Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sefer ha'Zfira: the Zom Tamuz War

I apologize, but I haven't yet gotten a copy of the super-fun miklat pictures. So you'll be stuck reading my writing for the time being. I should give credit: I have no camera, so all of the pictures I've posted so far have been due to Yaniv and Gilad. (I suppose that's also blame. Where're the pictures, ah?)

At first, the katyusha attacks in the North meant very little. Another kidnapping, another response. I heard only the second of the first two Ra'ad Wahad (Thunder 1) missiles strike Haifa on Thursday as I walked up the stairs to make an Indian dinner at the house of a Russian couple. We cooked, listened to the radio, and despite constantly walking to the window and looking north, my coconut-mango rice pudding turned out delicious. (I also need to get pictures of that...)

And then it was quiet, no real problem. Work as normal. My schedule before the violence was already one of crazily late nights, so it wasn't unusual for me to be dozing lightly at 9am on Sunday -- when more rockets landed. Up, out of bed, grab my friend from down the hall, into the miklat. I had been planning to do a big shop in case of exactly this happening, but "this" got the best of me. There was no siren. These were loud blasts, and even the Israelis were a little jarred. But during a pause, I skipped upstairs to grab a bowl, a spoon, Multi-Grain Cheerios, and milk. Some Israelis brought in some fruit, a nicer radio. They discussed cellphone plans that could get on the network, get reception in a steel box underground -- Cellcom was great, Orange and Pelefon no good.

And the day calmed down even more. I headed over to another miklat with Gilad, my German exchange-student flatmate. There we met Liora (Israeli) and Camli and Walid (Druze), along with Sara (American -- was at the Russians with me). A little snack, a narguileh -- outside, on a bench in the shade. It was a picnic, a break.

A couple of people suggested getting a van-taxi to drive us to Tel Aviv. A holiday, quiet, some time to get real work done, great cafes and bars -- who could resist? As that was being worked out, Liora and I head upstairs -- to the third, uppermost, and most dangerous floor (sorry, Mom) -- to make some omelets for sandwiches, food for the road. Just as I finished the first omelet -- yogurt for fluffiness, chopped parsley, some sauteed onions inside -- another siren rang. Off goes the gas, run downstairs -- only one blast. Wait twenty minutes, back up to finish the rest. And before we knew it, we were past Binyamina and Zikhron, in Hadera, safe.

So what does all of this mean? Is Haifa a warzone? What about the North, about Yarca and Zfat and Kiryat Shmone? And what about Lebanon?

The North is rough. A shopping mall in Yarca was hit twice -- empty at the time, of course. Zfat and Kiryat Shmone everyone has seen. But people aren't stuck inside their miklats, doing nothing all day. Neighbors get together, now that they finally have nothing else to do. And though thousands have fled, most wait patiently. It's a long, boring, and occasionally nerve-wracking block party.

Why do I write so blithely about the North? "There are missiles, no, rockets falling on them!" A katyusha is like a rock, a thrown rock. You don't want to be hit by a katyusha. You don't want to be anywhere near them. But it's not a missile, it doesn't level houses, it doesn't explode violently. Miklats are completely safe -- despite a story I've heard of a door being blown shut. This isn't the Gulf War.

Haifa is a different story. The Ra'ad Wahad, the Thunder 1, is longer range -- bigger. The hole a katyusha blows is no more than thirty centimeters in diameter, a foot; a Ra'ad tore the roof off of a warehouse, leveled two floors of a building in Bat Galim. This is the reason the attack is an escalation: not just because of the range, but because of the size of the munition. (Some people think the missiles are Ra'ad rockets; others Fajr Arbiye or Hamsa. No one was saying on the Israeli news, and both missiles are of Irani manufacture.)

Nonetheless, grocery stores are open, some cafes are open. Oh, how I miss my favorite falafel, which might also be open! The staff are returning to the Technion. My friends -- Gilad included -- are going back soon. (Gilad is in fact a saint, since he'll be packing up my things and sending them along.)

