Archive for May, 2012

Looking in the mirror, with a grimace and a smile

May 29, 2012

Just as Jews in Eastern Europe used humor as an antidote to their frustrations and sense of otherness (and still do in North America), so Israeli writer Sayed Kashua uses barbs—most aimed at himself—to ease the tension of being an Arab in a state that now defines itself as Jewish.

In a weekly column in Ha’aretz, in novels, and in his TV sitcom Arab Labor, now in its second season, Kashua manages to capture the essence of that painful, and often absurd, situation.

Before launching into a talk at the recent International Writers Festival in Jerusalem earlier this month he dropped a comment about the setting. The talk was in a large tent with its eastern side open, so that the walls of the Old City became the backdrop.

“This landscape is ours, make no mistake,” he let fly, only half joking. His seemingly offhand remark alluded, I think, to the hubbub in Israel that week over memorials marking the losses Palestinians had suffered in the Nakba (catastrophe), following Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and perhaps also to the celebration planned for Jerusalem Day, the following week, marking the so-called reuniting of the divided city.

Kashua, 37, is an Israeli citizen who writes in Hebrew. When someone in the audience asked him to move back a little from the microphone, he quipped, “You have a problem with my accent? In my writing, there’s no accent.”

Writing in Hebrew complicates his life even further. “I’m attacked all the time by Arab writers and also by Israelis who think Hebrew is their national language,” he said. And it’s hard to write in Hebrew and still feel loyal to something.”

The protagonist of Kashua’s TV series is an Arab citizen of Israel, like himself, trying to maneuver between Israeli-Jewish society and his Arab background. Like Kashua, the protagonist moves into a Jewish neighborhood; it is a move fraught by anxiety. In one segment the TV character wonders why the neighbors’ dog barks so much whenever he opens the door. He scrubs and scrubs himself to get rid of what he assumes is “the Arab smell” that is setting off the dog, but nothing helps. Finally, he dons a yarmulke and the dog becomes his best friend.

Identity is at the heart of Kashua’s writing. “I hear from both Arabs and Jews, he said, “that ‘If you leave your community, where is your shelter when you are under attack?’ ” Always, the Nakba-engendered fear is in the background. “People don’t understand the extent to which the fear of losing your home and land shapes your identity.”

His goal in the TV sitcom is to break down stereotypes, Kashua said. But not everyone can avoid knee-jerk reactions. A woman in the audience muttered to the person sitting next to her, “Why does he keep blaming us?” Clearly she was not capable of substituting the word “Jew” or any other minority where Kashua uses the word “Arab.”

Put yourself in his place; remember when you were the stranger in the land (even the land you were born in). It’s what we constantly demand of others. Can it be so difficult?

The polyps removed in my recent colonoscopy were benign. I have a five-year break until the next test. Thanks to those who asked.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Preparing for the blintzkrieg

May 25, 2012

A gazillion paper-thin crepes await fulfillment.

My mother made the world’s best blintzes. She was a wonderful cook and baker (which was why I was an overweight teenager and didn’t drop the excess until I moved to Israel and had to survive on my own cooking).

I did bring my mother’s blintz recipe with me, and I followed it faithfully. But one year, for reasons I no longer remember, I used the recipe of my late next-door neighbor Hillela Narkiss, who was also a fabulous cook. It was from Hillela that I learned that blintzes don’t have to be sweet, and every year after, for the holiday meal on Shavuot—the Jewish holiday on which it is traditional to eat dairy foods—I made savory blintzes for the main course and sweet ones for dessert.

Hillela’s recipe for the crepes (6 eggs, 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 2 cups milk, and 6 tablespoons melted sweet butter) is a cholesterol bomb, but I salve my conscience by using skim milk. Also, the crepes are paper thin—each batch makes about 30 to 40—and the cheese used for the filling is relatively low fat. As you get to the bottom of the batter, it gets thicker and you dilute it with more skim milk. And after the initial greasing of the (nonstick) pans, there’s no need to grease them again. All that dilutes the cholesterol to a tolerable level.

