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Friday, December 31, 2004

New Zealand - Pictures

To wrap up the New Zealand travelogue, here are some of the photos I took during the trip. All in all I must have taken some 450 photos during these ten days, so hopefully the following are enough to give you a taste of what we saw in this beautiful country. Click on the pictures to get a larger image.

Sky City Tower in Auckland:

A View of "Downtown" Queenstown:

Sheep in Paradise:

The Road from Queenstown to Glenorchy:

View of Queenstown from the Top:

"Puzzling World" Museum:

The Road from Queenstown to Wanaka:

View of Franz Joseph Glacier Village from the Helicopter:

The Franz Joseph Glacier:

View from Fox Glacier Village:

The Cathedral in Christchurch:

Local Girls in Otira (Arthur's Pass):

Lake Brunner:

View of Lyttelton from the Top of Mount Pleasant:

Thursday, December 30, 2004

New Zealand - Day 10

Wednesday, Dec. 29 - Christchurch

This is our last full day in NZ. We checked out of our hotel and drove south of Christrchurch to Mount Pleasant, a relatively tall mountain over the town of Lyttelton. We took the "gondola" (i.e. cable car) up the mountain. The ride was much longer than the one we took in Queenstown, and as it was a windy day, our car swung to and fro in the wind almost all the way up. The sheep on the mountain-side seemed indifferent, both to us and to the wind.

I wanted to try paragliding (as I didn't get a chance to do so in Queenstown), but due to the strong winds there was no paragliding today. We went out to the observation deck and the wind literally swept us off our feet; it was very hard to walk up to the end of the railing. A. braved the winds and managed to get all the way to the fence, screaming against the howling winds.

Back down from the mountain, we drove about 100 kilometres to Wakaora. This village was the place that the first explorers from France arrived at, and until today the village retains a certain French flair: the street names are in French, as are some of the restaurants. French or not French, there was a packed fish & chips shop here as well... We took a walk along the sea promenade (the Pacific) and then had a quick lunch before heading back to Christchurch, for our flight back up to Auckland.

After an eventless flight, we checked in to a hotel near the airport for a short night's sleep, to get up at 6am to catch our flight to Hong Kong, on our way to Tel Aviv. This post, written at Hong Kong airport, is the final one from this travelogue.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

New Zealand - Day 9

Tuesday, Dec. 28 – Greymouth to Christchurch

As in most of the places we stayed at during this trip, the Alpine Rose motel had huge, soft beds that entice you to stay in them even when you know it’s time to get up. Thus, when the alarm clock went at 8am, I just turned it off and continued to sleep. By the time we left Greymouth it was checkout time, 10am. One other thing about the motel rooms in New Zealand: they all have two taps in the sinks! That means that unless you want freezing cold water or scalding hot water, you need to plug the sink and fill it up with water from both taps before you can use warm water. How British, and how so very silly.

From Greymouth to Christchurch there are about 250 kilometres. The weather was not so good today: overcast skies, but no rain.

Our first stop on the way was Lake Brunner. There’s a small village there, by the lake, but it seemed mostly deserted (T. asked: where do these people buy their groceries?). Almost every car that went by us around this area was towing behind it a boat; apparently Lake Brunner is where you go if boating is your thing. We saw two small girls paddling in their own kayak-like boat in the lake.

From Lake Brunner we headed to the mountains of Arthur’s Pass National Park. The two tallest mountains there are Mt. Rolleston (2.3km) and Mt. Nurchison (2.4km). These are the “New Zealand Alps” and every couple of miles there is signpost to a ski field or resort. This being summer, only the top of the mountains were capped with snow.

Out next stop was Otira, basically about 10 small houses in the middle of the mountain range. We bought some drinks there in a bar/saloon/restaurant/hotel that looked as if it was built in the 19th century and has not been renovated or redecorated since. The bar room had a musty smell to it and the jukebox machine was ancient, an antique. Outside, we saw three girls that looked as if they were gypsies; they were perhaps 7- or 8-year-olds but one of them had bright blue lipstick on. I asked if they could pose for a picture, and they agreed.

A few kilometres up the road is Arthur’s Pass village, a quaint little holiday retreat. We had coffee and met a busload of Japanese tourists who were having lunch at the restaurant. At first, T. thought they were Chinese (as we see many Chinese-speaking tourists here), but after she saw they were seated so quietly and politely at the tables, she realized they must be Japanese. We met them later on down the road, taking pictures of the mountains and we exchanged a few words in Japanese.

From Arthur’s Pass we drove straight on to Christchurch. The road was much more populated that the roads we took in the past few days, but still very light traffic. Speed limit here is 100km/h and there are many one-way bridges along the way that make you stop and let incoming traffic go through first (or vice versa). However, there are so few cars on the road that you hardly even need to stop.

We reached Christchurch around 3pm. This is the 2nd largest city in New Zealand (population: about 330,000). Our hotel, Latimer, is not far from the city centre. After checking in we went for a walk around the city and had a late lunch at a vegetarian restaurant run by some Indian-guru-following, meditation-aficionados, sari-clad girls (but very polite and cheerful). The food was good. At first, we tried across the street at some vegetarian Indian restaurant, run by Hari Krishna people, but it was closed for some private function. It was a startling sight: about 40-50 people, all dressed in Hari Krishna clothes, complete with the face painting stuff. We looked like a sore thumb in there with our plain clothes.

After eating, we took a stroll around Cathedral Square, the heart of the city. As the name suggests, there is a huge cathedral that goes by the name – you guessed it – Christ Church Cathedral. From there we walked down to the Avon River; the streets have many English-looking Victorian buildings and if you ignore the big-city signs, the city is distinctly European-looking.

Then it started to rain, so we went back to the hotel and took the car for the rest of our explorations of the city. We saw more historic buildings and had a quick look at the Botanic Gardens.

New Zealand - Day 8

Monday, Dec. 27 – Fox Glacier to Greymouth

Today was a busy day. We started off by visiting Lake Matheson, a short drive from our motel. It’s a 20-minute walk on a trail through the woods to get to the lake, but it took us about half an hour due to the halflings that are with us… It was a very pleasant walk as the weather was absolutely perfect: an almost cloudless sky and temperature just right. The lake itself is very secluded and if it were not for the other tourists, it would have been just Mother Nature and us.

After Lake Matheson, it was finally time for the real attractions of this area: the Glaciers. The glaciers are one the most visited natural sites in New Zealand, mainly due to the fact that glaciers are not usually found at this latitude but rather much further south. The two glaciers – Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier – were “discovered” in the mid 18th century and at the time they were rather big, as is evident from the signposts indicated where the glacier was in 1750. They have receded considerably since and today they are probably less magnificent than they were in the eyes of the Maori that knew them for centuries.

