Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spring cleaning for Passover: Ancient Bnei-Brak

Passover is nearly here, and in Israel that means two things: first everybody is spring cleaning and secondly everyone is planning a holiday. Orthodox Jews thoroughly clean out  their homes and then burn any bread.  When I lived in an orthodox neighbourhood of Tel-Aviv every passover there were small bonfires all over the place where people burnt their bread. The entire nation's supply of bread and bread shops are sold to an Arab in a town called Abu-Gosh (famed for its Pitta and Humous). He then sells it back one (bread free) week later.

The other thing that happens is that the price of a cleaning woman goes through the roof: everybody is trying to hire one.  My cleaner last year simply disappeared for three weeks as she could make much more money working for other people.  Presumably the garbage collectors have more work too. Tel-Aviv's garbage used to go to Hiriya
 which is a dump just outside the city. In the nineties when Israel made peace with Jordan I read an account by a journalist from HaAretz who went to Amman where a Palestinian approached him and said "Is it true what they say about my home village?"  "What was your village called?" replied the journalist.  "Hiriya" came the response.
From 1948 onwards all the Tel-Aviv area garbage was dumped at Hiriya and by the late nineties the dump had become a small mountain with excellent (if smelly) views of Tel-Aviv. Unfortunately Hiriya was also under the flight path to Ben-Gurion airport and at that point it began to threaten the safety of plane landings. The dump was closed and efforts are underway to turn it into a park (there is a lovely bike path from Tel-Aviv to Hiriya).  So now when we spring clean the garbage is shipped off to the Negev, which is more costly to reach and therefore gives more motivation to recycle.

I spend every other passover in England where I celebrate it with almost-family Jewish friends. I have a regular role in their Passover Seder, involving a dramatization of the ten plagues God visited on Egypt before Pharoh let the Israelites go. The kids love it but this year my mother (who also comes) warned me that the kids were getting a bit old and I might have to do something new.  So I thought of doing a presentation about the origins of the Hagaddah (the text Jews read over Passover) which is thought to have been written around the second century (using earlier bits too).
There are various Rabbis mentioned as discussing Passover in "Bnei Brak" and one can establish rough dates for when they lived as a guidance to when it was written.  So I had a look on  Wikipedia to find out about the Rabbis.
I also looked up Bnei Brak.  Modern Bnei Brak is the most religious suburb of Tel-Aviv and one of the poorest towns in Israel. I have heard that the apartment buildings are so overcrowded that at night they put out mattresses and the children sleep in the corridors.  It seems that there was a biblical town called Bnei Brak and it is thought to have been on the site of a Palestinian-Arab village called Ibnei-Ibarak.  So it goes in Israel: Palestinian towns and villages are on the remains of Jewish towns while Jewish towns are built on or near the remains of Palestinian towns and villages. 

Modern Bnei Brak was founded in 1924 and it seems that the Arab village with a similar name didn't like the connection.  So they renamed their village.  The new name?  Hiriya.  


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Life on two wheels: Motorcycle tyres and Rabbis in Tel-Aviv

Monday morning I had to go to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned. At 8:40 AM I got on my bicycle and cycled 15-20 minutes to the dentists.  They injected one half of my jaw with anaesthetic and then cleaned it with what felt like a wire brush.

When I emerged slightly staggering and with no sensation in half my jaw, I realized that I had left my mobile phone at home so I cycled home (total time: 35 minutes cycling). After checking my e-mail and making sure no one had tried to rewrite my Wikipedia "history of Israel" I got back on my bicycle and cycled to the "employment office" (1 hour cycling). They should really be called the unemployment office because except for the clerks everyone there is unemployed. To get in you undergo a quick security check where they make sure you're not a bomber and then go up two escalators where they check you more thoroughly and use a metal detector. It makes for a lot of queueing and I met Neta (my partner) in the queue.  She was going to sort out her taxes in the same building. Forty five minutes later we emerged and I cycled up to Allenby (1 hour 15 minutes cycling) where I had an excellent Felafel (cost: 10 shekels) and went in to Halper's second hand book shop to find something to read.  Halper has an excellent history section (I read history the way others read fiction) but I couldn't find anything I wanted to read. Realizing that I had to get home to close up after the cleaner, I quickly grabbed a book about Napoleon, got on my bicycle and cycled home (1 hour 50 minutes cycling). As I neared the flat I approached a roundabout at speed.  There was a car coming at the same time, I decided I didn't have time to cut in front of the car and pulled to the side, just in time to realize that the driver was Neta, returning from work.

