Nice’s Enduring Pain

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That’s not a carousel — it’s a living, changing memorial to the July terror attack on the French Riviera resort of Nice.  The stuffed toys appear fresh, as if more of them have marched in every day or so, clean and untouched by the elements.  They’re so raw, and real, and since they’re in a small park just by the seaside promenade, they’re impossible to miss.

There are signs, too.  Some deeply angry.

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Some grief-stricken still.

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Just before the 15th anniversary of 9/11, this all felt especially immediate as this tiny Statue of Liberty watched over the sea nearby.

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We saw and did so much more here in Nice, but these are the images we carry with us as we leave.

 

 

Exotic Singapore — Caning and the Kindness Movement

Us at MerlionBridge
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Puppetsold-new chinatown

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This is just a little bit of what we’ve seen wandering around this confusing city.  Its level of exotic mystery is considerable; so too is the sense of an over-governed, highly disciplined universe.  These photos are just a peek at the color, variety and mystery popping up all around us.  A diverse community of Hindu, Muslim, Chinese, Malay, Indian and Anglo live together sharing four national languages (Malay, Mandarin,Tamil, and English.)

As we made our way in from the airport just past 1AM Thursday, we saw wide avenues and planned parks that seemed stifling within their neighborhoods, so we were delighted to learn how much more there is to this city than that first impression.  However.

This is a tough, tough government.  Even the tour guides note ruefully  “Well yes, but I can’t talk about that.”  In other words, if it’s about government rules, or the fines for littering or parking in the wrong place or or or — no comment.  And caning transgressors – nope.

I thought it was just me who felt like I’d walked into a scene from Fahrenheit 541 or 1984 but no.  Rick agreed that it’s kind of spooky here despite the ethnic variety and history and hodgepodge of design and architecture.

Whether at the gigantic conservatory “Gardens by the Bay” or the Chinatown Heritage Center or Orchard Road – an endless Rodeo Drive crammed with shoppers and women dressed like Donatella Versace –  there’s a sense of programmed unreality.

Then there’s the government-sponsored Singapore Kindness Movement. designed to “improve the characters” of the people of Singapore.  Kind of weird but OK…    Still, on a tour bus the recorded guide’s rhetoric was infused with defense of the rules and policies that govern this place and its behavior.  Government rules and monitoring affect attitudes, sense of humor and behavior.  I was in Eastern Europe when it was behind the Iron Curtain and it was scary but people laughed about it and spoke with irony and a sense of the absurdity about much of what they faced.

In Singapore, the impact is worse, I think: scary, resigned acceptance and a spooky inhibition that slowly but surely lands upon a visitor.

It’s quite an experience to swing between the visual (and culinary) feast here and these authoritarian undertones.

 

Blocks from the Horror: Beautiful Canal St. Martin

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Near Villette at one end of Canal St. Martin

The bombing and the shootings happened blocks from this, the Canal St. Martin.  We took a boat ride down the Canal in June – from one end to the other.  It was a ridiculously hot day but cool, beautiful, and peaceful on the water, with plenty of tempting activity along the shore.

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Parisians relax on a lazy summer Sunday along Canal St. Martin.

Described as one of the “new cool” Parisian neighborhoods,  it lived up to its reputation. Bankside restaurants were jammed on a Sunday afternoon, joined by popup boutiques and plenty of energy.

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From our boat, one of the bridges that cross the Canal: a great view for us, and for those on the shore.

It was my favorite stop of this visit to Paris; so great to be in a place that really belonged to the locals and had that feeling great neighborhoods always do.

Although the beauty remains, residents have been violated and punished.  It doesn’t compare to the violence and death inflicted upon so many, but it’s just so damn sad.

Beautiful

Hyeres, France
Hyeres, France

Flowers are a big part of the beauty of the Mediterranean. Since the constant activity of this trip has kept me from posting every day, here’s a non-verbal look at some of what grows around here.

