Sunday, November 27, 2016

Post-Mortem Analysis

A friend from Israel asked me a question that was at the same time both simple and ridiculously complex. “So, what did you think of the election?"

I side-stepped her question, mumbling something about how there wasn't enough time to give a good answer. The truth was that I was still in shock, still trying to wrap my brain around the election results. It simply did not compute. I analyzed the data, then reorganized my thoughts, then retooled my thesis. Then I started all over again. This is my best attempt at a written response to my Israeli friend. Please forgive anything I have forgotten, such as the impact of the alt right or the question of Trump's international business dealings or...whatever. There are just too many moving pieces to include them all. However, if you question any of the facts in my statements, please message me and I will back them up with references from reputable sources.

I think I speak for half of this country when I say that this election was an UNMITIGATED DISASTER.

There is no other simple way to put this. What is more important and more alarming is that Donald Trump is not the disease itself. To continue the medical metaphor, he is only a symptom of a greater sickness in our country.

To understand what happened, why it happened, and what it means, I need to break down the past year into three topics:

  1. The environment that lead to a Trump presidency.
  2. The danger of a Trump presidency.
  3. The possible future of a Trump presidency.

THE ENVIRONMENT

First of all, to understand U.S. (American) politics, it is important to understand that we are for all intents and purposes a two-party system (Republican and Democratic). In the past, this has kept our politics relatively centrist, since extreme political ideologies can never get a foothold in the U.S. at a national level. Second, our electoral college system is an antiquated system that gives each state a certain number of electoral votes more or less based on the number of Congressmen from that state. However, since this does not reflect the actual population of each state, and since in most states, the winner of a state gets ALL the electoral votes from that state in a presidential election, the system gives less-populated rural states more voting power than more populated urban states. The result of which is whichever party can mobilize the rural areas of the country wins the election. This is also why Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by at least 1.5% but lost the overall election.

Finally, there is documented evidence of voter suppression, disenfranchisement, and “gerrymandering” (drawing voter districts to favor certain groups) throughout our country that makes it more difficult for people of color, immigrants, and the poor to get their vote heard. Some states, such as North Carolina, have been in the news recently for actively making it difficult for African Americans to vote. Laws that were put in place a generation ago to prevent voter disenfranchisement have been recently struck down by our court system as “no longer necessary”. This can all be verified with documents, news articles, and academic analysis.

On this political backdrop, add lots and lots of voter anger. In fact, I would argue that “anger” was the primary emotion that drove this election. I have to tried to analyze why the anger was so different this election cycle than compared to any other. This is not the first time that the working class were poor, that young people were in debt, or that the government was seen as corrupt. However, this time around, the mostly-liberal Millennials (those born between 1982-2002) are struggling with college debt, making less than their parents did, and seeing the largest wage gap between our richest and poorest. The White Working Class are actually better off than they were a decade ago (with improved access to health care and an economy that is no longer in free fall), but they are still facing an economic recession and job losses in a world that no longer looks like the world their parents grew up in (the first Black president, acceptance of LGBT rights, and increasing numbers of Arabic and Spanish speaking immigrants). They have been told over and over by conservatives that all of their pain is due to the changing environment. So, as my son put it, those people who valued education and those people who didn’t value education were both angry because they were poor.

Republican obstructionism partnered with effective Republican messaging (slogans, sound bites, etc.) also played a huge part. Since President Obama took office 8 years ago, the Republican party has tried to undermine him at every turn. Remember that our economy was in shambles after 8 years of President Bush (again, this is all verifiable information). Obama tried to address our lack of national health care policy and our need for internal investment with the Affordable Care Act and economic stimulus plans. Most economists supported everything he proposed, and in the past, his policies would have been the very plans that Republicans would have supported. Instead, the Republicans, supported by an ultra-right “Tea Party Movement”, set out to block everything Obama tried to do simply to prevent his re-election. The final (and best) example was the Republican refusal to allow him to appoint a new Supreme Court justice in the final year of his presidency, something that had NEVER been done before by either party.

So, the only president in recent memory with impeccable academic credentials, an elegant speaking style, and absolutely NO scandals in his background was presented as an elitist, socialist (not true), Muslim (not an issue, but not true), non-American (not true) who is out to expand his powers, steal our guns, and let illegal immigrants run rampant throughout our country. And since the Democratic party sucks at communication, they were never able to convince rural America that the reason they were still stuck at the bottom was Republican obstructionism, not government in general. The Republicans, on the other hand, were GREAT at communication, and they told the American people that the reason their insurance premiums were going up, the reason there were no working-class jobs, etc. was all because of President Obama.