At home I got on my motorbike to go to the supermarket and found I had a flat tyre and that someone had slashed my seat. So I inflated the tyre and made my way to the Police station to lodge a complaint. The duty officer turned out to be someone I knew when I was 13. In those days he was called "Sammy" and had a "Jewfro". Now he's bald and called Yehonadav. I liked Sammy better. We chatted about England and Football and what had happened to various people and he sent me to have my motorcycle seat photographed. Then I went to the supermarket.  When I got home I realized the flat tyre was caused by a puncture.  Flat motorcycle tyres are potentially lethal as the tyre can't grip the road, but it turns out the tyre rubber is so stiff that you can actually drive on the tyre without any air in it. Its still dangerous though. I use good quality tyres because years ago I discovered that good quality tyres make almost as much difference to how a bicycle handles as a good quality frame - and they are a lot cheaper.  

Next morning I pumped up my tyre again and drove (gingerly) to find a garage.  I usually take my motorcycle to be repaired in the south of Tel-Aviv but with a puncture thought I should find something local. The place I found turned out to belong to Israel's motocross champion.  It was the cleanest garage I have ever seen and had a huge shelf covered in motorcycling cups.  He removed my back wheel and sent me to his neighbour the "puncture-macher" (thats yiddish for something) to have the puncture repaired. 

I carried the wheel to the puncture repair shop, getting my trousers black in the process. The shop was run by an ultra-orthodox Moroccan Jew.  A large man with a beard like Herzl's and a sort of working-class no-nonsense attitude.   I assume he was Moroccan because he had several pictures of the Baba Sally, who was the legendary leader of Moroccan Jewry.  In 1948 Sally told them all to get off their arses and go to Israel, which resulted in him becoming a demi-god. So many Morroccan Jews began arriving in Israel that the government actually tried to discourage them from leaving so as to slow the flow.

There was also a large picture of the (now dead) Lubavitch Rabbi, whose followers claim he was the Messiah, and of Rabbi Kadduri, the Iraqi Kabbalist who was supposed to be over 100 years old when he died. I guess orthodox garage owners have pictures of rabbis the way secular ones might have their favourite football teams. Its like a statement of identity.  I support these Rabbis. 
There was a little desk in the centre of the shop on which stood a book of talmudic studies which I guess was there just in case the puncture-macher found himself with nothing to do.  
Other than the pictures the shop was just a large, somewhat dirty open space full of tyres and equipment for handling them. Scenes like this can only be found in Israel and make me feel like I'm living in an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel.

I took the repaired motorcycle home and gave it a wash.  Then Noam came home from school and I made some salad, fed him and then took him on the motorcycle to his youth movement (also called Noam) where he was due to act in a play.  From there I went to the health food shop bought 2 kilos of porridge oats (I eat tons of the stuff) went home, read 
about Napoleon and finally rode back into Tel-Aviv, watched Noam's play and then drove home again.

Now I need to remember to go into the History of Israel and add a bit about how Shas gave out good-luck charms blessed by Kaduri during the 1990's.  The charms claimed that they only worked if you voted for Shas.  After Shas did very well in the elections the high-court decided this was bribery and banned the practise.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My other passport is with Mossad

My daughter just got her first passport and now I am faced with the decision of whether I should try and get her a British passport too.  My son has three passports: British, US and Israeli (his mother is American).  It's fine as long as they don't all start requiring compulsory military service or taxes.  At this stage he's too young for the Mossad to send his doubles (or in his case trebles) to Dubai.  I somehow avoided this fate, probably because my surname "Lowenstein" is too obviously Jewish (it isn't Jewish). 