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Fort Grimaud, France
Rome
Eze, France
Aix-en-Provence
Aix-en-Provence, France
Rome - at the Forum
Rome – at the Forum
Bonifacio corsia
Bonifacio, Corsica

See what I mean? More “real” posts soon.

 

Harbors, Cathedrals, Markets and Lavendar UPDATED

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Harborside view of Marseilles and her cathedral

Marseille was a funky town once. Now it’s got a shiny harbor, some beautiful museums and broad vistas, a hugely diverse population and close to a million tourists per year – up from the 20,000 it claimed when we were there in the 1980’s.

On arrival we went almost at once to nearby Aix-en-Provence, and  its markets, lavender shops, cathedrals and history. (Even aerosol olive oil – see second pic.)   AIX Market

 

2015-06-14 10.56.02The wars are here too, as they always are in Europe – today in memory plaques for the “martyr’s of the Resistance.”  The story of those real participants is scary and moving and true.  There’s also a memorial to those who helped to liberate Aix.

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It was really hot in Marseilles so we took this tiny train on a one-hour circle up to the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde and back.
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And on the way, one more reminder of the continued ghost of WWII here – this tank was part of the liberation of Marseille and sits on a triangle of land among apartments and houses and a plain residential neighborhood. History doesn’t have to repeat itself – it’s still here.
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Whole Foods, Whole Paycheck, Whole Antivax, Holy Cow!

whole foods idealist. . . Whole Foods’ clientele are all about mindfulness and compassion… until they get to the parking lot. Then it’s war. As I pull up this morning, I see a pregnant lady on the crosswalk holding a baby and groceries. This driver swerves around her and honks. As he speeds off I catch his bumper sticker, which says ‘NAMASTE’. Poor lady didn’t even hear him approaching because he was driving a Prius. He crept up on her like a panther.    on The Huffington Post

You know it’s true.  I’ve asked many Whole Foods workers about the rude entitlement of so many of their customers and they roll their eyes and nod.  Now there are efforts to organize these workers, against major C-Suite opposition, and it won’t be pretty.

 It’s all starting to piss me off.  Between the company, its image and its customers, it’s easy to get angry.  I’m a Sixties product with all the baggage that that implies, including the right to organize, and basic kindness and respect from one person to another, but at my most granola I didn’t question the responsibility of public health, of immunization, first for me and later for my kids, and wasn’t predictable enough to produce this:

I talked to a public health official and asked him what’s the best way to anticipate where there might be higher than normal rates of vaccine noncompliance, and he said take a map and put a pin wherever there’s a Whole Foods. I sort of laughed, and he said, “No, really, I’m not joking.” It’s those communities with the Prius driving, composting, organic food-eating people.  Science journalist and MIT professor Seth Mnookin in a 2011 interview

So here I am, cranky and irritated after an emergency trip to one of the many Whole Foods in the Bay Area, astonished at the alleged vaccine/Whole Foods connection and up to my ears in fair trade, cruelty free, organic, shade-grown, beautifully displayed, hugely costly foods, vegetable prices determined partly by the cost of workers piling and re-piling them in perfect order (not that it’s not pretty, it just seems so….)

These are cruel and dangerous times.  We have substantial issues to confront.  We should be healthy and well-fed when we face down these crises but how did we get to a place where it is also a virtue to be smug and self-satisfied about being able to do that?

I will be a proud Progressive with my last breath, but please try to get those rude, cart-pushy, deli-line crashing, parking place stealing people to behave a little more socially conscious about the people in their immediate environment (um, your store),  oh Whole Foods, so the harmony you sell (see image at the top of this post) in your ads can emerge inside your stores, too.

