Friday, November 30, 2012

The Heat Is On

Shalom, chaverim! We seem to be dodging not only the literal bullets that were flying around Israel and Gaza just a week ago, but also the "bullet" of bad weather, which is lovely. As Elul and I enter our twelfth month of living in Israel, the weather is still generally very beautiful and warm. The grass is still green, we are still wearing shorts for our daily walks along the beach, and while it does get somewhat chilly at night now, we've only had to turn on the heater once so far. I can still ride my bicycle to work without wearing gloves in the morning, although I keep them handy in my basket just in case. Not bad for it being just a day away from the start of December!

Speaking of heat, as I have watched the rhetoric fly around, thick and fast, most recently about the Palestine/Israel problem here and the Obama/Romney divide in America, it has caused me to reflect more deeply on the issue of anger and conflict. Humans have always argued with each other, but until recently I never paid too much attention to how they did it. I have been paying particular attention, however, to how people try to convince other people to agree with them. Agreement about what, it doesn't matter, as people will argue about anything under the sun.

Some try to do it by reasoning and logical arguments, only to become infuriated when the recipient of these "change your mind so you agree with me" campaigns, frequently played out in public forums like Facebook, are countered by equally well-reasoned and logical arguments. And instead of agreeing to disagree and dropping the subject, people harshly judge their friends for their opinions and freeze them out of their lives, preferring only to interact with "like-minded" people. Mind you, many of the people with these incredibly strong convictions about how the world should operate actually do very little work to affect any positive or lasting change. It is far easier to sit and criticize, while pretending to contribute to change simply by pleading with other people to change their minds. No wonder it's a popular pastime.

Others try to do it by hedging their outright disagreement with others, by using modifiers like "I don't think you're bad for thinking the way you do, just misguided." Or, "you seem to be confusing your opinion with what I know is true." For me, the biggest howler of these dodges is, "I'm not judging you, but...." If you disagree with someone, why not say so? Why make it more clouded by pretending you're not upset if you actually are?

Still others try to do it with outright attacks and gross generalizations. I have both heard and read the insults "Idiots," "morons," "a**holes," and "real mother f***ers" to everyone who votes for a particular party or candidate, or has a divergent opinion on how problems could be solved. We're talking about calling millions of people terrible names, in one fell swoop. We are cursing our fellow man, many of whom devote their lives to public service (e.g. firemen, policemen, soldiers, teachers, nurses, doctors, and the clergy) by these statements. We, as a human race, often talk about how killing lots of people who don't live where we live, or believe as we do, as being a good idea. "Reasoning" doesn't work, so we resort to threats of violence, and then, finally, to acts of violence. Is it any wonder so many parts of the world are struggling with the effects of anger and rage? Why do we get angry at people who are angry at us, but still feel quite entitled to feel angry at others?

Bo Lozoff, who, with his wife Sita, founded the Human Kindness Foundation, eloquently put this phenomena into a song. A portion of the lyrics, reprinted in the HKF's Fall 2012 newsletter, go like this.

From the song “Everybody’s Angry” by Bo Lozoff, © 2005
Big man’s angry knowing big don’t count,
Little man’s angry ’cause he hasn’t found it out.
Poor man’s angry he can’t have it today,
Rich man’s angry he ain’t happy anyway. …
Even Jesus was angry at the moneychanger’s sin,
The moneychanger’s angry right back at him.
Anger, anger, everywhere I see,
Everybody seems to be angry to me,
Anger, anger at the drop of a hat.
Well it makes me angry and I don’t like that.
Also from that extraordinary newsletter was a quote from "Richard," an inmate in Maury, North Carolina, who reflected,

"The first step for me is accepting that the outside world is not the problem—my own selfish delusions about how life should be and how others should act is the cause of my anger."

Indeed. Yom Kippur is over, but it's never a bad time to reflect on how our anger just might be a reflection of our own selfishness. Look at it this way, if you forgive yourself and others, and stop cursing them with your mouth, your pen, and in your heart, it's just that much less you'll need to atone for. Plus, you'll feel a lot better and be much more pleasant to hang around.

