Friday, January 30, 2009


Of the past 16 nights, I have spent 11 in hotel rooms. All this travel is for work and all is paid for by various organizations with which I work. It's the life I always craved, not to mention that I keep getting upgraded: from the bare basics of the inn at Sde Boker, to the decent hotel in Tbilisi, to the shiny monster that I now call home: Eilat's Royal Beach hotel, venue of the current chamber music festival.

I love it. I love being received in the lobby with champagne and a selection of fine chocolates, the little basket with fresh fruit and bottle of wine in the room, the perfect view to the sea, the palm trees and the desert mountains, the massive bed and en suite Jacuzzi. I love the slick design, how clean everything is, the Finnish sauna, the steam room, the hamam style sauna, the "Scottish shower" and what have you. I love that a hidden speaker plays the TV soundtrack in the bathroom so you won't miss a scene while taking a leak. I love having to wear a jacket for the evening functions, I even love the elevator music, though not nearly as much as the Mozart arias that are sung here onstage.

Somehow, I'll probably still vote for the Communists in a few days. None of the luxury lets me escape the fact that I'm a pennyless journalist. I am no less than a victim of the system that allows a fortunate few to pay for all this. But till then, how about some more marzipan over here, oh, and a glass of royal flush.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Four hours prior to flying to Tbilisi, I received a major gift. Itka, the person of whom I often say I would take to a desert island, spontaneously decided to join.

It turned out to be a gift for her too. As part of my work on the travel article I had to visit an elegant local casino. Itka hit a jackpot there, winning ten times her bid.

But the real gift for both of us was Tbilisi. Many cities are beautiful, many are unique, very few are literally magical

Markets are a gift, Tbilisi is the only city I've seen that has a massive market of paintings. It's to be found twixt its flea market and book market.

Strange alphabets are a gift.

Hills surrounding a city are always a gift.

The peculiar melange of central Asia and high Europe is a gift.

Our hosts, Manana and Tamas, were a gift, as was Tamuna, who does not appear in this photo.

Accidently landing into a party of Young Georgians and their Estonian friends easily rivaled the casino win.

Georgia kept us in high spirits (Chacha, the local poison, is 50% alcohol strong).

Nighttime is a gift, whether splendiferous or gritty.

Timidness is a very sweet gift.

Even the remnants of Soviet times can be a sort of a strange gift (only to the aesthetic adventurer, don't say such a thing to a Georgian).

Georgia ourside the city turned out to be barren and ancient, like an Orthodox Scotland.

It is gifted with peaks nearly 6000 meters tall. those are not pictured here, but they're there, somewhere further north along the vicious, closed down border with the Russian Federation.

The land in winter is resplandent.

We were fed very seriously, in country restaurants, in urban khinkali joints, wherever. That was perhaps the greatest gift of all, along with the hypnotic, outstanding music that was playing wherever we went.

No wonder I find myself walking around one of the least American cities I've ever visited, with an old Shaker hymn in my head: 'Tis a gift to be simple.

'Tis a gift to be free.

'Tis a gift to come down where we aught to be.

For when we find ourselves at the place just right

We will be in the valley of love and delight.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

La Citta Invisibile

Natalia can't believe it. "How come you are going there?"

"I'm writing a travel piece for a ladies' magazine."

"A ladies' magazine?"

"It's the biggest magazine in the country and they keep sending me to the most unlikely places, like Sri Lanka, but I have to tell you, they couldn't have dreamed a better destination than your country. I've been dying to go there ever since I can remember myself."

Natalia is extatic. She gives me the number of her brother so I can bring a gift from the family, instructs me to climb the mount overlooking her city, especially at night, and adds: "bring lots of love from me to my people and bring their love back to me."

She's longing for Tbilisi, sweet romantic Tbilisi. How different the tone of her voice is from that of Israelis when they say "Gruzia" or "Gruzini". No nation suffers more stigma. Georgian Jews have become the most reviled of communities in Israel for no appearent reason. In jokes they are described as being hairy, dirty and somehow barbaric. "Why do Georgians smear shit on the wall at a wedding? so the flies won't swarm the bride."

I always try to keep racism out of my mind, but these jokes have had an effect on how I picture Natalia's city. In my imagination it is a scary metropolis mixing Eastern danger and Soviet grit, somewhere you can get instantly stabbed for chatting to a (knockout gorgeous, though slightly moustachioed) girl, or wake up in a bathtub full of ice after having had one of your kidnies stolen. Tbilisi, in my mind's eye, is a city where church spires resemble minarets, where old men play cards in dark allies and the suburban streets, running among the grey commie blocks, are unpaved and muddy.

