Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Kippah Drawer via JewishFiction.net

The Kippah Drawer


The Kippah Drawer
By Rob Granader

The drawer was stuffed.
 
When he tugged at the wooden knob, a fluff of velvet and satin bulged out. It always happened when he opened this drawer, one of only two drawers in his small dining room. He never emptied it. He’d only overstuff it, which required him to kneel down, his eighty-nine-year-old knees crackling like dry twigs as he picked up the escaped yarmulkes, kissing them gently before packing them back in the drawer.
 
Except for the one he had on his head for that evening.
 
Yossi lived alone and only wore his yarmulke on the Sabbath, but his drawer runneth over with not one or two or three of these skullcaps worn by Jews to show their reverence for God. He had dozens upon dozens, his drawer a time machine of simchas, happy occasions.
 
There were nights, now more than before, when he couldn’t sleep. He’d been alone for so long, but he had felt it more keenly in the past year. He wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was his bladder, waking him in the middle of night, now frightening him in some way. Or maybe that large bed that he once shared with his wife was getting bigger as he got smaller, and so when his leg stretched to the vast emptiness on the other side, the chill from the untouched sheets would startle him and jerk him awake.
 
On these nights he would lie there hoping, praying, that he would fall back to sleep. When it did not happen, he’d get out of bed and tread the cold floor of his apartment to the drawer. And with the thin light that hung above, he’d dive his hand into the drawer and swim it around as if he were picking out a raffle ticket. He’d open a yarmulke and hold it up to the light, stretching his arm and pulling it close to read the names and dates of the people imprinted on the inside.
 
There was only one that needed no reminding. One navy blue kippah with gold trim and the date June 26, 1950. It was the lone remaining artifact from his wedding day. It was the one he wore most often and the one he could find, by feel, in the dark.
 
When a Jewish child turns thirteen, the family buys a set of one hundred kippot and imprints them with the name and date of the event. Every time a Jewish couple gets married, another hundred or so get printed. Sometimes Yossi wondered why he didn’t go into the kippah business instead of the accounting business. Some guests would take the head coverings and wear them for the service, others dropped them in a box outside the sanctuary when the service was over, and some never picked them up. Still others, at the end of the service, absently left them on their heads or stuffed them in pockets to be found the next time they put on a suit.
 
Yarmulkes come in many flavors. Soft knit ones that only stay on with a clip. Others are velvet, hemmed in by a lace border, grabbing the head whether covered in hair or freshly shaven.
And while Yossi and Malka never had children, thereby never having the extra seventy-five or so yarmulkes from a simcha of their own, he had not missed a Shabbat service in fifty years. He had seen hundreds of b’nai mitzvot as boys and girls walked across the bima and made their case for being an adult in the eyes of the Jewish people. He’d pocketed dozens from weddings.
 
So each week as the guests filed out of the sanctuary for the free food, sweet wine, and small cakes on doilies, he’d put a skullcap in his coat pocket.
 
And his collection grew.
 
“This is what you decided to collect?” Malka said one night as he filled the drawer. “Fabergé eggs wouldn’t work?”
 
But for him the collection was a symbol of many things: his Judaism, his friendships, his years. For Yossi the filled drawer was like a collection of mitzvot, of good deeds, that built on itself over his life. This was the physical manifestation of all those prayers which made his life worthwhile.
 
“How do your fancy friends measure their worth?” he’d once asked Malka after a service where the bar mitzvah “theme” was some kind of video game. “Do they know how ludicrous they look standing in the sanctuary dressed as a Martian making Star Wars puns?  Are they proud that their grandfather can’t get through the Hamotzi without notecards?”
 
“Their assets, is that the measure? Their bank accounts, their houses? The vacations, the deals from long ago? They don’t tell their story,” he’d said.
 
They couldn’t go into a dark room and watch the movie of their lives in a way that was as fulfilling as sitting on the floor recalling all the days of his life in synagogue. Maybe others had some ledger of good deeds, but for Yossi there was his drawer. It wasn’t just that he’d attended all these events, but they represented days he’d spent in prayer, words he’d chanted over hundreds of hours of ancient texts. This was a visual representation of all he’d done.
 
“But none of them are ours,” Malka would say.
 
“They are all ours,” he said. “We’ve been to every one of these.”
 
“We didn’t matter,” she said.
 
