Monday, December 31, 2007

Kindness Pays... Part I

There was a wonderful story in the news this week about a waitress who did something she didn't have to do, and was richly rewarded for it. This cafeteria waitress in Texas had a cranky customer for nearly 7 years. The man was pretty mean to her, although she always did her best to serve him well and make sure everything was to his liking. She never received any positive feedback from the man. His response, no matter what she did, was always negative and somewhat nasty.

Some might have been nasty back to the man. This waitress, although she didn't enjoy the mean man's treatment, she never 'dished it back.' She simply did her job and tried her hardest to address the man's complaints. We might not know her motivations, but the outcome was that she treated this man with respect, even though that is NOT how he treated her.

No one was more suprised than she was to learn that upon this man's death, he had left her $50,000 and a car in his will!

He never even seemed to like her! No matter what she tried, he didn't seem to be impacted. And yet, he was obviously touched by her kindness. Her 'feedback' was delayed, but boy... did she get some feedback!

I LOVE this story! This woman did the right thing. That's the most important point to the tale. Even if she hadn't received the huge inheritance, she could rest well, knowing that she returned kindness for meanness. She didn't know the impact she had on this man. She might have been the only kindness in his days. Without the inheritance, she would have never known that, but it wouldn't have made her actions any less meaningful.

We touch people each and ever day in positive ways, and unfortunately, in negative ways. We may never know the impact we have on others, but I believe we ALWAYS have some impact, even in the slightest of interactions.

I once heard it said that we all leave a 'jet stream' behind us as we fly through our lives. Remember the white trails in the sky that jet liners sometimes leave in their wake? I like this image. As we move through life, we leave an energetic trail, of sorts. Everyone we come in contact with is touched by what we think, say and do.

I think it is a worthy goal to endeavor to affect people positively as much as possible. It's a great undertaking. Simple, but far from easy.

We can remember this story of the waitress, to know that often, even if it appears someone doesn't appreciate us treating them with kindness and respect, they might actually being touched (and possibly transformed) by our behavior. Trusting in this dynamic can motivate us to behave better towards other people, even if we don't get the same in return.

I'm delighted that this waitress did what she did, so that many of us could be inspired by her actions. Not that we want to be motivated by reward! That would be missing the point. Her reward, however, helps us know that actions, even seemingly unappreciated ones, do have deep meaning.

I have another story to tell that relates to this one. I'll get to it later this week. Stay tuned!! :)

Here is a link to the Newsweek article about this wonderful happening: Man leaves $50,000, car to waitress.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Long Absence

Greetings! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

I've been away from my blog for almost a week. I didn't intend to take that much of a break, but alas, the pace of my life made it impossible to maintain my blogging responsibilities. :) I was feeling a bit guilty about it, but then I started to think about the importance of balance in one's life.

One of the ways to maintain balance is to take breaks in our normal routine to give ourselves rest. By walking way from something for a time we gain fresh perspective and renew our energy. Often we can return to the task with increased vigor and enthusiasm.

The Jewish Sabbath is one such example. Sundown Friday until sundown on Saturday is set aside to give a break from the normal activities of life. The time has restrictions on what can be done to allow time for visiting with family and friends, rest and other activities that often get pushed by the wayside during the busy days we all seem to live.

For the past week I've been in a very different 'mode.' First, I was preparing for my family to come to my house and celebrate the Christmas holiday. There was much to do. With 13 of us to prepare for. Food for the feast, preparing all the gifts, decorating the tree and the house and attending to all the small details that would make for a magical and fun filled Christmas for all.

Then, the family arrived on Christmas eve and the festivities began. Game playing, visiting, and cooking and eating the feast! After dinner and cleanup, more visiting and game playing. Then the late night activities of preparing for Christmas morning.

I got only 5 hours of sleep that night, as we'd promised my nieces and nephews that we could start the gift opening at 6am. Ouch! :) Another full day of celebrating, gift opening, eating, and playing, playing and more playing!

All my guests went home the day after Christmas, and I sighed a satisfied sigh. Everyone had a great time, including me. Yes, it was a lot of work. Yes, I had to push a lot of important tasks to the side in order to pull off the experience for so many people of varied ages and interests. I was exhausted, but in that wonderfully satisfied way. I had done what I set out to do. I had given a great experience to the people in my life. It felt great.

During all that different type of daily routine, I let the blog go. I wanted to write, but I simply didn't have any extra energy left over at the end of each day to do it! I realized that it is acceptable and even necessary to cut oneself some slack sometimes. It was a time of heightened activity and for goodness sake, I've only been home from the Middle East for 8 days as of today. I was working with extreme jet lag to prepare for the holiday. Something had to give.

Many of my daily activities went by the wayside... the blog among them. It's one of the lessons I'm learning in my life. To allow myself more flexibility during times of intensity and increased activity. I always expect too much of myself and demand that I never skip a beat no matter what is happening in my life. That is completely unrealistic, and yet that is my 'habit.' I"m working to change that and I'm proud to say that I did well during this holiday season.

That explains my absence for the past week. Now, I'm back and very excited to meet and greet the upcoming new year!

From me to you.... I'm wishing you a very Merry Christmas!!!

My Christmas Tree

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Lemmings

Today I picked my mother up at the airport to begin our Christmas visit. She arrived around lunch time. As we near the Christmas holiday, the airport has become quite busy! I flew in from the Middle East yesterday and the arrival pick up area was extremely crowded and chaotic. Today, while fetching my mother, the pace had picked up even more.

Our airport had a system for paid parking that requires you to obtain a ticket on your way into the parking garage. You pay, using a computer, before you get in your car to leave the garage. When you reach the parking area exit, you simply slip your ticket into a machine and, providing you paid at the computer, you easily exit the airport.

I paid for my parking at the computer and collected my validated ticket. As mom and I drove towards the airport exit, I notices something very interesting. There are about a dozen lanes you can use to exit the airport. Each one has a flashing sign above it that gives its status. If it says, "CLOSED," obviously you can't use that lane to exit. Other options for the display include "CASHIER" or "PAID TICKETS or CREDIT/DEBIT."

As we approached the exit, I noticed that all the cars waiting to exit were lined up in the two far left lanes. There must have been 10 cars in each lane. I quickly scanned the signs above the lanes, and noticed that there were two other open lanes displaying "PAID TICKETS or CREDIT/DEBIT" above them. I drove right up to one of the totally open lanes, slipped in my paid ticket, the gate went up and we left the airport. Meanwhile, all those lined up cars waited to exit the airport.

Mom and I chuckled and we started talking about why that happened. People basically looked at what others were doing and followed them. They didn't evaluate the situation critically and make a decision based on the facts. They simply followed what others were doing. By doing so, they waited in a needless line and traded precious moments of life energy.

I found this fascinating. Of course, this isn't a super significant 'waste' of time or any kind of big deal. The principle, however, is very important. How often do we allow our actions to be guided by what other people do, or do not do? How often do we assume something is the right action because others are doing it? How many times do we go barreling down a path because others are on it, only to find that it was a mistake? It happens every day. We turn over our critical thinking process to 'mass consciousness.' We do what others are doing or don't do what others aren't doing. Often times this can lead to everyone careening off the same cliff.

That brings me to the legend of the lemmings: creatures who follow after one another, even to the extent of plunging off a cliff simply because they only follow whoever is in front of them and never make their own, well informed decisions. Here's an interesting Wikipedia Article on Lemmings.

As I whizzed by all the waiting people today at the airport and quickly and effortlessly exited the airport, I was reminded, once again, of the advantages of thinking for oneself and not simply doing what others do. There are so many opportunities in life that we might miss if we look at and interact with the world the way every one else does. Seeing with fresh eyes and making our own decisions is a powerful way to enhance our success in life.

Next time you are tempted to 'follow the crowd' take an extra look around before you do. There might be an exciting and perfect path for you... right in front of your eyes!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

There is Nothing To Fear

I just arrived home from my trip to the Middle East today. As I am trying to keep myself awake for a few more minutes (to begin my jet lag recovery), I'm watching the Tom Hanks Movie, Castaway.

If you haven't seen Castaway, I highly recommend it! When Hanks is first stranded on the island after the plane crash, he's beginning to focus on his survival. He makes a giant 'HELP' sign in the sand only to see it wash away in the surf. He reconstructs his sign out of drift wood, higher on the beach so it will stay put and be visible to anyone searching for him by air. He's also picking up Fed-Ex packages (that were on his plane with him) as they wash up on the shore.