Passports are a big deal here in Israel.  Our passports won't get you into many places.  My British passport enables me to freely trek or work round Europe and, no less importantly, it gives me visaless entry to the USA. An Israeli wanting to travel to the USA has to queue for hours at the US Embassy where each applicant is personally interviewed to check they are neither a terrorist or someone trying to illegally emigrate.
On my occasional jaunts to Egypt and Jordan I prefer to enter with my British passport in the almost-certainly-false belief that being a Brit will somehow afford me extra protection.

Since the EU started to spread across Eastern Europe a lot of Israelis are rediscovering their Bulgarian, Polish etc. roots and trying to obtain local passports.  There may also be the distant memory of the holocaust when passports could be a ticket to life.  Raul Wallenberg famously saved thousands of Jews by handing out Swedish passports.

My father had passport troubles. He was born in Nurenburg in Germany and his parents were Polish immigrants to Germany. In 1938 the Nazis cancelled the German citizenship of all such German-Poles. 
 He was adopted by a German (-Jewish) family so it took them a bit longer to get round to him, but eventually even adopted children were traced. His (adopted) mother had to get him a fake Polish passport to enable him to leave Germany because he wasn't entitled to any passport. The German system at the time was simply to deport such Jews to Poland. The Poles refused to accept them, saying they were Germans, and about 17,000 Jews starved to death in a small space between the two countries (see Herschel Grynszpan for more information, see this too). 

You can see my grandmother's passport at the side.

When my father reached England (3 days before the outbreak of World War II) he stayed there as a non-citizen.  He used a UN refugee document to travel for the next 30 odd years and only took out British citizenship in 1969 when he decided to emigrate to Israel.  By that time he had a whole British family.  Obviously he was afraid the British wouldn't take him back. He then did the same thing in Israel, living there for ten years without taking out a passport.  It caused me a lot of trouble years later when I decided to live in Israel: they couldn't decide if I was an Israeli citizen or not.  They eventually decided I wasn't.

A few years ago my cousin applied for a German passport on the basis that her mother (my father's real sister) had been a German citizen before the war and was rejected because her mother "wasn't a German citizen".  Which I find very irritating.  Her mother was born a German citizen in Germany and it was only the Nazis who cancelled her citizenship.  Needless to say if she applied for Polish citizenship they would reject her because her mother was German.

Incidentally while my son does have a British passport his children will only be British if they are born in Britain.  The Israelis will take him wherever he is.



Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Olympics: The World'r foremost nationalist pagent

There are too many Olympic sports. I mean why is shooting an Olympic sport? If shooting is a sport then why not knife throwing, darts or firing a cannon?  And why is horse riding an Olympic sport but not sheep dog trials?  Why on earth is synchronized swimming an Olympic sport?  I know it looked good in the 1950s Hollywood movies but does that justify it becoming an Olympic sport?  Olympic sports should reflect what people actually do.
It used to drive me mad that the Triathlon was not a sport while horse jumping was (horse jumping but not horse racing... what's the difference?).  Triathlon has since got in.    But what about Snooker?  And why oh why is walking a sport?  It makes more sense to have a funny walks competition.  Chess is an Olympic sport but not Backgammon, Bridge has applied (to the Winter Olympics!) so why not Poker?

The Olympics have got way too big.  The so called Olympic village is now a small town and the facilities... At the end of an Olympics the host city gets left with a huge array of useless facilities it can't afford to maintain. I mean if it's got to be so big  why have a city host it and not a country? After all, we all know that the "London Olympics" is really the British Olympics.  They could at least spread the facilities around the country, then Birmingham could have a velodrome and Manchester could host the hop, skip and jump.  Should that really be a sport?  Why not hopskotch or rope jumping? (thanks to Udi for that one).  The "Rio Olympics" in 6 years time should really be the "Brazil Olympics".  Let Brazil decide where the facilities should be built in stead of making it all based in Rio.

