Sunday, September 30, 2007


My friend Vizan called me today and offered that we go to the fields east of the city, near Bnei Atarot. "It's a twenty minutes drive, and they've got everything there: pumpkins, cabbage, cotton. You can pick everything for free because of the 'Shmita'. Come on, man, Adam is coming too."

A shmita, in Jewish law, is a year on which crops are being neglected so that the land gets to "rest". This is a nice, romantic concept, but it has little to do with the actual needs of the land. Vizan's invitation was likewise romantic, but had little to do with reality. The three of us were stopped by the Arab guard while picking eggplants. He explained that this indeed was a shmita year, but the land owner was selling his vegetables to Muslim markets, so the fields were actully hard at work and we were technically stealing.

Rather than get us into trouble, the guard invited us to his corner of the fields, to smoke a nargila and drink coffee. His name was Abu-Mustafa, and he had a large armchair and a burning campfire at the edge of a citrus grove. We got to know a bit about him, especially that he is a romantic. He warded off all cynical talk about politics, social reality in Israel or matters of the heart, wouldn't hear of it.

"I saw your friend here before," Abu-Mustafa told us of Vizan, "he was with a girl and I saw from afar that he was lifting a pumpkin. I came over to stop him, then I realized that he was just holding the pumpkin so she would take his photo. It is so beautiful to be young like that. You -" he turned to the prime vegetable thief, "you take care of that girl, don't let her slip away."

"She's just a friend," said Vizan, "plus she's flying back to Australia tomorrow."

"You take care of her," said Abu Mustafa, "Don't let her slip away."

Upon arriving back in Jaffa, we saw someone we knew rummaging through a large pile of garbage. It was Tel-Avivian editor, artist, book store owner and general bohemian Avia Ben-David. She found a big pile of old encyclopedia volumes that someone has thrown out and was picking it up for her kids.

"What's more romantic than a beautiful woman looking for books in the trash?" Asked Vizan. He offered her a lift and said he had a few books in the back to add to her loot. On reaching Avia's house, we all went back to open the trunk. This is when the romantic within me finally popped his head out. I just fell in love with that trunk. It contained piles and piles of books, about seven huge, black, stolen eggplants and a basketball.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Baklawa Biafra

Another improbable Israeli night. Coming back from a concert of hardcore bands The Girls and Midnight Peacocks (preceded by an excellent show by more contemplative rocker Assaf Ehrlich), I find my neighbors out on the lawn preparing for Sahur, the last, pre-dawn meal of a Ramadan night.

Ten minutes ago I was in a dark cellar, surrounded by headbangers in black t-shirts and rocker girls in crazy dresses. Now I'm in the open air dipping pita in yogurt among black hijabs and clouds of Nargila smoke. Where did I feel more at home? I really can't say.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What Would the Buddha Do?

Things in Myanmar are getting rougher. The police is currently shooting over the heads of the protesters. In 1988 they shot into the crowds and killed "thousands", you can always tell a murderous totalitarian state when "thousands" is the only figure available.

I'm going crazy in this room without any way to help the courageous Burmese people, and especially the Buddhist monks who are leading the protests. I'm a citizen of a nation that takes part in training the Myanmar army, the army that is killing them and enslaving them. I pay taxes that are used to fortify the junta in Myanmar, then again, so do the Burmese.

So many of us are exploited by violent factors without being aware of it and without doing much about it. Buddha is said to have taught: "Let us live in joy, in peace among people who wage war, among people who wage war, let us live in peace." (Dhamapadda, Chapter 15). This sounds like peacenik religion at its most passive, but in fact it is impossible to live in peace without being active, otherwise you end up becoming a tool of war.

The monks of Myanmar recognize this. This is why they are out on the streets, fighting tear gas. This is why they are in dungeons, experiencing torture. They know that sometimes Buddhism is exactly about breaking out of the lotus position and fighting for human rights and justice. I'll keep that in mind the next time I hear a call to action by my window.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Broken Heart is Whole, A Slanted Ladder is Straight

Rabbi Menachem Mendl Morgenstern of Kotsk was born in the 1700s in Poland. He discovered Hasidism as a child, studied with great masters, formed his own court not far from Warsaw, and spent ten years teaching his controversial and extraordinary brand of existentialist Judaism.

