Archive for the ‘Travel writer’ Category

Opera at Masada: This Year It’s a Double-Header

February 4, 2015
The underwater scene from Carmina Burana to be staged at Masada in June. (Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera)

The underwater scene from Carmina Burana to be staged at Masada in June. (Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera)

For the first time in its five-year history, the Opera Festival at Masada will include two fully staged works: Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The performance schedule, in the first two weeks of June, will enable audiences to attend performances of both works in a single weekend. An added attraction will be sunset tours on Masada before the performances. And the pre-performance reception area will be designed to look like the streets of Rome, complete with a fountain.
Tosca and Carmina Burana are among the most popular operatic works, according to Michael Ajzenstadt, the Israeli Opera’s artistic director. Set in Rome, “Tosca includes a murder, an execution, and a suicide,” Ajzenstadt said Tuesday at a launch of the festival at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv.
“One of the heroes is a chief of police who wants sexual favors in exchange for changing a verdict,” he added, alluding to Israel’s police force, which has been wracked by recurrent sexual-harassment scandals. “Carmina Burana, written originally as a staged work, celebrates life, love, nature, and rebirth, and will be fully staged at Masada,” he said.
This work is actually not an opera, because it doesn’t have a story, director Michal Znaniecki said in a videotaped interview. His challenge as the director was to create a story that would tie together the discrete parts in which the lyrics are bawdy and irreverent medieval poems. The solution was a story of growing up, death, conflict, wars, “all of this in spectacular moments like in Spielberg movies”—including an underwater scene, Znaniecki said.
What he did not mention is that performances of Carmina Burana in Israel have had a whiff of controversy about them, because the work, composed in Germany by Carl Orff in 1935 and 1936, was embraced by the Nazis. Moreover, there are conflicting claims regarding Orff’s relationship with the Nazi regime.
Tosca will be conducted by Daniel Oren, and Carmina Burana by James Judd.
Producing one operatic work at Masada is a gargantuan undertaking that requires building a stage three times the size of a regular opera stage, trucking in dozens of tons of equipment, and constructing a backstage opera “city” to house the hundreds of performers and extras.
“This year it is even more complicated because of the alternating productions,” said Hanna Munitz, general director of the Israeli Opera and the prime mover behind the festival.
On the other hand, some things have become easier, she said, thanks to advances in technology. Masada is the backdrop to performances, and whereas for the performance of Aïda in 2011 expert rappellers had to be recruited to attach lights to the sheer face of the mountain, now the lighting effects can be projected onto the mountain face.
The opera festival will also have extensions in Jerusalem—Donizetti’s operatic comedy L’elisir d’amore (The elixir of love)—and in Acco.
Eshet Tours and Amiel Tours are handling packages for overseas tourists.

Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera. Text copyright 2015 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

From Santa Fe to Ashkelon: It’s almost like falling in love

December 11, 2010

Between interviews with rabbis I found a quiet moment to explore the meditation garden at Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe.

I’m on my way from Santa Fe to Ashkelon, but I have no idea how long the trip will take. It’s not because I don’t know the geographical distance (about 7,000 miles as the crow flies), but because the path also passes through my brain, and there are lots of byways where I may stop for a while en route.

Some people say that the best part of a trip is the planning. I agree, to the extent that I savor the exhilaration of setting out on an adventure, the initial exploration, and the search for information and reliable sources. It’s almost like falling in love. The hard work of writing will come later.

Many people think that being a travel writer is the best job in the world and that the stories spring fully formed from my brain—like Minerva, goddess of poetry, from the brain of Jupiter.

But travel is one thing and travel writing is another. A travel writer can’t just breeze into a place for two or three days and then, in a trice, write a detailed account of the history, demographics, and sights, especially if the focus is on what might be of interest to a Jewish traveler.

My trip to Santa Fe started long before I actually got there at the end of September. Just to sell the idea I had to do several days’ research to convince my client that the city had enough to interest a Jewish traveler. Once that was settled, I started contacts with the local tourism authorities and research on the history, community, synagogues, and artists.

When I finally got to Santa Fe, a big chunk of my time went into interviewing rabbis and Jewish community leaders and attending religious services, in addition to checking out museums, galleries, cemeteries, and places of natural beauty.

