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The Brownsteins in the Land of Israel

Chapter 11:


November 28, 2003


Dear Friends,


First of all (or as my daughter, Batya, used to say, "firstable"), I apologize for the long delay in writing this installment.  There's really no excuse other than living life in Israel -- and not thinking about you as much as I should have.  Thank you for your letters urging me to let you know that we're OK.  We're OK.


To make up for the long delay, this installment is longer than usual and might take a good deal of thought and patience to get through.  Thank you for your indulgence.


Before I get to our main event, I must acknowledge my guilt for not expressing my gratitude to our dear friend Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, who was our real estate broker in the sale of our house in Los Angeles under far less than usual circumstances.  To say that it was a difficult transaction is akin to describing Niagara as just another water fountain (or Viagra as just another...).


As if to cap off my perpetually tangential relationship with Hollywood during my 14 years in Los Angeles, we sold our house to the widow of a renowned Hollywood icon.  The buyer's eccentricities were almost as vast as were her late husband's accomplishments.


Here are two examples of the many nutso things that Rabbi Seidenfeld had to endure to complete the transaction.  First, when the buyer came for her final inspection, she noted that the color of the light in the kitchen had changed from white to yellow.  We were not sure what she was saying.  She clarified, "Before, when I came on my other 18 visits, the light coming from the bulbs was white; now it is yellow!  And I demand that the bulbs be changed back to the original color!"


Then, just after we had caught our breath, the buyer noted the absence of broiling pans in our ovens.  My French wife, Sara, had no idea what in the world the woman was talking about.  Pressing the issue, she assaulted Sara with, "You have clearly taken the broiling pans.  I want them returned."  When Sara, still clueless, objected that she never had any broiling pans, the woman responded, "That's absurd.  It's impossible to cook without broiling pans."  At that point, knowing of the thousands of meals cooked by my wife for our friends, visitors, and newcomers to the Los Angeles Jewish community over the past 10 years, Rabbi Seidenfeld turned to the woman and said, "She's done a pretty good job without broiling pans!"


Just dealing with me, I knew Shlomo would have his hands full; but having to deal with me and Mrs. Broiling Pan demanded even more patience than have been treated by the Mayo Clinic.  Thank you, Shlomo: We're happy to have turned down the other 45 brokers in the community to have given you the gift of working with Mrs. Broiling Pan!


Your Letters


You might remember in Chapter 6 "LA Trip: Stranger than Fiction", I spent the weekend of the big New York blackout with my friend Avi and his family.  I was forced to borrow his shoes, since mine were in JFK ether.  Happily, Avi's shoes had a hole in the exact same place as mine.  To that, Avi wrote: "Dear Rich, Please see Exhibit A, Shoes 001, where clearly my now infamous shoes still have quite a bit of mileage left.  However, after appearing in your world infamous newsletter, read the world over, I have been shamed into the purchase of my new Sabbath and Holiday shoes, please see Exhibit B, Shoes 002."  Bravo, Avi!  I look forward to wearing out much more shoe leather with you.


You also might recall that the Jerusalem Post quoted me at Cafe Hillel, referring to me as having made aliyah (moved to Israel) from Oregon.  The article prompted the following comments.  First, from my brother Jeb, who lives in Baltimore and originally informed me that was in the Post: "Great spot in JPost!!!  From Oregon?  How did LA become Oregon? Love, Jeb" Second, from my dear friend in Los Angeles, David Waghalter: "Made Aliyah from Oregon????"


To set the record straight, as the kids today might say, "I wasn't dissing my old crew from the SoCal locale."  A reporter, without identifying his news agency, had asked me three questions: Why was I at Cafe Hillel that day? Where was I from? What was I doing in Israel?  After explaining why I was at Cafe Hillel, I said, "I'm from Portland and I live in Israel."  Sorry for the confusion.   Just like Randy Newman (who is looking an awful lot like Buddy Hackett these days), I, too, love LA!  It's one of the four best cities I've ever called home.