And so, while all the human rage continues to sputter and strut itself around the place, the flowers still bloom. The birds sing, children play and run for the sheer joy of it, and cats nap peacefully in the sunshine, content with a warm patch of cement on the sidewalk. Israel is still a beautiful land and the world is still a beautiful home for us all. Don't let anger, whether of others or your own, ever make you forget that.

"What, me kvetch?" A cool cat hanging out on a street side wall in Zikhron Yaakov.

Shabbat shalom, everyone!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving in Israel

Shalom, chaverim! Well, the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza seems to be holding, at least for the moment, so that's certainly something to be thankful for. Last night we had our first Thanksgiving in Israel, and in true American style, the people in attendance at a small gathering of friends included four Americans, a Canadian, a Columbian-American-Israeli, and a Namibian.

We did it potluck style. Our job was to cook the giant, long necked, 18.25 pound kosher turkey, which was kindly ordered, purchased, and lugged upstairs to us by another friend. Whole turkeys are almost never available in Israel, incidentally, since generally no one has ovens large enough to roast them.

As we gazed in dismay at the aforementioned neck, wondering how we were going to remove it when poultry shears and brute force had already failed, we remembered that Elul had returned from his recent business trip to Germany with some marketing swag that included a "multi-tool." With it, he was able to saw that neck right off. We were also short one of those giant needles used to sew up turkey butts, so we raided my grandmother's old sewing kit and used the biggest needle and the strongest thread we could find. It had been so long since I'd roasted a turkey that I didn't have a turkey baster in the kitchen drawer, either. Fortunately, I remembered that I'd bought a new one to use for making handmade paper (a hobby of mine), but hadn't yet used, so I dug through my craft supplies and found it. Score!

Creating a gluten-free stuffing was a little trickier, but we used gluten-free bread for the breadcrumbs and it came out just fine. Our friends had a more difficult challenge, as they needed to make pumpkin pies that were gluten-free, sugar-free, and dairy free. They used chopped-up gluten-free cookies to make a crust, cornstarch instead of wheat flour, sweetener instead of sugar, and soy milk and a non-dairy whipped topping for the rest. Getting canned pumpkin was another challenge, because, with extremely rare exceptions, it pretty much doesn't exist anywhere in Israel. Our friends reported that when they asked for fresh pumpkin, they were led to a back room in the store, where a man was somewhat furtively cutting a giant squash that only vaguely resembled a pumpkin, into large slices. Our friends could see no obvious reason why gourd-slicing needed to be done in such a clandestine manner, but it turned the annual pumpkin procurement into a more adventurous event than usual. The pies turned out to be completely delicious.

"Thou preparest a table before me...." indeed!

In addition, our hosts provided guacamole, dill dip, an extraordinarily elegant Columbian sauce, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and a green bean-cranberry dish, as well as plenty of beer, wine, and exceptional Columbian cofffee. The table groaned as we sat outdoors, eating, laughing, and giving thanks for our families, our friends, and for being in Israel, all the while overlooking the sea and the lights of Rosh Ha'Nikra. After we ate all that food, we were the ones who were groaning. I never really understood the French expression "crise des foies" ("crisis of the livers") that was used for when people over-indulged on food, until last night. Ooof!

Shabbat shalom, everyone!


Friday, November 16, 2012

Shabbat Shalom from North of the War Zone

Shalom, chaverim. I'm going to make this a very brief post today, because I really can't think of much to say that hasn't already been said a million times over, by people with far more experience than me. This is one of those instances that words really do fail me--or, more accurately, I have failed to find the words.

The deadly game of air strike ping-pong between Israel and Gaza has been going on for quite some time now, and things just seem to be ratcheting up with every passing hour. Meetings are being scheduled, speeches are being made, Twitter wars are raging, and the social media networks and the television stations have plenty of footage to roll and newsfeed to scroll.

IDF (Israeli Defense Force) reserve troops are being called up into active duty, including a friend's brother-in-law who is in his fifties. He has vast experience in the reserves, so perhaps the military choosing the most experienced personnel they can find. Tanks have amassed at the border with Gaza.

I am concerned about all the people in this land, whether they identify themselves as Israelis, Palestinians, Gazans, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Druze, Christians, or whatever. I don't think I'm either baffled or surprised by all this massive escalation, but that doesn't make the fact of war any less painful or upsetting.

