Tuesday, December 18, 2012


My great-aunt Edith, of blessed memory, was quite the woman. Among many other accomplishments, not the least of which was being the powerful matriarch of an incredible family, she was one of the "Rosie the Riveters" during World War II, working in a bullet factory. Decades later, into her eighties, she would still roll up her sleeves and show the forearm muscles she'd developed back then. (I remember my mother arranging to have her recognized as "citizen of the year" or something similar by her home community in Cleveland, hearth of the clan.)

Tante Itka, as we called her, was Russian-born, salty as any Yiddish grandmother. She once boasted to us- without exaggerating a bit- that "The Malach HaMoves was my shadchan," that is, the Angel of Death was her matchmaker. (She was introduced to her first husband at a cemetery- I think they were attending separate funerals, she of a Christian Science cousin who'd died young. You can't make these things up.) We were eating when she told us this, and she began to laugh so hard that some food went down the wrong tube. Nothing serious; she coughed and cleared it up, and immediately began laughing again. "See?" she said, "I mention the Malach HaMoves and here he comes to get me!"

OK, one more story (of many I can tell) before I get to my point: She visited Russia for the first time since she'd left in the early 1920's when one of my cousins (her granddaughter) was volunteering for Jews there with YUSSR. She got off the plane, opened her mouth, and Russian, a language she hadn't spoken a word of for about seventy years, began rolling fluently off her tongue. A YU publication quoted my cousin describing how they still had outhouses where she was. It then went on to quote Itka: "Well, at least you had a seat on the toilet."

Why this flood of memories? Well, today brings news that Daniel Inouye has passed away. As is known, he lost an arm fighting in World War II. Once, my mother accompanied my great-aunt to the airport; they were in the lounge waiting for her flight and Senator Inouye was seated nearby. Itka leaned over to my mother and in a stage whisper asked, "How does he make his tie?" Ah, bless her memory.

As to Senator Inouye himself, only three words need be said- three words, or a symbol thereof, which will almost certainly appear on his tombstone: "Medal of Honor."

My old friend Sussman once told me a story of a man who interviewed for a job and didn't get it. (This may have been in the 1950's.) After he left, the man who conducted the interview was asked why he didn't give him the job. "I can't take seriously any man who would wear a lapel pin," he answered. The other man looked at him as if he was nuts. "That was a Medal of Honor pin!" he exclaimed. The interviewer bolted out of his chair, ran out of the office, caught up to the interviewee, apologized profusely, and offered him the job.

That's the proper reaction to any Medal of Honor winner, and to Senator Inouye's death. R.I.P.

On a completely different point, is it too much to ask that anyone who pontificates on the question of gun rights at least learn the correct meaning (or lack thereof) of words like "automatic," "semiautomatic," and "assault weapon?" Please?

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Inherit the Earth

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening, and the wee hours of this morning (I got home after 1:00 AM), driving around the Judean Hills, delivering and monitoring polls for a primary election. Exhausting but interesting and instructional, not to mention that I wasn't doing it for Olam HaBa. At least one freaky and slightly disturbing fact was learned: Arabs and Jews can argue over the (vast, I've come to learn) West Bank all they want, but at the end of the day, when the silly humans are asleep, the real masters of the land come out: Felis Catus, in some feral version, I suppose. I mean, you're driving down a pitch-black, deserted road somewhere outside Hebron when suddenly a small furry thing that in a very different context would look cute on your sofa dashes across the road. Where do they come from? How do they survive? How do I resist the temptation to feed the cute kitten mewling in our garden?

So they won't feel left out, let me point out that wild dogs, donkeys (both pulling carts and carrying old Arabs), sheep, and camels were all spotted. The ones you really have to watch out for are the wild boar, but I didn't see any.

This morning I spotted a cool sign outside a branch of Steimatsky's, the book chain. (The original store, in fact, on Jaffa Road.) Translated, it read "There are people who simply feel compelled to read every sentence they see." I didn't get it at first (my psychologist better half informs me that this true from a psychological point of view, which is logical), until I realized that I was, indeed, reading it, despite the fact that it made no sense. Ha!