All the while, he keeps hearing a strange noise. Each time he hears this noise, he is startled and frightened. He starts calling out to ask if anyone is there. He gets more and more frustrated as time goes by and he still can't figure out what is making the sound.

He is already in a state of panic and terror. He's been through the trauma of the plane crash and now finds himself alone on an island. He's a business guy and not exactly equipped for survival mode living. The noise that he is hearing feels threatening to him. He is terrified of whatever this noise is.

Suddenly, a coconut falls from a tree right over his head. The coconut lands right next to him as he hears the familiar 'thud' that has plagued him since arriving on the island. This is the first time he's actually seen what is causing the threatening noise.

Once he figures out how to crack the coconuts open, he is able to have his first taste of a potable liquid! The scary phenomenon actually is a huge gift!

How often do we do this to ourselves? From our perspective and state of mind, something appears in our life and we immediately assume it is a negative or dangerous occurrence. We don't necessarily know what it is, but we are frightened and assume it is there to harm or inconvenience us in some way. A lot of this has to do with our vantage point... our perspective. Hanks' character was already feeling pretty vulnerable when he started hearing the mysterious noise. He instantly interpreted this occurrence through the filter of his traumatic experience and his uncertainty about his survival. When he finally gets a true glimpse of what is causing the sound, he realizes it is not only harmless, it is probably essential to his survival!

Whenever something appears in our life and we aren't sure how to interpret it, we would do well to remember the lesson of the coconuts falling from the tree. It is best to not assume that something is there to harm us, but instead, take a look at our vantage point, make sure we are looking with fresh eyes, and see if there might not be a gift in the happening. It just might be a great gift for us, disguised as something unknown or potentially frightening.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Eid Al Adha

Last night, December 18th, was the start of the Islamic Feast called, "Eid Al Adha." This is the "Feast of the Sacrifice" which commemorates Ibrahim's (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son to God.

The feast lasts 4 days. I wrote about accompanying my friend and her mother in shopping for new clothes for the children for the feast. It is traditional for the children to be given new (especially nice) clothes for the Eid.

Here is a link to a Wikipedia Article on Eid Al Adha

Some excerpts from that article:

Men, women, and children are expected to dress in their finest clothing to perform Eid prayer (Salatu'l-`id) in any mosque. Muslims who can afford to do so sacrifice their best domestic animals (usually sheep, but also camels, cows, and goats) as a symbol of Ibrahim's (Abraham's) sacrifice.

According to the Quran a large portion of the meat has to be given towards the poor and hungry people so they can all join in the feast which is held on Eid-ul-Adha. The remainder is cooked for the family celebration meal in which relatives and friends are invited to share.

The regular charitable practices of the Muslim community are demonstrated during Eid ul-Adha by the concerted effort to see that no impoverished Muslim is left without sacrificial food during these days. Eid ul-Adha is a concrete affirmation of what the Muslim community ethic means in practice. People in these days are expected to visit their relations, starting with their parents, then their families and friends.

I have been present for the Eid al Adha (and the other primary Islamic Feast, the Eid Al Fitr, which ends the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset). Both feasts are times of great joy and celebration. The primary activity is visiting ones friends and relatives. Special food is prepared and shared during every visit. These cookies are one of the specialties for the Eid. (They are also prepared by Arab Christians for Christmas and Easter).

Date filled Eid cookies

Here are two photos from a few years ago of me making these cookies with Azmi's mother, wife and sister:

I'm sorry to be leaving Jerusalem at the start of the Eid. I would have enjoyed staying to celebrate with my Muslim friends here. But, Alas, I need to get home to prepare for Christmas, which is coming up fast!

Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim friends! May it be a joyous and peaceful time.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Middle Eastern Philharmonic?

When I was visiting with my friends Orna and Yair in Rosh Pina last week, they told me about a very special undertaking that they are involved with. They have begun studying with a very accomplished musician in the art of playing classical middle eastern music on authentic, ancient instruments.

Yair is playing something similar to the Iranian 'tar' (which is probably the predecessor of the guitar we are all familiar with). Her is an article about the Tar: Wikipedia Article on the Tar.

Orna plays the "Ney" or "Nay." A Turkish instrument that is very common in Sufi music. The ney is very difficult to play. There is a bit more information about the ney (and other middle eastern instruments) on these two websites:

Middle Eastern Instuments Website

Wikipedia Article on the Ney

Orna and Yair's music teacher has a beautiful idea to build an orchestra of ordinary people (especially Jewish people) from the middle east, who would all play traditional middle eastern instruments to celebrate the fact that Jews have been a part of all these great societies (in many cases with no conflict what-so-ever) throughout history... and are part and parcel of the cultures and cultural traditions of these places. It would be a celebration of the connection that all people (regardless of race and religion) share when they come from and live in the same place together.

I think it is a really powerful idea. Instead of a philharmonic playing the music from Europe... to have an orchestra of people from all over the middle east, playing the music from the places they have also been a part of from the beginning of time. To celebrate and honor the cultures which they are a part of.

It is an idea of celebration and unity, rather than of division and conflict.

Orna and Yair have gotten quite good at playing their instruments. They love being a part of this effort. I wish them luck on their project. :)

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Day in Hebron

A few days ago, I went to Hebron with a friend and her parents. They were going to buy clothing for my friend's children for the upcoming Islamic feast, the Eid al Adha (the feast of the sacrifice - more on this later this week). It is part of the custom to buy new, fancy clothes for one's children for this multi-day festival/feast. We went to Hebron to shop, because my friends mother likes to go there and the clothing is cheaper than other places.

I went along thinking I might buy an old style Arab coffee pot from one of the market. I did end up getting a beautiful new dress for 130 shekels (which is about $30 USD).

Here I am in my new dress. :)

I have only been to Hebron twice before and that was about 6 years ago. Its been a long time since I've been into the occupied West Bank proper, through a 'real' checkpoint. The checkpoints are a really horrible experience. I often wish that every American citizen had to go through one of these checkpoints just one time. I believe if that happened, American foreign policy in the middle east would change... instantly.

One our way towards Hebron, the Israeli checkpoint had only one lane (of 2 or 3 available) 'open' for checking people. As we arrived, there were about 10 cars in front of us. No one was being 'allowed' to pass. No one was moving. The 4 or 5 Israeli Soldiers (kids of about 20 years old) were standing around smoking cigarettes, laughing and talking. The 'gate' was down in front of the first car, preventing cars from moving. There was no 'reason' for the 'closure.' We were going towards the West Bank after all, not trying to enter Israel. It was just a random and temporary halting of the traffic flow. Traffic began to back up. The line behind us got longer and longer. Still no one passed. The soldiers considered their little break, as the people in the cars, simply trying to get where they were going, started to grow more impatient. People started honking their horns. The driver of the vehicle I was in started to get really agitated. I was very time conscious this particular day, because I had engagements in the afternoon. The delay we were experiencing was going to cause me problems later in the day. I thought of all the people simply trying to go about their day, caught in this random act of 'power tripping.' We waited about 20 minutes. All of a sudden the gate went up. The soldiers barely even glanced at the cars as we all went cruising through the checkpoint. They didn't stop anyone. They didn't talk to anyone. They just... let us go. Why were we all stopped and held there for 20 minutes?

The day in Hebron was fairly uneventful, but very interesting. Many women were out shopping for their kids for the Eid. The clothes on display for the little kids were really ornate and festive. Women were selecting these outfits for their kids as though it were a life and death decision! :) Everyone wants the perfect outfit for their sweet children.

I enjoyed watching the goings on... and was happy to help carry the many bags of goodies that my friend and her mother were purchasing. We found lovely woven trays with metal edges for 10 shekels each (about $2.50). My companions bought many of these to prepare gifts to give friends and family for the Eid. I bought two as well, because they were quite pretty! I will do something with them at Christmas time!

My friend's father finally picked us up after about 4 hours of shopping, and we headed back towards Jerusalem. We stopped at a produce stand, and the women got out and purchased 8 bags of fresh fruit and vegetables to take home.

As we were driving along, my friends parents were chatting in the front seats. My friend and I were in the back seat. Suddenly out the driver's side of the car, I noticed some soldiers crowded around a military jeep. One of them had a large gun pointed up towards a building on a hillside in front of them. They were using a bull horn and yelling in Hebrew at someone in the building. The soldier started shooting his gun when we were right next to him. It was completely surreal. The people int he front seat of the car didn't even bat an eyelash. They seemed oblivious to the fact that there was someone shooting a giant gun right next to them. I was shocked, both by the fact that this was unfolding as we whizzed on by, but also by the fact that this is so 'normal' for these people, that they didn't even respond. My friend in the back seat flinched, ducked a bit, and let out a little distressed noise, but that was it. We went on by, and not a word was spoken about it. I have no idea what was happening there.