Now, add to this Hillary Clinton. On paper, she is an excellent candidate. She was a First Lady, senator of New York, and U.S. Secretary of State. She is fiercely intelligent, practical, and committed to governing. However, her enemies do not just dislike her, they HATE her. And, unfortunately, her tenure in the public eye is not without potential scandal going back to her husband’s presidency. However, despite all the scrutiny, despite the hours and hours of congressional testimony, despite a news media fascinated with every one of her missteps, she has never faced disciplinary action. Her supporters argue this is because there is NOTHING THERE. Her enemies argue that this is obviously because the entire system is corrupt and protecting her. If you actually review all her scandals with a discerning eye (the private email server, the Bengazi attack, Whitewater, etc.) you quickly discover that although she may be flawed, she has not done anything that her MALE counterparts have not done. However, as I said before, her enemies HATE her. When Donald Trump starting calling her, “Crooked Hillary”, I knew we were in trouble. It was exactly the type of schoolyard taunt that would catch on in the public eye.

Finally, the Democratic party failed to EXPLICITLY reach out to the White Working Class. Instead of appealing to the country’s appetite for “change”, they spent too much time explaining how good things actually were. Instead of countering Trump’s VERY effective slogan “Make America Great Again!”, she used “Stronger Together”, which just didn’t address the anger and pain. She presented herself as a candidate who “can get things done” and stressed that she would be the first female president. This was not what the rural population wanted to hear.

THE DANGER

However, despite all of this, despite this economic backdrop, despite the anger toward an antiquated two-party system, despite the anger toward Hillary Clinton, despite missteps by the Democratic party, we honestly never thought Trump would win. It was too ludicrous.

First, he has absolutely no experience with public service, nor has he shown any interest in learning. Let that sink in. A man who has never been elected governor, senator, representative, mayor, city council, or even school board member is now at the helm of our country. The presidential debates made clear that he has little understanding of world politics, and he has no plan for the future.

Second, he is a bully, cheat, and a liar. Politifact, a non-partisan fact-checking organization rated 51% of his public statements as “false” or “pants on fire” (wildly untrue). [Clinton, in contrast, was one of the most truthful at 12% “false”/”pants on fire”.] Trump's business dealings over the past decades are filled with stories of the people he has cheated or refused to pay. He used money from his own non-profit charitable foundation to pay legal fees and buy personal items. His history of bullying extends from his love of firing people to his public rallies where he encouraged violence toward protestors, kicked out the press, made fun of a handicapped journalist, made claims of assaulting women, committed (and bragged about) adultery, and has heckled and insulted his rivals and enemies at every time with language that should NEVER have made it to the public stage. The Southern Poverty Law Center (a respected nonprofit organization that fights hate, intolerance and injustice) wrote about the Trump Effect in our schools, where teachers have seen a rise in incivility based on what kids have seen and heard during the election. It’s as if a spoiled 3rd grader was suddenly given a national stage.

Third, he is a bigot and a misogynist. Trump has fomented anti-immigrant, racist, antisemitic, and generally xenophobic attitudes throughout his campaign. He referred to Mexico sending over drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. He charged that a U.S.-born judge of Mexican descent should not be allowed to officiate over a case against Trump, because the judge could not be impartial, “because he’s a Mexican”. He was a vocal proponent of the discredited "birther" charge that President Obama was a Muslim, African-born candidate not eligible to be president. He has made statements pushing Jewish stereotypes and making thinly veiled comments about the world Jewish conspiracy. He publicly attacked the parents of a Muslim-American soldier who had died for his country, suggesting (or implying) that the reason his father, and not his mother, spoke publicly was that she was not allowed to speak. He has been supported by white nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan, and other hate groups and has only weakly disavowed their support. He has insulted women journalists and politicians using the coarsest anti-female language. And every time he said something even more outrageous than before, he would complain people were being too sensitive and politically correct, and his poll numbers would go up.

Fourth, he is a con man. Despite his shady business dealings, despite his refusal to release his income tax returns (suggesting he has something to hide), despite the fact he clearly took advantage of the economic system that he claims is the problem, despite his privileged upbringing, despite his complete lack of experience or understanding of how to govern, and despite a lack of an actual platform of ideas, plans, or details, he convinced nearly half of the country that he was the preferable candidate. The few unrealistic and ludicrous ideas he did espouse should have shown the country that he had no concept of reality. For example, Trump claimed that he would:

  1. Round up and deport ALL undocumented immigrants in our country (despite the impossibility of sheer numbers).
  2. Build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico long enough and high enough to keep out all illegal border crossings and get Mexico to pay for it (despite the enormity of the project and Mexico's stated refusal to be a part of this).
  3. Set up a registry for Muslims in our country (despite the national shadow of shame that still haunts us regarding the Japanese internment camps).
  4. Punish women for getting abortions (despite abortions being legal in our country).
  5. Appoint a special prosecutor for Hillary Clinton with the expressed goal of sending her to prison (despite the FBI clearly stating many times that she did nothing illegal or worthy of prosecution).

