Stefanella's Drive Thru

Israel, U.S., conflict, war, peace, humor, travel, romance, fashion, fun

The Globo-Life August 15, 2010

Years ago while sitting in a San Francisco cafe, I moaned to an Israeli friend: “I like being here but I miss Israel.  And when I’m in Israel the things that drive me crazy there make me want to come back to the States!  I’ve moved around so many times I feel like it’s time to make a decision about where to settle down but I just don’t know where that should be!”

My friend, bless her Zen-filled heart, replied calmly:  “Why?  Why not be a global citizen?  That’s the way I feel.  I’m  comfortable wherever I go.  Of course there are places I prefer to be but I’ve learned to relax, enjoy and take the best of what each place has to offer wherever I am.”

I didn’t get it.  My then-mindset dictated a MUST DECIDE attitude backed by conviction that loyalty to one-place-only indicated good sense.  Die hard locale fidelity was my internal dictator.

But this summer the meaning of her advice clicked.  And as the surreal nature of realizations go, it hit me head-on right in the middle of a two-step move to Toby Keith’s Trailerhood as I line danced with total strangers in a small Cincinnati working class neighborhood bar.

I spend summers in Cincinnati with my 8-year-old so that he can get to know his aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, go to an English speaking summer camp and gain exposure to the multi-cultural experience of Israel versus the U.S. For me it’s a break from the intensity of Mid-East living and work and it’s also an opportunity to spend quality time with family and loved ones.

Thanks to Facebook, I started reconnecting with old Cincinnati friends each year, adding a dimension of fun and depth to our stays.

Over steamy cups of coffee and at dinners, parties, meetings, restaurant openings, Salsa on the Square, movie nights and art exhibits or during hours spent poolside, on shopping excursions and meeting new people via my old friends, I discovered I have arrived. I am globalized.

Because as I broke into a slight sweat alongside our a 60+ year-old line dance instructor Patty all decked out in her denim miniskirt and matching vest that I was reminded of Tel Aviv.  Saturday morning folk dance sessions along the Med pulsate to different strains but the Patty’s, Rex’s, Letta’s and Jimmy’s of Western Hills are alive and well inside the bodies of the Itziks, Chanas, Loolees and Shai’s of Israel.

As one friend shared the story of her beloved husband succumbing to cancer, another talked about Botox treatments, others spoke of job and financial woes,  methods for cutting costs in a flagging economy, choosing an education plan  for a 1st grader and facing the challenges of elder parent care, I realized I was physically in Cincinnati.  But I had lived all of these talks in Tel Aviv.  And Paris, London, Thailand and Singapore.

Vive la difference, I didn’t have to choose anymore.  I was having a damned good time with my global family and friends and rather than seeing the differences that separate us all, I was noticing the similarities forging our paths.

SO…..to my collaborating partners in crime – dear family, global friends, colleagues and an extra special someone held close to my heart:  Thank you for conspiring with me to make life richer, fuller, more meaningful and funner wherever I go

See you next year…..!

 

Dedicating Life in the Aftermath of Death January 12, 2010

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealisticJohn F. Kennedy

I spent last Saturday in Nablus.  Not the prettified city in the link here but a small outlying village perched on a hillside right below Elon Moreh settlement. Elon Moreh is where, according to the Old Testament, God told Abraham he was giving “your descendants this land”.  It’s why the Jewish settlers are there, for the most part, and it’s down the road from Yasuf Village, recently in the headlines when settlers set fire to the local mosque and burned holy books.

But I digress.

I went to the area with an Israeli  who, after his son was killed in Lebanon, chose to dedicate his life to fostering understanding between Israelis & Palestinians.  He works on projects like bringing Palestinian kids who have merely read about seashores to Tel Aviv’s beach – a half hour’s drive from their village.  He hires clowns and entertainers for village events,  helps re-plant old growth olive trees uprooted by…you know who… and this weekend, he dedicated a new playground built to replace the previous one destroyed by …you know.

To get to the village,  we had to pass through three Israeli army checkpoints and sign a waiver. But it was a feel-good day and upwards of a hundred children, teens and Palestinian official types were there.  I wasn’t nervous about violence.

