How to Describe Fizzy Life: Israel Expands Like Bread

Happy family (mother, baby, grandparents and aunt) at a brit-mila (circumcision) ceremony. Life’s fizzy nature buzzes all over the place / © 2010 AV

Recently I notice more books about Isreal’s amazing growth and accomplishment. As if suddenly the world has noticed how the country leaped from the dusty backward land to a green modern state. What is missing in these stories is the real people element. After reading a part of The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel and comparing it to Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle which focuses on the high-tech aspect of Israel’s development, I realized how books are great with dry statistics. Books are good with stories about companies and people of the past, but still dry. Pictures help me in seeing the people element, videos help most people, YouTube is the new addictive pastime.

I get a glimpse of everyday family life through my family. The extended one is big, so there are events and gatherings all the time. The family grows and blends into other families with births and weddings. When the families of newlyweds are different, like with my cousin’s daughter, I get another view into a whole new culture. My impressions of the last three weeks with the family:

Inside Israeli homes, usually small apartments, you can feel the intimacy. I get this feeling with families living here for three and four generation. Now raising a fourth and fifth generation has lost that feel of a new state or pioneering spirit Israeli were so proud of just 60 years ago. I had this feeling two weeks ago. My cousin’s daughter had a boy three weeks ago. My cousin is proud but also pretended to be a little nonchalant. That all ended two weeks ago when the baby had a brit-milah (circumcision.) Brit-milah is the first ceremony a baby boy goes through in the Jewish tradition. In Israel, Jewish circumcision it is a common practice and calls for a small celebration. So my cousins (one brother, the grandfather, and his two sisters) with their families got together.

The new baby’s parents come from very different background. In Israel, religious observance can lead to a tear between families and friends. Religion observance from no observance at all to complete orthodox life has many levels. Like a stack of plates, each level in the observance scale has it’s own connotation. Add to that differences in cultural background, the Ashkenazim descending from European roots and the Sephardim from middle eastern roots, and you have many social-religious-cultural grades people can divide themselves. In my family, almost everyone has married into a slightly different mix. Some to a totally different one with a wide gap between the two. This means that a woman might have to start being more observant if her new husband wants to keep an orthodox home. Becoming more observant is not hard but does require a change in view. Blending with a different culture with a different set of values and practices is even harder. Having your fist baby all at the same time, makes for a complete change in daily life – overwhelming! Friends and family make it easier. As you can see in the picture, the new mom has her mom and a sister for help. A few older friends with young babies are also helpful. In the mean time, cultural differences blend somehow. Old traditions change in Israel all the time. Eventually Israelis, the younger ones, make their own traditions. Here we do not assume any more, we just watch and learn.

Tipex vs. Free Brazilian Music: Crying Over Spilled Digital Milk

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The funky Israeli pop band Tipex has a song about music piracy. The words describe a woman in her car playing supposedly pirated music. She doesn’t care where the music comes from, she doesn’t even care what goes on outside her Jeep. The Jeep, a metaphor in Israel for financial success and individuality, what Israelis have been seeking forever. No mention of the music industry in the song, it is a bit sarcastic and uses dark humor, Tipex’s trade style. Tipex, a successful band that has seen the traditional CD industry collapse from pirated music, are trying to show how the music industry loses from piracy. In Israel, the music industry, specially CD manufacturing, studios and sales outlets was a nice industry. CD pirating killed that industry, in some sectors it came so quickly and completely as the saying goes: “they didn’t see it comin'” . This is going back ten to fifteen years, so what is new here? Why cry over spilled “digital” milk? (i.e. why complain over a lost cause from so long ago?) See the CD on Amazon:Sitting at the Cafe

In Brazil, a larger country with more music piracy they found a creative way to deal with the lost CD industry. They give away the music so people do not have to copy it illegally. Then they make the money on live shows. The shows they let people video tape and post on blogs and YouTube. The groups get exposure and free publicity, people come to see great shows, everyone is happy. In Israel the live music world is much less developed. There is a huge family event market: weddings, family parties, bar/bat-mitzvah and other group events. Here, specially the less known performers, do short sets of 20 minutes to an hour in family events. There are all kind of jokes even performers writing songs just for weddings (more on this in future posts.) Their music is circulated just like in Brazil. Today, with smart phones and laptops, MP3s are pushed around like a virus. It is too bad Israeli artists are not using Brazilian tactics. But maybe Israelis can’t do what Brazilian are doing. In Israel we simply don’t have the dance, music and live performance culture. Looking at other countries can make one envy. But in reality each culture has it’s own way of doing things. Just imagine, are Brazilian performers envious of the Cubans? But that is another story. Oh, if you like Brazilian, Cuban or Israeli music, head off to YouTube and have some fun. Be warned, to real music lovers, YouTube is an addictive pastime.

