Boys in the ‘hood

RDBF accidentally got himself double-booked, so he asked me to fill in for him at an interfaith dialogue being held at an old folks home. Originally, this was pitched to me as “A Minister, an Imam, and a Rabbi” (and I had a very hard time not saying “go into a bar…”), and we were to speak on the topic of loving thy neighbor and what that meant, along with general topics on love.

Irfaan, the muslim speaker, was just fabulous – he spoke eloquently and in a passionate manner while not ducking hard questions (for instance, Jihad, terrorism, and women’s rights). The minister was okay.

One of the things which Irfaan said to me was that “Wahabism,” which is the form of Islam currently dominant in Saudi Arabia and in some other places, was a “modern reform” movement. I had never thought of it that way, but it is quite correct – it is about the same age as the Reform movement in Judaism, and I think that the deviations from previously normative practices are of similar magnitude.

When I was talking about “love thy thy neighbor,” I pointed them at the famous Hillel story (what is hateful to you do not do unto others), and how the same word in that verse is in quite prominent place in the Sh’ma.

All in all, the event went well, and I’m glad I had a chance to do it.


My heart is in the east, but I am at the ends of the west

Sarah and I returned from a wonderful trip abroad this week. We went first to Manchester, UK, to visit Sarah’s aunt, uncle, and a few extended family, and also to see the childhood home where her father grew up (her aunt lives there now). I had been a bit nervous about that portion of the trip – the rioting in the UK fortunately had calmed down before we went, and also this was a family visit to family I don’t know all that well. Fortunately, it was delightful – that part of the family isn’t religious, but they went way out of their way to accommodate both kashrut and shabbat. The synagogue, the Heaton Park Hebrew Congregation was lovely, and I got to have a long chat with the (very good) Hazzan about meticulousness in prayer. Also, the JS Restaurant was thoroughly fabulous: I had a meat pie which was phenomenal, and we got to spend time with some of Sarah’s more distant relatives whom we had never met before.

And then we went to Israel. Surprisingly, the duty free in Paris actually had some Royal Lochnagar scotch, which I remember as being my favorite scotch ever. We landed after midnight, so by the time we had gotten through passport control to the rental car and into Tel Aviv, it was almost 3AM. Note: the GPS that the rental car places will sell you is exactly like the ones in the US, and its map of Tel Aviv is hideously out of date (it couldn’t get us to the Marriott, which has been near the waterfront for decades…)

So the following day, we meandered around the craft fair downtown, and got a couple of neat things (e.g. a diorama of an Elvis (!) scene, a different and very nice Seder plate, etc), and we started looking for a place to eat. We found several which weren’t kosher, several that were but were unsuitable for glutards, and then had our choice between three (!) suitable places, all within the same walking area. We drove from there to Haifa, where we intended to visit the Bahá’í Gardens the following day. Unfortunately, when the website says that there are no tours on Wednesday, what it really means is that the gardens are closed on Wednesday. Bummer. So we headed out to Zikhron Ya’akov, where I had a yen to visit the Tishbi winery and restaurant, and there I was not only able to buy a bottle of their amazing brandy – we had what we both agree was the finest meal on our trip. Note: for any visitor to Israel, it’s worth going out of your way to eat there.

From there, we headed on to Jerusalem. We switched our reservation from Bakah to Ra’anana, based on some hunches and advice from friends, and fortunately the hotel was cool about it.

So then there was Israel: in addition to the happiness of our very long-time Efrat’s wedding, we got to see our friends from Zurich (who are trying aliyah for a year), Sarah’s childhood friend Yedida (whom I met on our last trip), and several other friends whom we’ve known from DC, most of whom now live in or around Jerusalem. More than that, Sarah got to go to Shira Hadasha, and I got to find a whole bunch of different shuls (and of course the Kotel), and we could wander through neighborhoods and say “it’s time for lunch; at which of the four kosher restaurants on this block would we like to eat?”