Feature Presentation




First, a parable: A scorpion and an otter sit on the bank of a stream.  The scorpion says to the otter, "Hey otter, how about a ride across the stream?"  The otter answers indignantly, "Why should I give you a ride Otteracross the stream?  If I give you ride across the stream, you will sting me, and I will die."  The scorpion replies with surprise, "That is so silly, otter!  For if I sting you in the middle of the stream, you will sink and I will die, too.  Of course I won't sting you, silly otter."  The otter, not quite so silly but still quite gullible, reluctantly agrees.  Halfway across the stream, sure enough the scorpion mortally stings the otter.  Gasping for breath, knowing the end is near, the otter screams, "But you promised not to sting me!"  Scorpion, in his last breath, explains calmly to otter, "It's my nature."


The Festival of Sukkot is the week-long Jewish holiday that marks the end of the season of our most intense holidays, most prominently Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during which we try to secure our place in this world for the next year, and a place in "the world to come," for eternity.  During that time and the period leading up to it, we think about and verbalize our complete dependence and gratitude to HaShem (G-d).  But the holiday of Sukkot, unlike virtually every other holiday, is when we show the Almighty -- in physical terms -- just how much we really believe in and rely on Him.


It's as if, for a month before Sukkot, we start to walk out onto a bridge perched perilously 1000' above nothing but rocks.  We know that a bungee cord awaits us in the middle of the bridge.  We know that we will attach the bungee cord to our special boots.  And we know that people are generally pretty safe doing this recreation.  So we walk to the edge of the bridge, make sure everything is fastened, and we jump.  Sukkot is not quite as dramatic, especially in warm climates like California and Israel, but to be done right it makes demands on both body and soul.


During Sukkot we eat our meals in a temporary dwelling or booth, called a "Sukkah".  Although a Sukkah can withstand moderate winds, it is fairly porous, fragile and temporary in every other way.  The Brownstein family Sukkah is 10' x 12' by 8' tall and was part of our shipment here to Israel along with our books, furniture, clothes, etc.  It came all the way from Los Angeles, where I made it by hand, from 2x4s, redwood posts, bamboo sides and roof, and metal joists and bolts, from a design I dreamt up six years ago.  It is much like Ginger and Maryanne's hut, except without as many sequins.


As for the bungee jump, beyond eating meals in the Sukkah, to really get the most out of the holiday of Sukkot one should ideally actually bed down in the Sukkah.  That's right, sleep!  Many people who don't know anything about Jewish orthodoxy or me ask me what the difference is between religious Jews and me.  Although there is a vast chasm between the two, one of the most obvious differences, aside from the fact that religious people are learned, is that they look forward to proving to the Almighty their complete faith in Him by, among other things, sleeping in the Sukkah, just as they look forward to performing every other one of His commandments (mitzvahs).  I'm working toward that level of devotion.


The kids, too, are always really excited about Sukkot because, among other things, they have a week vacation from school and know that we will do fun things during the middle four days.  In L.A. we would go to Knott's Berry Farm and the like; below you will read about what replaced "Camp Snoopy".


Each year, too, I get more and more help from my children while I put the Sukkah together.  It used to be that the kids would just run around where I was building it.  They would throw things everywhere in the middle of the heavy, cumbersome lumber that "Papa" was handling.  It was really cute.  Now, in addition to risking their lives under my precariously balanced beams, they actually try to help by handing me nuts and bolts (between throwing them at each other).  After it is built and the walls are affixed, Sara and the kids decorate the Sukkah, with hand drawn pictures and all your Rosh Hashanah cards!  (Now you know what we do with them.)


This year, our first in Jerusalem, after all the preparation was complete, after all the other holidays had concluded, it was finally time to eat the first meal of the season in our handmade Sukkah with our houseguests, whom we know from LA.  Sara, of course, cooked a scrumptious meal -- even without a broiling pan.  Between courses, the husband houseguest and I had continued contemplating the bungee jump, which we had been discussing for weeks before Sukkot, psyching each other up for the "jump".  This was the night.  Having slept in the Sukkah once or twice in LA, I was pretty gung ho on the idea.  I even had cots, sleeping bags, and bug spray nearby.