As to the other election, well, I see that I said this four years ago. Not sure I'd be as optimistic anymore, not that I was much back then. Instead, it's time to quote Herman Wouk again, once again on his grandfather:
What my grandfather would think if he knew that the awesome Guide for the Perplexed was available in a paper-bound English translation for less than two dollars, and that American college boys skimmed it in a weekend and wrote confident twenty-paged theses on it, I cannot imagine. My grandfather always retained the impression that America, at least the Jewish part he knew, was more or less mad.
Make that more. Much more. And especially Jews, but everyone else too.

I am left with Ben Hecht, writing of Malchiel Greenwald, probably standing just around that same Steimatsky's, just under fifty-nine years ago:
As is his daily habit, Malchiel has had a satisfactory conference with God in his synagogue. Whatever else you can say about Israel, it is a satisfactory thing to be able to stand in practically the same place in which your forefathers stood twenty-five hundred years ago and offer God unchanged hallelujahs.
Amen, Ben. That was me, this morning. (And, of course, you can say plenty of other good things about Israel as well.) I will admit that the One and teh gays [tm, sic, sick, whatever] were among the things that got me out of the US, but Israel pulled for much better reasons.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Herman Wouk on Simchat Torah

"...A powerful jubilation irradiates the synagogue. The time comes when the rabbi is himself drawn into the rejoicing and solemnly dances with a Holy Scroll in his arms. My grandfather, patriarchal and reserved all year long, was still performing this dance in his nineties, a few shuffling, tottering steps, his face alight with pleasure as he clasped the Torah in his old arms."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

No Violin This Time

A few (apparently, a very few) secular types protested yesterday against Israel's moving the clock back last night. Of course, the US and other countries have being steadily extending Summer Time, so that Israel has now done so about a month and a half before then.

Being in sync with other Western nations (kind of an odd thing to assert, considering that Israel is in the same time zone as none of them) seems to be a major point for the protestors, to which I respond, so what? If the rest of the world is going to be ridiculous, must Israel follow along? Mostly unmentioned, of course, is how inconvenient the late change is to those who daven every morning. Call me parochial, but yes, I think Israel should care about such things.

Of course, that's another sore point for the protestors: The fact that Yom Kippur figures into these calculations. Well, again, tough. Israel is a Jewish state. There are lots of compromises on all sides; this (and even allowing for Pesach, as is currently not the case) seems like a trifle compared to others. (And yes, I know it's still 25 hours. But the early end has at least a psychological effect.)

But really, I have one irony to comment on: If I had to bet, I'd say that most if not all of these protestors are the usual suspect leftist "Occupy Rothschild" types, the types that are just fine with government intervention. Well, they've got their government intervention, in the form of regulating time itself. Now they can have it, as the man (Kingsley Amis?) said to the woman on the bus. (Of course, being good leftists, they think that government is the one perfect thing and are thus quite frustrated without really knowing why. You put your very time in the hands of an imperfect institution, you see what happens.)

I, as a mostly-good libertarian, think the whole thing is nonsense and should be abolished. So I can complain as much as I want, except I don't have cause to here specifically. Smiles for me, no violins at all for them. (Little-known fact: Timezones, as opposed to daylight time, were a private initiative. They weren't needed before the telegraph and railroad were invented; the train companies needed them and instituted them.)

One more thing: When the Pope removed ten days from the calendar in 1582, lots of ignorant peasants were upset, as they actually believed he'd taken ten days off their lives. (The accountants were upset for more rational reasons.) Newsflash: He didn't, and he government isn't taking an hour of your sunlight- especially when, as here, they are restoring "normal" time.

