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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thumbs Up for Napping

Yesterday I needed to sit a 3-hour exam at 4pm. Not that it was too demanding an exam, but as I got up early and felt a little tired, I decided around noon to take a short nap, I woke up after 1.5 hours feeling much better and ready for the exam.

This morning I read this pro-napping article in the Toronto Star, "a tribute to the soft pleasures of dozing". Spot on, as the Brits say. I feel guilty when I wake up late in the morning, and extremely guilty when I need to take a nap during the day. It does not happen very often, but now that I've read the article, and the hard science backing siesta lovers, maybe I will feel a little less guilty next time.

Which reminds me of a visit to Taipei, capital of Taiwan, a few years ago. I had a meeting at a large bank around lunch-time. On the way to the meeting room, I passed through a big open-space office area, seating perhaps 30-40 employees. All of them, without exception, were fast asleep, their heads resting on pillows they put on their desks. Apparently, a short nap after lunch is an agreed practice for office workers in Taiwan.

Got to rush. It's time for my post-lunch nap...

Friday, October 20, 2006

More London Ruminations

This week brought me to London again, a trip which gave rise to a few more ruminations:

I do not know any other city in the world that is as multi-ethnic as London is. Everywhere I go in London the people around me are a mix of colours, shapes and sizes, and the cacophony of languages from all around the world is music to my ears. Some would argue that New York City is as diverse as London, it not more, but I think the size of NYC is such that there are areas which are very homogeneous (Flatbush comes to mind...). London is also a big city and yet almost everywhere you go the population is heterogeneous. This thought brought back memories of my first visit to Boston 13 years ago; after a couple of days in the city I suddenly caught myself thinking: where are all the blacks?

The only place in London where I saw a sizable group of people that were mostly white and English-speaking, was at the theatre. (I went to see "The 39 steps" at the Criterion in Picadilly Circus, which I enjoyed very much). But no worries: stepping out into the streets of Soho and things were back to normal.

I also had time for a visit to the Jewish Museum in Camden Town. They are currently running an exhibition called "Identities" which displays photographs from various Jewish families and Jewish activities in London. There is also a film in which English Jews are interviewed about their identity. Again, even in the narrow Jewish community of England (less than half a percent of the total population), the ethnic diversity is striking. Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, secular and religious Jews, young and old - all proclaiming their allegiance to the kingdom while at the same times grappling with what it means to them to be Jewish.

On my way back to the hotel to pick my stuff and go to the airport, I made an impromptu stop at Charing Cross road, for a quick stroll around Foyle's, "London's legendary bookstore" as I believe it labels itself. I haven't been to Foyle's in over than a decade. I remembered it from my last visit as an amazing bookstore, but this time I was rather disappointed. I guess that with the proliferation of the "mega bookstores" - Barnes & Noble, Borders and of course - the grandness of Foyle's has somewhat diminished (at least in my eyes). I mucdh more enjoyed the few minutes I spent at Bookends, opposite Foyle's, a store which has retained its intimate book-browsing experience. I got a few Asterix books for my son.

And this impulsive stop at Charing Cross did not, sadly, leave me enough time to walk up Oxford's street to Selfridge's for my Krispy Kreme doughnut...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Prayer for Avi Ravitzky

I just saw on the news that Prof. Aviezer (Avi) Ravitzky, head of the department for Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University and winner of the Israel Prize, was hit by a bus in Jerusalem this morning and is in hospital in grave condition.

I had the honour of hearing Prof. Ravitzky talk on several occasions over the years and read a couple of his books. I stood a few paces away from him during the peace rally on the 4th of November 1995, at the end of which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.

He is truly a great thinker and I pray for his speedy and full recovery with the help of God. Amen.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Waving To and Fro

Sukkot is almost over. One more day. Tonight is Hoshana Raba and tomorrow morning we face a long prayer, circling the bimah seven times whilst holding and waving the lulav in all directions.

