Author Archives: ShimonZ

corner Jaffa & King George

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love

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art factory

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one of the many almond trees we saw blossoming

Thursday was one of those unpleasant winter days in Jerusalem. Dark clouds hung over the city as the temperature rose to a high of 24° by mid day. Noga and I had gone out to look at the newly blossomed almond trees, despite the weather, and by noon, we were looking for a place to have a couple of beers, and maybe something to eat. She suggested we visit the factory, a local art project organized in an abandoned old house, in the middle of Jerusalem. It seemed a good place to take a break. Empty House is a cooperative of idealistic young artists who wish to offer space in which to work to other artists, and also to contribute something to the contemporary scene in our city.

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the kitchen and restaurant at the factory

As to the front yard, had it been intended as a vegetable garden… to go with the vegetarian restaurant inside, or was it an artistic statement without having to rely on history? in any case, there’s an abandoned hole in the middle of the front yard amidst the bushes, and a few garden tools thrown in. Next to the hole, you can find the bottom half of the gardener sticking straight out of the ground, fully clothed, as if the ground had half swallowed him.

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don’t despair, dear gardeners

The fence that borders the courtyard has a naive ‘back to nature’ theme punctuated by the bicycle parts that landed on the chain link fence above the more traditional stone. And peeking through, across the narrow alley that separates between the houses, we can see the building style typical of our city; houses built of stone, metal shutters. It’s already part of the past. But they’ll last a long time till they’re replaced.

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In the central room there’s a sort of fountain… maybe a goldfish aquarium…. for the fish are certainly there… where once stood a statue of a fully dressed woman, looking to the side, her hands in her pocket, her hair piled over her head… sadly, only her legs remain. But we have the consolation of watching the goldfish swim around as we await our lunch. There are two choices: yellow curry rice with cabbage and cauliflower and rice with beans. We ordered both of the plates on the menu, and the food was satisfactory.

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Along the hallway, between the kitchen/restaurant and the main room, I found a very interesting white board with a great number of illustrations of the artistic caliber you might find in an ancient cave. But if the art was a bit amateurish, it should stand forever as a testament to freedom of expression. Up on top towards the left, you may recognize the flag of Israel. But instead of the star of David in the center, it has the symbol of the shekel, which is the basic currency of our country. To the right of that is “the factory” which is the name of the venue. And under that is the picture of an ambulance, police, and fire department coming from right to left. On the left is the hand holding the sling shot, and under that are the numbers you call for ambulance, police or firemen and after that, ‘cultural terror attack’, with a question mark after that.

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Yesterday and today we’ve had rain. The temperature has gone down to normal for winter. The air has been cleaned. And in the very same area of town that we visited on Thursday, we had an entirely different adventure just yesterday…. but knowing how easily the past is forgotten, I wanted to jot this down before it was lost in the past…

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in memory of Ursula K. LeGuin

I first came across science fiction in the 50s when studying in America. Came across those inexpensive SF magazines and paper back books with appealing covers enjoyed by a relatively small circle of readers. They offered conjecture as to the future; a future in which technology would offer solutions to many of the hardships associated with sustaining material existence. And they seemed to ask what would concern us in the era that seemed then to be just around the corner. What would have to be dealt with when we were freed of our day to day burdens that were then such a large part of maintaining our existence.

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Ursula K. LeGuin started publishing after I had left America, but she continued in the tradition of those writers and thinkers of the 50s and 60s. She challenged us to change our thinking as to the purpose and the content of human life. In her honor, I would like to re-examine one of her classic stories; a story translated to Hebrew and published in the newspaper here after she passed away a little more than a week ago. The story is called, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. It can be downloaded for free from the internet.

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It’s a short story which presents a version of Utopia. It describes a small city. No emphasis is put on technological inventions. Because the people there live simply. But she stresses, the people themselves are not simple. They are sophisticated and intelligent. They are happy. They have no king and no army. They have no cars because they don’t need them. There is music and sporting competition. She describes a festival, the first day of summer, and it is joyful. The one negative aspect of this utopia is an idiot child who is kept in a dirty basement, all alone and neglected. Her description of the conditions of this child’s living space are dismal and repulsive. But the young are taught that this is what has to be. That the happy lives they live are dependent on the misery of this one child.

She also tells of the those who leave the city. She doesn’t tell us much about them. Just that they leave. They leave alone, and we don’t know where they go. They seem sure of themselves. There is the suggestion in the story that they leave because they cannot bear to live in a city where even one person is treated so cruelly. It is of that I wish to speak, the people who walk away from Omelas.

