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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Maccabees - Then and Now

A few minutes ago Maccabi Tel Aviv lost to CSKA Moscow in the European basketball finals in Prague.

The original Maccabees were warriors from the house of Matityahu the Hasmonean, whose name derived from the Jewish word for "hammer" (makevet) and who rose up in revolt and fought an heroic war against Hellenism in the 2nd century B.C.E. Their victory is celebrated every year during the festival of Hannukah.

I admit that I too am occasionally interested in the modern-day "maccabeem". I watched the second half (I missed the first half due to the Daf Hayomi shi'ur) and I too cheered for Maccabi during certain moments in the game. But the passion just isn't there any more. Why? Consider the following picture, from today's game:

A Maccabi player against a CSKA player. Both 2nd rate players from the US, NBA dropouts or wannabees, mercenaries in the world of professional basketball. And yet they manage to stir up enough passion and interest among Israelis (me included!), who still view a victory by Maccabi Tel Aviv as a victory of "the Jews against the goyim".

I struggle to find that passion within me. It does not come easily. Gone are the days of a team of Israeli (or at least Jewish) players - like Mickey Berkowits, Motti Aroesti and Tal Brodi - who made me proud as a teenager growing up in Italy when they beat Mobilgirgi Varese in 1977. It's all business nowadays and passion for business I keep for my working hours, not my leisure time.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Basel, Switzerland

A few hours spent earlier this week walking aimlessly around Basel, in northern Switzerland, during a beautiful sunny spring afternoon, generated the following random thoughts:

1. Basel is a lot more multi-cultural than I had imagined, even given the fact it sits in the junction between three countries. Aside from the obvious German and French, I heard Italian, Turkish, Russian, English, Greek and a few other languages I could not name.

2. Why can't any city, or even a small town, or you know what, the tiniest village in Israel, be half as clean as Basel is?

3. How pleasant is the sight of mothers and their children riding together on a bicycle to/from school, weaving their way patiently through traffic composed of cars and trams, and yet not for a moment looking worried that someone will cut them rudely off the road.

4. The cherry trees blossom also in Basel, not only in Tokyo. And these are real cherry trees, with real fruit, unlike the Japanese "fake" sakura.

5. For an airport carrying the dual name Basel-Mulhouse (after the Swiss and French cities it serves), Euro Airport is astonishingly small.

6. A kosher restaurant outside Israel can serve good food, in a quiet and clean environment and for a reasonable price. Sounds impossibly crazy? Try the Topas restaurant at the Jewish Community Centre on Leimenstrasse 24 in Basel.

7. Finally, the Israeli angle. The Three Kings Hotel is closed for restoration, so to try and recreate what Herzl felt like when he was contemplating the establishment of a Jewish state, I had to make my way to the promenade underneath the hotel.

The Balcony: then and now.

I put my elbows on the stone wall, leaned forward, looked thoughtfully at the other bank and tried to concentrate hard, to capture that unique "Zionist moment". Conclusion: I have no clue what made Theodor yearn for the dusty landscape of Palestine while watching the beautiful Rhine river flowing vigorously a few feet below. He must have been smoking something. Or perhaps I should have waited longer, enough time to grow a beard.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Israeli Arse

One of the least appealing aspects of life in Israel is living side-by-side with "The Israeli Arse". No, I am not referring to the backsides of my fellow denizens. I'm talking about that ubiquitous character that makes life in Israel much more colourful perhaps, but at times also very annoying and almost unbearable.

The "Arse" is by now a stereotype: tight jeans, white t-shirts, copious amounts of hair jel, heavy golden jewelery, hand jestures, blue neon lights under the car, etc... (if you've lost me here, watch the movie I linked to above). But what used to be an amusing anthropological pastime has fast become the norm of Israeli society. "Arseem" are everywhere: on the road, in supermarkets, in malls, at the airport, in the synagogue. Perhaps it's just my being away for a few years, but it seems like the "Arseem" population has grown immensely.

