The New Moon

Friday night we arrived for Shabbat dinner at the home of our daughter, son-in-law (who makes the best matzo-ball soup ever, although not on the day after Thanksgiving), and their kids. Both grandchildren came to the door along with the noisy dogs: Ethan, seven (“and three quarters”), sleek in his Star Wars pj’s and done with cancer, and Hannah, four, in a dress embroidered with her name, for once announcing neither of the sisters from Frozen but, proudly, herself.

“You didn’t miss anything!” Ethan yelled, as they both fell into a close chat with Nana.

I waited for a pause in the conversation and said, “But you two missed something!” It was a warm evening, so I urged them out on the front lawn even though they were barefoot, pointing at the bright crescent dangling in the western sky.

Hannah’s exuberance took her too close to the street, so I shouted her back, as Ethan asked, “Is it December?”

“Not yet,” I said, “but it’s Kislev. That’s the moon of Kislev, the moon of Chanukah.”

Ethan said, “Hannah, it’s not December but it’s Kislev, the moon of Chanukah.” He began to sing, and Hannah chimed in,

                               O Chanukah O Chanukah

                               Come light the menorah,

                               Let’s have a party,

                               We’ll all dance  the hora…

I figured I would have too much of that soon enough, so I herded them inside, and after an hour of chaos we were sitting down to delicious leftovers. Our son Adam and his partner were also there, so it was pretty much a repeat performance of the Thanksgiving dinner the evening before.

Thursday night we had gone around the table saying what we were thankful for. When my turn eventually came I said, “I’m thankful for the family of my dreams, which happens to be sitting around this table.” I did mention those who were absent, either just from the table or from the earth. I did not mention how grateful I was that Ethan was no longer in the hospital.

Last night, Saturday, we sat with two dear, long-standing friends at a trendy new Israeli restaurant. Like us, they are in the grandparent stage of life, quite delicious if everyone is healthy and normal—whatever that is.

There is an old Yiddish riddle, What’s the difference between nakhes and a mekhaya? You have to know that nakhes means joy, especially the kind of joy you take in children, and that a mekhaya is the ultimate relaxation—what the old men in my childhood Brooklyn neighborhood used to say when they came back from the Turkish steam baths: Oy, it’s such a mekhaya.

            So the answer to the riddle: Nakhes is when the grandchildren come to visit; a mekhaya is when they leave. That lofty, happy, ultimately not-responsible-for-the-bedtimes condition of life is what we mostly talked about. They have two more grandchildren on the way, we have one, all in all a sense of increase.

The Jewish population of the world today is the same as it was in 1939, while the world population as a whole has doubled twice.

I asked the young server if the octopus was kosher, and she said yes, but a bit uncertainly, before I gave her a fist bump and explained why it couldn’t be. The food was very good, high-end Israeli cuisine, the conversation was better, the drinks did their job. At our stage of life, you can easily spend a couple of hours on family without noticing the time.

Our friends have three grown and settled daughters—I held their youngest in my arms at age eight days and saw her happily wed last New Year’s Eve. Their eldest and her family have lived in Israel for seven years, and one of the new grandkids will be her third. So the conversation turned to politics.

All of us are New Israel Fund kinds of people—love the idea of Israel, hate the trends of recent decades, contribute dollars to combat right-wing and theocratic injustice. Come January, Israelis will vote in their third national elections in a year. Twice the electorate was evenly divided, and both times neither the right nor the center-left could form a government.

The divisions are very bitter. Our friend’s daughter was riding her bike along the Mediterranean when she heard the first election result. She felt as if she had just been told she was going to go through a divorce. The prospects are painfully uncertain, but one thing is sure: it’s not my grandfather’s Israel.



Israeli Spring 3

DSC_0705 Taj small fileIn a hotel near the Taj Mahal, I thought back on my week in Israel leading into a month in India. The Taj, a marble poem to lost love, was built by the Muslim king Shah Jihan, the “Emperor of the World.” His wife died after nineteen pregnancies during her fourteenth birth and this, perhaps the finest building ever built, became her resting place.

But the Emperor of the World was cast down by one of his sons, who had killed three others, leaving himself the sole heir. Battles had raged among these brothers, just as they had among the sons of King David. Continue reading

Israeli Spring 1

Cactus flower VHGFrom the balcony of my “suite” in downtown Jerusalem, I see the tattered stripes of an Israeli flag seized by a strong wind, a huge McDonald’s with intact golden arches, and an almost empty street with caged-up stores in advance of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. The Jerusalem Post showed a man in a black kippa—meaning religious but not too—harvesting sheaves in a gold field of wheat. He’ll make matzoh when the time comes. That the flag fragment is allowed to stay where it is may reflect the current level of nationalism here. Continue reading

Was All This About Egypt?

It’s not that I think this is really over. Cairo’s streets are filled with angry people, and Egypt may lurch again toward democracy. But back on the Gaza border a lull in the missile exchanges began Wednesday, and the last 48 hours have been mostly quiet. The citizens of Southern Israel will not be satisfied with this, since however degraded Hamas might be, it was still firing rockets a-plenty when the cease-fire started. One beefy middle-aged guy said that if Netanyahu doesn’t actually stop the attacks from Gaza he will “pay the price” at the polls in January.

But Hillary Clinton dropped by on her way back from Southeast Asia—she and her boss do have other things to think about—and spent some political capital in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Cairo. She wants this to be her closing scene as Secretary of State, and something to brag about if she runs for the Oval Office. That meant some serious arm-twisting for both Israel’s Prime Minister and Egypt’s President Morsy. You could almost hear them say “Ouch.”

And now Morsy has overreached, making a power grab that could cost him his palace. Still, despite demonstrations in Cairo, it looks possible that one of Israel’s main goals in this operation has been reached, and it has nothing directly to do with rockets raining down on Ashdod: the new Egypt’s pivot toward the West. Continue reading

Bibi, Obama, and the Incendiary Summer

This is a pivotal moment for Israel.

The cool breeze of the Arab Spring, about which many of us were hopeful but skeptical, is now an Incendiary Summer. This ominous anger over a trashy film has caused riots and replaced the Stars and Stripes with Islamist flags in many places. Our embassies are threatened in at least twelve Muslim capitals. In addition, a planned terrorist attack killed a U.S. ambassador and other Americans in Libya.

The eruption come against the background of Bibi Netanyahu turning up the rhetoric Continue reading