Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Rhyming Life & Death

The siren caught me by surprise this time.

I was alone at home. My wife was at the cemetery, my son at school. I was at my desk, working when the mournful wail began...

I often wonder about how people mark moments such as this in private. Do they jump to attention, even though there isn't the risk of incurring a censorious stare (or worse)? Do they immediately stop whatever engages them, even it means - for instance - allowing water to gush over one in the shower as one counts down 120 seconds? Do they fart, belch and wilfully disregard the solemnities of the occasion, simply because they can?

Me, I thought about death. I thought about the families of the dead, the 22,000 men and women whom have died in the uniform of this country. I wondered many of these families might feel that their sacrifice was needed, necessary, and how many might wonder whether their loss might have been for nought?

On the television, the names of the dead roll past; name, rank, date of death. I once met someone who told me that he always tries to be close to the television at the appointed time, to see the name of a relative who died...

"Each year the time changes, a little or a lot," he told me. "If there was one thing on earth I could wish for to happen, it would be to know precisely when to look for (the) name each year."


Whatever one thinks about the present prime minister, one must accept that whatever he says today at Mount Herzl, he speaks from the heart.


"You'll always find them side by side:/Never a groom without a bride."

It's a stanza from a poem that runs through Amos Oz's most recent book in English, Rhyming Life & Death. Essentially, it is a fiction about duality; black and white, night and day, ying and yang. About opposites, and the presumption that they must complement one another.

The juxtaposition of Yom HaZicharon and Yom Atzmaut - Memorial Day, today, and Independence Day tomorrow - puzzled me when I first moved to Israel. Now, I suppose, it makes sense; the narrative of Israel's history makes no sense if one fails to place the ecstasy of liberation against the sorrow of the sacrifices that were - are? - made to maintain this.

There will be another juxtaposition, of a different kind, of two opposites tomorrow - Israel's independence, and the Nakba of the Palestinians.

A not-uncommon opinion, on both sides of the fence, is that the one is necessary for the other; That the continued suffering of the Palestinian nation is a direct consequence of Israel's independence, or conversely that Israel's struggle for self-actualisation necessitated - necessitates - the subjugation of the Palestinian people.

I'm too cynical to believe that there will actually be peace between the two whilst I'm alive (Just so you understand, I intend to live for a long time yet). But I don't think the "Peace" - whatever that means - is a terribly useful concept any more, in this part of the world. First, try to live alongside one another without wanting to rip each other's eyeballs out. It's not impossible. But first, one has to learn how not to predicate one's pain upon another's joy. Or vice versa.

I'm not a big fan of dualities. I believe in looking for the spaces in between...

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The sirens...

...went an hour ago. For some reason, I'd expected them to go off last night at 8. I guess I'd mixed Yom HaShoah up with Yom HaZicharon...

I usually put my son to bed at about 8, and I'd wondered for a bit - hypothetically - about what I would say to him if he asked me why all the sirens were wailing. I'm not really sure. On a philosophical level, I'm not really a fan of sugar-coating, euphemisms and stuff like that. On the other hand, how does tell a small child about the Holocaust?

I say hypothetical because my son is two and a quarter, and the biggest thing in his life right now is In The Night Garden... But he will grow older, if not necessarily wiser; if not next year then the year after it, the question will no longer be hypothetical. And I do wonder, at what age does one start to talk to children about the fact that we live in a very unpleasant world? And in what language, in what terms?

A colleague of Mrs Goy was chastised by his son's nursery for bringing the child late to school last week, on the first day after the long break for Passover. They were going to start to talk about the Shoah, and it was important that he - the child - didn't miss anything.

The child in question is four and a bit. Now, apparently, he doesn't really want to go anywhere by train now because...well, you know the rest.

Of course, talking about the Shoah as a vague abstracts turns the whole horror into a pointless fairytale, with no meaning and nothing to be learnt from it. But on the other hand, I do wonder...personally

(and I accept that since I am not Jewish, my position on this can be interpreted as detached)

personally, I don't think that telling small kids, in explicit terms, about the camps and the murders and the death trains serves any useful purpose. I don't think they can engage with it in a meaningful way, and I wonder whether it doesn't intead become yet another abstraction, a sort of malevolent bogeyman under the bed.

