Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Highlight of Israel trip: The Wedding

A Jewish wedding in Jerusalem is exactly like a Jewish wedding anywhere, except more of the participants are speaking Hebrew.

After a dream-like ten days' trip halfway across the world, most of it spent with 200 of ou
r closest friends on a mind-expanding tour, the evening that turns out to be the highlight of it all was the few hours when my nephew, the little 3-lb. preemie I recall in his baby carrier-- 20 years old now--became the head of his own household. Most 20-year-olds are barely able to make it to 10 am college classes; this guy has been an entrepreneur, and currently serves in the Israeli army in an intelligence unit. He's well-spoken and energetic and difficult to dissuade.
The wedding venue just outside Jerusalem was a park-like acre. Its central lawn held comfy wicker couch conversation groupings flanked by no less than ten food "stations," each serving up a different delicacy for the 550 guests--falafel fried before our eyes, with fresh pita patted and grilled; egg rolls and stir-fry cooked up crisp and fresh; Italian pastas with a sauce of choice assembled for you, Moroccan spicy meat fingers and grape leaves and eggplant dips. Open bars--several--concocted anything you could desire (I got Tequila Sunrise, and they had real grenadine). A five-piece band played traditional Jewish tunes as the golden sun of Jerusalem slanted in the sky and sparkled off the pool.

The guests mixed among the couch-groups, laughing, eating, connecting. We caught up with friends we hadn't seen in person for a decade. Family from around the world convened in a chorus of "mazel tov!" (the universal greeting among all Jewish wedding guests, as the marriage is a source of joy to all in the community--we do not wish "mazel tov" just to the couple).

Soon, the bride came to her throne to receive the women guests, with her mother, the groom's mom and the grandmothers seated on either side. Meanwhile, the men gathered inside for the "tish," at which the wedding contractwais signed, words of Torah exchanged, and many "L'Chaim's" toasted. We outside could hear their singing grow louder as a dancing throng surrounding the groom came to veil the bride.

Of course, throughout, I was snapping photos. I took a video of the b'decking. I frame the world through a view-finder.

The actual wedding canopy was a grand white structure, with a white satin path. Along the path were white-draped pedestals holding huge glass cylinders of
peach-colored gladiolas. There were white-sheathed chairs for the family; the rest of the guests stood behind. The ceremony was the same one that has bound couples for thousands of years--The bride circling her groom, the seven blessings, the reading of the ketuba, the crushing of the glass. The order of the events seemed a bit different than I was used to, but moved along, without interruption by a sermon, and soon the couple were engulfed in the embraces of their friends, and the entire group clapping and singing.

While the couple were alone in yichud, the serious eating began. Inside a huge pavilion with opened glass doors and about a hundred square tables dressed with black tablecloths, and tied bunches of white lilies slanting in square vases with smooth beige river rocks. Just as the appetizers were arrayed in stations encircling the open area outdoors, the pavilion was ringed with similar stations of salads and fish dishes.

The hatan v'kallah entered amid rising shrieks and parted to dance in separate-gender areas, first with jumping and circle dancing and then lifted up on huge flat planks, and finally seated to be entertained by prepared wild performances and schtick that involved Hawaiian shirts, streamers,and animal costumes. Fellow soldiers danced with three-foot-long machine guns slung down their backs, and a huge fan was set up next to the dance floor to cool the perspiring dancers in the 80-degree night.

The food stations re-vamped to serve the main courses, all sorts of meats with side dishes, but I didn't approach them, still stuffed from the hors d'oerves and salads. The fathers of the couple gave speeches; friends sang parodies in their honor; the groom spoke. The groom's siblings performed a rock number, complete with maracas and electric guitars. The dancing resumed.

Finally, food stations opened outside serving desserts. Pancakes sizzled on grills, beautifully decorated pastries and cakes were laid out in artistic patterns. More wild dancing; more jumping and clapping circles. Finally, exhausted, the guests returned to their seats for the final post-gorging grace and seven blessings.

I guess you could say it was a rather typical Jewish wedding. Maybe a bit more lavish food; maybe a bit more sophistication in the decor; maybe a more
luxurious setting. But the core of the evening was reassuringly familiar. At least I captured it all on my camera card to relive it again.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Just Jetted in from Jerusalem, and...

