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Say Goodnight, Gracie
Jul 10, 2007

Notice: I know some people are going to be too lazy to read this all the way through. Long story short: this site is no longer active. But fear not. It is being combined with my other site to form a new site in an effort to consolidate and prettify stuff. This post is cross-posted both at the other site and at the new site.

Life's a funny thing, they say.

I started blogging in 2003, as a sophomore in college. It was at the encouragement of a few friends who found my goofy sense of humor funny, and were willing (even eager) to read humorous pieces I had written. And boy, were they goofy. Some of the most creative (and dare I say inspired?) stuff I've written came out of that period, actually. And much to my surprise, people started reading. Not the 'public,' whoever they are, but people I knew - my siblings, and other friends and family - people who I wasn't even writing for originally. They actually found me genuinely funny. It was weird. My siblings, both older, never seemed to really admire me for anything, and now, it seemed, I was impressing them, and their friends. It was very cool, a real ego boost. And time went on, and I continued updating, with the occasional 3-month dry spell. I never got to the point of posting regularly or particularly frequently, likely due in a large part to my commitment to producing original work, rather than linking to other people's creations. Well, that and procrastination....

Allow me to digress here for a minute. I was something of an oddity in the blogging world. Most bloggers maintain readership by posting often. Typically, either these posts involve descriptions of their day-to-day lives, something which one never really runs out of material for, or they'd post links to other creative work, occasionally with added commentary. I was not prepared to broadcast the details of my life to the general public, and I didn't want to exist remora-like, living off the scraps left by the real producers of writing, images, music, and video. I wanted to be one of those producers, by writing relatively impersonal, humorous pieces. And that's pretty hard to do regularly, or it was for me, anyhow. But I kept at it, because even though my number of daily hits rarely crept above 10, it also didn't really sink down to zero. People were reading, so I continued writing, albeit sometimes infrequently. About a year and a half after starting blogging, it occurred to me that I had what to write that wasn't goofy and humorous. The material I had in mind was downright serious. And so I had a problem. I couldn't just post those pieces on the original blog, like nothing was different, because I didn't want to turn away readers who had come to expect humor. But I still wanted to share my thoughts on weightier matters than the odd contents of my fridge.

So I started a second blog, this site.

This just compounded my problems. Ideally, I would have a regularly updated blog, with many readers and an active and lively comments section. By creating a second blog, for my 'serious' stuff, I was splitting my efforts and my readership, and ultimately hurting my progress in reaching my goals. But what could I do? I kept updating both blogs, and people (still very few) read both. I wanted to upgrade. But how? Well, for starters, if I was going to maintain two blogs, when one could probably suffice, I could at least make them both stand out. Thus began the big redesign. After a few false starts, I redesigned each blog in turn, from the bottom up. The functionality remained the same, but they got all dressed up in what I thought were nice makeovers. Still, while I wasn't getting at the main issue, I ran into others. Blogger wasn't giving me the flexibility and control I wanted to have with my site, nor did I have online storage to use. Plus, the web addresses were long and cumbersome - there were regular readers who sometimes forgot them. So I decided on a new non-solution, something I'd been planning on doing anyway. Enter the as-yet-unused I thought it was a neat little title which happened to be available - using a play on the word "bits" to connote digital writing, and a kind of meshing of the past and present, something I try to aim for in my writing. (Ok, so I guess that sounds a little pretentious. Mea culpa.) So then the question was "now what?" Well, I could (and did, actually) import the two blogs into one, hosted at bitsofink. But this wasn't a solution either - not yet, anyway. People would need to be redirected to the new site (actually, not such a difficult problem to solve), plus, what would become of the new designs? They centered around their banners, and the new combo-blog would be called something different. So if I wanted a new site, I'd need a new design. I got as far as designing the banner, which I just dropped into a (fairly boring) pre-made template. But I continued updating the two Blogger sites, and nothing really changed.

Finally, the final straw came. You see, as I continued writing in the 'serious' blog, I found that I was writing more and more personal material. And life has a way of not being easily placed into 'humorous' or 'serious' boxes. Life just is, and we just live it - lovely and crazy and giddy and depressing as it is. It's sometimes so terrifying you have to laugh, and sometimes so laughable you have to cry, and sometimes, it's just wabi-sabi. So I was coming up with posts that didn't belong in one of the two blogs, but somewhere in-between. So I decided I'd just have to bite the bullet and do it. So I worked on a redesign that I think is nice enough to justify the move and the abandonment of the old sites. I've imported all of the old posts and even marked them with which blog they originally came from (using fun little icons. I still have a few things to tweak, and I need to clean up the old imported posts so they look right and such, but things are more or less up and running. Now I can get back to posting in earnest, and maybe even persuade some of the other bloggers who read my stuff to throw a link or two my way (hint, hint) to help me finally get this operation off the ground. The old sites will remain up, and I'll put up a notice to that effect within a week, but all new updates will be at the new site.

Phew, who knew blogging could be such hard work?