But then I started thinking about the animals...


During my first three months living in Israel, I have noticed a lot of nonhuman creatures that also call the Holy City of Jerusalem their home.  For example, one of the first things visitors notice is the substantial cat population.  These furry homemakers purr on dumpsters, in alleyways, under cars, and practically everywhere else where they can find food or shelter.  It is not hyperbole to say that more than once these little terrorists have made incursions into our home through open doors and windows, without so much as a "hello", as if it were their own territory.  Even though I'm fond of cats, when I first got here I thought the city should do something about the cat "problem".


About a month after we arrived, however, I began to notice two important details concerning the cat "problem".  First, there aren't a lot of dead or dying cats around.  Second, I have yet to see a single rat or mouse in Jerusalem.  So the cats are innocuous to folks, and even helpful: they eat our garbage and turn it into fertilizer; they eat our rodents; and they can be pretty, to boot.  "The Cat Problem" for me was like when I told my wife, "It's so stupid that all the police cars always have their lights flashing.  How can anybody ever know when it's really an emergency?"  To which she calmly answered, "I think the lights are on because they want people to be able to see them.  If it's an emergency or they want people to move out of their way, they will also turn on the siren."  So, just as I thought I had all the answers about lights on police cars and was wrong, in fact there is no cat problem in Jerusalem.


Then there are the lizards.  Captain Dani, my landlord, had mentioned the outside possibility that I might encounter small lizards.  It was true, fast.  Occasionally I would spot one or two little fellas romping through our garden.  But the first time I saw one of those green, two-inch wonders scampering up my just-lit living room wall in the middle of the night, I was no less surprised or discomfited than I would have been without the forewarning.  But thanks anyway for the heads-up, Captain Dani.  


We have dogs, too, in Jerusalem.  There are a lot of dogs.  In America if your dog runs wild, he gets picked up and you have only a few days to claim him before he is "put to sleep".  But we Jerusalemites are too busy fighting the other terrorists and dismantling anachronistic labor unions to bother much with such mundane issues.


A half-block from my house is a place the locals call "Doggy Park".  Mind you, it wasn't always that way.  Like many parks in the city, this quarter-block area was created above a bomb shelter.  The locals lobbied to have the park fenced in so their kids would have a safe place to run wild(er).  But then doggie-owners sensed a new place where they could be even more irresponsible and obnoxious than usual.  Soon, between the poop and the unleashed dogs, few parents thought Doggy Park was a place they wanted their children to play.  That prominent signs admonish dog owners not to allow their dog to be unleashed does not faze any of the masters, especially the chronically rudest French.  Without exaggeration, when confronted by anyone pointing out the leash sign or the leash law, those folks either laugh in your face or simply ignore you.  Recently some kind soul had the good sense to remove the entry gate from Doggy Park, making it much less inviting to the dog owners.  (Although I would like to be able to claim responsibility for that brilliant act, I cannot.)  The place has settled down considerably since then.


Not surprisingly, animals have even played a role in a recent upheaval here, called by some "the intifada" or uprising, but more appropriately referred to as, "the-bloody-terrorist-campaign-orchestrated-by-Yasser-Arafat-after-he-refused-to-take-the-best-deal-that-the-Palestinians-will-ever-be-offered-because-Israel-would-not-commit-suicide-by-allowing-the-Palestinians-to-create-an-Arab-majority-in-Israel-proper-by-flooding-us-with-an-unlimited-number-of-Palestinians-who-disingenuously-claim-a-50-year-right-of-return-to-lands-that-they-for-the-most-part-fled-at-the-behest-of-the-seven-Arab-nations-who-waged-and-lost-a-war-of-attempted-genocide-against-the-Jews-in-the-newly-created-State-of-Israel-in-1948-after-the-same-Arab-nations-rejected-the-United-Nations'-partition-of-Palestine-into-one-Jewish-state-and-one-Palestinian-state."  (Sometimes 116 words are more concise than a one-word euphemism.)


