Sunday, September 28, 2008

Reason #457 to Make Aliyah

In the course of his all-in-one-breath stream-of-consciousness halacha survey course, my rav in Israel mentions around this time of year (or three weeks ago) that it's a minhag to wear white on Rosh HaShana because we're trying to appear as pure as possible when approaching G-d, therefore, "here is Israel, if you decide you're going to wear your black outfit on Rosh HaShana, you're very likely going to stick out like a sore thumb."

But here, quite aside from any mention of the cardinal rule (is that a Catholic phrase??) of not wearing white after Labor Day...even if it's sufficiently warm outside to wear a white-themed summer-y outfit, it's nearly a foregone conclusion that they're going to air-condition the shul to within an inch of your life.

So much for minhag...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In case anyone was wondering

י"ט אדר ב', תשס"ח

...well, no, probably not. I doubt there's anyone out there left to wonder. But just in case there is, I'll clarify that I didn't come back to the blogosphere to write about bugs. I'm trying to come back in general because it's good for me to write about things in daily life -- it keeps me noticing a level of detail and thinking about wording and new perspectives the way I might not otherwise. But I'm lazy, so I often think of a good post, even start writing it, and then wander off. When I manage to get as far as the "post" button it's a success, even if it is about, uh, things no one wants to read about. So there. I'll keep trying to talk to myself, and you can keep not reading, ok?

Monday, March 17, 2008


י"א אדר ב', תשס"ח

WARNING: If you are particularly squeamish of bugs, I'd advise against reading -- or even glancing at -- this post.

I had the rather harrowing experience this morning of having my gradual waking-up process (three pre-set alarms, additional snoozes) interrupted by suddenly noticing a large dark spot, which appeared to be moving, on the corner of the ceiling above my bed. I sleep in a loft bed, so this was really quite close to me, but lacking any visual acuity to speak of, I couldn't consider doing the first thing about it without a pair of supplemental lenses. In a flash I was down the ladder, had my glasses on, and, armed with a drinking glass and a paper brochure, was back up on my bed to play captor.

I have a pretty clear-cut feeling about insects: I have to be in control. I can look at them with fascination if they're behind glass, or even outside if they don't sting and/or I can move faster than they. But in my own domain, the cup-and-paper trick* better work, and it better be easy. Thankfully, in this particular case it was, and I relocated the intruder to a home many feet below my kitchen window. What I'd like to know, however, is how it got in. I've only ever seen anything like this creature once before in my life, and that was a year ago in this very apartment. Twice in a year and a half is hardly enough to declare infestation...but I'd really rather not see another!

I am far from a stellar housekeeper, but what we are talking about is not the kind of bug you get when your dishes sit in the sink too long. I've maybe seen one roach in this apartment, ever, although I get the occasional silverfish. This gigantic specimen, though, is a creepy-crawly-phobe's nightmare...which is why I've spent this much space babbling before posting a picture, to reduce the likelihood of someone catching a glimpse by accident. The photo below was not taken this morning, while I was frantically trying to pre-empt a leap into my comforter. Is was taken during last year's sighting, against the much more advantageous (for me) backdrop of the bathtub:

*cup-and-paper trick: If you're not familiar with this, it's invaluable. Many times I've been the hero in a Bug Situation, because I'm ok with handling them as long as I'm not physically touching them. This is a two-handed endeavor: Take a cup, glass, bowl, etc. Ideally, the mouth should be small enough to easily cover the bug on one try but not so large that you have trouble holding the paper cover over it once you have your prey. Clear is nice, because then you can reassure yourself more easily that you've still got 'em. Take a piece of paper or cardboard from that pile of junk mail on the table. (What? Doesn't everyone have a pile of junk mail on the table?) Stiffer is better, but it shouldn't be too thick or you'll have trouble sliding it between the cup and whatever surface your uninvited guest is roosting on...which is exactly what you do immediately after enclosing him with the cup. Make sure that the edge of the cup is pressed against the paper all the way around, then, holding the cup with one hand and the paper tightly against it with the other, escort your guest out the window or door, into the toilet, or to another more homey location. (Hey, everything's a matter of perspective, right?) If you don't have an accomplice you might have to put your makeshift cage down for a minute to clear some obstacles, but I've never seen a bug strong enough to lift even a light plastic cup. You're safe, as long as you're not too clumsy...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Open Question to the World

ט' אדר ב', תשס"ח

I know, it's been a very long time. And I'm hoping to get back into it soon...but in the meantime here's the most concise article I've read on Israel's right to defend herself.