English Books in Israeli Book Stores: A Pleasant Surprise

A typical English book section at Steimatzky. Independent shops and chain store shops normally carry about 1,000 titles / © 2010

If you like to read fiction in the original English, in Tel Aviv you are in luck. But also in Hertzelia, Jerusalem, Givatay’im and Ra’anana. Israelis like to read, and the ones that know English well like to read the original in English. That makes for a great selection of fiction in many stores. Most big stores in malls have at least one stack and usually two devoted to English books. Most of the books are fiction with sections devoted to science fiction and usually another category. There is usually one shelf of business books with current best sellers like Malcolm Gladwell [Outliers , The Tipping Point , and Blink].

There is usually a shelf or two with Israeli writers translated to English. These cover fiction like Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua all the way to current events and politics. If you are visiting or here for a short stay, browsing this section will give you a wide view of Israeli literature. I personally read more Israeli fiction and poetry than political science. But there are lots of great books about the politics and leadership during times of war. Biographies of Israeli leaders are interesting. Leaders are probably the most unique element in Israel’s success. Leaders also reflect the personality of Israel. It is easier to understand what made people value through Yitzhak Rabin (The Rabin Memories) and Menachem Begin (His Life)
than understanding Israeli culture as a whole. Israelis followed leaders when times were hard and leaders were needed. This is one story of how Israel survived and eventually thrived. Fiction from Amos Oz (Black Box)
and Sami Michael (A Trumpet in the Wadi) are journeys into personal lives in Israel. In our small country, the private lives of people in fictional stories are hidden. Life in Israel is made up of struggles, but also a great deal of pleasure. Here, more than most places around the world, building a new society has made for a wonderful way of living. Amos Oz is somewhat of a dark writer, but with that you get details on how people live. Sami Michael writes about life in the mixed city of Haifa. The city has been the home of Jews and Muslims for over a hundred years. For the most part, the city lives a quiet life with two different cultures (and religions) side by side. Sami Miachael’s novels have lots of detail on daily life in Haifa. The city, third largest in Israel, does not get much attention. More will be written about Israeli writers published in English, hopefully this is enough of an introduction.

NOT TOO HOT for the Beach: Tel Aviv Beach at 35 ° C

Hardcore Matkot players take advantage of a hot afternoon when Gordon beach clears out. To some, it is never too hot for the beach / © 2010

Tel Aviv beaches are a magnet to tourists and locals all year long. Except when the temperature rises above 35° C (95° F) and the sun is at it’s peak. This July and early August we had a few hot days. They come in two and three at a time. Even the busy beaches empty by 2 PM. On a Saturday afternoons this feels strange. Empty spots on the beach is not something bathers are used to. The hard core sun bathers get quiet and enjoy the quiet in the air. The hard core matkot players, that are used to kids dodging balls and mothers screaming “watch out” or “go play somewhere else” are still hitting balls back and forth. I always wondered how this game became so popular. In Israel there are not that many unique games. On the beach there are volleyball nets and a few people passing a soccer ball back and forth. So inventing a game just for the beach, that is easy to get started, is a good idea. Interesting how this really simple game can become an advanced competitive sport. The competition is not the main object here. The object here is to keep the ball going back and forth. Advanced players can stand 10 meters or even 20 meters apart and hit the ball so hard, it is a challenge to hit it back. That is how two players measure their skill level. Harder and farther away you stand from each other, more advanced your skill level.

For more info on events and places in Tel Aviv take a look at Lisa Goldman’s book: City Guide Tel Aviv

What about the tourists and locals that headed away from the beaches? Tel Aviv has plenty of cool places to enjoy the summer. All along the beach strip are restaurants, bars and shops. On hot summer afternoon, most bars are not going to shoo you off for nursing a cold drink. The standard cold drinks of summer run the range of crushed ice lemonade with crushed mint leaves (Na’na in Hebrew) to cold coffees of all kinds. Ice cream is a big hit now. McDonals offers a 3 shekel soft cone, American style. There are lots of Italian gelato stands offering a single scoop from 9 shekels to a dish of six scoops topped with whipped cream and sauces for 50 shekels. If a movie or a museum are more your style, there are plenty of choices here too. Most movies in theaters are in English with subtitles in Hebrew. The latest Hollywood releases make it here at the same time as everywhere, sometimes a week or two after the US release. Tel Aviv also has a few great modern art museums. The Tel Aviv Museum of Art offer a mix of local Israeli and international artists. A wonderful exhibit of Chagal sketches in the basement is an amazing look at the artists as illustrator. A collection of prints he illustrated for a Russian book somehow survived in Tel Aviv. One of these projects artists get into and never release to the public. The museum and other museums in Tel Aviv. Don’t miss the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv. Here is a small and excellent collection of ancient glass, coins, ceramics and tools going back thousands of years in this geographic location. Whatever you choose to do, enjoy the hot summer in Tel Aviv.

For more information of Tel Aviv locations and activities, see Lisa Goldman’s City Guide Tel Aviv

Benyamin Netanyahu’s Brother: Jonathan’s Letters (Book)

Israel’s prime minister’s brother’s letters: to these who believe Netanyahu needs reminding of the horrors of terrorism. To everyone else, a peek at a life of a soldier.