Marc Shapiro, mentioned in the early days of this blog, just sent me a book. He's the best!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Well, the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement is coming up. It's being held in Iran, and it's going to be a hoot. First, the whole idea of the NAM is a Cold War relic, a pro-Soviet farce, if I may be so bold. Naturally, the UN Secretary General will be attending, a happy guest of the mullahs and Ol' Squinty. Finally, Doctor-of-Holocaust-Denial Abbas is all upset, as the Hamas Prime Minister has been invited to attend on behalf of the fictional state of "Palestine," which, natch, is a long-standing member of the NAM. Abbas would like you to know, echoing the hackneyed official UN phrase from many decades back, that "the PLO [remember them?] is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." (Oh, we rightists used to hate that line. Now that the alternative is Hamas...)

Well, technically, he's correct, as I assume that in usual international bureaucratic fashion, the UN has never actually repealed or amended that resolution. But Abbas seems to have forgotten that he's not only the head of Fatah and the PLO, but of the Palestinian Authority and the aforementioned "state." (This is forgivable, as the actual differences between any of these, at least on the West Bank, are minimal to nonexistent.) I imagine they thought they were being clever (or at least doing what was required) when they had themselves admitted to all these international organizations as a state and not an organization. Now that he has no real legitimate authority, Abbas has decided to time travel back to 1964. That sound? The world's smallest violin.
My cousin Zev Eleff has a very good piece up at Jewish Action. One line, though, struck my eye: After describing Abraham Karp's research for his famous article about New York's attempt to have a chief rabbi, Zev writes that the papers Karp used subsequently disappeared.

This fed into a silly idea I once had: It seemed to me that every single mention of the chief rabbi debacle in any scholarly article referenced Karp's piece, and only Karp's piece. It led to my wondering whether it was possible that Karp made the whole thing up. Impossible, I know: There has to be other evidence out there. I know, on a logical basis, that I have to be wrong and, as I said, the idea is silly. But that almost throwaway comment in the Eleff article doesn't make it any easier to concede to the logic. :-)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Random thought

This may have occurred to me before, but I noticed something interesting when saying Maariv Friday night: Hashkivenu lists "plague, sword, famine" among the things we ask to have prevented. I wonder if there's any connection, direct or not, to the fact that that's (according to some readings) three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Monday, July 02, 2012


So some years back, I went out to San Diego on a business trip. (Check my archives for photos.) A bunch of lawyers, often sitting in one big room together.

Just that week is when Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes began dating, or got engaged, or something. In the course of the media crush, Holmes was quoted as saying (adopt Hollywood starlet voice) "I think Scientology is awesome." ("Ah-some.") We (the San Diego crew) had a good chuckle over that one. We'd be sitting around, each quietly doing our own work, when someone would suddenly pipe up, apropos of nothing, "I think Scientology is awesome." It never failed to crack us up.

Almost seven years have passed, and in all that time, until this day, my brain has maintained a Pavlovian response to the word. All I have to hear is the word "awesome" in any context, and I automatically say, aloud, "I think Scientology is awesome." Then comes the explanation, and, to this day, it never fails to amuse. Not long ago I was explaining it to someone in the Mamilla Mall elevator; the doors opened up and we found ourselves face-to-face with a huge poster of Katie Holmes as model for H. Stern jewelery. Now that's awesome.

And now my personal meme has outlived that relationship. Well, in all sincerity to Ms. Holmes, I wish her (and her daughter) all the best. I suppose I should feel bad for using her as a punchline all these years, but hey, Hollywood is supposed to entertain us, and their wacky religious beliefs always help. At least we still have Mr. Cruise to kick around.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A New Theory by Anne Elk

So I guess I'm using Facebook for my little Israel tidbits now. Head on over there to see 'em...

On Shabbat, I was looking for something entirely different in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (which I got for free- long and cute story), and came across the entry for "Salome." Something in her biography didn't seem quite right, so I checked out the family tree- a whole page- under "Herod." Wow, is it complicated. All sorts of successive marriages, marriages to half-uncles and cousins, and more- did you know that some of Herod's descendants were kings of Armenia? Weird. Of course, a marriage forbidden by halakha (to a brother-in-law) is actually at the center of the whole Salome story (and, of course, the play by Wilde, who made things even, ahem, weirder).

