These Normal Stories
Expanded Stories, Linked from This Normal Life

Friday, September 17, 2004  

This Israeli in Me

OK, I admit it: I didn’t want to leave.

This past summer, after seven weeks on the road – the longest consecutive period I’ve spent outside of Israel in the nine years since we moved here – I was starting to get comfortable in California.

To my own shock and surprise, I could actually see myself living back in the States again. Going to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm every day, catching the latest movies at the multiplex at night...

OK, even my kids know better than that. Whenever any of them expresses a comment like “America is so much fun – you get to go to theme parks anytime you want,” we politely remind them that if we lived there, really lived there, our routine wouldn’t be all that much different than in Israel: school, homework, Shabbat, friends.

Beyond the vacation fantasy, though, I could feel myself starting down the slow but steady assimilation process…the same one we had embarked on when we left for Israel in 1994, only in reverse.

I had no idea it could happen so quickly.

And so it was becoming easier, even a bit liberating, to imagine buying a home in the Carmel Valley neighborhood in San Diego’s North County, where some one out of every three new homes is purchased by a Jewish family.

We could send the kids to the nearby Jewish Academy and join the local synagogue with the “Rockin’ Shabbat” services on Friday nights.

The allure of the open roads, the comfortable living and bountiful shopping, not to mention close proximity to grandparents – had it finally swayed our Zionist resolve?

After all, we had been living the California lifestyle for seven weeks and it wasn’t so awful. Who said that life has to be hard in order to be meaningful anyway?

Just before we were scheduled to get on the plane to come back to Israel, we had dinner with a couple of very close friends. We met Sol and Debbie 18 years in Israel. We studied and worked together. We’ve been to each others’ simchas. We’ve been there for the tough times, too.

A year ago, Sol and Debbie became the only family we knew who left Israel because of the “situation.”

I don’t blame them.

On the contrary, I’d probably have done the same in their circumstances: living in a West Bank settlement that had been targeted on more than one occasion by terrorists. Where just going out at night was a life or death decision.

They’d had more than they could take and needed a break. A year. Two. Maybe more.

While barbequing up a plate-full of kosher steaks for our two families, Sol and I got into some of my feelings of creeping assimilation. Always insightful – and probably thinking more than a little about his status of self-imposed temporary exile – Sol stared me down through the charcoal haze.

“That’s all very nice and I imagine you could probably be very happy here,” he said, “but do you think at this point, you could really take the Israeli out of you?”

The Israeli in me? What was the Israeli in me, exactly? I mean, it’s not like I was born in Israel. I grew up not that far from where the steaks were steaming. I still have many more years of the old country in me than the new.

How hard could it be to swap one identity for another? To assimilate back to where I came from? What would it take – a few more weeks or months? A year tops.

And I thought, half as internal soliloquy, half in defiance to the challenge: it could be done.

As I left the barbeque, however, still pondering the existential nature of “home,” news was coming in about terror attack.

I was at once both paralyzed and panicked. My budding assimilated self told me that this should only serve to further my feelings of dissonance and distance from my adopted homeland. And yet I couldn’t help finding myself desperate for more information about the attack.

Was there anyone we knew in the attack?

Where did it happen?

What was the reaction on the street in Israel?

Were our friends scared? Angry?

The Israeli in me wanted to listen to the local radio. The Israeli in me needed to be a part of the community that was experiencing the pain and horror of it all in real-time.

The Israeli in me had spoken.

One exhausting thirty-hour plane ride later and we were back. The crushing, invigorating, utterly overwhelming humanity that is Israel hit us full-on, starting with the taxi driver from the airport shouting into his cellphone: Moti, efoh atah, totally oblivious to the fact that some of us were experiencing third degree sleep deprivation.

Within a matter of hours after landing, there was a problem with Aviv’s kindergarten that has to be sorted out that very morning, multiple phone calls (“Welcome back,” “Can Amir have a play date?” Can you join us for Shabbat?”), one dead car battery, two blown out light bulbs, a computer that wouldn’t start, and hourly news bulletins on the progress of yet another nationwide general strike (well, at least that was expected).

The pace at which things move in this turbo-charged little country is like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world.

In synagogue, we were literally bowled over by friends.

“How was the summer?”

“Did you love Prague?”

“Are we meeting up in the park as usual?”

“How’s your jet lag?”

Jet lag? Who has time for jet lag!

You know, it might take seven weeks for the process of assimilation to begin in America.

In Israel, it seems, it’s all over in all of about seven minutes.

We were home.

posted by Brian | 1:09 AM

Tuesday, August 17, 2004  


Blood and chocolate.

That was essentially the two-word take away from the email we received a few weeks ago from our synagogue announcing the first ever "Tu B'Shvat Bake Sale and Blood Drive."

What Tu B'Shvat - the Jewish Arbor Day, known also as "The New Year for the Trees" - and giving blood have to do with each other, I may never know. But it was an opportunity for our community to come together to help others in need...and eat chocolate brownies all at the same time.

"I think I'm going to do it," my wife Jody announced as she closed the message.

"You're kidding," I said.

"No, really. I've always wanted to. And it's a real mitzvah. Look at this," Jody said reopening the email. "If one member of the family gives blood, the entire family is 'insured' for a year."

More than that, I read. If at least half the households in our synagogue membership donated, the entire community would be covered for a year.

"You should do it too," Jody added.

"Yeah, right," I said, stifling a near shriek. "You know how I am around needles. I practically faint, and that's just when I get my blood taken at the doctor's office."

Jody nodded, remembering the last time when I had to lie on the table for 20 minutes drinking orange juice. And that was for just a drop compared with the bloody bucketful to be collected during our synagogue's blood drive.

"I'll tell you what, though," I said. "I'll come and watch you. Give you a little support. Then maybe I'll think about it."

When Jody, five-year-old Aviv and I arrived at synagogue on the day of the blood drive, I was blown away. The line to give blood was nearly out the door. People were literally pushing their way to the front in their eagerness to part with a pint of essential fluids.

"I've got another appointment," I heard one man say. "Can I cut in front?"

The three of us got in line.

We brought Aviv because we thought it would be educational. He'd learn about the importance of giving blood and see that it wasn't so bad. He tends to take things in stride anyway. If he could handle seeing his mother with a six inch needle shoved up her arm, we figured, maybe he'd become a doctor.

There were three stations in the line before we could progress to the main event. First Jody had to have her hemoglobin checked. This necessitated a finger prick. Apparently only women and vegetarians were forced to undergo this extra procedure. I couldn't watch.

Jody passed. I nearly passed out.

Then a nurse took her blood pressure. She passed again.

Finally Jody had to have her paperwork checked and stamped. No problem there: Jody deals with paperwork for a living.

As we entered the blood room itself, there were at least eight men and women stretched out on cots, attended by four young Magen David Adom workers flitting between them. I noticed a man in the corner next to the cookie table trying to stop his bleeding. His arm was drizzled red; there were drops on the floor marking a gory breadcrumb trail from his cot to his current resting place.

Was this typical, I thought? Maybe I should rush in, Indiana Jones-like, and save my colleagues from near certain agony.