We first drove to a viewpoint a few kilometres away from the Fox Glacier. Then, we drove close to the glacier and A. and I walked for a few minutes to get a closer look. Basically, if I hadn’t known it was a glacier, I would have thought it was snow that somehow slipped down from the top of the mountain towards the valley below… Back down from the track we met another Israeli family, with three daughters that looked very gloomy at the prospect of getting out of the car and walking. Then we drove on to Franz Joseph Glacier, about 25 kilomtres away. Here we all took the 20-minute trail up to the Sentinel viewpoint to take a look. This glacier looked remarkably like its twin brother.

After all this activity and walking, A. and I went to an Internet place in Franz Joseph village, me to post some pictures and A. to “work” on his website. The guy running the place took an old bus and converted it into an “office” with about 10 computers in it. Pretty neat.

By now it was around 2:30pm and we were going to start heading north, but then I thought we’d check out the helicopter flights that go up to the glacier itself. There was a 20-minute flight leaving at 3:40pm so I bought ticket for A. and I (T. refused to get on a chopper). We had coffee until it was time to leave and during this break we saw the same group of Israelis from yesterday (the pensioners). T. called them “va’ad po’alei Ashkelon”, or something to that effect.

At 3:40pm A. and I took off on the helicopter, together with another family of three. This was my first-ever helicopter ride and I was pleasantly surprised. They warned us not to walk to the back of the helicopter, lest we get our heads chopped off by the tail rotor. We then had to put headphones on to drown the noise of the rotors and wear airplane-like seat belts. A. and I had the front seat on the way up, right next to the pilot and before we knew it we were airborne. I was surprised at how smooth the takeoff and flight were but I suppose that the weather helped make it a smooth ride.

The pilot took us up the glacier on the face of the mountain and landed on the top of it, right in the middle of a huge snow/ice patch. We had a couple of minutes to take pictures and squint at the whiteness before heading back down to the village. The glacier looked a bit more remarkable up here. A., needless to say, had a whale of a time and called it “the best flight of my life”.

As we had 200 kilometres ahead of us, we set off immediately northwards. Our destination for the night was Greymouth, the largest city on the west coast of the south island of New Zealand (population: about 12,000). On the way we passed a few villages, and made brief stops at Ross – a historic village from the gold-rush era – and Hokitika, a larger town where we had ice cream in a fish & chips shop that looked like it came out of East is East, the British movie. At Greymouth, we checked into our motel (the Alpine Rose) and then went looking for food. We found the “town centre”, where it is all supposed to happen. Alas, although it was almost 8pm, the place was deserted. Not empty, but deserted. We saw perhaps 10 people the whole time we were driving around the city.

Tired from the long day, we retreated back to our motel for the night. Tomorrow is our final stop on this journey: Christchurch, the big city of the south island.

PS – A. again wanted to add his comments:

At the glacier, we had to wear our own sunglasses. Dad showed me how it felt without sunglasses, it was H-O-R-R-I-B-L-E!!! I couldn’t see a thing! “YIKES” I hollered. I just had to put the glasses on again.

At the way to Greymouth, we stopped at a mini-fake-jail. It had a fake three-hole thingy. I took two pictures in that thing. After that, we left back on our way to Greymouth.

Monday, December 27, 2004

New Zealand - Day 7

Sunday, Dec. 26 – Queenstown to Fox Glacier

We drove almost 350 kilometres today, from Queenstown to Fox Glacier. We left Queenstown around 9:30am and headed north, through the Crawne Range mountains to Wanaka, a small and peaceful town (population 3,500). Come to think of it, I don’t think there are “non-peaceful” places in New Zealand. Perhaps downtown Auckland at midnight on New Year’s Eve might be one such place.

At Wanaka, we stopped at a place called Puzzling World. It is a museum-like attraction for all the family, featuring eccentric architecture, puzzling holograms, illusion rooms and a big maze. The whole place is intended to confuse the eye and create havoc with the senses. One room is tilted so that everything seems to work backwards: balls roll up a slope, water moves up the pipe and people stand at an awkward angle to the floor. Another room is built so that from outside looking in it appears perfectly normal, yet when you walk in you realize that it is tilted: on one side you stand normally and on the other your head bangs onto the ceiling. Even the toilets are designed in a way that they look like ancient roman toilets, with other (fake) people sitting there beside you. Needless to say, the kids liked it although most of the tricks were designed for adults to understand.

The coffee shop at the exit of Puzzling World is also unique. Its ceiling is built like a giant kaleidoscope that mirrors everyone in the room several times over. On every table there is an array of puzzles and games that visitors can play with while having their drinks (or even without ordering anything). A man called Stuart Landsborough, who is evidently a puzzle freak, thought up the place. Ten years ago he planted a note in the vicinity of the museum, promising NZ$50,000 (about US$35,000) to anyone who thinks they can find it using psychic capabilities. The only trick is that you need to pay Mr. Landsborough NZ$1,000 for every guess you have on the location of the note… Clever fellow.

After recovering from the tilting rooms of Puzzling World, we continued our drive westwards towards the sea. The road goes by Lake Hawea and ends up at Haast on the seacoast, where we stopped for refuelling and some snacks. From there it was another 120 kilometres or so until we finally reached Fox Glacier, around 3:30pm. Throughout the entire journey, if I still need to emphasise this, the main colours you see are green (the pastures and the mountains) and blue (the lakes and the sky). The weather turned bad again in the afternoon and it rained most of the way, but the scenery was still magnificent.

After we checked it into our motel (The Lake Matheson Motel), we went to check out the “town centre”. Well, we found out it consists of one petrol station, three or four restaurants and coffee shops and a grocery store. Funnily enough, we run into a crowd of Israelis, a group of what looked like pensioners on an organized tour. It wasn’t very hard to spot them; their voices carried over the entire town, discussing prices and generally complaining about this and that…

Disappointed with the attractions downtown Fox Glacier had to offer, we drove another 20 kilometres up north to Franz Joseph Glacier, a slightly larger town. We had dinner there, checked our email in an Internet shop, and then headed back to our motel. We were pretty tired by this time so we just turned in relatively early.

PS – A. wanted to add some comments to this post:

In the puzzling area, there was a place full of pictures of old people, and they tell you to close one eye and go two meters back. After you do that, you have to walk all over the room, and see the faces follow you (believe it or not, IT’S TRUE! AMAZING!). At the beginning, we also saw a hologram with a picture of a woman frowning. At the top of the hologram, it says: “This is Kelly, can you make her smile?” To make Kelly smile, you need to move all over the room. Outside the weird toilets, there were picnic tables, each table had a puzzle with three or four 3D irregular polygons, on one them it says to create three or four auto-shapes (harder then you think). At the center of the picnic area, there was a tree with a puzzle. There was a sign on the tree that said: “How can a monkey climb a tree that has spiky leafs?” Well, I found the answer. Thanks to the sculpture near the tree of three monkeys one on top o the other. Answer: Get the monkeys to make a ladder!

