Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Curious Case Of The "P" In PTA -- Parent Or Prayer?

My daughters spent the last night in the US, in Iowa City, with a good friend. Later she told me that in preparation for the long journey back to Israel she had baptized the girls-- just in case.  I felt that it was a bit extreme but said nothing, I knew that it was an act of love and did not want to hurt my friend's feelings.
Less than a year later we found ourselves back in the US, this time my husband was hired sight unseen by a large company which moved us from Israel to Texas. His lab was outside Fort Worth, and we settled in a nearby town, in a good school district. Our daughters went to the elementary public school down the road and I, an involved parent, joined the PTA.

The Only Way To Get Read In Today's World: Sayed Kashua

Some writers lend themselves to translation much better than others. A short while ago I heard on the radio program This American Life (501: The View From In Here, JUL 26, 2013) a story by the Arab-Israeli writer Sayed  Kashua. I was impressed, but not surprised, at how well Kashua’s story came across in English. I read the original in Hebrew and his insights, subtle criticism of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, and his wit shone in English as well as they did in Hebrew. As an Arab in Israel, Kashua is constantly translating from Arabic to Hebrew and from Hebrew to Arabic. His biography is the embodiment of translation: he was born in the Arab village of Tira, and in school he learnt both Arabic and Hebrew. 

Read more

What Is The Purpose Of Your Visit?

Because of the war we expected our friends to cancel their scheduled visit to Israel, but they did not show any sign of doing so. On the appointed day in August we met them in Ben Gurion airport. Apparently they were the only non-Israelis passengers on board. They told us that upon arrival when asked at the passport control  for the purpose of their visit they answered   "to visit friends".
This reply wouldn't surprise any one here, even in time of war, since friendship has always been an important and natural part of Israeli  life. When my father came to Israel on his own at the age of twenty one in 1934 he had no family in Palestine, and his friends were his only support network. It was a typical situation in his generation. Looking through old issues of the Israeli magazine L’aisha  (For Woman)  from the late 1940s  I found an essay devoted to friendship. Its purpose was to teach  women  how to make friends and keep them:
The essay “The secret of true friendship” by Elisheva  Daniel  was written in response to questions of many readers who had written to the magazine asking for advice. The content suggests that  the writer believed that her target audience had no experience in making friends. It was only a couple of years after the end of the second World War and many young women (and men) arrived to Israel as refugees and had to grow up fast often without parents.
In order to make friends and keep them, the writer advises the reader to have an open mind, to refrain from prejudice, to understand that everyone is lonely and could be a potential friend. She warns not  to envy those who already have friends, since they had to work hard in order to acquire them. It is important  to make time for friends, to show empathy and understanding . Every person likes to feel special and it is the friend’s responsibility to enable it. A friend should care about the needs and wishes of the other person and to try to fulfill them.
The writer ends the essay with the following statement:  “You see, to be a good friend you must be ready to sacrifice and not to think only of yourself. This is the price of friendship and if you wish to have friends  you should work hard to get them. You have to become  a giver. There is no happiness like that of a person who knows that he/she can do something for someone else. This is the secret of true friendship.”
This was seventy years ago, but friendship has maintained its significance in our society. In schools, in youth movements, and in the army serious discussions are devoted to the value and significance of this institution. However, with time the meaning of friendship and the role of the friend have greatly changed.  Elisheva Daniel’s stern definition, the about the commitment and responsibility of the friend, is no longer applicable to most everyday friendships. While in the 1940s friendship often was the most significant relationship in a person’s life, today it has been replaced by the family. We are willing, perhaps, to make sacrifices for members of our family but much less for our friends.
The attitude to friendship varies in different cultures, In Britain,for example, a friend is someone whom we have known all our lives. In contrast, many Israelis are often surprised, and even disappointed, to discover that friendship and friends are regarded much more casually in the US.
A more relevant definition of friendship is offered by  the British sociologist Graham Allan, who regards friendship as an  informal, voluntary, reciprocal, equal, and non-exploitive personal relationship. It is formed not for instrumental reasons but simply because it is found to be enjoyable.
Fun is curiously absent from Elisheva Daniel's early description of friendship. However, joyful is the adjective which I choose to describe the visit of our friends during the war. It was a wonderful opportunity to see the country afresh through their admiring eyes. And it was especially joyful to remember that, in spite of the heat of August and the stress of the war, touring the country is something to look forward to when normal life resumes
The essay appeared in the Times Of israel

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Instead Of A Mirror: Anne Tyler’s Twinform

