More Mundane Details of War

17 Jul

After 10 days of war, I don’t have any new insights to share.

Things have been quiet for the most part here, thankfully. We are eternally grateful for the safe room and iron dome. Yet, the kids have meltdowns because of anxiety they inevitably usurp from us and everyone around them.

Despite the occasional fit, my 5-year-old says he likes the sirens. Before he went to bed one night, he said, “maybe there’ll be a little siren.” It was a variation on “I want just a little chocolate”, or “I want to stay in the park a little longer”, when this savvy negotiator bargains for something he can’t have.

Why? During one of the sirens, when he was dragged out of bed, not yet asleep, we found his favourite cartoon for the first time in English, “the Octonauts”, including lots of new episodes. We could stop watching the same four short ones in Hebrew, joy! I congratulated myself on my sharp maternal instincts: what else can one do with two sleepy kids in a safe room? Sometimes we skype with Bubby in Montreal. This has a dual function: it occupies the kids and calms my mother because she can see that we are safe.

Our safe room, ready for action

Our safe room, ready for action

Our 22-month-old didn’t fare as well. He didn’t fall back asleep after the sirens and the intensity of his vociferous toddler tantrums has amplified exponentially since then.

So, I try to stay calm and cling to routine. Only when they’re asleep, I watch the constant Israeli news reports, which are informative but skewed and depressing. It’s addictive. It’s hard to turn off. Then, there’s Facebook and the endless debates among who’s right and who’s wrong and who’s moral and who’s not – as if this war didn’t have two sides trying to kill each other, too blind and weak to find a better solution.

We have not experienced the intensive barrage of rocket fire that residents of the South and now also Tel Aviv have been enduring. Still, I plan every outing meticulously, determining in advance where to hide if there’s  a siren. Our pool has two safe areas, and miraculously, while other public events have been cancelled, this week my kids enjoyed an outdoor performance there of the Jungle Book.

Our regular hangout is the park next door because I estimate I can grab the little one and his bimba and run with the older one to the bottom of our building’s staircase (i.e. safe space) in 90 seconds.  The older knows he can’t bring his bike these days because I’m alone and that would upset the balance of carrying and running.

A surreal moment to conclude: It’s Saturday night and I’m hanging laundry on our balcony overlooking Israel’s southwest. The TV news inside tells us that Hamas is threatening to launch a massive attack on Tel Aviv right then. Aharon has been away on a dig for the past month, so when he joins me outside it could have been the most romantic moment we’ve had in a long time.

“Look!”

“What?”

“It’s the iron dome!”

And there it was. A thin light rising into the sky, a small splat of light and some booms. Two over Tel Aviv and one over Ashdod.

Aharon cheers as if we were watching the World Cup game about to start. The news tells us what we already knew: Interceptions over Gush Dan and Ashdod.

Then there was a siren, and we rushed two sleeping kids into our safe room.

Hamas must have been listening to Elton John.

 

Now, I’ll sign off to take advantage of the humanitarian ceasefire to buy groceries.

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The Routine of War

10 Jul

We have returned to the routine of war. That’s how the past two days have felt.

Everything about this latest war is familiar: the Homefront Command’s instructions on how to act when a siren goes off in our town, the news broadcasters’ urgent tones, the reports of hits and misses in Israel, the body count in Gaza, the patriotism, the generosity among strangers, the “us vs. them” rhetoric.

This routine of ours, which we have lived several times over in recent years, is anything but routine. It’s terrifying, awful, depressing, aggravating. With rockets landing in the Jerusalem area and south of Haifa, much of our populace is faced with life-threatening dilemmas every minute. What to do with the kids? It’s summer vacation; in the South camps and other programs have been cancelled. If we’re lucky enough to have a nursery or camp with a shelter (as do my children, thankfully), we debate whether we should take them at all. Should we take them to the park after camp, should we risk it? Where is the closest shelter? What do we do if the sirens go off at night?