Sunday, December 26, 2004

New Zealand - Days 5 & 6

Friday, Dec. 24 – Queenstown

We are sleeping a lot during this trip, partly due to the jetlag, partly due to the fact that we don’t need to get up for anything in particular… Pure bliss.

To start the day, we took the cable car up to the mountain in Queenstown, the so-called Skyline Gondola. The ride is about five minutes and the beautiful landscape unravels below you as you climb higher and the lake Wakatipu comes into full view. Once at the top, the weather brightened up and the sun started showing through the clouds, a welcome change.

Up on the top, there is a free chair-lift that takes you up a bit further and then you can go back down on a luge. A luge is plastic plate on wheels with a handlebar; you sit on the plate and slide down the hill on a paved track, controlling the luge with the handlebar. Simple, but great fun. I went with A. for a ride and when we got down we immediately wanted to go up again for another turn. This time we took H. with us; she rode with me on the way down and looked very cute in her pink helmet. A. got stuck this time around and with all his wailing “abba, abba” he managed to attract the attention of another Israeli family that heard him.

This was the first time we bumped into Israelis since we arrived. It was a family from Hod HaSharon, Ron and Ronit and two kids, on a long trip away from home. They spent three months in Australia and were now going through NZ. Turns out they were from Petah Tikva originally and went to the same school at T. there.

Back down from the mountain, we set out for a 40-minute drive to Glenorchy. The drive is one of the most scenic routes in New Zealand, along the lake and up in the mountains. The views are truly amazing and the air is so clear that visibility is excellent. Glenorchy is a tiny town (population 200) and the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy was sealed (asphalted) all the way only a few years ago. After Glenorchy, the road continues north on a dirt track for another few kilometres and ends up in a place called Paradise, a teeny-tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Many of the Lord of the Rings scenes were shot in this area.

After spending some time just staring into the wilderness and listening to the silence, disturbed only by a few sheep, we headed back to Queenstown for a quick trip to the supermarket before Shabbat, which started a bit before 9pm. Down here the summer days are very long.

Saturday, Dec. 25 – Queenstown

Christmas Day in Queenstown was a bright and sunny summer day. The weather was beautiful throughout the day, which was pretty annoying, as we couldn’t go anywhere. When you think about it, Christmas in the southern hemisphere is never snowy; I guess Santa doesn’t use a sledge around these parts.

Today, I saw the first sign of police in this country. A police car drove by our motel room this afternoon, but I can’t say I actually saw a policeman, just the car. T. says she saw a police station in Auckland, but she too did not see any policemen. Perhaps police here is just a façade...

Managed to get a lot of reading done today. I’m reading Amos Oz’s last book: A Tale of Love and Darkness, which is OK but somewhat long-winded. Some of the descriptions are a bit woody, in true Oz style. T. says Oz is a “sacred cow” that many are afraid to say bad things about and that most of his book are boring.

By the way, H. pronounces New Zealand as “Miz Yuland”, making it sound like a teacher at her kindergarten.

By the time Shabbat was out, it was already 11pm. Tomorrow, we have a long drive ahead of us.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

New Zealand - Day 4

Thursday, Dec. 23 - Auckland to Queenstown

Got up rather early today, at 7pm, to make our way to the airport to catch our Air New Zealand flight to Queenstown. The taxi driver that took us to the museum yesterday – Tom, from Samoa – gave us his card and told us he’d come pick us up at 8am to drive us to the airport. He told us a bit about himself: originally from Western Samoa, lived in New Zealand, then in the US for a few years, and now back in NZ. Has five children, the youngest is 16; one of his daughters is soon to become a lawyer, another son is a builder and a third is a pilot. He could say shalom and toda but thought that we were speaking Latin…

Our flight left Auckland at 10am. We arrived in Queenstown around noon, took our rental car and checked in at our hotel (the Abba Green Motel). The room wasn’t as good as the one we had in Auckland but the view was awesome. Pretty much every direction you look, all you see is mountains covered in a sea of green. It's a small town (population about 8,000) but with many things to do and see.

This is Lord of the Rings land; many of the scenes in the movie were filmed in this area and there is a whole tourism industry around the movie: Lord of the Rings safaris, LOTR hikes, LOTR guidebooks, LOTR helicopter rides, and so on and so forth. Every shop you walk into has LOTS merchandise. If only Tolkien knew what he would do for the New Zealand tourist industry…

The weather is decidedly against us in this trip. It’s been raining since we got here and only in the last two hours it slowed down to a drizzle. It’s quite cold and we walk around with three layers of clothing. The weekend is supposed to be nicer.

We didn't accomplish much today. Also, I'm told pictures are not showing up properly, so I'll post only text until the problem is fixed.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

New Zealand - Day 3

Wedensday, Dec. 22 – Auckland

We got up late today. The kids went to bed very late, not surprising given the 4-hour difference from Tokyo. So it wasn’t until around 12:30pm that we left the hotel. First, we popped into the JCC to take a look at the kosher shop. It looks like a small mini-market and has a good variety of products, including frozen foods, meats, Israeli products and even some local dairy kosher cheese. I really wish we had something close to this in Tokyo…

Weather was not looking good this morning. It was cold and it looked like it was going to rain any moment. Hoping to catch the Maori dance performance at Auckland Museum, we took a taxi (driver from Samoa) directly to the museum. But when we got there at 1:35pm we were told the performance began five minutes ago and latecomers were not allowed in. Disappointed, we got on the Auckland Explorer Bus (one of those double-decker buses that hops between sightseeing spots) and got off at the quay to catch a ferry to the North Shore.

Auckland is home to around 1.2 million people, so it’s not a very big city. However, it is spread across a huge geographical area with most people living in some distant suburb. The North Shore is one of these suburbs but what is unique about is that it has retained the old English look. The town of Devenport is known for its old buildings and quaint shopping streets. Mind you, when I write “old” I mean 100-150 years; that’s about as much history as New Zealand has.

We got on the ferry that took us to Devenport. This is a picture of A. braving it on the ferry's open deck:

By this time, it was raining and there were strong gusts of wind blowing. When we got off the ferry (a short 10-minute ride across the harbour) we realized that it was impossible to walk around the town without getting drenched within a couple of minutes. We almost headed back to the ferry to go back to the city, when I noticed that the sky above Auckland looked brighter. And indeed, not 5 minutes went by and the sun was shining again! A fine example of what our Lonely Planet guide called “maritime weather” that can change almost in an instant.

So we set out to explore Devenport on foot. We went past Elizabethan houses and old churches to start climbing to the summit of Mount Victoria. At the top of this mountain one can see breathtaking views of Auckland and the harbour. Except it was so windy up there that after a few hasty pictures we scrambled back down for some relief from the winds.