This all begs the question: "If all of these weapons are so weak, why is Israel responding with such force? This seems unreasonable, uneven, unfair." Israel is big and powerful; it can blockade a country of its own size in a few hours. Hizbollah has around 4,000 militants; perhaps half of Israel could be called up for Army duty.

But the Israeli force is targeted,not just looking to kill. Katyusha batteries are bombed shortly after missiles are launched; this way nearly 30% of Hizbollah's attack capacity has been eliminated. Citizens are caught in the blast, as Hizbollah forces people to stay near installations in the South, keeps villages hostage. The situtation is complicated and tragic.

And from afar, I would say, "Let them take a pot shot. It's not doing a lot, let them waste their resources. They'll be embarrassed." I said this to Israelis when Kassam rockets flew from Gaza into empty fields near Sderot. They laughed, or were angry. You can't let someone attack you, they argued, and not respond. All that does is invite more attacks, make you seem weak.

When I called my girlfriend to tell her that I was alright, she was mad. "I can't believe they're doing this. Doesn't either side realize this isn't going to get them anywhere?" I was taken aback. This was one of the first things out of her mouth. Didn't she care that rockets were being shot at my city, at me? It doesn't seem ugly
to me at all to worry first about my family and well-loved friends in Haifa before I worry about politics, or Lebanon, or what France thinks.

Now I agree with many of the Israelis -- lefties themselves, but with a caveat: when you are attacked, and your attacker smugly claims to be the first defeat you, you cut him down. He can be the smallest little nothing, but you stop him. And I hope you who read this understand that I'm as pacifistic as can be, am against the war in Iraq, want Israel out of Gaza and eventually out of the West Bank. But some positions are only tenable from a distance.

It feels good to be back. My mom went a little crazy, insisted I return early. I flew first class: the duck was overdone, but everything else was perfect. I'm well rested and performing some of the East Coast rounds.

I can't think enough of my friends back at home. Gilad is the greatest, packing up my things for me. He must be very pleased that I left my narguileh behind. Yaniv is still very shaken, but I'm sure he's calmer by now -- his grandparents seem to make him nervous, since they keep the news on all the time. Camli went down to Tel Aviv to work -- the companies are paying 150% time for workers, plus hotel rooms. She's only been to Tel Aviv twice before, so Liora is showing her around. What a shame! Even inside Israel's borders, Arabs don't get a fair deal. (See? I told you I was a lefty.) Walid visited home, but headed back to the Technion to get work done.

And to think, I was complaining to Liora only weeks ago that Israel was boring, and that I wouldn't miss it. Israel is an exciting place, full of energy and hope that I can barely believe; and to miss it? The easiest thing in the world.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Life in Israel

For those of you have escaped my mother's constant bragging about what her sons do: first, congratulations; second, I've spent the last year in Haifa, studying computer science at the Technion.

The truth of the matter is that the place doesn't suit me. I learned a lot, but if I could change the past, I would have spent only the spring semester here. Part of the problem is that I don't much get along with the Jewish Israelis. Apart from other exchange students, my best friends are Druze.

I visited Daliat al'Carmel, the biggest Druze settlement in Israel, before I met Camli and her boyfriend Walid. It's famous as a center for shopping and cuisine. I went back with Camli, meeting her parents and exploring more of the town itself. (They call it a village, but with around twenty thousand people it's no village.) Three weeks ago, Walid had a huge birthday party. I was supposed to be שר הבשר "the minister of the meat", but Walid's uncle Tufik totally outclassed me on the grill. Nevertheless, we got along fabulously, and Walid eventually suggested visiting his hometown, Yarca, to see his home, family, and Tufik. Who can pass up an offer like that?

So last Thursday we followed through: I went with Walid to Yarca, with most of the other exchange students tagging along. The town is northeast of Akko, and it wasn't a long drive. The first stop was Kfar Yasif, a Muslim and Christian Arab town on the way to Yarca. The first agendum was a "nargilly", as Benjamin Disraeli would call it. Afterwards, we were hungry -- I hadn't eaten all day. Walid knew a place nearby, Lebanese shawarma. Oh man, it was good. We watched them bake the lafas (large, flat, pocketless pitas) and slice off the juicy, juicy meat.