He than fell into a state of incredibly severe depression and would not leave his room for 20 years. His granddaughter would bring him food and all other communication with him was done through a small hole in the door. He would be washed once yearly, before passover.

The Kotsker rebbe left no written records. A disciple of his burned all his writings at his demand. some of his sayings did survive, however. most notably: "A broken heart is whole, a slanted ladder is straight". He also said: "This world isn't worth even one small sigh."

I'm thinking of this man today after visiting the ultraorthodox city of Bnei Brak with my orthodox friend Michael. Bnei Brak is a somber city and a visit to its cemetery, to visit Michael's grandparents graves, was more somber still. There was no shade there, no mercy.

The cemetery is located among high walls of gray construction blocks. overlooking it is a school for girls that is equipped with only the narrowest windows. Posters commanding modest behaviour and dress are stuck everywhere, next to grafittied racist comments ("Kahane was right" etc.)

In order to be climbed, a ladder must be placed diagonally against a wall. If placed staight - it is useless. In order to develop, a heart must experience pain. This point of view sheds a softer light on a sunstruck afternoon in an austere environment. A difficult day is a good day. A glance at death is a glance at life.

The Kotsker Rebbe said: "Death is like moving from one room into another and then choosing to stay in the nicer room." Such words make sense today. That cemetery in Bnei Brak is best experienced from within one of the graves. It is there that our slanted ladders do lead.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


I'm not sure what people are supposed to do on the Day of Atonement according to Halachaic law, Probably pray. I did my praying last night with my Bulgarian neighbor Lutzi. We went to a synagogue of Turkish Jews, a rare one in this predominantly Muslim neighborhood (I've begun dating an extraordinary woman who is Turkish, so this worked out as an educational field trip). Praying there was a very different experience from what I've known in Ashkenazi synagogues. for one: rather than touching the Torah scrolls lightly and kissing the fingers that touched them, people actually went ahead and kissed the Torah itself. I did so too, I frenched the Torah.

Now, however, I'm sitting here trying to clear space on my computer, and running into an old file with photos from Boston, where I had lived with Lin. I was beginning to forget Boston when we separated, I was letting Boston go with Lin. now I see I'll never forget it. Just as time is running out to sum up the year and see what lessons it taught, I'm learning something new, something about memory and renewal and the imperfection and power of both. I'm not sure what people are supposed to do on Yom Kippur. Thinking about Boston seems right.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Boy de Vivre

The going away party for Theo Boy (pronounced Boo-ah) Was a going away party to summer. Theo is now back to his native France, where he will be studying film at the Sorbonne.

There's no greater praise for a summer than to say it was marked by Theo. This one strongly benefited from his "OK". A possible scenario: We're at the bus terminal in Tel-Aviv waiting for a Jerusalem bound bus when I jokingly suggest we'll go to Eilat instead.

Theo: "OK" (joined by a shrug. He actually shrugs).

So I'm just playing, but Theo is an authentic free spirit. If I follow his cue, we will actually make it to Eilat and beyond (Aqaba - Amman - Damascus - Tehran - Saturn). Our traveling instincts joined forces and were joined in turn by my travel book project. this caused everything this summer to be a journey, from playing mankala with available stones on a rock in the Golan Heights to having a late night beer at "Grandma's Ice Cream Shop" in Tel-Aviv.

Of course Theo's mark on this summer went well beyond "OK". There's a quality of friendship that is expressed only by the finest of people. you will always feel relaxed with them and they will always let you know you are wanted.

I'm a bit of a rich man in terms of fine friendships. Just to drop one more name: Amit, who always impresses me by how versed he is in the art of friendship. Theo is taking his own talent back to France. It will be sorely missed in Tel-Aviv, Tehran and Saturn.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Walkling to Jaffa at crack of dawn from a lovely campfire gathering, I hear the first day of the Jewish new year mixing with the first day of Ramadan. The call of the mouezin and the bass beat of the holiday night's club parties form a polyphony along the promenade.