After being there, the closest thing I can draw a comparison with in  U.S. terms is  inner city projects – just a lot greener and minus the dealers and drive-bys.  The village countryside is beautiful – lush green,  graduated craggy hills characteristic of this part of the world, olive groves stretching forever and partially built skeletons of homes awaiting further construction.

And yet, basic infrastructure was lacking.  Trash was strewn by the roadsides and along the hills and raw sewage streamed between olive tree rows.  As we approached, children swarmed, touched, patted, fired questions in Arabic and stared unabashedly, taking in every utterance and movement.   Allah help me had I pulled a stick of gum from my backpack.  Unless, of course, there had been enough to go around to all 4 dozen kids.

The dedication itself was run-of-the-mill:  Clap clap.  Smiles all around.  Hand shaking.  Photo opp.

What’s interesting is the response I got when relaying my plans for the day to friends.     It’s been the same response for more than a decade whenever I announce I’ll be going into the West Bank or Gaza. That is, unless I’m talking to a journalist. “Why are you going there?  Did you lose something?  Aren’t you afraid?  It’s dangerous!  Are you crazy?”

I won’t downplay the serious nature of the political conflict nor will I make light of terrifying lynchings Israelis have fallen prey to in Palestinian areas.  But most people on the Israel side of the Green Line haven’t crossed to the other side unless they’ve served there in the military or they’re journalists, settlers or peace activists.   Ditto vis-a-vis Palestinians coming to the Israeli side of the line.

Both populations get most of their information about “the other” from what they see on the news:  often frightening and violent depictions.  Mainstreamers on both sides are scared and have no idea what life looks like “over there” beyond the lenses of extremism, suicide missions, military uniforms, rocket launches and bombing campaigns.


My strong sense after visiting this weekend is that there’s not a hope in hell for working anything out in the long-term between the parties until getting to know “the other” and moving beyond “Arab terrorists” and “military occupying Jews” stereotypes.

And for the record, I’m not trivializing the pain or suffering others have endured nor am I lightly suggesting a kumbaya-live-in-love-and-harmony approach.  There’s no easy fix and it may never happen.

But I figure if the Israeli who devoted his life to reaching out can do it after his loss. . .

 

Death and Facebook December 11, 2009

I love Facebook.  Since signing on a few years ago, I have met new people, hooked up with loads of old friends, laid some ancient squabbles to rest and scored invites to parties, political events, gallery showings and lectures.

My armchair voyeur side enjoys viewing pictures and perusing real time text depicting the diverse lives my friends and family lead.  From reading one friend’s description of Japan’s meticulous recycle and trash laws to following scores of Cincinnati friends’ enthusiastic postings about the local college football team to friending and helping out a fellow journalist I admire,  to keeping up with popular culture:

But there’s one wee kink I think Facebook has yet to iron out.

A few weeks ago, a pop up window appeared on my Home page suggesting I reconnect with a friend I haven’t communicated with for a while.  Well..uh..there’s a reason for that.  My friend died this year.  But when I saw her photo surface on the right hand corner of the screen, I experienced a very surreal brain blip: “She’s alive!”

A super uncomfortable, conflicted state followed when the reality of the situation dawned.

If there’s no one to log a person off FB, does their profile live on forever?

A friend of another FB friend recently shared that when someone she knew committed suicide, that person’s FB friends continued posting on his wall as a means of transcendental communication.  They hoped to reach him in the world beyond.

And when a person has, indeed, passed to that other realm, what of the phenomenon of discovering the news via FB?  It is chilling to learn of death via a wall posting:  “John Jones  – 1955-2009″.   The news of a person’s passing is a jolt even when it’s expected.  But I have mixed feelings about the informal, public announcement aspect of receiving the news via The Wall.  And experiencing someone’s real time agony as he/she publically anguishes over a loss is equally discomfiting.

I wonder:

 

Clinical Death September 7, 2009

There’s this older woman who goes to the  same Tel Aviv park I take my dog Butch to for exercise every day. She & I tend to show up about the same time in the evenings and we usually sit next to each other.   