But it's more than that really. The "Arseem" themselves are not the whole problem. What bothers me is the the "Arse culture" which seems to have become the de-facto Israeli culture, the zeitgeist. The total lack of basic manners (queuing up, or saying "sorry" after bumping into someone), the rudeness, the loud talking, the lack of respect for other people's space or even presence. I find myself appraising people judgmentally on the street and in shops, to ascertain whether they are friends or foes.

I am currently reading a book about the 1967 "six day war", which describes the general atmosphere of Israeli society before, during and after the war. What a different country! I'm not referring to the political/military differences but to how people wrote, spoke and behaved. Despite the harder times - both economically and politically - people back then had respect for fellow citizen and for country. I regret to say I don't see that around me today. It's every man for himself (except for rare moments of short-lived unity, around some major tragedy like a suicide bombing).

Last week, after a particularly nasty road incident with an "Arse" (I use the term freely here; he looked pretty respectable but his driving was definitely "Arse" in nature), I remembered something a friend told me many years ago. We were talking about life in Israel and how hard it was to get used to some aspects of it, and he said: "There is no choice. At a certain point in your life you come to realize that in order to protect your family and your sanity, you need to erect virtual walls around you. You block yourself off from the rest of the world and care only about the ones you love most". How true, and how sad.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Midlife Crisis and Hairdressing

A friend of mine opened a hair styling salon in Tel Aviv last month. He and I did our MBA together. Like me, he works at a high-tech company and is used to life in the fast lane, but a couple of years ago he decided he would learn how to cut hair and open his own salon.

"Atmospera", as the place is called, is a cross between a hair salon and an art gallery. The idea is to promote young artists' work with a revolving display.

I wish him all the best with this initiative. I know we're all going through our midlife crisis right now, but hair styling!? I admire him for taking the leap and doing what he felt he wanted to do (whilst keeping his day job...).

Sunday, April 02, 2006

I am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe

This book is about the corruption of a young American girl from Sparta, a remote mountain town in North Carolina, who makes it against all odds to a top university in Pennsylvania ("Dupont"), only to find out that not top-notch education but rather sex, alcohol, drugs and generlly being "cool" are top-most on her fellow students' minds. Tom Wolfe paints a vivid picture of college life on American campuses, or at least that's what he would have us believe, not too successfully in my mind.

I guess Wolfe was out to write the definitive book about college life. And indeed the book is nothing but a long (700+ pages) description of the frivolities of college students. It is full of stereotypical characters: the basketball players who get academic discounts and lead a life (literally) above the rest, the drunken frat boys and the giggly sorority girls, the group of smart nerds who are after the Rhodes scholarship and, above all, the innocent hillybilly who cannot believe it all - Charlotte. Wolfe, in his charcteristic style, does not leave much to the imagination when describing Charlotte's encounter with college life. One of ther first experiences on campus are the sounds produced by a boy defecating loudly in the stalls of the co-ed bathroom (I will spare you the details). Shortly thereafter, Charlotte's room-mate throws her out in the middle of the night so that she can spend time there alone with her boyfriend; thus Charlotte learns what it means to be "sexiled". And so on and so forth.

Despite its weakness in credibility - I refuse to believe this is what life in Ivy League colleges is all about - what saves this book is Wolfe's excellent writing style, captivating the reader and transporting him to a world that although removed from reality seems at the same time very realistic. I read the book while travelling between three continents and it was a faithful companion on the long flights and sleepless nights. As far as pop fiction goes, it's an entertaining read.

One final thought. Wolfe, author of excellent books such as Bonfire of Vanities and A Man in Full, gives thanks in the foreward to the book to his daughters, who apparently let him into the secret lives of college students based on first-hand experiences. If I am Charlotte Simmons faithfully portrays what Wolfe's daughters went through in college, I shudder to think how he reacted, as a father, when hearing their stories.