The needle went in and Jody grimaced. I held her hand and concentrated on keeping my…I mean her spirits up. I stared at the ceiling, checked my cellphone, anything to avoid looking down to where the needle was.

20 minutes later, we were hovering over the sweets. Jody flashed her her "I gave blood" sticker which entitled her to two free chocolate chip cookies while I struck up a conversation with a friend.

"So, did you already finish?" I asked.

"No, I can't give blood," he replied.

"Why not?"


I nodded, recalling that he had lived in Africa for several years.

I turned to another friend. He shook his head too.

"Why can't you give?" I asked.

"I'm English."

"So?" Last time I checked, "blue blood" was only a figure of speech.

"Mad cow, don't you know. Israel won't accept English blood."

"Man! Why can't I have one of those diseases!" I sputtered.

Just at that point, Jody sauntered over to me, cookie in hand.

"Nu, how do you feel?"

"A little woozy," I replied. "I'll be OK."

Jody laughed. "So, what do you say? Are you ready to get in line?"

"Maybe next time," I said.

But what I really meant was maybe next time I'll actually look at the needle. I have a feeling that getting me to the point where I'm ready to give is going to take a long, long time...

posted by Brian | 11:56 AM

Wednesday, July 07, 2004  

The Last Tuck-in

For 13 years, I knew this day was coming. I’m not talking about my son Amir’s upcoming bar mitzvah. No, this was a moment of much more intensity.

The last tuck-in.

If you have kids – or if you ever were a kid – you know what I’m talking about. That special time of quiet bonding, books and cuddles, just before bed.

At first, the ritual fell mainly to mom: despite noble intentions, I just didn’t have the right equipment. I stepped in when bedtime evolved into story hour.

Instead of books, though, I created a whole set of make-believe characters whose tales I told every night. I never knew what I was going to say before I sat down on the bed. I’d look around the room for some inspiration – a new toy, a pile of dirty socks, a Barney doll – anything could trigger that night’s drama.

Over time, a whole oeuvre of characters developed. At the center were Frieda and Ernest, two pre-teens who lived in Paris and for some reason spoke perfect English. They had an inventor uncle named Giuseppe in Pisa, and another uncle who explored the jungles of Africa. Uncle Giuseppe was always getting into trouble, and Frieda and Ernest always seemed to save the day.

Did you know for example that it was Uncle Giuseppe who made that famous Italian tower lean...and Frieda and Ernest who stopped it from collapsing all together? Or that thanks to Uncle Giuseppe’s amazing time travel machine, Frieda and Ernest were responsible for the first Thanksgiving?

Well, now you do.

Eventually, my stories were supplanted by books. Amir and I read the whole “Indian in the Cupboard” series, various Beverly Cleary books, The Borrowers, Peter Pan and John Christopher’s sci-fi Tripods trilogy.

By the time we got to Harry Potter, Amir was reading on his own. His voracious appetite for literature soon pushed out any time for me to read to him. He was growing up and wanted to do it himself.

But that was OK. I just shifted my story telling and book reading attention to his younger sister and brother.

But no matter what the content of the routine, there was one thing that always remained: the tuck-in. A kiss and a hug before lights out.

Until a few months ago.

At nearly 13, Amir has already passed me in height. He hates it when I say how big he is, but I’m going to do it anyway: he’s huge. His body is 13 going on 30 and I’m not talking about the movie. He’s got the largest shoe size...and the biggest hands in our house. I’m dreading the day when he outgrows the bunk bed he shares with six-year-old Aviv and we have to get him his own room.

Where’s that Brady Bunch attic when you need it, anyway?

Along with his size, his bedtime has gotten later too.

But still, whether it was 11:30 PM, midnight or later, when I heard the call of “Abba, come down for a tuck-in,” I was there. Even if I was already nicely bedded down myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I loved every minute of it.

So imagine my surprise – and distress – when Amir announced one night that he could put himself to bed.

“I don’t need a tuck-in,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I answered. “Of course you do.”

“No, Abba, I don’t. I’ll put myself to bed. You don’t have to wait up tonight.”

He sounded so considerate, so mature.

“Really?” I asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, Abba.”


“I think you need the tuck-in more than me,” Amir said.

Of course he was right. But what’s so wrong with that? Giving up the tuck-in is a major milestone in a father’s life. Like the first day of school. Or sending your kid off to the army. He might have warned me. Given me some notice.

Something like: “Abba, listen, I’ll be giving up tuck-in’s in three weeks time, so get ready.”

But no...he wanted me to go cold turkey on the tuck-in’s. Well, I wasn’t having any of it.

Our tuck-in’s may be going the way of Frieda and Ernest and a book before bed, and my son may soon be a head higher than his poor old father. But darn it, tonight wouldn’t be the last tuck-in. I would make my final stand.

Amir and I faced off in the hallway. But looking (up) into his eyes, it didn’t feel so much as father and child. Rather as two men acknowledging a change...and the specialness of the moment.

It may have been the last tuck in. But it was also the beginning of something new.

“Go on, get into bed and I’ll wait,” I said. “I’m not that sleepy anyway.”

posted by Brian | 1:49 PM

Monday, June 07, 2004  


When I was growing up, my mother wouldn’t let me in the kitchen. I suppose she thought she was doing me some kind of favor. But years later, I still panic when I’m asked to prepare anything more sophisticated than macaroni and cheese.

There is one dish, however, that I’ve managed to perfect. So much so that, in our house, it’s known as “Abba’s Cholent.”

Cholent, for the uninitiated, is the ultimate Shabbat meal: a thick meat and potatoes stew that simmers all night on a hotplate until the water has just about evaporated and all you’re left with is a gooey, mushy, absolutely delicious concoction that sticks to your ribs as much as your plate. It’s the perfect food for a wintry Saturday afternoon.

Cholent was actually dreamed up to address two critical issues in the religious household: what to eat on Shabbat since traditional Jews don’t cook on the Sabbath, and how to prepare something really fast since there’s never enough time on Friday before the sun goes down…especially when Shabbat can begin as early as 4:00 PM in mid-December and January.

My cholent recipe goes something like this:

- Soak a bunch of red beans the night before (“a bunch of” is the correct measurement, I assure you);

- Throw the beans in the pot an hour before Shabbat along with some barley, onions, carrots, two kinds of cut up but not peeled potatoes (sweet and white);

- Top it all of with several chunks of red meat (you can use chicken but why not go all the way...)

- Then add in Abba’s secret sauce –a hunk of honey, a sprizzle of ketchup, and a glob of liquid garlic. Finish with salt, pepper, zatar and cumin;

- Cover the mixture with water and boil for an hour, then shift it to the hotplate until the next day.

“Abba’s Cholent” made a late start this winter – it wasn’t until last week that I finally deemed the lingering chill in the air worthy of the full cholent treatment. I had just finished adding the final spices and was heading downstairs to get five-year-old Aviv into the bath when an uneasy thought crossed my mind.

“Jody,” I called across the house. “What color is cumin supposed to be?”

“Yellow,” she answered matter of factly.

“Is there such a thing as black cumin?” I asked.

