Thursday, May 15, 2008

Partying with the President

Over the last two days, there have been grumblings throughout Jerusalem because of the disruption in traffic. Several main roads have been all but closed due to President Bush's presence in the city for the President's Conference, hosted by Shimon Peres. Friends of mine have sat in their cars for double the amount of time it should take them to get to work. Thankfully, I left my house early enough each morning to avoid the re-routing. I even enjoyed a surreal jog the other night down the middle of Keren HaYesod, one of the busiest roads in Jerusalem, as the street was closed to automobiles.

I watched the President's speech at the Knesset on television this afternoon. I am often amazed by a seeming dichotomy between the president's statements on "good" and "evil"- dealing with terrorist states- on the one hand, and his actions in attempting to broker a peace accord with the Palestinians, on the other. His speech today shone with a sense of moral and political clarity. The President said: "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before," referring to the Nazi's. And yet, President Bush has said that he hopes, during his current stay, to "shore up the faltering negotiations" between Israel and the Palestinians.

Six days ago, I received an e-mail from a good friend, Yehuda, who lives in Boston. I knew he would be coming to Israel for a visit this week, as he was to participate in the President's Conference. In the e-mail, Yehuda informed me that he had been invited by the White House to an exclusive party at the Israel Museum Thursday night and would be bringing me as his guest. I was obviously delighted; and immediately amused by Yehuda's inimitable way with words: "get out your sunday finest," he instructed me, "we'll be throwing back a few beers with the prez."

Indeed, I put on my "sunday finest" and got myself gussied up for what I was hoping would be a tete-a-tete with the president. Security was so thick that all of the guests had to first undergo a security check at a parking lot several minutes away, before boarding a shuttle to the Israel Museum. I met up with Yehuda and his father, the former United States ambassador to Israel. We boarded the shuttle bus, sitting a few rows behind Rupert Murdoch, and a few rows in front of MK Ophir Pines-Paz.

The party took place on the veranda overlooking Jerusalem. The views were magnificent and the party was elegant, although the brisk Jerusalem night air sent shivers down my spine. The food was definitely the most delicious food I have eaten in this country. Waiters streamed out of the kitchen with platters of fillet steak, short ribs, seviche, carpaccio, spring chicken, mushroom cigars, and other fine delicacies. Yehuda and I spent most of the first hour and a half stuffing our bellies with food while people-watching, as the party was attended by the who's-who of the Jewish world. At one point, I helped Ron Silver with his tea cup. Occasionally we found Yehuda's father, and were introduced to someone interesting.

After about an hour and a half, the President and several Israeli and American dignitaries and diplomats entered the veranda. I stood next to Tzipi Livni as President Bush addressed the crowd. Following his brief remarks, the President slowly made his way toward his awaiting limousine. There was a barrier, and Secret Service men, blocking me from the front, VIP group of people whom the President was greeting personally on his way out.

I tried once to edge my way into the front section, but was physically turned back by the Secret Service guard. Finally, when the guard was distracted, a few moments before the President had departed, I sneaked forward and squeezed through the gaggle of VIP's. I thrust my hand forward and shook the President's hand. The people who had greeted the President before me congratulated him on his speech and remarked about his trip to Israel. As the President shook my hand, I said: "Mr. President, mazal tov on Jenna's wedding!" Tickled, he looked me in the eye and responded: "Thank you! It was such a wonderful day!"

Traffic annoyances and policy differences aside, it was truly exciting to meet the President. While I didn't get to "throw back a few beers with the prez," I am grateful to my friend Yehuda, and his sweet and generous father for inviting me to an unforgettable party with the president.

(President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush)
(Fmr U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Jerusalem Mayor Lupolianski, my friend, Yehuda)
(The President)

(President Bush shaking my hand)

Monday, May 05, 2008

Im Tirzu Ein Zo Agadah

Theodore Herzl, credited with being the father of the modern Jewish state of Israel, ended his 1902 utopian novel about the Jewish state ("Altneuland") with the following line: "If you will it, it is not a dream." This axiomatic statement has become part and parcel of the Jewish people. Indeed, following Herzl's extraordinary efforts -though he did not live to see its realization- the Jewish state was established, the dream realized.

With the arrival of my parents and sister looming before the Pesach holiday, I couldn't contain my excitement. It had been several months since I'd seen my family and whenever we are together, we manage to seek out adventure and share many laughs.