This is a view from the top of Mount Victoria:

After getting back to Auckland, we decided I’d go with A. to Kelly Tarltons – an ocean and underwater museum. The line to get in was unbelievably long, but then it turned out that the doors were shut and once they opened everybody just poured into the building. On the way in I noticed the opening hours were only until 6pm and it was already past 6pm. Then I noticed everybody in line was holding an identical piece of paper and that the cashier was closed. Strange… Once we got to the entrance I told the staff that I thought the place was still open, so they smiled and just waved me through without paying anything. I guess I’ll never know exactly why.

Inside there were many fish, from common snappers to more exotic stingrays. You can walk through a domed passageway with the fish swimming all around you. A. particularly liked the stingrays and the sharks, but he was also excited about the crayfish. He kept running from window to window calling out the names of the fish on the plaques.

When we exited the place we waited in the bus stop for a bus to downtown, as there were no taxis around. One bus came by after 15 minutes but didn’t even slow down. I realized that perhaps one should wave down the bus here, as in England. The next bus came after 10 minutes and the friendly driver (from Turkey) took us back to the city. We met up with T. and H. at the Sky Tower and took the lift up to the observation deck, about 250m up in the air. The weather wasn’t all that great, but visibility was still quite good. They have these glass-panelled floors where one can walk and look down all the way to the streets below. Rather unnerving.

By the time we got back down to earth, it was well past 8pm and I realized I was feeling rather hungry and tired. I had fasted all day – it was the 10th of Tevet – so we headed back to the hotel for a quick dinner and an early night. Tomorrow morning we head to the South Island, to Queenstown.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

New Zealand - Days 1 & 2

So we set off to New Zealand yesterday. Sounds dramatic, but all we did was get on a plane from Tokyo to Hong Kong, waited a few hours, then got on another plane from Hong Kong to Auckland. Total of about 16 hours flying time (net) and we're in Kiwi-land! People in our day and age never cease to complain and moan about these long flights but personally I like to take a more historical (and stoic!) perspective. Our grandparents could only have dreamt about getting to a place as far away as New Zealand and also for our parents it was never an easy decision to make. For us, despite this now being a Concorde-less world, it is as easy as 1-2-3: buy the ticket, book a hotel and a car (all done online) and get to see the famous NZ sheep up close.

I am reminded of Mark Knopfler's song Sailing to Philadelphia, about Mason and Dixon making their way across the Atlantic to chart the famous line that was to become the symbolic border between the slave states and the free states in the US. It is clear from the song’s lyrics that for them, the journey from England to Philadelphia was a long and arduous one, nothing we can imagine going through today (except, perhaps, on a pleasure cruise). But, I digress.

Monday, Dec. 20 - Tokyo to Auckland via Hong Kong

We took off from Narita airport on Monday at 11am, with Cathay Pacific. A most recommended airline, by the way, except for the food we got which was not the airline's fault as we ordered a kosher meal (it was that horrendous conserved food with a 2006 expiration date on it, which says it all).

Got safely and uneventfully to Hong Kong around 3pm. As our ongoing flight to Auckland was departing at 9pm, we decided to go into town for a few hours. We took the Airport Express train which takes you to Central Hong Kong in 20 minutes and strolled around Central for a couple of hours. I've been to Hong Kong several times before, but for the family it was a first. The most striking thing for them was the noise; coming from Tokyo one is used to the crowds, but not to the level of noise downtown Hong Kong generates. Mercifully, it wasn't horridly humid and hot; after all, this is December.

Back at the airport we took a quick shower in the beautiful Cathay Pacific lounge, before boarding our flight. The flight to Auckland was packed full, but we had 4 reserved seats together which was convenient. The kids fell asleep relatively quickly so we could get a wink ourselves. I watched one movie before falling asleep, Collateral, which was rather disappointing. I found it to be very slow in picking up a pace and only the last 20-or-so saved it from being a total disappointment. Not one of Tom Cruise's best performances, I’m afraid.

Tuesday, Dec. 21 - Hong Kong to Auckland

We landed in Auckland a bit before 1pm on Tuesday and took a taxi from the airport to our hotel, the Duxon hotel in the centre of the city. After checking in, we tried to get some sleep to recover from the flight, but the kids, who were well-refreshed from their sleep on the plane, did not allow us this exaggerated pleasure.

The view from our hotel room includes the Sky City tower, which is the tallest standing structure in the southern hemisphere:

Around 6pm we gave it up and set out for walk around the city centre. We knew that the Jewish Community Centre of Auckland was on the same street as our hotel, but as it turned out it was right next door to the hotel! It was closed at this hour, but it looks rather big as the complex contains also the local Jewish school, as well as a kosher shop.

That's the hotel on the left, and the JCC on the right::

We then walked down Queen's Road, which is the main street in central Auckland. The city centre looks pretty much like the city centres of Sydney and Melbourne: office buildings, shop signs aligned horizontally above the pavement, Starbucks Coffee shops and many young people all speaking English in an amazing variety of accents and intonations. As in Australia, most of them are Asians. By this hour most of the shops were closed so we walked all the way down to the harbour and had a look, but it was too cold (some summer!) to take a stroll down the quay.

Before heading back to the hotel we popped into a Star market to get some food. While shopping, this guy came up to us and asked us if we were from Israel; I guess he saw the kippah or heard us talking. He said he was Jewish and offered some information about the local community and synagogues ("temples", as he referred to them). He also apologized for the cold weather, something for which the taxi driver that drove us back to the hotel also apologized for; everyone seems to be really friendly to tourists here. Incidentally, just like Australia (and many other countries, I guess), the taxi drivers we had met thus far were all non-native; one from Samoa and one from Russia.

This concludes our 2nd day of the trip, and our first half-day in New Zealand. The kids are in bed (still awake) and I'm going to slip down to the internet room in the lobby to post this. A demain!

Sunday, December 19, 2004

New Zealand Travelogue - Index

Index to posts from our trip to New Zealand in December 2004:

New Zealand - Days 1 & 2

New Zealand - Day 3

New Zealand - Day 4

New Zealand - Days 5 & 6

New Zealand - Day 7

New Zealand - Day 8

New Zealand - Day 9

New Zealand - Day 10

New Zealand - Pictures

VaYechi - Did Ya'akov Die?

ויכל יעקב לצות את בניו, ויאסף רגליו אל המטה, ויגוע ויאסף אל עמיו

(בראשית מ"ט, ל"ג)

After the things he said to his sons on his deathbed, Ya'akov dies:

And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people.