“No,” came the reply.

“Um…can you come look at this for a minute, honey?”

They were bugs. Tens of tiny black bugs had infested the cumin, which probably hadn’t been used since last year’s cholent.

“What are we going to do?” I demanded in a panic. This was definitely beyond my mac and cheese repertoire.

“We have to throw it out,” Jody said. “You know bugs aren’t kosher.” Not to mention being really disgusting in a stew.

“But we can’t,” I sputtered. We had a full table of guests coming over and the cholent was the major part of the meal. Not only that, but the kids were so looking forward to the first installment of “Abba’s Cholent” this year.

What was supposed to be a culinary triumph was fast turning into gastronomic nightmare. This was even worse than the time Jody asked me to make a tomato soup, and I accidentally poured in chili powder instead of paprika.

Did I mention our guests that night were my in-laws-to-be?

“I can get the bugs out.” I said defiantly “It will take awhile, but I can do it.”

And I set to do just that. I removed anything black: pepper corns, black markings on the potatoes. I consoled myself with faulty logic: according to Jewish law, as long as any bugs that remained were less than 1/60th of the total, the dish wouldn’t be considered treife – that is not kosher

Of course, this rule is supposed to apply to “after the fact” discoveries, not upfront transgressions. And I’m not sure it even applies to bugs. Still…

I thought about a report I once heard on the National Geographic Channel, about how in places like Thailand they eat bugs. “They’re delicious, whether fried or sautéed and so full of nutrition,” the peppy announcer reported. “Just pop them in your mouth, exo-skeleton and all. It’s like candy!”

Jody bathed Aviv. I continued to painstakingly pick out the bugs. The sun was going down when I finally got the cholent on the hotplate just as Shabbat was beginning. We headed off to synagogue and didn’t talk about it again. I would serve the cholent. We wouldn’t mention to our guests what had happened. No one would ever be the wiser.

And then: disaster struck again. We had been plugging the hotplate into a timer so it wouldn’t waste electricity by being on for 24 hours straight. But cholent needs to cook all night. And I had neglected to switch the timer off. When I awoke and stumbled into the kitchen searching for my morning granola and rice milk, I immediately detected something was missing: no smell of bubbling meat and potatoes.

The cholent was cold, the meat clearly spoiled by now.

Jody saw this as a sign. We dumped the contents of the pot in the garbage. The guests were spared. We doubled the salad and borrowed an extra challah from the neighbors.

That night I had a dream. In it, our guests were eating my cholent. They loved it. And then one of them commented, “Mmm…crunchy!”

I looked down and, breathing a dreamy sigh of relief, noticed it was just an undercooked bean.

posted by Brian | 1:24 PM

Friday, May 07, 2004  


Let me start off by saying that cooking has never been my forte. Growing up, my mother wouldn’t even let my brother and me into the kitchen. That was great as a kid, with all these wonderful meals magically appearing and us having virtually no idea how they came into being. But as an adult it has left me with certain limitations.

Before Jody and I were married, I ate out a lot. Between falafel and burgers and the occasional salad, I probably spent more on food than rent. There was a brief period where I bought a wok and actually got pretty good with stir frying veggies.

I don’t know where that wok is now, though. And in any case, it’s not kosher for Passover. Which leads us to the dilemma of the day.

It was chol hamoed Pesach – the intermediary days of Passover – when matza is still high on the food chain. Jody had to go out and the kids hadn’t eaten dinner yet. Not a good combination.

No sooner had Jody walked out the door when eleven-year-old Amir asked “What’s for dinner?”

“I’m hungry!” nine-year-old Merav demanded.

Five-year-old Aviv was practically asleep on the couch, but he managed a brief whimper to indicate that he concurred.

Usually during Pesach week, we feast on a whole lot of matza: chicken salad on matza, matza with tuna, matza with butter and salt, matza bagels, and matza mousse for dessert.

“Let’s check what we’ve got,” I suggested, putting on an expression of “exaggerated enthusiasm” as I had learned in a recent Dale Carnegie class.

We had eaten out for the Passover Seder itself so there were no serious leftovers. The cupboard wasn’t exactly bare, but it wasn’t overflowing either. All that we had on hand were a dozen eggs, three squares of butter and the aforementioned matza.

“Matza Brie!” I declared with all the passion of a yet-to-be-televised naked chef.

“Do you know how to make matza brie?” Merav asked, with more than a touch of cynicism in her voice.

“No,” I responded, “but how hard can it be? It’s just eggs and matza, right?”

I cracked five eggs into a bowl, whisked them together, poured them into a frying pan and then crumbled a single piece of matza into the mix.

“Abba, aren’t you supposed to use, like, five pieces of matza?” Merav commented.

“And I think you’re supposed to soak the matza before you put it in the pan,” Amir instructed with alarm.

“It will be fine,” I shot back. “Don’t worry.”

“Matza Brie is supposed to be like French Toast,” Merav added.

“This isn’t Matza Brie as you know it,” I said, thinking on my feet. “It’s a…a...matzomelete."

"Yes,” I continued, ”it’s the perfect food for a country constantly suffering from a matzav” (that ubiquitous Hebrew term for "the situation").

“When friends call from the States and ask how the matzav is, we can say – it’s just fine, because we’re having matzomeletes.”

I looked down from my reverie. The matzomelete was starting to stick to the pan. The moment of truth was at hand. The kids eyed the concoction suspiciously. I still hadn’t gained their trust. As I spatula’d it onto their plates, no one uttered the customary “he got more!” or “she got more!”

They took a bite.

“Not bad,” declared Amir.

“Pretty tasty,” said Merav.

“Got any ketchup?” asked Amir.

I had done it!

Later that evening, when Jody came home, I told her the story.

“Matzomeletes instead of matza brie, huh? See, I knew you could handle the kids. But I’ve got an even better idea.”

And then with a wink she said: “Let’s go upstairs. I bet we can cook up a little Matza Brian of our own.”

posted by Brian | 1:20 PM

Wednesday, April 07, 2004  

Better off Red than Dead

Let me state upfront I’m not a big fan of the Dead Sea. Sure it’s cool to bathe in a body of water so filled with salt that nothing can live in it so you actually float on top of the water rather than swim.

Plus the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at 400 meters (or 1320 feet) below sea level, is mentioned prominently in the Bible in no less than nine verses. How many times do you get to say you went floating in a Biblical sea?

But it’s also slimy and cold and full of rocks instead of sand. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of those things you do once, maybe twice in a lifetime…but that’s it.

Not so for my kids. The idea of lying on your back and not sinking is as superhero magical as being able to fly or mastering invisibility.

Our first experience with the Dead Sea was two years ago. We were staying at the Ein Gedi Field School for a weekend away with our synagogue. On Shabbat I walked with then ten-year-old Amir and eight-year-old Merav down to the free public beach. Aviv was too young at the time to handle the 90 minute roundtrip walk in the hot sun and was quite devastated that he wasn’t allowed to join in the fun.