Then... came the second encounter with the checkpoint. Heading towards Jerusalem is an entirely different story. The 'checkpoint' is a huge structure with about 6 or 7 lanes established for cars to travel through. Some are labeled for commercial vehicles, some for private vehicles. As we approached the checkpoint, there was a huge backup. My friend's father was being particularly aggressive about driving around the right side of the backup to get as far forward as possible. As we got closer, it was obvious that only one lane, the far left lane was open to traffic. All the others were closed, even though their signs (directing certain kinds of vehicles to particular lanes) were all lit up as though to signal operation. If you tried to follow the signs, you were hosed. You would end up at the end of a lane that went no where. All the lanes were having to merge into one lane. Further more, much like the 'closure' that we experience earlier in the day, there were times where no one was allowed through for many minutes. Then suddenly they would let about 3 cars, sometimes 10 cars 'burst' through, then they'd stop allowing cars through again. At one point they switched the lane that was open to one that was several lanes over... just for fun evidently. So, all the people who had fought their way to the front of the line, were now in an impossible situation where they couldn't even get to the open lane. Then they switched it back. It was unreal. People in the lines were angry. Every once in a while people would lay on their horns in pure frustration. You could feel the tension and the anger rising. It was a situation ready to explode. I have no problem understanding how frustrated people get over being detained for such a long time for NO reason.

Once we got up there, the soldiers barely looked at us. They just waved us through. They just randomly start and stop the flow of traffic, because they can. It is simply unbelievable. Power tripping. Because they can.

We were at that checkpoint for almost an hour. If my friend's dad hadn't been super aggressive (and a bit rude) it would have taken us at least 2 hours to get through the checkpoint. The drive from Jerualem to Hebron without the checkpoint is 30 minutes. It took us almost an hour an a half to do the trip.

As we finally were 'released' from the checkpoint, my friend's father muttered angry words at the soldier as we drove away. Talking to him after he was out of ear shot, when it couldn't cause us any problems. Defiance... from a safe distance, because this is part of daily life for most Arabs in Israel.

I'll say it again. If every single American had to suffer the indignities of these checkpoints here and could see what Palestinians go through every day of their lives... I really, honestly believe that American foreign policy would change instantly.

Most Israelis never go through these checkpoints either. They don't go to the territories (unless they are settlers or are visiting settlers). In fact, it is 'illegal' for Israeli citizens to go to Hebron (and other parts of the West Bank). I find that amazing. Think about that. It's illegal for them to go there! Why? I wonder how much of it is 'safety' concerns and how much of it might be because they would rather that their citizens not see the conditions that the Palestinians are experiencing at the hands of their government on their behalf. I wonder.

Most Israeli citizens don't see what is actually happening to an entire population who are simply trying to live their lives. I think if they actually saw it, they might be moved to change it as well.

That was my day in Hebron. It reminded me of what is actually happening and how little most of us in the world know about the truth of life here.

I honestly don't know how people can stand the humiliation and the delays on a daily basis. I was frustrated with just one round trip. I can't imagine what it would be like to need to do that daily. My crossings were completely easy compared to what CAN (and often does) go on at these checkpoints. Sometimes, you simply aren't allowed through. Period. No matter what the reason for your trip: work, school, medical treatment, business. If they say 'no' you don't go. Wow. I can't even imagine.

Freedom is a precious thing. Guarding one's freedom is really important. Equally important to me is never to deny anyone else their freedom. I want no part of that... ever.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Simple Service

I have a couple of rituals that I do each and every time I come to Jerusalem. They are simple acts, and yet I feel they are important. They are symbolic of some important concepts to me. Each time I do these rituals, I feel I'm working towards a new paradigm for a new world.

One act is to wash the picture window in Steve's apartment. I've written about this one before. The window is not easy to wash, for anyone. It has a 'security cage' on the outside of it, that prevents you from washing it from the outside. The cage is meant to provide security from break ins. It is effective, but it also causes a huge inconvenience when it comes to keeping the window clean. the cage does not open or unlock. To wash the window, you must literally squeeze into the cage, which is only a little more than a foot away from the window. It's not exactly comfortable!

I try to wash this window each time I visit. Between the rain in the winter, and the dust on all the days where there is no rain, the outside of the window gets filthy! Steve smokes (tsk... tsk... tsk...) so the inside of the window gets very dirty as well. You literally can't see outside very well and the dirt and schmutz greatly reduces the amount of light that comes in to the room.

I've written before about the metaphor this represents to me. The quest for 'safety' makes it a giant chore (one that is impossible for Steve) to keep the window clean. The 'quality of life' is negatively impacted because of the limited light that the dirty window allows in and the fact that the view of the 'outside world' is greatly reduced. Safe inside... but unable to see out or have ones life illuminated by the available light. An interesting thought to contemplate!

I try my best to clean the windows each time I'm here, but twice a year is no where near enough. I must admit, that last time I was here I didn't get to the window. It rained almost every day I was here, so I let it pass. That means that this window hasn't been washed for an entire YEAR! I can't even begin to tell you how dirty it was. It took almost an entire roll of paper towells to get it relatively clean. It is by no means perfect, but the difference is nothing short of astounding! I honestly wish I would have taken a before and after photograph!! The amount of light coming into the room during the day is at least double what it was pre-washing! The tree, the birds outside and all that lies beyond the glass are stunningly crisp and clear. It is a world transformed!

It took me about an hour to wash the window inside and out. It was not a pleasant job (spiders webs, snails, bugs, and amazing amounts of dirt were encountered), but no one can argue with the results. It's like the room and the quality of life have been reborn.

A great reminder that what we 'look through' at our world greatly colors our experience. Cleaning our lenses is vitally important to seeing accurately what is present around us.

My second ritual has to do with litter and cigarette butts outside the entry to Steve's apartment building. I took it upon myself several years ago to start picking up all the litter (especially the cigarette butts) along the entry walk way leading to Steve's building. There are a lot of smokers here, and the idea of using ash trays seems to be a 'foreign' concept. Even Steve used to toss his butts on the ground, until we had a little 'discussion' about that. :) Now he is very very good about always properly disposing of his cigarette butts. I feel a sense of satisfaction in that change.

On every trip here for the past several years I have picked up all the trash and cigarettes butts that are outside the building entrance. Each time I come, I find fewer and fewer cigarette butts lying on the ground. In fact, Steve tells me that we are down to only one tenant who tosses cigarette butts out their window. Everyone else has seemed to adopt an appropriate method for disposing of their trash. It really makes me feel good to see the change. I wish we could 'affect' this one last hold out! Who knows... there is always hope.

For me, picking up the litter is a statement about the importance of one's surroundings. When we 'don't care' about our surroundings, it is usually a reflection of the fact that we don't care about ourselves. It is a statement that says "I am not worthy of a clean and well kept space." I think it is really important to recognize that the state of our surroundings says something about the state of our consciousness... of our inner state of being.

While I don't believe that we make permanent changes by merely 'rearranging externals' I do think that it is a powerful way to show ourselves that we are committed to 'cleaning up our act' both inside and out, when we clean up our external surroundings. I think it is a 'prelude' that can motivate and inspire us to do the corresponding 'inner' clean up work.

So... I pick up litter. Every time I'm here. People always look at me like I'm a little strange. I just joyfully pick up other people's trash and feel an immense sense of satisfaction when I compare the 'before' and 'after' landscape.

I've written about picking up litter before on this blog. It also is my way of saying 'thank you' to a place for hosting me. That is true here as well.

I am also saying to the people of this apartment complex that they are worthy of living in a clean, well kept space. I am saying that it is worth my time to clean up their space for them... just because I want to. It's a gift of simple service to try to create a new way of relating to ourselves, each other and our surroundings. It is being respectful of the people around us, and of the landscape. I envision this attitude affecting everyone who sees the newly clean space, or who witnesses me 'doing the deed.' I envision people picking up litter themselves, or at least not throwing down what they might have before seeing this transformation. I envision them treating themselves, their neighbors (near and far) with a bit more respect. All as a result of me picking up trash. As Roger, the foster child in the movie "Angels in the Outfield" (one of my personal favorites) says, "It could happen!"