From Our House to the White House: Seders and a Happy Passover

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In a few hours I go "off the grid" for a combination of two days of Passover (Thursday and Friday) and Shabbat on Saturday.  Then I'm back, but gone again next Wednesday and Thursday for the final days of this labor-intensive holiday.  It really is a trip – lots of cleaning and cooking and using different dishes and not eating anything with five grains, wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt (except for Matzoh which has to be made from one of them.   Special mustard, vinegar and all packaged foods need special "Kosher for Passover" labels.   I have written about this in other years so this year felt kind of "last year" as wondered what to say before going silent for so long.

Then, thanks to the always-ahead-of-the-curve City Council Candidate Jill Zimon, I learned this: there will be a White House Seder!  How cool is that?  I've always felt that the Seder and its tale of redemption from slavery was a universal story; one to which anyone with either a history of enslavement or a sense of justice could respond.  And now, the first African American president, himself a symbol of freedom and, hopefully, a more just America, has seized upon this universal story as a message of openness and unity. 
Listen to the Post's account:


In his letter, Obama called the story of
Jews' ascent from slavery to freedom in the Land of Israel as "among
the most powerful stories of suffering and redemption in human
history," accompanied by rituals and symbols that indicate "the beauty of freedom and the responsibility it entails."
He also said the holiday presented a message for all humankind. "As part of a larger global community, we all must work to ensure that our brothers and sisters of every race, religion, culture and nationality are free from bondage and repression, and are able to live in peace."

As Jill tweeted this morning, I to would give anything to be there – she wants to live-blog it.  I'd just like to see it in action.  Either way, it's an extra reminder not only of the freedom we celebrate but also of the gift of messengers who remind all of us – Jews and non-Jews, of the many treasured ways to honor and preserve that freedom together, whatever our history. Chag Sameach.

 

WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN’T EAT IN MY HOUSE?

Birthday_pack_1I just came from a beautiful, moving wedding that reminded me once again of everything I love about this observant Jewish life we are living.  It is a privilege to have the warmth and spiritual richness that it provides and I understand that more every day.  Sometimes though, even after nearly four years, the process is a pain.  I wrote this a couple of days ago and haven’t posted it because it’s so cranky; now as I recall the beauty of Jewish ritual, I can balance that grouchiness  with a gratitude for all I have gained.  So read it with that in mind.

I had a long conversation a couple of days ago with a close friend.  He wanted us to come to dinner, and when I explained that, because we eat only kosher food and use utensils that have only dealt with kosher food, it would be better if he came to us, it came as something of a shock.  All he wanted was to extend hospitality to us, and I had to refuse it.  A very troubling experience. 

I have had, and continue to have, a real sense of peace and meaning and connection since we’ve been living this life, and wouldn’t trade it for anything, but as you know, I’ve written plenty about my battle with keeping kosher. Initially romantic about the whole thing, I started to get angry when facing (as opposed to all the great cooking that goes on in this community) the inedible stuff that passes for kosher food on airplanes, and sometimes at conferences. 

Because I’ve only been living a really observant life for the past four years, it’s still anything but automatic.  Because I’ve only been living a really observant life for the past four years, I know what Pho tastes like, and ham sandwiches, and lobster.  And the great feeling of discovery when you wander into a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant and it’s just fabulous.  All gone now.  And most of the time, I’m fine with that.  But here are some things that sometimes continue to be difficult:

Continue reading WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN’T EAT IN MY HOUSE?

UNTIL PASSOVER PASSES OVER: HARD WORK AND TRUE MEANING

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I used to love Passover.  The politics of freedom, the story of courage and redemption, the miracle of the Red Sea and the great songs — all wonderful.  We had nursery school matzoh covers that the kids had made, lots of stories and family and friends around and a general great time.  Once each year.  And then the holiday was over.  There was no preparation beyond the cooking.   

But that was then.