(Hat tip: Treppenwitz)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

ברוך דין אמת

William Emanuel Hess
May 7, 1920 - May 8, 2007

Monday, February 19, 2007

One might think...

ב' אדר, תשס"ז
One might think that most of the property owners in a city full of lawyers and politicians might be wary of ignoring a fairly well-known public ordinance, especially one whose neglect is so obvious as to scream "attention!" (as well as threaten bodily harm) to anyone trying to pass or enter said property:
§ 9-601. Removal from sidewalks by owner or occupant of abutting property.

It shall be the duty of every person, partnership, corporation, joint-stock company, or syndicate in charge or control of any building or lot of land within the fire limits of the District of Columbia, fronting or abutting on a paved sidewalk, whether as owner, tenant, occupant, lessee, or otherwise, within the first 8 hours of daylight after the ceasing to fall of any snow or sleet, to remove and clear away, or cause to be removed and cleared away, such snow or sleet from so much of said sidewalk as is in front of or abuts on said building or lot of land.*
One would, apparently, be wrong.

*District of Columbia Official Code

Sunday, February 18, 2007


ראש חודש אדר, תשס"ז
It amazes me sometimes the jumbled collection of memories that are permanent residents of my brain, and the stimuli that bring them to the window for a breath of air.

There is a certain type of bird, distinctive to me only by its call, that I heard daily when I was living on kibbutz seven (!) years ago. If I ever actually saw a creature making that noise, I certainly didn't register the details of its appearance, so I really only know the sound as an abstract entity. Its association with that particular period of my life, though, is apparently very firmly rooted in my mind. I say this because I have periodically heard it since, in various settings both similar to and diverse from the kibbutz (urban locations in Israel as well as both rural and urban locations here in the U.S.), and every single time -- most recently this afternoon -- I have been instantly though ever-so-fleetingly visited by the sensation that I am on kibbutz.

This phenomenon is not unfamiliar to me, although it's more frequently triggered by smell than sound, and might bring me back to any number of distinctive situations in my life. It's not déjà vu; in fact, it's the authentic experience of memory that déjà vu attempts to mimic. But I'm not sure whether memory in most people is so often such a stark, elemental encounter, rather than a conscious mental process. Moreover, in many such cases I have found that once the stimulus is associated repeatedly with other settings, its power to yank me back to its original context is considerably dulled. Not that bird, though. He's followed me clear around the world (a couple of times) with the aura of kibbutz tied to his foot, trailing behind him in the wind ready to tag me whenever he finds a female worthy of his call.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Flying Free

כ"ד טבת, תשס"ז
I learned to ride a bike, as a kid, on Sunday mornings in empty parking lots. Growing up in Manhattan there was a shortage of open space where I could learn to balance, speed up, steer and brake without inevitable mishaps that could have put me in the path of oncoming traffic or put unwitting pedestrians in the path of...well, me.

So on many Sunday mornings, my parents would wake me up early, toss me in the back seat and my bike in the trunk, and head out to the no-man's land outside shopping malls in the Blue Law area of New Jersey. We'd spend at least a couple of hours with me struggling to juggle all the necessary skills simultaneously, and with my parents taking turns holding the seat and running alongside. And then later, when I finally got it, those huge lots were my chance to fly away. I could really move, in a way I couldn't do on my own steam by any other means. I remember sailing across a parking lot until our car was a speck in the distance and then coming back the long way, turning figure eights around every set of lampposts or row of spaces between myself and the impending "time to go, now."

As the years passed, I stopped having time to do most anything, so the bicycle (and I) stayed inside. When my grandfather bought me a new adult-sized bike for a birthday, it was exciting to pick it out and to upgrade to handbrakes and multiple gears, but my chances to use it were few and short. It and its predecessor moved to the garage of the townhouse my parents bought in NJ as a combination investment /weekend home, and when I came with them there I sometimes took a much-needed break from my homework in the form of a spin around the development -- up and back along the main drag and in and out of every side road and cul-de-sac along the way, adding every possibly detour among the look-alike residences and suburban landscaping just to extend my excursion a few minutes more. A few moments of exercise, that old familiar rush of wind through my hair...then the bike went back to the garage and I went back to my papers and books.

