability, and urban density.

According to the announcement, “in many developed countries, residential construction is promoted by means of open architectural competitions that examine innovative types and models for public housing. Such competitions … enable new talent to … present fresh architectural thinking.”

The young architects call on the Housing Ministry to conduct a planning competition and to renew construction of public housing.

The government gets one thing right
The cabinet has approved arrangements and supervision regarding the supply of cannabis for medical and research uses. The Health Ministry will be responsible for supplies from import and local cultivation.

Cannabis is already available in Israel for medical use, as I learned about two years ago from a Jerusalem friend who described going to a seedy location in Tel Aviv to pick up her supply. Perhaps now the cannabis will be dispensed in the same clinic where a cancer sufferer receives other treatment.

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

Better to be in a pickle or a jam?

August 3, 2011

If you keep the jam in the refrigerator and eat it quickly enough, you don't have to bother to sterilize the jars.

Every June my thoughts turn to jam. A plum tree that grew from a discarded pit blooms outside my window each spring, and then I watch closely as the fruit begins to grow. I water the tree assiduously with leftover coffee and check daily to monitor the fruit. Sometimes it seems that I can see the change from one day to the next.

June is a tricky month. The fruit is almost ripe but still mouth-puckeringly tart. But if left on the tree until it is fully ripe, usually the second week of July, either the birds get it or it falls to the pavement with a nasty splat.

So the last week of June is when I’m on my guard. For the past few years the tree gave only a sparse yield, much of it in branches that had stretched to the sun. I had to climb a tall ladder to do the picking, and even then had to pull the top branches down. It was a precarious business, all for less than two or three pounds of fruit. But this year we had a bumper crop, partly because of the late rain in May. It was enough to fill all the jars I’d prepared.

Making the jam is easy enough. I wash it and put it in a heavy-bottomed pot and mash it a bit to release some juice. Then I cover it with slightly less than an equal weight of sugar. After an hour or two, I turn on a low flame and then just let it simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pits come free of the flesh. They go into a sieve I put over the pot so the juices will run back in. Toward the end of the cooking I add a few drops of lemon juice. And that’s it.

I used to sterilize the jars and seal them with paraffin. That was in the days when I used to get crates of overripe apricots from my sister-in-law’s family. They turned into heavenly comfiture that I could probably never replicate today.

But now, I make much smaller quantities and give most of it away immediately, so I don’t have to worry about spoilage. Of course, my neighbors get some. After all, the tree grows in our communal garden and the fruit belongs to all of us. And the rest goes to family and friends. This year there was enough to give everyone more than just a few spoonsful. And everyone seemed to like this tart wild-plum concoction. My guess is that we’ll have polished off our own jars just in time for next year’s crop.

What’s the best time of day to make jam? I have no idea, but I always end up filling the jars at some ungodly hour. I guess it’s a law of nature that whenever you start making the jam, you always end up in a pickle timewise.

Another word about The Music Man
Many of you wrote to me to say how much you love The Music Man, and one of you sent me a link to a wonderful rendition of “Seventy-six Trombones.” I must share it with you. Here it is. Enjoy!

Text and photo copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or

Israel: The good, the bad, and the beautiful

August 2, 2011

Student transforms sludge into ‘green’ foam

An Israeli student has found a way to transform waste from paper mills into industrial foams with many uses, replacing conventional foams that are made from fossil oil. Foams are used as core materials in “sandwich” panels, for example, in furniture and in car doors.

In paper production, about half the fibers are lost as sludge. In Europe alone, this means 11 millions tons of waste annually. The new foams, developed by doctoral student Shaul Lapidot and colleagues at the Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment on the Hebrew University’s Rehovot campus, require relatively low energy and chemical input. An Israeli-Swedish start-up aims to develop the product for industrial-scale production.

Hebrew University professor fired for sexual misconduct

At long last, the Hebrew University has let it be known that it will not tolerate sexual harassment of students by their professors. Anthropologist Eyal Ben-Ari has been dismissed for several reasons, including having taken advantage of his position to have intimate relations with one student and having proposed to two others that they share a room when they were abroad.

In August 2008, three former students complained to the police that Ben-Ari had made indecent proposals to them. Their complaint followed an anonymous letter to the university authorities alleging sexual misconduct.

In September 2008 the police announced that Ben-Ari would not be charged, but in February 2010 the university’s disciplinary tribunal ordered that he be suspended for two years. Following an appeal, the university’s appellate tribunal decided to dismiss Ben-Ari.

