Saturday, July 31, 2010

Worse than Jewish

Thursday night, the Israeli opera performed its rendition of Bizet's "Carmen" at Hayarkon Park. 70,000 culture enthusiasts came to watch poor Corporal Don Jose choose to defect for the love of a cigarette factory girl, only to get dumped for Escamillo the bull-fighter.

The performance was splendid. Rinat Shaham was both intense and precise in the title role. It was as though the open air inspired her to be a more powerful, charismatic Carmen that the one she was at the Tel-Aviv Opera House. Mayor Ron Huldai acted as the evening's MC. While sets were replaced between acts, he filled the audience up on the plot, some which became a little blurry due to cuts and omissions.

Huldai also gave some background on the opera but did not go into analysis and criticism. Thus a very crucial aspect of Carmen did not come up that evening in the park: the fact that it's a work full of ethnic prejudice.

Carmen is based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. In the prose text, Don Jose is recounting his misadventures to a prison cell-mate. "I should never have gone with such a woman," he tells him. "After all, we all know her kind."

"Is she Jewish?" asks the cell mate.

"Worse," says Don Jose, "She's a Gypsy."


For me as a Jew, it's almost calming to hear that the Roma were considered "worse" than us in Mérimée's 19th century Europe. They certainly are considered "worse" these days. In contemporary Scandinavia, for example, I found that disdain toward the Roma is largely acceptable and may be voiced freely, while antisemitism certainly isn't. Why is that so? Both ethnicities burned shoulder to shoulder in Auschwitz, did they not?

They did, but the Romani historical foundations and political lobbies were never very effective or efficient. This is partially how come French President Nicolas Sarkozy could this week announce his plan to deport all Romas without proper French documents.

Sarkozy, his Minister of the interior, Brice Hortefeux, and the Secretary of State of European Affairs, Pierre Lellouche, claim that French is swamped by Roma who moved in from the most recent EU members in the Balkans, that this had caused a culmination in theft and drug trade.

I don't doubt that Roma culture tolerates petty crime far more than mainstream European culture does, but Sarkozy has far greater thieves to worry about: corporate thieves who steal in a day more that what a Roma settlement would steal in a decade. Besides, even if the Roma are involved in crime, there is no greater crime than to reinforce a damaging stigma placed on a community and deem this community unwanted.


It's sad to see this taking place in France. French Roma are known for being progressive and open. Traveling in rural France I often received lifts from Gypsies, pitched my tent among their trailers in Sts. Maries de la Mer, spoke to them and learned of their world.

Of all Roma societies, this is the one most welcoming to the non-ethnic Roma traveler, providing an alternative for those who couldn't take the burdon of mainstream French life. It's also open to the world - French Manouche Gypsies were the first to integrate western pop music into their musical repertoire. Modern Jazz would be unthinkable without the blessed influence of Django Reinhardt, pictured above.

French Roma had a modernizing influence on their Spanish neighbors and would doubtlessly have a similar effect on Balkan newcomers. By singling those newcomers out, Sarkouzy is causing great damage to their French brethren. He is identifying Gypsies in general as thieves, drug dealers and a burden on society. Worse than Jews? Much worse.

Is it any surprise that this is happening in the one European country where the Roma have become most integrated? The Jewish community of Weimar Germany was more modern and culturally assimilated than any other in Europe. Rather than embrace this, the Germans perceived the Jews as a threat and acted accordingly.

Europeans have portrayed the Roma as a treacherous woman who would pick your wallet or your heart, whichever she gets her hands on first. Gypsies have always been taken for a threat, so legislation against them is almost inevitable, but it is tragic and disgusting nonetheless.


I can't really conclude this without a word about the semi-nomadic people of this land. This passing week. 1,300 Israeli policemen arrived at dawn to the Bedouine village of Al-Arakib, evacuated its hundreds of residents and demolished it entirely. Al -Arakib, a shanty town north of Beer-Sheva, had existed since before the founding of the state of Israel, but it's located within a ring of land around the city which the state wishes to preserve as "Bedouine free".

45 houses were demolished in the village, which means hundreds of homeless souls. The Israeli press paid minimal attention to the event. In the two largest newspapers it recieved no mention at all. In place of Al-Arakib, the Jewish national fund intends to plant a grove of pine.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Frankfurt Dream

In my dream I was on the tarmac in Frankfurt's airport, gazing through the oval hatch at the air traffic controllers as they perform their elegant dance-of-the-orange-rods before the gargantuan airplanes. I soon got tired and wondered aloud when we would take off. The passenger seated beside me said that we were grounded and I might as well just leave the plane and go for a stroll.