(Bereshit 49, 33; KJV)

But does he? Rashi on this pasuk says that the word "death" does not appear in relation to Ya'akov, and refers us to masechet Ta'anit where we are taught that "Ya'akov did not die". Let us look at this reference (Ta'anit 5b):

Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Yitzchak were having a meal together and R. Nachman asked R. Yitzchak to say a dvar torah. R. Yitzchak responded by quoting R. Yochanan who warned people not to speak during the meal, lest they swallow their food incorrectly and put themselves in danger. After the meal, R. Yitzchak dropped his bombshell, again quoting R. Yochanan: Ya'akov did not die! So R. Nachman asked: but we read in Bereshit that Ya'akov was eulogized, mummified and buried! So R. Yitzchak quoted from the prophet Yirmiyahu to equate the eternity of the seed of Ya'akov to prove that Ya'akov himself is still alive.

Strange conclusion, to say the least. In order to try and understand this aggadah from Ta'anit, we need to examine the general approach to interpreting aggadah in the Talmud. Which way should we interpret it: literally, alegorically, mystically, psychologically, or a combination of all of the above? Rambam gives us a direction (even though he does not address this aggadah specifically. In his preamble to perek chelek in Sanhedrin, he categorizes people into three groups:

  1. The "literals", those who accept what the sages said at face value. According to this group, Ya'akov indeed did not die.
  2. The "rationals", those who accept what the sages said but only if it does not conflict with their beliefs, and if it does they ridicule the sages. According to this group, R. Yitzchak did not know what he was on about when he said Ya'akov did not die.
  3. The "wise", those who understand that what the sages say has two levels, an apparent one and a hidden one. Where conflice arises between the saying and rational belief, there must be a hidden meaning that requires an allegorical interpretation of the sages' saying.

Rambam obviously followed the third approach, which enables us also to try and interpret R. Yitzchak's statement allegorically. From a rational perspective and from reading the text in Bereshit, there is no doubt that Ya'akov died, as R. Nachman rightly points out. But we might also conclude that Ya'akov continues to live among us, in the memory of the People of Israel. As long as we read about him, about his life and his teachings, and as long as we strive to follow his ways, he is not dead. Just as the Talmud in Brachot says: the righteous even in death are considered alive.

The idea for this week's Parasha Thought is from Dr. Avraham Elkayam of Bar Ilan University

Bloggers? Not Too Close To Me...

A week ago, Joseph Epstein wrote the following in The Wall Street Journal:

All success to the best of the bloggers. But, as the Jews of Russia used to say about the czar, so I now find myself saying about them: May they live and be well, but not too close to me.

Epstein does not argue that bloggers should not exist. He is avoiding them simply because of the "information overload" problem; his brain is unable to process, let alone digest, so much information. He then goes on to give us his daily "intellectual hygiene" routine:

As for my intellectual hygiene, it begins with writing in my own, private, written-in-longhand journal, which I have been keeping for some 30-odd years and which no one else has ever seen. It continues with a brisk reading of the New York Times, beginning always with its obituaries (the only news that, as Ezra Pound said about literature, stays news). The Wall Street Journal is next. After checking my e-mails, with its many fine offers of cheap Viagra and chances to meet cheating housewives, I click over to, which reprints a good selection of recent articles on culture and intellectual life in the Anglophone world.

As a new blogger I cannot agree, for obvious reasons, with Epstein's advice to stay away from blogs. But I do concur that Arts & Letters Daily is a superb source of readings from the Web. In fact, a recommendation about this website was my very first post .

Just Leave Christmas Alone

Charles Krauthammer writes against the attempts to "de-Christianize Christmas" in the US, for the sake of not offending "religious minorities". He pokes fun at the lengths some public and commercial organizations go to in order to avoid specific references to Christmas, or give Hanukkah an equally prominent footing (just because it happens to take place around this time of year).

I couldn't agree more. When I grew up in Italy, the international school I went to had a Christmas party every year, with a show put up for the parents. The school was not religiously affiliated in any way (despite being named after a Christian saint), yet all children took part in the celebration. I remember singing Christmas carols and acting out some of the nativity scenes. One year we even sang "Holy Night" in several languages; I admit singing layla kadosh did seem a bit weird, but it was all part of school life and at no point did I feel my religion was pushed aside in favour of another. Perhaps it was the naivete of my young age.

From my personal experience I can fully sympathise with what Krauthammer write:

Some Americans get angry at parents who want to ban carols because they tremble that their kids might feel "different" and "uncomfortable" should they, God forbid, hear Christian music sung at their school. I feel pity. What kind of fragile religious identity have they bequeathed their children that it should be threatened by exposure to carols?

I'm struck by the fact that you almost never find Orthodox Jews complaining about a Christmas creche in the public square. That is because their children, steeped in the richness of their own religious tradition, know who they are and are not threatened by Christians celebrating their religion in public. They are enlarged by it.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Best Books of 2004

The end of 2004 is approaching fast, and everywhere you turn there is a "Best Books of The Year" list. So which list to believe? Which books to buy?

Help is on its way. The GalleyCat blog published the "mother of all lists" for the best works of fiction published in 2004. The clear winner is The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

VaYigash - Serach, Daughter of Asher

ובני אשר ימנה וישוה וישוי ובריעה, ושרח אחותם, ובני בריעה חבר ומלכיאל

(בראשית מ"ו, י"ז)

VaYigash sees the close of the saga of Yossef and his brothers. After the big drama of Yossef revealing himself, the family is reunited and Ya'akov "goes down" to Egypt with his children and grandchildren. One of these is Serach:

And the sons of Asher: Jimnah, and Ishuah, and Isui, and Beriah, and Serah their sister; and the sons of Beriah: Heber, and Malchiel

(Bereshit 46:17; KJV)

We find the name Serach one more time in the Torah, during the second census of Bnei Israel in the desert, shortly before they entered the Land of Israel. Here too she is referred to as "the daughter of Asher". Approximately 250 years passed between the time Ya'akov's family arrived in Egypt and the end of the desert wanderings of Bnei Israel, but despite this long period of time, many commentators (among them the Ramban) conclude that the Serach in Bereshit is the same Serach in BaMidbar. According to this, Serach lived a long life.

Many Midrashic stories were woven around Serach. She is said to be the one who broke the news to Ya'akov that his son Yossef was alive and well in Egypt; she was also trusted with the secrets of the ge'ulah (redemption) and was able to tell the Israelites that Moshe was indeed "the one"; she revealed to Moshe, after three days of futile searching, where to find the bones of Yossef before leaving Egypt; she is also said to have been the "intelligent woman" mentioned in Shumuel Bet who wisely saves her town from destruction; and finally, she is mentioned as correcting a mistake of R. Yochanan. This last story would put her life span at over 1,000 years!

Indeed, an interesting and enigmatic figure. Why would the commentators go to such lengths to attribute these wondrous doings to Serach? The Torah promises a long life as a reward for several mitzvot, so is it possible that Search was rewarded for her good deeds? And if so, why does the Torah not give us so much as a hint about this apparently great woman? I have not found answers to these questions.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A Pillow for Him, A Pillow for Her

The holiday season is coming up and Japan is gripped by the annual shopping frenzy for end-of-year gifts.