Two days ago, my permission from the Ministry of Education finally having arrived, I started teaching at the Nahariya religious girls' high school. It turns out that some other layer of bureaucrats also has to sign off on me, and I have yet to do the paperwork so I can actually get paid, but that's another matter for another day. There was a morning prayer service, at which many of the girls were plainly agitated and upset, as many had brothers or relatives who were in the army or had just been put on alert as reservists. Still, after the service we just got on with it and kept hacking away at the coalface that is the English language, together. I have always felt that there was an inherent sacredness in the act of schoolchildren coming together to learn, and was impressed to see that the drive to learn and carry on as normal was so strong in our school. In the south, where some schools may still be open, I am sure that same spirit is present.

May this conflict end as quickly as possible, with as little harm to any and all as can be managed. I, for one, abhor not only bloodshed and violence, but also can't stand to see children's childhoods squandered by fear, terror, anger, bigotry, and instability. Whatever seeds we collectively plant, will eventually bear fruit. And that is what will be on our plate, whether we like it or not.

Shabbat shalom, everyone. Please, if you pray or just want to send a kind thought or a good vibe, make them peaceful ones directed at everyone in this region. Hatred just doesn't get anyone very far at all.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Israeli Tax System and the Dark Arts

Shalom, chaverim! Well, after all the build-up, excitement, and preparatory skirt-purchasing for the new teaching job I was hoping to get, I have yet again been firmly placed in bureaucratic limbo. I did a sample lesson last Sunday morning, which was observed by the Principal and the head of the English department. It seemed to go well, and I was thrilled to receive a call that night, informing me that I'd gotten the job. I was to start teaching last Tuesday. Whoo hoo!

Here's the kicker, though. On Monday, I received another call from the school, saying that a particular form had to be filled out and sent to the Ministry of Education to get final approval for me to teach there. That process was only supposed to take a day or two. It's now Friday morning and I've heard nothing. Sigh. The weeks go on, and it seems that it takes forever for straightforward things to get done.

I have to take some responsibility in this, though. If I had started getting my degrees recognized the minute I got to Israel, just as EVERYONE told me to do, I might be further ahead in this process. But I did get them recognized, and ultimately a job was offered to me, so now it's on the Ministry to turn this puppy around quickly. Israeli ninth-grade girls are in desperate need of reviewing the correct usage of "since" and "for" in the present perfect continuous tense! Why isn't there a national sense of urgency about this pressing need?

Another little glitch we encountered in the labyrinth known as the Israeli tax system meant that, after a month's work in our new voiceover/narration jobs, the fact that we already were on the books for other jobs meant that our paychecks were taxed at the nose-bleedingly high rate of 60%. The intricacies of doing multiple and part-time jobs in Israel means you really need a professional working with you from the get-go to keep it all straight. You will need their help to fill in the tax forms correctly, file arcane forms in mysterious offices, and be ultimately be taxed at the correct rate. After speaking with our accountant yesterday, it appears that we will only be eligible for a certain piece of paper that will remedy this situation when we've been resident in Nahariya for a full year. In our case, that will be on December 28th. Once the form is provided to the tax ministry, we will be given a June or July of 2013. The dark art of working within the Israeli tax system is something that mere novices, such as ourselves and other new olim, should leave to a voodoo practitioner--er, accountant--who can counteract the spells.

The new immigrant gets the pin in the eye for not reading the tax form correctly. The pin in the knee is for not bowing  deeply enough in supplication to the tax authority deities. And the one in the heart is just...because. Thanks to for the image!

However, in happier news, I'm still having a blast teaching English for the Indian company I work for. In that job, I teach English online to Indians who want to improve their English, usually to enhance their career skills. Since many of my lessons are designed to improve the students' general conversation abilities, I've had to bone up on contemporary Indian culture in order to find common ground that students will feel comfortable in discussing.

Luckily, our satellite television package gives us access to an Indian channel operating out of Singapore. I'm able, if I want to, to watch Bollywood movies and Indian soap operas twenty-four hours a day. Some of the English used, though, just strikes me as being incredibly funny. My favorite ad, for example, is for a company that sells TV dinners, which are known as "ready meals." The company's name is "Git," which in British English is slang for an extremely stupid and annoying person.