Yelling With You?
Jun 18, 2007

A story today - one of the best illustrations of typical Israeli behavior that I've ever heard. A friend of mine made aliyah with her family when she was 10. She had 3 sisters (one older, two younger) and their father stayed back in the U.S. to finish up some business stuff, intending to join his wife and 4 children as soon as he could. Their first apartment was 7 floors up, in an otherwise empty building that (as luck would have it) had the electricity and water turned off. (Let me emphasize for any readers out there who are not familiar with Israel: Israel has a first-world infrastructure. This was an oddity.) The mother of the family called and tried to get the city to turn on their utilities, as they were supposed to, but despite promises she received, nothing changed. This, in addition to dealing with everything a new immigrant has to deal with, on top of having 4 children under the age of 13 in a country fairly foreign to them, with her husband over 6000 miles away, was more than a little stressful.

So one day, she was driving the car they had rented for the first couple of weeks, and she accidentally turned the wrong way onto a one-way street. It happens to the best of us, especially when we're stressed and preoccupied. She encountered another car driving the correct way, who responded in typical Israeli fashion by honking his horn vigorously, to alert the poor woman that she was wrong and he was right, and she should therefore get the heck out of his way. He soon escalated. He got out of his car, walked over to hers, and started yelling at her, a far more effective way of informing her in no uncertain terms that she was driving the wrong way and what the heck was wrong with her and was she an idiot and so on and so on. It was too much. She got out of the car and started yelling back, letting all of her troubles out, emphasizing that she wasn't an idiot, she just had no power, no water, 4 daughters underfoot, an absentee husband, and she was a new immigrant. The other driver still worked up, just got angrier, but this time on her behalf. "You have no power, and no water? That's just unacceptable!" He promptly marched down to the city offices with her and yelled at enough people till they turned on her power and water.

That's Israelis. They'll yell at you about the small things, and yell for you about the big things.

Dreaming for a Day
May 8, 2007

So I wrote about Yom HaZikaron and put off writing about Yom HaAtzma'ut (Israeli Independence Day) for almost two weeks. But I really should write about this one. Here goes.

I was walking back home from Yom HaAtzma'ut festivities with a (new) friend at 3 in the morning. Like all Jewish holidays, it started in the evening and would continue until the next evening. I had spent all night in town and I was exhausted but elated. It had been a good night. She, who'd made aliyah several years ago, turned to me and asked, "So what do you think of your first Yom HaAtzma'ut as an oleh?"

I was too jumbled to answer properly. "Ask me again in a few days," I replied.

But she pressed me. "Come on, what's your first impression?"

"Ummm...." I hesitated for a moment and thought back on the evening's events. I thought back to Yom HaZikaron, and how it worked as a lead-in. The siren sounded, and the country became one organism and that organism held its breath for a minute. And this? Well, in some ways, this was the opposite. Lots of noise - people singing, dancing, teenage hooligans crowding the streets and having shaving-cream fights. And the following day? I knew what was coming: barbecues, hikes, and family time. Religious Zionists said a special set of prayers, as the day has both religious and nationalist significance. And most Jews - religious or not - were joining in the festivities in one way or another. Myself, I prayed the evening prayers with Bnei Akiva, the Zionist youth organization that had some influence on my decision to move here. It was really nice. It was right and good and appropriate. Afterwards, they showed us a video, a typical "Israel is great, look at all of our accomplishments" presentation. I found it odd, and I got the sense that those around me just weren't that interested in it either. Because this all seemed very after-the-fact, very much preaching to the choir. We were there already, living in the Land of Israel, contributing to the State of Israel in one way or another. We didn't need to be told how great Israel is. And in any case, if we wanted to see something to be impressed by, we could just walk outside, and marvel at everything around us that wasn't here 60 years ago, and how it's connected to everything that was here 2000 years ago.

Normally, while watching these presentations, I kind of get a little uncomfortable. Because when you get right down to it, they're propaganda. They do more than put Israel in a positive light. They don't mention all the problems we have here and therefore (1) give people a distorted image of Israel (as distortion in the positive direction is still distortion) and (2) prevent people from grappling with the issues more with the aim of resolving them.

But amid everything I was feeling, that uneasiness wasn't there this time. I thought maybe that we could lie to ourselves just a little bit, just that day. For a moment, I focused on the positives and only the positives. For a moment, the problems - and boy, do we have problems - faded into the background.

For a moment, Israel was perfect.

I think that that moment extended for the rest of the day. I saw a friend later who I had corresponding with about political issues. It was her turn to respond. When she saw me in person, she said, "I haven't forgotten you. I'm still thinking of what to respond."

"It's ok. I don't want to talk about politics tonight anyway," I replied, and as I said it, I realized just how true that was.

Then I saw rikudei am. It means "folk dancing," and the closest thing we have to it in the U.S. is square dancing. But in the areas I come from, at least, it's unpracticed and obscure. But in Israel, it's more a part of the fabric of life. And so I found myself in Kikar Safra (Safra square, a large plaza near a bunch of the government buildings in Jerusalem) watching hundreds of people dance in synch. Most people seemed to just know the steps - at least well enough to fake it. It was surreal, like I had just walked into the middle of a musical. But the Israelis didn't find it the least bit odd. Yes, they realized it was campy and quaint, but no one was bothered by the campiness. Rather, they reveled in it. For a moment, I could see in that group of dancers the children and grandchildren of the chalutzim, the pioneers, who hold a legendary status in Israeli cultural memory, as the original kibbutznikim, who proudly worked the land by day, spoke of a glorious future at night, and joyously danced the hora somewhere in-between. Oh, they had problems themselves aplenty, and in our day, we see some of their legacy in that regard as well. But not the night of Yom HaAtzma'ut. That night, I just saw the legends. And somehow, that felt right.