I spent the first two of the four months I lived on kibbutz in the middle of my college years sorely wishing there was some way for my bike to join me in Israel. On kibbutz, very nearly everyone gets around by bicycle, even several older people who have graduated back to an adult-sized tricycle (with a great basket between the rear wheels for groceries, laundry, small grandchildren, etc.) Watching everyone else hop on and disappear down a path, I felt heavily encumbered by my own two feet. After quite a while of monitoring the placement of possibly-abandoned bikes and asking around for anyone who might have a spare, I was ultimately rewarded with the loan of a circa 1970s Schwinn whose owner had long since graduated to more sophisticated two-wheeled transportation but had brought it along with her when she made aliya for no reason she could articulate. I was so ecstatic to have wheels that I was more than willing to overlook the fact that there were no handbrakes (only coaster brakes, which in my mind equated with kiddie-brakes), and only one speed (again, suggestive of my old outgrown relic).

I soon realized, however, that the price I had paid for feeling grown-up had been -- as it so often is -- an imposition of weight, a deprivation of precision, a loss of invincibility in some respects and a false sense of ability in others. With this borrowed piece of simplicity I could fly again. Late at night, when an afternoon nap had left me with overflowing energy, I made dashing circuits around the kibbutz's perimeter road, gazing through the fence at the fields, the mountains in the distance, and up at the moon. Coming back from work, I could carry garbage bags under my arm, laundry over my shoulder and a bowl of dinner in my other hand and still have no problems navigating turns in the narrow paths or stopping on a dime. In the late afternoons, eager for a change of scenery, I'd ride out the back gate, through the orchards and up to the above-ground reservoirs, circling the ridge around their circumference from which I could see for miles in every direction. When I encountered hills or bumps I had to push harder and brace myself; there was no easy fix on my handlebar to mask the need for effort, nor fat treaded tires to cushion a rocky encounter. I felt real -- closer to the ground I was riding on.

At the same time, though, I was living in a bubble. Kibbutzim are, in many ways, remnants of an idealistic world that barely exists, if at all, outside their fences. No one ever, ever locks a bike there. The rows of bike racks outside the common buildings are of the type that hold the front wheel upright without the need to put down the kickstand -- nothing more. Every house's front yard has the family collection of vehicles, and just outside the doors to the laundry and the dining hall there is an ever-rotating display of bicycles whose riders have jumped off just for a moment to pick something up inside. No one ever wears a helmet; I can picture the puzzled stares that the sight of one would likely produce. And in all honesty, there's little reason for one, as certainly no one ever rides alongside a car. I imagine there's very rarely a biking injury there more severe than a skinned knee.

After my return, on the few occasions when I was out at the NJ house, I tended to prefer the old, too-small child's bicycle rather than my (not-so)-new mountain bike for my brief excursions, just to relish the nostalgic sensation it gave me. When my parents sold the house, soon after, and I had to choose one of the two to give away, common sense prevailed and I said my good-byes.

Several years later, when I finally managed to bring my bicycle up to Ithaca and collected the appropriate gear, confidence and weather to ride around campus and town, I had a very distinct sense of something gained and something lost. Gained, because I had "gotten into" biking again, felt secure in my own ability to control my location at each instant of motion, and with the help of my gears could tackle all but the steepest hills. Lost, because the lightness was gone. There was a weight under me that I had to drag with me wherever I rode, a weight on my head that shielded me not only from injury but from the invigorating breeze rushing by, a weight on the frame of the bike and my keychain and my mind when I had to secure my property wherever I parked, and a weight on my conscience when I refused to obey the minute cycling rules on campus that would have had me getting on and off so often it would have been simpler just to walk. I had transportation -- fun, recreational, even exhilarating at times (think downhill) -- but not freedom.