I learnt about Twinforms in Anne Tyler’s  novel A Patchwork Planet.  Barnaby, the protagonist, finds  an old  Twinform ---a wooden cut-out model with custom -painted face - so a lady could plan an outfit without having to get undressed,  in the attic of one of his elderly clients. It belonged to her mother.
From the description the Twinform seemed so real that I had to check it on Google, but was not able to find any information about it. 
Still regardless of its physical existence the idea of having a twin, or at least someone who looks like me so I could really see myself from the outside, is inspiring,
I have always suspected that mirrors were not enough, but Mikhail Bakhtin conveys the full complexity of the issue.
Mikhail Bakhtin, "Man in Front of a Looking Glass"
"[Those] falsehoods and lies that inevitably reveal themselves in one's relations with oneself. An external image of thought, an external image of the soul. It is not myself looking at the world with my eyes from inside myself, but myself looking at myself through the eyes of the world, through somebody else's eyes; I am possessed by the Other. In this, there is no naïve wholeness between the inner and the outer. [In front of a looking glass, I am t]aking a peep at myself in my own absence. The naivety of [believing in] the fusion between the self and the other in a mirror image. An excess of the Other. I have no point from which to contemplate myself from the outside, I have no way to approach my own internal self-image. There are somebody else's eyes gazing at me from my eyes."
In this beautiful and short passage Bakhtin confirms that I would never be able to look at myself from the outside.
Yet, the concept of a Twinform is comforting, it could enable me, at least, to see my outward appearance in a detached way. I could observe whether the blue skirt goes well with a yellow blouse.  
Seeing a favorite piece of clothing on someone else, even a Twinform, would allow me a different point of view , devoid of emotions.  Besides, it is a great way to prepare combinations of outfits for a journey, or for the week ahead. 
Since it is only a model, the delightful Twinform does not allow for changes in size throughout the years.Thus, just like mannequins in the store window, who normally look nothing like the real customers of that store, eventually could become irrelevant.
In the world of the novel  the Twinform, which was invented by the protagonist’s paternal great great-father, is a literary device, and it has significance in terms of the plot of the character. For example, when it appears for the first time Tyler uses it to introduce the protagonist’s history and to present him as the black sheep of the family.

But as a reader I kept thinking that, in the absence of my mother who could tell me honestly how I looked, I wish I had a Twinform.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is It True That You Can Never Go Home Again?

They say ”you can never go home again,” but is it true? Doesn’t  the word "home" imply that you can return, that you will always be welcome unconditionally, and regardless of anything?
 I was reminded of the more metaphorical meanings of this saying  this week while staying in the US with my daughter, her  husband and their new daughter-- my first granddaughter. We were discussing some  practices from the time when my daughters were babies, about  thirty years ago, in the US.
My daughter listened patiently to me and then told me, with a half embarrassed smile, that those practices were no longer used. Nowadays new regulations indicate that the baby should not sleep on her stomach without supervision, that she should not  drink water (but that has been true for years). There are also strict regulations about furniture which mean that she can no longer sleep in the family crib or in the cradle, built thirty years ago by a loving uncle. These are only few examples from a long list of practices and objects which could no longer be used. .
My daughter, a responsible and sensible mother, only wants what is best for her baby. Still it made me sad that, due to safety reasons, my daughter and her daughter are  deprived of the connection with the family history: her baby will not sleep in the same cradle that her father had slept in.
The main reason for those strict regulations is to prevent, as much as possible, Sudden Infant Death. I still remember the horrible fear of SIDS  when my own daughters were babies. Then we were not aware that anything could be done about it. Nowadays,  thanks to the new regulations, this syndrome has almost been eradicated.
But then yesterday my daughter went through the baby’s clothes showing me what she had received from family members and friends. Some of the items looked old and used, still she wanted to keep them.  Moreover, my daughter tried to convince me to return new gifts of clothes claiming that she already had more than enough. I argued  that it was fun to dress a new baby with new clothes.
At first I didn’t see why she wanted to keep the old clothes, but later I understood. Wearing clothes that came from cousins and friends was a way to maintain the important connection with the past. The baby was surrounded with so much new and impersonal equipment, that my daughter preferred the meaningful clothes to those new ones which were still sterile.
Dressing the baby with hand-me-down clothes  from people that you care about, is an act of bonding, and it is a way to go home again. 
Besides, it promotes another important value, that of social and consumer responsibility. It is especially significant in a place like the US where consumers goods are so abundant and  inexpensive that it is too easy to buy everything new.
I can compare this type of responsibility to the growing movement toward adoption of rescue pets, why spend money on one pedigree dog when so many other need a home?
And speaking of home, later today I will fly back to Israel; my daughter, her American husband, half American daughter, and her Israeli dog will remain  in their home in the US.  Staying with  this young  family I had to expand the meaning of home with the help of another saying: “home is where your heart is.” Indeed part of mine will remain with them.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Yes I Am Israeli And You Are An Anti-Semite

When I was in graduate school one of my professors  made a comment: ” Why won’t you write your dissertation in Literary theory?  you are Jewish and Jews are famous for their love of ideas”  I didn’t know how to respond, on the one hand I knew that I wasn’t going to write about  theory, but on the other hand I didn't want to ruin his good impression of the Jewish people.
Only later when I studied the subject more thoroughly I realized that, like other forms of generalizations, cultural stereotypes serve as a short cut, and help people to comprehend better their reality. It is also a way to measure oneself against the others. Moreover, although it sounds like a judgment it could be used as an observation.