When another kind of professor marched into Jerusalem

The first time my husband saw The Music Man—that is, the 1962 film version of the Broadway musical—he went wild. On the way home, he drove his motor scooter around and around and around a traffic circle, for the sheer joy of it. And when we arrived at our barely furnished room, he marched in with his head held high, his arm rising and falling as if he were carrying a baton and leading a band in a rendition of “Seventy-six Trombones.”

So when I learned that a live version of The Music Man was coming to Jerusalem last month, I quickly bought tickets. I knew that the group, Israel Musicals, consisted mainly of amateurs, but we’ve enjoyed many amateur productions in Jerusalem; there’s a wealth of talent here. And it seemed a fitting way to celebrate our anniversary.

We weren’t disappointed. Meredith Wilson wrote the book, the music and the lyrics for this show in which a con man comes to River City, Iowa, and convinces the townspeople that they need a boys band “to keep the children moral after school.” The prim librarian falls in love with him because, despite the con, he succeeds in waking up the somnolent and hypocritical townspeople and helping her little brother overcome his extreme shyness.

One of the cleverest musical elements is a tune that serves both for the brash “Seventy-six Trombones” march and for the tender love song in waltz time, “Goodnight, My Someone.” And then there’s the wonderful counterpoint of “Pickalittle Talkalittle” and “Goodnight, Ladies,” and of another pair, “Lida Rose” and “Will I Ever Tell You.”

The two leads—Howard Metz as “Professor” Harold Hill and Shani Wahrman as librarian Marian Paroo—were excellent, and Kiefer Johnson as Marian’s little brother with a bad lisp, Winthrop, was very good. Choreographer and featured dancer Assaf Berznitsky was also a delight, as was the Chutzpah barbershop quartet.

The chorus was weaker than in other amateur productions we’ve seen in Jerusalem, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying the music as we sang along in our heads. What did detract from our enjoyment, however, were the two women sitting behind us, who apparently thought they had come to a sing-along. If I’d brought an extra pair of socks with me, I could have solved the problem.

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

The dawning of an ‘Israeli spring’

August 1, 2011

A protester carries a sign with images of a tent and the prime minister and the slogan, Where there is no prime minister, there is no housing.

It began with a boycott of cottage cheese after a price hike was announced. Saturday night 150,000 Israelis took to the streets, from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Beersheba in the south, to tell their government they’re fed up with its refusal to take responsibility for its constituents.

They carried a multitude of signs and shouted a variety of slogans. One sign demanded a welfare state, “Now!” Another read, “The market is free; we are slaves.” But the main slogan everywhere was “The people want social justice!”

It’s an amorphous concept that means different things to different people. For many it is affordable housing within a reasonable distance from jobs; for others it is employment opportunities commensurate with their education; for yet others it is affordable child care so they can go out and work.

Overall—and this was the concept formulated by the Old Testament prophets from whom we derive the notion of social justice—it is a demand that society (in this case, society represented by its government) take responsibility for everyone, including its weakest members.

The government, typically, responded with a few hurriedly applied band aids, such as canceling a planned price hike in gasoline and the appointment of yet another committee, this time to consider how to address the demands.

The protesters remain in tent cities, many of them in sweltering Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, the old-new heart of the city’s commercial district. And there is plenty of anger to fuel the continuation of the protest.

Patriotic rainbow flags were among the items on sale in Independence Park.

Proud to be part of Jerusalem’s Pride Parade

Four ambulances lined up next to Jerusalem’s Independence Park last Thursday, July 28, where people were gathering for the city’s annual Pride Parade. It was an ominous sight, a reminder that in 2005 an ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed three marchers. (I was carrying a light jacket then and used it to stanch the blood of one of the injured.)

And though Tel Aviv is considered an open city and a haven for all sexual orientations, in 2009 two young people were shot to death and about a dozen were injured in a gay club; the police have yet to find the assailant.

A contractor carrying out renovations in one of the apartments in our building was surprised to learn from my husband that I had gone to the parade. What the contractor probably didn’t hear is that even my husband has joined me at the parade at least once. Had the contractor asked me, he would have heard a thing or two about human rights.

I would have gladly joined the march to the Knesset, but it was slow in getting organized and the heat was unbearable. All I could manage was to sit through the preliminary speeches, all of which were translated into sign language. I learned about sub-groups within sub-groups, each with its special problems. One person spoke about transgender youngsters whose parents throw them out and who end up on the streets.

Most articulate was activist Lihi Rothschild, who declared herself to be bisexual and who protested against the government’s use of its gay population to market the country as a tolerant haven. “They’re using us as a fig leaf,” she said. “They’re using us as propaganda.”

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