As I set up our safe room with a portable crib and mattresses as well as diapers, snacks and other essentials, I am infinitely grateful that I am far from the violence. I am grateful for the relatively large size of this room, which is in our apartment and not communal, so I don’t have to see our neighbors in pyjamas in the middle of the night. I am grateful that our lives have continued as normal, and that Israeli ingenuity has created the Iron Dome system to intercept rockets. This unique and innovative system is a true miracle, having minimized damage and injury immensely during the last few wars with Gaza.

In the mainstream Israeli media, we hear mostly about hits on us, which is essential and logical. Yet, we hear little more than sterile numbers about the immense damage and suffering on the Palestinian side.  Israel always claims it doesn’t want to harm civilians, and I believe this intention is sincere, but it inevitably happens because of the nature of Hamas warfare.  Moreover, our leaders justify this widespread destruction, claiming the attacks weaken the Hamas and destroy their ability to harm us.

Yet, here we are again. We repeat this war routine over and over, air strikes on our side, and rockets from theirs. Death and damage. Human suffering on both sides.  Each successive war has not changed the situation.

I wish our leaders would realize that when war becomes routine, our strategy needs to change. We Israelis cannot continue living like this. By we, I refer especially to residents of the Gaza border region and the South, who have lived from siren to siren for nearly 15 years. We can’t afford to raise another generation in bomb shelters.

In Gaza, air strokes have already killed dozens of Palestinians, including civilians and children.  I can’t start to understand the immense suffering they endure.

Many Israelis think that Palestinians value death over life, while we as Israelis value life. Thus, according to their reasoning, Palestinians drag themselves into these wars, and it’s their fault. Though there is some truth in this, exemplified by widespread incitement against Israel and the culture of suicide bombings among Palestinians, I refuse to believe that most Palestinians don’t long for quiet and security, like everyone else in this world.

Israel’s Channel 1 News showed this (serious) excerpt last night from a Palestinian satire show: [loose translation from the translated Arabic to Hebrew]: “We tried the way of peace, and that didn’t succeed… We tried resistance, and that didn’t succeed….there is a nation here that wants to live, and there are leaders who must find a solution – on both sides.”

Enough said. It’s time to go back to the drawing board. This war routine is not sustainable. We need a better, more creative solution.

Let’s hope that Bibi, his ministers and coalition members will prove their worth and invest in the future of this country. Let them break the cycle of violence for good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where are our Leaders?

5 Jul

Morale in Israel is very low. Tensions are high.

Because there is so much going around the Internet and media about this latest “escalation”, I hereby provide my humble viewpoint to shed light onto the violence – both verbal and physical – that has once again overtaken this land.

As if the news that the three kidnapped teens were dead was not horrible enough, things have devolved dramatically since then.

The night of the teens’ funerals the authorities released the full version of Gilad Shaar’s brave call to Police, in which their murder is documented: his hushed but clear words “I’ve been kidnapped”, the kidnappers yelling at the three, screams, shots, the kidnappers congratulating each other.

Yet, despite this, the police and army did not act until seven hours later, even after the parents contacted authorities several times as well. They thought it was a prank. In a call by Shaar’s father that was also released to the public post-mortem, he politely begs the army to get involved. The woman on the other side dismisses him outright, saying usually these things resolve themselves in the morning.

Hello!?! Kidnappings happen here. Relatively often. This is not a far-fetched scenario. I simply can’t get over the complete incompetence that led to a 7-hour delay in our well-oiled military machine getting into action.

That being said, the army and government, as well as the media and the families knew early on from the call itself that the chances of the boys being alive were extremely low. I can understand the families’ need for optimism. I can even sort of understand the need for gag orders and the military to do their work, but we, as a public, were misled big time. Many of us feel duped.

Since the media announced the grim news of the  killings on Monday, Israel has exploded. Our Facebook feeds and other media overflow with explicit racist comments and calls for revenge. We’re talking  incitement to murder, not freedom of speech.