As soon as we got to the beach, the kids waded in. I’m sure they’d have liked to have jumped in, but the beach at Ein Gedi is not one of the most pleasant ways to “do” the Dead Sea. This particular beach has these large sharp rocks in the water that have come closer and closer to the surface as the water level has receded over the years. Maybe that’s why there’s no charge.

Well, the kids got into floating pretty quickly, but instead of laying back and enjoying the show, they had to spend their time avoiding the treacherous stones: one false move can pierce or scrape the skin just enough to allow the salt to seep in, causing searing pain. Given the number of rocks, it’s pretty much inevitable, and yet still people do it.

Forget all that Carpe Diem crap. Some things just cause temporary insanity.

Merav was the first to brush up against disaster.

“Abba,” she cried out about 15 minutes into our experience. “I think I got cut. Oh, I did. It hurts. Can you come out here? Please!”

This was not a feeling she’d had before and she began to panic in the water. As I tried to paddle out to her, I too got stung.

“I’m coming Merav,” I yelled between stifled curses. Somehow I maneuvered the two of us back to the shore where we nursed the salt in our wounds. I vowed never to do this again.

Flash forward two years. It was a Friday afternoon and we were on our way back to the Dead Sea for another Shabbat weekend. The kids apparently have incredibly short memories when it comes to trauma. Amir and Merav both wanted to give it another try, and Aviv, well he was adamant that he be given his chance at long last.

I refused to go back to the S&M beach at Ein Gedi. But I’d heard that nearby Mineral Beach was rock free. That was the only thing that was free, though: the entrance fee set us back a good hundred shekels. And the water was still cold and slimy. But I figured I could handle that. We all headed in.

About three steps in, our feet descended into something deep and squishy. Mud. That’s OK…it’s supposed to be therapeutic. The big kids started lathering up with the stuff. But Aviv was looking confused. Then he started to wail.

Nuts, I thought, he must have a cut somewhere. He was still close to the shore, so it wasn’t too hard to help him out. I inspected his body. Nothing. But a red rash was starting to spread. Something in the water – the salt or the minerals – was reacting with his sensitive skin. And he didn’t like it one bit.

“You have to get him to the showers,” a helpful man with a bushy beard and dreadlocks suggested.

To do that, though, we needed our shoes. Even though the water might have been rock free, the beach was still covered in millions of not-so-tiny pebbles.

Now let me ask you: have you ever tried to put shoes on a screaming and kicking five-year-old?

“You have to carry him,” Mr. Dreadlocks suggested.

I’ll ask again: have you ever tried to carry a screaming and kicking five-year-old over millions of not-so-tiny pebbles?

The whole process of putting on shoes and hiking up the hill to the showers probably only lasted a few minutes. But it felt like an eternity. Fortunately, once I’d washed the Dead Sea water off Aviv, he reverted to his normal happy self.

Amir and Merav came walking up the steps shortly afterward. This time, their experience had been 100% positive. Merav’s neck was covered in salt – the short walk from the beach had dried off the water leaving just a spicy mineral residue. The mud that covered Amir’s arms had transformed his skin into a dry leather that looked like it was going to crack or flake off at any moment.

“Did you have fun?” I asked.

“It was great!” they both responded.

Well, two out of three aint bad.

But lest you think I’ve been converted, rest assured my curmudgeonly side is still firmly in place. The kids had their Biblical Sea experience, if they want more – let them go on their own.

Or better still, why not check out the other sea mentioned prominently in the Bible: the Red Sea (yes, the same one that parted to allow Moses and the Israelites to pass through). Whether you enter from Eilat or deep in the Sinai, this one has everything you could possibly want: sandy beaches, warmer water and incredible coral, fish and snorkeling.

As far as I’m concerned, next time we’re better off Red than Dead.

posted by Brian | 5:51 AM

Monday, March 08, 2004  

On Being Five

Dear Aviv,

It’s hard to believe you’ve been with us for five whole years now. I hope it’s been a good five years for you. We’ve certainly enjoyed having you around - from the Shabbat morning cuddles you give us when you climb into our bed, to your wide-eyed wonder at things we jaded adults take for granted, like the subtle differences in rocks used for skipping across puddles.

Oh, you’ve given us a few scares, for sure.

Like the time that you and Amir were playing “Batman.” For some reason this involved wearing a blindfold. Improvising, Amir put a diaper on your head and then guided you around the living room. You were laughing and enjoying the game so much, it must have come as a total shock when you slammed into the glass door with your knee and with a crash, the glass shattered and the blood began to gush.

Delay. 1 second. 2 second. 3. Cue the crying. Cue the parents running across the house.

Remember what happened next? Imma took you to the hospital for an X-Ray and a little sewing up. You were so tired by all the excitement that you fell asleep in the car. You didn’t wake up when the doctor stuck a needle into your knee to numb the area. You didn’t wake up during the stitches or when they taped on the bandage. The doctor and nurse both said they’d never seen anything like it before.

And in the morning when you finally did wake up, you came to our room as usual, climbed into bed and then announced with total surprise: “What’s this thing on my leg?”

You never cease to crack us up, Aviv. While adults get tired of a game after playing it once, maybe twice, you can go all day, again and again, with something as simple as hide and seek. Even though the person you’d be seeking would hide in the exact same spot each time, you’d always be surprised, always shrieking with such delight.

And yet for every moment you make us laugh, there’s another where you inspire us. Because when you’re five, you still believe that magic is real.

“Watch this!” I said to you one afternoon as I took a marble, placed it carefully into my hand, and covered it with the blanket.

Say “Abracadabra,” I told you. You did.

Then I called out “look over there,” and the marble was gone. (Of course I had dropped it under the blanket while you were distracted – sorry if I’m giving away my secrets).

A minute later, I did the same trick, with the same distraction, and the marble was magically back.

And then you said "Maybe we can make Marla come back like that.”

From the day you were born, you have been our most independent child. You’ll nonchalantly inform us that you’re heading downstairs into the courtyard to play with the other kids and two hours later we’ll get a call from a neighbor.

“Aviv is finished eating his you want him to come home yet?”

Yes, you have a style all your own. When most kids are crawling, you decided that “scooting” on your tush would be lots more fun. It certainly got you lots of attention. Remember the time you scooted down nearly the entire length of the Tel Aviv boardwalk, bringing smiles to a growing crowd of fans and onlookers?

Speaking of style, you got your first taste of the fashion world when you were only two hours old. Remember? No?

Well, it was just before Purim, so Amir and Merav came to greet you in the hospital wearing their holiday costumes. Imagine: the first glimpse you got of those creatures who in the future will torment you so mercilessly was that of a bashful ballerina and a beaming Ninja turtle.

Now, I know you want a younger brother or sister to play with. And Imma and Abba have discussed the issue at length. For five years, in fact. All I can say for now’ll always be our baby.

Yes, yes, I know, you’re not a baby. You’re a big boy now. So why don’t you get dressed by yourself? Pick up your toys? Eat your vegetables?

But don’t be in too much of a hurry to grow up. You’ll have lots of time for school and work and girls and all those adult pursuits. You’ve got to get through the army, though of course we still cling to the hope that we won’t need one by the time you’re old enough. And after that, you could be a fireman, a brain surgeon, entrepreneur!