Specifically, regarding the animals, on January 26, 2003, Palestinian terrorists strapped a bomb to a donkey and sent it toward a crowded bus.  They then detonated the donkey by remote control via cell phone.  Thank God, no one was hurt -- except, of course, the dead donkey, which was rudely and abruptly dispatched to his own eternity.  Incredibly, rather than condemn the attempted mass murder, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) wrote to "His Excellency Yasser Arafat," pleading with him not to hurt any more poor, innocent, defenseless donkeys.  I kid you not.


And then I started thinking about the insects...


We have gnats, moths, bees, only occasional WASPS, and everything else.  One day my wife described to me a really big spider.  She said it was "really, really big and hairy", and she had had to remove it from the house (because she doesn't like to kill things).  Knowing my wife's occasional propensity to exaggerate, I congratulated her on her bravery, assuming it had been just another big spider.  The next day, on the street outside our house, I saw what she had actually described: a tarantula.  Good going, Honey!


The most serious bug problem, though, is the mosquitoes.  During my first two weeks here, I was blanketed with bites.  And these weren't dainty, Oregon mountain-stream mosquito bites either; they were large, hard, pointy wounds, like spider bites, and they were very uncomfortable.


After many, many damaging, unprovoked attacks by the bloodsuckers on my innocent family and myself, I was forced to start thinking how to deal with these little insurgents.  I checked into setting up a defensive barrier, sort of a "security fence," to protect the people in my territory.  That proved unworkable since adding screens to our rented home would have cost at least $2,000.  Instead, I have tried to be more vigilant and smarter.  For instances, I bought a few heavy-duty bug zappers, which we've deployed liberally.  The tray on the bottom that catches the zapped bugs resembles a "Who's Who" of Jerusalem entomology.  I also have become circumspect about closing windows.  For example, on those nights that there is only a moderate probability of attack, I might open windows, but only with shutters down so that bugs have to fight through the tiny shutter slits to launch attacks on their victims.  These "partial closures" have been very effective.  Oftentimes, though, I must implement a "complete closure" of our territory, and opt for air-conditioning in the bedroom instead of open windows.  Although this is more expensive, sometimes I have to pay the price when I feel especially vulnerable.  Finally, before going to bed, I often deploy a pseudo-chemical weapon, rubbing some mosquito repellent on my head, neck, and arms.


Some nights, even after having taken all precautions, I am still awakened by a pop from the bug zapper.  Although the sound is somewhat comforting, it means that everything I have done up to that point has still allowed a few bloodsuckers to roam freely in my home.  If the bug zapper had not gotten him, he would have gone down the hall and deposited half-dollar-size welts on my young children, or he would have stayed in my bedroom and done the same to my wife or me.  Inflicting random pain and suffering on others is really all they live for.


In the worst-case scenario, from time to time I am awakened by the loud buzzing of a rampaging mosquito that has permeated all the defenses and has probably already sucked my family's blood and is coming back for more.  On these occasions I mobilize, by waiting patiently with a flashlight for the intruder to take a breather on our white bedroom wall.  Showing no mercy, I crush him like a bug against the wall with my bare hands.  My wife and I have been astounded by the amount of blood on my hands and the red goop adorning the walls where I have terminated those missions.


The thing is, the animals and bugs live here, too, and nothing we can do will change that.  I mean, look, this is my home that I rented from Captain Dani, and I have a legal right to be here and everything, but outside my home it's their world.  They should be happy with the 99% of the land that is unpaved and completely available to them!  But it just seems that they only harass us because we are here and because they want to take advantage of what we have built, not because they really want anything that is not otherwise available in the other parts of the land.  Even if they will never accept that I'm here and that this house that stands on what was once an empty lot will be here forever, I have to try to live as normal life as possible, while at the same time minimizing any detrimental effects the creatures might have on my family and me.


