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Friday, December 31, 2010

another year is starting

I think one day I will make a list of where I was and what I did on each New Year's Eve since I first landed in the U.S. I will not remember all of them, for sure. Only those that made a lasting impression.

Like my first New Year's Eve which I spent standing at Time's Square next to the Dominican dishwasher of the restaurant I was working in at the time. He was an interesting guy who made a living in New York City without ever learning to read and write English. Not sure about his Spanish, though. To me, that piece of information was a lot more interesting than the thousands of people who were standing on the street around me screaming ten-nine-eight... as a large ball descended from a spear attached to the top of a building, approaching an invisible point that marked the beginning of the year. At touch down, all hell broke loose. Whistles, shouts, banging on things, smoke and all kinds of hazards erupted in an explosive crescendo into the freezing night skies. I looked around me at the ocean of unknown faces and tried to feel excited that a new year has just began. But nothing really kicked in. It was just another freezing night with lots of people on the streets, looking for a reason to party.

I've been in many New Year's Eve parties since then. Different cities, different people, different wine bottles and different music. But pretty much, it's just another party. Even the night of Y2K, the night we thought life was about to end, was just another night. The ball came down, all hell broke loose in New York City, the new year started on the East Coast, and here in California we were just beginning to gear up for it. Just like on elections night. Living in California can be totally anti-climactic. Here we are getting ready to start the evening, but everyone already knows how it is going to end.

So I guess the new year is almost here.

Have a fun night.

Enjoy the party.

Don't drive while intoxicated.

See you next year...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

my xrissmess gift from barack obama

Some people are really good at gifting. They buy gifts, they send gifts, they give gifts and they receive gifts as if it is the most natural thing to do. They give chocolate and scented candles and picture frames on special days, and little knickknacks when they come back from trips. They make the giving look like the easiest thing to do.

They are not tormented by deep existential questions when they reach for gloves or scarves or whatever crosses their field of vision when they embark on the traditional pre-Christmas eve hunting expedition.

I, on the other hand, can struggle with gifting questions that can practically solve the meaning of life before I decide what to give, even when it's something small. Are they going to like it? Is it usable? Should I get a couple of things? What would it say about me if I give X? Do these things convey what I want them to convey? Does the receiver already have it? Will it make me look like a total ass if I give this thing? Am I making a total faux-pa?

Furthermore, while giving can be quite complicated, receiving can be just as awkward. I will never forget how strange it was for me to open gifts in front of a cheering crowd during the baby shower for my daughter. In Israel, as far as I remember, we don't open gifts in front of the givers. But here people take pictures of you when you open their gifts so you have to be really careful with whatever expression that pops into your face or you'd live to regret it for the rest of your life.

So as a result of the daunting uncertainties that accompany the gift giving season, when the holidays come upon me I usually want to go into hiding. But this year things turned out quite well.

When I asked my daughter what she would have liked to get for Christmas-Hanukkah she asked for an IOU without specifying the dollar amount. This, she said, would be provided at a later date when the dust settles after the holidays. [not her exact words, but in this vicinity.]

Great, I'm raising a shrewd businesswoman, my brain alarm noted quietly. Not that I didn't know it already. However, since this absolved me from going to the mall to fight the crowds in search of stuff, I was more than happy to comply.

But what about the other people I want to gift?

Coincidentally, I came across Dan Ariely's blog during my philosophical contemplation on the meaning of gift giving. Ariely is an Israeli-born professor of behavioral economics who writes about all kinds of interesting stuff in a very reader-friendly way. In one of his blog entries he discussed the question of what makes a good gift. He put it out for his readers and after doing all kinds of studies and interviews and such, came up with this answer: “A good gift is something that someone really wants, but feels guilty buying it for themselves.”

Well, this only goes to show that professor Ariely has not met me, the guilt-ridden Israeli-American phenomenon. Because if I feel guilty buying something for myself (because it's too expensive), I would feel ten times more guilty if my guilt-ridden conscious made someone else pay for it.

And since an owner of two Ph.D. degrees and a professor of economics can't figure it out, I had to come up with my own answer. And my answer was exactly the opposite of Ariely's. I realized that I usually give my friends what I would like to have myself. I am the litmus test of gifts. So I give books I would like to read, and movies I would like to watch, and music I would like to hear, and massages and facials I would like to receive, and whatever else I would like to indulge myself in. I am the most self-centered gift giver in the world. If I want it, there is a pretty good chance, you will get it. So watch out.

Just in case you are wondering what to get me this season - you don't need to. I just got the gift I wanted. And Barack Obama gave it to me with the help of some Republican senators.

The repeal of DADT.

For all I care, it is the best xrissmess gift I could have wished for.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A tribute to my mother

Today my mother would have turned 79 had she not died a little over 8 years ago from cancer. In 2001, I landed in Israel on the morning of her birthday knowing that this was going to be our final days together. My mother knew her days were numbered. She was not afraid to die. She kept saying "whatever happens, happens." Her total disregard for death made it so much easier for me. Like death was not a big deal. There was no emotional outbursts or tears or sudden insights. Just a matter of fact approach to the situation. Life is running out, take it one moment at a time.

I think my mother is glad she did not live to be 79. She hated the thought of getting old. Age was her enemy. She never told her real age and always complained about getting old, not because she felt tired or pain or useless or bored, but because she felt compromised by the undignifying numbers.