Now that we are living our kosher, observant life, things are pretty different.  And exhausting.  In the first place, the holiday is two days long at each end with, I think, five days in between.  This year, it started Saturday night at sundown, with the first Seder (the word means "order" and it’s a ritual meal telling the Passover story).  There are services Sunday then many people have company for lunch.  We went home to crash because that night there is a second Seder!  This year, since Friday night is the beginning of the Sabbath, that means that from Friday night until Monday night we couldn’t use computers, read email, drive, turn lights on and off etc.  There are reasons for it; honoring the commandment to celebrate the liberation of the Jewish people is a wonderful privilege.  It’s just so much work!

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If you’re Orthodox you have to clean the house (well, we’d probably do a spring cleaning anyway) to get rid of any crumbs or other chometz (bread-related stuff). The toaster has to go (crumbs = chometz).  The coffee machine has to go (to be replaced by one that has used Kosher for Passover coffee only.)  You have to swap out all your dishes and pots.  I’m having artichokes on one of the meals I’m serving and just realized I have no ramekins to put the dip stuff into because they are used the rest of the year.  Gonna have to figure that one out….  And I haven’t even told you about all the food that’s not legit and how you need special spices labeled Kosher for Passover and they don’t make Passover curry powder or tarragon or even decent mustard.

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Anyway it’s a pain.  I began this post in a snit but now it’s three days later, the first days are over, everything is done and I feel better.  The last thing, the hanging pot rack, is covered by a sheet (so scenic – here it is.)  Here’s why:  all the non-Passover stuff has to either be isolated or out of the room.  It’s really tough, and heavy, to take all my fancy Calphalon pots off the racks and down to the basement so this is the solution I’ve come up with.  The other stuff not in the basement is in cabinets that are taped shut .  The remaining kitchen storage is jammed with Passover-ready tools and foods.  What’s not in there is piled on the counters because there’s no place else to put it.

I’m in a real work mode so it’s been doubly tough to pay respectful, thorough attention to this this year — only our second living in a kosher home as observant Jews.  But it’s done.  And now, I’ve just been struggling to get past the prep anxiety that was waking me up at night and into the holiday itself.  OH and not end up obsessing about where we’re invited for lunch and who’s coming to our house and….

Even so, I can still summon the thrill of remembering the remarkable past and recovery the Jewish people experienced – leaving Egypt and so many times since.  (if you don’t count that pesky Golden Calf thing.)  And remember that it’s our tradition to honor freedom and tell the story every year – like Camelot.

Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot.

Even more than Arthur’s though, our story  is informed with a moral depth that can be obscured by all this crazy kitchen-cleaning.  Think of the Ten Commandments – the second time they appear. 

 “‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord
your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your
daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or
your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within
your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as
well as you. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave [3] in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

That’s how it gets me.  At each Seder, Saturday and Sunday nights, we read the story of the abuses against the Jews and the miraculous escape – and are reminded that, as we deal with others, we must never forget that we once were slaves too – particularly in our dealings with those who work for or serve us.  Beyond that, concern for others informs the entire service.  This appears near the beginning:

This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land
of Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are needy,
come and partake of the Pascal lamb. Now we are here; next year may we
be in the Land of Israel. Now we are slaves; next year may we be free
men. 
You could, of course, complain about the "free men" phrase but that was thousands of years ago, and the sentiment, in my view, transcends gender.

So there you have it.  It is an honor to live with such values and messages even though, my friends tell me, the aggravation arrives every year, with the Seder.   Like so many parts of this still-new life we are living, there’s much asked of us, not only spiritually but also logistically.  But, like so many parts of this still-new life we are living, what emerges amid the crankiness is a sense of pride, and meaning, and peace.

*Thanks to my friend Aliza for this insight – she is a true thinker and teacher.

IN JERUSALEM: A CHILD AT THE WALL AND OTHERS IN SCHOOL

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We leave Jerusalem for the airport in two hours and I don’t even know if it’s worth going to sleep.  It’s almost midnight here and and cab is coming at 2 AM.  So much has happened that I’ve been too tired to write most of it down.  I guess I’d better chronicle it somehow though. 