So we sat in our Sukkah on the first night of Sukkot eating a delicious meal with houseguests from LA.  During salad, a few cats stopped in to say hello.  That was cool; they're only cats.  Over soup, several mosquitoes started buzzing around us.  During chicken, I was sure the lizards and tarantulas were also crawling everywhere.  This was their big opportunity for an ambush because we were in their territory now.  Undaunted, I continued to try to convince myself and my guests that it was no big deal.  During dessert, however, my undaunted feeling ended abruptly when a two-inch escargot was spotted just behind my wife, crawling up the side of the Sukkah.


All jokes aside concerning the French propensity to fry 'em up in garlic and butter, at that point all bets were off.  Between knowing what might be out there, and seeing some of what actually was out there, my comfy bed under my comfy covers in my comfy room would have to do.  I decided my religious level was such that I could fulfill the minimal Sukkah obligations by merely eating in the Sukkah; sleeping in it would have to wait until next year, by which time, hopefully, I will have achieved the right mixture of coverage, faith, and the ability to minimize the likelihood of being slimed by snails, molested by mosquitoes, licked by cats, trod on by lizards, and tickled by tarantulas.  Perhaps by then I will have found a better, more permanent solution.


As I mentioned, during the week of Sukkot, the kids had school vacation and their parents had Ulpan vacation, so I set out to rent a car to tour our new country.  I looked at several web sites and settled on Thrifty Car Rental.  I reserved a car and noted that the rental office was near the King David Hotel, which is within walking distance of our house.  After obtaining directions -- which are never forthcoming in Israel, and this was no exception -- I went to get the car.  I must have passed the place three times, calling each time on my cell phone, before learning that Thrifty in Israel is not Thrifty at all, but a German company called "Sixt" (you pronounce it, I still can't).  There is not a single, solitary sign of Thrifty anywhere in their office, on their cars, or on their paperwork.


When I finally got to the office, and they finally got to me, upon seeing that I am an Israeli, they charged me an extra 18% sales tax (VAT -- value added tax).  Sensing my increasing disenchantment with the deal, they upgraded me to a Chevrolet Vivant (a model that is not made for America), which is taller than a station wagon and shorter than a minivan, in length and height and comfort. But since we don't own a car yet, my children thought the Vivant was the greatest thing they had ever seen and begged me to buy it.  I told them that, instead, we would just try to be happy in it for the next several days.


Then I called a local buddy for directions to the Dead Sea, which is supposed to be an easy 30-minute trip and a lot of fun.


My friend told me to get on this one road that I know and stay on until I see the name of this one city that I know, and get off the one road that I know there when I see signs to the Dead Sea.  Perfect.


So we loaded up the old Chevy for the simple trip down to the lowest spot on earth.  On the way we saw these fabulous soldiers carrying a Lulav (palm frond) & Etrog (a citrus fruit), which are used prominently in the Sukkot celebration.  The boys were very sweet to pose for us.


With map in hand, we set off.  But, as I had suspected, the name of the city that I knew to look for had appeared many times on many signs, never with any directions to the Dead Sea.  So I just stayed on that road, hoping that I would have clarity soon.  Not long after, I got my clarity from a sign that made me pretty sure I'd driven a tad too far.  Not being the brightest bulb on the tree, even I know that when the sign indicates that straight ahead is "Ramallah" -- Yasser Arafat's headquarters -- it's time to turn around and get better directions.


Finally we found the correct exit and were on our way down to the Dead Sea faster than you can say, "lost American family, captured, tortured, and mutilated in the territories", God-forbid.  (On the same day, in fact, another family drove into the wrong place and had to be saved!)


About half an hour later, we arrived at a little Dead Sea beach area where we could give the kids their first taste -- literally.  When Batya, Yehuda and I waded into the oily, saltiest water on earth, our tiniest scratches or cuts stung like crazy!  I had a hard time explaining to little Yehuda why his tush suddenly hurt.  After floating in the renowned buoyant water and rubbing our bodies with the mud under our feet that is supposed to have magical, elixir powers, we washed off and headed back to the Chevy to go down the road to the levy known as Ein Gedi.