I turned to my friend to answer, and these thoughts came pouring out much more articulately than I had formulated them in my head. It was something like this:

"I think it's a day of escapism. Normally, escapism is bad. It prevents us from dealing with the reality as it is, and excuses us from responsibilities we should be facing. But for one day, it's inspiring. For one day, we let each person see Israel as an ideal, whatever that may be for that individual. For one day, we let people believe that Israel is as it should be, to remind them what it could be."

And for me, that's as it should be.

600,000 Flowers
Apr 22, 2007

So here we are again, on the eve of another Yom HaZikaron, (Israeli Memorial Day), only this time it's different. At least, for me, it's different.

Last time, it was the Other People we were mourning - people from stories, people from history. Even when I was living in a Yeshivat Hesder, where many of my peers were soldiers on active duty, even (and I truly hate to admit it) when those I knew were affected or even killed, I still had a level of detachment. I see that now, because I can feel that falling away. Now these people don't just include my friends or family. They're also the neighbors downstairs whose kids make so much noise, the barber who cuts my hair, the strangers I exchange glances with on the bus.

And now, I look at the soldiers still protecting us, mourning their fallen comrades, and realize I could be one of them. Because I recently received a tzav rishon, the first step in the army draft process. Now, I know that at 24 years old (having moved here at 23), I won't be assigned anything resembling a standard tour of duty, and I might not end up getting drafted at all. But I'm on the list, and when I saw that letter, it affected me more deeply than I'd expected. I mean, I knew it was coming, but like a lot of things in my life lately, seeing it out-there-in-the-world caught me by surprise. There it was. The Israeli army, talking to me, asking me whether I should join them. Israelis are 'us' now, not 'them.'

This morning, I opened the newspaper and saw two stories plastered across the front page: "Israel Remembers the Fallen, page 2," and "Kassam Rocket hits House in Sderot, page 3." One can't help but be struck by the odd juxtaposition. We are remembering those fallen in the past even as we tearfully add the recently killed to the list. I've heard it said once that Israel's problem is that it remembers too much. Past injustices and hatreds and problems don't go away, because we're always caught up in what happened, never able to put it behind us. That may be so - I don't know - but I wonder if we really have a choice. We aren't just remembering the past; the past is constantly protruding uninvited into the present. We're putting flowers on the graves of the fallen, while missiles crash into our houses.

And the flowers. 600,000 of them are being laid on graves tomorrow, according to the newspaper. 600,000. A significant number: the population of battle-ready Jewish males that left Egypt for the Land of Israel, and roughly the population of Jews in the very same Land of Israel in 1947, right before the creation of the state. In Ancient Egypt, there was an enemy with an irrational hatred of us, who subjected us to inhuman suffering just because. And we left, the 600,000 men taking their families with them. 3000+ years later, 600,000 Jews faced a similarly implacable enemy. And now, we put 600,000 flowers on 22,305 graves, get up, and continue fighting the same war we've been fighting for 60 years, the same war we've been fighting for 3000 years, ever since we were forged into a nation in the iron furnace of Egypt.

Put the past behind us? Some days I wish we could. I really do. But it's simply not possible.

The question here, the real important question, is what do we do on Yom HaZikaron? Because I think this says a lot about us - how we remember, how we mourn. Rather than succumb to the bitterness that, arguably, we have a right to, we hold our ceremonies, and we tell our stories. We honor our fallen and commit ourselves to pursue the values they died fighting for. And we sound a siren, and for a full minute, everything else stops. Everything listens to the siren wailing for potential lost, families torn asunder, and rivers of tears shed. The same siren is sounded on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, but the two couldn't be more different. True, both are for Jews killed by their enemies, and both are a way of remembering and honoring the departed. But while the deaths in the Holocaust stand silently in defiance of explanation, dragging reason kicking and screaming from the room, the deaths in Israels wars are a result of people fighting for Israel. They're a result of people living lives of meaning, lives of purpose, lives of dedication to something greater than themselves. And when you look at it that way, it's a bit easier to staunch the flow of bitterness. When you look at it that way, it makes a lot more sense that at the moment that Yom HaZikaron ends, Yom HaAtzma'ut (Israeli Independence Day) begins. We're not just fighting the wars of the past; we're also living the dream of the past. The two are linked.

Last night, I heard in great detail, the story of Roi Singer, a doctor who was among the first miliumnikim (reservists) sent into Lebanon last summer. As he told his story, I tried to imagine myself in his shoes, performing surgery under fire, or as one of the soldiers he was treating. It was a weird feeling, to say the least. Yes, I know: I likely won't see active combat any time soon. But there's still that letter from the army sitting on my desk. I still have a doctor's appointment on Wednesday to see if I'm fit for combat. And I'm still going to the enlistment office in a week or so, as ordered by the government. No matter how this turns out in my particular case, that little letter was an important one to me. Here's the government saying, in its own bureaucratic way, "like it or not, you're part of our story now, not just a spectator. You can't stand on the sidelines anymore; we have more than enough people there. It's time to be an active participant." I just hope I'm up to the task.