Lebanese shawarma in Kfar YasifGilad and Yaniv look much more normal when they're not chewing, I assure you. But Bas always looks like that. Gilad has been one of my best friends here in Haifa; we've shared an apartment since September. Yaniv came in March; his English fluency (and company) have been another component of my happiness.

After stopping off at a few churches in Kfar Yasif, at which we were the subject of considerable wonder, we headed over to Yarca. Coffee at a friend's house -- the door was open, why not walk in? Another cup of coffee! A quick aside: why is Arab coffee so good? (Hint: that's a rhetorical question, and I'm about to tell you.) Because they put crushed cardamom pods in it, making it קפה נחלי "cafe nahli" rather than just coffee beans. I don't think I'll ever go back: cardomom forever.

Awakened from our collective food coma, we headed to Walid's house. It wasn't just a house, but a complex: an older home belonging to his grandparents and parents and another, bigger one for his uncle; floors intertwined, each occupied by one of the six brothers in Walid's generation. Parts had an unfinished patina -- most people take part in the construction of their own homes, I was told, and the temptation to stop at "good enough" must be great -- but the interiors were beautifully decorated. I haven't seen many nicer dining or living rooms. Depressingly, much of it seems rarely used, if ever. I wonder how much they could have saved if they didn't feel the need to display such fine things. My favorite part of their house, other than the grape-vine trellised porch, the pomegranate tree, the expansive herb garden, and the heirloom plum tree -- was the view.

Yarca, looking out at Kfar Yasif and beyond Unfortunately, it was a bit too hazy to take good pictures. But trust me, you could see to Haifa, to Rosh ha'Niqra, and further on into Lebanon. You can see the sea at the edge, under the cloudy glare. (The pollution got worse through the night; the moon changed colors from bright white to deep orange.)

We drank another cup of coffee, watching the sunset, dutifully smoking another "narguillet". I tasted the sweetest watermelon I've ever had, along with some cherries and the sour, unripe grapes that hung above us. The watermelon wasn't local to the village but is rather a testament to the quality of Israel's fruit produce.

Once it was quite dark, we got a phone call from Tufik -- it was time to head over for the מנגל "barbecue". We got in the cars, Walid taking his father's cab instead of his vintage 1973 VW Bug. (Unfortunately, I only have interior pictures; it's a really great car.) I was surprised to pull up to a huge group of women and a fantastically steaming pot. We weren't going to Tufik's yet; first we had to see the burghul. Walid had been talking about it all day, but I still didn't have a good image. Here's a good image:

The burghul pot You may be asking what burghul is. Go ahead: "What's burghul?", you ask? Burghul is bulgur: boiled wheatberries. It's eaten throughout the Middle East, where it's generally called burghul; it's 'bulgur' only in Turkish. We got out of the cars to an immediate offer of juice from Tufik's wife, which is of course not to be declined. She proceeded to translate for me as I asked one of the women working the pot how much wheat is in there (150 kilos) and how long you boil it (about two and a half hours). (She was amused when I understood only some of the numbers in Arabic. "Two hours?" I said. "No, no, two and a half," she corrected. Presumptuous Jews with their newfangled language...)

The beautiful thing about the bulghur is that it was a neighborhood effort. On an errand for more pita later on, we drove by other corners of Yarca boiling their own wheatberries. Each little section of town boils a couple of "units" (70 kilos, which can be bought for about 50 or 60 shekels) of wheatberries to share; everyone gets together to do it, helping to build the fire, arrange the pot, and fill it with the wheat. After boiling, the group goes from house to house, pulleying the boiled wheat up to be spread across the flat roofs, were the sun dries it. Once burghul is fully dry, it's ready for kibbeh (a burghul and lamb pastry) or tabouleh (crushed burghul mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, mint, and lemon).

The neighborly feeling is remarkable; it's very satisfying to see people working together for their food. Walid and I talked about it later. He appreciated it not only because it was delicious and neighborly, but because it's so local, so unglobalized. I have to agree.