One morning she took off her wedding ring and gave it to my sister. I guess my sister got the ring because she wears jewelry better than I, and also because she is the first born. When I saw my mother giving her the ring, I realized it was my time to ask for the masterpiece table cloth she crochet during the First Gulf War while she was waiting in the gas-proof room for the scud missiles to explode above the skies of Haifa. Years ago I told her that I hoped she would leave me that piece in her will and she rolled her eyes and gave me one of her "I give up" half smiles. She knew I could be very persistent once I put my mind into something.

While the drama surrounding the certainty of her death was rather subdued, a very different storm was brewing around her imminent departure from this world. You see, my mother wanted to leave her kibbutz apartment to her three children who were born and raised on the kibbutz. She knew that soon, each member of the kibbutz would become the legal owner of his/her apartment through the process of privatization, but she had no time to wait for this process to be finalized. She knew that she was dying. So from her deathbed at the hospital she asked the members of the kibbutz to let her children keep her apartment after her death until privatization was finalized. But the leadership had other plans for this small apartment and refused to bring my mother's very unusual request to the assembly.

I remember the shock and grief I felt when I heard that my mother's request was denied. Not only was I losing my mother, I was about to lose the only place I ever felt connected to, my parents' home, my home. No pleading could have changed the minds and hearts of those who were in charge, I realized. There was no one to talk to, no one to beg. It was again The Kibbutz, the invisible entity and its invisible regulations that we were facing.

The morning after the final verdict was given to us by the kibbutz secretary, I went to the hospital to see my mother as I did every day. It was pretty early and I did not expect her to be awake. But she was waiting for me. She had something important to say.

"I am going to leave the kibbutz," she said.

I was not sure I heard her right. How could this woman who always said, "the kibbutz decided," "they said...," "this is how it is," could say such a thing? I told her I needed to call my brother.

"She wants to leave the kibbutz," I said to him.

A couple of days later she signed a legally binding separation statement from the kibbutz and from her deathbed she taped a short speech, berating her old comrades' lack of foresight and explaining why she decided to leave the kibbutz.

I found out later that people on the kibbutz thought my brother and I talked her into doing it. They thought we intimidated her to do something against her will. They could not believe that my mother could have done such a thing on her own. I could not believe it, either.

I still have the videotape she had made a month before she died. I haven't seen it yet. I am too scared to look at it. The day she made that video, I did not go to the hospital. I did not want to see her sign any papers or making that video. She did not look too good in her final days. The pain and the drugs took it all out of her. Except for her humor and her resolve. She could barely sit up when she had to read and sign her declaration, my brother told me later. But she was determined to complete her final mission. Standing up for her own principles.

Maybe the time has come for me to watch that video.

I think I'll sleep on it tonight.
Related material:
If you'd like to learn more about my mother check out my e-book Daughter of the Kibbutz

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hannukah-how good does it get?

A Hanukkah dreidel.Image via WikipediaHanukkah has been upon us for the past week so it is time to reflect on what it means.

In the early days, back in the kibbutz, it was all about donuts (sufganiyot), the Israeli style. I still remember them and miss them terribly. Burning hot dough, filled with injected red jam that burns your tongue at the first bite, and tons of powdered sugar all over my face. Yummmm. They don't make them this way here, so I've been deprived of suf-ga-niyot for the past 25 years. Oh, well. At least I'm saving on the calories.

The interesting part of Hanukkah now is that I have to impart the story to my daughter. And as I have already confessed before, my success rate at Jewish education is abysmal.

This morning my daughter bragged that she knew the letters on the dreidle. Kind of.

Is it 'nun',(נ) she asked me to make sure she was right. Is it 'vav'? I know 'hey',(ה) like hey you, she said proudly.

I squirm when I see the ignorance. But then she tells me that she took a bunch of dreidles to a party at the neighbor's house and taught the other kids about the meaning of the letters and my heart was filled with pride and joy. She knows the Hebrew word for dreidle (sevivon) and she thinks it is a cool word, like her mom is a weirdo from some esoteric tribe that mumbles unintelligible words and eats strange vegetables and celebrates the aversion of disasters. It is just too funny to see my own flesh and blood knowing so little about things that are part of my DNA.

So speaking about averting disasters, this morning she said something about Hanukkah and crossing the sea and maybe she even mentioned Moses, I'm not sure. So of course, using my motherly compassion I told her that was passover, and that passover was the miracle of being saved from the Egyptian, but on Hanukkah it was about a miracle of being saved from the Greeks, and on Purim we were being saved from the Persians.

So getting into the car she went like, without even looking at me, "Don't you have anything with Muslims?" I swear to the almighty evolution that I am not making this up!

I guess through the grapevines she had heard about the Israeli-Arab conflict. I mean, I talk about stuff at home once in a while, you know. So I was like, Muslims? We are celebrating miracles that occurred five thousand years ago, girl, two thousand years minimum. Muslims? There were no Muslims around five thousands years ago.

But then, lo and behold, I remembered, we do have a holiday for overcoming the Muslims. Independence Day. The Nakba, as our Palestinian friends call it. This holiday does not mention god or miracles, but still, again, we were almost annihilated, and we were saved, Yee-pee. Let's celebrate and eat something.

So just to cover my base I asked her, do you know when is Yom Kippur? You should know that stuff because one day you might be kidnapped by Jewish fundamentalists and the only way you can save your skin is by knowing about Yom Kippur and proving that you are a good Jew. After all, this is what the Taliban are doing now when they kidnap people. If you can say allahu akbar convincingly enough you don't get beheaded.

So this girl of mine, whom I have been trying to teach something about what it means to be a person of the Jewish persuasion for over a decade now, settled in her seat and said it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world: Ten days after Rosh Hashana.

I'm cleared and vindicated for eternity.

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