Breaking Design Rules
Apr 17, 2007

I've been getting into web design more and more these days. I mean, in-between moving into a new apartment, the various random holidays around now, working 8-5. You know. Web design is really interesting in that it blends graphic design and programming and demands quite a lot of the designer (or team of designers) and presents some really interesting challenges (e.g. architects never have to worry that different users of their building will see different things based on the configuration of their eyes...) I'll spare you further elaboration.

As he tends to, Jason Kottke linked to a really interesting website, which, as he notes,

breaks pretty much every rule that contemporary web designers have for effective site design. The site is a linear progression of images, essentially 30 splash pages one right after another. It doesn't have any navigation except for forward/back buttons; you can't just jump to whatever page you want. July barely mentions anything about the book and only then near the end of the 30 pages. There's no's all images, which means that the site will be all but invisible to search engines. No web designer worth her salt would ever recommend building a site like this to a client.
And he's completely right. Believe me, I've read enough web designers' writings (and boy do they looove writing about it) to know that they would turn up their noses at the idea of this. Yet I wonder if they would when confronted with it face-to-face. Because the site works, Kottke continues,
because the story pulls you along so well....The No One Belongs Here More Than You site is a lesson for web designers: the point is not to make sites that follow all the rules but to make sites that will best accomplish the primary objectives of the site. (emphasis added)
Which is a terribly good point. I've drunk the Kool-Aid of the web design community; they have mantras that they repeat and follow, not blindly, but with an implicit understanding that they are not to be violated without a really compelling reason. And sometimes, when you do that, you miss the point.

Apart At The Seams
Apr 12, 2007

I moved here to Israel two weeks after the Second Lebanon War ended, when the bitter taste of it still lingered. As the nation now prepares (or braces itself) for Lebanon War #3, people are looking back to last year and what happened then. I recently stumbled across this article (via Good Neighbors) and it threw me for a loop:

Together, Helen and I had tried to create a tidy little universe with a population of two. In this universe, it didn’t matter that I was a Jew and Helen was an Arab. We were beyond the politics....

Politics slumbered alongside us. Sometimes it spoke in its sleep, sometimes it rolled over, but it did not wake up.

And then, the war.

When the morning newscast announced that two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped along the border of Lebanon, I felt the dream world that Helen and I had constructed around ourselves begin to evaporate....

As the war raged on, our morning ritual of listening to the news on NPR became agonizing. Helen still hadn’t heard from her aunts and uncles and cousins, and she feared the worst. I switched my alarm clock from “radio” to “buzzer.”

One morning, about a week after the conflict had begun, the tension was especially palpable. All of a sudden, Helen threw down her boots in frustration. Her fingers balled into fists.
“We have to talk,” she said.
“I know,” I replied.
“You are so distant,” she said. Helpless and angry, she stared out the window.
I picked up Helen’s boots and brought them to her.
“I don’t even know what to say,” was the best I could do. I was afraid that if we talked, we would discover that we just could not be together. I was afraid of discovering that love had failed to elevate us to a place beyond politics. “Please,” I begged, “give me some time.”

....I was terrified. Terrified that someone from Helen’s family could get killed by an Israeli bomb. Terrified that every time I saw her Caller ID, I thought it would be our last conversation. I kept imagining her carefully chosen words, her contrite tone as she whispered through the tears, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this anymore.”

My friends were supportive, and a few admitted to being inspired by us, framing our relationship in hopeful, hyperbolic terms, a microcosm of the peace process itself. When I expressed my own doubts, one overzealous friend scolded me, “You can’t give up! You owe it to humanity to make this work.”

As if I didn’t have enough on my mind. Now world peace hinged on my ability to find common ground with my girlfriend.

And so on. They go through some really rocky times, and the emotion is real and needs no hyperbole to validate itself. (Read the article itself to see how it turns out.) My issues with intermarriage and interreligious couples aside, it was touching.

In any case, after reading it, a memory bubbled up from the depths of my head - something I've hardly thought about in 3 years, even though at the time, it seemed like one of those moments, the ones you remember in a very real way. Back when I was in college, during my sophomore year, I was hanging out in my room in the CJL, the Jewish living house on campus. My door was open, and I heard (or maybe saw) a girl about my age wandering around cautiously. She clearly was looking for something and was not familiar with or particularly comfortable in our house. Being the friendly guy I was (am?), I walked out of my room to help her out. She her name was Tori (I think) and she was looking for the Hillel and I explained (as we often did) that we were not the Hillel, but I could show her where to find it. She dismissed my offer wearily, too emotionally drained to go wandering around another unfamiliar building. I invited her to sit down, she collapsed on the couch and started breaking down in tears.

The story came out: she was Jewish and going out with an Arab guy, I think a Palestinian. At some point, The Conflict came up. One of his friends said something negative about Jews, and she protested. Her boyfriend said "your people are f-ing unpleasant." She was floored. She hadn't expected this at all. From what she said, it seemed like that, and the brief fallout afterwards, were the last words they'd exchanged. He and his friend called several times during our conversation, but she hung up on them each and every time. There was no bridge-building here. It wasn't even a consideration.