So I walked out of the airport and into a nearby suburb of Frankfurt. It turned out to be an historical town, with quaint streets winding twixt medieval houses. Evening was falling and lights were coming on in the houses. One door was open, letting warm yellow light pour out onto the narrow sidewalk. From within I heard the chatter of young people and the shuffle of kitchenware. I walked in and up a steep staircase, an uninvited guest.

atop the stairs was a corridor running between many doors. Evidently, this was a students' apartment. Several young men and women from around the world walked here and there, speaking English to each other. Some on their way to the kitchen, some to see friends outside. The place seemed to be accustomed to strangers since no one paid me much mind.

Still, I felt uneasy being there. After stopping in the kitchen and chatting with some petite latino girl who was cooking lentils inside a great pot, I left the flat and returned to the street. I walked downhill, searching for river Main and for a glimpse of Frankfurt's famous skyline. The suburb had a modernist center with modest glass highrises and a waterfront cycle lane. at some point the river and the lane separated, the river disappeared among the rushes, and across the dark asphalt of the lane appeared home.

Home: a barren hill of chalk, topped with the separation wall. Mediterranean bushes grew on the slope, climbing over old stone ruins on their way to the concrete crest. The side of the bike lane closer to home was dustier. I was almost tempted to step over it and climb the hill but then stalled and looked back to the suburb of Frankfurt, which was there alright, and looked back to the Jerusalemite hill, which was there alright, and woke up.

(artwork: "Germany and Poland" by Joshua Neustein, taken from the Moonriver's fantastic treasury.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Working Class Borough is Something to Be

The deeper you dig, the closer you come to the bone. Cities will teach you that.

Haifa is a three tiered one: Atop Mt. Carmel are the posh quarters, complete with pretty parks and a cinematheque. Halfway down is Haddar, the city's first "modern hub", mixing urban grit with pleasent residential streets. All the way down is the "Lower City", and that's where the heart is, the rugged, blue collar heart.

Each time I visit this neglected bit of cityscape, I go through something dramatic. My first true venture here was for an article in the Hebrew edition of National Geographic. The editor sent me and Eddy the photographer to seek out the seamen haunts. Is Haifa still a port city in the days of nearly unmanned, mechanized ships, that linger in the harbor for no longer than a day or so? Did it still have taverns? prostitutes? Tattoed nights? We took the train up and descended at the shadow of cranes.

It took us a little while to come up with a positive answer. The bars are hidden, but when you're in them, there's no mistaking them. Old timer Israeli sailors drink arrack and eat salami at the "Habanera", American musclemen, fresh off a cargo ship, gozzled it down at "the anchor", and there was "the Godfather", where Eddy took the sexiest photo ever of a woman smoking. Haifa was drenched with salt water alright.

On my second sojourn here I came with a broken heart. a girl dumped me in Tel-Aviv and I escaped north to ease the pain. I took a bed at the "Port Inn", truly a sweet little hostel, but through an unfortunate fluke got stung by some mysterious insect and spent the night awake, scratching myself, walking the empty, shabby streets and trying to write a love poem that would bring her back.

All I ended up coming with was a blog post about another city and another girl. When morning came, I straddled into old fashioned cafe "Shani" on the main drag, and got served good coffee with the words "good morning" sprinkled on it in cocoa powder, through some kind of a friendly stencil. That made my day. I swore to love Haifa forever, more than any girl, ever!

This weekend, though, I came to Haifa with a girl, so I had to balance my effections out somehow. You see her here standing on the atypically elegant Ben-gurion avenue, with its old houses built by German evangelists in the 19th century.

Never worry. She herself has a romantic history with the city. She and her legendary ex-boyfriend used to frequent a Romanian restaurant called "The fountain of Beer" and feast on its "Kostitza": some sort of a smoked, garlicky concoction of pork that is simply too amazing to describe.

A band was playing old favorites, pleasing the multitude of non-kosher Haifa-ites who croud this place on a Friday.

Since I hummed along, I got to sing into the microphone. You'll notice that I am literally pregnant with the Kostitza. Please don't show this picture to anyone.

This was a great little kickoff to the weekend, and I forgave Itka her nostalgia to the ex-boyfriend, but the streets were beginning to empty and we got worrying that the lower city was not really that great a place in which to pass a shabbat.