While in Santa Fe I stumbled on stories I knew would not fit in the commissioned article; one of the reasons I started this blog was to find a home for them. Even so, when I finally got home a month later and was able to sit down to do additional research and write, I found I had enough material for half a dozen articles, but room for only 2,500 words.

It was time to write and whittle, whittle and write. It’s no wonder I have pinned to my bulletin board the anonymous aphorism I picked up from my former colleague Matt Nesvisky:

“Writing’s simple. It’s just a matter of sitting at the keyboard and sweating blood.”

Now Santa Fe is working its way through the editorial pipeline and I am free to set out on my next journey, this time to Ashkelon. So get ready. Coming soon to a magazine in your neighborhood: Ashkelon, historic seaport and city of the Philistines.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

San Francisco alchemist: He made gold out of blue denim

November 11, 2010

Levi Strauss and Co.'s red brick corporate headquarters are just below Coit Tower.

“Gold!” “Gold!” The cry went out in 1848 from Sutter’s Mill, 100 miles northeast of San Francisco, and thousands of men and women around the world rushed to the American West to seek their fortunes.

Jews, too, joined the Gold Rush. But most of them, like the Bavarian-born Levi Strauss, realized that fortunes could be made by providing supplies and services to the miners. They set up shop in canvas tents or in hastily built wooden shacks in the new mining towns and in San Francisco, the city where most miners outfitted themselves before setting out to dig.

Many of the Jews who came would remain to help build the dynamic, cosmopolitan city on the bay, becoming prominent in commerce, banking and industry. As the wealth of these pioneers grew, they would become major benefactors of the symphony, the opera, the theater, the public library, the universities, recreation areas and much more.

The German-speaking Jews, especially those from Bavaria, would also become members of the city’s social elite. Names such as Strauss, Stern, Haas, Lilienthal, Gerstle, Sloss, Greenebaum, Koshland, Levison, Zellerbach and Fleishhacker are deeply woven into the fabric of San Francisco history, and marriages between the families created an intricate web of strong and supportive relationships.

Whereas in Europe, even after the revolutions of 1848, Jews were still treated as second-class citizens, in Gold Rush country Jews were accepted as equals, and anti-Semitic incidents were rare, according to historian Irena Narell, author of Our City: The Jews of San Francisco. Jews became politicians and judges; they sat on the boards of cultural, educational and economic institutions in the new state of California. One even became governor of the state.

Strauss, the son of a dry goods peddler, was 24 when he arrived in San Francisco in 1853 to open his own wholesale dry goods business and a branch of a similar business his step-brothers owned in New York. According to popular myth, he immediately had the brilliant idea of making sturdy denim work trousers for miners and of reinforcing points of strain, especially the pockets, with copper rivets.

The truth, according to historians at Levi Strauss and Co., is a little different. Denim was already in use for work clothes, and one of Strauss’s regular customers, a Latvian-born tailor named Jacob Davis, came up with the idea of using rivets. But in 1872 Davis turned to Strauss, by then a successful businessman, for financial help in patenting the invention; in 1873 the patent was granted to both men.

That year, Strauss and Davis started manufacturing the work trousers that became increasingly popular and eventually came to be known as “jeans.” Neither man, however, could have imagined that one day jeans would be worn for both work and play, that they would be sold in more than 100 countries and that they would become so popular that net sales would mushroom to billions of dollars.

Despite Strauss’s early success, he did not put on airs. “He encouraged his employees to call him Levi,” said Lynn Downey, a company historian.

Strauss was generous, too, with his wealth. As a member of Temple Emanu-El, he contributed to the gold medal given annually to the best Sabbath School student. He also supported the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, the Eureka Benevolent Society and the Hebrew Board of Relief.

Starting in 1897, Strauss provided the funds for twenty-eight scholarships at the University of California, Berkeley, just across the bay. Eleven of the original recipients were women.

Strauss never married; he lived with his sister, Fanny Stern, and her family. Of Fanny’s four sons, who would inherit the business, Sigmund was Strauss’s favorite.