I don’t know her name but she has kicky, short orange hair she covers with a baseball cap and she uses a cane to get around.  Her manicured nails are always painted the same shade of frosty white, she pencils in her eyebrows, wears blue eyeshadow and her lipstick is a Sienna tinged with bright red.

On particularly hot days she brings bottled water and a communal drinking bowl for the dogs.  And before sitting down on the hard stone bench under the lime tree, she always spreads the day’s newspaper beneath her.

I met her a few months ago and we chatted back then about dog things.  That’s what we humans tend to do when  getting acquainted as the canines frolic.  At the time, she told me about a great “vacation spot” for dogs (read: kennel with a run) she had placed her furry companion in while she spent a month in the hospital.

I didn’t ask her about the hospitalization.  It seemed intrusive for a first encounter.

We’ve seen each other at the park for a few months now but we’ve never really gotten past the “which vet do you go to?” and “where do you buy your dog supplies?” type of banter. But last week I pulled her dog out of a fight and that changed the dynamic.

I didn’t have a choice, really.  No one else went into the fray and she’s physically incapable.  I mean, she is hovering around the mid-80’s mark and she’s frail and her 75-pound mutt is obtuse.  The other person was frantically trying to pull his dog away as hers attacked but he was losing the battle.

So I grabbed hers by the collar and with a sharp, stern tone commanded “NO!” while staring him squarely in the eyes.  I was attempting to present as The Alpha.  Thankfully, it worked.

After that wee bit of pulse-raising drama, I returned to my place on the bench beside the woman and remained quiet.  I really, but really don’t like making “a thing”  out of something like that and it started and finished quickly and without incident so in my mind, it was over.

The woman fretted a bit, though, about her dog being out of control and then she shifted her tone: “I have something to tell you.”

Oh?  I cocked my head and raised an eyebrow.

“I saw my own funeral,”  she started.  I was silent.  I mean, how DOES one counter a statement like that?

When I was in the hospital,” she pressed on, “I died.  I was clinically dead. I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted but they told me later they had pronounced me dead.

I stared intently and swallowed.  She continued:

While it was happening, I rose above the bed and I was transported to the kibbutz where I have my plot.  I saw my family standing there around the grave.  I was watching the whole thing,” she relayed.  “And you know what?”  I was hanging on to her every word   “It felt wonderful.  I was at peace.  It was like letting go and relaxing.  Everything was okay.

I was astonished.  “Did they tell you how long you were dead?  Do you remember coming back?” I prodded.

No, no.  They didn’t want to talk about it,” she dismissed with a wave of the hand.  “And I don’t remember how I came back.  But I’ll tell you one thing:  That business about a light?”  she scrunched her face in disgust.   “Nonsense.   Light Shmight.  Don’t believe it.  I was floating.  That’s it.”

I had to go just then.  But I could have listened for a very long time.  I’ll let you know if she has more to tell.

 

Going to Bed Hungry September 1, 2009

This afternoon while my son & I were riding our bikes home from a celebratory ice cream shop outing to mark his 1st day of second grade, we came across a prodigious public statement/art installation in Central Tel Aviv that begged contemplation.

The entirety of Rabin Square, Tel Aviv’s largest inner city public space, had been set up with long banquet tables covered with simple white table cloths and set with glass white plates and silver cutlery.  White plastic chairs were placed at each setting.

There were, literally, thousands of place settings.

Ooh…Mass banquet! I thought but somehow knew that was wrong.

It took a minute of reckoning, eyeballing the overhead signage displayed behind the tables and ultimately chatting with the young people guarding the “installation” to understand what it was all about.

Israel is headed into The Jewish New Year holiday season in a few weeks which means family gatherings, dinners, office toasts, gift giving and general cheer.

Right around this time each holiday season LaTet (“Give) Humanitarian Organization goes into full swing food drive mode taking up food and monetary collections for those in Israel who won’t be feeling the cheer, at least not monetarily, at holiday time.

I’m accustomed to seeing the Latet people at the entrance to my supermarket handing out flyers asking for donations of baby formula, canned goods, rice and other food essentials.