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I have written in the past about my experience in kibbutz. I wanted to try living there after I had studied a bit about communism and socialism, and thought this would be an opportunity to see if the theories could be realized in real life. At the time, the Soviet Union was a cruel dictatorship, and I didn’t want to believe that this was the inevitable outcome of establishing a communist society. While on kibbutz, I fell in love with the society. But I also saw its faults. I left because my dear wife just didn’t appreciate this ideal as I did. I don’t regret that I have lived the rest of my life back here in Jerusalem. I consider myself blessed. Still the experience has stayed with me.

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My example of the paradox of ‘life in utopia’ is less dramatic than the story of Omelas. My work was being part of a team there that grew bananas. There was a fellow on the team that used to bum cigarettes off of me. As members of the commune, we both had all of our needs supplied. “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities”. Once a week, I would find as many packs as I used to smoke then, in the same compartment where my newly laundered clothes would be delivered. No charge. Yet day after day, sometimes saying he had run out, and most often just asking if I had a spare cig’, he would ask for one of mine. I never asked him why. But I wondered. Could be he was trying to stop smoking… or was it his way of making friendly contact? No big deal, but it made me a bit uncomfortable.

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Often, what makes everyone happy, will make someone unhappy. Everyone wants to listen to music, but one fellow prefers silence. Everyone wants a nice green lawn in front of his home, but one fellow wants the grass to grow wild, to grow knee high around his house. Sometimes the happiness of the majority can be like a poke in the eye of a small minority. That’s the way it is among people. Even the best society can’t be perfect because human beings aren’t perfect. And no matter how good, there will always be someone looking for the faults; unhappy because of the imperfections. We’re not all built the same way, neither physically, emotionally or mentally. Ask yourselves, is it possible to build a society, even with no expenses spared… even with great consideration and respect towards all… in which one person won’t stand up and yell, “you’re all a bunch of happy idiots”? And isn’t that person an unhappy individual?

defragmentation

Believing, as I do, that everything is connected means you can study something years ago; let it slip away till it’s a faint ghost of a memory, and then realize later that it’s still applicable, though you’d given it up for lost… locked in a previous context.

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this fellow usually visits with me when I come by. but I was with someone, so he watched me from a distance

When I first started using a PC, and was working intensely, I would get to the point where there was a marked slowing in the ability of the computer to compute. Sometimes it would send me crazy irrelevant messages… until I realized that I needed to defragment the hard disk. No big deal. It just took quite a while… and I’d usually give it some time by itself, till it finished its work. Fragmentation of the hard disk is caused by the dispersal of bits of memory in non contiguous areas. Say, if I had a special drawer in my study, reserved for ‘important papers’… and when my friends would give me advise on how to make money or influence people, I’d ask them to write it all down and then I’d put the notes in that same drawer. I put my insurance policies there too, you know, the warrantees for the refrigerator, the washing machine, and the occasional computer I might buy… and of course post cards from friends and a drawing from a grandchild would go in that drawer too. I remember getting a check one time for a translation, or maybe it was taking a picture back in the days when you actually got paid for taking a picture… and it was raining so I didn’t really feel like going to the bank, and was going to put it in that drawer, but the drawer was filled to capacity, so I just put it between the pages of the book I was reading. And then there was the time when the pizza delivery guy came, and wasn’t able to change a 200 shekel note. I remembered that I had put something in a book. So I open the book on my desk, which is a dictionary of ‘full’ spelling of Hebrew words, in contrast to the traditional spelling, which used to be fine for scholars (the traditional), but was replaced by full spelling in an effort at standardization and the vain dream of avoiding misunderstandings.

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In going through the dictionary, I come across a bill of 100 shekels (or was it liras) with the image of Herzl on it, but that bill, though a collectors item, had gone out of currency long ago, and, I had to check book after book trying to find enough dough to pay the delivery boy… that’s fragmentation in my world.

Defragmentation is the moving of those bits of memory so that particular memories will be arranged in a contiguous manner, saving space, and making things easier to find. Nowadays, the computer is so smart it can automatically decide to put our house in order once a week, and even at 3:00 am, so as not to disturb me, though I’ll admit that I do sometimes wake up at 2:45 and go to the computer to check out what Wikipedia has to say about wells in the desert or some such pressing issue.