Every year on Sukkot I am struck with the same odd feeling. It's one of the most beautiful festivals, one on which we are commanded to be happy. After the stressful 10 days of the beginning of the year, culminating in Yom Kipppur, a happy holiday is just what we need. And yet, every morning of Sukkot and particularly on Hoshana Rabba, I watch myself and my fellow congregants waving the lulav to and fro, in all four directions of the earth, and I can't help but think to myself (not out loud of course, God forbid): "what the heck is going on here?!".

Yes, I am aware of the different reasons given to this strange custom, from the Seffer HaChinuch who categorises this mitzvah with the ones given to us by God for bringing us closer to Him, through the symbolistic gesture that the whole world belongs to God, to the more kabbalistic explanations about warding off evil spirits. And still, it just doesn't feel right. All this to and fro... All this circling around the synagogue...

To put it somewhat bluntly, there's a somewhat paganistic feel to it all. Of course I'm not suggesting this is a pagan ritual, and obviously if it's directed towards a proper cause - the worship of God - there's nothing wrong with it. And yet...

Oh well, I guess I'll just need to suppress my impure thoughts tomorrow morning, stifle my yawns (we start at 5am!) and go through the motions. Chag Sameach!

Friday, October 06, 2006

London Ruminations

I grew up in an anglophile environment, receiving British education from age 10 until I finished high school. Little surprise then that England, and London in particular, were places I felt comfortable with for most of my life. In recent years however, I have grown to dislike London, finding it to be a city where almost anything that can go wrong does go wrong. It is dirty, far too expensive, not safe enough, offers low quality of service and generally rather unpleasant. And with the heightened security measures after the terrorist attacks in London (real and imagined), Heathrow airport has become an unbearable airport to fly to and from.

Here are a few random observations from a short visit to London this week:

The airport hotels around Heathrow are not only ourageously expensive, but also so difficult to get to they can hardly qualify as proper airport hotels. Whereas the Heathrow Express takes you from Heathrow to Paddington Station in the heart of London in 15 minutes, the "Hotel Hoppa" buses that serve Heathrow's hotels take ages to get you to the hotel. Murphy's Law is strictly followed here: the bus you need (there are 9 lines, H1 to H9) is almost always the last one to turn up, and when it finally does, it follows a circuitous and noisy route before dropping you off, exhuasted, at the hotel.

England is where the English language was born and perfected, nurtured lovingly by generations of proud Britons. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, respect for this beautiful language was never a top priority, but Britons always took pains to make sure English was properly spoken and written. That, sadly, is changing. An example: in the same "Hotel Hoppa" bus, there is a sign behind the driver telling passengers what not to do when the bus is in motion. The first sentence starts like this: "Do not speak to the driver or distract their attention...".

The Tube, London's world-famous underground transportation system, is falling apart. Years of misguided privatisation efforts and maintenance neglect are finally taking their toll. Almost on every ride I hear a message about a failure that will delays or shutdowns. Posters in every station advise passengers which lines will not be operating as usual on the coming weekend due to repair works. Were it not for London's traffic, I would have opted for the (exorbitantly expensive) cabs instead of riding the Tube.

The latest fad in London now is free newspapers. Published by established media groups, these are handed out during the afternoon rush hour. As far as I could tell, there are two: London Lite (here again, no respect for proper English spelling) and The London Paper. I was browsing through one while waiting for a friend at Leicester Square to go see a play (Donkeys' Years, a British comedy) and in five minutes I learnt the following: 1. Bono (of U2) is married (or dating, I can't remember) a 24-year-old, and was photographed topless (Bono that is) while on holiday in Croatia; 2. Farah Fawcett (ex Charlie Angel) is fighting cancer; 3. Commuters on the Tube listening to loud music on their earphones is something that has been troubling many Londoners of late, and; 4. An actor by the name of Walliams (I think) appeared nude on stage last night. Think of all that wealth of knowledge you're missing out on because you don't live in London!

But there was one discovery I made on this trip which made it entirely worthwhile, a discovery that will make many future trips to London more enjoyable. Selfridge's Food Hall serves Krispy Kreme doughnuts!!! If you enter the store from the second door on Baker Street (the door furthest away from Oxford Street) you will stumble right onto the doughnut stand. This means I no longer need to wait until I visit the US to have a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Well worth all the aggravation London is giving me...