Finally, he is a dangerous, unpredictable, megalomaniacal authoritarian. He responds to any perceived slight with short, bitter, insulting statements on Twitter that bely a lack of tact, decency, or understanding of the world around him. He has consistently fought to delegitimize the press, calling into question actual facts and selling the idea that the media and the government are all out to get him. He foments violence and anger at his rallies particularly toward protestors and reporters, leads chants of “Lock Her Up!” toward Hillary Clinton, and generally has given white supremacist groups the confidence to increase their hate speech, vandalism, and violent attacks against anyone that does not fit their world view.

This is our new president.

THE FUTURE

What this actually means for the country is impossible to say. I have read too many pundits with too many theories. Will Trump dial back his rhetoric and follow a more conventional Republican party line? Will he dismantle our government institutions and send our economy into a new Depression? Will he distract the country from the real problems by encouraging anti-immigrant, anti-African American, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, and anti-Jewish hatred? Will he become a one-term president when his followers realize they have been duped by a con man who had no plans to actually address any their concerns?

I don’t know. What I do know is that many of us woke up the day after the election and realized that half of the country did not care that their president was uneducated, bigoted, misogynistic, xenophobic, and unhinged. The United States had long moved beyond the ability to find common ground, and it had lost the ability to compromise and negotiate. White supremacists were now feeling empowered to come out of the shadows, and the alt right was finding legitimacy. After eight years of progress moving us toward the best social policies already in place in the Netherlands, Israel, Canada, Australia, and Scandinavia, many diehard patriots like myself are finding themselves for the first time thinking long and hard about whether it is worth fighting for the soul of our country or whether we should seek residence elsewhere. This is why the Canadian immigration site crashed after the election.

The next four years do not bode well for African Americans, who have been trying to get the country to address the disparity in police violence toward them. They don't bode well for Hispanics (from Mexico and South America), who will face increased prejudice whether they are citizens, green card holders, or undocumented workers. They don't bode well for Muslims, who will be considered un-American, nor for refugees fleeing Syria and other repressive regimes. And they won't bode well for the Jews, who will be blamed no matter what happens.

Why do I say the Jews will be blamed? Despite Trump’s “dog whistles” suggesting a Jewish world conspiracy, and Trump's statements that have empowered neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, alt right, and other white supremacists, Jews can’t even find safety among other liberals. Black Lives Matter, a grass roots organization committed to preventing police violence against African Americans recently added strong anti-Israel language to its platform, calling Israel an “apartheid state” and suggesting that Americans are “complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government.” Any support Trump gives to Israel will only increase anti-Jewish feeling on the left, despite Israel's strong ties with the U.S. across party lines.

In the end, I leave you with a snapshot of the two presidential candidates in their own words. Compare the final television ads for both campaigns. I ask, which ad reminds you more of Germany in the 1930s?

  • Trump: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shqblcQW2RI
  • Clinton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPOPbwZ8FNE
  • "We must fight against normalization of the unacceptable" - Christiane Amanpour

    Monday, August 8, 2016

    Midwest Meets Mideast #8: The Socialist Agenda

    The kibbutz is a uniquely Israeli institution. For those of you not in the know, the kibbutz is a rural socialist collective community in which members work together, farm together, live together, protect each other, and embrace the socialist philosophy, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The first kibbutz (Degania) was established in 1909, nearly 40 years before the establishment of the State of Israel. Currently, around 270 are scattered throughout the country.

    The kibbutz was both an ideological and practical solution for Jewish pioneers trying to reclaim their ancestral home. Ideologically, Eastern European Jews embraced a socialist doctrine where Jews looked out for one other, particularly after centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust. Practically, the kibbutz was the most effective way of farming a desolate land, protecting each other from unfriendly neighbors, building a community of shared values, and raising and educating a new generation.

    A couple of months ago, I found myself explaining kibbutzim to my children. Although I assume they must have learned SOMETHING about Israeli history in Hebrew school, apparently the kibbutz movement got short shrift in their studies. How disappointing. When I was a kid, the kibbutz was the most fascinating part of Israel. I could scarcely imagine a place where people all worked together to farm bananas, oranges, dates, almonds, and other exotic non-Midwestern crops; where children lived together in a separate house and only saw their parents for 4-6 hours a day; where everyone shared meals in a central location, just like at summer camp; where hard work was not only expected of everyone, but was considered a virtue. These were all foreign concepts to me.

