Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My annual first winter kvetch

Environment Canada meteorologist René Héroux said the unusual nature of the storm made it difficult for forecasters to predict accurately. He said forecasters follow a numerical model to predict weather patterns, but it seriously underestimated the amount of snow.

"In a way, it was a very unusual weather system. They had rain in eastern Quebec — Gaspé, Rimouski and so on — and snow in the west. Usually, it's the other way around," said Héroux."Forecasting is not an exact science, so sometimes those things happen. It's pretty rare, but it happens."

yeah right...

Email this morning to mom in Florida since last week:

Dear Mom,

A brief dispatch to put a smile on your tanned and sweaty face... Wouldn't you know - it snows here in Montreal in the winter. Spent 30 minutes digging out last night and another 30 this morning. It wouldn't have been so bad if the weatherman (I would say 'weatherperson' but in this case the flub was so glaring it could have only been a man) had predicted the 15-20 cms we got instead of 2-4 cms. I mean with the millions and millions they spend on the science you'd think they'd come within 50% of their target and not miss it by 90%. Caught the overpaid crack Montreal snow removal squad completely by surprise, which I suppose, given past experience with them, is not very surprising. I left home at 7:38 this morning and arrived at work (10 kms) at 9:00 on the dot. The agenda for my day? Survey the buildings to make sure that the huge snowdrifts which typically accumulate into dangerous rooftop canopies that threaten to come thudding down seven storeys onto pedestrian heads are safely removed.

The kids had their ears glued to the radio this morning for the school cancellations. Only the shee-shee $20,000 a year Westmount private schools were announcing a 'snow day' (Miss Edgar's, The Study). Of course - the overpaid teachers and administrators should be the ones to get the day off. Enjoy the beach,
Love Glen
Comes mom's answer:
My face is not tanned, I have given up sitting in the sun, I do not sweat and my heat is on and on and on. It is 3 Celsius this morning. I'll tell you what I do do, however, reading about you shovelling heavy snow. I palpitate. The ventricles and the auricles are going pa-boom, pa-boom, glub, glub. I do not think shovelling snow is a great activity for a slightly overweight Jewish boy in his mid-forties who never does any other exercise except drive his kids around the city to their extra-curricular activities. Your two feet (one for the brake, one for the gas pedal) may be in great shape. Try getting rid of the snow by kicking it! Yes, I'm worried.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Imagining Montreal

Really enjoyable event last night at the Bain Saint-Michel. Looked like a full house (about 100?). Kudos to Marianne Ackerman and the folks at Infinitheatre (Guy Sprung) for the effort. Excerpts from about two dozen works were read by about a dozen or so performers sitting on stage as if gathered pell-mell at a café or a bar. Weaving the texts together from disparate works of fiction could be sticky business but I think Marianne did an admirable job of bringing out certain themes (Montreal's weather, seasons and languages, being three of the most obvious) and even a subtle narrative arc that culminated in the 1995 referendum, which appears to be the defining event for anglo Montreal writers producing work in the early 21st century. There were stronger and weaker readers, some choosing to play it straight with the texts while others were more animated. Fortunately, the excerpt from The Rent Collector was read by Anna Furstenberg who was one of the more skilled readers. I was left with the impression that the excerpts chosen leaned to the side of a romantic view of the city and its people (young people, artists/writers, the Plateau/Mile-End), as opposed to the caustic or humorous. The excerpt read from TRC came near the end, got a laugh, which pleased me, and also was a denouement of sorts, since it talked about surviving the referendum and the mysterious glue that keeps this disjointed city together. At the end Guy Sprung said that there will be other evenings like this and I hope so. Visuals might be a nice addition to future events.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What Kind of People Can you Love

My daughter Sidney asks the immortal question in rhyme, what if Ernie and Bert are gay?

By Sidney Black-Rotchin

"What kind of people can you love?"
Grover has asked.
The answer is "Any kind"
(if true intentions are masked).

"What kind of people CAN'T you love?"
I always thought.
The answer is "Any kind"
(it's what we've been taught).

People like to point fingers,
and Sesame Street will pay.
For making us believe
that Bert and Ernie are gay.