After tasting the fresh burghul plain and with sugar (delicious either way, like a less nutty quinoa), we finally headed over to Tufik's place. It was similar to Walid's family's house, only smaller -- it was built more recently, and lacks the twisty passages caused by iterative expansions. It, too, had a beautiful interior with unfinished edges and a tendency towards ostentation. One thing was different: their kitchen was clearly used and loved. That night was no exception, of course. Tufik set me about as his sous chef -- something I'm sure my girlfriend Beth appreciates on a very deep level, as well as my flatmates.

The meal consisted of a few things: kebabs, which are meat patties; shish kebabs, which is meat on a stick; and an overflowing plethora of salads. The kebab was made at Tufik's place, being a mix of lamb, beef, and turkey. The shish kebabs came from Walid's mother: chicken and a few lamb. The vegetable salads -- tabouleh and a cabbage salad -- were made in the kitchen, but the hummus, tehina, and labneh (thickened yogurt) were purchased. And, of course, before we even started to cook -- a cup of coffee.

Tufik and I were mostly on kebab duty. Which meant I was mostly on chopping parsley and holding things for Tufik duty.

That's a lot of kebabs Good kebab. He uses his own spice mix, also grating in onion, hot pepper, and tomato. He thought my suggestion of adding an egg to help it stick together was heresy, but I secretly hope he'll try it sometime -- I think it'll round them out. He did fine without it, certainly, since he used a grill basket. A good idea for burgers, I think.

That was our night. Tufik's younger daughter (perhaps seven years old?) showed me her school grades; everything was mumtaz, excellent. I duly flattered her, calling her "Mumtaz" the rest of the evening. We talked with Walid, with Tufik, with a few friends from the neighborhood, extended family. It was surprisingly free of the senseless language and culture talk that usually goes on; we talked about food, about the World Cup (auf gehts Deutschland!), about music.

We stayed late, until around 1:30am, when Gilad had to go pick up his mother from the airport. Yaniv and I rode back in the Bug with Walid, taking a detour through the Akko harbor. Perhaps not the safest place to go at 2am, but it was beautiful.

Yarca will remain one of my fondest memories of Israel; for me, it is a kernel, a condensation of its country -- a distillation of the best and the worst, of the whole.

A doorway in Zfat

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Pictures from Kew

Aviva in front of the monkey tree

A lane of azaleas and rhododendren

More Photos from Kew

Aviva and Amy
asserting their womanhood

Little BIrd

Hannah Mathilda makes her
little bird mouth, indicating
that she wants to be fed

Hannah Mathilda

A serious pose

Hannah Mathilda and her Ema

Deb converses with H. Mathilda

Hanging with Hannah Mathilda

As many of you know, I am spending the summer in L.A. helping out with our newest family member, H. Mathilda Weisz. She is ADORABLE (though she is not exactly delicate given the snorting, snoring, and farting that goes on). It is my first long-term encounter with caring for a baby girl and I must confess that it is disconcerting at times. The sense of adventure/beat-the-clock that one has changing a boy so as not to get sprayed just isn't there for a girl. I can't say that I miss it, but I am aware how much less anxious and efficient I am at changing her diaper than I was for my own boyz. I am impressed by all the fabulous new gadgets that didn't exist when my boyz were young, particularly a NASA-inspired foam crib lining that prevents head denting while sleeping. She sleeps like a baby, which I guess is only appropriate. The wisdom nowadays is that babies must always sleep on their backs (twenty-three years ago I was constantly flipping David Greenberg back onto his stomach, which was the requirement then, and irritated him immensely. Sorry David, you were born before your time.) I hang with Hannah Mathilda from after midnight feeding (anywhere from 12-2) until she wakes up again and has a bottle with me (pumped milk from Deb) and then we both go back to sleep. On a good day, I can have Hannah Mathilda with me from midnight to six so Deb can get a block of sleep. After depositing H.M. with her parents (anywhere from 6-8 a.m.), I return to sleep and rise to hang with the family, particularly Emmett, about whom there will be a separate post. If all adults have had a chance, to eat, shower, and go to the bathroom, it's a red letter day. There are some days where we walk around unshowered and in a fog, but more often, we are getting basic needs met. A load of dishes and a load of laundry is always running. I am feeling spoiled by the easy availability of kosher meat. Last week, I made meatballs, which Emmett and I called "spicy meat-a bahlls," much to our mutual delight. Turns out, I have the perfect sense of humor for a 2 year old. But that will come as a surprise to few of my loyal readers. Enjoy the pictures of Hannah Mathilda above!