    Certainly, much has changed in the kibbutz movement over the years. Fewer Israelis embrace the kibbutz, preferring a more capitalistic lifestyle. Children in the kibbutzim now live at home and are raised by their parents. Salaries in the kibbutzim are often commensurate with experience and level of training, not based solely on need. And the primarily agricultural nature of the kibbutz has shifted to a much more industrial model. However, at its heart, the kibbutz still represents the soul of the country. The belief that all your countrymen are your family is what has kept Israel alive and kicking for 68 years. It is an amazingly seductive philosophy.

    In fact, when I was 12, my parents, embracing this thinking, formed a family co-op with another family in Indiana. I suppose to them the concept was not far-fetched. My father was raised by socialist Workman’s Circle parents. Both of my parents earned their PhDs in California in the late 60s, and therefore were not strangers to non-traditional family structures. The adults in the other family were modern-thinking academics who had lived in Israel for many years and seen the kibbutzim first hand. To all of the adults in the equation, merging the families into a single household of four adults and four children for four years made perfect sense. Housing, food expenses, and childcare (particularly babysitting) became much more manageable. And as strange as this arrangement seemed to their own parents, to their friends, and frankly to the Indiana community as a whole, all members of the co-op have remained incredibly close to each other, even after our two families went our separate ways. Our relationship is non-traditional, but they remain misphacha (“family”) in every single way, except by blood.

    When we were planning our trip to Israel, I desperately wanted to show my children a kibbutz up close and personal. Luckily, I had re-established Facebook ties with Yonat, the daughter of a “shaliach” (Israeli emissary) who had been assigned to South Bend, Indiana, when I was a lad. The fact that I had not seen Yonat in 30 years didn’t make no never mind. Remember, this is Israel. We are all mishpacha.

    So, on Monday July 11, we piled into our rental SUV and drove from Haifa to Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, located in the beautiful western Jezreel valley in northern Israel. Yonat met us once we announced ourselves at the gate. Naturally, she looked fit, trim, and gorgeous, as one would expect from a kibbutznik who had become a physical therapist after a lifetime of activity and hard work. Naturally, I did not look fit and trim, as one would expect from an office-bound Midwesterner.

    True to Israeli form, she and her family showed us amazing hospitality, taking us on a tour of the kibbutz, taking us to the “chadar ochel” (dining room) for lunch, taking us all back to their house for dessert and schmoozing, and eventually taking us to the kibbutz swimming pool. In return, I brought her exotic spices from the United States: cajun spice blend, filĂ© powder, and BBQ rubs.

    After all of the days of touring historical sites, the down-to-earth nature of the kibbutz fascinated my younger son. He asked question after question about the cow barn (which smelled horrible), about the cheese shop (which smelled, but not too horrible), about the fresh lychees (which smelled and tasted wonderful), and about the childcare center (whose smell I am sure varies from day to day). My older son was interested in the memorial overlooking the kibbutz, a stone structure listing the names of the kibbutz members who had fallen during the Israeli wars or while serving in the army. Both boys however were perplexed by the dining hall. “You mean, you can take as much as you want?” I think they might have opted to stay and volunteer on the kibbutz right then and there if it weren’t for that whole hard work philosophy thing.

    We ended the day with a relaxing swim in the community swimming pool. A bunch of grandmotherly types were organizing games for the young children. Realizing that Pugsley, my younger son, did not speak Hebrew, they bounced between Hebrew and English and immediately included him in the activities. I was impressed at how easily and naturally the elderly ladies played with the children. They were clearly equally comfortable with children they knew from birth as well as strange children they knew for all of 30 seconds. It was a beautiful example of Israeli hospitality, Israeli kindness, and Israeli mishpacha all rolled into an afternoon of fun.

    The trip to Mishmar HaEmek was definitely a highlight of the vacation. I nearly had to drag my family from the pool so we could head back to Haifa, partly because I wanted to hit the road before dark, but mostly because I felt we had used up our welcome. As we were leaving, Yonat pulled me aside. “Zev,” she asked, “can I ask a personal question?”

    “Sure,” I answered.

    “What was up with your family and the co-op? I mean two families living together in one house? Who does that? I can’t even imagine.”

    I had absolutely nothing to say.

    Sunday, July 24, 2016

    Midwest Meets Mideast #7: Kevin, I’m your Biggest Fan!