Back to her sitting on the couch, crying. Here I have a girl crying because politics and bigotry reared their ugly heads in this place she thought was safe. Tori felt so helpless, she told me, since she didn't know much about The Conflict and couldn't argue with them. I started to explain the issues and complexities of the whole messy situation in Israel, but it was clear (or at least, it's clear to me now) that she didn't need a history lesson. She needed a friend. She didn't need someone to solve this; there was no solution. She needed someone to listen. And I did somewhat, and I hope it was sufficient. She left, with nothing resolved, nothing accomplished, and I couldn't help but wonder if I had just missed an opportunity. But for what, exactly?

This story has a postscript. I emailed her shortly after her visit, offerring to help if I could. She didn't reply in any meaningful way, and I didn't hear from her again. Months later, I was leading a seder (among many others) at school, and who should show up at my table, but Tori. But not weeping, uncertain Tori. This was dressed-up, confident, sorority-girl Tori. And since I hadn't met this version of her, she acted the part. There was a flicker of recognition, a brief nod, when I started pointing out that we'd met before, but then it was gone. We went through the whole seder and throughout, no one but us could've guessed that here was a girl who'd broken down crying and poured her heart out to me. I was like her psychologist; I had seen her at her most emotionally vulnerable. We'd been strangers from the moment she'd walked out of my room that day.

Mar 1, 2007
I'm trying to figure out if the triumph I felt upon successfully fixing a difficult paper jam in the printers warrants the emotions that came with it. I stood up, and wanted to raise my arms and yell "Ta-da!" It reminded me of this entry from An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life:
Children get to say ta-da!, and I guess magicians, but other than that, it's an underutilized expression. I'm trying to think—an adult might say it as she waltzes in with the turkey, or a homemade cake. But a self-congratulatory ta-da! would certainly be warranted for any number of daily accomplishments. I cleaned out the trunk of my car. Ta-da! I finished filling out the insurance application. Ta-da! I made the bed. Ta-da!
I agree. I think we should be allowed and encouraged to exclaim and proclaim our triumphs. Even little ones.
All The Cool Kids
Jan 4, 2007
(Yes, still putting off part 3. So sue me.)

I was thinking today about trends and fashions. No matter how radical or off-the-beaten path a cultural group is, they'll all tend to do things a certain way, just because a few of them started doing it that way. I wonder what it is about us that makes us flock so readily.

Heck, I bet the even the Amish churn butter a certain way, 'cause that's how all the cool kids were churning.
Go Metric?
Dec 6, 2006
Interrupting your regularly scheduled blogcasting...

I eating lunch today with a couple of my Israeli co-workers, and one them mentioned Ashkelon, and how nice a place it is.

"How far is Ashkelon from Gaza?" I asked.
"One Kassam." he replied, without smiling, without missing a beat.
"We measure distances in Kassams now. Ashkelon is one Kassam, Ashdod - two Kassams, Tel Aviv - three Kassams."

I laughed. We all laughed. What else can you do?
"Interesting but kind of depressing" - Part II: Do the Right Thing?
Nov 28, 2006
Ok, on to part 2 of my series on "the Palestinian problem." Here I am going to discuss the various value judgments usually used in the course of arguing about the current situation. I will discuss later how much all of this should be taken into account, when actually trying to deal with the situation. I must request the apologies of the reader that I am not doing the requisite research required to footnote and annotate all of this, arguably the most responsible way to present this information. Such is both the benefit (and detriment) of the blogger over the so-called "conventional media": we can say just about anything we feel like saying. That said, I hope you understand that my words are not expressed out of some vast ignorance, at least not one that I myself am aware of. If I have made an error of facts, I hope that those reading this will correct me.