I don't know.

I remember that when Roots was shown on television in England in the autumn of 1976 (1977? I forget), my mother didn't let me watch it. "Not suitable for little boys and girls," she probably said. That said, she didn't object when I started to read the source material, Alex Haley's book, a little bit later. Perhaps she thought that it would be easier to engage with the written word than the grisly imagery on the flickering screen. I'm not sure.

(I asked her why a couple of years ago. She looked at me as if I was mad and said that she had no idea what I was talking about. Typical parent get out clause. I must remember to use that on the Small Noisy One in due course.)


Just after I moved to Israel, I asked someone how Yom HaShoah was observed. Was it like the Sabbath, with no work, no transport...

Nah. he replied. "No cinema, no restaurants, not much TV and Shlomo Artzi and Eviatar Bana'i on the radio all day."

Which misses the point a little, I suppose.


Whatever one's views about the ongoing UN anti-racism parley in Geneva, one can't but think that to schedule the address by the Tinker from Tehran for the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day was...how to put this nicely? Fucking Stupid.


A couple of months ago, I spent a week reading The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell. It took me a while to form a clear opinion.

Thinking with my pseudo-intellectual hat on, my first impression was that my main problem with the book was that the detail - acres and acres of the stuff - was only scantily mediated by any sort of intellectual oversight. The book recollects - and, according to those who should know, quite faithfully, accurately - aspects of the Final Solution in astonishing detail. But it lacks - at least through the primary character, an odious bugger called Aue - the structure that would allow the reader to gain any insight whatsoever. The material, basically, is regurgitated onto the page, and it falls to the incautious reader to make of it what they can.

Then suddenly, it came to me. Littell, to my mind at least, has the abilities of an extremely diligent and energetic sixth former (12th grader), pouring the energy and obsession and libido and sexual dysfunctionality (aside from the graphic violence, the book has sex - lots of it, much of it enough in itself to get the perpetrator sectioned indefinitely) characteristic of an 18 year old pouring his heart and unrequited sexual energies into his end-of-year project.

In short, I think Liddell wrote this when he was a precocious teenager, then spent the next two decades looking for a mug to publish it.

Read it only if you have to, or if you are a fan of American Psycho. Me, I want my week back. And with interest.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

I'm Lovin' It!

I spent a lot of the last week, whilst away on holiday with Mrs Goy's family, talking about food. Perhaps this shouldn't completely surprise - I did spend a lot of time stuffing my face with variants of barbecued dead cow, after all. (I think family barbecues are such a civilised thing, don't you?)

My sister in law is secular, but for traditional reasons keeps a house free of leavened products during the Pesach. Mainly for the kids, she says. Jewish identity and stuff like that. Fair enough. As long as no one touches my Whiskey...

Anyway, we got to talking about the dietary restrictions during Passover - I've mentioned them before, here - and she mentioned how excited she was when McD's finally opened in Israel, sometime in the 80s.

"They sold Cheeseburgers!" she enthused.


Cheeseburgers aren't Kosher, apparently. It makes sense when you think about it - milk and meat and all that - but it hadn't occurred to me until that moment. Fair enough.

(To put her excitement in context: McDonald's have an almost immoral hold over the impressionable minds of young children. I really don't know how they do it. Must be something about the colour scheme, that and Ronald McDonald. Also, back in the day, the delightful folks at the Rabbanut had a much more effective hold on the whole eating out industry. Far fewer places then that didn't maintain a Kosher kitchen. So, of course, McD's were seen as the [unlikely] agent of rebellion, of social change, of all things good to impressionable teenagers. Of course, one then becomes old enough to work for them...)

Nonetheless, McD's made sure to do their bit w/r/t the leavened products business during Pesach, by serving the Cheeseburger...in unleavened bread! The mind boggles. (Actually, it does make sense in a twisted, illogical sort of way...)