Keep reading this post in my Times Of Israel blog:

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Facebook Golem Or The Man On The Street

 I have nothing against other people’s opinions, sometimes  I even change my mind based on what I hear. But I would like to choose where, and when to hear or read them.

In the past I could think of two main examples when those opinions were not welcome. First, on the evening news when reporters chose to spend a good part of the program on interviewing  “the man/woman on the street.”  I guess the rationale was that their opinions were representative of  most people. I always preferred to hear the opinions of experts in the field.

The second  occasion happened when during  the questions and answers session after a formal lecture, some people in the audience mistook that time to be an opportunity to voice their opinions rather than to ask for those of the speaker.

Now because of the war in Gaza I can add  Facebook to the  list of unwelcome opinions

Until recently I was an active user of Facebook and enjoyed reading about my friends’ life. Facebook for me was exactly what Mark Zuckerberg meant it to be: a social network. I didn’t know the political opinions of most of my friends and never requested new  friendships based on people’s political inclinations. Yet,  I didn’t mind reading  my friends’ opinions  about those subjects as well.

However, with the war, many people started sharing and promoting those  political views to which they subscribe. For me  it means that the social media stopped being social. I should have known that, what is Facebook if not the man on the street in his contemporary attire?  While I like my friends and used to look forward to hearing about the different aspects of their lives, now I dread Facebook and it has lost its appeal.

I hear that this war is the war of the social media. My friends are civilized people, their posts may be  disturbing, yet they are never offensive. But  our activity on Facebook does not represent what is out there  in other parts of the social media. I guess we are not the "real man of the street" of Facebook, where I was exposed to horrible posts  full of violence and hatred. It is scary.

Several months ago I wrote about the benefits of a  big bazaar where treasures could be found:

But now I realize that the big unpredictable bazaar has become a Golem, that unintelligent creature who was commanded to perform a task, but became enormous, uncooperative and ultimately out of control. There is evidence everywhere, and not only in Israel, of the damages created by the Facebook Golem.
I wonder if it is too late to stop it. In one version of the Golem story the rabbi who created him had to resort to trickery to deactivate it, whereupon the Golem crumbled upon its creator and crushed him.

I sincerely hope that we are not looking at a similar future.  


Friday, August 1, 2014

"She Is Not Really Beautiful But Only Looks That Way:" About Seemingly Good Ideas

She is not really beautiful, but only looks that way! I heard this statement from a friend of mine years ago in order to introduce its inherent paradox. Still we agreed that it did make sense. Sometimes, in first impression,  people seem to be beautiful—. Yet  if we look a little closer, we realize that they may be symmetrical, or have a good figure,  but beautiful they are not. This is a matter of aesthetic preference, I don’t  refer here to the opposite case when upon knowing the person we grow to view them as more or less 
beautiful. But it was an interesting point to observe and discuss.
In a similar fashion, there are some ideas which  at first seem quite great, and only later when we  analyze the consequences we understand that, although they had some merit,  they  were never good.
After living several months in Iowa City my husband Tzvi and I decided that it was time to buy a house. Since it was Tzvi’s first year at his job at the university and I was home with the baby, it was up to me to find us the perfect home.  And then Tzvi  announced:  “I don’t need to see any of the houses which you consider,  it is entirely up to you.  If you don’t take it, then there is no need for me to see that house, and if you do I shall see it enough once we live there." It sounded  like an empowering and efficient idea.
I spent quite a bit of time with  the realtor, we knew that we didn’t want to buy an expensive house. After being poor students in graduate school we finally had some money  and  we wanted to be able to enjoy it rather than spending it on a big mortgage
Finally I found us a 3 bedroom, no-nonsense, modern, and efficient house. It was within  our budget , in a nice neighbourhood near the park. We even  had a good friend  living down  the street. In short, it was  perfect..
Only that it wasn’t, as we moved into to that house I realized that it was a huge mistake.I never liked that house and  grew to dislike it even more.
 Since it was only I who saw the houses I tried to look at them through Tzv’s eyes, I searched for one which will suit him best. He was an  engineer, thus I found  us a highly functional house, but it was  boring and lacked charm, Tzvi wasn’t. I somehow reduced his wishes  into a schematic notion that in his reality didn't reflect the taste of either one of us. It would never have happened  had we looked at houses together. 
On the surface, Tzvi’s idea made a perfect sense, but it paralyzed me and took away my creativity, and the ability to express myself. Tzvi himself  later confessed  that he never liked the house because  it was so unlike me.
Three years later we moved into our second house which we chose together, and  there we spent the rest of our time in Iowa City.
Of course Tzvi is not the only one to come up with perfectly logical ideas that in reality turn out to be quite terrible. Times of war make me wonder about those.