This was one of my favorite moments of our trip.  It’s almost dawn at the  Kotel (Western Wall of the old Temple) and a young boy and his father prepare for morning prayers.  This day is the first that he will "lay tefillin "– wear the special prayer objects on his arm and forehead to follow the commandments by placing reminders on the arm and "between thine eyes" – on his forehead.  They’ve chosen to celebrate this very significant pre-Bar Mitzvah moment in the early morning – a sunrise service where the Amidah – a critical prayer – is recited just as the dawn arrives.  A loving and very impressive family of four girls, two boys and two remarkable parents, they all joined to offer moral support and presence to someone they love as he takes this first step to what I guess you’d call "religious adulthood." 

I know the photo is blurry but I don’t like to show faces of other people’s families — they deserve their privacy.  I just want you to know how lovely it was.  An animated and intelligent young man, his father at his side – his sisters, mom, cousins, friend – and a couple of us — watching him make his way.  I told his mom, whom I very much admire, that it was a privilege to be there.  Probably sounds like hogwash but it isn’t – watching all this take place as the sun rose to illuminate us all was a true blessing. 

Of course we couldn’t watch everything because much of the ceremony took place on the "men’s side" of the mehitza (divider between men and women) where we weren’t allowed to be.   We peeked through fence dividers though, so we did get to see a bit.  I’ve been living a fairly observant, Orthodox life for a couple of years now, moving forward month by month, holiday by holiday, and I continue to be amazed at the levels of intolerance I manifested before I learned about observant life from the inside.  Days like this one remind me of how much of the world we can’t judge without living it – or at least being willing to come along as others do.  This day was a perfect example of that.   

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That same day, a cousin of the family at the Kotel invited me to visit the school her kids attend – K-8 – near the town of Efrat, on the grounds of a kibbutz called Rosh Tzurim.   
Founded by an amazing woman named Noah Mandelbaum, it began as an effort to accommodate a single Downs child by mainstreaming him, along with a special teacher, in a "regular" classroom.  It was so successful that within months she had 4, then 6, then finally, so many  kids that she launched a school where such mainstreaming would be policy.  This photo shows the school in action.  There are many classrooms for Downs, autistic and other developmentally affected kids study alongside the rest of the class.  I didn’t want to take photos there and distract them.  In this nursery class is another phase of the program.  The young woman whose back is to us is fairly seriously compromised but she is permanent staff in the classroom and is learning to be a preschool aide able to get a job and work outside the school.  That smiling girl in the blue sweater is today’s "guest" – another child with serious developmental issues who will work in the classroom for the day.  The program helps these young people find a place of their own in the world – and teach all the kids at Reshit School the value of every human person.

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This is Noah, the school’s founder.  Surrounding her is part of the farm where every child – "normal" and otherwise, works each day – together.  You can see the colors, the free-form murals – all the stuff that reminds me of schools we all dreamed of in the 60s.  In many ways the tone of this school is similar – but this is a real "put your money where your mouth is" environment.  Parents have to believe that the things their kids learn here are more important than super-competitive environments where the only standard is how far their children are from the next step on the ladder.  Learning to be moral, caring human beings is an actual mission here.

The kids are pretty free (it’s kind of Summerhillish), across ability spectrum, and the curriculum is designed to allow each to learn in her own style at her own speed.  When I asked Noah about kids like mine, who had needed and appreciated structure, knowing what was going to come next, her reply was startling in its good sense.  Basically – and I’m paraphrasing here – the idea is that "for some kids, especially more intelligent ones, that may be true.  But for kids with less ability it is especially important that they learn to live without an institutional structure every minute because the world doesn’t have that kind of structure – and the world is where they will have to live." By the way, after years of fighting with the educational establishment, Reshit has been designated a model and its efforts to mainstream all kinds of kids will be emulated in schools throughout the country.

I have more to write – about exploring ancient tunnels under old Jerusalem and more – but this is enough for now.  I’ll try to have the rest in a day or two.