During the week of Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days), we visited sites we had never seen. We traveled to the Judean desert, climbed Herodian and descended into the caves later used by those who participated in the Bar Kochba rebellion. We learned a great deal from (what turned out to be) a private tour hosted by Ir David of sites along the path from the top of Har HaZeitim (Mt. of Olives), descending to the Old City walls. We took in the excellent exhibit at the Israel Museum on Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocaust. We visited the vast Tzidkiyahu's Cave near the Damascus Gate. We traveled around the northern Galilee, stopping in Tiberias, Rosh Pina, Tzfat, the Dalton Winery, and Haifa. My father and I even managed to take an accidental tour of Ras al-Amud (an Arab neighborhood deep in East Jerusalem).

The highlight of the trip, however, was definitely our annual visit to Hebron. As I described in last year's post below, we truly enjoyed the unique opportunity to tour the kasbah, which is not open to Jews during the year. We wanted to give my sister the chance to see and learn what we had learned during our previous visit.

This year, we chose to visit Hebron on the second day of the annual two-day festival. The second day is always busier because many big-name Jewish-Israeli bands perform in front of the Ma'arat HaMachpela. The tour was called for 12:30pm, which left us plenty of time to tour the various booths.

At 12:20pm, I heard a voice over the loudspeaker announce: "Unfortunately, the army has informed us that they are only able to take a small group on the tour due to security concerns. As a result, we will now be giving out tickets. You must have a ticket in order to join the tour." Before I could finish translating the announcement, a large and unruly crowd gathered around the announcer's booth, pushing, shoving and elbowing, in order to obtain tickets. My mother, father, sister and I decided to split up in the hope that we'd be able to penetrate the mob of at least 100 people.

After a few moments, I dejectedly gave up. It quickly became clear that the announcer would hand out a paltry 25 tickets to a clamoring crowd quadruple the size. I was disappointed with the behavior of those around me, and could not contend with the bigger men who neglected to notice my presence. I made my way to the back of the crowd, only to discover my mother busily fussing with something.

"Mom, I just can't get in there. What are you doing?" I asked. Almost too intent on what she was doing to look up, she briefly raised her eyes and responded in a hushed and mysterious voice, "I'm making tickets." Fairly confused, I asked again, "What are you doing?" Once again, my mother responded, "I'm making tickets," and continued to fold and tear thin slivers of paper.

The sight of my Mom, with eager and precise attention, crafting counterfeit tickets for a tour of the Hebron kasbah threw me into a fit of giggles. My sister, after a few minutes, also gave up and joined us in the back of the crowd. Similarly confused, she queried, "What's Mom doing?" Barely controlling my laughter, I informed her that our Mom was making tickets. Soon after, my Dad rejoined us and received the same explanation.

Moments later, those who had tickets set out for the tour. My Mom hurried us along and we joined the group, sticking toward the front. No longer laughing, I worried aloud to my mother, "What if the army discovers we have counterfeit tickets and arrests us?" My mother dismissed my unfounded fear and we carried on with the group.

At the entrance to the area of Hebron in which the kasba is located, there is a huge metal fence. An entire unit of Israeli soldiers, present to accompany and protect the tour, stood by the opening of the fence, letting one person at a time through the opening after taking their tickets. Somehow, my sister and mother managed to enter with their tickets, which resembled everyone else's. A few more people passed by, and then it was my turn. As my heart palpitated, I handed the captain my "ticket" and he waved me through. My father followed.

My family looked at one another with sheer astonishment. My mother, drawing upon her seemingly endless resource of ingenuity, had managed to get us in to the tour. We, once again, were moved by what we saw and learned in the kasbah- the homes that still betray evidence of Jewish ownership, the attempt by several European countries to invest millions of dollars in order to entice Arabs to settle in the kasbah, and so on. My sister particularly appreciated being there as she had not been present during the previous trip.

Herzl applied his bold dictum to founding a Jewish state. Pluck, persistence and a dash of ingenuity. For my family, on a much less grandiose level, "If you will it, it is not a dream" is now synonymous with my mother's concise response: "I'm making tickets."

(IDF soliders accompanying us through the Hebron kasbah)
(The commanding officer of the platoon of soldiers and me)
(Sarah, Mom, and I at the Israel Museum exhibit in Jerusalem)
(Dad and I at our hotel in Tiberias, overlooking the Kinneret)
(Dad, Mom and I at the Dalton winery in northern galilee)