Allaaah akbar!
Suavemente, besaaaame!
Allaaahu akbar!

Ramadan kareem to one and all, shana tova, khag same'akh, kul am wa'intum bkheir.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Today Ravid and I are went to the beach in Jaffa to perform "tashlikh" - the Jewish custom of emptying one's pockets into water on the eve of the new year. The objects thrown repesent sins and the experience is meant to symbolize spiritual and emotional cleansing.

I don't neccesarily believe in the idea of sin, but I believe in the idea of tashlikh. Since the beach here is polluted enough to begin with, we stocked our pockets with small scoops of bread, a feast for the fish. On the way to the beach, Ravid sang a Jaffa song:

"Here in Jaffa, everybody's dignified.
Here in Jaffa, anything can happen."

I've not heard this song before, but it does speak the truth. When we arrived at the beach, it was full of police vehicles and ambulances. A car was upturned on the sand, appearently it's driven through the boardwalk's railing.

Naturally, we decided to try Jaffa's other beach, the one overlooking the old city from the north. On the way there, winding through the alleyways, we happened to pass Abu Hassan's palace of hummous. The breaks screeched, the plates were brought into the car and cleaned up. Then we went on.

On to cleanse ourselves, to throw our sins in the cyan-tinted water. I read parts of a long poem I've written many years ago.

אני אל תוך הים פורק את הכיסים
והגלים רבים, יש ענקים וננסים
קרבים אל כף רגלי, פתאום מהססים
הכוכבים מעל מתמוטטים, קורסים
נושרים על לשוני, מתמוססים
ואל חשכת בטני באים ונכנסים.

There are about three or four people towards whom I've "sinned" somehow this year (and in at least one case they sinned back and got even). Mostly I tossed the bread and some scraps of Abu Hassan's pita in regret of a sin towards life. The sin of not recognizing often enough how beautiful and special it is.

A day like this, spent with a dear friend, and a dip in the waves like the one that followed, that helps. Shana tova to one and all, peace and love.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Happy New War

It is with great unease that I read the headlines these days, these sweet, special days of early autumn. Israel performed some provocative military act in Syria, just now, as the temperatures are dropping and blessed clouds return to the sky. At press time, the government has not seen any reason to inform the public what the hell is going on, while grapes ripen on the vines and the spirit of the Jewish new year is in the air.

Olmert needs another war, a successful war. Only thus can he save his political biography. Let's all die for that! If a new war goes well, (wars that go "well" involve multitudes of casualties and indescribable carnage), he will be sitting a year from now at the holiday table, dipping the traditional slice of apple in honey and saying: "may next year be just as wonderful as the one that just ended!"

You may think me a conspiracy theorist, but if one doesn't want war - one doesn't send combat planes to Syria while relations are tense, even if the Iranian nuclear bomb is hidden there among the olive groves, in fact - especially if it is. The time is ripe, by the way. Ehud Barak is a few months into his position as Minister of Defence. New Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazy is similarly at ease in his comfortable, bullet-proof swivel chair. A november peace summit is coveniently scheduled as proof of good intentions. Let's roll.

Our masters of war are not alone in wishing for a bit of action. The Hammas is shooting as passionately as it can out of the Gaza strip and into Israel proper. Last night it wounded several scores of soldiers while they slept at a base, just as the beautiful Hazzav flower begin to bloom and flocks of migrant birds appear in the sky. Several of them lost limbs. Israel is shooting into the strip as I write this. A mother and child were already reported severely wounded.

This summer has been a nice one. It's been rather low in violence. Last year there was a war in Lebanon, two years ago - tension preceding the disengagement (resulting in a massacre of Palestinian-Israelis in the city of Shefar'am). This Summer's violence was centered around the city of Nablous and several other spots in the West Bank. Both sides of the fence in Gaza were tense as well. For those living there - it was hell, for most of us, however, there was respite.