In a Jerusalem protest march, wild-eyed demonstrators called for revenge and “death to Arabs.” Some physically attacked Palestinian passersby.

The day after the boys’ funeral unknown perpetrators kidnapped and murdered Muhammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teen.  Many, including the Palestinian authority and the boy’s family, allege that Jewish terrorists are responsible.  The authorities have not yet found the culprits.

Things are very bad. Violence has returned, and spirits are as low as I can remember them.

Read this excellent column in Haaretz by Sayed Kashua for a Palestinian citizen of Israel’s perspective on things.

What upsets me almost more than the acts themselves is our leaders’ silence. Though our Prime Minister, ministers and dozens of other public figures made a grandiose show of visiting the parents’ of the kidnapped teens and attending their funerals, they are noticeably silent in the aftermath.

Why has there been no official public condemnation of the racist photos, posts, and actions going around the Internet? And if there has, why haven’t I seen it on the news or Facebook feed? Why are people not afraid to post these things?

I’m not talking about prosecuting the offenders (though this of course should happen too). I am talking about a clear, public statement, telling the people of Israel that these are not our values.

bibi

(Courtesy the Prime Minister’s Office)

Yes, Binyamin Netanyahu meekly condemned the murder of Abu Khdeir. Why doesn’t he address the nation and call for tolerance and calm, encourage us not to repeat the crimes of our foes? We know he is articulate. He spoke at the teens’ funerals. Where is Bibi now?

Yitzhack Aharonovitch, our Minister of Public Security, and top officials at the Israel Police have done their best to downplay both the ignored kidnapping call and Abu Khdeir’s murder. Why isn’t he or Netanyahu promising to put the same efforts into solving this murder as they did to find “the boys”?

In the past two days, while East Jerusalem and other Arab towns are ablaze in riots, Aharonovitch appears on TV, urging the protesters to keep calm and promising that Police will act against anyone who breaks the law. Why is he not openly condemning the hundreds of Israelis inciting to violence and threatening revenge?

I am deeply disheartened by our leaders’ silence. They have missed a golden opportunity.

In the wake of this week’s events, Israel’s leaders had the chance to prove that despite the occupation, the ongoing violence, and many other problems, when push comes to shove Israel strives to treat people equally, is a moral and democratic country, and condemns murder and racism in their most explicit forms.

But that hasn’t happened, and Israel’s leadership has revealed its true face more than ever. Now, we are forced to watch the results unfold. We can be appalled but we can’t be surprised.

 

 

 

 

 

An Emotional No Man’s Land: Between Death and Life

1 Jul

Once again, it is a day of national mourning in Israel.  Yesterday we received the devastating news that the army found the bodies of the three kidnapped teens, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel.

The news confirmed our worst fears. And thus, heartbroken, we as a nation begin the familiar process.

As I sat down to watch the news last night, part of this collective mourning, I received an SMS from a good friend announcing she had given birth “with love” to a girl.

I was expecting this news, and of course was very happy to hear it. Yet, it wasn’t real happiness. It was superficial. I couldn’t feel it. Stuck between this amazing, essential, life-sustaining news and TV images of West Bank fields, army troops, and vociferous politicians gesticulating and threatening, I didn’t know what to feel.  I wasn’t overwhelmed by two conflicting emotions; I was blank. I was in an emotional no man’s land.

I imagined my friend in the hospital with her husband, on a post-partum high, receiving the evening’s grim news. She should name her daughter after one of the boys, I thought immediately. Will she? What would I do? I wouldn’t. Why should I tie an innocent, newborn life irrevocably to national tragedy?

This isn’t the first time I have celebrated a life-cycle event while at the national, political level Israel mourned. In 2008, on the eve of another friend’s wedding, a Palestinian ran over several people and vehicles with a bulldozer, killing three before a bystander shot him. Back then, I thought how sad it was for my friend that her wedding was taking place on a day of national tragedy. However, Israelis more than anyone know how to carry on; the beautiful wedding went on as planned.