This year there is a perfect gift for him: the "lap pillow". Shaped like the bottom half of a kneeling woman, the company offering this $90 pillow says it fulfills a primal need for Japanese men: "Single men find this soothing... From the time people were kids, people have laid their heads on their mothers' laps to get their ears cleaned."

This reminded me of a product that came out last year: the "boyfriend's arm pillow". This pillow is shaped like a man's torso and has one arm that wraps around the sleeping woman.

So now it's all settled: a pillow for him, a pillow for her, and no need to worry about spending a lonely new year's eve.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Ore Ore - It's Me

How many times did you find yourself in a situation like this one: The phone rings. You pick it up, and somebody on the other end of the line says: "Hi, it's me". You reply: "Oh hi, how are you darling?". There is a short pause, and the other person says: "I'm not your darling, I'm your next-door neighbour".

Cases of mistaken identity over the phone are a common occurence and usually end up with no lasting damage, just a small embarassment. But in Japan, police have been warning the public for months now about a scam which has been called the "it's me" scam.

Middle-age or elderly women are usually the victims. Callers start the conversation by saying "Ore, ore" ("it's me, it's me" in Japanese), usually in a sobbing voice. They pretend to be a relative in distress, asking for money urgently in order to get out of trouble: a traffic accident, an abortion for the girlfriend or to pay off a loan. The elderly victim, wanting to help the relative in trouble, rushes to the nearest ATM and transfers the money to the account number the caller provides. End of scam.

Sounds far-fetched? Not so. According to police estimates, by the end of this year about 15-20 billion yen (around 150 million US dollars!) will have been fraudulenty transferred to "ore ore" callers. These numbers have prompted a nation-wide campaign by police, banks and cellular phone companies to try and put an end to this despicable scam.

So next time you hear "ore ore" on the phone, take your time to make sure the person on the other end is indeed someone you know, before parting with your money.

Hikikomori - The Missing Million

It is estimated that one million Japanese are missing. They are not missing in the sense that they are nowhere to be found; indeed they are rather easy to locate, usually in their own bedrooms. They are missing in the sense that they shun away from any social contact and for all practical purposes do not form part of Japanese society.

These missing people are called Hikikomori in Japanese, meaning "confined" or "withdrawn". Most of them are young males, in their teens or twenties, usually the eldest son of the family. They decide to withdraw completely from society and confine themselves to their bedrooms for long periods of time, often a few years. They spend their days sleeping, watching TV, reading manga comics and playing on their computer.

Hikikomori is a defence mechanism. The pressures of Japanese society can be overwhelming, especially to young people in the education system. There are entrance exams in every step of the way, starting from pre-school, where the children spend a lot of their time learning how to pass the entrace exam to kindergarten, which in turn prepares them for the entrance exam to primary school, and so on and so forth. Many school students go to cram schools after school hours and on weekends, just to make sure they do not slip behind their peers. The climax of this rat race is the entrance exam to university; many adolescents take a year off after high school to prepare for "exam hell", as it is known, and the more prestigious the university, the harder the exam.

The university years are usually a welcome break. After 18 years of running like mad just to make it to the next step of the ladder, most university students take advantage of their time at school to try and have as much fun as possible. And for a reason; they know that once they graduate they will need to face the job market. Japan's long recession, well over a decade long now, has eliminated the famous "womb to tomb" guarantee of lifetime employment with the big companies. The competition for every available position is ferocious and many find only part-time jobs. This, in turn, makes it hard to move out from home and start a family.

All of this is just too much for many young Japanese, and the result is hikikomori. They deal with it by not dealing with it, by shutting off the world. Initially they may just lock themselves up in their rooms after school or work, but as time goes by and their condition goes untreated (seeking psychological help is still somewhat of a taboo here), they withdraw completely and live in a world of their own. When they eventually emerge, a few years down the road, they are ill-equipped to face the world they have left behind, having lost most of their social skills. In many instances, their way back into society is accompanied with considerable anger and bouts of violence.

These are the missing people. The lost generation of Japan.

For more information, see the Hikokomori entry in Wikipedia.

Update: Science as Proof of God

Turns out Antony Flew is still a diehard atheist and has denied the "rumours" that he has become a believer. Oh well; so much for those who seek proof for believing in God.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Science as Proof of God

Antony Flew, one of Britain's leading philosophers, is 81 years old. For the last half-century or so, he was an ardent non-believer who wrote several books on atheism. Now he says he has changed his mind and believes there is a God. He defines himself as a "deist"; he still rejects the concept of revelation and does not believe God intervenes in our lives or that there is an afterlife. But believe in God he now does.

Interestingly, Flew rejects all the major "proofs" that God exists: ontological ("what there is"), cosmological ("nature"), teleological ("there must be a purpose") and moral ("what ought to be"). He claims that it was recent scientific discoveries, specifically those emanating from the Big Bang theory, that led him to start believing in the existence of God. Science as a path to proving the existence of God.

Perhaps, in his advanced age, Flew has decided to follow Rabbi Eliezer's advice in Avot: that we should do Teshuva (repent) one day before we die...

Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2004

The Nobel prizes for 2004 were awarded last night in Stockholm.

This year, two Israeli scientists from the Technion in Haifa, together with an American scientist from UCLA, were awarded the Nobel prize for Chemistry. This the first time Israelis are awarded a Nobel prize in a scientific field, although other Israelis have been Nobel laureates in the past: Shmuel Yosef Agnon won the Literature prize in 1966; Menachem Begin won the Peace prize in 1978; Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres won the Peace prize in 1994. An ex-Israeli, Daniel Kahneman, won the prize in Economics in 2002.

The two scientists, Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, won the prize for their research into understanding the processes by which proteins are broken down in our cells, and this understanding will help in developing new drugs.

Kudos to the Nobel laureates from Haifa!

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Miketz - The Spirit of God (Hanukkah)

ויאמר פרעה אל עבדיו: הנמצא כזה איש אשר רוח אלהים בו

(בראשית מ"א, ל"ח)

This year, as in most years, parashat Miketz coincides with Hanukkah. Even though the events of Hanukkah occurred long before the rules of the Torah readings was set, many commentators still find connecting ties and similarities between the events recounted in Miketz and those of Hannukah. One of these similarities is the relationship between Jews and other nations.

Miketz opens with with the interpretation of the dreams of Pharaoh by Yossef and the latter's swift ascent to the throne, as second-in-command and deputy ruler of Egypt. We find no discrimination against Yossef on account of him being a Hebrew; there is no "anti-semitism" in Egypt (at least not an obvious one in the text). Pharaoh himself describes Yossef thus:

And Pharaoh said unto his servants, 'Can we find such a one such as this is, a man in whom the spirit of God is?'