For now, though, open your presents, blow out your candles, and enjoy your big day. Imma and Abba are happy to tie your shoes and wash your hair and tell you a ‘pon a time story before bed.

Because although you may be a big five-year-old now, at the same time you’re still our little five-year-old and we’re not quite ready to stop taking care of you just yet.

So Happy Fifth Birthday, Aviv! We love you so much.

Your Imma and Abba

posted by Brian | 5:11 AM

Saturday, February 28, 2004  

The Naked Truth

We had just collected the kids from Camp Jaycee, the Jewish Community Center Day Camp in La Jolla not far from where we’ve been staying with Jody’s dad for summer vacation. We were looking for something different to do with the afternoon.

Not far away is this amazing cliff where hang-gliders take off and sail over the Pacific Ocean. It’s absolutely jaw-dropping, and we thought the kids would get a kick out of it.

But when we got to the jumping off spot, there was nary a glider in sight.

“No wind,” the snack bar guy said, pointing at the sky, causing the tattoos on his chest to animate like an X-rated Disney cartoon.

Then Jody spied a path. It went down all the way to the beach below.

“Who’s up for an adventure!” she announced. The kids readily took the bait. Who can resist a challenge like that? Though as I viewed the coming descent, I was already thinking about the climb back up. To my untrained eyes, it appeared we were at a height no less than that of Masada, with a path that snaked just as sharply.

But it was a beautiful sunny Southern California day, and the reward was a beach full of warm water, surf boards and surprises.

Did I mention surprises?

About three-quarters of the way down Masada, California, nine-year-old Merav made an interesting comment.

“Why is that man wearing a skin-colored bathing suit?”

Maybe her new glasses were playing tricks.

A minute later, five-year-old Aviv announced in a loud voice: “Look Imma – he’s naked. And he’s naked too. They’re both naked!”

In fact, there was quite a lot of nakedness going on below: we had inadvertently arrived at a well known (except to us) clothing-optional beach. With a whole range of family fun taking place: nude swimming, nude volleyball, even nude boogie-boarding (ow, that’s gotta hurt).

Normally, this is not the sort of place we proactively take our kids. We’re not prudes by any means, but we have a healthy sense of Biblically-inspired modesty. And the men (and for some reason they were all men) were walking around the beach flaunting their nakedness.

Couldn’t they just sit quietly under a nice beach umbrella? At least until we left?

However, we had just made a pretty serious hiking commitment and the peaks of our Masada loomed large behind us. Aviv had already run ahead. No, there was no turning back now.

As we got closer, it became apparent that not everyone was naked. It was a mixed congregation of sorts. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, all together in the same space. A real melting pot.

And truth be told, from a vacationing Israeli perspective, there was an appealing, even liberating element to all the nakedness around us. There was no chance anyone could be hiding an explosives belt under his bathing suit.

Speaking of which…

As we reached the bottom of the trail, little Aviv began to whine.

“Imma, I forgot my bathing suit!”

Merav was still wearing hers under her shorts after her day at camp. But Aviv had already changed into long pants and a t-shirt.

“Aviv, why don’t you go in naked,” I suggested. “Everyone else is.”

When in Rome…

He looked around and cautiously began removing his clothes. Like I said, this is not standard operating procedure in Jerusalem. Then, before we knew it, the kids were frolicking in the waves, jumping, splashing, having a jolly old time.

Yes, exactly as we had planned.

That’s when Jody spied them.

“Look, look!” she began to yell, gesticulating wildly and pointing into the sea. “Look!”

A naked man not far from where we were standing must have assumed Jody was pointing at him and turned uncharacteristically self-conscious.

“Dolphins!” Jody clarified.

The kids whirled around just in time to see several beautiful gray-black bottle-nosed dolphins jumping up and out of the water over the cresting waves. It was a magnificent sight. Totally unexpected.

At that very moment, I guess the wind must have whipped up again, because a hang glider suddenly appeared in the air. There above us was a man, sailing as freely and unencumbered by worldly concerns as the beachcombers frolicking around us or the dolphins playing in the surf.

He was not naked, by the way.

And I thought to myself: only in California. Only in California…

posted by Brian | 11:42 AM

Sunday, January 18, 2004  

The Drop Zone

It is a hazy Sunday in Los Angeles and we are dropping off our eleven-year-old son Amir for his first overnight camping experience: a month at Camp Ramah in Ojai, CA. We have come all the way from Israel for this, only amplifying the anticipation.

As we pull into the designated drop zone – the parking lot of Valley Beth Shalom - I am suddenly overrun by memories of my own sojourns at summer camp.

Except that this time I'm on the other side.

It’s been thirty something years ago since I attended El Rancho Navarro, a funky non-denominational Jewish camp just outside of Boonville, most notably known at the time as being the Northern California headquarters for the Moonies.

I think we shared a tennis court.

Moonies notwithstanding, it seems like nothing has changed since then.

There are the campers - some noticeably nervous, others greeting old friends with all that pre-teen bravado I’ve lost track of over the years.

And there are their parents, treading the unenviable line between already-missing-you and halleluiah - a whole month without the kid!

There are the sleeping bags and the oversized duffle bags, no doubt stuffed with a month’s supply of Cutter's, the requisite metal canteen and fourteen pairs of underwear and socks, each of which has been painstakingly labeled with the camper’s name (a process that causes no end of embarrassment for the child the other eleven months of the year).

About the only thing that's out of synch with my memories are the cars the campers came in. As I look out over the parking lot, I am confronted by a sea of mini-vans and SUVs, each more ritzy than the next.

I see Beemers, Acuras, and Lexi (the plural of Lexus I suppose), in shapes and sizes my parents' generation would have ascribed to nothing short of a future built by George Jetson and the Spacely Space Sprocket Corporation.

We, on the other hand, have arrived in the 1988 Chrysler LeBaron station wagon with faux wood paneling my wife Jody’s parents keep for us to use during our annual visits to the “old country.”

"Park it in the back, away from the A-List cars," I whisper to Jody as we scope out the scene.

It’s not just the cars. Things really do seem different from the parents’ side. It started months before when the forms arrived bearing Serious and Important Instructions. Did my own parents receive similar directions?

For example:

"Do not send clothing that advertises alcoholic beverages or drugs or that expresses racist or exist opinions."

Well, I guess my circa-1972 Nixon-on-the-toilet t-shirt probably would have been banned.

"Please do not send lounge chairs with your children."

Since when do campers bring furniture?

"Campers may not have cellular phones at camp."

My kids don't even have cellular phones at home.

"Do not bring weapons, pocket knives, water guns, valuables, walkmen, discmen, boom boxes, game boys, laptops, or beepers."

Hey, how about my Johnny Quest secret decoder ring?

And then there was my favorite:

"Please do not attempt to smuggle food for your camper into the camp. Although comic at times, our staff has seen a variety of creative attempts by friends and family to sneak food into the camp including sewing candy into stuffed animals."

And no nail files hidden in the Boston Creme pie either, you hear!

I can only imagine how an Israeli summer camp would present its version of the rules. Something more like “yalla, leave your uzis at home and bring a bottle of water. Chevre, we’re going on tiyul!”

