Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Jew & the Travel Agent היהודי וסוכן הנסיעות

Yesterday, my husband, who’s shopping for a good pre-Passover fare to the States, told me of an Orthodox travel agent (probably not the only one) who won’t sell anyone an itinerary any part of which will compel the passenger to travel on the Sabbath. This of course raised my “parochialism-versus-civil-society” antenna. The following conversation ensued:

Me: How does he know you’re Jewish? The only document you're required to show him is your passport. Your religion isn’t listed on your passport [yet! Stay tuned…].

Him: Well, Plony Almony [acquaintance whose surname is typically Jewish] went to him, and he refused her.

Me: So he’s just assuming she’s Jewish because of her name. He has no actual proof.

So not only is Travel Agent claiming to be able to ascertain his clients’ ethnicity, but of course the real test would be if someone named Muhammed Abu-Salaam walked in and asked for a Shabbes-violating itinerary. If he is sold his ticket, then we have proof that Travel Agent is actually refusing service to certain customers (Jews, according to his own Jewish-o-meter) on the basis of their religion, which I presume to be illegal.

While I don’t have time to test this case, I believe it’s worth bringing to readers’ attention in order to illustrate what a Chelm we’ve created here on the decidedly flimsy basis of something called the “Jewish character of the state”. Not only is this “Jewish character” vague and doesn’t stand up to any Western standards of due process, but it derives from an unsophisticated, Hebrew school-level perception of Israel as a place where Jewish visitors ooh and aah over the taxi driver telling them “Shabbat shalom”…and isn’t it just adorable that the travel agent won’t sell you a ticket for a plane that takes off on Shabbes?!

By now, we as a modern Western country should have advanced past the rapture stage of a summer teen tour participant walking down Ben-Yehuda mall on a first-time-in-Israel Temple Mount High murmuring in stoned wonder, “Far out! Everyone here’s Jewish!” Because to do so is to remain in a state of national arrested development.

It’s time we grew up and faced the challenging, complex, not-as-much-fun-for-the-majority reality that we’re not all Jewish: That fully 25% of us have needs and desires, for instance, the need or desire to travel on the Jewish Sabbath, whether to visit a relative in another town or another country; or to purchase goods on the Jewish Sabbath. And those 25% (plus a large chunk of the other 75%) should not be constrained by the Jewish Sabbath.

It’s time we let go of our fear of losing our “blankie” that we call the state’s “Jewish character”: We’re grownups now; time to put aside our childhood security objects and face life as mature, adult citizens of a democracy.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Of loyalty oaths and playgrounds על השבעות נאמנות ומגרשי משחק

Two things about Israel “get to” me. Well OK, more than two, but two specifically that to me symbolize lack of Western values and quality of life: 1) No public transportation on the Sabbath. Try exiting Jerusalem on a Saturday night; it’s like Escape From Alcatraz; 2) The first thing I notice about Arab-populated areas is that the kids always seem to be playing in weedy vacant lots; where are the playgrounds? Lack of playgrounds is the visual hallmark of an underserved population.

Therefore, after reading of the disgraceful proposal that “non-Jewish”* candidates for Israeli citizenship be required to swear an oath of allegiance to a “Jewish, democratic state”, I decided that if ever citizens are ever required to sign a loyalty oath, I will say, “Fine. You want me to swear allegiance? No problem. I will sign this document”, and will take out a red pen and amend the oath to read:

“…Jewish[1] …democratic[2]

[1]- As per the definition: A country wherein public transportation operates seven days a week, 365 days a year

[2] - A country wherein a minimum of one dunam of European-standard playground area, with safe, functioning equipment, is available to every 50 children under the age of 10, within a kilometer radius of their places of residence.

If as a result, my citizenship is revoked, you'll find me at Ben-Gurion Airport wearing a t-shirt that reads יהודים לא מגרשים יהודים! [“Jews don’t deport Jews!”].