(Bereshit 41:38; KJV)

Even though Yossef is an "infidel" in the eyes of the Egyptians, and despite him being a captive servant and an ex-convict, Pharaoh, after witnessing his abilities, describes him as a man with a "spirit of God". The Egyptians accept to appoint a foreigner as ruler of Egypt, second only to their king, thus displaying an astonishingly flexible and open-minded attitude (in comparison, US law today forbids an American who was born overseas to run for President).

Let's turn to Hanukkah, the story of another relationship between Jews and other nations. Before and after reading the Torah this coming Shabbat, we will recite the Al HaNissim prayer during the Amidah. In it we remember the fight against the "evil Greek kingdom", a fight on both the cultural/religious and physical levels. Hanukkah has become symbolic of the hatred of Israel expressed by other nations throughout history. In the traditional Hanukkah song, Maoz Tsur, we read verses about this relationship of hatred from the days of Egypt (the Pharaoh "who did not know Yossef") until the days of the Second Temple.

These contrasting views are an example of the contrasting ways of Jewish history and one may be tempted to draw a pessimistic conclusion from this: conflicts between Jews and other nations are unavoidable. Rather than letting in to despair, we must try to build a more hopeful vision for the future. The key is in the "spirit of God".

Hanukkah is Chag HaUrim, the Festival of Lights, and the Halacha tells us to light one more candle every night, in order to "go up in holiness" and not down. We must apply this principle also to our lives, to the way we contribute to the world around us. If Pharaoh saw the "Spirit of God" in Yossef, surely we must rely on this very Spirit to influence the nations in Israel's favour. Force is not always the way, and certainly not the only way. King Shlomo writes in Kohellet: "a time for war and a time for peace". As much as possible, we should try to turn to the Spirit and not to the sword. As the prophet Zechariah writes (in the Haftarah we read on Shabbat Hanukkah):

This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.

(Zechariah 4, 6; KJV)

The idea for this week's Parasha Thought is from Dr. Ariel Rathaus of the Hebrew University.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

License to Kill?

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a prominent figure in Israel's Zionist-Religious community, published yesterday an article justifying the killing of terrorists even after they are wounded and captured. The article (in Hebrew) came in the wake of reports that Israeli soldiers, from an elite naval commando unit, intentionally killed a wounded terrorist in Jenin last Friday.

The basic thrust of the article is that a terrorist has din rodef, which means that he endagers life and can be killed if that is necessary to stop him from killing. Aviner gives two reasons for his "license to kill": a. if the terrorist is jailed, he may later be released and murder again; b. the element of deterrence, to illustrate to other terrorists what their fate will be. Aviner calls the killing of wounded terrorists "a very moral act", but he is careful enough to close with a caveat: his is merely the viewpoint of the Torah, not practical guidelines for the military.

I read this and I find myself speechless, embarassed and frustrated at the twisting and turning of the Halacha to serve purposes for which it was not intended. Din Rodef deals with an act of murder which is about to be committed. Nobody questions the morality of killing a terrorist if there is danger that he is about to commit murder (e.g. if the soldiers have good reason to suspect he is carrying a bomb). But to interpret the Halacha to say that a future murderer should also be killed, just in case, even after being captured, is preposterous. According to this logic, Israel should execute all jailed terrorists immediately, as there is no doubt about their future intentions.

Sometimes I wish "rabbis" would learn to think twice before firing off their mouths and bending the Halacha to suit their political thoughts or, worse, their pent-up urges.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Princess No More

Mr. Kuroda and Princess Sayako

The royal family in Japan is serious business. Admittedly, the Emperor is no longer a divine figure (the Americans saw to that after WWII), but many Japanese still regard the royals with respect and the sport of "royal watching" has numerous fans here, not unlike Britain.

This week, the royal palace confirmed reports that Princess Sayako, the 35-year-old daughter of the Emperor, will be marrying Mr. Yoshiki Kuroda, a 39-year-old Tokyo government employee. The two have known each other since childhood and went to the same university. This wedlock spells the end of royalty for Princess Sayako, who will become (gasp!) a commoner and will be known as Mrs. Kuroda. Her childern will have no rights of succession to the Japanese throne.

Princess Sayako has become a symbol for many Japanese women, who in increasing numbers decide to postpone marriage or indeed pursue a life of celibacy. Marriage and birth rates in Japan are decreasing dramatically and in a few years the population will start to decrease. In offices, it is not uncommon to see single women in their late 20s to late 30s, or older women who are married but with no children (the so-called DINKs: double income, no kids). However, unmarried women are still considered "losers" in Japanese society, as is evidenced by the saying that a woman has "succeeded" in marrying. By marrying late (and "out"), Princess Sayako's status as a role model is inspiring hope into many 30-something single Japanese women.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Trains in Israel and Trains in Japan

Triangle Technologies, an Israeli company that helps Israeli companies do business in Japan, publishes a monthly newsletter. It opens with a column from their CEO, Dan Isenberg, who usually ruminates about different aspects of doing business in Japan.

In this month's newsletter, Isenberg writes about the very different "experiences" of taking the train in Israel and in Japan. True, comparing these two transportation systems is bit like comparing Micronesia's stock exchange to Wall Street, but Isenberg uses this comparison to put the finger on the two countries' radically different approaches to design. And he has a point.

It is rather long, but definitely worth the read.

Trainspotting - November, 2004

Okay, I confess!! I am a social psychologist. More than an entrepreneur, more than a businessman, more than a (former) venture capitalist. A Social Psychologist. Not a closet social psychologist, but a real, bona fide, true believing, card carrying, social psychologist. Now that it is out, I feel much better. In fact, I have 2 graduate degrees in social psychology. Social psychology is not just an academic discipline or a profession; it is a way of life and a way of thinking. A weltanschauung (hah! Impressive, huh? Look it up. .)

At the very core of social psychology is the belief that human behavior can only be understood, predicted, and changed by understanding and intervening in how individuals are shaped by and interact with situations, the most pervasive of which are composed of other people. For example, you are more likely to be friendly if you are sitting next to a person at a 90 degree angle, than if you are sitting across the table from the person. Or if someone jumps up and yells at you, all else being equal, you are more likely to be/become an unfriendly person, and by the way, your assailant will view you as unfriendly as well, if not before, then certainly after the attack. You deserved it. From 1976-1981 at Harvard I studied these interactions at the feet of one of the world's great social psychologists, the late Robert Freed Bales who sadly died this year.

