Tag Archives: israel

Peoplehood I: Red Sector A

My wife and I have been accepted into the Jewish Federation’s “Peoplehood Project” of MetroWest NJ for 2012-2013. With our 50th birthdays and 25th wedding anniversary coming up, we thought this would be an appropriate way to celebrate (the trip back to Italy for the prosciutto visit is another story, and decidedly along a different axis of peoplehood). We’ll be traveling to Israel to explore what it means to be a member of the Jewish people, and how we can be better ambassadors between, and within, our countries. In 2013 we’ll visit the Ukraine, from where most of my family emigrated in the early 20th century, and something that will force me to learn Russian beyond “Uncle Ivan lives in Brighton” (as far as I got with the cassette tape Teach Yourself Russian). I’m most eager to see how our collective viewpoint rotates from the Jewish American to the American who is also a Jew, and to experience as many points as possible along that curve.

For me, the “peoplehood” question stems from discovering new lights who identify as Stars of David, whether it’s musicians, athletes, or business executives. I adore Geddy Lee (bass player for Rush, son of Holocaust survivors, and Canadian to boot) and know that “Geddy” is his proper name “Gary” passed through his grandmother’s Eastern European Yiddishkeit filter. Recently Geddy commented that the Rush song Red Sector A was based on a story of concentration camp liberation. Trivia like this is one more level of detail below Adam Sandler’s “Hankuah Song.” It certainly makes me listen to the album differently, changing the relative word order of “Jewish,” “prog rock” and “fan.” Internalizing culture is a foundation of peoplehood. That and falafel, I think.

In our last few trips to Israel and when hosting Israeli students in NJ, I’ve been struck by the contrast between Israelis and Americans when it comes to how we identify with popular culture. What I found among Israelis is an attraction to the facets of our American lives that resemble pop culture, rather than the Jewish aspects that put us in a small American minority. Being Jewish is just table stakes for Israelis – doing something that they’ve seen in a slice-of-American life movie is interesting. They don’t need Adam Sandler’s “Hanukah Song” to remind them of Jewish celebrities; but they will gladly go to a local, non-celebrated football game to sample a different kind of Friday Night lights.

One of the themes I expect to come up is that of sustainability – how do we ensure that our diverse, geographically and culturally distant communities pay attention to and look out for each other? The prospective downside – failure to create diverse but thriving communities – makes Neal Peart’s Red Sector A haunting lyrics a rallyng cry.

Another Blog About Food, Language and Yelling

Our daughter Elana has started her gap year in Israel. She’s blogging her adventures. Combined with Skype, phone calls, and updates from the program on Facebook, give us a great view into what’s going on 6,000 miles away.

Echoing the “Anatevka” scene (“You’re going to America? I have a cousin in Chicago”) that closes Fiddler on the Roof, the local falafel guy used to work at our kosher pizza place here in town. Elana’s realizing that I wasn’t kidding when I made up the three rules of being Israeli: We did it better, you’re wrong, and there is no line.

The over/under on hummus being a staple of her diet is 4 weeks. But it’s great following the action online.

Holy (Land) Breakfast

I am a creature of habit, and a good breakfast is one of those habits. Particularly when travelling, starting the day off with a solid helping of protein, fruit, something sweet and at times a kick of spiciness is your best bet for good attention, energy and focus. Sometimes it’s one bookend of a long day that ends with a fancy dinner, lunch typically involving breath mints and coffee in someone’s car.

My favorite breakfast in the world is the morning buffet spread in an Israeli hotel. I’m not particular about which hotel; they’re almost all universally good and plentiful and full of foods far outside the typical breakfast field. Sure, you can get cereal and eggs and pancakes, but why not start your day with Yemenite delights like yachnoon (philo dough rolled with sugar and other goodies, baked into a rare earth density of goodness) topped with a bit of schoog (oil based hot pepper sauce). It defines “hot and sweet” – all of the tastes of good Italian sausage, with the added benefit of opening your sinuses for the day.

My personal favorite is the fresh and dried fruit selection: oranges from Yafo (check your oranges in the supermarket; they’re as likely from Yafo as they are from Florida) and dates that resided on a palm tree bordering the Negev desert not too long before ending up on your plate. The difference between the dates you buy in a US market and the dates in Israel is like the difference between sushi-grade tuna in New York and a flash-frozen halibut in Iowa. Eat at the source, people, it’s always better. Add in a bit of local cheese (especially the somewhat mysterious “Safed cheese”, which I believe to be a colloquial name for a mozzarella variety), and something from the assortment of breads and pastries (there cannot be a Jewish themed breakfast without danish; it’s in the Talmud) and you’re full, content and ready to wash it down with coffee so thick it’s chewable.

Pictures from the road as this week’s travel takes me to Tel Aviv (with a chocolate infused stop in Zurich).

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Family Found

One of the highlights of our trip to Israel was finding my great uncle Zimel Resnick. After his death in 1971, Uncle Zimel’s body was flown to Israel for burial in a military cemetary outside of Tel Aviv, with the “Fighters of Gallipoli” from the First World War. We’ve known that he was buried in Israel, a land that he loved dearly for all of his adult life, but I was the first from our family to locate his grave. A 35-year search, and one that I’ll remember for quite some time.

I have only vague memories of Zimel. He was always larger than life; hanging out with politicians and soldiers and sometimes shady characters. He was a mix of Tony Soprano and Tony Bennett, ever the showman, ever the fixer. By day, Zimel was part owner of Palace Amusements in Asbury Park, NJ, made famous later by the other Boss of New Jersey. By night, he was a devout Zionist, and campaigned endlessly for planting trees in Israel, sold bonds for Israel, and more surreptiously, procured weapons to be used in the 1948 War for Israeli Independence. Visits to Zimel’s home in Asbury Park for holidays were a test of your endurance, as his pre-food services sometimes lasted hours and included both the official version of the service as well as his own interpretation of the texts.

My favorite Zimel story comes from the nephew he called, in his still-thick Russian accent, “Zhoe”, using the Cyrillic double-X in place of the Latin J. Zimel would meet various sources for guns, ammunition, parts of tanks and airplanes, and other weapons at the top of the ferris wheel that rotating through the main building of the Palace. Zhoe would send them up, and Zimel and and his suppliers would have a business meeting overlooking the Atlantic. Physical isolation provided security. Whatever Zimel acquired typically was loaded onto a small boat and later ferried out to a freight ship headed toward the fledgling Israeli state.

Last week we had one of those Israeli visitor moments where bits of history snap together like the borders of a jigsaw, framing what you’ve heard, read, and experienced. At the Palmach Museum, we heard a fictionalized account of a dozen friends who joined the first Israeli defense forces, and were told “Don’t despair, there’s a ship coming from America with guns”. Earlier in the day we had visited Zimel’s grave, and that ship was a storied account of one that he helped to load. And when this registered with my kids, I told them the story of the ferris wheel and Zhoe, whom they better know as their grandfather Joel.

During the reading of the Passover Hagadah, we hide a piece of matzah and later encourage the children to search for it, rewarding the finder. Looking for the afikomen, as it’s called, was always a bit more of an adventure in Zimel’s house as you might run into a state assemblyman, a soldier, or an unmarked box you shouldn’t open. In Zimel’s interpretive Hagadah, he wrote that the purpose of hunting for the afikomen is “to remind us that what is broken off is never lost as long as our children remember the search.” After 35 years, and through three generations of our family, the search has returned results.