Edina and David

Edina and Dave in David's apartment

Ben, David and Edina at the Castle

On the castle hill

Ben, Edina, and David

After a meal at a Thai restaurant

Edina and Ozzie

Edina and her
cute little dog,

A Trip to Heidelberg

Right before we left London, Ben and I took a side trip to Heidelberg, where David is working. David was accompanied by his girlfriend, Edina and Edina's dog, Ozzie. We walked the central market pedestrian shopping area, saw the schloss (castle), and the botanical gardens, but the highlight was meeting Edina and spending time with her and David. I even warmed up to Ozzie (who receives all his commands in Hungarian). Those of you who know my general aversion to dogs will be amazed that I actually found the little hot dog (dwarf dastchund) non-threatening and even cute. Edina was a joy to finally meet (she and David have been together since December of his junior year). Edina cooked some fabulous meals and was extraordinarily welcoming to me and Ben. She will be spending July in Spain, waitressing and working on her Spanish. Edina speaks Hungarian and fluent English. At University she plans to study Turkish and Arabic. I suppose that if you come from Hungary (they met while David was studying math in Budapest) you get good at other languages. David and Edina regularly switch back and forth from Hungarian to English with ease. I asked Edina whether David has an accent in Hungarian and she replied that he has a Russian accent. Hmm... This from a kid who barely passed high school Spanish. David's German is functional , his Russian excellent, and his Hungarian, at least in talking to the dog, flawless.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Graffiti Near the Train

It’s Global Warming Stoopid
Holloway Road Tube Stop

Fettered Pleasures

Never made it to this sex shop down the
block, so my pleasures remain unfettered

Saigon Surprise

Alas, the Vietnamese place is closed. I think we were supporting it single-handedly. When we returned from holiday, it was out of business. Their noodles with tofu, chili and lemongrass was a thing of beauty.

Buddhist Center (tan building)
and Library (limestone)
2 blocks from our home

Ben on the Computer in our bedroom.
Yes, it really was that color.

Our doorway

Walk past the wrought-iron gate
and down into the first floor

The other half of our block

Counsel (low income) Housing on Courtney Rd – The apartments built on the bombed out part of the block are covered in scaffolding because the windows were being replaced

Our House on Courtney

Our block was bombed in the blitz
Our half of the block remained.
Our stairway is behind the right-most

Monday, June 05, 2006

Farewell to Frieda

My Great-Aunt Frieda, who died recently, was a force of nature -- witty, accomplished, good-hearted, impatient and very, very fast. She had an explosive laugh and a true presence. Her last five years were robbed by Alzheimers, but I was heartened to realize that everyone remembered Aunt Frieda in her frenzied, inimitable prime. She was the last of my grandparents siblings. Uncle Abe (Savta's brother) died last year. It is the end of an era of titans. Below is what my mother said at Aunt Frieda's funeral:
Frieda Pusin was my beloved aunt, one of the first people in my life. She and her twin sister Rose, z'l, lived with my parents in Durham, North Carolina, when I was born. I adored them. Frieda became my friend and mentor. She took me to my first play, and made me feel like a grown-up when she let me stay in her apartment in the village during my teen-age years. She also was my personal historian. Frieda used to say that if she hadn't been there, nobody would have believed that I could talk before I was 10. She claimed to remember and she repeated all my "hochmas"; actually, with her wonderful and incisive wit, I think she made most of them up.

Frieda was an extraordinary resource & model. She was the person to go to if you wanted a recipe or a word to complete the Sunday crossword puzzle, or advice on a serious problem, or the telephone number and the latest news of a relative anywhere in the world -- from NY to CA, from England to Israel & Australia. She was the glue that kept the family connected.