No action is too small to contribute to making the world a better place. Washing a window for someone who can't do it themselves, to improve their view of life... or picking up litter in a place where no one seems to care, are two very simple actions, that I believe have profound significance and possibly powerful impact. Find your simple service and give it a try!

Twice a year doesn't seem like enough for washing the window, but that's how often I visit! :)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Beautiful Arab Children!

One of my 'jobs' when I'm here is to be the official family photographer for Azmi's kids! I enjoy my job and I always make Microsoft Publisher collages with the photos I take of the kids. :) On this trip I'm learning how to use my new camera, so I must say I'm not as happy with the photos as I usually am. I have a wonderful new camera, but it is so sophisticated that it does a lot of things I don't really want it to do. Oh well... the photos are still really wonderful!

I'm including 4 collages here for Azmi's family... and another collage of my friends' Lamees and Amjad and their new baby boy Muhammad-Nadim. I snuck a couple photos of 'aunt Nola' into this one. :)

I believe if you click on these collages they will open larger and be a bit easier to see.

Azmi's son Amir

Azmi's daughter Lemar is the main subject!

Azmi's daughter Dania is the main subject!

Amir, Dania and Lemar


Muhammad-Nadim with his mom, Lamees;
father Amjad and Aunt Nola!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions

I just added a 'widget' to my website. You will see it to the left side, at the bottom of my archives of past posts.

This is a link to the website for the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. One of the most horrible aspects to what is happening in Israel and Palestine is the destruction of Palestinian homes by Israel. It is a practice that is justified for many reasons, but there is simply no justification for any one's home (built on their own land) to be destroyed.

Israel sometimes destroys Palestinian homes to punish families of suicide bombers or other engaged in violence. Imagine the equivalent in America. Someone commits a crime, and their mother's home, or their brother's home is demolished with bulldozers by the government. Sound crazy? It is.

Israel sometimes destroys Palestinian (or Arab Israeli) homes because they are built without the proper 'permits.' These 'permits' are almost impossible to get, because Israel does not want permanent structures to be built by Arabs, particularly in areas where Israel eventually wants to take the land for its own use and its own people. Permits, when available, are impossibly expensive and take many years to get. Often times, Arab families resort to building for their growing families, and face demolition orders all along the way. I have friends who have demolition orders against their homes as we speak. The crime? Owning land in contested ares where Israel would rather no Arabs remain. Demolitions are meant to demoralize and frustrate people until they simply 'give up' and leave.

The Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions is a great organization committed to fighting against this inhumane and barbaric practice. Please check out their website, either via the links I've included in this article, or via the 'widget' I have permanently installed on my blog. You can simply click on the image to be taken to their website.

Mail Cut Off to Gaza....

My friend Steve is a nice guy. he's always willing to do a favor for a friend. He has many friends in the Gaza strip. One of them contacted him recently with a problem. It seems that the Israeli government is not allowing mail through to Gaza. This guy desperately needs a part for his laptop - which is one of the only ways he can stay in contact with the outside world. He is not able to leave Gaza.

Steve agreed to allow this guy to order the part and have it shipped to his home. Delivery to be worked out at a later time. A small act, but one that means so much to someone who is being denied the basic human dignity that most of us in the world take for granted every day.

It is really quite horrifying that water, electricity, gasoline and even mail are greatly restricted and at times cut off to the 1.4 million people living in the gaza strip. They live in a virtual prison, surrounded by barbed wire and military might.

Getting one guy a laptop part seems pretty small, when considering the massive deprivation and despiration that is occurrring in Gaza. The truth is, however, that we can only do... what we can do. What we can do... we must do. I applaud Steve's willingness to help in the ways that he can help. This is but one of many ways that he makes a difference.

Here is an article published by Haaretz here in Israel that talks about the humanitarian crisis being faced by those in Gaza.

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m
Last update - 17:07 13/12/2007
Red Cross: Israel worsening Palestinian humanitarian crisis
By Reuters

Israeli restrictions have caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the West Bank that is growing worse, leaving hospitals unable to treat the sick and keeping farmers off their land, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the humanitarian agency called on Israel to "lift the retaliatory measures which are paralyzing life in Gaza" and urged Palestinian factions to stop targeting civilian areas and putting lives at risk.

"The measures imposed by Israel come at an enormous humanitarian cost, leaving the people living under occupation with just enough to survive, but not enough to live a normal and dignified life," said Beatrice Megevand Roggo, the ICRC's head of operations for the Middle East and North Africa.

The Palestinian population has "effectively become a hostage to the conflict," she said.

The ICRC said Israel's "severe restrictions" on the movement of people and goods, imposed to tighten security, had deepened economic woes and affected every aspect of life in the West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

"The Palestinian Territories face a deep human crisis, where millions of people are denied their human dignity. Not once in a while, but every day," the Geneva-based agency said.

Most crossing points have been closed to the 1.4 million Palestinians living in Gaza since the violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah-affiliated forces that led to a Hamas takeover in June this year.

The ICRC estimated that 5,000 farmers in Gaza and their families relying on exports of cash crops like carnations and strawberries were "about to suffer a 100 percent drop in sales."

"The harvest season for these important crops started in June, but the embargo on exports has left them rotting in containers at the crossing points," it said.

Getting medical care or studying in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Israel or abroad has also become "nearly impossible," except for those needing life-saving treatment, the ICRC said.

Some 823 sick people - nearly one-quarter of the 3,568 requiring medical care outside Gaza - were prevented from leaving the territory for treatment over the last six months, spokesman Florian Westphal said.

Administrative and security clearance delays "have resulted in the deaths of three patients in favor of whom the ICRC had intervened," he said, noting restrictions had also caused a shortage of drugs for cancer patients and a lack of spare parts for emergency wards and operating theaters in Gaza's hospitals.

In the West Bank, the ICRC said many Palestinians have been powerless to prevent the confiscation of their land.

As a result of the West Bank separation fence, which runs partially inside Palestinian territory, it said "large tracts of farming land have been out of reach for farmers," who must fight through "a bureaucratic maze" to get permits needed to reach their fields.

Many applications are rejected on security grounds, which "may include a relative once having been in an Israeli prison."

The ICRC depends on its neutrality to distribute emergency aid and help victims of conflict and violence around the world.

It stressed that while Israel has the right to protect its population, "there should always be a sound balance between Israel's security concerns and the protection of the rights and liberties of the Palestinians living under occupation."

"So far, the balance between the legitimate Israeli security concerns and the right of the Palestinian people to live a normal life has not been struck," it said.

An aerial view of the West Bank separation fence, near Jerusalem. (AP)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Does His Name Need to Be On the Mailbox?"

My friend Steve, who I stay with in Jerusalem, was telling me a story about a run in he had with a realtor a while back. As you may recall, my friend Azmi has rented a room from Steve for many years. Steve is Jewish. Azmi is an Arab Muslim. I've written in the past about the reactions of people to the news that they were going to be roommates. Over the years, they have developed a father/son relationship. Azmi's name is listed on the mail box right along-side Steve's.

This recent story involved a realtor who was trying to show people apartments in their building. The realtor came to Steve's door, told him that she'd been showing people apartments in the building, and that having 'an Arab's' name on the mail box was preventing some people (Jewish Israelis) from wanting to live in the building. She asked if his name could be removed from the mailbox!

Steve told her what she could do with that suggestion, and further stated that he didn't want people in the building that would be bothered by an Arab living here. The truth is, there are several Arab families living here. It is a very mixed (Jewish/Arab) building. Thanks, in large part, to Steve's efforts to have an integrated buildling. :)

It happens every day, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It is important for all of us to search ourselves for ways that we might be expressing prejudice. It is just as important, however, for us to challenge it when we see it around us, just as Steve did with this ignorant real estate agent! We can all contribute to breaking down this sort of 'status quo.' The world can transform with our efforts!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Jerusalem Stairmaster....

I am very proud of myself. This is the first trip I've been on here where I've kept up with my exercise! Not necessarily my weight lifting, but I've definitely done a good job keeping up on my cardio.

We all know how hard it is to make exercise a regular and integral part of our lives. Those of us who travel have an extra level of challenge in this arena. It takes a lot of committment. Exercise really has to be a priority!