Still, I am impressed by the thought and effort that goes into ensuring our children have a safe and unforgettable all-American summer. Without getting too sappy, it really does give me a more inside appreciation for the efforts my own parents made in getting me prepared for summer camp. That we have come all the way back from Israel to California, to where it all started for me, only emphasizes the connection.

Here at the drop zone, though, I am more concerned about a much more immediate subject: the girls. Tell me now, were they really that scantily clad when I was eleven? Maybe it's not such a good idea to let Amir run wild for a month without us…

But he has already made a friend and is ready to board.

"So soon?" I ask, but he's already heading up the steps.

"Wait - picture time!"

"Abba..." he protests.

And then, in the blink of a shutter, he is ensconced in the bowels of the bus.

"It's time to go," Jody says.

Yes, time to let that eleven-year-old man-child get started with the time of his life.

And time to...embarrass him one last time!

I run around the side of the bus looking for him through the window. I catch his eye for a moment and wave garishly. It's every camper's ultimate nightmare - the overly demonstrative parent…in front of the scantily clad girls.

And then I see it. The faint wave of his hand. And a wisp of a smile.

Now we can go.

posted by Brian | 12:07 PM

Sunday, January 11, 2004  

Nana's Song

When I was born, my ma and pa
looked at me and said "oh sha"
Pa went out and had a drink
The doctor said "a girl I think"
Ma said I looked just like pa
Pa said I looked just like ma
And sister Jane said I was a quince
And I was kept a stepchild since
They always always picked on me
They never never let me be
I told them someday what I'll do
I'll eat some worms and then I'll die

posted by Brian | 11:52 AM

Sunday, January 04, 2004  

Channeling Louis Armstrong

It seemed like just an ordinary wedding band. That was until the band leader started channeling Louis Armstrong.

He was a short Yemenite man with a straggly beard, bushy gray payot (sidelocks), a red Bucharian-style kippa and, perhaps most remarkably in an already remarkable appearance, a bright red tallit swung over his shoulder - something more at home in the synagogue than on stage.

He sure didn't look like Louis Armstrong. But that voice...

"I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom for me and you..."

No sooner had they finished the final notes of "What a Wonderful World" then the band segued into a spot-on rendition of Eric Clapton's "Layla," followed by a sax-laden version of 1980s New Wave sensation Men at Work's "Land Down Under" - but this time with Hebrew lyrics joyfully praising God. And then the band switched gears again and launched a Grateful Dead-inspired jam based on a particularly rousing Jewish wedding standard from the "Singing Rabbi," Shlomo Carlebach.

Now, Jody and I have been to a lot of weddings in our almost thirteen years in Israel and we've heard a lot of Jewish music played - from pure Klezmer to out and out rock and roll. But we stood dumbfounded by the range and repertoire of the five men on stage who, adding to the wonderful wackiness of the night, were by their garb clearly all religious. Not only that, they were mostly ultra-Orthodox.

Last time I checked, they don't teach the Beatles or Dire Straits in yeshiva. So where did they learn this stuff? I had to find out.

More than that, I wanted to know if this was the beginning of a trend - a combination of rock and tradition that signified the coming together of worlds, a healing of the too often fractious denominations within Judaism and Israel.

As the band took a break after cranking out the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," I approached the leader.

He immediately reached out and took both my hands in his, shaking them warmly.

"That was amazing," I started. "You guys really play great."

"Thank you, thank you," he said handing me his business card. Like his tallit, the card was completely done up in various shades of red. I looked down and read:

"Mati Harari. The Old Red. Music of All Types."

That was for sure.

Maybe it was the hot spiked punch, or perhaps I was just naturally high from the dancing, but I was feeling a bit more open than usual.

"So...where did you grow up, Mati?" I asked him. A good icebreaker I hoped and not too intrusive. Certainly not for Israel.

"Hadera," he replied referring to a small town on the Mediterranean coast a bit south of Haifa.

"You grew up religious?" I continued.

"Yes of course," he replied.


He knew where I was going. Undoubtedly, he'd been asked the same question many times before.

"I left religion for awhile," he explained with a grin. "Then I came back to it. As you can see." He waved his hand dramatically to call attention to his appearance.

As if I hadn't noticed.

I did a quick calculation and surmised that he must have spent the years he was outside a traditional religious framework listening to a lot of rock and roll. I tried to imagine him clubbing it in Tel Aviv - when? Twenty years ago? Thirty? More? Was there even rock and roll in the country back then?

There's a famous story about the Beatles. In 1964, the fab four expressed an interest in playing the Holy Land but were turned down by a governmental committee who felt the Beatles would be a bad influence on young minds in those heady days of nation-building.

My how times have changed.

"You know, I have a son who'll be bar mitzvah in a few months," I began. "Maybe you could play at his party. Do you know any of the modern stuff? Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Linkin Park - that kind of thing?"

"We could bring a DJ," Mati offered, not missing a beat.

And that's when I realized why all his music was going down so well with my particular age group in the wedding hall. He probably had a limited number of years as rock and roller before he returned to his religious roots. From the music in his songbook, I was guessing that must have been from about 1972-1983. He wouldn't know from Nirvana or Metallica. He'd probably never even heard of MTV's "So 90s" program.

But that was OK. Because us old fogies were having a great time, even if he didn't know his REM from The Dream Syndicate.

Mati turned to take his leave of us. The second set was about to begin.

And then the band started channeling another great from a not-so-distant past: Barry White. "My first, my last, my everything..." It was as vivid as an episode of Ally McBeal.

But I was still thinking about how Mati warbled out the last line of that Louis Armstrong number earlier in the night. He had changed only a single word, but in that change he had demonstrated the kind of fusion that could only happen when a religious Yemenite with a red tallit spends the better part of the disco years in a Tel Aviv bar.

"And I think to myself, what a wonderful Jerusalem."

To reach Mati Harari of the "Adom Atik" band, call +972 (3)-516-2918 or +972 (53)-789-871.

A note about this story: if any of the songs that Mati and the band played strike a nostalgic chord, click on the links I've assembled for you and relive the magic.

posted by Brian | 11:30 AM

Thursday, November 20, 2003  

The Lost Jews of Jaipur

I was walking across the street in the Old City of Jaipur on the third day of our trip to India. I had just bought a bag of ladoo, a sticky Indian sweet shaped like a small yellow golf ball.

As I focused my attention on searching for a store sign in English in order to bargain my way to another scandalously cheap Indian silk, I fingered the bag of ladoo, trying to remove the goodies one at a time.

I guess I wasn’t being as careful as usual when – wham! – culture shock hit me straight in the leg. The hard metal side of a bicycle rickshaw careening down the road at breakneck speed slammed into my side and rolled over my shoe.

Reeling from the pain and surprise, I wobbled over to the nearest shop. As I sat down, large globs of red began welling up on my pants. The shop owners quickly pulled out a scarf and we applied a makeshift tourniquet to what I could now see was a nasty little wound.

Once I was all wrapped up, the owner wasted no time. “So, what would you like to buy?”