And she had a wonderful talent for friendship. There was no better friend than Frieda. She was a model of hahnasat orhim - of generous and giving hospitality. Her dinners were legendary - not just because she was an such an excellent cook - Uncle Max said that it was the Peking Duck that first enticed him - but because everything was prepared with love.

When Jehiel and I got married, we asked Frieda to be our Maid of Honor. She was a radiant and beautiful one. I realized only much later how hard it must have been for her to be in the wedding in that capacity - she was not married at a time and in a family that made a single state difficult for a woman. But she was so happy for us that I never suspected. It's not that Frieda didn't have many opportunities - I can give you a long list of names - but Frieda would not compromise until she met her beshert. And, of course, she was right. One of the smartest things she ever did, one of the greatest, most precious gifts that Frieda ever
gave us, was to marry Uncle Max, whom my Bobe, Frieda's mother, called her "brilliant" her diamond. He is just that. And because of Frieda's determination and wisdom, Jehiel & I and our children have also been blessed with having Rusty & Nikki & Steve & Sam & Marin & Aliza & Jenna & Molly & Noah as part of our closest family.

When I was a very little girl in Durham, Frieda taught me to sing the Star Spangled Banner. My mother later told me that when I came to the last line, what I sang was - "From every mountainside, let Frieda ring." That may not have been what Francis Scott Key wrote, but it was correct. Like freedom, Frieda was a major force. Her talent & intelligence & goodness rang loud and true, & will continue to serve as a model and inspiration for me and for all those who were ever lucky enough to know and love her.

On the Street Where I Live(d)

Goodbye to the Old Neighborhood

For our last two weeks in London, we’ve moved out of Courtney Street in Islington (Zone 2) and right into the heart of things on Bloomsbury Square (Zone 1). We miss the our nabe (short for neighborhood, Szonyi, who is a busy man often abbreviates words, hence the term “refridge.” But I digress). Our new place is much larger, but also sparsely decorated and used exclusively as a rental. None of the homey touches of Courtney Street such a teletubby stickers on various surfaces or Noddy and Mr. Men dishware. In fact, there’s nothing on the walls here at all and it looks and feels like a 2-star hotel, down to stained carpets and the small sliver of soap and threadbare towels they provide. (Although in fairness, the guy who came by to fix the oven, toaster, lamps and replace the rubbish bin was horrified and promised to shampoo the rugs by tomorrow morning the latest). Still, this new, not so swanky place comes to us at a cost of more than double our rent in Islington. We are across the street from a beautiful sqaure. Our living room is on the third floor, facing west, and we see the sunset on the rooftops of London. Chim chim cheroo. Alas, in the basement of the fancy Victorian place across the street there’s a bowling alley, and the drunken Brits can be quite loud after knocking down some pins and some pints.

Above is a pictorial tribute to the old neighborhood of which we are very fond. (Less fond of the landlords who charged me £20 for damage to a desk that was already beyond hope, and whose immediate trashing of the place made my careful cleaning irrelevant and stocking of the fridge friar-like. Oh well. I am so blessed by having Yvonne stay at my house that I tried to emulate her level of care. )

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Although I tend to be free with advice, it may nevertheless come as surpirse that I am a genuine advice columnist (true, it is for the Fort Fairfield Maine "alternative" paper, but a gig is a gig). Here are my latest columns. Feel free to send me questions, in fact this is the first column for which I don't have to make them up, a trend I'd like to continue.

Dear Aviva,
I am currently in a relationship with a man who is wonderful inmany ways -- funny, handy, good-looking, and generally kind, but he recently did something that really disappointed me. When my father was ill, my boyfriend did not seem to understand that I needed to be with him in the hospital. My boyfriend was angry at the time I spent away from him and intolerant of my time with my family. I am surprised because he is very family-oriented and we often spend time with his parents and brothers. I don't feel comfortable approaching him about this, but I can't forget his attitude, even though my father is home now and is much better. Should I forget about it or forget about him?
Sincerely, A Confused Girlfriend