Then there is the whole question of nationalism. The Olympics is the biggest nationalist pageant in the world. All those national delegations walk by holding their flag, the name of their state and if they win we all have to hear their horrible anthems. Yet the host is not a nation but a city!  If you don't have a state tough luck.  The Kurds don't get to send a delegation,  there are no Native Americans or Scots. 
Why not just have the delegations come from cities too? Come to that why have them represent places, why not ideals.  We could have the Christian delegation, the Scientologists, the Communists, the Liberals and the guys who are just in it for the money (they'll probably be the main delegation). Those who want to represent a state could simply be given a UN symbol and be designated "nationalists".
Winning athletes could choose the song they want to hear at the ceremony or perhaps just read out their poetry.  Alternatively one could make singing an Olympic sport and let the competitors sing at the awards ceremonies.

My son was at the Tel-Aviv school championships this week and I saw them handing out medals:  the little children got on a podium marked 2,1,3 just like the Olympics and a little girl came out holding a tray in front of her with the medals on it.  She then hung the medals round their necks. The ancient Greeks didn't give medals  they just put some olive twigs round peoples heads.  Medals seem a bit militaristic - the Olympics originated just before the first world war when the European cult of nationalism was at its peak.  So why not have some Hawaiian girls come out and hang wreaths of flowers on the winners necks? or special beaded necklaces?  or a nice jacket?  I expect a pile of cash would do nicely as well.  Maybe the ceremony could be made to suit the sport. Cyclists could get a bicycle, runners a pair of shoes and horse riders a sugar lump.

Basically I think that  its time the Olympics had a major makeover.  
First of all it shouldn't be hosted by a single city but by the country, and the facilities should be spread around the country so everyone gets to benefit.  
Secondly they should create some strict definition of what is an Olympic sport and throw out anything that isn't relevant.  Then they should add sports that people actually do.  I for example, would like to see cycling across town in heavy traffic made into a sport.  Perhaps one could combine it: make car driving and motor cycle driving into Olympic sports (are they really less sports then horse riding?) and then have them compete at the same time that the marathon was taking place.  The cyclists could then ride across town through all the traffic. 

Oh, I nearly forgot.  Space invaders, pong and Wii tennis. Those have got to become Olympic sports.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Facebook and statistics - On the internet not everything is what it seems

According to official Facebook statistics there are over 400 million users of Facebook. And it continues to grow.  Google are sufficiently freaked to have launched the rival Buzz service without properly figuring out the implications

People are talking about the fact that soon most internet activity will take place through Facebook and apparently Facebook users tend to stay online within Facebook longer so the company has huge influence over the internet.
A lot is being said about it. However I have noticed a problem with Facebook statistics.

Facebook has a policy barring children under 13 from opening an account but in fact a large percentage of  primary school children in Israel have Facebook accounts - and they are all under 13.  How do they do it?  They lie about their age.  If you ask the children how old they are on Facebook you get some very amusing answers, raging from just over 13 to over 100.  How many of Israeli Facebook users are underage?  Nobody knows. Official Statistics assume everyone is telling the truth about their age.   see stats here.

Children spend a lot of time online - mostly playing games and that's what they do in Facebook.  It allows them to communicate with their friends while playing computer games or actually play with other children from their bedrooms. So it's no wonder that Facebook users are spending so much time online.  Many of them are children.

There is a possibility that as children grow older they will mature with Facebook and make it a huge powerhouse but they may metamorphose to new online outlets and decide Facebook is no longer cool.  In the mean time there is a problem.  If Facebook users are younger then presumed the company can do less to protect them from inappropriate content or efforts to exploit them financially.

Recreating ancient kingdoms: Arab Nationalism vs Zionism.

Although Zionism and Arab Nationalism are at loggerheads over Palestine (or perhaps Southern Syria), the two have a certain amount in common...