Health clubs are not the norm here. I do have access to one at a nearby hotel, but it is rather expensive and I dislike having to go through security (to get into the parking lot, and then to get into the hotel itself) in order to workout. I decided to take walks in Jerusalem as often as I could, but I still needed something that would raise my heart rate. On my first walk around the neighborhood I'm staying in, I found the answer to my dilemma.

I call it the "Jerusalem Stairmaster!"

I go up and down this 10 times and walk for about 30 additional minutes. It is a great workout! :)

I've become a total believer in MOVING the BODY. I just don't feel right when I don't exercise! I never thought I would reach that point, but I really have!

If you aren't active, I encourage you to do what you can to increase your activity level today! Get your heart pumping and get your body in motion! You will reap far greater rewards than you can imagine!

"Just Say You are a Christian..."

One of my journeys in the north was to drive to Nazareth. I went to visit the family of a good friend of mine. I've been adopted into another wonderful Arab family! I had lunch in the home of my friend's brother, Baligh. He and his wife have a new baby boy, Hadi and an older son, Forat. I really enjoyed having lunch with them and visiting. We were also discussing the tour business here, as Baligh is a tour guide whom I hope to work with some day soon.

He took me to meet with a tour company operator in Nazareth that I hope to work with in the future as well. We had a productive meeting discussing the possibility of putting together tours in the future. I was very impressed with the company and this tour company manager.

Baligh also took me to the best bakery in Nazareth to pick up a box of Baklava for a friend of Steve's at the hotel. I got a taste of it... and it was WONDERFUL.

As Baligh and I chatted, he told me that it is getting more difficult for Arab Muslim guides to get hired for tours. I have heard this from other Muslim guide friends of mine as well. There are Jewish guides, Arab Christian guides and Arab Muslim guides. That tends to be the order in which they are hired by tour companies. Sometimes American tour companies request Jewish or Christian guides only. Another guide friend of mine once had 2 men from Seattle as a private tour. As soon as they learned he was Muslim, they stopped talking to him, would walk away as he was giving them site commentary, and eventually after 2 days called the tour company and asked for a Jewish guide. I was unbelievably angry when I heard this. These people were totally rude, for no reason other than their ignorance and prejudice.

Baligh told me that he has been asked (by tour companies) to tell groups that he is Christian, even though he is a Muslim. In other words, he is being asked to deny his religion. He refused to do this. I have other Muslim guide friends who have told me they too have been asked to deny being Muslim. I am proud of all of them for refusing to deny their religion to make others (who are extremely narrow minded, by the way) more comfortable.

No one should have to hide their religion for any reason, let alone in order to feed their families. It is astounding to me, that in this day and age, we still live in a world filled with such ignorance and fear.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Day in Daburreya

I'm behind in talking about what I did in the North of Israel!! I went to Daburreya, which is my friend's village at the base of Mt. Tabor. Usually I stay in the village for at least a couple days. This time, however, I stayed at my hotel in Tiberias for almost a week and didn't stay in the village. It is easier when Steve is with me to stay in the hotel, which is more accessible. Plus, it is lovely to be right on the Sea of Galilee! I enjoyed some nice walks along the sea. It was a nice break!

I did go to the village on Saturday and spent time with Azmi's family. I visited with his mother and father (and had two cups of Arabic coffee). Then I hung out with his wife, kids and neices and nephews and drank more coffee. I took a few photos of his kids, but I'll be doing more in Jerusalem. It is one of my 'jobs' here to photograph the children and then make collages (in Microsoft Publisher). They become the new refridgerator art in Azmi and Suha's apartments (one in Daburreya, one in Jerusalem) and Steve's apartment.

Here is a precious photo of Azmi's oldest child, Amir. Isn't he adorable??

Azmi's son Amir

It was a short visit this time. I sat alone with Azmi's mother (who speaks no english) and we drank coffee together, smiled a lot and she spoke a lot of Arabic to me. I know it frustrates her that I've been coming here for 9 years and I still really can't speak with her! I visited with Azmi's father, who is bedridden at this point. He has a picture of me on his wall, that was taken of me with the former queen of Jordan, Nur. I attended a Seeds of Peace fundraising event in NYC a few years back and had a photo op with this lovely and gracious lady! (Picture below). It is a bit embarrassing to me. Steve printed out the photo 8 x 10 and gave it to Azmi to take to his parents. They framed it and put it on his father's bedroom wall! For a long time it was the only photo there! I noticed on this visit that there are a couple photos of grand kids on either side of me now. It is still rather embarrassing, however, because they LOVE that photo and pull it out whenever they have visitors (at least when I'm there). They think I know Queen Nur, which I don't! I've tried to explain that... but to no avail. It seems to make them happy though, so I guess its ok. :) I look a little odd in this photo. The Queen, however, looks stunning!

Nola with Queen Nur @ Seeds of Peace Fundraising Event.

If you haven't heard of the Seeds of Peace, it is an organization well worth looking into and supporting.

Here is an excerpt from their website:

Founded in 1993, Seeds of Peace is dedicated to empowering young leaders from regions of conflict with the leadership skills required to advance reconciliation and coexistence.

Over the last decade, Seeds of Peace has intensified its impact, dramatically increasing the number of participants, represented nations and programs.

From 46 Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian teenagers in 1993, the organization still focuses on the Middle East but has expanded its programming to include young leaders from South Asia, Cyprus and the Balkans. Its leadership network now encompasses over 3,500 young people from several conflict regions.

The Seeds of Peace internationally recognized program model begins at the International Camp in Maine and continues through follow-up programming with international youth conferences, regional workshops, educational and professional opportunities, and an adult educator program. This comprehensive system allows participants to develop empathy, respect, and confidence as well as leadership, communication and negotiation skills — all critical components that will facilitate peaceful coexistence for the next generation.

I am a big believer in this organization and their work.

Back to Daburreya. I was invited to Suha's sister's home. Suha is Azmi's wife. Suha's sister, her husband and their children lived in the US for a few years while the father in the family did post-Doctoral studies. They wanted me to come for a vist and to converse with their children in English. I had a great time talking to their daughter Miar and their son Anas. They both speak english very well. I enjoyed hearing about their time in America, and the experieces they are having since they returned home.

Here is a photo of me with the kids:

Me with Anas, Miar and Azmi's son Amir

Finally, I got to spend time with several of Azmi's nieces and nephews. One special boy, Iham, got all dressed up just for my visit. This is a photo of him with Azmi's son, Amir. Check out the spiffy jacket... in my honor. :)

"The cousins" - Iham and Amir

The day was wonderful and full of love. I wish I could have spent time with more of the family, but that was not to be for this trip. Next time for sure!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Chanukkah Continues

Each night we've been in this hotel, the Channukiah/Mennorah has been lighted in the lobby. As I sat in the lobby this evening, I noticed that suddenly there were many additional Chanukkiahs/Mennorahs on the table. The previous night when the hotel was empty, there had been only one (the hotel's Chanukkiah). Steve told me that it is traditional for families to take their own Chanukkiah with them if they travel away from home (at least to a hotel) during Chanukkah. Each woman lights her own Chanukkiah/Mennorah and leaves it near the hotel's. I thought that was pretty cool and it made a very beautiful site. The children in the lobby were walking up and gazing at the candles burning all through the evening.

Here is a photo of the collection of Chanukkiahs in the hotel this evening:

A Day in Safed

I enjoyed a lovely Shabbat (Sabbath) Friday night with my friends who live in Rosh Pina. Orna and Yair Moore own and operate an amazing weaving studio, art gallery and cafe in Safed. Here is their website:

Entry to Orna & Yair's gallery, studio and cafe

I absolutely adore their three sons, Eden, Nadav and Eli. I was fortunate enough to get to see all three of the boys on this trip, even though they are growing up and developing interesting and full lives of their own.

We spent a nice evening on Friday, talking about life... and even playing an impromptu game of charades in the restaurant where we had dinner. Eden, Eli and Yair were amazed that Orna and I were unbelievalby good at this game, seemed to be in total 'sync' with each other and were able to guess each other's charade all three times we tried. Orna acted out "A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush" and "I have the whole world in my hands" and I acted out "Smile and the whole world smiles with you." Eden and Yair each gave Orna her topics to act out. Eli gave me mine. I guessed both of Orna's and she guessed mine! The boys guessed... zilch! They are convinced that we 'girls' have... special powers. Indeed we do, boys! We were all laughing so hard... because it really was quite amazing that Orna and I got what the other was saying... so quickly and so accurately! Poor Eli was getting embarrassed and hoping no one he knew was watching us be silly in public! :)

Here is a photo taken of the Moore family a few years back:

Eli, Orna, Yair, Eden, Nadav

I especially enjoyed my time with Eden. He reminded me, when we were talking about finding ones place in the world that 'We don't really have a choice. There is something each of us is supposed to do in this life... and we must do it!" Simple as that. He was quite emphatic... and he is quite right! He is a wise and wonderful young man. He has been since I met him when he was about 13!