McDonald's, generally, have something of an image problem. Not that this surprises me, personally - I had the misfortune to work with them once, many years ago, when I was young and impecunious and desperate for cash. Boy, was that an education...

(If you're interested in knowing more, I recommend the documentary McLibel. This was some time before Morgan Spurlock and SuperSize Me. Also has interesting things to say about the British judicial system, specifically in connection with the absurd libel laws within that jurisdiction.)

Anyway, understandably, they've spent absolutely oodles of money trying to overcome this, with concerted ad campaigns trying to prove that they are as wholesome as the next fella. Which cues a number of amusing tv spots. Here's one I saw the other night:

(The bit in Hebrew is the cab driver asking a colleague, "57, How do you say 'McDonalds' in English?")

They claim - and there is no reason not to believe them - that the salads are chopped only after the order has been received. Good for them. I still can't get over the fact that every evening, all leftover food is wrapped up, counted, carefully categorised and then thrown away*. It was almost enough to turn me into a Socialist. Almost.

*I'm not sure if this is the case in Israel, but it happened, and still happens, in the United Kingdom.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Where's Bibi?

Binyamin Netanyahu (incidentally, did you know that his surname means, literally, God-Given?) has been uncharacteristically quiet since his ascension to the throne. Possibly, now that he has his hands on the glittering prize once again, he isn't entirely sure what he wants to to with it. Or what he'd be allowed to do with it.

Of course, the possibility is that with the most unwieldy coalition in the history of of unruly Israeli governments, he isn't entirely sure how to proceed without precipitating a collapse of the unlikely arrangement he has constructed around himself.

In a sense, one feels compelled - albeit not for very long - to feel sorry for him. After expending time, energy and his repotoire of dirty tricks to kick Moshe Feiglin and his Jewish Leadership faction of Likud into the long grass, he has actually run out of steam early, way too early.

Anyway, since Bibi seems to have little to say about what's going on inside his head at the moment, the next best thing for the enterprising journalist is to try and guess - a psychological assessment of the Man Who Would Be King, if you like.

One popular theory appears to be that to understand the man, one needs to know the father - in this case, the imposing figure of Professor Ben-Zion Netanyahu, 99 years old and still presumed to be the dominant - domineering, even - figure in his son's emotional hinterland.

There was an entertaining mini-spat last week when Netanyahu pere - surprisingly, and I'll come back to this in a bit - granted a lengthy interview to the daily Ma'ariv. The main problem was that it hadn't been cleared with the Prime Minister's Office; they tried rather hard to, if not actually sit on it, have final copy approval. I can't find a comprehensive translation of the interview in English, but some of the highlights are featured on the excellent Promised Land blog.

It wasn't that Professor Netanyahu said anything new or strange - he has advocated using the strong hand against the Arabs etc etc since time immemorial, more or less - but that even relatively trivial matters like this can upset the delicate centre right political balance one presumes that he is trying to achieve at the moment (i.e. the difference between sitting on one's hands and doing nothing, rather than ranting and raving and eventually being forced into doing something stupid)

On the Global Post website, there's an interesting write up by Matt Benyon Rees (writing with his journalist's hat on): "Netanyahu has crawled out all the way along the limb with his new coalition. If he can’t master his own psychological demons as Prime Minister this time, he won’t be the only one to take a fall."

This reminded me of a profile of Bibi in the New Yorker, from 1998. Given that I have nothing to do this week except eat and sleep, I decided to re-read it. Written by David Remnick - now the Editor - it is both entertaining and at times remarkably prescient. A few highlights:

According to Professor Netanyhu, much of the press in Israel is worse than Pravda, because in the old Soviet Union at least readers understood that the press was frequently lying. (Incidentally, Remnick refers to the press in Israel as being almost uiformly pro-Avoda, pro Labour Party. How sweet. I'm guessing that if I read this profile again ten years hence, the Israeli press won't remember that there was once a party called Avoda.)

"After his son makes a speech, Ben-Zion sometimes calls to correct a grammatical mistake. 'Bibi's Hebrew has gotten far better in recent years,' he allows."