To me it doesn't matter
if Ernie's just Bert's buddy.
Questioning their preferences
seems really sort of nutty.

After all, they're only puppets,
two dolls that may like boys.
But maybe there's something more to this
than playing with children's toys.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Majors publishers are out of touch

The message: a healthy literature needs small risk-taking presses... read.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Yann Martel speaks

November being Jewish Book Month in Montreal I usually wake from my yearlong slumber to participate in a literary event or two. If you happen to be near these parts this week join me at the Jewish Public Library on Thursday, November 18th at 7:30 to hear Yann Martel speak on his new novel. More here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ode to the city we love

PRESS RELEASE November 15, 2010
21st Century Montreal in Fiction
A collaboration between Infinitheatre and the on-line arts magazine Rover, 21st Century Montreal in Fiction brings together some of Montreal’s best actors for a dramatic reading of excerpts from new Montreal fiction. A one-night-only event to be held Sunday, November 28 at the Bain St. Michel, 5300 St. Dominique Street. 5-7 pm.

City of ice and tropical summers, cafés, alleys, parties. The dance of languages. Decadence, rebirth, romance. These are some of the themes that emerge from some two dozen novels and story collections with Montreal as their setting, published since 2000.

Ranging from Heather O’Neill’s poignant debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals to just-published novels by Gail Scott and David Homel, these slices of new fiction have been woven together to tell their own story: a city beset by extreme weather, traumatized by but ultimately triumphing over politics. In the new millennium, Montreal has reinvented itself - with help from the city’s writers.

“When we started out to look at new novels set here, I imagined finding five or six,” says project director Marianne Ackerman. “Instead we quickly passed the two dozen mark, and I fully expect to unearth more titles. Clearly, Montreal is enjoying some kind of literary renaissance. It’s an inspiring city, a destination for talents from all over.”

I can hear the sound of keyboards clicking in different rooms all over the city, the echo of my friends typing steadily in sparsely decorated apartments, overflowing bookshelves and furniture hauled in off the street. ... I love these people and think of them often, up late, writing away, all over town. – from Walkups, by Lance Blomgren

Authors include: Claire Holden Rothman, Nairne Holtz, Edward O. Phillips, Matthew Fox, Marianne Ackerman, J.R. Carpenter, Elise Moser, Ami Sands Brodoff, Ann Charney, Zoe Whittall, Peter Dubé, Rawi Hage, Claude Lalumière, Heather O’Neill, Louis Rastelli, Gina Roitman, Linda Leith, Gail Scott, Neil Smith, Lance Blomgren, Glen Rotchin, Ibi Kaslik, David Homel. Texts assembled by Marianne Ackerman & Megan Stewart.

Don’t miss this unique gathering of strong voices bringing great writing to life. 5 – 7 pm on Sunday, November 28. Admission is pay-what-you-can. Refreshments will be served. Watch for further details on the Rover, www.roverarts.com

For more information about 21st Century Montreal in Fiction, contact Marianne Ackerman at 514-278-5038 or Megan Stewart at 514-802-5320.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Menage à trois; iPad, iPhone and i

When the other woman is your iPad. Something really disturbing here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Canada Reads 2011

Vote for one or more of your favourite novels of the past ten years. Just like Warren Litwin did. The Rent Collector is sprinting to the October 25th deadline!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

2010 Booker

A deserving winner - Mazel Tov!

And Adam Gopnick has this season's last word on literary prizes.

Book review of interest

Most people, however they respond to polls, do not want to live in a truly just or fair society. They don't believe in the mythical level playing-field. What they want is a playing-field that can be tilted in their favour. Yes, the master graph shows the U.S. climbing off the chart as one of the most unequal countries in the world and the one with the greatest health and social problems. And Cuba is a good model for what can be done in terms of combining acceptable living standards with a sustainable economy. But people are willing to risk their lives to escape Cuba for a chance to live in the U.S., and not the other way around.