*Whatever that means, since we haven’t managed to decided what a Jew actually is

Friday, October 8, 2010

Kids in business establishments ילדים בבתי עסק

Even though the topic of this post is parenting-related, it’s one that everyone’s got an opinion on, so everyone’s welcome to join in the fray. I’m taking issue with the seemingly universal axiom that “kids should be taken out in public; otherwise how will they ever learn how to behave there?”

I postulate that the pendulum has swung too far in the take-‘em-everywhere direction. I actually can't think of a single reason to take a child below the age of about eight to a store or a mall, or any retail establishment, unless they themselves need clothing, and even then, for instance, my mom’s solution was to stop in at a discount store on her way home from work and buy me half a dozen inexpensive dresses or pairs of pants, let me try them on at home and choose, and return the ones I didn’t want the following day. My mom’s method was simply efficient: Why would anyone opt to take hizzer kid to the Land of Temptation and $$$pending when s/he doesn’t absolutely have to?

The only exception I can think of would be single working parents who have no alternative, i.e., no one to watch their child while they do their shopping. Otherwise, why would anyone be under the impression that any effective commerce could be carried out with a child in tow? Besides which, why would anyone deliberately put their child through the predictable exercise of being tempted by all the colors, shiny stuff, and products that they can’t touch, handle, or own? Why?

A fellow commenter on Tell Me About It argues, “The first trips to any place are going to involve a learning curve, no matter what age that first trip is at.” I disagree. I believe that most people over the age of about 14, taken to their first opera, would be able to sit quietly without disrupting the performance, despite never having been to the opera before. Would there have been value in taking them while the “learning curve” was still in process? Similarly, I’d be willing to bet that upon being taken to Target for the first time at the age of eight, an Amish child who’s never seen the inside of a discount emporium, would not run up and down the aisles squealing, grabbing items off the shelves, and demanding to be bought toys and candy.

That’s because Amish (and ultra-Orthodox, etc.) kids of both genders are expected to adhere to “opera behavior standards” when out in public. When our kids hear us say “boys will be boys (i.e., rambunctious)”, our sons get license to behave rambunctiously, and our daughters learn that girls are supposed to be the opposite, i.e., docile. So the boys act up, the ‘rents can’t handle it, and put ‘em in treatment. Why not instead hold our sons to the same behavior expectations as we do our daughters, i.e., cooperative and well-behaved? No doubt because cooperative and well-behaved boys in our society are termed “sissies” instead of “civilized human beings”.

But back to retail establishments -- which we as a society seem to have forgotten are places where business is transacted, and have confused with places of entertainment -- to which I have a problem bringing small children. I’m not suggesting that they be sequestered with their parents under house arrest until they’re “opera-ready”. There are plenty of public places where toddlers belong:

1. The playground (free!) with lots of healthy snacks brought along
2. A public swimming pool or beach (reasonable membership rates)
3. A Discovery Zone if weather is inclement
4. The public libraries, which run wonderful children’s programs, all free

Note that the above are all public, non-sequestered places, yet they are not places where business is transacted (other than paying the entry fee).

You simply must show Junior the latest movie? That’s what DVDs are for. Why are parents of two- and three-year-olds under the delusion that their children can sit through an entire performance, even a children’s play? Eating out? Well, 21st-century parents should consider themselves fortunate that McDonald’s offers a play area; otherwise feed kids at home until they can handle the IHOP or Denny’s, then progress “up the sophistication ladder” from there. There’s no nobility in the parental boast, “Oh we just take her along everywhere!”