More than all that (not that that wasn’t a lot), the powerful experience for me was one of belonging – that the rhythm of life there really matches my own. Friday is a half-day, and shops start closing around one-ish, and the pace of the city gets even more frenetic than usual, until shabbat comes in, at which point it is suddenly calm. By “calm” I mean that streets which were carrying hundreds of cars per minute would now have three or four in the same span. Shops were closed – Emek Refaim had morphed from a monumentally busy shopping and restaurant street into a deserted strip – the only people on it were either going to or coming from services. The Mamilla mall and street were shut down, and that was a particularly visceral example of the difference in lifestyle. My mom tells me that this is how Bethesda, Md was in the 60’s (except on Sunday rather than Saturday), but I wasn’t there.

Last time Sarah and I went to Israel, we thought it was great, and told ourselves, “we should visit here more often;” on this trip, the question became “why precisely don’t we live here?”

There is a minyan on the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Of course there is. When we were walking through the neighborhoods, mostly on shabbat but also at other times, there were little neighborhood parks in which oodles of children were playing, and their parents appeared (stereotyping by dress) to be of substantially different ideologies. This is exactly the sort of urbanism I support: because nobody there can afford a lawn, everyone is in the parks – this is both more efficient and also community-building. Even more, the idea that the synagogue isn’t the center of the community is, to my American mind, wholly revolutionary. In fact, the non-centrality of the synagogue to daily life means that innovation in prayer services becomes optional and even welcome, instead of being an existential threat to the survival of the community, as it is in the diaspora.

For me, this has opened a floodgate of emotion about the idea of making Aliyah. I know that Nefesh b’Nefesh does all sorts of stuff to help make this possible, so it’s good to know that there is a professional organization which is trying to help. I had said many times that [they] would take me out of my Georgetown house in a box; now perhaps that box would be a container.

I don’t know if this is in our near or far future – it’s just amazing to me that it’s gone from something which was beyond the pale to a real possibility. We have a lot of research and thinking to do – I imagine that it’s hard to move away from family, and hard to leave a community of friends, but the call of a place where I am normal is strong. Until then, I’m left with Yehuda haLevi, who wrote the title to this post.

A mass of incandescent gas

Number of days in Israel: 6
Number of clouds observed in that time: 0

Number of days in the Washington DC area: 5
Number of times the sun was visible: 0

They tell me that there is a big fusion reactor 93 million miles away, but I can’t say that I’ve seen much evidence for it recently. I’ve been waiting for a voice to call out: “I COMMAND YOU TO BUILD AN ARK…”

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night

Megan McArdle writes pointedly about the future possibilities for the survival of the USPS. I’ve had some more ideologically strong-willed friends complain about why it’s permitted for the Federal Government to do this (ignoring those constitutional mentions, I guess).

But for me, the real reason that USPS is headed down the drain is this:

We received a notice of an envelope mailed to Sarah (presumably regarding her father’s estate, for which she is the executrix) which required a signature when we came back into the country (more on that shortly). Today, I went to the Georgetown post office, in the rain to retrieve this. The relatively surly clerk looked at the form, and then we had the following exchange:

Her: I’ll need your ID.
(I gave her my driver’s license)
Her: Who’s Sarah?
Me: My wife.
(she gives me an incredulous look)
Me: Our last names are the same, and the address on my driver’s license matches that of the delivery.
Her: I can’t release this to you. If you had been home, you could have signed for it, but now that it’s here, you’ll need to have her write a statement and sign it over to you.
Me: So I could have signed for it without presenting ID at home, but can’t sign for it, with ID, here?
Her: Yes.

This is an example of precisely why the USPS sucks: completely boneheaded policy which is enforced by clerks whose attitude is “how can I be inconvenienced by you today?” So I’ve now (along with other interactions) been incentivized to avoid working with them if I can help it. When they eventually collapse, I will be completely unsurprised, and I hope that it doesn’t cost taxpayers too much to either spin them off or wind them down.