I grunted some sort of response which, in my current condition, apparently was understood as that universal code for “not now,” and I stumbled back into the road.

Now you have to know just a little about traffic in Indian cities to appreciate what I was up against. In this part of Jaipur – as in much of India – there are no sidewalks. Indeed you’re lucky if there’s a divider of any sorts separating the two “lanes” of traffic.

Instead, the streets are packed with all manner of vehicle and creature: cars, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, people, cows, pigs, dogs, even monkeys darting across the vehicular madness. And they’re all moving in the same direction, cutting in and out, looking for that tiny opening to get an inch ahead.

And did I mention the honking?

In my present condition, the very thought of finding my way through this cacophony was daunting. It was at that moment that a large white taxi pulled up beside me.

“You going to the Amer Gate? Hop in, I’ll give you a ride. No charge.”

Right, I thought. I’d been in India just long enough to know that once I got to the destination, the driver would undoubtedly badger me for a few rupees.

“No thanks,” I replied.

“Come on, I give you a ride,” he persisted as he drove alongside me. Given the congestion, his taxi couldn’t go any faster than my pedestrian limp.

After a few minutes of this, I broke down and agreed.

“No money,” I repeated to the driver as I hopped in.

“Of course not,” he replied. “My Jewish father always told me to treat people fairly.”

Whoa, Nelly. This was not what I expected to hear. I immediately began to rack my brain for information on Jewish communities in India. There are Jews in Bombay and Calcutta, even a Chabad House in Delhi. But to the best of my knowledge, Jaipur did not have any indigenous Jews.

Had I inadvertently stumbled on a new tribe missing since the days of the first exile? The Lost Jews of Jaipur perhaps?

We got to talking. His name was Daniel. That sounded promising. He had three children: Jasmine, Jennifer and Justin. His wife’s maiden name I learned, too, was Emmanuel. None of this sounded like any of the Indians I had met so far on my trip.

Now maybe this was all a crafty line to sell me on his services. Maybe he had already "marked" me as an Israeli by my looks.

If so, it worked beautifully.

Before the short ride to our destination was over, I had agreed to take Daniel on as my driver and guide for a tour the next day. I needed to rest my injured leg and the thought of a leisurely car trip sounded like a nice break.

Daniel picked me up the next morning promptly at 9:00 AM. My wife Jody had come down with a fever and was unfortunately stuck in bed, so it was just the two of us on the nearly three hour drive to Pushkar, a city located deep in the Rajistani desert.

Daniel and I talked about everything Indian – poverty, travel, business, dreams. I learned about Indian wedding customs and he learned a little about Jewish tradition too.

As we neared Pushkar, I finally broached the subject I was dying to know more about.

“So, how is it you have a Jewish father?” I finally asked.

“His name is Gideon Flachsmann,” Daniel explained. “He's a businessman who lives in Switzerland.”

“OK…” I said, trying to put the pieces together.

“I met him a few years ago when I was giving tours,” Daniel went on. “He adopted me and bought me this taxi.” Daniel’s real father had died of a heart attack when Daniel was a kid.

And so Daniel, it would seem, was not representative of any lost tribe after all. So much for my great discovery. Still, it was intriguing to imagine some wealthy Hasidic Jew taking a liking to a poor Indian taxi driver and pulling him out of his poverty.

We got out of the car and wandered the sleepy streets of Pushkar together. The city reminded me vaguely of the Old City of Safed in Israel’s Upper Galilee.

Not long after we entered, I spotted a large poster reading – in Hebrew – “Come Spend Shabbat in Pushkar with Chabad.” Then I noticed that many of the restaurants had proudly written on their signs – “We serve Israeli food – falafel, schwarma, shakshuka.”

This day was getting weirder and weirder.

Daniel explained to me that Pushkar had become a haven for Israelis. He didn’t know why, but just then, two black-hatted, black-suited men rode by on bicycles. Probably looking for a mincha minyan – a prayer quorum for the afternoon service.

Daniel and I visited a few temples, sniffed some incense and bought another bag of ladoo before we sat down for dinner at the Sunset Cafe, a pure vegetarian restaurant along the banks of the artificial lake the city is built around.

The steps leading down to the shore were filled with Israelis, banging on drums and playing other instruments in what looked to be a regular nightly jam session. If not for the exotic view and the ever wandering cows, it could easily have been the Tel Aviv beachside.

As the day faded and we ate our cheese paneer, Daniel pulled out a small photograph album. There was his adopted father with a big gray beard standing next to Daniel, his wife and their three kids. So it wasn’t a line after all.

But what was this? Mr. Flachsmann all dressed up in a turban and flowing orange robes, a dot of color globbed just above his eyes.

His adopted father, Daniel explained, was a long-time devotee of the Hindu God Shiwa. In fact, the reason for his original trip to India was to purchase a chunk of land in the holy city of Rishikesh, often described as “the Yoga Capital of the World.” Rishikesh was also the place where the Beatles famously met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s. Mr. Flachsmann has since established a popular meditation center and ashram there.

As the sun set on the bongo-playing Israelis, nothing that day turned out to be exactly as it initially had seemed. Daniel’s father was not a dancing hasid but a new age Indian guru. And I had not discovered the mysterious Lost Jews of Jaipur.

But I had made a new friend. And, in the end, that’s all that really matters.

In addition to being a fascinating guy, Daniel is a very knowledgeable and sweet guide and driver. If you’re traveling to Rajistan, feel free to email him and ask him his prices. You can reach him at Tell him Brian from Jerusalem sent you.

posted by Brian | 6:56 AM

Thursday, July 17, 2003  

Amir Against the Wind
A special bonus story from This Normal Life

Last year it was falling planters. This year, the whole roof was in danger of crashing down.

Well, the schach that is – the virtual ceiling of our very real walking booby-trap.

By now you already know that we’ve got the easiest-to-build sukka in town. We just throw a couple rolls of schach on top of our pergola and we’ve got a temporary tabernacle sweet enough to shake a lulav at.

Getting the schach up there, however, takes a bit of engineering skill.

And a couple of small children.

Fortunately, twelve-year-old Amir and ten-year-old Merav have been more than happy to oblige by climbing up on the roof. For them, it’s a great game. An opportunity to see things from a new perspective.

Never mind the fact that it’s three stories up and the drop is straight down into the neighbor’s yard.

Once the schach has been rolled out – carefully with active supervision by one overprotective parent, of course – it needs to be tied down. We generally use string.

The schach itself has these thin threads that attach the bamboo strips together. The kids insert the string inbetween the threads and around the wooden slats of the pergola beneath. I then tie it all up from the other side, while standing on a chair. It’s always been a piece of cake.

Until this year.

Half an-hour before the holiday begins, Amir comes crying downstairs in a panic.

“There’s…a….big wind….It’s blowing…all the…schach…off!” he pants in time to the gusts which have inexplicably kicked up at this, the eleventh hour before we can no longer make changes to the sukka according to Jewish Law.

All right, I think to myself. No cause for concern. Maybe a couple of the strings have come loose. It’s never happened before, but we can handle it.