    From Akko, we drove down the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Haifa on Sunday afternoon. Our launching point for our northern Israeli adventures was a rented apartment overlooking HaCarmel Beach on the far west side of the city. The apartment was much swankier than the 19th Century Jerusalem Hotel, featuring a kitchenette, a larger shower, and toilets less in danger of clogging and overflowing. Furthermore, Leonardo Plaza (in Hebrew, “Leonardo Plaza”) was a five minute walk to the beach if you included the elevator ride down in those five minutes.

    Speaking of the elevator, I have never before seen a “smart” elevator bank. There are no buttons within the elevator itself. Instead, you push the floor you want on the outside of the elevator, the panel tells you which number elevator to go to, and the elevator then takes you to the floor you preselected. On the one hand, this is a more efficient system, sending you an elevator predestined for the floor you want so you don’t have to stop on multiple floors. On the other hand, this is a pain in the tush because if you forget to read the panel when you press the button, you may step onto the wrong elevator and joyride the length of the hotel before finally escaping.

    But eventually you do get to the beach, and as long as there are no jellyfish, you can enjoy yourself in the beautiful Mediterranean waters. Yes, everyone tells you that jellyfish can be a real problem, so be careful. However, I figured that as long as I put bathers between me and any potential jellyfish swimming to shore, I always had an early warning system. I just had to consciously listen for screams of pain or Russian expletives.

    Yes, there is a lot of Russian spoken in Haifa because there are a lot of Russian tourists there. My wife commented at one point in the trip that she missed the diversity of the United States. She was referring to the racial diversity, of course, but frankly I found Israel to be much more diverse than the US. Sure, the vast majority of people look Mediterranean with a few lily white Europeans, very dark Africans, and occasional Chinese tour group thrown in for good measure. But language-wise, Israel is MUCH more diverse. Where else can you hear Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, Spanish, French, Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Turkish? It’s like Epcot Center with better food, better prices, nicer staff, and an actual acknowledgement of Israel.

    The first night we arrived, the boys and I left Morticia in the apartment to “recharge,” which is a euphemism for “collapse on the couch in a semi-comatose state until food magically arrives and is inserted in my mouth.” We hiked in the oppressive evening heat and humidity to Monkey’s Pizza (in Hebrew, “Monkey’s Pizza”), a pizza shop that seriously looked a lot closer to the hotel on Google Maps. The shop was in a frenzied state when we arrived, with the sales people simultaneously taking phone and in-person orders while young mothers yelled at their tired, frustrated, and cranky children. I attempted to order four personal pizzas in Hebrew (three only cheese, one with mushrooms), and the nice young lady immediately switched to English, sensing that not only was Hebrew not my first language, but conversing in English would be less painful for everyone involved. So, in English, she confirmed my order. We waited and watched the mothers started to yell at each other’s children, until our pizza finally was ready. Of course, they got the order wrong, but at least we ended up with two large pizzas, one with cheese and one with mushrooms. And now we know why the place is called “Monkey’s Pizza.”

    Haifa was our launch site for our day trips into Northern Israel, but we did take one day just to relax, sleep late, and wade in the still thankfully jellyfish-free waters. Along the promenade was a gelato shop with the darkest, richest chocolate gelato I have ever had. My boys found it too strong, but my wife and I both enjoyed it because we knew that this was the maximum amount of chocolate one can get without a prescription.

    And that was just fine for my boys, because there were many, many other flavors of gelato to choose from, including lemon, mango, strawberry, milk chocolate, tiramisu, Snickers, and Oreo (in Hebrew, “Oreo”). And I didn’t make them eat falafel the entire time we were in Haifa.

    Which actually, kind of bummed me out.

    Midwest Meets Mideast #6: Food, Glorious Food

    One of you challenged me to come up with a limerick using the phrase, "Ani Tzimchoni." You know who you are. Challenge accepted.
    In Israel, Ani Tzimchoni
    Falafel I eat hungrily
    Tomato, Cucumber,
    And pita. A number
    Of carnivores wish they were me.

    There. Consider the mic officially dropped.

    Please allow an excursion from narration for a touch of gustatory exposition. I would like to talk about food.

    Israel is fantastic for vegetarians. If you eat eggs and dairy, the chances of finding a decent meal is pretty high. The fresh fruit in Israel is much better than the fruit in the US. The bread in Israel is better than in the US. The cheese in Israel is...OK, well, they are getting there. Even the crap food rivals our crap food. For example, Bamba, a very popular snack food made by the Osem company, are corn puffs coated in peanut butter. Sure, it tastes like Styrofoam, but I will put their Styrofoam coated with real Argentinian peanut butter up against our Styrofoam coated with processed cheese powder any day. 