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But the display on the square was a phenomenal means of sending a message.  The banner beyond the tables read:  “There are 200,000 people in Israel who won’t get enough to eat this holiday season. . .”  And the empty tables, the people manning the display disclosed, represent a mere 10th of what that number might look like were everyone to sit down together for a meal.

If you want to give, you can go by the display and make a donation, pick up an extra item or two at the supermarket and drop them into the receptacles on the way out or navigate to the Latet website for instructions on donating via SMS or pay per click.

And if you’re able to make it to the square, definitely go by and check it out.  It’s astonishing.

 

Going Global August 16, 2009

A few years ago when I was living in San Francisco, I shared an ongoing dilemma with an Israeli friend:

I feel torn between being here and living in Israel,” I told her.  “I don’t know where I should be.”

“Why do you have to decide?” she posed.  “Of course you choose a main locale for residence but as far as I’m concerned, the more comfortable you become inside your own skin the more comfortable you become wherever you are once you’ve lived in different places.  And that’s a great place to be.  You become a citizen of the world and you can find happiness wherever you go.

At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around that concept.  I felt I should make a decision and declare my loyalty on some level to one place or the other.  No in-between nonsense would do. And the concept of “global citizen” or feeling a sort of neutral happiness wherever I might be was way beyond my comprehension.

But, by jobe, I believe I finally got it.

For numerous reasons I won’t go into here & now, I returned to Israel four years ago after a decade hiatus in San Fran.  Since returning, however, each summer I travel with my son to Cincinnati so he (and I) can maintain ties with my family & he can retain his command of the English language and gain exposure to American culture.

My parents and two of my sibs live in “Nati” &  it’s where I grew up.  But when I left there after college – which included a 2-year overseas stint at Tel Aviv University –  I vowed never to return.  Bloody god forsaken conservative place that indicted its own Contemporary Arts Center for running the Mappelthorpe Exhibit (!) was how I viewed matters.  Not for me. Gateway to the North, indeed.  There would be no containing me THERE, thanks.  I longed for the enchanted promise of Seuss’ Oh The Places You’ll Go.

But here I am, years later, turned completely around & feeling the warm glow of “global.”

This summer my son and I spent time in Cincinnati, took a side trip out to San Francisco and now we’re back in Tel Aviv.  And I can honestly say that in each place I found home.  Home in cultural events that included Opera and a World Piano Competition in Cincinnati, the MOMA in San Fran and upon returning to Tel Aviv, a visit to my local gallery to check out the latest exhibit.

I found home in culinary delights in Cincinnati’s trend spots: Bootsy’s for tapas,  Teller’s for rasberry vinaigrette over greens and goat cheese, my mom’s for home-cooked Indonesian chicken and a dear friend’s for backyard grilled Talapia wrapped in lettuce leaves.

I relaxed back into San Francisco food comfort with frighteningly potent margaritas served up at Puerto Alegre & generous, steaming bowls of traditional Vietnamese Pho.  And upon returning to Holy Land Central (aka Israel) I hit the supermarket on a Friday at 2 p.m. – total cold-water immersion into THIS local food culture.

Home, everywhere, is about the people.  I spent neery an idle moment in Cincy thanks to FB and reconnecting with old friends and loved ones who indulged me with tennis,  poolside lounging, movie outings, dinners, drinks and loads of engaging conversation.   Being back “Home” was an absolute treat and there are, by gosh and golly, wide swaths of WILD in Cincy.

In San Fran, I reconnected with my other sib and visited with friends and local merchants I hadn’t seen in years.  Particularly pleasant was sharing a vacation apartment in the city with friends who had flown in from Australia, Manhattan, Berlin and Serbia to be together. My son benefitted from reconnecting with children from his infant and toddler days.

Back in Tel Aviv less than a week, we’ve received separate invites to go snorkeling, camping, to overnight in the country and spend a weekend at a “mango tree resort”.  I am absolutely blessed.  No doubt about it.

I ran into that old Israeli friend last year.  She’s back in Tel Aviv and super busy with two young children and studies.  But she still has that positive outlook and cheerful disposition.  And she still maintains her status as a global citizen.