Social and economic equality may be better for everybody, we just don't want it. Read the rest.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A final gesture of goodbye to Facebook

I mention in my post below that leaving Facebook felt a little bit like a suicide. It then occurred to me that, a final gesture was appropriate, but how and where? The answer: On Facebook of course. So I created a group called "Farewell Facebook" where people leaving Facebook can put farewell notes. Turns out I'm not the only one with the idea. Search 'farewell facebook' or variations thereof, and you will find a half dozen or more such groups. Yeah, I know, it's somewhat ironic to create a group that effectively can not have members. On the other hand, it may be the truest facebook group of them all, in a digital world where everything is ironic, where we have 'friends' that are not really friends, 'poke' without really poking, 'support causes' without really supporting causes, 'join groups' without really joining groups, and 'send gifts' without really sending anything at all.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Deactivated and free

Last night a little voice inside me said, "Deactivate your Facebook account." The voice sounded like he meant it. A voice like the one that commanded father Abraham, "lech lecha me'artsecha umimoladetecha umibeyt avicha - Go leave your land, your kin and your father's house!" So I did. And today I'm feeling strangely relieved. I was never a Facebook fanatic. Not one of those for whom Facebook is a controlling force in my life. I might have checked my page a few times a week on average over the last three years, and hardly ever updated my 'status'. In truth, the impulse to deactivate may have been topped off by an article I'd just read in Newsweek about The Social Network, the new Aaron Sorkin movie about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook. The piece talks about Facebook as an electronic document of our collective loneliness. And suddenly I was feeling soiled: At worst, an accomplice to a massive fraud, unwitting participant in a Ponzi scheme that has sucked in half a billion other suckers, and at best, a very sad, lonely and unproductive person. The obvious suddenly occurred to me: Facebook is a complete waste of my precious time. The process of deactivation was oddly complicated, well, not really complicated, just bothersome. There were moments of trepidation, as if by deactivation, I was contemplating a type of suicide. How will my 'friends' and loved ones feel? Will they know that I have left this digital world, or will I just not be there when they seek me out? Should I be writing a farewell note? Who will miss me, and worse, who won't even notice? Facebook does not let you go easily. Enlarged pictures of your 'friends' appear at the top of your screen, smiling faces and underneath "So and So will miss you". I was almost choked up. And then, to test your resolve further you must provide a reason for your departure with a drop-down menu to help you out. When I tried to deactivate without a reason a red flag appeared. We will not let you leave without an explanation. I thought, hell, who the f*ck do you think you are to require a reason? I'm a free man. I can go whenever I want. I got angry. Then I felt kind of sorry for Facebook. Like she was a pathetic girlfriend pleading with me not to break-up with her, and demanding desperately an explanation, so we could part company with peace of mind. Afterward, there are the "are you sure" windows which you have to okay, in case you are feeling remorseful for 'breaking up'. Finally, you get messages from Facebook in your email inbox telling you that you can always log back in at any time using your old password and restart exactly where you left off. There's something creepy and stalker-ish about this. In order to permanently erase your presence a request must be made to an unseen higher authority. Permission must be granted. Possibly related, after doing the deed last night, I had a nightmare. In my dream I was out having a blissful dinner with my wife. The next moment I am walking on Chabanel, the place is deserted and the huge industrial buildings that we administrate are skeletal frames, as if a nuclear wind had blown through the neighbourhood leaving rubble, bent metal, and mounds of shattered glass. It is a scene of apocalyptic horror. Utter destruction, devastation and waste. I am lost, calling out, wondering what happened, looking for an explanation, fearing for my livelihood. And then a disembodied voice behind me says, "Didn't you feel the earthquake?" I am dumbfounded. I wake up.