"What Bibi has inherited from his father is a keen notion of Us versus Them..."

For a while in the 1970s, Bibi went by the name Ben Nitay (This was furiously denied at the time. Of course, with Youtube nothing is hidden these days: the Jpost managed to unearth some archive film of 'Nitay' a couple of weeks ago).


Several references were made in the article to Bibi's brother, Yoni, who was killed during the raid on Entebbe in 1976. Back in the day when army service actually stood for something in this country - as opposed to, for instance, Ha'Ah Ha'Gadol (Big Brother) - Yoni was something of a secular hero. These days, I doubt if many people remember him. When I asked Mrs Goy to buy me a few books that could give me a sense of what modern Israel was like, his edited volume of letters was the first she gave me.

Bibi comes across, time and time again, as a loner, albeit one without sufficient emotional courage to back up his deepest convictions. The most interesting line in the Remnick profile concerns Yoni, and comes from Ari Shavit of Ha'aretz : "The brother was the one person he really loved. This is crucial, and underlies his loneliness..."

I think I'll read the book again when I get back home next week. If nothing else, it will make for interesting revisionist thinking (on my part, that is) a decade down the line...

Good night, and good luck.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

You can leave your socks on...

From today's Ha'aretz:

A 28-year-old yeshiva student was arrested late Sunday for the second time after undressing completely in a Tel Aviv supermarket with only a sock to cover his genitals, to protest the store's sale of Chametz during Passover.

Full story here

Of course, he may just be auditioning for a spot with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, like so:

(Obligatory digression: the original guitarist with the RHCP was Hillel Slovak, a native of Haifa. Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988, and was replaced by John Frusciante, who in turn picked up his own heroin addiction but is now clean, we understand. Incidentally, Frusciante is the author of the best album I've heard so far this year, The Empyrean. Go out and buy it, and support Israel. Indirectly. Or something.)

Chag Sameach!

Monday, 6 April 2009

And you must be the Nanny...

My friend M is half Iraqi and half Polish.

Well, she's fully Israeli - obviously, born and bred here and all - but her antecedents are mixed, Mizrachi and Ashkenazi. Her father's family were expelled/induced/tricked out of Iraq in the early 1950s, I think. Her mother's family came here in the 1930s, before the unpleasantness with Mr Hitler.

Broadly speaking, there really isn't any reason for this to be of anything other than general anthropological interest to anyone in this country, in this day and age.


M takes her looks from her father's side of the family. Long lush jet black tresses, a strong chin and nose, full lips. Think Rita, but better looking.

M's husband is

(I'm assuming - I've never thought to ask him...now that I think of it, the only reason why I know for certain that N has Mizrachi antecedents is because she told me once about the trauma her family suffered when they moved to Israel, from a life of comfort and security to a fraught, impecunious existence...but that's another story altogether)

Ashkenazi. So naturally their first born, given the concentration of European genes, has lighter skin and hair than her mother.

Again, so what?

So this. A couple of weeks ago, M takes her child for a walk in the pleasant spring sunshine.

Now, Israelis can't resist children. They coo over them. cluck at them, ruffle their hair, share tips...generally, the Hebrew nation is collectively incapable of minding its business when it comes to small children. But usually in a good way.


A woman stops to coo at M's infant daughter. After exchanging plesanteries with the baby, safely ensconed in her pushchair, for a moment or two, she straightens and addresses M directly.

"So you're the baby's nanny?"

Of course, the main problem with ethnic discrimination in Israel is that it is based on the entirely fallacious presumption that European, Ashkenazi culture is inherently superior to that of the Levant and Orient. Which, like many other sweeping generalisations, is wilfully stupid. Anti-Mizrachi sentiment has, in part, been supplanted by anti-Russian, anti-Ethiopian and other minority disdain, but it is still there. The scars have been around for a long time, and still run deep.

There's a wonderful quote in Donna Rosenthal's book The Israelis (not a bad book, although liberally sprinkled all over with nice sugar coating), related by an Ashkenazi woman after her first meeting with her Iraqi boyfriend's family. She "stupidly" commented that she didn't realise that Iraqi Jews had a developed culture; his mother shot back immediately. "Only for three thousand years, When our art and literature were thriving, your Polish ancestors were living in shacks, eating stale bread."