    Fresh juice is almost ubiquitous in Israel. Walk around any big city, and you can get freshly squeezed orange, grapefruit, and often pomegranate juice.  Yes, pomegranate juice. This smooth pulp-free  nectar is sweet and flavorful, a beverage to be sipped rather than gulped. Or heck, gulp it down. It’s hot out there, and they can just make you some more for another 20 New Israeli Shekels (NIS). 

    How about the lemonade? Our hotel breakfast in Jerusalem included an amazing lemonade that was a perfect balance of sweet, tart, and cold. It was far superior to any lemony concoction in the US, definitely better than the powdered (please excuse my course language) crap i’ve become accustomed to, and even better than anything homemade coming out of a neighborhood lemonade stand.  My entire family is now convinced that lemonade MUST be served with mint leaves. After our stay on the beach in Haifa, I am convinced that a little arak added to the mint lemonade can’t hurt either.  

    Bread? Street vendors in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv sell the most amazing bread, fresh and warm. My youngest son and I fell in love with the baygaleh vendors who sell elongated Jerusalem bagels coated with sesame seeds, and often available with za’atar spice. You can hear them chanting “baygaleh, baygaleh, baygaleh!” in voices slightly louder and more impassioned than the minarets calling the faithful Muslims to prayer. 

    Along with baygaleh, bread vendors sell challah, pastries, olive loaves, and of course pita.  Lots and lots of pita. In the Machaneh Yehudah market in Jerusalem, one vendor sold us 30 large fluffy pita bread for 10 NIS which was about $2.60 US. It was very good pita at an amazingly low price, but even I was sick of eating peanut butter on pita for breakfast and snacks after a week. 

    On the second to last day of our trip, we were walking through the Shuk HaCarmel (Carmel Market) in Tel Aviv on a Friday, and I wanted to get some challah for Shabbat. Micah convinced me to buy a couple of baygaleh as well...you know, because we really, really like them. “Shalom,” I said to the frumpy middle-aged woman at a bread stand, “Ani rotzeh echad challah v’shtey baygelah.” (Which translated more or less to, ‘Howdy! I want one challah and two of them there baygelah thingies.’) 

    “Here,” she said grabbing another baygelah, “take as my gift. and this too.” She added on two small olive loaves.

    “Todah rabah. Kamah zeh oleh?” (Thank you. How much does this cost?) She said something that I didn’t quite catch. I started sorting through my coins. Immediately, the woman jumped forward to help me.

    “Here. This and this and this,” she said taking a bunch of my coins and swatting away my hand as I tried to take some back. “Now I need twenty shekels. And this. And this.” I pulled out a twenty shekel bill.

    “Also you take this,” she entreated, adding another small bagel to our bag. “And also this.” She finally handed us a large bag of half-size pita. I could see my family’s eyes rolling back into their heads, partly because this was way more bread than we could possibly eat in 48 hours, but mostly because the site of pita was making them all just a little bit nauseated. 

    I honestly lost count of how much we paid for all of that bread. I knew I was being taken for a rube, but sometimes you have to bow to the absurd. Sometimes it is worth the extra shekels for dinner and a show. So if you see Dahlia, our grandmotherly vendor at the Shuk HaCarmel, say hello and Shabbat Shalom from me. And watch your coins carefully.

    I had been warned that there were not nearly as many falafel stands in Israel as there once was, but still you can find falafel in any Israeli city. You can find falafel platters at the fancy restaurants. You can find falafel in the grocery stores. You can find falafel in small street shops of questionable hygiene. And I hunted down every bit of falafel I could find, because falafel is one of my absolute favorite foods. More than once, I walked down the street in pure ecstasy munching on falafel balls stuffed into a warm fluffy pita, along with hummus, tahini, cucumber, tomato, pickles, and hot sauce. And still I looked for more falafel. 

    My family did not share my passion, or as I am sure they would call it, my obsession. In fact, after three to four meals of falafel, they called it quits and begged...no demanded that I find them something else. Hence, the second to last night in Tel Aviv, they ate street vendor pizza while I ate falafel. And the night we left Israel, they pounced on the Pizza Hut in the Ben Gurion Airport. Not me. I found a cafe serving potato knishes. 

    Israel also has quite a few upscale and creative vegetarian restaurants. Our friends the Zalbens met us for dinner at Nagila, a kosher vegetarian restaurant which blessedly has menus in both Hebrew and English. I opted for the Caribbean pastry, a curry dough pastry filled with root vegetables, zucchini, and pine nuts. Other dishes we all tried trended to the more exotic (Mejadra la Ja’dahna stew of rice and black lentils, and the coconut curry stew) to the mundane (herb latkes, and spaghetti with marinara sauce). However, all the dishes were delicious, and I highly recommend you try out the establishment the next time any of you are in Jerusalem.