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson said that his 2006 novel Kalooki Nights was his most Jewish novel. It was possibly the most Jewish novel ever written, the author claimed. Well I'm here to tell you that he was wrong. Possibly the most Jewish novel ever written was Jacobson's 1999 autobiographical bildungsroman The Mighty Walzer. A book he calls his "history of embarrassments," it's also possibly one of the funniest, most insightful and touching Jewish novels ever written. Jacobson showed with Kalooki Nights that he, and Jews, have a thing for games (kalooki is a card game akin to gin rummy). As a tribe, we have shown a talent for other games too, like chess for instance - according to one source, almost half of the all-time greatest chess players have been Jewish or of Jewish decent (think Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fisher). In the early decades of the 20th century, it could be argued that ping-pong was the Jewish game. If you don't believe me look up the name Viktor Barna. Given the cultural and religious emphasis we place on education, Jews excelling at thinking games is not hard to understand. But a game in which players use rubber-coated paddles to slap a small white ball back and forth across a table? Although I can't explain it myself, I can remember the ping-pong table we had in our basement. And we were by no means the only family in our predominantly Jewish neighbourhood to have one. We had a large basement that was divided into two rooms. One side was for ping-pong and hockey slapshots. The other side held a full-sized snooker table. It was an unspoken understanding among my friends and me that the billiard side was reserved for the grown-ups. We spent hours on the other side playing impromptu ping-pong tournaments. And once, I recall that I spent an entire afternoon at my best friend's house around the corner batting the ball back and forth on his ping-pong table in an attempt to establish a new world record for the longest unbroken ralleye (a world record had to exist.) Ping-pong was still a fixture of a 1970s boyhood, and it's a measure of the game's importance, not merely recreationally but also culturally, that the disappearance of those tables from home basements coincides with the advent of revolutionary technology; the pock-pock of wooden paddle and plastic ball replaced by the bleep-bleep of dials and luminescent dashes on a black screen, and the era of home computing was upon us. I may have been born a generation after Howard Jacobson, but I 'get' his visceral connection to the game. In his brilliantly layered exposition of its various facets, ping-pong, which he says "suffered from too modest a conception of itself," becomes the perfect metaphor for a withdrawn, sexually repressed, working-class Jewish kid's struggle for both social and self-acceptance in 1950s Manchester, England. Oliver Walzer discovers early on that he doesn't possess many talents, but one that he does have involves batting a ball against a wall using a copy of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His other talent, if one can call it a talent, is to make paper dolls out of pictures of his female family members and jack-off to them in the bathroom. As disturbing as this sounds, Jacobson succeeds in making it seem borderline charming. And that's his game as an author, his (Jewish) talent, the ability to perform unlikely literary feats with grace on a tightrope strung fifty feet in the air between two poles; anxiety and hilarity. Oliver's first non self-inflicted sexual encounter is with the always-eager-to-please Sabine Weinberger, and even that plays out like a ping-pong match, with Oliver lying on one side of her and his buddy Sheeny Waxman on the other. But it's ping-pong playing Lorna Peachley and her 'moving parts' that Oliver genuinely fancies. His love is true, so much so that he must continually lose to her in matches. Outside the game, Oliver helps his father make a living selling 'swag' to 'punters', but bemoans that everything is becoming 'tsatskes' and worse, 'machareikes', "that moral infection of triviality to which both sides of my family had always been susceptible." (If you're unfamiliar with Yiddish terms a copy Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish will come in handy). At one point Oliver complains that in spite of winning trophies and being named to represent Britain at international table tennis tournaments, his anti-Semitic headmaster neglects to announce his accomplishments publicly at school assemblies. Echoing this situation is Jacobson, who, in spite of his literary accomplishments, has failed to gain the international recognition he so richly deserves as a major novelist. Hopefully this will all change with a Booker Prize this year. His latest novel The Finkler Question is a finalist. I still can not fathom how The Mighty Walzer was ever missed. It is quite simply a coming-of-age masterpiece.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Creating Jewish culture and community from the street up