I also went to a wedding the night of the Mavi Marmara incident, feeling deep shame at my country for carrying out such a deadly and disproportional attack on the passengers of that boat, while revelers danced to happy music around me.

In fact, my friend who gave birth to her third child last night was married at the height of the Second Lebanon War, in a lovely ceremony, as soldiers died many kilometers to the North.

Today, though, I feel different. I am fed up with this emotional war. I used to think that I felt more alive in Israel because I experienced all the range of emotions in a dense and acute manner. After 11 years of living here, I am in emotional burn-out, unable to feel even the most basic, private joy of  a close friend on a day like this.

Enough. I want this to end.

This is a particularly vulnerable time for me; June is a month of mourning. My family and I mark my father’s sudden and untimely death 14 years ago in a laborious slew of depressing dates: the Hebrew anniversary of his death, the “real”anniversary of his death, my parent’s wedding anniversary, Father’s Day, the day of his funeral, etc.  Perhaps it’s because I have suffered premature grief that in the past I have empathized deeply with victims’ families, both Israeli and Palestinian. Untimely death is destructive and painful and unnecessary.

The boys’ murders are heinous and unforgivable. I extend my deepest condolences to their families, which will never be the same.

At the same time, the kidnapping was not unexpected. The Palestinians have lived for 47 years under Israeli occupation, in the midst of a complicated and bloody conflict.  Their lives are hindered and often destroyed by constant military operations, violence, and restrictions on the most basic daily acts such as working, going to a doctor’s appointment, or enjoying a good night’s sleep.

With the Israeli reaction underway, this latest round of violence will only push us deeper into the pit of death and mourning. When will both sides take the brave step of saying “enough”?

When will the national mourning ritual stop? When will we be able to rejoice about the important things in life?

The Greek Autumn

12 Oct

Unlike in Israel, where social protests (and wars, as the song goes)  happen in the summer, Greece saves them for the fall. This is easily explained by the Greeks’ unfailing commitment to vacation in the islands for all of August if not the entire summer, economic crisis or not.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Athens this week spurred Greeks out of their summer bliss and into Syntagma Square and other familiar protest grounds. The arrival of a woman who embodies all that is wrong with austerity and the deepening crisis for Greeks is a worthy reason to demonstrate and express anger over the worsening economic turmoil.

The images I saw on TV, from here in Israel, were familiar, except for the protesters dressed up as Nazis in the crowds, and saluting them with the notorious Nazi salute. During our time in Greece, it was common to hear talk of the “second German occupation” and even a term like the “fourth Reich” was not a shocker. I wonder what they were trying to accomplish, though, with this latest provocative act, and how the majority of Greeks interpret it. To me,  it’s an irresponsible and highly offensive stunt, and those who carried it out are clearly unaware of how charged a metaphor they made.

The TV crew interviewed a woman who said that the Germans were “killing them” – except that they’re not and this is the protesters’ main fallacy. Although I don’t diminish the Greeks’ current predicament and the widespread suffering it has caused, the Germans are not killing Greeks – or anyone else – in gas chambers. A type of fiscal occupation maybe, but not a systematic murder campaign to control the world and eliminate those deemed racially inferior which is what Nazi symbolism typically connotes.

The immediate association for me was the exhausting and obnoxious use of Nazi symbols, rhetoric, and yellow Jewish stars in Israel by a wide array of interest groups, simply to draw attention. I think most Israelis are sick of such comparisons, since members of the settlement movement wore yellow stars in protest of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, under the headline “Jews don’t expel Jews”. Needless to say, public outcry, even from within the movement, quickly suppressed that misguided campaign.  (For an interesting if not weak comparison between Greeks’ and Israelis’ use of Nazi symbolism, Hebrew speakers can read today’s column by Benny Ziffer in Haaretz).