This is a big wind though. And Amir is right. Both rolls of bamboo are billowing in the air, held on by just a couple of the strings we so meticulously tied.

Amir flies back onto the roof, employing some super hero powers heretofore never witnessed in our house. He literally throws himself onto the schach to keep it from flying off completely and hurtling downward.

Yes, downward – towards the neighbor’s sukka.

Horrified, I think: not again. We can’t destroy their sukka two years running.

Amir is now holding on to one end of the schach, but it’s clear the situation is highly volatile. I do my best to assess the situation and offer solutions.

What I can see is that our string is still attached to the pergola slats, but the threads in the schach have torn clear through.

“Maybe we tied it in the wrong spot,” I suggest. “Why don't we wrap the string lengthwise around the bamboo strips and not just in the connectors. What do you think?”

Amir says nothing. He is laying spread eagle three stories up in the midst of a near hurricane. His face sports the forlorn look of a child watching all his hard work blown away in a single act of a highly capricious God.

Or at least a God with a wicked sense of humor.

We have no choice but to get to work. While keeping his torso splayed across one side of the schach, he begins threading the string in the new manner we’ve worked out. But he’s only one person...and not yet a fully grown one at that.

Another huge gust slams into him, causing the schach to rise like a living creature. It turns, then twists back on itself before crashing down again. For this moment in time, Amir has taken on the role of Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as he faces down a formerly inanimate object with a newly independent mind of its own.

Amir ties one corner and starts a careful crawl across the schach. As he does so, though, he scrapes his knee. He lets out a yowl.

“I can’t do this,” he whimpers. “I have to rest.”

“We can’t stop now, Amir,” I respond. “What if another big wind comes and blows even harder? This is war!”

“But Abba, I can’t.”

“Imagine you’re in the middle of a battlefield, Amir. If you were to take a break at the height of the fighting, the enemy tanks would run you over. You’ve got to buckle up, forget about your pain and finish the job. We have no choice!

Now, I’ve never been in the army, but I can imagine this must be how a sergeant barks orders in a life or death situation. And right now I am Amir’s commanding officer.

Amir gets the message. Leaping from corner to corner while grimmacing in pain, he threads the strings like the trooper I know he can be, covering every base until any possibility of rogue schach has been neutralized.

The job is complete. As we survey the final results, a siren starts to wail. Not an air-raid siren (although that would be appropriate) but the shrill call that blares from loudspeakers all across Jerusalem announcing that the Sabbath – and in this case also the holiday of Sukkot – has begun.

The schach is holding against the continuing winds. And Amir, although now nursing his wounds, can certainly hold his head up with pride. He has acted with a bravery fully deserving a medal of honor from any regular army. The Battle for Blum’s Sukka 2003 has been won.

I can only imagine what next year will bring!

If you liked this bonus story, please let me know you followed the web link to get here.

Just click here (or type into your email program) to drop me a line. Write in it: "I believe in Amir."

I'll be sure to forward it to him!

To return to the main "This Normal Life" home page, click here. And while you're at it, why not subscribe to the free email. You'll receive "This Normal Life" stories direct to your Inbox every week. Just send a message to

posted by Brian | 9:14 AM

Thursday, July 10, 2003  

This Normal Life Live!

Brian Blum is coming to a city near you. A new speaking tour is planned for late 2003. If you'd like to join our mailing list to be updated about dates and locations, please send an email to

posted by Brian | 7:52 AM

Thursday, July 03, 2003  

Boogie Brian

It’s the final day of a wonderful vacation in Southern California, and we are at the beach. Even though it’s the middle of the week, the place is packed beyond belief, each body more sculpted and perfectly bronzed than the next.

And then there’s me. I’m fit enough all right, though it's highly doubtful anyone would ever refer to me as 'pumped up.' And as for the tan? No, the beach is not a location I frequent or feel particularly comfortable with. Too much sun can give you cancer, anyway.

But my kids are another story. We’ve taken to calling them our “little brown berries”(with appropriate slathering of sun screen of course). They adore the water. Can’t get enough of it. If we lived near a beach year round, I’m sure they’d start calling me Dude instead of Dad.

The one thing they love most is when Dude, that is, Dad, comes in to play. Merav probably loves it more than any of the three of them. A few precious moments of pure fun with her father.

And today she has decided it’s time to teach me how to boogie board.

To the uninitiated, a boogie board is like a small surfboard except that it’s made of soft styrofoam rather than hard plastic and fiberglass.

And you don’t stand on it. “You wait for a wave," Merav explains matter-of-factly, "then you ride it on your belly.”

Seems simple enough.

I sidle into the water. “Man it’s cold!” I shriek as the water gets a little too close for comfort.

“You’ll get used to it,” Merav calms me. Ah, the things we do for our kids.

We head out as deep as we can and then wait for a big one. If the wave is too small or it crests too early, you’re supposed to jump over it. Or dive through the middle.

Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

Merav spots a sufficiently large wave. “OK, get ready!” she cries out.

I turn my back to the wave, position myself for the ride of my life and…

Slam! The water hits me hard, like a belly flop, except that I’m standing still.

“Ow that hurt!” I say to Merav. I seem to remember a golden rule: never turn your back to the ocean.

Before I can finish the thought, another wave crashes on top of me and pulls me under momentarily. I shut my eyes tight to keep the salt water out and am hit by the smell of fish I’m sure the Jewish dietary laws won’t let me eat.

Merav is laughing. Not at me, but with me. Yes, I’m sure of that.

Rather than become discouraged, I sense a surprising determination welling up. I will master this thing.

I study the other boogie boarders. Why don’t they get knocked over? What do they know that I don’t?

“Merav,” I call out. “I think they’re jumping up to meet the wave when it comes. I’m going to try that.”

My doting audience-of-one watches. Wave comes. I jump. I don’t get slammed this time, but I don’t ride it either.

What am I doing wrong here?

Merav shrugs her shoulders. She’s just enjoying the water and her father. She isn’t old enough to feel passionately about goals, at least not in the way I've made this boogie board bonanza my own personal Moby Dick.

And so it goes. I try more jumping, then crouching. I twirl and dive and even flip. All the while Merav is splashing and bouncing, never taking her eyes off of me.

Time flies. I feel myself getting tired. And then we spot it. The big one. A truly Dude-erific wave. I get into position. Jump or crouch…who knows? As the wave arrives, it catches me and I’m propelled forward like a liquid cannon ball. It’s such a rush.

“Yeee-hah!” I yell. I really did. “Did you see me? Did you?”

Now who’s the kid?

Merav beams. Her father is not a total klutz. (OK, that’s just me projecting.)

I try to recreate the ride but apparently it’s a one shot deal. Still, I accomplished my goal. I am king of the Boogie Boarders.

The Boogie Man.

Boogie Brian.

Looking at Merav in the water, her corn braids glistening in the afternoon sun, I realize she had a goal after all, and she achieved it with flourish: an afternoon of unfettered father-daughter time.

In the end, it didn’t matter if I caught one wave or a hundred. Just as long as were in it together.

I can’t wait to do it again. Next time in Israel. Maybe we’ll even take surf lessons.


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posted by Brian | 7:11 AM
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