It's a tradition at my synagogue that on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, before Minchah and the reading of Jonah, we hear a guest speaker. We've had many very interesting people come over the years, often connected to the synagogue, but sometimes not. Jewish artists and filmmakers, scholars and activists, invited to speak on a relevant topic. It rarely fails to inspire and enlighten and this year was no exception. The recently appointed Executive Director of Montreal's Federation CJA, Andres Spekoiny provided an overview of the challenges and prospects for worldwide Jewry. A portrait of contemporary Jews was sketched and their relationship to current community structures and services. Spekoiny spoke of most North American communities having been built on a 19th century notion of identity. He proposed that the evolution of contemporary Jewish identities, particularly among the current and next generation of young Jews, demands that modern communities must adjust. For generations, (arguably since the 60s) the Jewish community has been split and Jewish identity defined as an either/or proposition, you were either for or against Israel, either religious or secular etc. The one unifying principle of Jewish identity for the last half century has been the responsibility to maintain some semblance of Jewish identity in order to deny Hitler a posthumous victory. But this, Spekoiny pointed out, is a negative identity. It does not characterize living Jewishly as worthy of embrace on its value and merits as a life-enriching, meaningful endeavour. Our rabbi told the famous story about Rabbi Carlbach and the times he went to speak to a class. He would ask the students, What are you? One student would say, I'm a Muslim. Another, I'm a Catholic. Another, I'm a Protestant. Another, I'm a Hindu. And one student would say, I'm a human being. This student, Carlbach would say, he knew was the Jew. Judaism, Andres Spekoiny said, taught humanity what it meant to be a human being. And yet we have failed to draw the connection for our youth. The radicals to the left and right have defined the public face of Judaism. What has been missing is a middle ground. Young Jews, he said, do not respond to the top down approach of earlier times. Their identities do not fall under overarching categories ie. Zionist or Liberal or Conservative or Socialist or feminist or religious or secular. There is no longer an 'ism' that guides all aspects of their life. Rather the orientation and dynamic of today's generation is increasingly bottom up. Young Jews have a wider self-definition and pick and choose the way they define themselves as Jews, culturally, politically, socially and religiously. The burgeoning social media has had a tremendous impact and will continue to do so. What we see is a greater potential for grassroots movements and the creation of micro-communities. The question is how will the established community respond and nurture the demands of the next generation. One thing that has always been certain: Young Jews are smart, creative and curious. Not only are they rejecting the standard framework, but they are also starting to take ownership of their direction as Jews in earnest. The exciting aspect of the changes taking place is that there is still a healthy appetite for Jewish culture and spiritual practice. New forms of expression are springing up all over North America, both online and on the street. We've seen the renaissance of Jewish fiction with writers like JS Foer, Nicole Krauss, Sam Lipsyte, Nathan Englander, Gary Shteyngart, David Bezmozgis. New websites like Heeb, Jewcy and Zeek. Exciting new musical artists like Matisyahu and Montreal's own So-Called and Jewgrass performer Adam Stotland (the inset picture above is taken from his new album entitled 'Ma'agal', meaning circle). Our city has just had our first ever Jewish Music Festival. Montreal has also seen the creation of a number of new groups that cater to younger, unaffiliated Jews such as the Ghetto Shul and the Mile-End Havura. On this blog I have linked to Shtetl on the Shortwave, a bi-monthy radio show on CKUT 90.3 FM hosted by Tamara Kramer, which has a brand new website. Even if you can't tune in to Tamara's show live, be sure to download the podcast. There's no telling where things are headed, but it seems that the community, by offering to fund and support these initiatives, appears to be finally getting the message.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Chestnut tree behind 263-265 Prinsengracht

“Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year.” - Anne Frank

This past August 23rd, 5 days after our family visited the Annex in Amsterdam where the Frank family hid for two years, the chestnut tree that Anne could see from her window and symbolized hope and the possibility of new beginnings, fell down.
Now a sapling grown from the tree is coming to Montreal to be planted outside our city's Holocaust Memorial Centre, at a ceremony this coming Monday, September 27th at 5:30. What an inspired and inspiring event. Eleven other saplings from the tree will be planted in the US. Still, one wonders why saplings have not been grown for decades and planted all around the world.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