My Imaginary Georgia, land of Stalin, of "The Knight in Panther Skin", of heavily spiced food and strong red wine, of silent ravines in enormous mountains, of war sacked villages and forgotten orange groves, of twisty alphabet and eaqually twisty music, is a thrillingly dark place. To Natalia, it's home sweet home. Let's see what happens when the visions are fused.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Greetings from Harare

With the mail today came a small postcard bearing no pretty picture on its back side. It is my "elections notification", telling me at which school in the neighborhood the ballot will await me in three weeks. I seldom get mail in my part of Jaffa, where mostly Arabs live. Arabs don't deserve to have their mail delivered regularly. It's a miracle this notification came on time. I wouldn't have been surprised had it arrived following the next elections.

The National elections comittee banned the two Arab parties from participating in these elections, claiming that they "pose a risk to Israel's Jewish nature". Arabs don't deserve to run for office. The supreme court is expected to overturn the decision, but even if it does, a lot of racist harm was done. The comittee used the hateful tide the Israeli public experienced during the war to perform a gravely undemocratic act. Who poses the real risk to this nation?

So far the decision has not been overturned. Should I vote? should one vote in a country that is only semi-democratic or even mock-democratic? Don't we find the Zimbabuans and Belorussians, who's votes can only be counted if the go a certain way, somewhat pitiable for cooperating? The sitiation here is not as dire, but it's quite dire. Dissenters are out, other smaller parties are either un-democratically marginalized (a.k.a. Chadash, which will never be invited to join in a coalition, since it's mixed. Arabs should refrain from joining hand with Jews), or play a non democratic role of expoliting the coalition system for sectorial power (a.k.a. the Ultra Orthodox parties, which will always be invited to join a coalition) or simply oppose democracy openly (a.k.a. Liberman's party, which seeks to deprive Arabs of their voting and civil rights).

Meanwhile the major three juggernauts reflect one another to the point that they could have easily been a single party, "The Party". Livni may be a new face, but her team is pure Likud. Netaniahu may be a death sentence for both the economy and any hopes for peace, but the war record of Barak, who's hardly an economist, is growing darker... funny how one little postcard can carry so much disturbing content. Israel's democracy was blessed with very fine handwriting.

This does not mean that the first day of Obama's reign is spoiled for me, but it does mean that while preparing the morning coffee, rather then whistling along to my usual Brassens, I put on something angrier. Enjoy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

1. It's not really a ceasefire when you declare it unilaterally.

2. Clarity - a desert helps, as do bright planet Venus over the ravine, a good translation of Eeva Kilpi, and old actress Hanna Maron (who acted for Fritz Lang as a child!) strutting out Hanoch Levine's dark satire on stage, her voice both firm and trembling, both funny and frightening - an intense reminder of the war.

3. It's not really a ceasefire when you sketch it out with your own allies and shake hands on it only with them, after killing over 1300 people, including over 400 children. It's more like an attempt at a sandwich break, or rather a quick lunch with Obama. We are not getting that either

4. Eran Hadas is a genius and several of my other friends are too. I first encountered the new poetry scene in Sde Boker 3 years ago, I was a journalist with Haaretz, the correspondent on pets and gardening. I got special permission to replace the literary correspondent for two weeks "but only in case of emergency", which meant that I could only write about literature if someone died. For two weeks I prayed for the demise of Israel's finest authors and poets. When only some Slovenian author ended up kicking the bucket, I declared to my editor that some random poetry festival in the south was an emergency and headed there. The people I met there are today members of my closest community. Hanging out with the rascals, who shunned the formal panels, who "blitzed" the dining room of the boarding school, bringing slightly insane poetry and music to the unexpecting teenagers, proved wise. From a three year perspective I see the special fire of the new generation growing higher. The use of humor and rhythm intensified, the political subtexts became more focused. I am proud to be a part of what is happening in Hebrew poetry today, I'm proud that we're sexy, I'm proud that we're creative, I'm proud that we take a tough stand.

5. It's not really a ceasefire. Don't read the media, read poetry. That's where it's at. I'll conclude with a bit of Hanoch Levine, provided here for everyone's clarity.

When we take a walk, we are three,
You, me and the next war.
When we go to sleep, we are three,
You, me and the next war.

When we smile at a moment of love
The next war smiles with us.
When we wait at the maternity ward,
The next war waits with us.

When they knock on the door, we are three,
You, me and the next war.
and when all this is over, we still are three,
You, the next war and the photograph.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Desert Sexual Tension Days

It doesn't seem right to write about anything but the war while people are still dying, but since a Palestinian friend of mine just posted something about wanting to take piano lessons, I take the cue from him and declare a humanitarian ceasefire.

It's hardly a ceasefire, because a new war is on its way. The Annual "Desert Poetry Days" festival is coming this weekend, promising drama. This festival, taking place in secluded Sde Boker, on the rim of a lovely canyon, is always a battleground. The poets start off by fighting about poetry. The various generations and cliques clash, if not on stage, then around the past-midnight whisky bottle.