“Without us maybe they wouldn’t have had a minyan,” he said.     
 
When they were younger Yossi and Malka would invite friends to their Friday night table. Malka would prepare the same dishes her mother had cooked from some recipe brought from the old country, scrawled on small slips of paper and stuffed into notebooks. And Yossi would pass out kippot to his guests, trying to find ones that might interest them. He’d find the wedding of a mutual friend or the bar mitzvah of a child they once knew. He wasn’t sure if people ever noticed this planned coincidence, but sometimes it made for good conversation. Occasionally guests would walk away with a kippah by accident; it was the only time his drawer ever got smaller.
 
But inevitably he’d find these guests and remind them that he wanted the kippah back.
 
Now Yossi stood at the synagogue Shabbat table with his thimble of Manischewitz wine, looking at the faces, as he had for years. He and his friends used to congregate near one end of the long, sweets-filled table. They would edge out the children who reached for handfuls of cakes.
 
But slowly his group dwindled. Yoni stopped coming when his wife got sick. Isaac had been missing since he fell six months ago. Moe had stopped driving. But most of them just died.
 
And now he’d go to the end of the table, less interested in pushing the kids out of the way. He felt the distance from everybody, even the rabbi, who would come over and shake his hand, saying, “Good Shabbos.” But it was the new rabbi, not the one he knew for all the years. Not the one who buried Malka. He referred to this new rabbi, who always looked past him, spending more time with the people whose names graced the building’s walls, as the CEO of the synagogue.
 
Yossi looked down at the carpet between his feet and the long, white tablecloth, remembering the mark his friends had left. The big, faded stains from where his friends had spilled wine or crumbled a cookie under their feet, or where frosting was driven into the carpet. There was nobody left in the room to remember these men who built this synagogue not with their money but with their attendance. And one day they would replace the carpet or get new linens, and there literally would be no sign left of the people who stood in these places for all those Saturday mornings.
 
At the other end of the table, away from the wine, was a group of kids, friends of the bar mitzvah boy, all with matching yellow corduroy yarmulkes, the ones that the family had given out that morning. And they were dropping them on the floor without kissing them, spilling grape juice on them. One used it as a napkin to wipe the frosting from his mouth.
 
And it was at this moment that he knew it was time. He knew those kids would never have a drawer because they didn’t understand the power of ritual, the respect of the velvet,  corduroy, or knitted, cloth.
 
And so he put his small cup down and walked to where the boys were roughhousing. They stopped when this old man stood in the middle of their pushing. Yossi knelt before them picking the yarmulkes off the floor, kissing them and placing them on their heads. But there were six boys and only five kippot. So he reached into his inside pocket and took an extra one he had brought, and gently planted it on a boy’s head.
 
The boys said nothing, then slowly walked away, but not before grabbing another piece of cake.
 
Later that day as he ate his lunch alone at home, Yossi reached for his kippah, but it wasn’t on his head. It was June 26th, and he was looking for the blue one with gold trim. His own private anniversary celebration. He reached into his pockets, then looked at his drawer, but nothing. His chest tightened, he grabbed his glasses and looked again, tilting his head to one side then another to let the light pass him by and illuminate the darkened corners of the drawer. But it wasn’t there.
 
The sweat formed on his forehead and dripped into his eyes. He got up, a bit too quickly, banging his head on the opened cabinet. He reached for his head and couldn’t tell if it was sweat or blood, but he didn’t look. He hurried to his room, thrusting his hands into his jacket pockets, first one, then the next. It wasn’t there.
 
He feared that in his moment of generosity he had given it away. He grabbed his tallis bag from the counter, and there he found the kippah.
 
Yossi went to the bathroom to check on his forehead and the damage he may have done.
 
Late that night he couldn’t sleep and found himself on the floor in front of the kippah drawer. He dug down to the bottom and played with the oldest ones. He opened them slowly as some had not seen light in years. He realized that most of the kippot were of people he no longer knew or who had died some time ago. He remembered not so much the specific event, as they all ran into each other after a while, but his memory and these mementos of his friends and the couples who used to grace his Shabbat table were all he had. The only thing he had to spark their memory was this piece of cloth resting at the bottom of his darkened drawer.
 
These were his photo albums, his home movies, all waiting just for him. What a waste to sit in the dark for all these years. He realized that one of the only things that would spark a memory of him, or of Malka, might be this blue kippah he held in his hand.
 