When Strauss died in 1902, the front page of the San Francisco Call carried the story. On the day of the funeral, local businesses closed so that their proprietors could attend the services. Strauss left most of his $6 million estate to his four nephews, but there were also bequests to his favorite charities.

The devastating fire that followed the great earthquake of 1906 destroyed the company’s headquarters, including all records, and both factories. Strauss’s nephews not only rebuilt the company but helped other merchants get on their feet again. To this day the company is privately owned by descendants of the family, who continue to support cultural and educational endeavors throughout the city. Chairman emeritus of the board is Bob Haas, Strauss’s great-great-grandnephew.

Despite the family’s great wealth, its members prefer not to display it ostentatiously, says company historian Stacia Fink. “They don’t drive it, they don’t wear it,” she said.

Elise Fanny Haas (daughter of Sigmund Stern) is just one example of the family’s involvement and achievements. She was the first woman to become president of the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. When she died in 1990, she left 37 works to the museum, including Matisse’s Femme au Chapeau. The foundation she and her husband, Walter, established supports all the arts, especially dance, theater, music, museums and youth development through the arts. Blue denim had turned to gold, and gold had turned to culture.

Next:  San Francisco: Jewish connections everywhere

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

A neighborhood by any other name: A sign of who’s in power

November 9, 2010

Ask anyone in Jerusalem for directions to Komemiyut and all you'll get are blank stares.

Tel Aviv has decided to consign some old neighborhood names to oblivion and replace them with new ones, according to the daily Ha’aretz. Among the first eight names to be changed is that of Sarona, a settlement established in the 19th century by Templers, Christian visionaries from Germany. Another is of Abu Kabir, which was named for an Egyptian village from which many of its original residents came. The city plans massive development in some of these neighborhoods, and perhaps the old names are not posh enough for their new inhabitants.

Changing names is a trick used worldwide to show who’s in power and whose collective memory will be preserved. About 15 years ago I stumbled around Tashkent, Uzbekistan, unable to find my way with a map that still showed the streets named for Soviet heroes. One of the first things the Uzbeks had done after the fall of the Soviet Union was to change the street names (and replace the statues of Lenin with statues of the 14th century conqueror Timur, known to the West as Tamerlane).

But name changes don’t always stick. Abu Kabir has already undergone one name change to Givat Herzl (Herzl’s hill), a name no one seems to use. And if Jerusalem is any indication, the new names in Tel Aviv will catch on slowly, if at all.

I live in Katamon, which Jerusalem’s naming committee decided decades ago to call Gonen, a name derived from the Hebrew root meaning “to defend.” The original Greek name, which refers to the monastery nearby, clearly did not fit the Israeli image the city fathers wanted for this neighborhood that was the scene of fierce fighting in the War of Independence and whose many Greek Orthodox inhabitants fled to escape the conflict. Most of the streets are named for units and corps that fought in that war.

But ask anyone you meet what this neighborhood is called, and the answer will be Katamon. The same is true for the next neighborhood to the east, Talbiya, which had wealthy Arab residents before 1948. The city would like it to be called Komemiyut, which means “sovereignty.” But no one, absolutely no one, calls it anything but Talbiya (pronounced Tal-BEE-yeh).

And the same goes for a neighborhood to the south of Katamon, named Bak’a (an Arab name that means “valley”). The city would like it to be called Ge’ulim, from the Hebrew word meaning “emancipation,” but everyone still calls it Bak’a.

Even the large directional signs the city has posted include the “old” names along with the “new,” because the new names by themselves would be meaningless.

Oddly, the city has not tried to get rid of the names of the two neighborhoods closest to mine, the German Colony and the Greek Colony, the first named for its 19th century Templer settlers and the second for its former Greek inhabitants (and where you can still learn Greek folk dances at the Greek community center).

So, at least in Jerusalem, a few attempts to eradicate the past and alter the collective memory have failed utterly.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

Coming home: Ten thoughts about easy landings

November 4, 2010

It's easier to empty your suitcases if most of the stuff in them is for other people.