This respite may be coming to an end, so we should all toughen up, as well as speak out against violence when we get the chance. When I dip my apple in honey tomorrow, It'll be in hope that all will return to normal and that this post is dumb and deeply unprophetic. Round foods, such as specially baked round loaves of bread, are traditionally consumed on Rosh Hashannah in honor of the year's cycle. A year from now I'll be more than happy to dip my hat in honey and eat it.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Jerusalem Syndrom

My cousin Karen was on my balcony tonight, telling me of her work with the Sudanese refugees, and interrogating me about romantic matters. "I'm trying to figure out this thing called love", she said. Glad to hear I am considered a valuable source.

She told a story that interested me. It had nothing to do with the refugees, nor with romance. It had to do with our relationship with places, which is what I dedicate my life to researching and describing.

These days Karen lives in her hometown of Paris. Earlier in life she had spent eight years living in the "Nachla'ot" area of Jerusalem, a cluster of labyrinthine neighborhoods, centered around courtyards and connected by pleasant alleyways. A week ago she was invited for dinner there by some older friends.

Arriving a bit early, she decided to take a walk around and felt eight years spring to life around her. "Here's where I flirted with this guy on the staircase, here's where I had a picnic under the tree on a hot Saturday..."

Gradually she came to feel as though her life was passing before her eyes, a strong sense of death accompanied that feeling. The weight of rather light eight years - student years, youthful years - was overwhelming. When her friends opened the door for her, she began sobbing.

Nothing a nice glass of wine can't ease, right?

Saturday, September 8, 2007


After not being able to sleep (see previous post), I went and purchased Shalom Hanoch's "Exit" - a double CD acoustic live performance. I've been listening to it on repeat ever since. Now I'm cleaning the old flat, listening to "Road Song". It describes driving through a landscape which recalls the Galilee, while clouds gather in the sky in preparation for a heavy rainstorm. Somehow, it's a love song.

The road winds,
an Arab village,
fig trees on the slope,
a man wearing a kafiyah, women in black,
herders have already gathered in the goats.
I'm flying to you like a bird,
no need for a vehicle.
Coming home - very soon
I know you won't leave me outside.

I've always appreciated Hanokh as a pioneer of rock music in Israel (he was part of the groundbraking "Tamouz" outfit in 1976). I was never a fan. Why do I like his stuff so much right now? Perhaps, for the first time, I actually identify with it. My dialogues with Israel, with the Hebrew language, with the American musical heritage, with the idea of manhood and with the Tel-Avivian life style, all have changed over the recent while. now the match is good, and "Exit" is a good album.

At 61 years of age, Hanoch gives knockout live shows which often start at 2:00 AM. Youtube features not a single bit of decent relevant footage. The nearest thing is this performance that's split into two clips, featuring blues guitarist Roni Peterson. It may not sound that way, but the song describes a homosexual experience. It is a classic - enjoy.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Can't Sleep Now

Can't sleep on this cloudy night, and it's almost dawn. What better to do at a time like this than translate a Hebrew rock ballad from the 70s?

It is by Shalom Hanoch.


Can't sleep now.
Outside - the shivering dog
barks at a moon
that stopped at my window.

A horse-drawn cart passes,
advancing towards morning
among pale-walled houses
and windows shut like eyes.

Soon rain will fall
in honour of the farmers.
My fingers are aflame
to touch the string,
to strum a chord.
If I appear in someone's dream tonight
it may be because she
had vanished from my memory.

Can't sleep now.
I listen to the wind - mind blowing
returning to the room,
to consult my clock.

Had she whispered to me
to come and be between her sheets
between her eyes
between her teeth
between her legs,

Soon rain will fall
in honour of the farmers.
My fingers are aflame
to touch the string,
to strum a chord.
If I appear in someone's dream tonight
it may be because she
had vanished from my memory.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Trust Me, It'll Hit Ya.

My vicious job as a travel writer took me today somewhere I didn't want to go: an exhibition space in the south of the city. It would have been agreeable if not for a certain woman working there, a woman who's turned my summer a bit upside down. You know the old tale: boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, girl dumps boy, boy has to write a review of girl's curating feats.

The night that girl first dumped me, I went to visit my friend Nicole. "You know," I told her with full honesty, "I don't actually feel half bad."