Like Israel, Greece has a painful history with Germany, and the country’s resistance to the Nazi occupation is highlighted often in the public discourse as well as in museums, and by individual citizens. I have heard several stories of impressive courage. Closest to home, Israel bestowed upon our downstairs neighbors in Athens one of its highest honours: Righteous among the Nations. Her parents and aunt and uncle hid a Jewish family in their homes for several years, brazenly defying the Gestapo officials based across the street. I wonder what Ani, and other Greeks who lived through the Nazi horrors, think of this week’s protesters.

What’s even more ironic is that Greece’s homegrown Nazi party, Golden Dawn, has become stronger in recent months, winning several seats in the current parliament. The party shamelessly flaunts the swastika and other Nazi rhetoric, even denying the Holocaust. Though they are growing popular among certain segments of the population, to the best of my knowledge, most Greeks strongly deplore the party’s overtly racist policies and violent bully tactics. (For the latest on the Golden Dawn, read this article). I mentioned in my last post the Swastika we found on our building in Athens ahead of the recent elections.

Shame on the protesters who defamed their own history as well as that of humanity with this cheap and vulgar stunt. I hope it won’t weaken the Greeks’ attempts to overcome this crisis and make a better future for themselves.

The Greek Spring

18 May

Spring in Athens was short but wonderful, while it lasted. The flowers bloomed, the tourists returned, and the white soldiers wore their white, summer uniforms (in the winter, they are actually blue soldiers). For a few short weeks, the temperature was perfect; people were happy, the first summer fruits appeared in our laiki, or neighborhood market.  The other day a bunch of spinach seduced me so completely that I baked it whole and almost bare – it was delicious!

The Athens spring soon morphed into something we’re more familiar with in the Middle East: the turbulent, sandy smog which descends on us between winter and the unbearable summer months. Open windows don’t suffice anymore; the aircon is back. Despite this, beach water is too cold to swim in. It’s plain unpleasant.

This mugginess also manifested itself in Greece’s political realm. The Greek people seem to have accomplished their goal in last weekend’s parliamentary elections: duping the system into non-functionality. Fed up with the government’s response to European austerity measures imposed on them since their country’s economic collapse, Greeks have rebelled by returning to their government what their government gave them for so long – a catch-22.

Our little corner of the Hellenic state welcomed the rise of the Left and the disintegration of the coalition with open arms – and hopes for a better tomorrow. The public rejected austerity measures (who wouldn’t?). All of this was tempered by the rise of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which received 7% of the vote, the first time in recent European history an overtly neo-Nazi party has received such a large percentage of the vote.

We got a taste of Golden Dawn when someone spray-painted a swastika on our building. Was this for us, Aharon and I thought, with a hint of intrigue. This will make a good story back in Israel!

But seriously, what do you do? I doubt the police will care much. A few days ago, the party’s leader publicly denounced the Holocaust. I don’t feel threatened but it doesn’t make me sad to leave this country!

Until earlier this week, the leaders of the top-scoring parties tried in vain to create a coalition. There will be new elections in June, and Greece may leave the eurozone.

This is an interesting outcome. To some, voting intentionally for small parties seems self-destructive. But really they are shooting the ineptness of their government right back at it.  Most Greeks want to stay in the euro but not under Angela Merkel’s austerity regime. In fact, they often say that this is the “second German occupation.” While this may seem self-serving and even lazy by some accounts, there is no solution in sight – eurozone or not.

From what I can tell, Greeks have traditionally voted for centrist parties which do little to improve the lives of their constituents but reinforce the status quo. Now, because Greeks have reached rock bottom, they reacted extremely. They know that voting for small (and sometimes extreme) parties cannot create a stable government. Leaving the euro isn’t ideal but neither is staying in – not under the current conditions anyways. The status quo has only failed them thus far.

So if they must vote, let them vote for who they really believe in, even if this won’t bring an immediate solution. For many, this meant supporting leftist and even anti-Europe parties. For others, that means affiliating themselves with an extreme xenophobic Nazi group.