In Japan, people are orderly, considerate, and in general what we (that is, we "social psychologists", you know, the guys with the weltanshauung) call "other-directed", to an extreme. A lovely little manifestation - when people leave an elevator in Japan, it is common for them to press the "close door" button as they get off at their floor. People (sometimes beautiful people) wear ugly white surgical masks in order not to infect other people with their cold germs. Trains are also great places to see this. In all the 1000's of kilometers I have ridden on Japanese trains, only once did I encounter a long haired, ear-ringed, red-sneakered, baggy-pantsed teenager playing obnoxious loud music that you could hear through his earphones, and even in this case, someone got up and asked him to cool it, and instead of whipping out his knife, he apologized and turned down the music. Only twice I have seen people eating on trains (once it was a foreigner). People move to the inner part of the train to allow others to board. I have often thought that the other-directedness of Japanese society drives HMI (human machine interface) design, it is so incredibly user friendly. The semiotics (there I go again - semiotics is a philosophy of signs) is fabulous. You just can't get lost in a subway in Tokyo, these guys really know what makes it easy for millions of people to get around. And the trains have great displays, clear descriptions of where you are, they are designed to hold lots of people yet still optimize the numbers of people who can sit down.

I took a train in Israel 2 days ago, it had been a long time. With the Japan train experience so ingrained in my mind, I was immediately struck by how user-hostile the Israel train experience was, even though we are talking about a modern, double-decked, clean and colorful, carpeted and upholstered train that required a huge investment and a source of pride to the train authority. The user unfriendliness started at the entrance to the train station where there were only two machines for buying tickets. Of course, there was a long line of impatient people afraid of missing their train. The machines themselves are huge, about 3 times the size of similar more effective machines in Japan. At the turnstile, the tickets could only be inserted in one direction, again causing delays. And they were processed slowly, causing the passenger to stop and wait. In Japan, the ticket goes in one side of the turnstile and comes out the other side at a speed that allows a person to keep walking at a fast pace. Once inside, I looked for a sign informing me which of the trains stopped at the platform was travelling north, and which was going south. There was no sign (the display monitors were all facing in the opposite direction so I had to move around to see). Again, I had to stop, look around, and figure things out.

In Japan, there are floor markings where the door of the train will open, and where to stand to let disembarking passengers get out. In Israel, there is a free-for-all, and the faces of the disembarking passengers reflecting a mix of anger and panic at the stampeded of embarking passengers. Inside the train, the two-facing-two seating is designed for long intercity trips with limited numbers of passengers, not short, commuter runs for the masses travelling a few stops. The passengers frequently put their bags on the empty seat next to them, making it uncomfortable for alighting passengers to sit down (there is almost no space in the baggage racks to put a bag or a briefcase - the roof of the train is curved). And the 2x2 seating encourages people to put their feet up when the opposite seat is empty, or to keep it empty - why not?

In Japan, there is a "manner" button on mobile phones, so when passengers see the signs on trains not to use their mobile phones, they press the "manner" button which turns off the ringer and turns on the message storage. On Israeli trains, everyone is talking on their mobile, although this is getting better.

So, are Israelis aggressive, inconsiderate, noisy, and individualistic, whereas Japanese are quiet, polite, thoughtful, and cooperative? Or are Japanese trains (and other institutions) conducive to such behaviors? Or, are the designers of Japanese trains (institutions) unconsciously promulgating a view of society in which people should be cooperative, quiet, and considerate? And the Israeli "designers", the opposite?

Anyway, thanks for your patience in this long Dan's Desk, and good luck.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Small World, by David Lodge

I usually dislike novels with too many characters in them. It makes the story difficult to follow - especially if I read the book over a long period of time - often finding myself leafing back to check up on some character I do not remember. I also find that in many such novels most of the characters are under-developed and leave almost no lasting impression on the story or the reader. In this respect, David Lodge's Small World was a pleasant surprise.

Small World is not a long novel (just over 300 pages), yet it is crammed with lively and colourful characters, dozens of them in fact. As the name of the book suggests, the story takes place all over the world and Lodge succeeds in keeping the pace fast enough and the characters alive enough, so as not to lose the reader when jumping between locations and between parallel stories.

The book is about English professors "on the loose", trekking the globe in a a frenzy, attending conferences, mingling with colleagues and striking up relationships which are kindled and exstinguished at a mind-boggling pace. The cast of characters is truly heterogenous - in nationality (Italians, Americans, Brits, Germans, Japanese), in age (from retires professors to young and aspiring PhD students) and in personality (from haughty sadists to clueless buffoons).

Lodge pokes fun at the academic world and its rules, exposing the main protagonists of this lovely tale as normal human beings in search of love, compassion and social status. It is the second book in a trilogy; I read the first part, Changing Places, a few months ago (and I intend to read the third soon).

I found myself laughing out loud several times while reading this book and I fully agree with the observation on its cover that "Lodge combines John Updike's social observation with Philip Roth's uproarious humour".

Thursday, December 02, 2004

VaYeshev - The Rule of One

ויאמרו לו אחיו: המלך תמלך אלינו, אם משל תמשל בנו; ויוספו עוד שנא אתו על חלמתיו ועל דבריו

(בראשית ל"ז, ח')

In parashat VaYeshev, we begin reading the story of Yossef, the preferred son of Ya'akov. His dreams contain visions of a grand future, of him ruling over his brothers and family. To the reader, this might seem like a natural development; Yossef is the firstborn son of Rachel, Ya'akov's favourite wife, and his father loves him more than all his other children. But we see that Yossef's brothers hate him for his dreams, and specifically for his intentions to rule over them, to be melekh (king, ruler):

And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. (Genesis 37, 8; KJV)

We ask ourselves, why do the brother hate Yossef specifically for his visions of ruling over them as king? To understand this we need the examine the attitude of the Torah to a Jewish king. Here are some examples:

  • Later in our parasha we read the story of Yehuda and Tamar: Yehuda sleeps with his daugher-in-law Tamar (unknowingly, thinking she is a prostitute) and out of this relationship, eventually, King David is born. Not only is David born out of a dubious relationship, but we are also promised that the Messiah to come will be a descendant of David!
  • The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 41) tells us that David was supposed to live only for three hours but lived for 70 years because Adam, the first human, "donated" 70 years of his life to him. It seems David lived on "borrowed time", hardly fitting a king.
  • After the Jews established themselves in Canaan, we read about God's response to their wish to appoint a king "like all the nations". He sends the prophet Shmu'el to try to dissuade them, by telling them all the terrible things a typical king does to his people.

Adam has to give a "donation" for King David to exist; David himself descends from a forbidden liaison; and God himself tries to persuade Israel to give up the idea of a king. All of this points to one conclusion: a Jewish king is an aberration. It is not natural for one Jew to rule over another Jew. The rule of a single monarch is not the ideal form of government according to the Torah. Even Moshe finds it hard to rule single-handedly and needs the guidance of his father-in-law, Yitro, to set up a legal and administrative system. It would seem that in order to appoint a king over themselves, Jews need to "import" both the king and the rules from other nations.

Perhaps this is what bothered the brothers of Yossef. It was not so much the idea of being ruled. It was the idea of being ruled by a single person, a brother, another Jew, that made them hate Yossef for his dreams.