Eden has begun working and studying with a well known papier mache scultor named Mike Leaf. Here is his website: They have opened a gallery together in Safed. Eden is very excited about this work. It seems to be a good fit for him.

Here is a photo of Eden and I together with his mother, Orna, standing in the new gallery next to some of his pieces:

Orna, Nola, Eden in Eden's papier mache' gallery

Yair, Orna, Eden in the gallery

Eden did this piece (below) that was designed by Mike Leaf. It is called Politi-Cola. It shows 3 Israeli soliders on one side and 3 Palestinian fighters on the other of a '6 pack.' They are all holding guns, and, as Eden describes, they all have the same faces, the same eyes, noses... they are the same people. He explained that they are already living in the same place and they must find a way to get along eventually. It is a humorous piece that draws attention to the silliness of holding these stances towards each other, when we are all part of the same... 6 pack. :)

Eden showed me an in progress sculpture that he is working on. This is a very complicated process and Eden is very very talented! It will be interesting to watch his work unfold.

Orna and Yair found out today that they are being given an award by the Ministry of Tourism for their work in Safed. They were very excited about this today! It is exciting. They do amazingly creative and special work in their weaving studio, making Talit (prayer shawls) and many other sacred Judaica items. If you are ever in Israel, you must check them out!

They also were recently added to the Lonely Planet Guide to Israel! This too is very very exciting!

I'll have to tell the story sometime of our magical meeting. We met about 7 or 8 years ago and it was a truly awe inspiring story! Another time.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Blank Mind...

It has been a strange day here in Tiberias. A rare, completley rainy, dreary day. Everyone is milling around the hotel. The kids are all stir crazy, stuck inside, running around the lobby (driving me crazy!) Everyone just seems to be a bit subdued today. (Although no less LOUD)!

I'm having troubling thinking of what to write about today. I'm about to take off and go enjoy a lovely Shabbat (sabbath) dinner with some friends in a near by town. I'm looking foward to a mellow, quiet evening.

In a while, they will light the mennorah/Chanukkiah for the 4th night of Chanukkah. And because the story of Chanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil (which lasted for 8 days when it should have only lasted for one), there will be donuts/souvganyot (jelly filled donuts) are served (because they are fried in oil).

A friend and I have been watching people navigating the uncommonly wet and slippery entrance to our hotel. We were particularly irritated to see the 'caution - slippery' sign outside was in English and Hebrew first, with Russian and Arabic squeezed in on the sides. Hebrew and Arabic are the primary two languages of this country, and we didn't appreciate Arabic being put off to the side. It's a respect thing.

Yesterday I was in Nazareth (An Arab town) visiting with friends. Tonight I will celebrate Shabbat with Jewish friends, and tomorrow I will go to the Arab town of Daburreya to visit my friend Azmi's family. That's the way it should be... in my humble opinion. One big family.

They are lighting the Mennorah.... time to go!! :)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Abir's Garden

I want to take the opportunity to pass on information about a very special project to honor Abir Aramin, a 10 year old Arab girl who was shot in the head with a rubber bullet (by an Israeli Border Police Officer) and killed in January of 2007.

Abir Aramin

An acquaintance of mine runs the The Rebuilding Alliance which has championed a project to build a beautiful playground and garden in Abir's home town, Anata (in the West Bank), to be named "Abir's Garden." You can read more about this project on the Rebuilding Alliance website at this link: Abir's Garden.

The Rebuilding Alliance which, from their website: is a nonprofit organization, rebuilds homes and communities in regions of war and occupation. We advocate for government policies towards these regions based on human rights and international law. Through a mutual commitment to justice, we create alliances among our supporters, partners, and those who suffer injustice and violence, yet resist through rebuilding. Our projects are symbols of hope that help rebuild shattered communities and offer people around the world immediate ways to make peace, starting with the tangible support of a family's right to a home.

I believe they may have already reached their fund raising goal, but I still encourage you to read about this special project and possibly contribute anyway!! These types of projects are too few, and supporting organizations who make them happen is important to us all.

An excerpt from The Rebuilding Alliance website:

What Happened to Abir?
Abir Aramin was walking home from school with her sister and two friends in the West Bank town of Anata on January 16th 2007 but never made it back to her family. On this day the Israeli Border Police jeep,parked outside the gates of the Anata girls' school, opened fire at the 4 girls walking home. Abir was hit with a rubber bullet to the head and critically wounded. Abir Aramin was taken off life support after 3 days of struggling for her life. She was only 10 years old.

News of Abir's death created a wellspring of emotion worldwide, in part because Abir's father, Bassam Aramin, is an activist and founding member of Combatants for Peace.

"I'm not going to lose my common sense, my direction, only because I've lost my heart, my child. I will do all I can to protect her friends, both Palestinian and Israeli. They are all our children." -- Bassam Aramin, Abir's father and co-founder of Combatants for Peace.

Combatants for Peace is a group of Israeli and Palestinian individuals who were actively involved in the cycle of violence in their area. The Israelis served as combat soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinians were involved in armed resistance in the name of Palestinian liberation. They believe that the blood shed will not end unless they act together to terminate the occupation and stop all forms of violence. They work to educate, raise consciousness and create partners in dialogue, and to maintain political pressure on all governments to stop the cycle of violence.

These organizations, and this project in particular, give me great hope for the future. I hope that they will inspire you as well.

If Everyone Could Just Wake Up a Little

Greetings from Tiberias. I am happy to say that I'm sitting out on a balcony, overlooking the Sea of Galilee on a bright, sunny day. It's a nice switch from the colder, cloudy Jerusalem climate. I just finished my tea with mint and am settling in to put down some thoughts on 'paper.'

The hotel I stay at has now got wireless internet in the lobby (and luckily outside on the balcony as well.) I'm told that next time I come they will have it in the rooms as well. They are also remodeling the entire place! I've been coming here for 9 years, so it will be interesting to see the changes.

I had an interesting conversation with one of the hotel employees (Jewish Israeli) last night. It was accomplished partly through Steve as a translator, since he mostly spoke Hebrew. He's a nice guy and we've come to know him a bit over the years we've been coming here. He was asking about me and my work. Steve was explaining most of it in Hebrew. Our friend kept impressing upon me that I needed to learn Hebrew. I told him it was very difficult. I told him I'm also interested in learning Arabic and Russian. He become very focused on my interest in Arabic. He kept asking me why? He seemed troubled by it somehow, which of course, troubled me! As Steve told him more about what I do, he seemed to relax and communicated that he thought I was a nice person. It will be interesting to see how this conversation evolves. I do try to keep an open mind and not immediately close myself off to people even if they express ideas early on that give me pause for thought. If we insulate ourselves from people who hold opinions that are, in our opinion, unhealthy or incorrect, there is no opportunity to help them look at things differently.

Steve received an email from a dear dear friend of his the other day. We were both impressed that this young Jewish Israeli man sent out an email to all his friends asking them to take action to curtail environmental damage that is being created by the 'security fence' (the wall). He could have stopped there and made his point, but instead he added a comment that said he would go to his grave regretting that he didn't do something to try and stop the wall. Then he said that no matter what one's opinion of the wall is, there is great environmental damage being done and it should be addressed.

We both agreed that adding the statement about his regret was a very courageous thing to do. It is probably not an opinion shared by many in his community. It was unnecessary within the context of urging people to take action on behalf of the environment. I was very impressed and it gave me hope that people will eventually come to the realization that the wall is a horrible, oppressive and misguided strategy. If everyone who disagreed with it spoke up, there would be many more voices raised in opposition. If more people could see its horrific consequences for those being 'walled out' there would be even more outrage.

Here is an interesting CNN article about the wall, Artists draw attention to Bethlehem and the affect that it is having on the holy city of Bethlehem, which is the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Very sad indeed, and the end result is that tourists are having trouble getting in, which not only makes it more difficult for them the opportunity to visit this holy site, but also denies the world from seeing the devastation to human life and dignity that is being perpetrated by the wall.