1) There is no such thing as jet lag. There’s only the fatigue of having to do so many things at once as soon as you get home, and the impossibility of doing them all and sleeping a reasonable number of hours.
2) Unpack your suitcase as quickly as possible and put it away. That way you’ll forget you ever went anywhere and will return happily to everyday drudgery. It helps if half your suitcase is filled with clothes for the grandchildren, one-third has motorcycle parts for your husband’s friends, and the remainder is dirty laundry that can go straight into the hamper.
3) Go through the mail quickly to see if there is anything urgent, though most likely it’s all bills and ads, none of which is urgent (and the worst that can happen is that your electricity will be cut off). Don’t file anything but your passport during the day, because that wastes time. Wait until 2 a.m. when you can’t sleep (it’s not jet lag, just your need to get everything in order) to do the filing.
4) Before you go away ask a friend or neighbor to put some basic food supplies—bread, milk, cheese—in your refrigerator for your return. That will get you through breakfast and lunch. Defrost anything that’s in the freezer for dinner (ice cream will work too). That way you can wait a whole day before having to make a supermarket run.
5) Let your friends know you’re back but don’t waste time telling them about your trip. Promise to tell them the details when you see them in person. By the time you see them they’ll have forgotten you were away, and you’ll probably have forgotten too.
6) Laundry can wait. If you wash it, you’ll have to fold it and find room for it in the closet. If you’re lucky, the season will have changed while you were away and you’ll have a whole wardrobe of clean clothes waiting for you.
7) If you forgot to stop newspaper delivery for the duration of your trip, don’t bother reading the accumulated papers. The world’s still here, isn’t it?
8 ) If you can’t find something you put away in a “safe place” (like the money we stashed before our last trip and still haven’t found), don’t waste time looking for it. As Nora Ephron once said, if it’s lost you won’t find it, and if it’s not lost, it will turn up.
9) If you work in an office, be sure to bring chocolate for your colleagues. Don’t waste money on anything more exotic. Nothing is appreciated as much as chocolate.
10) Start planning your next trip.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.


Lonely Planet declares Tel Aviv the third-best city to visit: Restored train station is the city’s latest hotspot

November 3, 2010

The Jaffa train station, the first in the Middle East, is the anchor of the new entertainment district.

A restored Arab house is the setting for a kosher restaurant, a rarity in Tel Aviv.

Visitors take a coffee break in the old-new train station compound.

Tel Aviv has made it big-time. The Lonely Planet Web site has ranked it third among the top ten cities to visit in 2011; only New York and Tangier outrank it.

Of course, this acclaim comes with tags that would make some Israel-lovers bristle: “a modern Sin City on the sea” where “hedonism is the one religion that unites its inhabitants.”

But that’s exactly why I love Tel Aviv: Going there from my home in Jerusalem feels like going abroad. Yet Tel Aviv is just an hour away by car or bus, or two hours by train, if you’re so inclined.

Speaking of trains, Tel Aviv’s newest attraction is the restored Jaffa train station, which after more than 60 years of neglect has been turned into a hub of entertainment, fashion, and culture. It’s in the former Arab neighborhood of  Manshiya, which until 1948 linked the old Arab city of Jaffa and the modern Israeli city of Tel Aviv.

Restaurants, cafes, pubs, an ice cream shop, and a tapas bar; funky and high-fashion boutiques of Israeli designers; jewelry shops featuring local craftspeople; and a shop specializing in books on architecture are among the new businesses in the restored compound surrounding the Jaffa station. Cultural performances are planned, and there is even a kosher restaurant, a rarity in Tel Aviv.

Shoppers and revelers will note the special feel of the stone and concrete buildings, which were conserved by a team headed by architect Sary Mark and which bear explanatory plaques.

The Jaffa train station—the first in the Middle East—was built in 1892, when the Land of Israel was still part of the Ottoman Empire. The train chugged up to Jerusalem along the beautiful, winding route of the Sorek River and continued running on its original tracks until just a few years ago. Its current incarnation still follows the original route from Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem, albeit to a new station in the capital.

The train not only made it much easier for travelers to get to Jerusalem from Jaffa, whose port was the gateway to the Holy Land, it also made it possible to ship goods more easily. Thus it brought prosperity to the Wieland family, which lived behind the Jaffa station and had a factory that produced prefabricated concrete panels for use in construction. The Wielands were Templers, a sect of Christian visionaries from Germany who came to the Holy Land starting in the 1860s and who established seven settlements around the country.