But it got me thinking: The family tree of Esav, at the end of Parshat VaYishlach, is pretty complicated, with various names repeating in different places or taking others' positions and so on. One explanation (I can think of other possibilities) Chazal and the Meforshim give is that there was so much adultery and incest going on, everything got mixed up.

Now, as is well known, "Edom" is frequently identified with Rome in Chazal. I once heard a rather convincing shiur that attempted to give a historical backing for this using Roman history, but it still seems a bit farfetched. It had previously occurred to me that one basis of this identification may be that Herod was, literally, an Edomite (or at least Idumean, which is likely the same thing), and his close personal, political, and historical connections with Rome may have led Chazal to make this identification.

Now I see another layer added: We know that the Gemara often, and for obvious reasons, substitutes Biblical names for current events- Nebuchadnezzar stands in for some Roman emperor, for example, logically enough. Could it be that the explanation of the problems in Esav's line (also) serves as a not-so-subtle commentary on Herod's? It makes sense to me... (Of course, the Roman rulers had their own issues in this area.)

Now I begin the clock for someone to tell me that some paper written sixty years ago makes the same point, and has been debated since. It's happened before.

Sunday, May 06, 2012


Early Friday afternoon, my lovely spouse and I were walking home through the secure zone outside the Prime Minister's official residence, almost right next door to us. (It's the large blurred-out area on Google Street View.) We noticed that the guards- Prime Minster's guards, a Border Police SUV with a couple of female cops inside, others- were converging toward the end of zone, and saw that they were gathered around a man in a black hat and jacket with a long white beard. He was holding up a sign- a laminated standard-sized piece of paper.

At first we thought he was demonstrating against something (there are always at least a few in the area), except they don't allow them that close. Efrat joked that he was looking for a "tremp" (hitchhikers often hold up signs showing where they want to go) and couldn't figure out why there were no cars around. :-) Then, as we got closer, we saw the word "שבעה" (seven) on the card and thought it had something to do with the fact that the Netanyahu was sitting shiva for his father (albeit in his father's house, a few blocks away).

Turns out it was none of the above. The card read "היום שבעה ועשרים יום, שהם שלשה שבועות וששה ימים לעומר". The man was leading all of the guards in reciting it out loud, and they were all enthusiastically joining in the counting of the Omer. As we passed, he gestured to us with the sign, but we smiled broadly and told him we'd counted the night before.

I think the best part is the huge smiles that break out on the faces of everyone we repeat the story to.

Have a great Pesach Sheni, Lag B'Omer, and rest of Sefirah, all!

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The hike was *so* worth it.

Nice view, no? We were standing near the top of the tel at Beit She'an, in northern Israel. Beit She'an is especially known for its Roman and Byzantine ruins, but its history and antiquities go back much, much, further. But that's not the best part of this shot. Here are some closeups:
That's what's on the left of the first photo: The oldest part of the city, from about 7,000 years ago.
And that's what's on the right of the first photo- the mall of modern Beit She'an, whose most prominent sign is...well, imagine some Canaanite king millennia ago:

"O prophet, tell me of the future of this place."

"I see...I see...two glorious golden arches!"

Yup, it's a McDonald's. My camera can't quite capture it, but, yeah, you can see them at the same time.

Plug: I highly recommend the felafel place next door to the mall. And Kibbutz Shluchot, down the road, where we spent Shabbat.

More pictures to follow, I hope.

Monday, March 05, 2012

March Comes In

Oh, my, yes, like a lion. In addition to all the lovely snow and blessed rain, Jerusalem looked for a while like an umbrella graveyard. Yesterday, Ramot Shlomo- including "770"- was completely invisible, in the fog, from Har Hotzvim.