If you don't know much about this wall, I urge you to learn more about it. I find it simply unbelievable that in this day and age, the world would allow this to be happening anywhere.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Happy Chanukkah

Today is the first day of Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of light. The holiday will officially begin tonight with the lighting of the first candle in the Mennorah.

I'll give you a more complete story of Chanukkah below, but I love the idea of a festival of light. Celebrating the light, the miracle of the light... even when light is not supposed to be possible, is what this holiday represents. We are living in a time where a lot seems to be wrong and there is a lot of darkness on the planet. Chanukkah reminds us that there can be a miracle of light at any time. Light drives out the darkness and we can never be certain of when and how it will manifest. Sometimes it can be quite unexpected and not necessarily 'deserved.' It can truly be a miracle!

For those of you who don't know the story of Chanukkah, I want to point you to my favorite Judaism website: Judaism 101 -

Here is an excerpt from that site giving a summary of the story of Chanukkah:

The Story
The story of Chanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.

More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.

According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes called a chanukkiah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three berakhot (blessings) are recited: l'hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking G-d for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking G-d for allowing us to reach this time of year). See Chanukkah Candle Lighting Blessings for the full text of these blessings. After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour.

Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first). On the eighth night, all nine candles (the 8 Chanukkah candles and the shammus) are lit. See animation at right for the candlelighting procedure. On nights after the first, only the first two blessings are recited; the third blessing, she-hekhianu is only recited on the first night of holidays.

Why the shammus candle? The Chanukkah candles are for pleasure only; we are not allowed to use them for any productive purpose. We keep an extra one around (the shammus), so that if we need to do something useful with a candle, we don't accidentally use the Chanukkah candles. The shammus candle is at a different height so that it is easily identified as the shammus.

It is traditional to eat fried foods on Chanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews, this usually includes latkes (pronounced "lot-kuhs" or "lot-keys" depending on where your grandmother comes from. Pronounced "potato pancakes" if you are a goy.) My recipe is included later in this page.

Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, as a way of dealing with our children's jealousy of their Christian friends. It is extremely unusual for Jews to give Chanukkah gifts to anyone other than their own young children. The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt," small amounts of money.

Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus' oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight.

A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham", a great miracle happened there, referring to the miracle of the oil.

The letters also stand for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which are the rules of the game! There are some variations in the way people play the game, but the way I learned it, everyone puts in one coin. A person spins the dreidel. If it lands on Nun, nothing happens; on Gimel (or, as we called it as kids, "gimme!"), you get the whole pot; on Hei, you get half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in. Keep playing until one person has everything. Then redivide it, because nobody likes a poor winner.
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As we observe this first night of Chanukkah, let us all shine our individual light in this world, and set an intention to invite more light into our collective experience. The world most definitely needs more light. Allow the miracle of 'impossible light' to radiate forth in your world!

Happy Chanukkah....
Chag Sameach! (KHAHG sah-MEHY-ahkh)
Literally, joyous festival in Hebrew. This is an appropriate greeting for just about any Jewish holiday.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Simple Assumptions

I like to think of myself as a pretty conscious, aware person. I try hard not to make assumptions about people and I try diligently to understand perspectives other than my own. With all that effort, however, even I can sometimes be blinded by my own point of view and make decisions from that base.

On one of my recent past trips to Israel and Palestine, a friend of mine was setting up a new household and I wanted to get her and her teenage daughter a housewarming gift. I wasn't sure what I should get them. I thought about it for awhile and I looked through a few of my favorite stores at the mall for ideas. They needed a lot of things and I considered many options.

I finally decided to get them some very nice bath towels. I knew that they were using older towels, and who doesn't appreciate nice fluffy bath towels?

My friend and her daughter seemed delighted with the gift and I was happy with that.

Last night, I was shopping with this friend here in Israel. She finally told me that she'd had a bit of a chuckle and a slight dilemma when I had given her the towels. It seems that she paid to have her laundry done (at a near by kibbutz) and she paid by the kilo (by weight for those of you non metric speakers out there). These towels were big, thick... and heavy, when compared to older more worn towels! It actually cost her quite a bit more to have those towels laundered than her old ones!

She didn't want me to feel bad, and she said they used and enjoyed the towels despite the extra laundry cost! She said it was worth every penny extra because of how much her daughter loved those towels.

While I didn't feel horrible about what I'd done, it did give me pause for thought. The 'cost' of doing laundry is not something I've ever really thought about. I haven't ever really thought about the washer, dryer, soap, water and electricity that go into doing a simple load of laundry.

Not everyone in the world has a washing machine. Fewer people have dryers. (Almost noone has them here - most people line dry or use indoor clothes drying racks.)

I personally haven't been to a laundromat since I was in college. In my world, laundry is something that is done in a special room in the house and I don't give a single thought to how much soap, water or
electricity it uses to do my wash!

It was a great remeinder of how sometimes we can unintentionally make people's lives harder by trying to help them. The lack of understanding of another person's reality can make it challenging to avoid misunderstandings or errors.

If it can happen with a simple housewarming gift of new bath towels, imagine the complexities in regions of long standing ethnic or racial conflict on a large scale. Can you imagine how many assumptions are made and how many reactions occur based on what people think someone 'should' say or do as opposed to what they actually do? It is incredibly complex to even contemplate how many ways there are to get off track and upset other people.

The best solution I have is awareness (and compassion for ourselves when we make a mistake). the more we can pay attention our own tendancy to evaluate other people's realities based on our own experiences, the more we can stop occasionally to ask ourselves if maybe we've missed something.

I can guarantee that I'll never buy a gift for anyone again without considering it a bit differently than I would have in the past.

What we want here is progress, not perfection. A good intention goes a long way in this arena, and if more of us worked on this, I think the world could be a very different place.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Annapolis: A Setup for Failure

There is one unfortunate commonality between all of the efforts made in recent years to bring peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is also present in the recent peace conference at Annapolis.

You may have seen some of the protests within the Palestinian world towards the proceedings and wondered why anyone would be against ‘peace.’

It is not ‘peace’ that people are against. It is the ‘conditions’ for peace that people object to.

All of the efforts to bring peace between these two peoples, in recent years, have unfortunately put all kinds of ‘pre-conditions’ on the Palestinians to do impossible things before Israel is required to implement it’s part of any bargain. Palestinians must act first, and then Israel will act.

The problem is that what is placed before the Palestinians to do is almost always a complete impossibility, without some major actions by Israel to alleviate the internal pressures within the Palestinian society that are creating the impetus for anger and violence.

It is much the same as telling a starving and completely financially destitute person that in order to be given a meal, they must first acquire farming equipment, plow and plant a field, install an irrigation system, secure water rights from a neighbor and then (and only then) they will be fed. Could the person who is near starvation really be expected to have the motivation or inner (and outer) resources to accomplish this task? It places before them an impossible requirement that they cannot realistically be expected to achieve before their most basic suffering is alleviated.

For example, after Israel nearly completely destroyed the Palestinian Authority (PA) (which eventually led to the split between Fatah and Hamas and the takeover of Gaza by Hamas), the agreements frequently called for the PA to reign in militants, disarm them and halt all attacks on Israel throughout the Palestinian Territories. Meanwhile, blockades and sanctions aimed at ‘punishing’ Palestinians (for rocket attacks or electing unpopular people not supported by the US or Israel) destroyed the economy and daily lives of an entire population. Electricity, water and gas (all controlled by Israel) are frequently cut off or restricted for all of Gaza (where 1 million Palestinians live).

Israel is not required to act to hold up their end of the bargain (no matter what it is) until their ‘conditions’ are met by the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority is powerless to implement the requirements. The agreements seem to imply that there is a centralized and coordinated Palestinian ‘army’ of sorts. This is not what exists, at all, within Palestinian society. Activities of any sort are not coordinated at some high level of a well formed government and executed throughout the population. To believe that is a gross misunderstanding of the facts.

An equivalent example at home might be that the govermnment decides to cut off law enforcement funding from the city of Los Angeles until it can achieve one month without any violent crimes occurring within the city limits. Does anyone think that would work? Any agreement that requires this sort of condition to be met BEFORE reciprocal action is taken by the other party… is doomed to failure.

These excerpts from an AP article on Yahoo yesterday Israel's Premier Rejects Peace Deadline demonstrates what I am talking about:

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that Israel is not bound by a December 2008 target for a peace agreement set at last week's U.S.-hosted Mideast summit, telling his Cabinet that progress will depend on the Palestinians' ability to rein in militants.