The Wieland family home, their factory, their shop, and their storage buildings have been restored. The factory’s second floor had four impressive wooden beams, each made from a single pine tree brought from German’s Black Forest, Mark said, and these, too, were conserved.

Among the buildings in the compound are two private homes built by Arabs, the only two such structures remaining in the Manshiya area. There are also buildings erected by the British, when Palestine was under the British Mandate (1917–1948). British police were stationed in Manshiya to keep the peace between the residents of Jaffa and Tel Aviv. In one of these British buildings the conservators uncovered parts of a mural by Israeli artist Gerd Rothschild, and they can now be seen in one of the shops.

So when visitors follow the Lonely Planet’s recommendation and head for the old-new train station in the swinging city, they will also be learning a bit about its history.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.

A few things they probably won’t tell you about Logan, Heathrow, Ben-Gurion—and Heraclitus

November 1, 2010

Why can't all airports have passenger-loving signs like these?

1) Even if you’re not a tree-hugger, you’ll want to hug one of the many columns with the large orange signs announcing the location of electrical outlets in Boston’s Logan International Airport. Not everyone has a notebook with an eight-hour battery. And if you’re schlepping around a seven-year-old battery-guzzling clunker like mine, you’re always looking for outlets in airports.

2) Not only does Logan tell you where to find the outlets, it provides a free wireless Internet connection. That’s downright sweet, and in my book it puts Logan right up there with Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, which also offers not only a free wireless connection but also the opportunity for Jewish men to put on phylacteries and say the appropriate prayers (courtesy of Chabad Lubavitch, which has a permanent stand with a big sign in the departure lounge).

3) But back to Logan, where I found cut flowers on the counter in the ladies’ toilet I visited. Fresh flowers in a vase! My husband said there were none in the men’s, an omission I can’t account for, unless the flowers I saw were for the birthday of one of the cleaners.

4) Logan also purports to offer travelers a nondenominational chapel. The idea is nice enough, but the chapel’s name is Our Lady of the Airways. Only in Boston, with its large Irish and Italian population, could a chapel called Our Lady of Anything be considered nondenominational.

And now a couple of pointers about London’s Heathrow.

1) Be sure to wear walking shoes if you’re coming through Heathrow, and allow plenty of time to reach connecting flights. Not only will you be walking a lot, you may need to go up and down escalators, take a bus from one terminal to another, and ride a driverless conveyance from one zone to another. I did all those last night, when I arrived in Terminal 3 and had to get to Terminal 5 for my connection. I had two hours between arrival and take-off, and that was barely enough to make the connection.

2) Heathrow has fabulous shops, including Harrods, Dior, and Gucci. Having a tight connection is a way to make sure your money stays in your pocket, but it knocks a lot of fun out of the trip, especially if you like to see who actually buys anything in  those shops.

And finally, a word about Ben-Gurion Airport, which is code-named TLV (for Tel Aviv) even though it’s not in Tel Aviv.

1) The airport has an interesting design element whereby departing passengers walk down a wide ramp that must be at least 200 meters long, and arriving passengers walk down an identical ramp facing it, so that those coming in can see those who are leaving. It seems to sum up the airport experience perfectly, though Heraclitus would have it that “the way up and the way down is one and the same.” No way.

2) Ben-Gurion probably has the fastest baggage retrieval system of any airport in the world, except, of course, when there’s an airport strike, and then there is no baggage retrieval at all. There was a strike the day before my husband and I left for the United States, and one was in the offing for the day after we got back. In managing to avoid both we considered ourselves very lucky travelers.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

Kindle can’t hold a candle to it

October 30, 2010

King Ahashverosh holds out his scepter to Queen Esther; from The North French Hebrew Miscellany, 1272-98, the British Library's finest Hebraic treasure. (c) British Library Board Add 11639 f260v

In the age of the Kindle, it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago few people could read and that books were rare and expensive objects that only the rich could afford. Before Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized book production in the early 1450s by printing the Bible—the first major book produced in the West with movable type—each volume had to be copied by hand. Even after Gutenberg’s breakthrough, scribes still bent over their labors, and to this day Jews produce Torah scrolls and other sacred texts by hand.