Is Benyamin Netanyahu out of touch with the new reality of the Palestinians? What many do not remember is bibi’s brother Jonathan. Yoni (Jonathan’s nick name) lead the Israeli raid on terrorists holding Israelis in Entebbe (Uganda.) The raid by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is one of the most daring operation in the army’s history. Yoni died in the Raid. This must have been Netanyahu’s strongest personal impression of Israel’s fight with terrorism. I can imagine how Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal view of terrorism was shaped at an early age. Jonathan’s Netayahu’s letters are collected in a book: The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu: The Commander of the Entebbe Rescue Force (Amazon link)

Take a look at Jonathan Netanyahu’s memorial site [HERE]. WikiPedia’s operation Entebbe is also a good place to read about the operation and Jonathan [HERE]. Jonathan Netanyahu’s letters are about life as a soldier and as a son and brother. He wrote to his family, bibi being the younger brother got his own personal letters. What the collection reveals is a life of a young man. His military life was not the only thing he wrote about. He wrote about his life as a student at Harvard. He wrote personal suggestions to bibi, his younger brother. He worried that bibi would not get enough sleep during his military exercises. He also gave bibi suggestions on how to be careful during a fight. As a military hero we would like to put all his other thoughts, dreams and desires aside. This is where we see a life in it’s details. Herman Wouk (The Caine Mutiny: A Novel) compared Jonathan Netanyahu’s letters to Ann Frank’s diary. Written without any intention of publication, yet intimate and completely honest. I love this comparison, although, it is hard to compare the Holocaust experience to the terrorist attacks, Yoni’s letters are still a sensitive peek into a life we would probably never have seen.

You may ask yourself why read letters written 30 years ago by a fallen Israeli soldier. Is it to learn what Israel’s prime minister’s life and how it may affect his decisions? Is it to show that soldiers are not always just machines, taking command from generals and doing what needs to be done? Or is it just an interesting view of a man who was a soldier and a brother and a son and a lover? It is all of these and more. It is also a way to see the struggle of soldiers who need to take commands and fight to protect the state, yet still want a life full of love and passion and learning. Who struggle between studying philosophy at Harvard and commanding in the Israeli army. Who worry about a younger brother who may not be the toughest soldier, yet turned out to be a prime minister. It is seeing a picture with more than just TV sound bytes. It is literally sitting next to Yoni while he is writing to his beloved in a dusty field. These letters may be the most honest and revealing news you can read to learn about Israeli soldiers anywhere (with all do respect to CNN and BBC.)

Should Israel Spend More on Public Relations (P/R) and Advertising?

There is a split in opinion weather to promote Israel internationally using advertising or not. Some people see countries like Spain and Turkey advertising their beaches and ancient ruins as tourist spots. Should Israel do the same? Israeli reporters and PR professionals who see misleading international media reports from Palestinians are fuming. Palestinians are calling to ban Israeli goods and put pressure to release Palestinians imprisoned are getting more attention than Israel. Here people are calling for Israel to spend a little money and time to “correct the lies”. On the other side stand government and private organizations which call for a more direct use of promotion funds. There are plenty of opportunities to show Israel’s culture, people and government to people around the world. Israel has deployed a policy of sending people on missions to Jewish communities (much like religious missionaries.) Israel has also been supporting cultural and artistic outreach programs which to the government are just as crucial as political interests. With limited budget, the average Israeli citizen if not willing to spend money on both cultural mission and mainstream international media advertising.

On Tel Aviv streets there is a tendency to discount the influence of international press and world opinion. Israel has the self image of a place where we do things, not talk about them. As a matter of fact, this ideology is one of the myths Israeli hold so dear in comparison with our Arab neighbors. In Israel we do things, around us they talk about things. But as Israel has changed from an undeveloped, agricultural underdog to a technologically advanced and economically developed state, the myth of the past is still with us. I don’t think the myth is going to change until the generation from the old days fades. Myths are strong here in Israel. Maybe stronger than in other places. The myth of Israel rising out of the holocaust ashes is stronger than anyone can imagine. That myth could take years to explain on this blog. It simply pushes all criticism of Israel to the back of the mind. The Arabs and Christians see it as blinding Zionism. But that is not exactly accurate. Zionism was a movement to bring European Jews to Palestine in the 1880s. The myth of Israel created out of the horrors of Nazi Germany is much stronger. The problem with holding on to that myth over and above everything else is the inability to think more creatively in today’s terms. To the Zionist and the Israel out of the holocaust believers, it is hard to see something beyond. In reality, Zionism has done what was imagined in 1880 Europe. Actually, Israel as a state is much more than what the European Zionists imagined. It is also much different than what was imagined. European dreams were based in the life they had, Israel is in a different place with different people. The same is true with the establishment of Israel as a state with vibrant economic, political and social life. The reality here is different, but the dreams of our grandparents from Europe are still echoing in our psyche. Maybe we just need to tough it out, the echoes in our minds are just too vibrant to push back. Our parents wanted a Jewish state, we got one. Now our children will have to make it more to their own liking. They will have to talk more to the world and show less.