The general idea put forth by the Palestinian side is that a person living in a certain place - for whatever reasons, for a certain amount of time - has some sort of claim of ownership to that place. In a general sense, I think we can agree that this is valid, all else being equal. On occasion, the Palestinians may reference the centuries-defunct claim of ownership conveyed by their connection to the ancient Philistines (who bear a nomenclatural resemblance to the Palestinians, but no more) but more often the claim is simply: "we lived there from [some time, say in 1800-1900] until 1948, when the Zionists kicked us out, we deserve to have our homes back." The factual nature of the first part of this statement seems to not be disputed too much. Yes, there were many Arabs, who now define themselves as Palestinians (or even did so then) who do not live currently in Israel proper. The second claim is the more controversial one.
Side note: when I say "Israel proper" a slight confusion may arise. This is partly due to my own ambivalence, and partly due to the long-standing ambivalence of the state of Israel itself. You see, technically speaking, with the exception of Jerusalem, Israel never formally annexed what is known as the "West Bank" in some circles, and "Judea and Samaria" in others. This land was last internationally recognized as the property of one single country back when the British owned it as part of the Palestine madate, up until 1947. Since then it was controlled by Jordan from 1948-1967, and by Israel from 1967-present, with certain parts of it under Palestinian control at various times. From 1967 until now, the Israeli government's attitude towards that territory has been a confusing one, alternately encouraging/supporting and discouraging/uprooting Jewish settlement in the area. The attitude of the Palestinians (for as long as one has been able to speak coherently of an entity called "the Palestinians") has generally been that they own the area, and like much (or all) of the current state of Israel, they should have jurisdiction and everything that goes along with that.
So now the basic question arises: what do various people or groups of people deserve, land-wise? It's the question not of what will make people happy, or what will stop violence on either side but what is fair. And this is where things get very, very complicated. Because on one hand, you have the Jews who claim some sort of ownership/connection to/sovereignty over the area as far back as King David, around the 10th century BCE. (Those claims are only disputed by arguing that those calling themselves Jews nowadays aren't the same group of people as those in King David's time. I don't think that this theory is really accepted by many, and besides, that starts getting into ideas about self-identification and group consistency that just muddle everything up further.) On the other hand, Arabs constituted the majority of the population of the Palestinian Mandate up until the Israeli War of Independence. Even though the gap in numbers between the Jewish and Arab populations was closing at that point, the Arabs were a majority. The British, for their part, see-sawed a lot between being pro-Jews and pro-Arabs, due to a long list of pressures from each side. Consequently, nowadays, Jews will point to the pro-Jews moments (e.g. the Balfour Declaration) and the Arabs will point to the pro-Arab moments (e.g. the 1939 White Paper). Let's be honest, this doesn't really get anyone anywhere.
Nevertheless, various historical ownership claims come into play in the public discourse about these issues (and basically any land dispute worldwide), so I thought it might be useful to kind of "zoom out" and categorize them:

1) Religious claim. This is very simple. It's usually some variation on the argument that God gave the land to one group or another, and therefore they deserve it. Needless to say, this argument doesn't really hold much water in modern diplomacy, the truth of the matter notwithstanding.
2) Ancestral claim. This argument says nothing about recent history, but claims that land is the ancestral property of a group. Somehow, it would seem, by living in a place for long enough, that place becomes ethnically 'owned' by that group, even if they are later displaced. It's kind of a "we were here first/longest" argument, as are a couple others in this list.
3) Demographic claim. This is what I hinted at above, when I discussed the demographics of the area prior to statehood and post-statehood. The argument is that based on self-determination ethics and such, the group that constitutes the majority should be in control of the area. Since both Jews and Arabs were the majority demographically at some point, each side easily brandishes this one.
4) Ownership claim. This is a slight variation on (3). It says that whichever group owns the most land (presumably under some mutually recognized rules for land ownership) should have control of the area.
5) Group ownership/sovereignty claim. I wasn't sure whether to separate these two, but decided to keep them together, because the idea that a group owns land is basically the same as saying that the group controls the land, and vice-versa. This argument claims that since the ethnic group at one point controlled the area and effective owned the land as a group, they should once more.
6) Third-party claim. This one argues that a third party that has some say about the fate of the area has bequeathed the area to one group or another. This argument would be the easiest to use in public discourse, due to the explicit written nature of the various declarations of the involved parties (usually the British Empire or the U.N.). However, problems arise from the simple fact that the various third parties contradict each other and themselves.

The main reason I'm going through all this is to get to one point, a point that I will expand upon in the follow-up to this post: the various historical claims can be made with various degrees of accuracy by both sides, and besides, history never forced anyone's hand. So the relevance (not the truth) of these claims to any attempts at peace-brokering is in question. Like I said, more next time.
Ok, so if you've made it this far, I'll acknowledge that this little essay (or whatever it is) wasn't constructed in the best manner, for many reasons. But if I took the time to go through and add in references and edit for structural coherence, etc, I probably wouldn't get around to posting it for a while. So I figure you can take this for what it's worth, and let the comments roll.
"Interesting, but kind of depressing"
Nov 16, 2006
Story time again. I'm thinking that it's unfortunate that I don't really get discussions going in my comment sections, because for once I'm going to address controversial stuff, beginning here, but more so in the next or the next few posts.
On to the story.

I was at work, sitting in a room with a bunch of other engineers, running tests on the system we were working with. While there, two of my colleagues got to talking, one of them Israeli, and the other American. I did my work, and listened in on their conversation, because these meetings of cultures are always interesting. Wouldn't you know, they started discussing the Native Americans. The American dutifully explained how we wiped out most of the Native Americans - largely through disease. Then the conversation went where you always knew it would:

American: Yeah, the kids learn about all this in school. It's required. It's really interesting, but kind of depressing.
Israeli: Yes, we have the same thing with our history.

And that was it. The conversation ended there, mostly because both people were busy and not too invested in the discussion, but I couldn't help but be curious as to how it would have continued.
Because the Israeli was right. For better or worse, no matter who is to blame, there were many people who were living in Eretz Yisrael, in what is now the State of Israel and was then called Palestine, who are not living there now but never really wanted to leave. Whether by the Jews or by their leaders or by themselves, they were displaced, and their displacement paved the way for the creation of the State. It also created a fairly untenable problem which lasts until today: what to do with these people. The upshot of all of this is that the comparison to the Native Americans is valid, but the Palestinian problem is far more present, and far more pressing than that. As the Israeli hinted to, I suspect it's an ethical discomfort - something that rankles at the edges of the conscience - for many Israelis. I believe that this is one of the reasons behind the pullout from Gaza last year: we just wanted to put our consciences at rest.