I mean, these days even the golden dome of the Baha'i shrine, the ornament of the city, is undergoing renovations.

So we went into the Anchor bar to drink the afternoon away, and met the mayor. Seriously, this is Yona Yahav, the Mayor of Haifa, in a bar.

It's not that romantic actually. You know that I don't have money for vacations. The weekend in Haifa was a work trip, an invitation extended by the municipality in honor of a new play in Haifa's municipal theatre. Mr. Yahav came to greet the culture correspondants. He has an agenda to promote with the press and the Lower City is at the heart of this agenda. There has been a huge investment in trying to beautify this area and bring fresh blood - particularly students, to live here. Yahav showed us a newly paved area between the Anchor bar and the port, and led us into a bustling, if mild-mannered, street party.

It starred the mild-mannered yet legendary trio of Shem-tov Levi, Shlomo Yidov and Yitzhak Klepter.

Yahav's plans for the lower city, which include moving the commercial port east and planting a marina in the current basin, are likable. then again, he should be careful not to over-gentrify this very unique cityscape, which is, in its horizontal way, as multi-tiered as the city itself. It certainly isn't all grit. It's a lovely place to feast, working class style, of course.

It's full of creativity: the graduates' show at the Wizo design academy was mind blowing

and expressed healthy liberalism.

To top it all, relationships between Jews and Arabs here are, if not impeccable, at least better than elsewhere in the country. Haifa knew the pain of the Naqba, but was also always the hotbed of cooperation between the societies, with the internationalist values of the working class helping build bridges. This poster uses the smile of an Arab real estate agent as a "seller" to a Hebrew-reading public. Such things aren't to be taken for granted around these parts.

The Lower City, shyly identified as "Downtown" on the signs, has no reason to feel inferior to the other boroughs and to look up to them. It thrilled me when I sought a thrill, It lifted my spirit when I was down. It's as good as they come. Not every city can be the celestial Jerusalem. I like my terrestrial Haifas served with garlic sauce.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How Shall we Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land?

If there's anywhere that scares Israelis, it's Ramallah.

We have several good reasons not to go to Ramallah, even if we put aside the incident of the year 2000, in which two soldiers who lost their way and wound up here were killed by a mob. That event took place in the height of hostilities, immediately following the death of Mohamed A-Dura in Gaza. Still, it's a precedent, and many people here hate our guts.

So there's one good reason not to visit Ramallah. especially at night. Ramallah is not the capital of streetlights.

A second good reason not to visit Ramallah is that coming here is a criminal offence by Israeli law. No one checks us on the way in but we risk arrest, interrogation and then imprisonment or a heavy fine if caught on the way out. Palestinian police who find us must hand us over to the Istraelis. So that's another good reason not to visit Ramallah, especially if you have a nice Jewish face like mine.

But observe the photo above and you'll find one good reason to visit Ramallah. When was the last time you got served your coke bottle with a straw in it? that is so 1982!

Ramallah retains in it the charm of decades gone by. which is why we just had to come here and attend a Boney M concert. Boney M? You've got to be kidding me! what won't I give to stand with the Palestinian people who've known so much hardship, and sing with them that eternal anthem of oppressed nations:

By the rivers of Ba-ha-bylon (dark tears of Babylon)
Where we sat do-hown (You've got to sing a song)
Yeah-hey we we-hept (sing a song of love)
When we remembered Zi-ha-yon (yeah yeah yeah yeah).

facing all the arguments for not coming was the one decisive argument for coming: Disco!

Boney M were to appear at the open air theatre right outside the Ramallah Cultural Palace.

There were less hijabs to be seen here then on the streets, both because there's something deeply un-Islamic about lines such as "Rasputin, Rasputin, Russia's greatest love machine" and because at least 30% of those present were internationals. I did find a few, though, dyed here by a glam boa scarf that someone waved over my lense.

And boy did we ever wave these glam boa scarves. Today's Boney M features only a single member of the original ensemble, the unbelievably energetic and lovely Maizie Williams. she totally justifies using the famous brand and the rest of her team was terrific as well. They strutted their hits: "Daddy Cool", "Sunny", the very applicable "Belfast"...

As well as Boney M's famous cover version of Marley's "No Woman no Cry".

Then suddenly the lights went out.

It was towards the end of "No Woman no Cry." The microphones died too and the band fell silent, but the audience kept singing: Everything's gonna be alright! Everything's gonna be alright!