Jet lag has me dizzy with dreamy head-bobbing, as we arrived home from Jerusalem just a couple of hours ago. It was thirty hours, door-to-door, from the Jerusalem Plaza Hotel immediately after Shabbat, on a bus to Ben Gurion airport, through three hours' pre-boarding checks, then ten hours in my first hermetically sealed tube across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Three grueling hours fighting hoards at various Delta Airlines lineups (remind me never to fly them out of JFK again!) and then, after an extra hour on the tarmac, another six to Seattle-Tacoma airport; another ninety minutes to retrieve our luggage before the half-hour drive home. The effect of such night and day travel is that I am still in Jerusalem; I nod into semi consciousness in which I'm in the hotel, with other tourists, viewing sites or riding on a bus. I am certainly not home yet.

Ten days in Israel was so filled with non-stop sight-seeing, family, strangers, friends, and events that I never even had a chance to buy any souvenirs. I never had the luxury of poking into my favorite shops on Emek Rafaim, or even choosing what to do with a particular hour.

And yet, this was perhaps the richest of my six visits to the Holy Land, for it was punctuated by extremes. Emotionally, there was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows--the depths of not just personal but national sadness on the mourning day of Tisha b'Av, followed two days later by the ecstasy of my nephew's wedding, gathering together seldom-joined family in the context of community and Jewish celebration. Tears of unbearable despair at Yad V'Shem holocaust museum (despite having been there before), where my hypersensitivity to such indescribable horror forced me to pull away from the narrative of our rabbi-guide. And tears of pride, as a 20-year-old hero who saved his Israel Defense Force platoon from a hand-grenade that landed in their midst by instantly pitching it back at the enemy, was feted with another tossed item--candy--at his "uff-ruf," his pre-nuptial honor in synagogue.

Contrasts in connecting: we traveled with a group of 200 people--a tour bonded in conservative values and love of Israel--within which were many long-time close friends and neighbors as well as strangers. The group united in auditoriums to hear famous speakers (to be discussed in a future post) then disbursed for personal comments. There were intimate moments alone with my husband, and the treasured completion within my often-scattered family, and the last ride to the airport when, boarding the bus, I recognized few of the faces, though we'd shared the week.

Opposing locations: We experienced the nadir of the Dead Sea, devoid of life and below sea level, with hardened beaches of salt-turned-stone, and the mountainous vistas of Israel's northern border, gazing into Lebanon from Kibbutz Misgav Am onto Arab houses flying the hostile Hizbollah flag. Crowded Tiberius,
alive with the squeals of Arab and Jewish children, large families on holiday. And the thick. scorching air on Masada, where a Jewish community under Roman siege chose death over captivity or torture in defeat.

We confronted extremes in time, arriving on an El Al double-decker jet in bustling, modern Tel Aviv, and later scuffling through the dusty ruins of Shiloh, site of the Jews' tabernacle for 397 years, prior to their Temple in Jerusalem. My daughter downloaded lectures on Tisha b'Av on her laptop, within view of the walls of the Old City. We rode in air-conditioned buses to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near a mysterious ancient village.

I'm at ease with the laptop. Not so easily, the sacrifices. I can even read a bit of the Qumran scrolls' Hebrew, but I can't fathom traversing that oven-country on foot. I grasp
passion for religion, but not antisemitism to the degree a nation could conspire to eliminate a scattered people. Conflict is palpable in Jerusalem, which makes living tense and intense.

There were many messages and lessons in this journey--but in my present hazy consciousness the most salient is that in the scheme of achievement and the span of humanity, I am insignificant. I'm astounded and humbled by what humans have accomplished (Herod's mammoth stones supporting the Temple Mount! Exotic fruits flourishing in drained swamps!) , and yet disheartened by peoples' mutual cruelties. I see how little one person means in the sweep of events, and yet, on Har Hertzl, potentially how much.

Aarrggh, it's just too overwhelming. I think I better take a nap. This jet lag must be getting to me...

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Call me Progressive

Ben and Jerry, the ice cream guys, convinced me that I'm progressive. While savoring a double espresso chocolate chip and coconut-almond chip double-dip cup of thousand-calorie perfection this evening, I started reading a poster prominently displayed in the shop. The poster proclaimed their position in favor of the poor, helpless, disabled and disadvantaged, and called that "progressive."