I know this is bound to get a bunch of people disagreeing (cuz dys? You there?), but bear in mind that I'm continuing in future posts. I'll discuss more later about what we should feel bad about, whether pragmatism, idealism, or some combination thereof should be our guiding star, as well as some of the various typical responses to this problem.
A Funny Thing Happened
Nov 10, 2006
Funny story. Make of it what you will.

I was just heading out of the cafeteria from lunch and a man, witting with 2 others, called to me in Hebrew, and asked how I was.

"Fine. How are things by you?"
"Do I know you?"
He grinned and gestured genially. "No, but we're Israelis!"
I smiled. "Oh, ok. Have a good day."

And I walked on. The whole exchange was less than a minute long, but I couldn't help but wonder whether the same would've happened in the reverse situation - if I had been an American in an Israeli company with a few other Americans sprinkled in.
Neil Gaiman, My Hero
Nov 7, 2006
As i've said, I very much admire the writing style of Neil Gaiman, and for all of those fiction writers out there (and these days I seem to know a few), I direct you to his essays, All Books Have Genders and Where do you get your ideas?.

A sample quote from the second essay:

In the beginning, I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: 'From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,' I'd say, or 'From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,' 'From a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement,' or even 'From Pete Atkins.' (The last is slightly esoteric, and may need a little explanation. Pete Atkins is a screenwriter and novelist friend of mine, and we decided a while ago that when asked, I would say that I got them from him, and he'd say he got them from me. It seemed to make sense at the time.)

Then I got tired of the not very funny answers, and these days I tell people the truth:

'I make them up,' I tell them. 'Out of my head.'

People don't like this answer. I don't know why not. They look unhappy, as if I'm trying to slip a fast one past them. As if there's a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I'm not telling them how it's done.

Oh, and also through Mr. Gaiman's essays, I discovered the name for the type of fantasy I'm trying to aim for: phantasmagoria. Come on, the word even sounds cool.

I Only Wanted to Begin
Nov 1, 2006
Below is the very beginning of the novel I'm supposed to be starting today. I won't be posting the whole thing as I write it, but email me if you want a link to the online copy I'm saving as I go. in the meantime, enjoy, and please comment on the beginning of what may be an interesting experiment.

Hello. I am your narrator. I don’t really have a name. I am a theoretical construct inextricably linked with the act of telling, not a human being. I lack a hairstyle, a bank account, a family, bodily appendages, a cellphone with Journey’s inimitable “Don’t Stop Believin’” as a ringtone, the ability to appreciate those cute cocktail umbrellas you get in fancy drinks, as well as any number of other accoutrements commonly associated with being human. Thus, I also lack a name. But you may call me Ted. Why Ted? Because I like it, ok? I think it rolls off the tongue nicely. Or it would, if I had a tongue. But I repeat myself. I apologize for that. I have this tendency to repeat things and go off on tangents, thus complicating what might otherwise be a much more straightforward narration. So why am I the one telling this tale at all? Well, the answer is a long story, one that I cannot tell at this time, being preoccupied telling an entirely different story – as we will soon see. Suffice it to say that you’re stuck with me as your narrator. For better or worse, I, Ted, will be telling this story.

A point of clarification would be in order here. I am not the author. The author is the one that decides what should happen, who I should be telling this story about, what messages (if any) should be imparted by this tale, etc. I on the other hand, am left the unenviable task of making sense of the desperate and tortuous meanderings of the author’s pen, as he attempts to arrange his unintelligible thoughts into some semblance of order. I despise the author. He puts the characters through more trouble than they deserve, brings in total non-sequiturs in the name of artistic license, and has mood swings like you wouldn’t believe. To top it all off, he leaves me to be the only one with even a chance of explaining what the hell is happening to the characters, as they surely don’t get it, and the author is more often than not in an opium-induced trance, muttering about dancing with sea elephants or the “Grand Theory of Pants.” He claims that he’s following in the tradition of many great writers, and that the opium allows him to experience a burst of creativity unconceivable while sober. I personally think he just wants an excuse not to pick up his dirty laundry from the living room floor, but don’t trust me. I’m incorporeal. My main point, however, is that the author is a total dirtbag. I lothe him. I am not him. I am the narrator. Ted.

So now, on to the actual story part of the story. It begins, as all great stories do, in a bar. That is not to say that it is a great story, just that it’s trying its hardest. Which isn’t always easy when you’re drinking. Where were we? Ah, yes. The bar.

Novel Idea
Oct 27, 2006
So upon announcing that I was considering writing a novel over the month of November, a few people asked me what my novel would be about, as if I had any clue whatsoever. But I thought about it, and here's what I answered one person. I know this all may sound like too much to try, or too crazy of an idea for a writer just starting out, but hey, why not?