My sister in law's son has snowy blond hair and clear blue eyes. I call him Tintin.

Last Sabbath, Mrs Goy and I (emphasis on Mrs Goy) volunteered to babysit for a few hours whilst his parents attended to other matters. After a couple of hours, we both became stir crazy, and I decided to take Tintin for a walk in his pushchair.

We live in a quiet (too quiet!) suburban neighbourhood, and most people about in the early afternoon sun are either returning from Shul or taking peaceful post lunch walks. Quite a few peered in the pushchair, facing away from me, as we strolled past. Then upwards at me. Then back in the pushchair again. Then back upwards.

I merely smiled beatifically and walked on by. This must have happened at least half a dozen times in ten minutes. Only one person volunteered comment.

"He's not yours...is he?"

God, I love fucking about with people's minds. So much fun.

Tov, back to stuffing my useless face with Chametz.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Sartorial Style (or not) of the 32nd Government of the State of Israel

Back in the day, I made the serendipitous discovery that the inevitable hangover/comedown following a night on the tiles was best treated by a gentle morning in front of the television, drinking tea and watching the Parliamentary Channel on the BBC.

Now that I'm older and wiser, a sensible and responsible father and lacking the physical stamina to go out raving every night

(if you believe the first part of that sentence, you'll believe anything)

the need to bring myself back to earth gently with the aid of the soothing soliloquies supplied by Her Majesty's parliamentarians no longer pertains.

However, I still get the occasional hangover - or, as was the case yesterday, a monstrous case of jet lag, courtesy of El-Al's decision to overheat the plane I was trapped in on Monday night.

So mid afternoon yesterday, I did the next best thing, brewed a pot of tea and watched the inaugural session of the 32nd Government of the State of Israel.

Clearly, this wasn't a good idea, my Hebrew being what it is. More to the point, I've concluded that this Knesset is little more than an assortment of clowns and chancers - and I am being non-partisan here - and thus ought not be dignified by serious consideration.

So I changed my focus slightly, and decided to reflect on the dress sense of the MKs instead.

A brief summary:

Bibi - Resplendent in a tailored suit, spoilt somewhat by a disgusting spotted mauve tie. Interestingly, he wasn't wearing cufflinks. Perhaps he has learnt the lessons of his last stint as Rosh Ha Memshalah, or at least those concerning the acquisition of expensive luxury items (he clearly learnt nothing about the construction of a right-wing coalition); in any case, conspicuous consumption is so 2008, innit? His comb over is much more apparent/ludicrous - he should tell his barber to give him a Number One, like Tricky Udi. That said, his head is so big, he'd probably wind up looking like a Mekon. Perhaps not a good idea after all.

Tzipi - Smart two piece in black, with a white trim and set off by a delicate pendant. Seems to have had a haircut - flicking her hair much less than usual. Her demeanour, up until the moment she mounted the rostrum, seemed very much like the grieving, dignified widow at the first year memorial service following the death of the loved spouse. Once she got up, though, she transformed herself into something closer a professional mourner at a funeral, ranting and caterwauling without quite managing to convince. (If she thinks that this is how to provide a responsible opposition to the Government, Heaven help us all.)

Barak - Shoehorned into a suit clearly left over from his last stint as Prime Minister - several sizes too small, and cut from very modest fabric. Very proletarian. Sitting next to Tzipi whilst Tricky Udi (finally) said goodbye. Smirking as always, and somehow resembling a giant unsqueezed zit. One suspects that Barak is consciously modelling himself on Fu'ad these days - not just from his rapidly expanding belly, but also from the instinct to perpetuate himself in power at all costs.

Tricky Udi - Sackcloth and Ashes, naturally. That said, I swear I recognised a Montblanc on the table in front of him. Was not, contrary to popular expectation, led away in shackles. He'll be back. They all come back, eventually.