    What amazed me the most about food in Israel is how much you can find that is not processed and stripped of all flavor. There is a deep connection to the food that mirrors the deep connection to the land. Israelis may live in a geographic desert, but they certainly do not live in a food desert. Every time you buy a baygelah from a street vendor or watch someone squeeze orange juice right in front of you or scoop you some exotic spice mixture, you can’t help but feel, “this is real. This is authentic. This is what food should be.”

    And when you get sick of that, there is always Bamba and Pizza Hut.

    Saturday, July 23, 2016

    Midwest Meets Mideast #5: Partners in Crime

    Partnership is not necessarily about equality, at least not entirely. True partnership is about understanding one another's strengths, weaknesses, needs, and abilities, and coming together with a mutually acceptable plan of attack. In a true partnership, both sides contribute to the best of their abilities and know the other side has their back.

    When my wife and I drive through a strange geography, be it Eastern Tennessee, Chicago, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Yokne'am, or some backwater segment of Parke County, Indiana (where traditional maps do not ever work), it is well established that I drive and she navigates. In Israel, we continued this partnership with me maneuvering our vehicle around crazy Sabra drivers and she translating Google Maps into useful instructions such as, "Ok, wiggle left at the next roundabout and then make an abrupt right. Then get in the right left lane because you will need to make a right after the next left turn." And she knows that I will understand and follow these instructions to a tee because we are a partnership.

    Last Sunday morning (day 4), we left Jerusalem and drove to Akko in northern Israel. I drove, Morticia navigated, and Lurch back-up navigated when my phone lost its Google Maps connection partway through the trip. Sometimes even a good partnership needs a back up plan. Things I like about Israeli driving: good road signs with reasonably unambiguous markings, well-placed speed limit signs, traffic circles that make U-turns possible when you make a wrong turn, well marked lanes. Things I don't like about Israeli driving: yellow dotted lines that mean something completely different from the US, lack of ability to correct wrong turns without adding 10-15 minutes to your trip, Israeli drivers. All in all, driving in Israel when you don't speak the language could be a lot more challenging than it is, which doesn't mean that it's not a constant mental drain even with a good partner. But we made it to Akko safe and sound and mostly talking to each other.

    Our trip to Akko came about through my role as (now ex-) president of the Indianapolis Bureau of Jewish Education. Indianapolis is part of Partnership2Gether, a program from the Jewish Agency for Israel that connects central cities in the US with cities in northern and southern Israel. P2G has programs related to the arts, youth education, medical education, and community resource development. A teacher from our Hebrew School connected me with representatives in Akko who were incredibly gracious hosts. They took us to a local grade school that "twinned" with various American school classes (and we were serenaded by a 1st/2nd grade summer school class). They took us to a shop that sells wonderful crafts made by physically handicapped children, as part of a program that helps them achieve more independence. They took us to lunch at Kibbutz Shomrat, a nearby kibbutz that specializes in goats milk products, where we had one of the best meals of our entire trip (my sweet potato ravioli in goats milk cheese sauce and the goats milk ice cream may become MY happy place). And finally, they sent us on a walking tour of the Old City of Akko.

    My gift to them (really to the school) was an educational care package from Indiana: books of Mad Libs, pencils from IU and Purdue, and a box of Orville Redenbacher microwave kettle corn (Redenbacher being a Hoosier after all). After all they did for us, I felt my gifts were pretty paltry until I realized that this was all partly a sales pitch on their part to get me to drum of money and support for P2G in Indiana. You know, in my role as (now ex-) president of the BJE. In addition, one of their volunteers recruited Lurch to help her create an electronic music version of Yerushalayim Shel Zachav for Jerusalem Day, and she then set upon recruiting me to become the leader of the American Education Task Force.

    My wife smirked through the entire lunch. Even halfway around the world, people are pulling me onto their committees.

    Midwest Meets Mideast #4: Following the Leader

    We found the best licensed tour guide ever. Her name is Asnat Cohen, and she can be reached at +972 505 340681 or at asnatguide@gmail.com. Her rate for the full day tour (8:30am - 3:30 pm) is $375, not including entrance fees and lunch. But she is highly knowledgeable, personable, and flexible, all the qualities necessary for a good guide. If you are in need of a tour guide in Jerusalem or know of someone in need, I can't say extoll her praises enough. Please pass along her name. There. Protectzia Managed.