It was time to empty the drawer.
 
It wasn’t sad thoughts that drove him to this decision. It wasn’t the empty bed or the quiet Shabbat table. There was no diagnosis, no threat, external or internal. It didn’t happen in a doctor’s office or a hospital waiting room. Standing over this drawer he found the strength to dispose of his one remaining asset.
 
And so he set out to give away a kippah a week. But his small synagogue didn’t have enough events. It would take him years, which he knew he didn’t have.
 
Each week The Jewish News arrived at his apartment, and he’d find the announcements, and then he would show up, whether he knew the family or not. And then he would plant a kippah on the heads where they were needed.
 
He no longer went with one extra kippah in his pocket. Now he walked around, his pockets full.
 
As usual he would show up early, find a seat, especially in these unfamiliar synagogues, participate in the service, watch the ceremony — the baby naming, the bar or bat mitzvah — and maybe stand and say Kaddish for somebody, for anybody who had nobody saying Kaddish for them. And then he would wait for his chance.
 
Yossi was content being there, “in the bleachers,” as he would say, apart from it all. Happy not being the “entertainment.” But when Malka was alive and they would attend events, it always bothered her.
 
“I don’t like being part of the chorus,” she would say. He had no interest in being center stage. The stress of pleasing all these people, the expectations were too much for him. He never understood why it was important for her to mingle with these fancy people who turned sacred services into social events.
 
So instead they would go to the service but leave before the Kiddish or the reception. Yossi felt disconnected from this world, but for Malka, during the three hours of the service, she felt like she was one of them. And isn’t that what these special occasions were meant to do? To make you believe you are who you want to be? So in shul she wanted to be them, and could be. He didn’t possess the power to fool himself.
 
But now, all alone, he was a guest of the best. He was at the biggest ceremonies and sometimes even stayed for the most lavish parties, mingling at the buffet, walking through the ballroom with a glass of red wine, a handful of challah he’d pulled from the middle of the loaf.
 
No one questioned the old man in the dark suit. He knew it would have made Malka happy as he walked the floor, his wedding kippah on his head.
 
And he’d look for his opening, finding a boy with his head uncovered. Yossi would grab a kippah from his pocket, kiss it, and place it there.
 
For months he would go to events to which he wasn’t invited, landing kippot on the heads of unsuspecting children. He did not know where these kippot would end up, who would drop them on the floor, who would let them fly off their heads in the parking lot. But there were some young men in that group who might reach for them one time, or see them in the mirror when they went to the bathroom that night, maybe even put them in a drawer in their home as a reminder of an event they’d never attended. These kippot were less time machine than eternal life. As long as someone wore that kippah and saw the names inscribed, then those names mattered. Week after week Yossi would dispense the kippot around town at every event where he could find a barren head. All throughout the summer and fall, and into the winter, he followed this pattern as his drawer emptied. Soon he could open the drawer without anything jumping out, and finally he was digging around the bottom finding old, faded ones.
 
On Friday nights he would open the drawer and decide which ones he’d give away the following day. In some way he was saying goodbye to these old friends before he sent them to a new head, perhaps a different house and an empty drawer.
 
The morning after he got the diagnosis, he stuffed into his pockets all the kippot that were left. Into the pants pocket, the outside jacket pocket, the inside pocket on each side, and he put the blue one on his head for the last time. He walked a little faster than usual, and maybe a little faster than a man his age should, that morning.
 
The Beckendorfs were having a bar mitzvah. When he arrived he saw a spread of lavender kippot on a wicker plate. Yossi took the plate and shook out all the lavender kippot into the wooden bin by the door. And then with great care he took the remaining kippot from his pockets, looking at each name before he lay its kippah on the tray.
 
Eternal life, he thought — that’s what he was giving these long-forgotten members and their moment in time before iPhones and Snap stories recorded everything, when the only memories were in the minds of the people, most of whom were gone. But now someone might take these kippot with them and perhaps read the name and at least ask the question: Who were these people on these dates so long ago?
 
Yossi sat in the back and could feel his heart grow as he watched the rows of children, their heads covered with the random kippot from his drawer.
 
When the service ended Yossi made his way to the Kiddish, but not before stopping at the wooden bin to take for himself one of the lavender kippot the Beckendorfs had so carefully chosen.
 