Then there's social tension within and between the groups. in a small creative community such as Israel's, forced friendships last for too long and are good fodder for misplaced frustrations. Ego cluster bombs explode: someone suddenly vanishes to protest having been dissed, someone else calls someone else's poetry "bullshit" to a third person who snitches. An hommage for a dead poet ends with participants being blamed for pretending to be her friends only now that she died and the blamed blaming the blamers for blaming.

Then there's the romantic baggage.

Unlike the Metula Poetry festival, Israel's snobbier, northern verse-fest, Desert Poetry Days shuns snobbism. In Metula, the young, avant garde croud is invited only selectively. In Sde Boker all are welcome to take part in a poetry cabaret. Dorm rooms with capacity of 6 beds are provided for poetry's troublemakers. At least one of them will house no less than nine young spirits for the duration of the weekend. The couple combinations are bound to change mid festival, if not mid-night. Parties at the adjacent kibbutz have been known to fuel the fire, the chill of the wintery desert nights gives it a further kick. Forget poetry, this is a sexy time of year.

Two of my relationships of the passing year began at that festival. Both broke up and in each case one of the parties was hurt badly. now we'll all be there together again. Let me chart out the disaster for you:

-A met me before going to the festival.
-B met A at the festival last year,
-C and E met me at the festival last year.
-D met C and E at the festival last year, hit on E and had a small thing with C.
-B dated C for a few months.
-E and me had a short affair.
-C broke up with B and dated me.
-B hooked up with A. C left me and is now dating F (D's nemesis).
-I am now avoiding C and F.
-G and me developed an interest in each other, but it didn't work out.
-G now avoids me, but will be at the festival,
-as will A,B,C,D and E (F may come too).
-E tells me she's uncomfortable about staying in the same room with D and H
-(D had a thing with J, an ex of both B and previously unmentioned K,
-while H seriously hit on L, A's former good friend, whom she now avoids).
-E prefers to stay with me, M, and N, one of whom once desired C,
-But that bed is already reserved for G, who now avoids me.

Besides, this would just be too mad. I tell E that she should sort it out for herself because things are way damn complicated as they are, and if I could avoid going to the desert I would, but I'm being paid to coordinate a panel and MC an evening with Amos Oz. Wish me luck, brothers and sisters. Hebrew poet Alterman warned his daughter: "Preserve yourself from what is near / like gravel and like sky". In a terrain of much gravel and much sky, I'll do my best.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

On Tour

Crossing an Ashdod street, early yesterday, was a sodier holding a different kind of weapon.

I came here to meet him. Israeli newspapers only carry patriotic stories these days, even on the culture pages. I've made several sacrifices, choosing not to write in a way that goes against my conscience. It ended up so that soon I'll be starving.

I finally agreed to go south and write about military entertainment troups who perform for kids in the bomb shelters, not fully happy about it. Then, following the guitar yielding sodier into the shelter, I bumped into Amir.

We were both stunned. Amir is a friend of Flashky and one of Israel's most talented young concert musicians (he appears in a photo on this blog, two posts ago, playing the double bass with Merhav Yeshoron). Currently doing his regular service, Amir and his talent were conscripted to bring some joy into this region. I decided to join him for the day. He was headed for the bus. I boarded too. There was combat gear on the vacant seats.

On other seats sat Israel's youngest and brightest musicians. The military accepted them as "excelling musicians" sending them to perform classical music to soldiers in times of peace. Now, at wartime, they must switch repertory in order to please a much younger audience. Amir swapped the bass and the Baroque recorder, his usual instruments, for a "darbouka" Arab drum. Him and his troup mates: Inon the guitar player and Gilli the flutist spent the ride trying to figure out what songs Ashdod's kids would like.

We soon arrived at a shelter in Ashdod's working class "Gimmel" neighborhood.

The kids liked theme songs from television programs, they liked Mizrachi songs, they loved playing along,

but most of all, they completely adored the performers.

The irony is obvious, a qassam shot away, young people wearing the same uniforms are actually killing children. This is painful to percieve, yet is hardly the fault of the "excelling musicians", who chose to spend their military service making music rather than war, nor certainly of the kids who are living now for weeks in a scary, difficult situation, without school or much of a sense of normality. I decided to give a hand myself and taught them how to sing Arik Einstein's "My Mommy". Call it unjournalistic behaviour.

Back on the bus, we were joined by members of the IDF's theatre troup. Their improv show, designed for soldiers, had to be adjusted to fit seven year olds. It worked! they were all high on the experience, playing around with the combat gear and being goofy with the musical instruments.

I, too was still inspired.

The landscape around us was spelendidly peaceful (we were instructed that if an alarm sounds we must leave the bus, go as far away from it as possible and lie with our stomachs to the ground and our hands over the backs of our heads).