You asked what my novel will be about. To be honest, the idea of writing a novel was more the attraction than a specific novel I was planning on writing from beforehand. But what I've come up with so far is a fantastical novel that takes an unsuspecting person from America to Israel, and at the same time from a world that makes sense to one that doesn't exactly. What I mean by 'fantastical' is hard to explain. It certainly isn't like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter - more like Neil Gaiman's American Gods or Neverwhere. Think real-world setting, with unexplained things happening - time and space being somewhat malleable, appearances shifting, etc. The ultimate goal is to use the world-not-making-sense element as a metaphor for making aliyah and/or encountering religion - as both involve entering a new world with its own internal logic that often must be experienced, not merely considered, in order to be properly and fully understood.

I hope that made some sense. Now the hard part: turning those ideas into a novel. Oh, and coming up with a plot. And characters. That's all.

Damn Lies and Statistics?
I have just dicovered this amazing video (also embedded below in 3 parts) from professor of international health Hans Rosling. I think it's one of the best examples I've ever seen of how it's not just about having the data, or even analyzing it, but being able to visualize and present it properly. Just watch:

50,000 is a large number. No?
Oct 25, 2006
I wasn't going to post. Not to spite you dear readers. I'm sure I could find better ways to do that.

No, I wasn't going to post because I didn't have much to say. Or too much, and it all go overwhelming.

But then Lauren told me about NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month and encouraged me to participate. Basically, the idea is that you start writing the very first word of a novel on November 1st, and the last by November 30th, resulting in at least 50,000 words. There's a decently-sized community gathered around this idea, and the basic appeal seems to be the sheer exhilaration of the creative experience, especially when forced to create by a deadline.

So here I am. I'm really tempted to write a novel. But I want encouragement and/or to be told that this is an incredibly stupid idea. So let me know, all 10 of you that read this blog. Should I write? Must I write? And if the answer is yes, anyone have an idea for a plot? A genre? A random story element? Should I write something humorous or serious, or try to oscillate (or vacillate?) between the two? Is this whole proposition somewhat pretentious? Does that matter?
Under My Skin
Aug 20, 2006
Excerpt from my journal:
I'm here on the plane to Israel, about to formally declare myself an Israeli, and it just hasn't sunk in yet. Something makes me wonder whether it will in any reasonable amount of time, if ever. Perhaps I am going to wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, months from now, and say, "wow, I'm here in Israel. I'm an Israeli citizen living in Israel." Or maybe I won't come to the realization abruptly at all; maybe through a series of little pinpricks of experience it will slowly enter my mind or crawl under my skin, the way that cold air seeps through the cracks into old houses in the winter, or like a worn hammock will gradually sap your consciousness from you, until you find yourself dreaming with no clear idea how you got there, but perfectly content to live in the dream for as long as you are permitted.
Leaving On A Jet Plane
Aug 14, 2006
Days until departure: 1
No time for too much writing tonight. The time has come to stop counting the lasts (my last visit to NYC before aliyah, my last Shabbos before aliyah, my last time driving before aliyah...)
and time to work on firsts.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Days until departure: 2

I'll have a better sense of it when I've been in Israel for a few weeks, but between my observations when I was there in January and otehr anecdotal evidence, I feel that there was a large number of dati leumi Israelis who have been disillusioned by the Gaza pullout last year. As well they should, because they felt very much betrayed by a government of a country to which they previously felt a deep-rooted loyalty. The widespread wearing of the orange bracelets with the after-the-fact message "לא נשכח ולא נסלח" ("we will not forget and we will not forgive") points to a terrible feeling of despair and anger. And don't get me wrong; to the degree I can understand their hurt, I see where they're coming from, and to the degree that I cannot, I am definitely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The question that remains is where this leaves their philosophy, which by some accounts, is in a shambles. Some believed that such a thing simple could not happen, and when it inexplicably did, all Messianic possibilities for (or even religious significance of) the state disappeared. Granted, this may lead to total disillusionment for some, and thereby an abandonment of Religious Zionism altogether. However, I can't help but wonder whether it will lead to a shift away from the philosophies of 'Greater Israel' preached by many of the popular religious leaders, and towards a more moderate (but still dedicated) philosophy, such as one of those preached by R' Aharon Lichtenstein or R' Yehuda Amital.

I recall visiting relatives who found out that I went to R' Aharon's yeshiva, and immediately dismissed him as a smolani, a leftist. R' Aharon himself has admitted to being in the peculiar position of being perceived as too Zionist for the American community and not Zionist enough for the Israeli community. This is, of course, unfortunate, as he articulates a clear and firm religious Zionist doctrine, one that can even accept a disengagement when necessary. As for R' Amital, his (former) association with the left-of-center Meimad party seems to taint him in the eyes of many, even though he also presents a compelling and unique point of view that can withstand an event such as the Gaza pullout. (For an interesting analysis of R' Amital's though - whose accuracy I neither vouch for nor deny - look here.)

I happen to know about these two rabbis because I was in their yeshiva. However, I am sure that there are other prominent rabbis who can lead the way in teaching a new model for popular Religious Zionism, some of whom I know of but cannot comment on enough to say much (R' Yoel Bin-Nun comes to mind), but one thing seems clear: a new philospohy of Religious Zionism must develop if the State of Israel is to retain some of its most dedicated citizens, and if those citizens are to retain their faith - and their hope for a future where we can say "לא נשכח, ונלך הלאה בכל זאת" ("we will not forget, and we will go on nevertheless.")

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