Instead of standing in his usual spot, away from the partygoers, Yossi stood amid the bar mitzvah boy and his friends.
 
The young boy who was now a man stumbled, tripping over one of his friend’s feet, his lavender kippah frisbeeing to the floor. The boy reached down, but Yossi was faster.
 
“Let me help you,” Yossi said. And with one move Yossi placed a blue velvet kippah with gold trim on the boy’s head. He held it there in place for a moment and closed his eyes.
 
The young man looked up at the old man but said nothing.
 
“Thank you,” Yossi said.

And the boy ran off, one hand holding the kippah in place.

         
Copyright © Rob Granader 2020

Rob Granader, after law school, reported on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC for a number of print news outlets in the mid-1990s, publishing more than 350 articles and essays in over 50 publications. In 1998 he started MarketResearch.com, where he is currently the founder and CEO. Rob’s work has been featured in the Washington Post, Washingtonian magazine, New York Times, and Mariashriver.com. He has won writing awards from Bethesda Magazine and Writer’s Digest and attended various workshops including the Key West Literary Seminar and the Writer’s Digest Conference in Los Angeles. He has a BA in English from the University of Michigan and a JD from The George Washington University. His writing can be found at 
www.RobGranader.com or his blog at https://expatlondon.blogspot.com

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The World on Dim


The pandemic seized the epidemic.

With its social distancing and hand-washing the pandemic is putting a helpful dent in our epidemic of loneliness.

We're seeing people we never saw before…but from a socially acceptable distance.

Usually I read the newspaper while eating lunch but last week I couldn't touch the paper as I'm in the throes of germ-a-phobia.  My eyes are trained on the two television sets hanging above the lunch counter.  I try, but fail, to find interest in the ESPN re-run of a women's college softball game.  And so people nod at each other, talk about the predicament, wish each other well.

A men’s bathroom is a place where we deliberately don’t notice things.  More explicitly we don’t stand too close, we don't make eye contact and we certainly don't look down.  But now standing at the row of sinks it’s like we all know the same secret. We are all experts on hand-washing, watching the others scrub, nodding in acknowledgement how long we’ve been there, our lips moving to the ABCs.

We've launched the grand experiment of everyone working from home.  Employees in different offices who’ve never spoken are reaching out about how they are handling school closures and spouses working in the next room.

Discussions with friends are easier, we all have a reason to call.  No need to ask:  “Anything new?”

Lives are upended, our empty nest is “wait what? You’re coming home?”

There’s an article entitled:  This is not a snow day.  But it feels like one.  The days when you wake up and the ground is covered, everything is cancelled and the earth is silent.  I walk outside, the roads are nearly empty, the Starbucks, the salad place, the office, everything is softer.

We are distancing ourselves at a time when the scale of loneliness has never been higher and the physical distancing is actually bringing us closer in our shared (fill in the blank) fear, interest, worry, challenge, fight.

Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat, etc are no longer filled with FOMO moments, now it’s all sad faces about the things that were cancelled.  And that makes us happier.

Tom Friedman used to talk about what it would be like to act like China for a Day.  We could make decisions and do things, close down cities, move mountains, shut off factories and clean things up.  And in some ways now we can.  It’s mostly voluntary, no totalitarian regime, yet.  But it’s just a matter of time.

But while the world hasn’t been shut off, it does feel like someone adjusted the dimmer switch.

Everything has been turned down a notch.  It's an opportunity to make those calls, read those books, write that letter, learn that game, do that project around the house.  An excuse not to do all the things on your outside to-do list, but the inside one.

And beauty of the opportunity is that there is no Pro-Covid 19 party.  Which makes this battle unique.  This is not like climate change where some say yes and some say no and some say, OK maybe, but there is nothing we can do about it.  Everyone is doing it, maybe at a different pace, but everyone is girding against a common enemy

Our economic rival China, well they have it in spades.  But also Iran, our military rival.  Everyone is focused on fixing the thing down the hall and less focused on the noise coming from their neighbor.

Other world benefits:
  • In Israel they have been unable to solve a political crisis with three elections.  Now the virus is creating a “political thaw” and a chance for a coalition government.
  • Nancy Pelosi and the White House played nice to get a bill that is widely praised.
  • The political season, which everyone agrees is too long, is suddenly shortened by cancelled primaries.
  • Neighbors who we haven’t seen in years are suddenly walking the streets. My wife came back from a walk with lots of neighborhood news after bumping into someone.  “We were in no rush.  No one has anyplace to go."
A recent New York Times piece on an Alaskan earthquake from the 1960s explains why we do so well in times of crisis.