For years and years I fried the crepes (on one side only) in two pans that were not exactly the same size, one of which was left over from my college days. Finally, about ten years ago, I splurged and bought two identical frying pans. That was the last year I made blintzes (kids moved away, they didn’t really like blintzes anyway), until today.

We’re invited to a huge family dinner at our son’s in-laws’ tomorrow night, and the blintzes will be one of my contributions. When I mentioned this to my daughter-in-law, she told me she’d heard you can buy decent frozen blintzes at Rami Levy, the supermarket where we shop. She wasn’t being nasty; she merely wanted to spare me the effort. I just turned up my nose.

I prepared the batter (double the recipe) last night and put it in the fridge, because it has to rest at least an hour before being used. Making one crepe takes just a couple of minutes; making two batches’ worth takes at least two hours, even with two pans going at the same time.

But…there are things you can do while the crepes are cooking. Clean the kitchen cabinets, for example. Listen to the Brahms marathon, which is part of the Israel Festival that just opened. Get a loaf going in the bread machine. Fold a load of laundry. Take some pictures of the crepe operation. Write this blog post. All of which I did this morning.

I’ll fill the crepes later (they need to be completely cool). That can be done without breaks, and it can also be done sitting down, which is wonderful. You lay the crepe with its cooked (brown) side up, so that the brown is not visible after the blintz is rolled. You can brush the blintzes with melted butter before putting them in the oven to bake, but this is not really necessary. And it reminds me of something that happened to my mother one year that she made a lot of blintzes.

She belonged to Pioneer Women, an organization founded in Palestine (under the British Mandate) in 1921, that worked toward equality for women and for the welfare of women and children; the American branches raised funds to support the organization’s activities. One of their fund-raising events of my mother’s group was a luncheon around the time of Shavuot.

My mother prepared a large platter stacked with unbaked blintzes and brought it to the event hall. The idea was to lay them out in pans, bake them, and serve them fresh out of the oven. But that was someone else’s job.

When the oven was opened half an hour later, to my mother’s horror, instead of the blintzes being a nice tan shade and slightly crisp, they were a pale, soggy mess. One of the other women, who obviously didn’t know a thing about baking, had left them piled up and had dumped a huge slab of butter on top.

It is the only culinary disaster involving my mother that I remember. And that is a blessing to savor on Shavuot.

Photo and text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the photo or text may be used without written permission of the author.

Art that probes and recreates the past

May 24, 2012

Memory is the most baffling aspect of being. It is often visual and physical, and yet fluid, elusive, and deceptive. Memory and its uses is the thematic link between two European artists, one Polish and the other German, whose works went on display this week at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. It is the first time they have been exhibited together and the first time that many of these works have been loaned by the institutions that commissioned them, Israel Museum director James Snyder said during a preview of the show.

Remembering brings together the works in various mediums of Tadeusz Kantor (1915–1990) and Joseph Beuys (1921–1986).
The exhibits are arranged so that the point at which the space of one artist flows into that of the other refers “to the glory and the horror of the twentieth century,” said guest curator Jaromir Jedlinski, of Warsaw, whose idea it was to show the two artists together.
At the meeting point, on Kantor’s side is a cross on wheels and a photo from a late performance (1988) titled “I Shall Never Return,” in which objects and figures are covered by a shroud-like black cloth. On Beuys’s side is “The End of the 20th Century,” 31 basalt slabs suggesting dead bodies; here memory is also personal, Jedlinski’s co-curator, the museum’s Suzanne Landau, said.

Kantor turned to performance early in his career; during World War II he founded an experimental, underground theater group that performed through 1944. During that war Beuys served in the Luftwaffe as a rear-gunner in a Stuka bomber and was shot down in March 1943 on the Crimean Front. Beuys constantly created and reinvented himself, and also recycled parts of earlier works, Landau said. The story he told of how he was saved—that Tatars found him in the snow and covered him with animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health—was probably one of those reinventions.