But there was a boon to the hand-copied texts: Those created for the very wealthy were decorated with exquisite floral and geometric ornamentation and figurative miniatures. The ones that have survived are among our civilization’s greatest treasures, and some are preserved in the great libraries and museums. Often they are shown only to a handful of scholars; only occasionally are they displayed to the public.

Now the New York Public Library is showing rare manuscripts from its collection in an exhibition titled Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. The idea for this exhibition, running through February 27, 2011, at the library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, grew out of a 2007 show at the British Museum, called Sacred, which I had a chance to see during a stopover on my way home from Boston.

I love old manuscripts. They make me feel as if I am directly in touch with the past. But in London, as I gazed at the beautiful illuminations I felt as if I had touched the divine—the highest expression of the creative spark in humankind.

The theme of the sacred texts of the three monotheistic religions is clearly in fashion; it was also the subject of an exhibition titled East-West: The Spiritual Roots of Europe, that ran through April 2010 at the Martin Bodmer Foundation Library and Museum, in Geneva. The museum is a repository of exquisite rare texts and works of art with a literary connection, beautifully displayed. A visit to the museum was the highlight of my working visit to Geneva.

One of the first things I learned about illuminated manuscripts as an undergraduate was that the third commandment’s prohibition against graven images was often disregarded, even in Judaism and Islam. In Jewish art, a famous instance in which human faces were avoided was the Birds’ Head Haggadah, created in Germany around 1300, but in many other Jewish texts, such as the Sarajevo Haggadah, human faces appear.

While visiting Sarajevo in 2006 to research a story, I had a chance to see that 14th-century haggadah, which is the city’s most famous Jewish treasure. In one of its 34 brilliantly colored, full-page illuminations, Potiphar’s wife grasps Joseph’s red cloak as she attempts to seduce him.

Created in Spain, this is perhaps the best-known and most valuable illuminated Jewish manuscript. It was rediscovered in 1894, when a child whose father had died, leaving the family destitute, brought it to school to try to sell it. It eventually passed into the possession of the Sarajevo Museum, where it was hidden from the Nazis during World War II and was hidden again during the last war. Today it is displayed along with other priceless illuminated manuscripts in a high-security room in the Land Museum (as the Sarajevo Museum is called today) and may be viewed only by advance arrangement.

It is ironic that St. Petersburg, a city in which all things Jewish were banned by the Soviets, is the home of the earliest known complete Hebrew Bible, written in Egypt in 1008 to 1010 and known as the Leningrad Codex. It is in the State Library, which has one of the world’s largest collections of Jewish manuscripts. Even as a journalist I needed connections to enter the early manuscripts department, which is closed to the general public. And though I got in, I was shown only a facsimile of the famous codex. Still, it sent a thrill up my spine. And I did see the original of a partial Torah manuscript with gold illuminations, dating to 929.

When the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, reopened in July 2010 after a three-year expansion and redesign, one of its new sections, in the Jewish art and life wing, was a gallery exhibiting Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. Among them is Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, created in the 15th century with illuminations by one of the finest workshops of miniature painting in northern Italy. The illumination on display depicts the high priests of the Temple, in Renaissance dress, carrying out the sacrifices.

Another illuminated manuscript is Musa Nama (the book of Moses), a poetical compilation of biblical books in Judeo-Persian. Created in Tibriz, Persia, in 1686, it has miniatures that reflect Muslim influence and reveal the clothing and customs of the period.

The Kindle doesn’t hold a candle to these treasures. But luckily for armchair travelers, more and more libraries and museums have technology that allows visitors to their Web sites to view some of their most beautiful manuscripts.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. Image (c) British Library Board.

To Osama Bin-Laden from inside my suitcase

October 28, 2010

One suitcase has a finite volume; two suitcases have infinite volume.

Dear Osama,

I think of you often. In fact, each time I have to stand in line to take off my jacket and boots and empty my pockets and pull my laptop out of its carrying case and show the world which brand of toothpaste I use, I think of you and mentally curse your name. I thought of you  last year, too, after I broke my wrist while camping in northern Oregon and my purple cast put every airport I passed through on high alert.