In ordinary times we suffer alone, causing us to feel vulnerable and resentful of others, the sociologists in the article said.  We feel discriminated against since others have been spared.

But the pandemic peels that away.






Saturday, February 15, 2020

Holocene


February 15, 2020

It was the garbage cans.

Late last year journalist Cokie Roberts died.  She lived near us and I’d pass her house on the way to work.  The day the news broke I pulled slowly by the house thinking about her family inside. But what got me was the full garbage cans at the end of her long driveway. 
No matter what was happening inside, in the midst of their grief somebody must have said “tomorrow is garbage day” and they filled the bins and walked them to the curb.
I feel this dissonance more than ever by a world that seems in disarray, yet I am still taking out the garbage.  Because what else are we supposed to do?

Nero is the poster child for crazy because he fiddled while Rome burned.  I don’t feel that different.

In November 2016 I walked by a tall house on a narrow street in Washington, DC.  Standing uneven on the lawn was a mud-splattered Bernie Sanders sign.  Next to it there was a taller and cleaner Hillary Clinton sign.  It was two days past the election of Donald Trump. 

A young couple emerged from the house with a baby wrapped in a blanket and tucked into a stroller.  They must have been disappointed by the election.  I mean, they had lawn signs for their first and second choice candidates and they live in a city where they barely get a vote for President.  But what could they do?  So they took the baby for a walk.

People can do two things at once.  Even men.

We can go to work, to the gym, to the grocery, and do all this with a sense that there is something really wrong happening.

Because when I am walking the dogs and the sky over my head is blue and the coffee in my cup is hot, I know that there are 200 new judges in our system with whom I don’t agree, and we are on the edge of a tipping Supreme Court.  We are a country deeply in debt and riding a stock market wave that doesn’t reflect the health of our economy.  We have “allies” who don’t trust us, a Senate filled with office-holders and office-seekers, a House filled with rage, and a campaign trail to nowhere. 

Although it looks fine outside my window, I know our air is not getting cleaner, our planet is not cooling, our gross domestic product is not improving.

Maybe these are just mid-life thoughts.

But they are not new.  I remember in college studying the Fall of Icarus, painted more than 450 years ago.  What struck me then, as now, is not the boy falling from the sky, it’s the other people going about their business.


A poet said of the painting that the old Masters understood suffering takes place even while "someone else is eating or opening a window."  

And sometimes we are doing both.

In the painting everyone turns away; "quite leisurely from the disaster."  The Ploughman hears the splash of the boy falling into the water, but for him "it was not an important failure."

And the "expensive delicate ship" must have seen the boy falling out of the sky, but it "had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

But the poet doesn't know what the Ploughman was thinking as he worked the land. Maybe the ship's captain worried about his own son's ambition.  What was he supposed to do if he felt he couldn't save the falling boy?

And so today I wake up a year older. I will make my coffee, separate my recyclables and maybe take out the trash.  But will we sail calmly on?
_______________________________________________________

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Across the Stage


“He doesn’t fit any more,” my wife said, just weeks before our eldest child's college graduation.

“Oh Boy,” she's getting emotional, I thought.

When he was turning two years old we bought him a room set with a pair of trundle beds.  His sister was on the way and we needed the crib.

Now twenty years later a new bed was moving in.

"Why now?" I asked, not seeing the need for anything new in the child’s bedroom which is hermetically sealed between visits. 

"Are we renting it out?

"He doesn't fit in the bed," my wife claimed.  
"His feet hang over the edge."

"He doesn't need to fit in that room anymore," I said, wishing immediately that I could take it back.

There are books and blogs and blather on the moment your child exits the house for college.  We'd been warned about the earthquake of the emptying house.  But now with an empty nest I realize when they go to college they don't go anywhere.  

The calls, the Facetimes, the pictures.  Through technology I feel as if I know more about them now than I did during the 100-Years War that was high school when they lived in my house.  It was a series of Spy versus Spy operations where they hid the alcohol, changed their Instagram names, and spoke in tongues as if they were the world's first teenagers.