“Israel will not have to carry out any commitment stemming from the agreement before all of the road map commitments are met," Olmert told his Cabinet.

Of course Olmert is speaking of commitments being met by the Palestinians.

In other words, “When the Palestinians meet all the conditions we have placed on them then we will do what we’re supposed to do. Not before.”

Who, in their right mind, would agree to such a thing? The protests you see in Gaza and the West Bank about Annapolis, are because they know the score. The belief there is that nothing will change for the Palestinians, no matter what. They’ve heart this song and dance before. They’ve met different ‘conditions’ in the past, and still their lives have become more oppressed and more miserable. They have no reason to trust that when they do everything they are supposed to do… that Israel will do the same. There is no good will, and none seems to be forthcoming.

In my opinion, the most powerful in any situation is the party which has the most responsibility to act. Israel has all the power in the situation (military, economic, social) and yet puts the responsibility to change things on the Palestinians. That is a recipe for failure.

I have been asked by people back home what is being said about these peace talks here in the Middle East. Here are a few recent quotes from the Arab/Palestinian perspective:

“Annapolis is a big Bull S***.”

“Annapolis is a good photo op for George Bush to put on his CV (Resume).”

“It would be better for them to hold these talks in Nablus (an Arab town in the West Bank) than in Annapolis. In Annapolis they stay in nice hotels and sleep in good beds. Let them come and see what is really happening to the Palestinians.”

If Israelis (Americans or anyone else) are optimistic at all about Annapolis I think it reflects a misunderstanding of the current situation.

The unfortunate reality on the Israeli side is that, like most Americans, most Israelis don’t understand the true underlying causes of the anger and discontent that arises within the Palestinian community. In many ways Israelis are shielded from the realities here in the same way that Americans are, which might seem impossible given the geographic proximity to the Palestinians, but one must understand that it is like parallel realities over here. Most Israelis have never been to Gaza or deep into the West Bank. Most have never been through a checkpoint (a daily part of Palestinian life). Gaza and the West Bank might as well be a million miles away. The hardships and oppression experienced by the people there is not known to most average Israelis. You can’t care about what you don’t know about. Some would see if given the opportunity. Others, due to fear and distrust might not see even if given the chance. It’s amazing what we can blind ourselves to when we are in fear.

The bottom line, however, is that you cannot address a situation that you do not acknowledge or have knowledge about. To try to solve a conflict, when you don’t understand the fundamental issues of the ‘other’ side, is impossible.

I am an eternal optimist and I do believe that peace in this region (and in the world) is possible. I do not, however, believe it will emerge from conferences employing the model used in Annapolis. I am glad that Annapolis took place, but it is merely another stepping stone on the path. Hopefully it moves a bit closer to our goal, although it is still far from it. We can’t get to the target, however, without going through a lot of territory that isn’t really taking us in the right direction. Rarely are big changes accomplished in one smooth effort that follows a straight path. I think it is an inevitable part of the process of transformation to travel down many fruitless paths. My hope is that, eventually, many eyes, all around the world, will be open to the actual problem that needs to be solved. Only then will we be able to turn our energy away from hollow strategies that merely make everything appear tranquil on the surface while the wound festers underneath.

Attempts to provide security and a high quality of life exclusively for the State of Israel while ignoring and allowing the persecution and suffering of an entire people is never going to provide the base for a peaceful Middle East. It is in all of our best interests to come to this understanding and call for real solutions for ALL people here. Everyone deserves a peaceful and satisfying life. Ultimately, that’s what most everyone here wants, Israelis and Palestinians alike: a chance to live.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Playing Loose with Civil Liberties

I have had several conversations recently, concerning the idea of trading civil liberties for security.

I was telling one friend that for a time, my airline was requiring that all passengers traveling to Israel be electronically fingerprinted prior to check in and boarding. Having never committed a crime, I found it offensive that my fingerprints were being taken and stored electronically. I was assured that this data would be destroyed. I didn't buy that for a second. I know that my fingerprints, and those of many other people are stored in some database somewhere... just in case they should ever be needed. The friend I was discussing this with didn't have a problem with that at all. His comment was that there are always humans involved in interpreting this data and that it isn't just being used by computers to target people indiscriminately. I didn't think quickly enough in the moment to say this, but I'm sure that's how Senator Ted Kennedy got on the 'no fly list' for suspected "terrorists." Some really honest, upstanding person of impeccable character, no doubt, made that judgement (free of political motivations) for sure. I feel so much better knowing that my freedom is being guarded by that sort of person! it only took Senator Kennedy a day or so to be able to resume his travel schedule. What about the people who aren't Senators in the US Congress? How do they get off that list once they are somehow erroneously put on it? Having to depend on the integrity of others to protect our freedoms is a dangerous proposition. That is why we have a constitution in this country!

Our constitution is designed to protect the rights of the individual against abuses of power by other people and our elected officials. Freedom is what makes our country unique, but we are in danger of losing the very characteristic that makes us great.

People will often say, "If you're not doing anything wrong, why would you care if someone reads your mail or email... or listens to your phone calls?" I shudder whenever I hear someone say that. It has nothing to do with whether you are doing anything right or wrong. It has to do with protected civil rights guaranteed to us by our constitution. To so willingly toss those rights away (in the name of 'security') is a slap in the face to everyone who ever fought or died to give us those freedoms. One big concern I have with this statement is the phrase 'doing anything wrong.' It is spoken as though there is an absolute right or wrong that is easily discernible and consistently understood. Powerful people (government officials and rulers) can define things as 'wrong' (like opposing a position taken by the government) and make life miserable for those who take that side of an argument. It's too simplistic to think that there is a definition of 'wrong' and a set of people to create that definition that will not be skewed by the opinions of human beings. Again, that is why our constitution preserves and protects the rights of the individual against the abuses of power and the corruption that often and sometimes inevitably accompanies entrenched power.

Surrendering those rights out of fear and insecurity is a sad and all too often occurring practice. Throughout human history, particularly in times of stress and insecurity, people's rights and freedoms have been curtailed in the name of 'security.' Our current administration are masters of whipping people into fear and panic about the threats of terrorism in order to gradually erode our freedoms through wire tapping, stripping of rights from 'detainees', justification of torture and a variety of other crimes against the constitution. Many people think this is just fine, as long as we are kept 'safe.'

The security and safety that is touted as these actions are taken is... an illusion. In fact, we are inherently less safe, and less prepared to help ourselves when our freedoms are stripped away. We come closer and closer to many other nations whose people are not free (or safe.)

My friend, in our discussion, said he'd rather lose a few civil liberties than be blown out of the sky (in a terrorist attack). I respectfully disagree. I realize that my opinion is a bit extreme on this issue, but I feel I have to be when it comes to defending the protections of our constitution. Therefore, I can honestly say I would rather be blown out of the sky than live my entire life in a cage which purports to protect me from the evils of the world.

Animals in a zoo are 'protected' from the dangers of the wild, but they will never know the sweetness of freedom. They will never live the lives they were intended (and equipped by nature and God) to live. They will forever, only experience an 'approximation' of a complete life. they are forever at the mercy of their 'keepers.' Their quality of life depends completely on the treatment they receive by those who control their environment. Some of us go willingly to the cage. I am not one of those people. There is an illusion of security in the cage, but the price is too high. Furthermore, when you live in a cage, you depend on a keeper to feed you, protect you, to meet your needs. There is a connection between being stripped of your freedom, and becoming dependent in very unhealthy ways on the one who holds the key. We create a dangerous society when we surrender our rights. We should not allow this to happen.

One of the subjects that is often raised in these discussions is how 'we' will never become like other countries who do not grant individual liberties the way we do. There is a naivete that exists when people say this. We are slowly becoming like some of the places I visit where horrible things are done to the citizenry (not to mention perceived 'enemies') in the name of creating 'security.' It is a slippery slope. "We would never get that bad..." is a comment I often hear when comparing 'security' procedures in the US to say Israel. Having been in both worlds, I can say with all sincerity... we are well on our way. I don't want to live in that world.

I encourage us all to look hard at our attitudes about personal civil liberties and the protections granted under our constitution. Those rights are well worth fighting for and defending. Letting them be taken from us, in the name of 'keeping us safe' is the same as willingly walking into the cage to be locked up. We might go in voluntarily, but once you are in, there comes a point when you no longer have the option to walk out. We don't want that to happen. The world will have lost something very precious if we allow that to come to pass.

Benjamin Franklin so correctly said,

"He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security."