Friday, October 1, 2010

"We didn't start the fire..." הפסיקו לכבות שריפות

Reading this article ע about gender dividers down Mea Shearim’s main street was frustrating for me, yet not for the obvious reasons. I’m more frustrated by the response of the seculars to this latest Khomeinization measure than I am to the actual barriers. Instead of once again “running to Mommy” to tattle and demand that “she” intervene from above in this endless quarrel, why don’t the female activists and elected officials inject some inspiration and humor into the struggle, a la the Supermarket Stripper? Instead of unproductive hand-wringing and putting out fires, why not engage in what’s sorely missing in this country: grassroots activism and civil disobedience? For example, the female activists could have done one or more of the following:

1. Gone to the site in the dead of night and silently removed the fabric from the barrier
2. Strolled up and down the divided street dressed in their usual garb
3. Strolled up and down the street dressed in swimsuits
4. Strolled up and down the street dressed in swimsuits, reciting tehilim [Psalms]
5. Gotten a bunch of male friends to dress as women and stroll up and down the street, reciting Psalms, or not

Get the idea? And if approached by police or residents, say they’re not violating any law. Same goes for the mehadrin [gender-separate] buses. Why not:

1. Board the bus wearing swimsuits?
2. Get a bunch of males dressed in women’s clothing to board and insist on sitting in the back?
3. If approached, respond by quoting a Psalm?

Or as I suggested in a previous post on the “battle for Kiryat Yovel”, instead of fighting the zoning-defying minyan [prayer quorum], go join them: Send a delegation of 50 non-Orthodox men to the home in question, who announce upon entering, “We heard there’s a minyan here. We want to pray.”

Road closed on the Sabbath because the city bowed to Orthodox pressure? No problem: Recruit a dozen swimsuit-wearing folks to stroll up and down it just as folks are going to or coming from shul. Too cold for swimwear? Then wear your usual garb and sing songs from the Bible.

In other words, turn the situation on its head. Challenge assumptions. Demonstrate to the public the absurdity of these situations. Secular activists, are you listening?

Segueing onto the topic of secular values, I’m reading ארבעה בתים וגעגוע by Eshkol Nevó (I believe the English title is Homesick). In it, a man tries to persuade his wife to enroll their son in the (low-low priced, extended-day) Orthodox preschool. He asks her, “What’s wrong with him learning a little Judaism? A few values?” This is an oft-heard question posed by the Orthodox when trying to persuade Jewish parents to enroll their children in Orthodox schools. After all, who would oppose their kids having values? But it got me to thinking: Why are values so inextricably associated with mitzva observance? Why can’t / don’t us non-Orthodox seem to be able to pass on humanist values to our kids?

I believe the answer is that progressive, liberal people, both Jewish and otherwise, tend to be so concerned with tolerance and pluralism that they forget to actually talk to their kids about these values; they figure they’re living them, so their kids will simply…what? Absorb it all by osmosis? It’s time for us liberal parents to take a leaf from the right-wing parents’ books and start talking at home, to our children. We don’t have to preach, and we don’t have to trash anyone; all we have to do is comment on any current news item and ask our kids what they think. Get a conversation started, and don’t be afraid to let your kids hear your opinion.

If you’re ambivalent about an issue, say so: “The occupation is unjust, but I can’t see ending it without a civil war. How would you propose we end it?” There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that every solution creates new challenges. How else will we raise a generation of problem-solvers? Even kids in the primary grades can learn the lexicon: “occupation”; “settlements”, and “territories” can be explained at their level. These are not dirty words, and there’s no reason to avoid using these terms in everyday conversation; our kids should hear us utter them: After all, in right-wing households, the kids regularly hear about building the Greater Land of Israel and expanding the settlements being God’s mandate. So why are we uncomforable talking to our kids about speaking out against oppression and injustice being committed in our names?

I once overheard an atheist mom twisting herself into a pretzel trying to answer her child’s question: “What’s God? Do we believe in God?” She was trying to walk the tightrope of political correctness with a three-year-old! And we are all That Mom: We’re so fearful of being politically incorrect that we forget to pass on our (humanist) values to our kids.

Guess what? Our kids will not absorb these by osmosis like they (unfortunately) absorb every jingle, commercial, and hit song plugged into their brains via their music players. That stuff is candy; we need to feed them vegetables. We’re not talking force-feeding; just arrange the nutritious stuff attractively on a plate and set it out where they can easily get to it. They’ll bite.