Because it was the end of summer, the levy was almost dry.  Without whiskey or rye, we went on a three-mile hike up and down the famed nature preserve.


Exhausted and spent, we headed home.  On the way home, gazing across the Dead Sea, I pointed out to the kids that the bank on the other side of that little body of water is a country called Jordan.  Sara and I also noted the passing Arab cities such as Jericho.


The next day I asked my local buddy for suggestions of other places to visit.  He said there is a cool place with lots of caves dug into the ground that are thousands of years old, called Beit Govrin National Park.  This time, he suggested I get directions from the Internet.  I didn't argue.


On the way out of Jerusalem, we saw Sukkahs built onto every conceivable open area, from the swankiest penthouses in the plushest hotels to the back of pick-up trucks to postage-stamp balconies and decks.  To the left is a picture of many Sukkahs on the balconies of a prominent apartment building at the entrance to Jerusalem.  (Architecturally, this building is especially interesting because a Sukkah is kosher (valid) only if nothing is above it except the sky.)


After Sukkah-gazing, we found the Govrin Caves without any difficulty.  They were very cool.  One of them housed a family of ten.  Another contained an olive oil manufacturing plant, complete with a stone olive press.  The smallest cave was a shower.  I noticed a little ledge by the shower and I asked my precocious seven-year-old daughter Batya if she knew what the ledge was for.  She answered, "Of course, Daddy.  It's for shampoo and conditioner!"  Right, honey.


So there I was at the Govrin Caves very deep inside Israel-proper, walking around with my family on that beautiful fall day, and what do I hear in the distance, but the extended pounding of a barrage of artillery.  Although the blasts could have emanated from a training facility, they could as easily have been our boys dealing with the those who are trying to kill us every day.  Either way, I imagined the look on some sweet kid's face -- just out of high school -- as he watched , heard, and felt those explosions for the first time up close and personal.  It is not the bit least romantic.


We spent our final day with the car at a beach that was recommended by everyone as clean and quiet, called Nitzanim Beach.  They were right.  Only 10 miles north of Gaza, it was very, very relaxing.


In America, oftentimes you can see airliners flying, yet not hear them.  It is not uncommon to see eastbound 747s over Los Angeles, having taken off over the Pacific Ocean and turning around for the journey across America, high in the sky, seemingly hovering, without sound.  By contrast, in Jerusalem you can hear the thunder of the fighter aircraft practicing overhead, but you can never see them.  On this day, however, at this flawless beach, at two- or three-minute intervals we gazed upon the sheer beauty of our majestic Israeli fighter aircraft zipping overhead, alone and in pairs, presumably on training sorties about 10 miles to the south.  They treated us all to a magnificent airshow.


At the end of Sukkot, I read in the Jerusalem Post that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are interested in another cease-fire, like the last one that ended with the slaughter of 22 Jews on a Jerusalem bus in August.  Do you think the otter will fall for it this time?  If so, we are going to need to buy a whole lot more bug zappers and bug spray.



Anyway, thanks for reading this far.  



I appreciate and look forward to your comments and greetings.



For more on this tale of the donkey bomb and the PETA morons click here and then here.


The part of the Chevy driver was played by Don Mclean.


As you know, we are in the middle of a membership drive, so please get me the e-mail addresses of people whom you want to add.  (Let them know ahead of time, so I don't get in trouble with the spam police).


Please stay tuned for Chapter 12: “Class Lessons.”


All the best,


Rich Brownstein

PO Box 8130

91081 Jerusalem


Phone: 011-972-2-6733-491




No donkeys were harmed in the photography of this reenactment.

All characters are purely fictional.

If you want to add someone to this list, or remove yourself, just e-mail and let him know.

Please freely distribute to those with too much time on their hands.



Copyright (c) - Rich Brownstein 2003


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