This is a brave move. In Israel, too, the majority favors conformity; the status quo is better than the unknown, many say. While it is practical and aims to avert results which are considered worse (for example, when leftists voted for Tzipi Livni in 2009 to prevent a Bibi win), it usually backfires in the long-run. In the above-mentioned case, Livni received more votes but Bibi formed the coalition and became prime minister.  Recently, Livni resigned from the Knesset after an ineffectual stint as opposition leader; her replacement, Shaul Mofaz, joined the coalition and we have “King Bibi” on the cover of Time magazine. Not an ideal outcome!

I admire the Greeks, and I hope that Israelis can find some inspiration here, too. Although we know that fragmented governments are not effective, if we continue to vote for ambivalent parties such as Kadima, void of ideology and doing little to change or improve anything – whether it be bringing peace or social justice – we keep ourselves in the status quo, in a trench of conformity.

Last summer’s social protests were a start. Israelis briefly broke out of their apathy and called for major change; we said loud and clear that the status quo doesn’t work. I’m optimistic things will continue in this direction. I hope we don’t have to reach rock bottom, as in Greece, to cross the threshold, and to stand up to our government, to create REAL change.

A lost Whitney and the lost ’80s

20 Feb

Sitting at home for the past few days with the flu, I’ve had time to peruse the Net for tributes and memories to Whitney Houston, my first childhood idol. Since she died, I’ve been astounded at how sad I feel.

I haven’t followed her career since the mid-’90s but I spent a good part of my elementary school years listening to her first three albums. “Whitney Houston” was the first tape I ever owned. So it didn’t take me long to understand that it wasn’t only Whitney, the star, I was mourning but the Whitney of my childhood – the upbeat, pretty VOICE that made us dance and sing and conquered all.

There was something so pure and inviting about Whitney back then. Watch this clip from the 1986 Grammys (it’s worth watching just to see the other nominees and Dionne Warwick!). She is so young, so naive, so lacking in confidence, that she seems like a child herself. The hair, the dress, the moves- it’s just all so innocent and ’80s. (Note: some of my astute family members may notice that Whitney’s cute little red number is not unlike my mother’s legendary “Billy dress”, the fuchsia gown she successfully reinvented and wore to numerous weddings throughout the ’80s.)

It was this Whitney that a friend and I spent hours trying to call (by phone!) so that we could profess our unconditional love to her. It was to this girl-woman’s voice we made up our jazz-dance moves to perform at recitals and summer-camp shows. This is Whitney before the drugs, before Bobby, before the mediocre hits, and before her tragic end. This is how I want to remember her.

So much of this nostalgia for me is selfish, because I want to associate her with my pure and happy childhood memories, a time which was simpler not only because I was younger but because the world was younger and not so information-hungry and intrusive. Would kids ever look a celebrity up in a phone book today? Now everything is accessible, whereas then stars and TV and music still had a mystical, untouchable appeal. It saddens me that children today will never have such a pure experience.

These memories completely juxtapose the woman found unconscious underwater in an LA hotel last week. We all knew she did drugs and that Bobby was a horrible husband. But I didn’t imagine the extent of her self-destruction until I saw this interview with Oprah.

In her late 40s, supposedly clean and divorced from Bobby, Whitney is as fragile and vulnerable as ever. But instead of the cheerfulness and optimism of her debut, this was a woman defeated.  She tells about trying to please her abusive husband to beyond her breaking point – even after they were both wrecked by drugs, he was cheating on her “and dragging dirt into her home.” She hadn’t really grown or matured over all those years of fame and suffering. She just had many battle scars to show for it.

As sad as Whitney’s story is, it’s not hard to understand. The shy woman with the enormous voice couldn’t handle the stardom. It’s always sad to see the bubble burst and within it your childhood idol self-destruct. Yet more than disappointment, I feel sorry for her. I think she’d probably have admitted, too, that her early years were the best. And for those of us who loved her as innocents, we should always remember her as such.