Finally we arrived in Sderot, a mere 5 kilometers from the fence surrounding the Gaza strip. While Sderot isn't exactly a ghost town, most of the people around were memebers of the media. the street leading up from the main shopping center is a forest of television cameras. I haven't been to Sderot in a year or so. It has changed in another way: the bus stops have been fortified with concrete and can serve as shelters at an emergancy.

The musicians were brought into the bomb shelter of an apartment building in a socio-economically weak neighborhood. Many of the residents here are of Ethiopian origin and at least one family is actually Arab - of Bedouin stock. What the Ashdod kids have been experiencing for a week, the kids here have grown up with. Add to this the usual problems kids face in slums, and you have a nice coctail.

Their parents received the soldiers as gods, instantly showering them with requests for militant songs these pacifist Tel-Avivians have never heard of. Actually performing was futile, this became, instead, a party.

Again, it was difficult to decide who's cuter, the kids or the musicians. I have my nominee for cutest of the day, and perhaps cutest of the war. I found him at a far back room of the shelter, building a winged car out of Legos. There were only so many Lego pieces there and only so much light and the room smelled moldy and a war was going on, but he was focused on creating, oblivious to it all for one sweet, brief moment, like we all were.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My Country, 'tis of Thee

You never bomb a school. No matter how much you are being shot at from within it. There are situations in which an army is blocked. It happens in chess, it happens at war. I'm no military expert, but there are ways to deal with being shot at from a school that has become a safe haven for civilians. You must consider it a fortress surrounded by an extra wall, one that will only be removed when all civilians are evacuated, and if they can't be evacuated, you retreat. The IDF prides itself on warning people to run away from buildings that are to be bombed, a few days ago it actually showered Gaza neighborhoods with leaflets calling for residents to evacuate, but where exactly? The Gaza strip is the most populated region on earth, it's a fenced corral. Everyone within it is trapped.

You never bomb a building that is home to families that escaped from homes you already bombed. My nation's military did it tonight, killing between 30 and 40 people and wounding scores. My tax money paid for the ammunition.

My country 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.

But what really kills me is how Israeli news media refuses to even refer to this as a tragedy; they only talk about how difficult it would be to justify this in the face of international press. We have ceased to be human. Everything boils now into "but they shoot qassams at us", the difficult living conditions in the south justify use of limitless force in the eyes of Israelis. They fail to see how the completely impossible living conditions in besieged Gaza were used to justify the use of force there. As in September 11th, the "terrorists" are "evil doers" without motives. They deserve the most brutal treatment, even when that treatment costs Israeli soldiers their lives, even when no long term, pragmatic plan is discussed, even when over 180 children are killed within a week.

We certainly gained a lot from bombing that school, we gained security for the south, no more rockets will fly there. We made good neighbors by bombing that school. We weakened Hamas. Now everybody in Gaza loves us and hates them! War makes wonderful sense. These words are written from an Israel in which racism is going through the roof and empathy has become nonexistent. Jaffa is lit in blinking blue, full of police cars waiting to arrest protesters. In the case of Jaffa protests, the participants (mostly Arab) get photographed and arrested after they return home.

Tomorrow I'm heading south to Ashdod to visit a bomb shelter and experience the anxiety there, but this war has already marked me with anxiety. Thank heavens for good friends, for Wassail and Jacques Brel. They help me go through this dark time, but if any darker times are in score, I will be singing of my country a very dark song.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Love in the Time of Cholera

Saturday afternoon was spent pleasently with family.

All the cute kids were there, including the one and only Meitar, my niece.

Such a peaceful afternoon.

Such crimson sunset.

Such bad news: Israeli troops have invaded the Gaza strip.

I left my parents' home and joined the Tel-Aviv protest, we were at least 8000 people, about 20% of us were Palestinian-Israelis. We marched and chanted while pro-war protesters swore at us.

A week ago there were 30 of us.

I met lovely people there, from young Renana, who would be adopted by any resistance movement as a poster child,

to ever kind, ever-fiesty Ari and Shelly,

I found my way out past the hostile groups, aided by the police, and went to Osnat's evening in Florentine. It was obvious that the new situation would affect the event, one put together with enormous love and without any wish for reward. Poet Aaron Shabtai came and then left, saying he can't perform at such a time. His daughter Nano remained to kick off the most truely Avant-Garde cultural evening tel-Aviv has ever seen. Accompanied by Billie Levi on Guitar, she created Israel's first spoken word moment.

Merhav Yeshoron worked with an entire jazz outfit.

Chicky teamed with DJ Schoolmaster. His poetry touched openly on the war and the bizzare, painful place in which we live and create, as did Itka's.

She wasn't the only one clapping. This day ended well for us, just as it began well. We will take that goodness and try to radiate it out, to make as much of a difference as possible.