I was thinking of you again this morning while packing the single suitcase I’m allowed to check on my transatlantic flight home. It used to be two checked bags, but now—thanks to you and the airline troubles you helped cause—American Airlines is allowing me only one.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be thinking of you again, Osama, because then I’ll be packing my husband’s suitcase, and everything that didn’t fit in mine has to go in his. You see, Osama, my husband and I have a wonderful division of labor: I pack the bag and he sits on it so I can close the zipper.

We generally travel light. But on this seven-week trip to the United States we had to pack for hot weather and cold. And beside our clothes, there’s the winter wardrobe for both our Jerusalem grandchildren that our daughter-in-law ordered on-line and expects us to bring back. And the 4-lb. jar of chocolate-covered raisins that my family is addicted to. And the fish oil and glucosamine that are much cheaper in the US than in Israel. And the heavy winter shirts my husband bought as gifts for his friends. And all the books we picked up along the way. And that’s not mentioning the car and motorcycle parts without which no visit to the US would be complete.

I recently saw a video of a former flight attendant packing three days’ worth of clothes in a carry-on bag for a vacation in the Bahamas. I was impressed by how much she was able to cram into that tiny bag, though I couldn’t for the life of me understand why she needed six pairs of shoes, five dresses, four jackets, six blouses, four skirts, three bathing suits, and three pool cover-ups. She succeeded in her amazing feat by rolling up the clothes.

I tried that while packing my bag this morning. Whether it was effective I can only hope,  because I didn’t take everything out again and start again to compare it to the old-fashioned way.

But some items were left over. Tomorrow morning, Inshallah Osama, they will fit in my husband’s bag with all the other stuff (though from the size of the pile it’s looking doubtful). If it doesn’t all fit, my dear Osama, you will have even more to answer for.

Respectfully yours,

Esther Hecht

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

The land of the well and the home of the huge

October 25, 2010

A ranch near Chama, New Mexico, has this chilling sign at its entrance.

On Sunday morning my husband and I stood in line outside the Centre Street Café in Jamaica Plain waiting to have brunch. Ahead of us in line were two young men and a young woman, talking enthusiastically about everything, including the food they were about to eat. They looked like college seniors, but they were all doctors, residents in emergency pediatrics.

The young woman recommended the Huevos Mexicanos, made with organic eggs and organic vegetables (of course, at organic prices). Organic is great, if you can afford it.

Visit America and stumble on the greatest paradox of all: The country seems obsessed with health yet one in three adults is obese.

It’s not just health that obsesses Americans. It’s wellness. The word has been around since 1653, but the concept appears in so many different contexts it seems to have no bounds. Yet Merriam-Webster Online does not hesitate to offer a definition: “the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal.”

And boy are they actively seeking it. Search Google and you’ll find 67,600,000 hits for wellness. Wellness for children, wellness for adults, wellness for seniors. But above all, wellness for pets. Two of the top three wellness sites are for pet food. Yes, pet wellness is right up there with godliness.

But wellness for people (though not for everyone—God forbid there should be medical coverage for all) is growing in popularity too. It’s no accident that Whole Foods Markets has been climbing steadily up the ranks of the Fortune 500 companies, from 479 in 2005 to 284 in 2010, and that it doubled its revenues between 2005 and 2009 (going from $3.86 billion $7.95 billion), and this despite the recession. With enough money, it seems, you can buy wellness in this country.

So why are so many Americans obese? Why are so many Americans sick with all the illnesses—cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and Type 2 diabetes—that come with obesity? Why are nearly 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 obese?

They’re the people who are not shopping at Whole Foods. The highest obesity rates in the US are among blacks, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Next are Hispanics. A study showed that between 2006 and 2008 blacks had 51 percent higher prevalence of obesity, and Hispanics had 21 percent higher prevalence, than non-Hispanic whites.

Geographically, too, obesity is highest in a cluster of states: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia. In 2009, only Colorado and the District of Columbia had obesity rates lower than 20 percent.

As I sat in Jamaica Plain eating my organic eggs (my pesticide-and-hormone-and-antibiotic-filled eggs in Jerusalem taste about the same) I pondered the great American paradox, in the land where wellness is first of all for pets and very definitely not free.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.