Three weeks in a Greek hospital

6 Feb

Spending three weeks in a Greek hospital is inevitably one way of learning the culture. Between all of my son’s suffering, surgeries, and other procedures, I did manage to seep up some interesting phenomena.

We were in a public (children’s) hospital so we met all sorts. The vast majority of the people we encountered there didn’t speak English, and our Greek was too paltry for anything but the most basic communication (read: mime).

1) All sorts – this case won’t leave me.

The first few nights of our stay, a woman who couldn’t be older than 22 slept in the crib next to us with her infant son. She was eight months pregnant with her fourth child (to the best of our understanding), and no one bothered to bring her food. When her husband and his brother (I assume) came for their half-hour visits, they brought her cigarettes. I can only describe the brother as a mega-ars, who wore a vest from the early 90s and a large diamond stud in his right ear.

The woman/girl kept slapping the baby, and was coughing heavily (likely because of her heavy smoking). Thankfully, they moved her out to a private booth so that the rest of the room wouldn’t catch her cough. Poor kid.

No one else spoke to her, except when the other parents tssskked her for hogging the rented TV which wasn’t hers.

2) We learned of new places, from which our roommates hailed to be treated at this Athenian hospital: places such as Limnos and Mytilini. They had to either travel by boat for 12 hours or be rushed by airplane. Others were lucky enough to live three or fours away from car. In all of those cases, both parents came to the hospital and slept on chairs for several nights with few changes of clothes, and little opportunity for washing.

First, this indicates the difficulty of running Greece as a country; how can any government administer services and manage a population so dispersed on remote islands? How can citizens communicate effectively and receive equitable access to state resources? When many of its residents can’t easily get to a hospital, this doesn’t bode well for the state. Though I don’t know this for sure, Greece must spend lots of money on emergency transport of remote residents to hospitals in medical emergencies.

Second, it made us realize how lucky we were to have an apartment nearby, where at least we could change and shower easily and bring new toys and clothes for Amitai. Our friends from  (an island in the northern Aegean sea), whose daughter underwent the same surgery as Amitai, didn’t have that luxury and they were still there when we left. And the wife is nine months pregnant.

3) Greek doctors speak English really well and we are very grateful to the team which treated him. I can’t say the same for the nurses – or at least they didn’t let on to it. It’s totally our responsibility to learn the local language but it’s frustrating when after three weeks in the same ward, you learn that most of the nurses who refused to communicate with you or your petrified son actually do speak some English but couldn’t bother to make the effort

Oh well, at least our Lonely Planet Phrasebook came in handy. Sort of. And I know a lot more Greek words now (“rash”, “pain”, “sheets”).

Guilt-free and mobile!

27 Dec

Hanukkah is quickly overtaking Passover as my favourite holiday. What’s not to like? Mesmerizing flames, and no existential guilt or physical suffering. It’s a light, happy holiday. And the other holiday it to share airtime with doesn’t hurt its prestige.

Better yet, the holiday is mobile. Hanukkiot (the Hanukkah candelabras) are perfect for bringing with you anywhere. Have menorah, will travel. You can make latkes (potato pancakes) almost everywhere, too, as the ingredients (oil, potatoes, flour) are basic.

Hanukkah has been my most celebrated holiday abroad. Unlike “heavier” holidays like Yom Kippur or Passover, when it’s hard to celebrate without proper resources, comforts or community, Hanukkah can be done anywhere.  It is such an affable, benign holiday that it’s hard not to succumb to its charms.

In general it’s nicer to celebrate Jewish holidays in Israel; the atmosphere is rife with tradition, happiness, preparations, energy. But looking back, I’ve celebrated my most memorable Hanukkahs abroad.

When I lived in Bolivia 10 years ago, I threw three Hanukkah parties. There weren’t any other Jews there.  The first was at the shelter for teenage mothers in Tarija, where I volunteered. They rejoiced in yet another way to cook potatoes (there are 400 species of potatoes there) and things are so bleak in Bolivia that any excuse for a party was welcome. I hosted another potato-and-grease-fest at my apartment, and toward the end of the eight days, I lit the candles with friends in the market in Tarija, en route to the capital Sucre.