Later that day I heard my son’s voice coming through my wife's phone, so I came running.  He was in between classes, all I could see on the Facetime was sky, then grass, then sky, as he swung the phone to and fro.  She told him that the trundles were going and the next time he is in town he’ll have a real “big boy” bed.  

He stammered.

I knew it.  The emotion was getting to him.  Just weeks from college graduation and here she is cutting this final link to his childhood.
He caught himself and said, “You may want to check the trundle.”

One trundle bed had a mattress inside of it, but for some reason we never got a second one.

“What’s in there?” she asked.

I sprinted to his room, sure to discover some treasure, maybe a high school diary or a note to his parents, or things he saved that I never knew.

I yanked open the trundle to a cacophony of clanging bottles.  A secret stash of the world’s worst tasting vodka:  Berri Acai, Orange Sherbert, Absolut Lime, Stoli Razberi.

They had used my son's second trundle bed as a bottle depository during high school for illicit empties?

The drawer where my son’s small fingers first climbed into bed, where we read him his first books, where he went from diapers to underwear, was filled with flavor combinations that could only appeal to the palate of a high school junior.

Those sticky marks on the little wood handles weren't childhood residue, the remnants of a lollipop gone awry, but the spillage of a shot of Peach Stoli?

What you know when they go off to college is that they will return at some predictable interval for holidays and other regularly scheduled events.

But without the school calendar to dictate what can we expect?

At what point do the tables turn and we are visiting him because we have the free time and his store of precious PTO days doesn’t allow?

Like a dial that keeps clicking forward the channel is now tuned to post-collegiate life, a line-up we do not recognize.

There were few tears this weekend, lots of planning and logistics, but then on the field after the ceremony he ran into one of his first friends from the first week of school.  They hugged and said goodbye.  

She is spending the summer in Philadelphia, he is off to New York.

"When will I see you again," she asked.  He stood dumbstruck.  

"I don't know."

That's the difference between school and post-school.  The calendar is still the calendar, there is still New Years, 4th of July and Thanksgiving.  But where will you be at those times?  What do you do in a world where the Library, the coffee shop, or a living room couch are no longer logical landmarks to find your friends?

I have written him letters at every imaginable rite of passage worrying that my days of fatherhood were numbered.  Now as he walks across another stage I have no list of things to tell him.  Except to find those times and those places for those people.  The ones who were always just there, the ones you didn't need to seek out because you'd bump into them without trying.  In a Post-Collegiate world that's the biggest transition, you need to try harder to keep those people close.

So we've got a big comfy bed if you need it.  

And it doesn't rattle.




Saturday, March 30, 2019

From Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi


Why do they go to Israel?

It's a question we keep coming back to with a generation more than seventy years removed from the end of WWII and the birth of this Nation.

In order to study in Israel they need to navigate a few things that make it different than studying in Barcelona or Florence.

Back on campus they have professors who  choose not to write recommendations because of their blind hatred for a place they've never been.  And even if they do write it, a student wonders what that professor thinks of them just for asking.

They arrive in Israel and the first thing they see is the bomb shelter.

The dorms have windows that barely let in the morning light.

And then the bombs come while they are dining in a restaurant.  And the American students marvel how the the Israeli's rush back to their tables, after the all-clear is given, but before the entrees get cold.

When my generation applied for visits to Israel, nobody noticed:  "Sure, go work on a Kibbutz, learn the language, float in the Dead Sea."

I wish those pro-BDS professors could hear the cabbie taking me from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as he recommends the shops in a small village just off the highway.  I wish they could hear him explain that Abu Ghosh is an Arab village, “but they don’t attack us and never get involved in terrorism, so we thank them by going to their restaurants.  It’s not kosher, but it’s good.”

Our children love the nightlife even though the clubs require them to file through metal detectors and leave their bags at home.  They love it’s proximity to Europe even though their visits take more planning as they navigate the airport screenings and delays.  They love the soldiers they meet who carry machine guns not fake IDs.


In Abu Dhabi the country is so new that the Presidential Palace opened for tours the week we arrive.  The Grand Mosque is 10 years old and spotless.  The whole place is spotless. They discovered oil in 1958 and since then they have been rich until the price of oil dropped.  A billion dollars to build the mosque, a billion for the Abu Dhabi Louvre, and free housing, health care and education for all its citizens and suddenly it feels clean and neat, but not so wealthy.  

When people ask the Crown Prince what we can do, he tells them to “spend money.”