"Trust me," she said in her authentic Texan accent, "It'll hit ya."

Today, as I left the place without stopping by the office to say hello, I again felt perfectly well. It hit me only later, while I was on stage in Florentine, jamming at a local open mic. I secretly dedicated to her this wee song of disillusionment. The version given here is from the film "Don't Look Back". It's probably the best ever recorded, and for some reason the first man seen in the footage is Alan Ginsberg.

Later still it was my friend Ravid who shared a bit of wisdom. "One day," she said of that defiant belle, "five years from now, she'll be sitting on the loo somewhere, taking a crap. and then, in the middle of the crap, she'll suddenly say: 'Oh sweet Jesus! what the fuck was I thinking?!'"

That's a good theory by me. Hey, we all take time to process.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Three Meals


- at Abu Hassan's hummous place, in my neighborhood -a temple. The only side order you get with your hummous is an unpeeled, barely cut onion. The orders are yelled over your head back and fourth. The hummous itself is served as "mesabha", warm and thick, almost soupy for all the olive oil they add to it. It's spiced with cumin and paprika. Eating with me is Alon, the photographer working with me on a new travel book. He will soon drive us to have


- at a desolate diner in the heart of the desert, on the outskirts of Yeroham. We are served shakshouka in French bread and a spicy salad by a mostly toothless man in a white beret. On the wall are pictures of the "Baba Sali" a holy man revered by Jewish Moroccans. Yeroham is a town divided between people of Moroccan and Indian backgrounds, we just visited Azriel Azriel, a Mumbay Jew, who exhibits pictures of his own holy man "Shai Baba" as well as a massive collection of porcelain dolls.

On the drive up from Yeroham we stop in Dimona to visit the community of "Bney Yisrael", African Americans from Chicago who formed their own religion and settled in this God forsaken desert town for reasons of faith. they walk around their makeshift village wearing colorful outfits. People are being suspicious of us until it turns out we got a permit from the heads of the community to photograph, whereupon the kids Begin performing somersaults.

The drive up to Jerusalem goes through the West Bank, we see glorious mountain wastelands, sprawling and impoverished Palestinian communities, intimidating watchtowers of grey concrete overlooking the villages, violent concrete walls and affluent settlements with red tiled roofs. I failed to bring my ID along, so I shrink a little every time we pass a checkpoint. After shrinking again and again I begin developing a really healthy appetite for


- but there's a concert of works by Mahler and Brahms to attend, so I don't get any dinner, running instead through the stone streets with a Belgian waffle from Babette's, and later having a bottle of similarly Belgian Beer with Adam and Gilli Stern in a square near city hall. The music was moving, Alon and Adam are both top notch travel companions and Gilli Stern is the Abu Hassan hummous of my old friends. Was this a satisfying day? It certainly filled me up.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

My Joy over the Death of Children

Tomorrow, wearing my hat as classical music critic for "Israel Today", I'll be heading to Jerusalem to attend a performance of something truly outstanding.

Mahler's "Songs About the Death of Children" are based on poetry written by a friend of the composer who had lost two of his children to illness. For years I've avoided that work, largely due to its unappealing name. Once, in Boston, researching for something I was writing, I went to the New England Conservatory's music library and listened to it.

The performance that caused my hair to stand on end that day featured Dame Janet Baker and an orchestra conducted by John Barbiroli. That particular interpretation, possibly the best recorded, is not available on Youtube. Here's a Mexican orchestra doing the fourth song with sensitive soloist Jesus Suaste.

"Oft denk' ich sie sind nur ausgegangen" - I often think they only went out to play and will soon return into the house. This is loss and longing made into music that is truly transcendental. The idea that we can translate painful feelings into art always means hope. I'm thrilled to be boarding that 405 bus.

Another thing that makes me happy today is it's being September 1st. I went to the greengrocer's and found the shelves stocked with guavas, pomegranates and tangy clementines. Such fruit is available here only during autumn. In these parts, as well as in Jewish tradition, early autumn is a time of renewal, Ramadan is approaching with its own spirit of renewal. Hopefully we will soon all be writing songs about rebirth.