This year, we celebrate the holiday in beleaguered Athens, crisis capital of 2011. The irony of celebrating a holiday, in which we mark our victory over the Greeks, albeit 2,000 years ago, is latent. Perhaps even more ironically, we have had one of our most enjoyable Hanukkahs in a country to which we have no obvious connection, and where the Jewish community is nearly nonexistent.

We had a lovely Hanukkah party at Aharon’s school here in Athens (the American School of Classical Studies).  Aharon gave a talk on the holiday, and he made amazing donuts – on his first try.  The atmosphere at the school is warm all the time, so Hanukkah made it even more special. Our friends who attended seemed genuinely interested in learning about its origins and traditions.

On Sunday, we went to a party at Chabad. The couple who run the Athens branch of this global Jewish organization are warm, friendly people. They have set up a very child-friendly enterprise in the form of a Greek-Jewish kosher restaurant. What is more fun than making oily donuts with a bunch of cute children wearing chefs hats?

And another thing – growing up in Canada, Hanukkah was always cold. Really cold. I have many photos of the gold, blazing candles set beside the window overlooking mounds of white. And so the cold finally came to Athens. So Hanukkah seems as it should be this year, in the most unlikely of places.

Who Stole my Greek Christmas?

19 Dec

If the media portrayed reality as it was, I would be writing about a somber Christmas, people around me not being able to afford gifts and lavish holiday treats and parties. They would be depressed, thinking of brighter holidays past and wondering whether things would ever return to how they were.

I’m sure this sad Greek Christmas does exist, but not around here.

We live in Kolonaki, a posh neighborhood in downtown Athens, where the Christmas decorations are as gaudy as anywhere else I’ve seen, save New York City. Bright gold stars hang above the main boulevard and there’s no store or restaurant that doesn’t have red ribbons, lights, a tree in its display window.

All of this week – including Sunday! – the stores are open late so that people can get their shopping done. This is quite a sacrifice – opening past 5 pm here is considered late! All day Sunday, people walked by our place with lots of stuffed designer bags. The stores were packed. Recession? Worst financial crisis in decades? I can’t tell.

My neighbour just walked down the stairs wearing about twice the amount of makeup (in inches) than should be legally allowed.I can still smell her perfume. She was decked out in full evening wear. I don’t know anything about her – but this is not how Greek Christmas circa 2011 is supposed to look.

I have to read the news to remember what’s going on here. Or people tell me from abroad.

We’ve been shuttling between one holiday party after another, both Christmas and Chanukah. Amitai can now single “Jingle Bells” (well, the chorus). He loves the trees and the “red man with the beard”. Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the first night of Chanukah.

I’m not writing this to be sarcastic or facetious. It’s just that my reality is so far removed from what it should be – if the media dictated reality. Because I don’t speak Greek, and the only channels we can watch are international networks, my only other perception of Greek reality is the news. And the news is quite extreme – the hysterical declarations by European leaders, the melodramatic headlines (“Worst Crisis in Europe since World War II”). Maybe it’s a testament to the Greeks’ ability to cope and handle their problems with grace.

The company I work for is organizing a congress in Athens in a few months. My colleagues keep on asking me, “How are things over there?” “Is there violence? “Is it dangerous?”

I live about 15 minutes from the hub of protest activity – Syntagma Square. I’ve seen the protests, and inhaled the tear gas. But that’s about it. I feel I should be experiencing this more! What will I write home about? Where is the despair? The heart-wrenching stories?  I could walk over to some less affluent neighborhood, talk to more store owners, and other “regular people”. But why look for misfortune? We have enough of our own back home.

I sincerely hope things get better for the Greek people.  And may they all celebrate Christmas like in Kolonaki for years to come.