Everyone has a job, many of them cleaning streets, keeping the mother of pearl that is inlaid into the Mosque walls, gleaming.

You get the sense that the country's motto is “build it and they will come,” and we arrive as they wait to see if it pans out.


Israel and the United Arab Emirates are both ancient places and works in progress.

The existential crisis for Abu Dhabi is whether people will come visit this desert oasis, half a day away from the Eastern US to learn its history, eat its dates, stay in its hotels and drink its water, infused with gold for $50 a bottle.  

Israel’s crisis is a daily multi-front battle against their Arab neighbors, historic anti-Semitism and a BDS movement rooted in biblical hatred that gives every other regime in the world a pass except the one democracy in the Middle East.

At the Special Olympics' World Games athlete Loretta Claiborne rebuts the  rhyme:  "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."

"I've been in fights and I've broken bones, but the only pain that has stuck with me all these years is the pain caused by words," she said. "That's because those words hurt my heart."

The winds of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism blow strong again, mostly in words that hurt the most.  Members of the US Congress who denounce Israel and Jews, members of the political establishment in the UK who don't hide their anti-Semitism, Jews all over Europe are listening closely to the words that hurt the heart.

Israel's threats first come in words and then they come in bombs from the sky:

“We can’t take chances, we can’t afford mistakes," another cab driver tells me.  "One mistake and we’re all dead,” he said indicating his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The final night we climb the dunes to watch the sun set.  Our footprints from the previous night are gone.  Not filled in or blown away or even covered up, they no longer exist.  The imprint we made yesterday shows no sign of life and in a few minutes the place where we stepped will be gone.










Thursday, March 21, 2019

In a Foreign Land: Special Gifts

In a Foreign Land: Special Gifts: In 1971 the US Olympic Committee granted the Special Olympics official approval to use the name “Olympics.” But I want to know who had t...

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Special Gifts


In 1971 the US Olympic Committee granted the Special Olympics official approval to use the name “Olympics.”

But I want to know who had the foresight to use the word Special.

At first glance special is such a bland word, defined as “better, greater, or otherwise different than what is usual.”

But it's the only way to characterize these Olympic games.

"Special" is the Crown Prince trying to give his welcoming address while an athlete standing to his left stole the show beaming and waving to the crowd after seeing himself projected on the screen.

"Special" is seeing the Crown Prince of a country, where ten years ago families would not have publicly recognized their special needs children, hugging the boy as he continued welcoming 7,500 athletes from 190 countries.

"Special" is the faces of the athletes who could not contain their joy as Tim Shriver told them, “the crowd is applauding you.”

When you watch the regular Olympic games the athletes walk into the arena filming the scene with their phones trying to capture the moment. But at the Special Olympics the athletes carry no phones because they are living the moment.

"Special" is the fact that the United Arab Emirates does not recognize the State of Israel, but there we were watching the Israeli teams walk across the stage, because things like diplomatic relations don’t matter on these courts.

"Special" is the fact that it looked like any other sports tournament you’ve taken your child to, but there are differences:  Here the athletes leap into the air when they score and help their opponents to their feet when they fall, and apologize after committing a foul.

As an Israeli basketball team prepared to battle the US team I asked one of the referees how close they call the fouls like double dribbling and traveling, transgressions rarely called in today’s NBA.

“I watch them during the first few minutes of the game,” the ref tells me. “I look at their ability level. And the next time down the court, if they are double dribbling and I know they can do better, I call it. But if it’s the best they can do, I let it slide.”

Early in the game the ref calls a foul, and then listens to the athlete's plea.  How do you know this is Special?  Because the referee hugs the young athlete who buries his face in the zebra's shirt and says he is sorry.

The Special Olympics logo is based on a sculpture called “Joy and Happiness to all the Children of the World,” and I suppose that captures the mood as well as anything.  There is joy on those courts and in those eyes.  Here the happiness quotient is so much higher.  It can’t be quantified but you see it after each basket is made, each gymnastics routine is completed, each lap is run.  The parents are as happy as the athlete, cheering not just for their children to succeed in their event, but because they are winning at living.

Two hours outside of Abu Dhabi my daughter is trying to capture the desert with an iPhone.  "These pictures won't do it justice," she complains.  And that’s how I feel after witnessing these games.  Words fail.  But boy, were they special.