World Cup Wishes by Eshkol Nevo

When we were in Israel recently we watched a 'reality' tv show called "Mehubarim," ('Connections'). It carries a tag line that translates as something like "five men exposed". The promo showed men lined up at urinals, doing their business, when suddenly the bathroom walls are pulled away and they are standing 'exposed' in broad daylight in the middle of a busy downtown street, passing ladies, hands to their mouth, giggle with embarrassment. The show features videos taken by a group of men from very divergent backgrounds candidly sharing the trials and tribulations of their daily lives. One participant is an eighteen year old who tells of living on the street after he was thrown out of his religious home by his father for, well, doing what most North American teenagers do, smoking, drinking, having sex etc. Another story follows a single dad raising two kids and the mayhem that ensues, both at home and in his dating life. If this show is any indication, Israel is going through a male identity crisis. The tv show's depiction of the sensitive male would have been unimaginable just twenty years ago. Israel is a society that has prided itself on its machismo, from the rejection of the 'weak Jew' of the Holocaust that attended the founding of the modern state in 1948, to the establishment of military service as the very core of the new country, not just as a political and strategic necessity, but as a social phenomenon. In recent years, beginning with Israel's participation in the 'unpopular' (and unwinnable) 1982 war in Lebanon, and continuing through the military operations in the West Bank and Gaza during the Intifadas, service in the military has become questioned among young Israelis, and the role the institution has traditionally played as an agent of social integration and pride among men has been eroded. Eshkol Nevo, in his new novel, makes mention of the seminal Israeli film Late Summer Blues (1987) about a group of high-school graduates on the eve of their conscription. Whereas for earlier generations of young Israeli men military induction would have been a moment embraced, even celebrated, as a significant rite of passage, the cohort in the film is depicted enduring personal conflict, uncertainty and dread. The end of their innocence is shaped by the senseless death of one of the friends in an army training accident. The film is mentioned, one imagines, because it was probably important to the young Nevo when he was growing up (he was sixteen when the movie came out, the same age as the kids in it). It also signals that this novel, about a group of four buddies from Haifa, aims to explore the meaning of friendship and identity for the generation of young men that came of age in the post Lebanon War era. The premise is simple. Four soccer-loving friends since high-school agree to write down three secret wishes which will be revealed at the final of the next World Cup in four years time (2002). The idea is to see how close each has come to achieving his wish during the intervening years. From the outset the reader understands that we are reading a manuscript written and narrated by one of the friends Yuval Freed, and that it has been edited by another friend, Yoav Alimi aka 'Churchill'. Part of the mystery is to find out what happened to Freed, and why Churchill is responsible for editing his book. The two other friends are Amichai and Ofir. Pervading the narrative is another question; how much is true and how much made-up. Off the bat Churchill relates that he is 'ridiculed' in the text, claims that the book is riddled with 'factual inaccuracies', but out of loyalty to his friend, has resisted making changes. The story revolves around an axis of loves and heartaches, loyalties and betrayals. Yuval's charismatic best friend Churchill has stolen away Ya'ara, the only girl Yuval knows that he will ever truly love. Nevo's depiction of Yuval's suffering is heartwrenching. After Churchill's infidelity, Ya'ara briefly returns to Yuval to seek solace. They make passionate love and Yuval writes, "The morning after that night, we both knew there would never be another one like it. That I could never hurt her as she needed to be hurt without faking it, and even though she might want to believe that she could, the truth was that she couldn't live more than a few hours with the unconditional love that I have to give." Misfortune is visited upon the other friends too. Ofir has a nervous breakdown, and routine plastic surgery on Amichai's wife Ilana goes tragically wrong. The friends grow and change, move apart and come together again. When it seems that all is lost and what remains of the friends' wishes is merely the remnant of naive fantasies and dashed hopes, it is the story itself that offers the possibility of salvation. With this second novel Nevo is well on his way to becoming Israel's next major novelist. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Avner Mandelman