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We’ve been fragmented. We live in little houses by ourselves. We’ve been cut off from family and childhood friends. We have no room in our homes for the aged; no time to take care of them. We send them off to institutions. We send our mentally unbalanced off. We send our cripples and those born with ‘birth defects’. We leave behind us the wise and the experienced when they are no longer productive. We sit in our cars for hours, on our way to work or on our way home, finding ways to kill time so we won’t burn away from frustration. We’ve forgotten where we come from and where we’re going. We amass possessions that interest us for a short time until they’re replaced by new flashy toys; plastic boxes with LED monitors exhibiting maps, contacts and play lists. Boxes that take pictures, and can hear us when we ask for a song.

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the Lion of Judah has learned to throw trash in the trash bin

The environment is not just the planet and the hole in the ozone over Australia. It’s the neighbor you don’t know living in the apartment over your head, and the fellow who takes the garbage away, and the clerk in the store. There’s a saying I heard years ago… ‘you can’t take it with you’. It doesn’t just apply to money. It includes all the rest. The shoes and clothes, the car we drive, the refrigerator that makes ice cubes, the TV and the telephone… even time. It’s all temporary. There was a time when we had to work for a while most days so that we’d have something to eat and clothes to keep us warm when the weather got cold. Then we invented machines which could do some of the work and save us time. But strangely enough, we had less time. Now we don’t speak of time saving devices, because that illusion has faded.

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And through it all, the rat race, and standing in a line on the sidewalk, in the middle of the night, waiting for Apple to open their doors and sell their newest version of the telephone that is smarter than we are, we have momentary memories of happiness… memories of thinking that life is precious. Will we find that happiness again if we spend a weekend in Italy? Or in the Virgin Islands? Is there anything better than looking at nature through 3D eye glasses that can follow status updates and take pictures of the parking lot we’re wandering through, looking for the car we displaced?

Aldous Huxley said, “I wanted to change the world, but I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself”.

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granddaughters visiting

Maybe it’s time for social defragmentation. Freedom is the most precious commodity in life. let’s not waste it. Let’s not waste life itself.

sanctity

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what I like about the rock badgers is that they
are a community, as differentiated from a herd. Everyone knows
what he or she is able to do, or to contribute to the group

First, let me make it plain and clear that what I’m about to share with you is not meant as a recommendation. It is not the only way, and it is not better than any other way. But this is the popular way of seeing the subject in Jerusalem, and it’s the way I was raised and educated.

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we don’t see the bird, but we know her by her tracks

When I was young, before television came to our country, I enjoyed going to the movies. Before watching the actual movie we got to see the news of the day (or week) as presented on film, in black and white and in Hebrew. After that, there would be advertisements. These too would be in Hebrew, but they weren’t presented on movie films. We would watch a series of slides projected on the big screen, some of them in black and white and some in color, and a narrator would let us know the advantages of the different products. It wasn’t all that interesting, and we’d seen most of the advertisements before. But it was the way things were done, and we waited patiently for the slide show to end. In those days we didn’t have commercial advertising on the radio. Israel was a socialist country, and though you could see advertisements on posters or in the newspaper, it was something of a novelty, and we learned what was for sale.

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one of my favorite streets in our neighborhood

Since then, advertisement has become intrusive. First in radio and television, with little taste or sensitivity, and now on the net, on certain popular sites, or when I want to read the news. There is a certain news platform that I visit often. It has taken the place of reading the daily newspaper for me. But though I got the app that blocks pop-ups, this online newspaper which sports advertisement between blocks of text, also has banners on the top, and a few snakes climbing up from the bottom, so that it’s quite a bit of work just to read a page.

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everyone has his own point of view

Of course, there are tricks we develop to protect ourselves against the onslaught. I’ve learned to keep the sound on mute till I really want to hear something. Just so I won’t have to suffer the unexpected shriek in my ear. But in this age, when most people seem to be worried about sexual harassment, I have found that what bothers me the most is noise. And when checking to see if there was any literature on the subject, I was startled and dismayed to discover ‘ego depletion’, ‘Decision Fatigue’ and ‘negative feedback loop’ which led me to the book by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister: “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”. It’s a book about self-control, and one of the first things I learned from them was that if you force students to choose between watching Debra Winger in “Terms of Endearment” or each getting his own bag of Doritos, the students will probably be so ego depleted that they won’t be able to study again until the following week. It seems that making a lot of decisions wears out the mind. My reward for sticking with the search was the discovery of a fascinating writer on technology and the future, Prof. Tim Wu who teaches at Columbia Law School, and is famous for ‘net neutrality’, a concept which he is said to have originated.