Benny (now, it seems, Binyamin) Begin - Last seen in these pastures a decade ago, when he left politics after realising that he no longer had a constituency to support him. Dressed in a modest, if somewhat elderly, v-neck pullover and open-necked shirt ensemble. Personally I think he's overplaying this 'modest servant of the people' card. No such animal exists in Israeli politics. Or perhaps I've become too cynical.

Shlomo Negusa Mollo - First elected black member of Knesset (REPRESENT!!!...sorry, couldn't resist that). Pissed me off mightly a while ago when he started to mumble some bollocks about differing standards of culpability for minorities in Israel, specifically citing a supposed precedent in England concerning the physical chastisement of children (In a past life, this was actually an area of expertise for me, and he sooo clearly had no idea what he was talking about...but I digress). Jacket and open shirt. Spent most of the time lolling in his seat casually, befitting what I would describe as an "off-duty playboy" ensemble. Actually, I suspect he has been watching British MPs on the Parliamentary Channel too...there was something just a little too forced about his nonchalance. If nothing else, MKs tend to spend their time hurling insults at one another...

Marina Solodkin - A delightful shawl. Somehow, this did not surprise me. She always struck as a woman with a plentiful supply of shawls

Shelly Yacimovich - What appeared to be black long sleeved sweater, well past its prime. She looked like a student. Or impoverished journalist. Of course, she was the latter...(not sure about the impoverished bit, but then, journalists are not exactly known for their sartorial sense)

(Digression - I was watching a programme on Channel 10 last night, presented by Nitzan Horowitz, now representing Meretz. It was about sustainable transport systems for major cities. He got to travel around the world, to the States, Brazil, France and Japan for the programme. Yes, I see the irony too. Anyway, ignoring the fact that he went almost orgasmic at the arrangements in a Brazillian city, he actually seemed reasonbably well dressed for a journalist. True, the bar is pretty low, but at least he didn't seem completely colour blind, which is a good start. I searched for him in the chamber, but to no avail.)

Haim "Jumas" Oron - Like a labourer in the fields. (Technically, this is inaccurate, since I actually spotted him before the session started, being interviewed for TV. Tough. I'm tired of this Kibbutz chic. The guy needs to smarten up, pronto. Next thing, he'll come to work in khaki shorts and sandals...

The person I hunted for, but failed to spot, was the former TV presenter (so NOT a journo) Anastasia Michaeli. Michaeli, an Olah from Russia and member of Yisrael Beitenu, is what is popularly known in the local parlance as a (no, I changed my mind. I can't use the Hebrew word. It is really vulgar, and [more to the point, actually] the feminist Mrs Goy will chuck me out on the street if I even attempted to adopt such phraseology into my fledgling Hebrew). Let's just say she is cute. And a snappy dresser. She is also heavily pregnant with her 7th - or perhaps 8th, I forget - child. Perhaps she had better things to do, in a maternity ward...

(Digression - Ms Anastasia has 7, possibly 8 children. She was born in 1975, which makes her 33. Even if she were orthodox - and she ain't - this takes some going. I rather suspect that she went into politics to get away from her husband. On the other hand, ignoring my juvenile sniggers, one cannot but admire a woman - irrespective of her politics - who has managed to secure a Knesset seat, given her other - significant - responsibilities.)

I'll stop here. I'd like to consider the current Knesset with more dignity, but frankly they ain't worth it. The lot of them. So I think I'll just laugh at them. As they say in one of the countries I come from, "If a man cannot cry, then he has to laugh". And undoubtedly they'll be opportunities for tears in the months to come.

Postscript: This Knesset, like others, has 120 members. Unlike others, however, it has 30 ministers. And 7 "deputy" ministers. Is it me, or does this sound irredeemably stupid?

Post Postscript: The best dressers in the Knesset, as always, were the representatives of Shas. Smart - but not sharp - black suits. Crisp white shirts. Subtle ties. Trimmed facial hair. Those boys are the business. In fact, in another world, I'd describe them as distinctly metrosexual

(Homework: Mizrahi Haredim are better dressers than Ashkenazi Haredim. Discuss.)

It's good to be back :-)