The tag line for the ad is this: "Git's Ready Meals: Lingers On Your Fingers!"

Bon appetit and shabbat shalom, chaverim!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Skirting the Issue

Shalom, chaverim! It's been a funny old week here in Nahariya, with the weather swinging madly from cold and stormy, to hot and sunny, and back again. Not that I'm complaining; Hurricane-turned-Superstorm Sandy in America trumps pretty much everyone else in the world when it comes to having a legitimate gripe about the weather. Elul's been involved a major product launch at his company and has been putting in long hours. They launched yesterday, and everyone has high hopes that it will be a success after working so hard on it, for so long. I've had a quieter week, but it's given me time to work on other longer-term projects, like distributing a few demo CD's to bands and event coordinators, and continuing to work on my fledgling business, Aliyah Petsitting.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've also been doing some volunteer English tutoring at a local high school. Being back in the classroom, if only for a couple of hours a week, is lovely. So, you can imagine my surprise and delight when two days ago, I received a telephone call from another local high school, asking me to come for an interview. The position is at a "dati" school, which in this case is modern orthodox. If I get the position, I will be teaching remedial English, on a very part-time basis, to a small group of ninth grade girls. This is an ideal situation for me. Some teachers find ninth graders a bit challenging, but I find middle school kids to be so hilarious that it makes up for whatever other issues they might bring into the classroom.

My interview seemed to go well, but of course you never really know how you did until they actually offer you the job and you start working. Everyone was very cordial and welcoming, and it appears like it's very warm and friendly school. I will be teaching an observed lesson this Sunday, and then, the Principal told me, "we'll talk afterwards." Gulp! I really want this job. It will allow me to teach reflectively, which is teacher-speak for having time to reflect on my lessons and think about how I can make them better. Since it's only teaching five hours a week, I'll still have time for my other jobs and projects, which I really enjoy.

After the initial call inviting me to the interview, I called a friend in a panic, trying to find out where exactly the school was located. She did me the enormous favor of reminding me that since I was going to interview at an orthodox school, I needed to wear a skirt that went below the knee, and observe the other style constraints that come with dressing modestly. Henry David Thoreau once wisely warned, "distrust any enterprise which requires new clothes," but in this case I went against his otherwise very good advice. Instead, I took the advice of Dr. Emily Lowe, my former voice professor, who observed that "people think with their eyes." I needed to purchase one item of clothing: a long skirt. I have skirts and dresses of my own, but as the reigning 2nd Place Champion of the 2004 Sexy Legs Contest of Pahrump, Nevada (I still have the ribbon and the bottle of Nair that was my consolation prize), all mine are at or slightly above the knee.  I didn't know exactly how "frum" (modest) this school would be, so I ran into a shop and bought the longest, blackest skirt I could find.

On the morning of the interview, however, I rummaged through my closet for something that would cover both my collarbones and my elbows, and also would look sharp enough for an interview. It was slim pickings indeed. Elul helpfully pointed out that my first attempt looked "absolutely awful," and the second was "horrible."

I ultimately found something, however, and when I put it on, I looked like one of those severe, school marm types. I looked so unlike "me" that I had Elul take a picture of me, clutching a grammar book, pointing my finger in admonition, and practicing my prissy, glacial, "Nurse Ratched Makes Lateral Career Move to Professional Educator" look.

"Now, girls, we shall recite in unison all the perfect tense conjugations of the verb "to be," complete with the modal verbs 'should,' 'could,' and 'would.' Won't that be fun?"
Of course, when I got to the school I found that every woman there looked perfectly normal--they were just all wearing skirts and nice, long-sleeved tops that weren't very low cut. Some were wearing their hair wrapped in scarves, some were wearing various types of caps and hats. Others had their hair pinned up, cut short, or hanging long and loose. Almost no one had long skirts, and I didn't see anyone dressed in all black. Women had makeup on and their nails done, and were wearing stylish jewelry. If I had only just gone out and bought a normal skirt and put a semi-normal top with it, I would have been dressed far more appropriately. Sigh.

Thoreau also said, "it's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." Hopefully, the school administration will look beyond my peculiar dress style and glaring fashion faux pas, and see some good.

Shabbat shalom, everyone!