Dear Confused,
It seems obvious that your boyfriend behaved badly. The questions are: (1) Why? and, (2) What does this mean for your relationship? Perhaps your boyfriend was jealous of the time you spent with your father. Maybe he is just a self-centered jerk. Or perhaps he freaks out when confronted with hospitals and illness. It sounds as if you don’t really know the answer.
Should you continue to date this guy or was his insensitive and demanding attitude a “deal breaker?” My late Aunt Frieda famously (at least it was famous in the family) quipped: “Everyone has faults; you need to find a man with the right faults.” No boyfriend will be perfect and whether you should end the relationship depends on what you need and value. Only you can determine which faults are intolerable.
Actually, the thing that struck me as most problematic was not his behaviour but rather the fact that you don’t think you can talk to him about it. In my opinion, you need to understand why he behaved as he did, and he needs to hear how you feel. I would be curious whether he accepts some criticism and whether he tries to change.
Everyone makes mistakes. But if your boyfriend can’t tolerate an honest discussion of how he hurt and disappointed you, that for me would be a deal breaker.

What is your advice on how to handle the public school’s showing graphic sex videos to 10 and 11 year-olds?
A Concerned Parent in Fort Kent, Maine

Dear Concerned,
Your Editor, David Deschesne, has kept me informed about the controversy concerning the Human Growth and Development curriculum at St. Francis. As an indication of the graphic nature of the videos, my porn filter rejected David’s first email describing the video.

That said, I think there are really two questions here. (Hmm, there may be a theme to my answers – see the two questions organizaton above). First, what is the right way to introduce ten and eleven-year-olds to issues of sex and sexual maturity? Second, what are the rights and responsibilities of parents and educators in trying to perform this delicate and sensitive task?

I must emphasize that I haven’t seen the video. Also, unlike some people opposed to the curriculum, I don’t necessarily think that talking about erections, ejaculations, and wet dreams is a problem. The graphic depiction of a male penis in full erection, however, might be overwhelming for kids that young. The very explicit nature of the film seems to be, in the words of my best-friend, Ruthie, TMI (too much information).

The danger, however, is even graver, if such information comes too late. By age twelve, many boys are having nocturnal emissions, aka wet dreams. Boys need to hear about them from responsible adults and be reassured that such things are normal and signs of a healthy, developing body. My three boys all knew in advance about wet dreams, and their occurrence was no big deal. They informed me by starting to wash their own sheets and pajamas.

Girls are in similar need of information. My grandmother was terrified when she received her first period at age eleven – no one thought to talk to her about it and she thought she was in serious danger when she started to bleed. It was a negative experience she could recall seventy years, two children and five grandchildren later. I know of twelve year olds who have gotten pregnant. So, the ten-to eleven year-old set is a crucial audience for information about sex.

Sex ed is simply vital and, in our day, life-saving. Responsible people, however, can disagree about how explicit it should be and at what ages information should be dispensed. I do believe this is a job for public education and that we cannot count on parents alone to relay all the info. Parents can be too embarrassed, or may themselves not have fully accurate information. Parents also may under- or over-estimate the amount of information and detail their kids can handle. My inclination is to trust our trained educators on this.

But let’s face it, this is not a debate about reading methods or whether the kids should have math drills. With such a sensitive topic as sex, with its relationship to health and morality, the school system must act in partnership with parents, affording parents full respect.

I can understand the frustration of educators who can’t be expected to run every aspect of a state-wide curriculum by each parent. However, a take-it-or leave-it approach to sex ed does not seem fruitful. Parents must be involved because sex ed is not just about information. It is also about morality, religion, and behaviour outside the classroom.

I recommend that parents not enter the school during school hours – that is disruptive to learning and subverts the authority of the school. Instead, the administration should offer some time after school for parents to view the video and the other materials associated with this curriculum. This will help parents prepare their kids for the information to follow, and improve the kids’ experience. If parents feel very strongly that the video is inappropriate, their children should be excused; but then the parents have a heavy burden of making sure their children do not suffer emotionally or physically because they lack crucial information.

The Grandmothers with Baby Hannah Mathilda

Forget the kid, check out
Sylvia's new do.