Har Hotzvim is basically just across the road from Ramot, and yesterday I took a bus to Givat Shaul after work. Maybe a quarter of an hour, all told, and that wasn't even the most direct route. Beforehand, my spouse pointed out to me that I was following the end of this past Shabbat's haftarah- Shmuel goes home to Ramot, and Shaul goes home to Givat Shaul. It's struck me previously that the text presents this as quite a distance- as if (as it seems to have turned out), they were never going to see each other again. Now? A short trip.

(It is true that modern place names don't always match- but then, what was "Givat Shaul" back then was possibly even closer to Ramot than today's.)

Today, I got one of those "loving living here" moments as I walked into the office building. Hanging from the rafters were balloons of all sorts of characters- Winnie the Pooh, Mickey and Minnie, and others. Various offices are decorated for Purim, and I (and the woman following me) had a huge smile as I ascended the stairs. Happy Purim!

Monday, February 20, 2012

One of my favorite activities is finding interesting juxtapositions in newspapers- articles where the editors clearly did not (and had no reason to) realize how funny and/or ironic the two appear when viewed together. In fact, one of my two letters in the New York Times was based on that very concept.

With that in mind, I present, without comment, two headlines from today's English Haaretz. They appear right next to each other on the first page, below the fold:

Supreme Court to rule on Palestinian hunger striker

Israeli cabinet supports involuntary hospitalization of anorexia patients 

To which I can only say, "Ha!"

By the way, speaking of Haaretz (it's my better half who pays for it, before you ask- I personally can't wait for them to go under, and I suspect she can't either), one thing I love (not) is the way they present stories as if the point is just so obvious they don't have to spell their outrage out. Witness:

Education Ministry school program presents Gush Katif as the epitome of Zionism

It's pretty obvious that the newspaper's intention is that we get the vapors and reach for the smelling salts. My reaction, of course, is "BOO-YA!"

Peace out, friends.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

"Jackie Treehorn treats objects like women, man!"

"How's the smut business, Jackie?"

“I wouldn’t know, Dude. I deal in publishing, entertainment, political advocacy.”

“What one was 'Logjammin'?”

“Regrettably, it’s true. Standards have fallen in adult entertainment."

Ben Gazzara, RIP.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

During Pesukei D'Zimra today, a young man came in with a Sephardi Sefer Torah- the ornate kind in a wooden box, heavily decorated in silver. They put it in the Aron, and then took it out later for keriyat  hatorah. The gabbai announced that it's a very old Sefer- another man said over two hundred years old- that was captured in the Old City by the Jordanians in 1948. King Abdullah (great grandfather of the current King Abdullah) then gave it back after someone told him it was bad luck to take a Sefer Torah, and it is on display in the museum upstairs from the Beit Knesset (in Heichal Shlomo). Once a year they take it down to layn from it. Isn't that nice?

Monday, January 02, 2012


And a Happy New Year! Not really celebrated by the two of us, but I did take in a showing of the new Sherlock Holmes movie Saturday night. (I suppose a good sign you've been here for a while is seeing both the original and sequel in the same theater.)

So I walk into the cinema lobby and, lo and behold, the computers are down. No tickets are being sold. (Of course, they didn't start screenings until it was sorted out.) "World's leading software developer," someone in the crowd said sardonically.

This is, indeed, true. And as the crowd grew and the minutes ticked on, one by one, people in the crowd- men, women, religious, secular, young, old- stepped forward to volunteer their services to get the system up and running again. Israel's really gone the hi-tech route, hasn't it?

For whatever reason, they did not take advantage. Eventually, all of us who'd bought tickets online (the vending machine was down too, of course) were told to go in to the theater in a sort of honor system; everyone else got paper tickets, and the movie started a bit late. But oh, so worth it. And if that wasn't enough Sherlockian goodness (since I'm on the UK side of the pond, should that be "Holmesian?"), the new season- whoops, series- of Sherlock premiered yesterday! Whoo-hoo!

Yeah, it doesn't take too much to excite me, not that these weeks aren't exciting enough for other reasons. Laterz!