    Actually, I started my day by walking to Eldan Car Rental to pick up our rental. I had originally rented a small minivan, but I obviously didn't read the small print when I reserved online, and I discovered when I got there that I had rented a manual transmission. The last time I drove a manual, I was younger than Lurch. The time to relearn, I decided, was NOT in the middle of Israel. Luckily, they had a Kia Sorento available which has served us pretty well. In fact, I have only three minor complaints. First, the right passenger seat in the back was busted and wouldn't recline properly, so Pugsley had to sit in the middle seat propped up against his big brother. Second, since the owner's manual is entirely in Hebrew, I couldn't even check to see if I was doing something wrong in getting the seat to recline (spoiler alert, I wasn't...it was just busted). Third, Israel is not made for big ass cars. Parking is a challenge when you literally can't see the parking lines or curbs. However, Israel is a country built upon faith, which may be why I did so much davening in the car. Who needs shul? Just try to navigate an SUV through Akko. I swear I started growing payot the moment we hit Highway 1.

    But enough of that. Today was all about the Old City tour. Remember Alice? This is a song about Alice.

    Asnat started by taking us up on top the ramparts near the Jaffa Gate. My eldest son vigorously opted out of the rickety spiral staircase to the top of the wall, so the rest of us had an abbreviated tour of the top of the wall before we came back down to collect Lurch.

    Asnat took us to the Kotel, the edge of the Temple Mount, the Arab shuk, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and countless other spots throughout the city. We had lunch at a moderately pricey but nice restaurant somewhere in the Old City where I got my first falafel of the trip. We learned about the history of the city from ancient to modern times, learned the difference between a Crusader's and an Arabic arch, learned about the ancient tunnels in the city...frankly it's all a bit of jumble right now. Go to Wikipedia and look up Old City Of Jerusalem. Whatever it says, we probably touched it.

    Lurch was most interested to learn that Asnat used to live in The Netherlands and spoke fluent Dutch as well as Hebrew and English. Lurch has plans to move to the Netherlands as soon as he is financially able, so he naturally asked more questions about the Netherlands than about Jerusalem.

    I hope you are all highly impressed. I had to find a Dutch tour guide to keep my teenager engaged in the family tour of Jerusalem. They never talk about THAT in the guidebooks.

    Midwest Meets Mideast #3: The Map is Not the Territory

    We began our first full day in Israel around 9:00 am, which was way earlier than my jet lagged travelers wanted, but comparatively late if you want to beat the desert heat. After the aforementioned breakfast, we set off to find our way through the Old City to the Dung Gate so we could visit Ir David (the City of David). Simple, no? I let Morticial and Lurch lead using the map from the tourism office to give them an illusion of control. Naturally, it did not take too long before we got lost, or as I preferred to think of it, creatively placed. The problem, as we discovered, was that the many maps throughout the Old City had helpful markings that said "You Are Here". And unfortunately, these markings were typically wrong. Completely wrong. Lying, in fact. Eventually, I had to take over navigation again. Middle Easterners are my people, and I knew that maps don't follow Western logic in the Old City. Four rugelach, one baygelah, and one melt down later, we found the Dung Gate.

    The walk through Ir David would have been a lot more pleasant in March than in July, but I think overall, the family found the ruins interesting. We opted for the 'dry' route through Hezekiah's Tunnel instead of the 'wet' route. I personally would have taken the wet route if it were solely up to me; back when I was 12, wading through the waist-high cool waters was the highlight of my trip. However, we were not wearing bathing suits, and I didn't want the rest of my family to suffer any more claustrophobia than absolutely necessary.

    Eventually, we made it to the end of the ruins, and we tried to find the cool underground tunnel that would take us back to the Dung gate. This path was beautifully illustrated on the tourist map, but apparently the map was also printed in the Old City and therefore it lied. We ended up walking uphill in the blazing heat through a questionable neighborhood called Silwan. For those of you who don't know Jerusalem, this is like me saying, "well, our map of Manhattan was poorly marked, so we walked back to our hotel through a lovely neighborhood called 'Harlem'."

    Exhausted, sweaty, but otherwise unscathed, we made it back to our hotel and all had a well-deserved nap.

    In the early evening, we met up with my friend Robin and her brood. Robin is an old friend from an Israel youth trip I took way way back when I was 17. Robin and her husband Ron made Aliyah about 14 years ago, leaving Milwaukee for sunny Yerushalayim. They and their lovely daughters walked us through Machaneh Yehudeh, a lively outdoor market that succeeded in replacing much of our spending cash with spices, pita bread, and gifts. We then had dinner at a vegetarian restaurant which was as exotic for them as it was for us, but for different reasons. They translated Hebrew for us, and we translated vegetarian for them.

    And by the way, 'vegetarian׳ in Hebrew is tzimchoni. You can't imagine how proud I was every time I got to say, "Ani tzimchoni." And by the look on the natives' faces, they were proud of me too...assuming that pride in Israel is shown by a complete lack of interest.