I believe I’ve joined her ranks.  Fine by me because feeling at home wherever I might be is a wonderful place to be.  But it’s also painful.  Leaving loved ones and engaging aspects of each culture behind isn’t easy.  But I’ll take it.  Because “living globally” far outweighs the absurd compulsion of having to declare loyalty or choose.

 

Suleiman the Coffee Guy July 12, 2009

A few weeks ago while shopping in Tel Aviv’s Carmel open-air market I ducked into a side street tchochkes shop to buy a glass carafe.  Mine had accidentally banged against the marble counter top at home and cracked into pieces.

It was midday and the outside heat and humidity were starting to  bear down.  The narrow shop,  divided by a sales rack crammed with a range of home appliance and accessory items, was cooled only by a high-powered standing fan.    Cluttering the shelves, a range of inexpensive items vied for space.  There were glass tea pots, no-frill wine glasses, cheap dishes sets, Turkish coffee Finjans, pots and pans, stainless steel plated silverware, dime store variety candles, laundry clips, waste baskets…Garden variety tchochkes.

As I scouted a glass carafe, I bantered with the shop owner, a tanned and fit 70-something year old man with silver hair, Coke-bottle glasses, thick lips and wearing a maroon and white Hawaiian shirt.  We joked a bit about the heat, I commented about his store’s cramped quarters and, hearing my accent, he asked where I was from.

Then, while ringing my sale, he gingerly queried:  “If I make you Turkish coffee, will you sit and drink with me?”

My knee jerk response was to beg off with a “have to run” excuse.

But during the split seconds of contemplation I came up with: “I have time.  Why not?  What’s the harm?  Why not have AN EXPERIENCE?”

So I pulled up a wooden stool and seated myself behind the counter as he went to the back room to boil water.  A few minutes later he returned with two demitasse cupfuls of black sludge and sat down beside me on his stool.

He introduced himself as Suleiman (Soo-lee-mohn) and told me he was from Iraq.  In Hebrew, his name is Solomon.  He asked my name.  “What?” he repeated several times, scratching his cheek and furrowing his brow.  He then shook his head and announced:  “No. It won’t work. I’m calling you ‘Hellwa.'”

I laughed but didn’t protest.  Hellwa means “Beautiful” in Arabic.

Suleiman told me about himself.  He lives in a Tel Aviv suburb, has owned his shop for 40 years and is married.  The marriage was not good, he shared, but admitted he was loathe to walk out at his age and after so many years spent with the same woman.  “Sometimes it’s just easier to stay together,” he sighed.

His malcontent came as no surprise.  Because unless he’s a connoisseur of new people, I somehow doubt he’d otherwise be inviting a younger woman in for coffee and re-dubbing her “Hellwa“.

But he wasn’t bitter.  He was funny and his attitude was upbeat.  So when he jovially started on the a man is a man, AFTER ALL, and has needs – needs his wife was apparently uninterested in meeting –  I didn’t get the usual surge of:  “Oh god, here it comes.  THIS is going to be uncomfortable to deflect.”

Suleiman was a  coffee-pal/buddy sort of guy.  He told me about his girlfriend, a good girl he sees several times a week who he “doesn’t have to pay” and who is content with their arrangement.

And he asked about my situation and listened to my history in brief before serving up,  as people tend to do in this part of the world, advice.  Suleiman told me what type of man I should find, what type of man I should avoid and estimated the time it should take for me to “settle down and be taken care of”.

When one of his regulars,  a stout 50-ish Russian woman looking for 2 medium sized drinking goblets, dickered with him on price, he rolled his eyes and elbowed me with a grin.  “Okay okay,” he conceded.  “You’re going to put me out of business but I’ll give you your price.”

I sat a while longer and sipped my coffee as Suleiman tended to other customers.  When the cup contents were down to dregs alone, I stretched and stood to go.

“Come visit me again,” Suleiman winked and smiled before planting a peck on my cheek.

“I will,” I promised, meaning it.

It had been AN EXPERIENCE.  And I don’t mind going back for seconds.