Well, count me in. I love all those people; give me your poor, your downtrodden, your huddled masses yearning to be free! I support the Salvation Army, and all the churches and charities who step forward to help with social programs, housing and work. No, I don't throw dollar bills at the pathetic guys and women sitting by the freeway offramp with the cardboards announcing "I need money," or "Single mom." Sending them paper airplanes folded from George Washingtons doesn't do much for their permanent improvement. But job training, or a shelter with shape-up rules, well, that could give the down-on-their-luck a new start.

Yes, I'm all for progress. Let's shore up marriage, give parents a say in their kids' educations, and help women with unwanted pregnancies to see the value of each precious life, including their own. Let's simplify the tax system so everybody pays 20%, the top rate suggested by the Bible. Let's make progress toward the safety of our cities, by enforcing loitering and thievery penalties, and let's progress toward the security of our country against the Islamic fanatics who would terrorize the world and topple our democracy.

I wonder: who would say he's NOT for progress?

The Islamists who want Afghanistan and Algeria to adhere to restrictive religious law--under which women undergo genital mutilation and never learn to read--want to go backward. But even they could spin their desire by saying it's progress to live the way Allah wants, rather than according to a modern culture they consider perverse. Yes, everybody's progressive.

So, I'm progressive, too. I think it's progress when here in the US, the market system of free competition prevails so that individuals can prosper. I consider it progress when the government gets out of the way so that everyone can have equal opportunity. After all, minimizing welfare has allowed thousands of formerly dependent people caught in a cycle of poverty to regain their dignity in honorable jobs.

The New York Times certainly loves the term. In fact, they often use it when in the past they'd say liberal. Ever notice that? Nobody is liberal anymore; now he's only progressive. Sounds so forward-thinking, so modern, so with-it. So NEW.

That's to contrast with conservative. Which means "I don't want any change." Stay the same, the same-old, same-old. Progressive is the opposite of stuck. The opposite of, pardon me, John McCain (above). Conservative is old man with white hair in a suit. Progressive is young guy or gal with cool hair and jeans.

So, here's what I propose: all the candidates, no matter their party affiliation or age or positions should call themselves "progressive." Especially Republicans. It's not so difficult: Repeat after me: "I'm a progressive. I'm cool. I care." We can't let liberals be the only ones for progress. Now, have some espresso chocolate-chip Ben and Jerry's.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Al Gore's "Live Earth": Political Purpose, Redundnant Message

Am I the only person in the entire beleaguered world who only heard of "Live Earth" the very weekend it's happening? Al Gore (left, in action this weekend) and a raft of stars are giving concerts around the world to publicize concern for Global Warming, a phenomenon that is controversial at best. Lots of people doubt that the elevation of a couple degrees is any more than a normal cyclical earth variation, and still other academics doubt that the kinds of "activism" Al Gore and crew advocate can make even the tiniest dent on environmental change.

Still, I recycle. Here in the Northwest, for years and years, we plebeian citizens have put newspapers and dry paper waste in one bin, glass in another, plastic in a third, and wet, gooey trash in a fourth container. Like the rest of the country, we've got low-flush toilets and have memorized the mantra, "if it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down." The toilets are so stingy with water that "when it's brown" takes two flushes, of course. Taking a shower with a low-flow showerhead, distributed free in Puget Sound by the way, requires twice as long
to get the shampoo out of one's hair.

But as much as I support personal "do-it-yourself" solutions to any problem, including worldwide issues, this Live
Earth business strikes me in the same way it did Alessandra Stanley, reviewer for the New York Times, as "an especially precarious balance between eco-consciousness and ego-consciousness."

She notes, "...efforts to curb the greenhouse effect backlash into the glass-house effect: People who own Escalades, private jets and McMansions shouldn't recycle bromides at people who fail to carpool to work." Nice writing.