The bicycle was damaged that year (not while I was on it, b"H), and I ended up leaving it behind in Ithaca for anyone dedicated and mechanical-minded enough to fix it. As for myself, I was determined to find something similar to that vintage Schwinn on which I could replicate my dreams. Not being quite patient enough to wait until the photo in my mind's eye showed up on Craigslist, I paid too much for an old Raleigh in not-so-good condition. It served me well while it lasted (except for the amusing morning when one of the pedals fell off on my way to work and got eaten by the street cleaner behind me), and I particularly liked the double insurance of its coaster brakes and front handbrake (especially as neither was as immediately responsive as I might have wished). I became more comfortable riding in traffic, and with the assistance of a great big double basket, zipped my way to work grocery shopping and on other errands around town...but then one night the bike was stolen, basket and all.

So I've been watching the postings again. Part of me, the part that is feeling severely restrained and unexercised, is tempted to take the first good deal that comes along, so I can get moving again. The other part of me wants to hold out for my dream bike, the one that lets me fly with the wind. But what I've realized recently -- what prompted me to write all this out -- is that what I'm really waiting for goes beyond a bike model, beyond a reminiscent connection with certain past scenarios. There's a little part of me that's still hoping for the freedom associated with those situations, which I will likely never be able to replicate, at least not with any permanence. Because no matter how perfect the vehicle is, no matter how classic, how simple, how elementary...the life through which I will ride it is just a heck of a lot more complicated.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


כ"א טבת, תשס"ז
I've been slowly making my way through the archives of Treppenwitz, which is a great read (and why start a good book from the middle??) and I came across a post calling attention to the original Park(ing) installation.

The concept is that a parking space is simply a small piece of urban real estate, available for (very) short-term rent at relatively low cost. The creators of this project decided that the usual assumption that these spaces are available to vehicles only is overrated. They fed the meter and created a 2-hour park -- complete with grass, tree and bench. Beyond pulling a creative prank, these artists were making a statement about how much of our public space is devoted to vehicles rather than people, and how much our physical environment affects what we well as vice versa. Because people used this space, and enjoyed it.

The idea caught and spread, and a year later the same group led a Park(ing) Day, on which they "planted" five such temporary green spaces and other groups around San Francisco as well as elsewhere in the world joined in with many more. Their comment on the event:
In addition to calling attention to the need for broader discourse regarding public space in urban contexts, we sought to test public response to the PARKs in a variety of socioeconomic situations. We are pleased to report that the PARKs were generally met with a varying mix of surprise, approval, joy and incredulity. A few people thought perhaps we'd fallen out of our tree. Perhaps we have.
I don't think so. I think they're brilliant.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Living in Washington, DC

י"ב טבת, תשס"ז
Many of you who actually come here from time to time (are there any of you left?) do so in an attempt to find out what I'm up to -- how my life is, what I'm doing these days, etc. If that's been your goal, I haven't been too helpful. For some reason it's been hard for me to get into the "swing" of writing on a regular basis again. There was a short while when I kept having ideas for amusing current posts, but that was when my brain was backlogged with Israel material I wanted to record and none of them were worthwhile enough to withstand a delay of a couple of months.

I do, however, have a somewhat generic list of likes and dislikes of this new city of residence of mine which I'll share in an attempt to get a little closer to the right subject matter. Mind, these are not about the more intimate aspects of my experience here, nor are they specific to the Jewish community (although some of them do relate to my personal needs as a shabbat- & kashrut-observant individual). Many of them relate to -- surprise, surprise! -- transportation. They are not comprehensive and I may add new points as the come to mind. But without further ado:

Things I like about DC
  • There are trees -- and particularly grass -- in locations other than parks. That is, unless you identify any area within a city which has grass and trees as a park. Despite being from Manhattan, I choose not to, because I prefer to think that there is indeed space within an ordinary metropolitan setting for green things that grow, and I point to them here as proof. (There's nothing like circular reasoning, huh?)
  • I like the general feel of the city. This is not something you're going to get a photo of, and it's not even something I can fully explain, but I think it's similar to the result of a successful recipe. There's a blend of "Northern" and "Southern" here that results in just the right speed. People are relaxed and laid back, but not too much so (which might not be saying much, coming from a New Yorker, but that's who's running this blog). There's a mix of urban and suburban characteristics (varying by neighborhood, of course, but all within the city) that makes neither density nor sprawl overwhelming.
  • All entrances to the Metro (what the subway here is called) have escalators. Most or all have elevators as well, but the point is that the mode is not reserved for the convenience of only those who can walk up & down a gazillion stairs, nor are the possible routes limited for those who can't. Of course, in addition to the relative newness for the system, its sheer depth below ground may have something to do with the mechanized egress:

  • While we're on the subject of the Metro, the electronic boards that give advanced traveler info are great. These list the next several trains that are on their way, identified by their line color and final stop, and specify how many minutes until they are due to arrive. Granted, these "minutes" are sometimes counted by a slightly, er, flexible number of seconds...but even so, I find it's helpful in lowering stress levels just to have an estimate.
  • Along the same lines, nearly all the signal lights at crosswalks have countdown timers to let pedestrians know exactly how long they have to get across the street before the light changes. In addition to this primary purpose, which obviously helps prevent people being stranded in the middle of a wide intersection against the light, it also informs traffic waiting to travel in the perpendicular direction when they will have the right-of-way. This allows often-necessary downtime for drivers and cyclists to read directions, take a drink, find something in a bag, etc. without being nervous that they will be slow to respond to the change to green. I've also found, as a pedestrian, that encountering a timer near the end of its cycle in the direction perpendicular to that I am traveling will convince me to wait for my own walk signal, soon to come, rather than crossing against the light.
  • Overall, there is relatively little incline on the streets here, and drivers seem fairly aware of the potential presence of cyclists. That may be a fair comparison only to New York...but regardless, I've been enjoying biking as a means of transportation (that is, until my bike was stolen, but that's a whole 'nother issue...)
Things I Don't Like About DC
  • There seems to be a particularly high rate -- and if not, at least a particularly high visibility -- of homelessness here. Granted, my only strong point of comparison is New York, but it seems to me (partially based on the sharp decline of homelessness there in the 90s) that there should be some way for the city's government to give these people the assistance they need. Certainly, non-profit organizations with this specific goal abound, and I donate to select ones when I can, but I do believe that when the covered entryway to the local library becomes a fully-booked night dormitory...something has gone horribly wrong with the public welfare system.
  • The sparsity of locations to buy packaged retail food in this city is remarkable. Supermarkets are few and far between, and the very few small grocery stores do not come close to filling the gap. Fresh produce is available with varying consistency, quality and variety at only some of these outlets, or at farmers' markets that only take place at certain places on certain days in certain seasons. This is inconvenient for general shopping needs, but nearly as annoying is the resultant void if I ever neglect to make lunch to bring to work. Wherever I worked in NY, if I didn't have time to put anything together or forgot to grab something from home, I would simply run downstairs to the little grocery on the corner, or the supermarket down the block, or even the fruit stand across the street, and get something to tide me over. It was never a problem. Here, in that situation, about the only place within reach that sells anything resembling real food that isn't prepared and very-not-kosher is CVS pharmacy!
  • I like that the weather here in the winter is a bit warmer and milder (although honestly, I'm not really sure whether it's location or just the way things are this year)...but the summer is awful. I moved here in August and so only had to endure about a month of super-duper-horrendous humidity, but it was enough to make me rather dread the coming of June.
  • It's against the rules to eat or drink in the Metro. What's up with that? I understand that they're trying to keep the place clean, and to their credit, it is. But frankly, I'm not sure so much of the dirt in the NYC subway is food-related, and even if it is...why not just make littering illegal? They don't seem to have much difficulty enforcing the no food/drink (although I can't imagine why), so why do they think the same obedience wouldn't hold for something so much more reasonable? Meanwhile, I have to surreptitiously sneak bites of a granola bar from my bag...
  • The streets here seem designed expressly to taunt people who are, uh, directionally challenged. (I don't know anyone like that, do you?) I mean, the quadrant system can be learned, and it makes some degree of sense. Even the diagonal state-named avenues randomly criss-crossing the lettered and numbered streets can be gotten used to. But the absolute, ultimate affront to sanity and reason are the two-way streets that become one-way, the one-way streets that suddenly become one-way in the other direction, and the streets that simply cease to exist and then begin again several blocks later. Toss in a few "no left turns" and it's enough to drive a person mad! (And remember, I discovered most of this while on a bicycle, where every left turn is already a challenge and every extra block is on my own steam...)