House of Lords Visit

Okay, this post is impossible to do without a ridiculous amount of shameless name-dropping and bragging about history, so here goes:

Lord Richard Acton, descendent of the famous Lord Acton who famously observed that "power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely," gave me, Szonyi, and the other teachers in our program a tour of the House of Lords. Because we were such a large group, another Lord (Lady?) Ruth Rendell, joined to sponsor us for the tour and the tea. Both are Labour life peers, though Lord Acton also has an inherited title. He is a descendent of Balfour and Charles II (though since Charles II never married, the bragging rights on that branch of the family tree are offered with a wink and a nudge). Ms. Rendell signed copies of her mystery set in the House of Lords written under the nom de plume, Barbara Vine.

Our tour included the Robing room where the Queen readies herself to open a session of parliament, the chambers where the Lords and Commons meet, a lot of bad art, and ornate design (think toned-down, slightly seedy Versaille) and most memorably, the records room from the House of Lords, containing every act of Parliament. We saw the original stamp act and viewed the House of Lord's copy of the Declaration of Independence. Szonyi was in heaven. It was all pretty cool, and the tea was delicious.

Amy P. Comes for a Visit

I've known Amy since 8th grade, but we were reacquainted about twelve years ago at a Seder at Max and Frieda's. Since then I've visited her in Boston and Becket (in the Berkshires) and she's come out to Indiana. Our most recent rendez-vous was in London where we did the town up right. We went to the globe to see Coriolanus and to the West End to see Guys and Dolls (in the standing room section). [The Globe is an open-aired theatre in the round. I enjoyed it so much I went back to see Titus Andronicus, this time in the standing room area, which meant mingling with the actors and dancing at the end.] On her own Amy went to Borough's Market, the Tower of London and strolled along the river. We saw the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Royal Academy and the National Gallery. We walked our tootsies off.

My favorite day was the (one) sunny day which we wisely spent at Kew Gardens, botany and beauty rolled into one glorious balls of fresh smelling sweetness. I particularly liked the nose-gay garden with herbal plants. I now know how to cure the "purples" whatever those are. Amy is investigating.

Another highlight of the trip was scandalizing Ben who was entirely non-plused when we announced at 10:30 that we were going out. "Where?" he asked incredulously. "A pub," Amy answered, demonstrating once again to my children how she is way too cool for me.

For part of her visit Szone was in Swizterland visiting mishpacha. I was very grateful for the fabulous company. Amy reminded me that the one thing missing from my London experience is the company of good friends.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Proud Pops with Big

Brother Emmett Alfred

A slightly older and more mature
Hannah Mathilda

An early photo
of Hannah Mathilda
and her Ema

Welcome, Hannah Mathilda

Hannah Mathilda (in English) Chani Liba Esther (in Hebrew) was named yesterday in a special Brit Bat service welcoming her into the Jewish Covenant. I have provided two pictures of the little one, both with her mother.

The name Mathilda is after Nana Mathilda. Liba is after my Savta Libby. Esther is in memory of Aunt Frieda, who died only recently.

Baby, Ema, Pops and Emmett Alfred are all doing well. Emmett informs his Ema every time Hannah Mathilda cries: "Baby Sister crying." The jury is out on whether he is concerned, irritated, or highlighting himself as the non-crybaby.

Mazel Tov to All!

Some Revamped Favorites from Sara Kober

My cousin Sara sent me a list of some retooled favorite songs for us agingBaby Boomers. .They include:

Herman's Hermits -- Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Walker.
The Bee Gees -- How Can You Mend a Broken Hip.
Bobby Darin -- Splish, Splash, I Was Havin' a Flash.
Ringo Starr -- I Get By With a Little Help From Depends.
Roberta Flack --The First Time Ever I Forgot Your Face.
Johnny Nash -- I Can't See Clearly Now.
Paul Simon -- Fifty Ways to Lose Your Liver
The Commodores -- Once, Twice, Three Times to the Bathroom.
Marvin Gaye -- Heard It Through the Grape Nuts.
Leo Sayer -- You Make Me Feel Like Napping.
The Temptations -- Papa's Got a Kidney Stone.
Abba -- Denture Queen.
Tony Orlando -- Knock 3 Times On The Ceiling If You Hear Me Fall.
Helen Reddy -- I Am Woman, Hear Me Snore.