But it's even worse than that. This sudden panic over florescent spiral or incandescent lightbulbs comes at the peak frenzy about which candidates Americans will nominate for President. I have no fear that Al Gore will again run for the land's highest office--he's much more honored and ego-stroked as the figurehead--enlarged in both figure and head of late--of this celebrity-studded Chicken-Little movement. Instead, the effort behind the scenes is to make Global Warming into a political issue, one that will ultimately tilt voters toward Democratic, and particularly, liberal candidates. Even though conservatives and
Republicans love the environment and separate their garbage and choose the eye-straining PC lightbulbs, they can't win on this issue, because it's too late to point out, "No, the environment can be preserved with human ingenuity, and you can see the impressive ways we've replanted forests, cleaned up waterways and conserved huge swaths of land." This is an old issue, but it remains evergreen. And now, with Live Earth, owned by liberals.

I have a friend who is very clever. Instead of pursuing law school or medical school, he decided to go into Carbon Offsetting. He goes around looking for farmers' open refuse pits, and pays them loads of money to cover them, reducing the farmer's carbon output. Then he sells that at a huge profit as "credits" to the folk who, like Live Earth performers, like owning their own second or third homes. His business is considered legitimate and honest. I think the whole idea is ridiculous.

My point? I'm nauseated by the chutzpa of these way-liberal stars trying to bring themselves more "credit" with the public, and massage their own guilty consciences for not truly being altruistic. I don't have a TV in my home. But if I did, I'd sure get some kind of silly glee by turning off Live Earth.

And by the way....my family spent yesterday surrounded by the real Live Earth, delighting in a glorious trip to the North Cascades, and thanking God every moment for the spectacular world he privileges us to enjoy. As Julie Andrews once famously intoned, "The hills are alive with the sound of music," and it's not Madonna or Ludacris, but the babbling of creeks and the twittering of birds, and the laughter of children tricycling through the family campground. Better to appreciate those songs than the electrified, politically-charged dissonance of narcissistic, over-paid pop performers who have no clue about the One who made the world they so smugly protect.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Blessed to Live in America--Happy July Fourth!

I'm hokey, and I'm proud.

What's so wrong with sentimentality? Nostalgia? July 4th associations: the early patriots,
especially the imposing George Washington, festive neighborhood parades, burgers at picnics, fireworks displays ever more creative and spectacular.

And we appreciate the unique blessings this nation has received. Surely this place has been ordained by God and is sustained by God in a way that only one other on earth has enjoyed. I think that the unique protection and guidance shown the United States is a direct reflection of its founding circumstances and ongoing piety.

Unlike other nations, ours was founded on dedication to God. Protestant Episcopals, Puritans, Lutherans, and Catholics undertook the perilous Atlantic crossing in the 1600s with the purpose of free worship
. Each small town across the land boasts one or more steeples on its town square. Not so long ago, "Blue Laws" restricted labor on "The Lord's Day." Prayer in public schools was de rigeur. It is only a distortion of our profound respect for each (atheist) person's view about religion that has meant the end of school prayer and the removal of crosses and Christmas trees. It is this consideration for others' faiths that allows Judaism to flourish in America, (and that now endangers us in our refusal to censure even violent Islam).

Our Constitution does not specify any separation of church and state; to the contrary, the First Amendment, which guarantees several freedoms, sought to prohibit the imposition of a national religion specifically to allow states do choose their own. Freedom in our new land was foremost the ability to practice one's religion unencumbered.

Thus serving God is the basis of America, and to the extent it remains first in importance, our nation remains strong.

I also believe that vast majorities of Americans welcome immigrants, as here, we are all newcomers; no one has more claim to this miraculous land than another.

The fact that this vast continent remained unexplored until just two hundred years ago is another reason for its success. Here, all entrepreneurs have opportunities. Here, invention and creativity are rewarded. Here, education through graduate school is offered to those with promise for free.

We have so many reasons to be grateful--in this breathtakingly beautiful land with so many resources and the intellectual capability to pursue them. This rests in our hearts; as we begin each baseball game with the National Anthem, half the audience chokes back a tear.

Yeah, it's hokey. The family gets together with a few friends and neighbors, puts some Sousa on the i-pod, and grills up the hot dogs to serve with potato salad and watermelon. What could be nicer, and more benign? Fireworks fill the heavens with color, our human imitation of the wonders of Hashem. The summer is young, our nation is young, and we display the youthful expectation that all can be redeemed.

So join me: be hokey and proud. Happy July Fourth! Put that big flag out in front of your house. Join your neighbors in sharing a home-baked pie. And offer a prayer in thanks that we were born and can live in this greatest nation on God's green earth.