The story is reflected in one of his most powerful works, an installation titled “Palazzo Regale, 1985” which evokes an elaborate mausoleum. Seven large framed brass panels covered with gold dust hang on the walls of the room containing two casket-like display cases. The case in the center suggests a body: At the upper end of a fur coat is a black sculpted head, its larynx marked with an X, as if to indicate that the person had been permanently silenced. The other case contains what appears to be a slab of animal fat and various kinds of bandaged limbs and prostheses.

The most haunting of Kantor’s works one which also deals with memory and death, is “The Dead Class,” which was performed more than 2,000 times starting in the 1970s. The characters, who are dead, confront their younger selves—lifeless figures of children seated in rows at battered wooden desks. Kantor plays the teacher in the performance, seeming to direct the action with tiny hand gestures. In a documentary that is part of the exhibition the artist talks about his interest in the desks—the “wrecks” that are the bearers of memory. The physical objects from this performance that are exhibited are the children sitting at their desks and the figure of a dead child lying on an old-fashioned bicycle. How they were used in the performance can be seen in a version filmed by Polish director Andrzej Wajda.

A third exhibition, Drawing in the Margins, opened last week and is adjacent to those of Kantor and Beuys. It shows works spanning 45 years by Joshua Neustein, who, according to curator Meira Perry-Lehmann, “subverts the conventions of drawing.” Born in Poland and educated in the United States, Neustein has lived and worked in Israel and in the US. One work, “Taped Map of Israel, 2006” consists of an outline of Israel created with cheap masking tape that pulls away from the surface, changing the boundaries, and an additional outline that increases the territory but also suggests the temporary nature of the geographic borders.

This work, as well as the videos Neustein has created, “show how you demarcate territory, which is what all artists do,” he said.
Some of the works were made by erasing square or oval parts of graphite scribbles, then putting the erasures in a see-through envelope and attaching them to the scribbled-on paper. The erased parts are not really erased, Neustein contended, but rather created.
One two-hour video shows water dripping into a glass of Bordeaux wine, causing the wine to gradually lose its color until it takes on the color of champagne and then is completely transparent, that is, pure water. Perry-Lehmann described it as “a meditative work about identity.”

All three exhibitions are to continue through October 27, 2012.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. All images courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The colon monologues: How I learned to love my insides

May 6, 2012

The proper placement of the two-dot punctuation sign known as the colon causes no end of perplexity, but the consequences of misplacing it are usually not fatal. Not so the consequences of ignoring the part of the body with the same name.

My mother died of colon cancer at the age of 56. That puts my brother and me at higher risk for this form of cancer, which is the third most common type for both men and women (when each sex is considered separately) in the United States. Studies have also shown that its incidence is on the rise in many countries.

But it is also one of the most preventable cancers. Smoking, obesity and lack of exercise are among the risk factors, but a relatively simple procedure can prevent the disease in the majority of cases simply by, literally, nipping it in the bud.

I had a colonoscopy last Friday. I it was my fourth or fifth. In the procedure, usually performed under some form of anesthesia, the gastroenterologist takes a guided tour of your intestines, stopping to examine anything that looks suspicious. What arouses suspicion? Polyps: small growths that can be the precursors of colon cancer. The doctor snares and removes each polyp and sends it to a pathology lab.

So that the doctor can see the intestines clearly, they must be whistle clean. This means one has to prep by taking strong laxatives. The first time I had a colonoscopy, I had to swallow two gallons of vile-tasting liquid that made me gag with every sip. Now the system has been refined. This time I took two tiny pills, and then two additional installments, each consisting of one cup of a fruit-flavored solution plus six glasses of water.

I also canceled all appointments for 24 hours, because I knew I would be making frequent trips to the toilet before the procedure and that I would be groggy afterwards.

Today it is also possible to have a virtual colonoscopy, which is noninvasive. But the prep is the same, and if anything suspicious is found, a regular colonoscopy is necessary to remove it.

In a previous colonoscopy, my doctor found and removed three polyps. This time he found and removed two.

It’s not fun and it’s not something people like to discuss. But each of those five polyps, left to its own devices, could have turned into a killer.

That’s why I consider a colonoscopy an investment in life.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.