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Nechama at home

Tim Wu recalls a point made by the economist Herbert Simon who said in 1971 that the wealth of information causes the scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. He pointed out that what information consumes is the attention of its recipients. A wealth of information then, means a poverty of attention. This explains why those poor children, forced to learn reading and writing in school plus history, adding and subtracting, after a night in which they watched wholesale killing and romance on TV… maybe even so-called reality… while communicating with their peer group on facebook, tweeter, and telegram develop ADHD. According to Wu, there are engineers at work developing apps that are meant to squeeze more and more attention out of young human beings, creating an addiction to media.

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One of the names of god in our language is ‘the place’
this is to remind us that he is everywhere,
and exists at the very place we’re standing.
this picture sort of spells it out

Now, some three and a half thousand years ago… even before the invention of Ritalin, there was a man named Moses who started conversing with god, and received a divine gift. Now I know that there are a lot of reservations these days about the existence of god, so maybe we should describe this ancient belief in more contemporary terms. We could call him nature, or the universe… or the entirety of all existence. The idea was to stop all incidental activity for one day out of seven, and instead of that, to celebrate life itself. You see, sometime in childhood, every human being discovers that he or she is not going to live forever; that we are born and eventually we’ll die. This is a traumatic piece of news. But after that we learn that if we’re busy doing things… running around, playing games of tension and suspense, or stimulating ourselves with the help of hormonal discharges… we can forget the traumatic knowledge and enjoy the excitement. Now this gift of the one day in seven is meant to give us back our perspective; to remind us that we are part of nature. For one day, there is no work. But work is a concept too. It doesn’t just mean your job. Our sages delineated work according to the activities in the holy temple. So we refrain from lighting a candle or turning on an electric switch… or even listening to instrumental music. Or getting into a car. There are people who say, ‘Back in those days you had to get on a donkey, and he didn’t have GPS, so it was a lot harder then. But that’s not the point at all. You can read, you can eat (and we generally prepare the very best foods for this day), you can walk and you can sing. Actually, there are a lot of things that you can do. But this one day has a character all its own. The Sabbath is different from all other days. We call it a holy day. In Hebrew, the word holy means different. The root is found in a word for negative difference too. But usually holiness is used for the positive difference.

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here’s to that which you can see
but you just can’t touch

And now we come to the very essence of what I wanted to tell you. The sanctification of this day; how it becomes holy. Sanctity is not automatic. The day does not demand its own respect. It is only we, each individual Jew who sanctifies it. First we light two candles, side by side, to mark the day. And then, at the beginning of the evening meal (because every day in our calendar starts with the eve and not the morning, nor midnight… but with the setting sun), we raise a goblet of wine, and bless the holy day. It doesn’t have to be wine. One can choose the alternative for any reason, and bless the day with bread. It’s either bread or wine. And most important, that the individual offers his devotion in order to make the object holy. Holiness is not imposed. It’s by choice. In a marriage between a man and a woman, we see a very similar process. The man says to the woman, ‘behold, you are holy to me’. Saying that alone, in front of two witnesses is enough to make a marriage. It is like love. The love is in its offering, and not in its acceptance, though that is important too.

about my previous post

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Dear friends, a few weeks ago I published a post, only to pull it off the net a few hours later. I had given it an ironic name, ‘the chosen people’, because this was right after a vast majority of the member states of the United Nations voted to condemn President Trump for recognizing our ancient capital as the capital of Israel. I got some comments, and some mails… that made it evident to me, that there were quite a few people who didn’t understand what I was trying to say.

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I have friends who tell me, don’t worry about how people will take what you write. Just write what’s on your mind. But that’s not what blogging is all about. It’s an interactive process, and I’ve always enjoyed the conversations as much as the writing of posts. There was one comment that I just couldn’t publish here in my little home on the internet. It wasn’t even aimed at me. But it was vile. Since then it has really been hard for me to write.

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I had planned to write about the concept of sanctity in my next post. I sat down to write about the subject this morning… and just couldn’t write. And since I do have some friends here, people with whom I feel there is understanding and conversation, and I miss you… I thought I’d let you know what’s going on in my mind. I’ve chosen some of the pictures I planned to attach to that post here. Shimon

Sabbath Chanukah

The picture of the day was a line of customers buying sweet white bread (which we call Challah), cookies and cakes, and of course, the favorite and traditional pastry of Chanukah, which is the jelly roll. This picture is on the front yard of the bakery.

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While walking to the bakery, I noticed that my neighbor has been lighting his Chanukah lamp (called a chanukiah) outside in front of his house in order to share his joy with the neighborhood. This is an old custom in Jerusalem, which has become less popular as apartment houses have grown taller, and many are distanced from the street. Still, there are those who put the lamp behind a window which faces the public thoroughfare.

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