It took Williams a second to understand that she was faced with the true spirit of Ramallah. If there's any city in the world that's used to the lights going out and knows that everything's gonna be alright, it's here. She returned to the front of the stage and swayed to the chanting.

When the lights returned. Everyone was in full form. and the rest of the evening simply rocked. We had only one major disappointment: Babylon was not sung. I can only assume that the festival organizers banned it for fear that the word "Zion" (as in "Zionism") would offend the audience. Sometimes deeper meanings are lost on people. The crown chanted "Babylon" harder than it chanted "everything's gonna be alright" but to no avail. A token identification with the local struggle was the best we got.

So we went away with dear Palestinian friends we bumped into, looking for somewhere to sit and weep. The best party in Ramallah these days is a house party. Grandma Aniseh died, and her offspring turned her old home into a popping bar: "Aniseh's House".

No one killed us.

No one arrested us.

It was only paying for our Taybeh beers in Sheqels that reminded us the occupation even exists. We pocketed the change and focused on the extraordinary hospitality of our neighbors, easing the shift between the glittery clothes we saw on stage and the uniforms we would meet at the checkpoint later.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Oxymoron City

On our way to the birthplace of the redeemer, we bumped into a fan of his. Frère Christian was fueling a car belonging to his Trappist monetary. The contrast between his robe and the Renault was the first of many on our excursion. In fact, sharp contrasts and dichotomies would turn out to be a staple of the trip. Welcome to oxymoron country.

Take the contrast between the open countryside and the many walls running through it. This one isn't even the famous "separation Wall". It's another wall, shielding a road used mostly by settlers from Palestinian houses.

We were going to Bethlehem because such walls haunt my dreams. A short while ago I was in Beit Jala to watch the World Cup semi-finals screened on the separation wall. Afterward I found myself waking each morning with troubling visions of barriers and gates on my mind. I had to come and see what Beit Jala was like during the day.

I also wished to experience once more the intense feeling of being an illegal. As an Israeli, my government strictly forbids me from visiting any Palestinian city and returning to Israel through the checkpoints demands know-how and cunning. The experience of being only a few meters away from a home I may not easily reach was intense (though all ended well, thanks to the help of a few kind smugglers). Going through all of that through a few hours of a dark night, on which none of the world across the wall could be seen, left a mark on me. I had to come back for closure.

We took a tricky path in and were back in Beit Jala, where the contrast of the Jacir Intercontinental hotel and a distant Israeli watchtower greeted us.

This time, Itka and Ben couldn't come. Instead I was with Bea, who rears from the tiny princedom of Lichtenstein, and Ron, who rears from the slightly larger land of Israel. We came to the place where the game was screened. The screen was still there, along with the restaurant's menu, providing another peculiar combination.

I could see over the wall this time, there were other walls there.

It was the walls proximity to the town that shocked me so much on the initial visit. As Israelis, if we get to see the wall at all, we see it from afar. Here it's part of the urban fabric.

It's so much a part of life, some people find it funny.

Having taken it all in, we went on towards central Bethlehem, the city to which Beit Jala is a suburb. New contrasts abounded. The palestinian cityscape as seen through the windshield vs. our Israeli parking sticker stuck on it.

The old Arab city

Vs. the new Israeli settlement of Har Homa, across the valley and the wall from it.

The abundance of the market

vs. the empty shopping mall, a true indicator of the state of Bethlehem's economy. The only stores open offered overpriced goods for tourists. all prices were in U.S. dollars.

There was also the quaintness of the renovated central district

vs. the rustic outskirts.

And finally, the size of a normal human being vs. the doorway of the Church of Nativity.

Now that we mixed into the tourist crowd, I can show the faces of my brother and sister in crime.

All of us enjoyed the best of Bethlehem, its peculiar architecture,

its amazing children

its striking street names

its perfect kebabs, consumed at a hole in the wall restaurant with the best ceiling ever

and the company of Mohamed, a local zucchini farmer/real estate agent who joined us out of nowhere and chatted with us for nearly an hour.

We also all enjoyed the thrill of succesfully breaking back out to our side of the wall. I felt much better following this visit. The light of day changes everything.

The return to Israel of course provided the most intense contrast of the day. We drove directly across Jerusalem to the Hebrew University atop Mt. Scopus where graduates of the Betzal'el art school showed their final project in a massive exhibition. I found much of the stuff to be worthwhile.

In one of the corridors, guest of the exhibition were encouraged to participate in the exhibition by letting their creativity go wild.

I couldn't help but offer what was on my mind.