I was pleasantly surprised to see the name Avner Mandelman on this year's Giller Prize longlist for his debut novel The Debba. Mandelman is one of those super-talented cyborg-like hybrid beings who has somehow achieved the rare combination of success in a variety of seemingly divergent fields including business and the arts. A native of Israel who lives in Toronto, Mandelman has served in the Israeli air force, founded a successful financial firm, written a newspaper column as well as a book on investment, and published award-winning short fiction. I loved his first two collections of stories called "Cuckoo" and "Talking to the Enemy" (my description of one of his stories as "Sholem Aleichem writes Peyton Place on speed" from my Gazette review was quoted on the back cover of the US edition.) He flew under the radar of the Canadian literary cogniscenti for many years, while quietly winning prizes in the Jewish literary world (Montreal's J.I. Segal Prize among them) and in the US (a Pushcart). At a talk he gave at the Jewish Public Library, I memorably heard Mandelman advise young writers to think about everything you know (the old adage about writing) and then write the complete opposite. I bumped into Avner at the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Award ceremony cocktail the year my novel was shortlisted in 2006, immediately recognizing him and giddily introducing myself. I told him how much I admired his short fiction. Others must have been wondering who this mysterious giant of a man was (he's six foot six). As I expected at the time, one day everyone will know.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Thought for International Literacy Day

We love to read novels because no one ever really dies in a novel.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

25 Days in August: Diary of a Family's Journey in the Holyland


DAY 14 - Thursday
Caesarea or 'Qisarya' in Hebrew is about 30 kms north of Tel-Aviv, about half way to Haifa. From Jerusalem it's about 90 kms, but it feels like it takes longer since you've got to drive to Tel-Aviv and the road tends to get snarled with traffic and periodic stoplights after you exit the fast four-lane highway "1" between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv to take route 4 north through a series of towns and Tel-Aviv suburbs. The most impressive of those communities is Ra'anana, about 20 kms north of Tel-Aviv, which gives one the impression of Boca Raton. I counted not less than twenty construction cranes for luxury apartment complexes going up, and there were the tell-tale terracotta roofs of sprawling upscale housing communities. It seems to be the community of choice for North Americans and apparently has a country club. We also noted a strong high-tech presence in Ra'anana, large office buildings with IBM and SAP emblazoned on them visible from the highway. The consensus about Qisarya is that it is not as impressive as Beit She'an, in terms of ruins, but the coastal setting is spectacular. Actually, I was quite disappointed. While Beit She'an is exquisitely preserved, Qisarya, which was once one of the Meditteranean Sea's most important port cities, has suffered for milennia. Built by Herod the Great with an amphitheatre, temples and bathhouses, as well as a hippodrome where thousands watched chariot races, the city was conquered and occupied and destroyed and re-built over and over and over again. There is evidence of Roman, Byzantine, Moslem, and Crusader presence. But perhaps the most devastating destruction has been the elements; the salty air and crashing waves, which have pocked and crumbled the remaining stonework. The natural conditions of Beit Shean were more favourable to preservation. One other aspect disappointed - Qisarya is very much being promoted as a popular tourist destination so there are art galleries, and restaurants and stores on the site. The offices of the Qisarya Development Corporation (founded by Edmond de Rothchild who dreamed of developing the city) are on the site as well. We expected to be able to spend the entire day at the archaeological site since a public beach was advertised, but found that it was closed. So after a lunch eaten among the ruins, we drove 5 minutes to the public beach in town. The consensus is that it rates highly, one of the better beaches we've visited. No crowd. Clean water. Huge beach. Pale, fine sand that gradually slopes into the water. No rocks. Where it fell short was that the beach was littered, and there were no public facilities at all - every other beach we've been to had, lifeguard, changing facilities, toilets, showers, drinking water fountains etc.

DAY 15 - Friday
The fourteen year old decided to take the day off, staying home to hang out with the sixteen year old (should I be worried?). The rest of us decided that we didn't give Tel-Aviv enough of a chance the first time around so back we went, in spite of the heat. Bathing trunks were brought along just in case we got desperate. We had no real idea about where we wanted to go and ended up at Shuk HaCarmel. Let me just say that I would take Tel-Aviv's market over Jersualem's any erev Shabbos of the week (erev Shabbos of the month?). It's cleaner, more presentable, significantly larger, and according to the eleven year old, a lot less smelly. The challah and sugar-glazed danish stalls are open but don't seem to have the same hive-like attraction to wasps. I may be imagining this but the fruits and veggies seem fresher, the throngs somehow calmer and more easygoing (incidentally Shuk HaCarmel was just as crowded, maybe even more crowded than Machane Yehuda). In a word, the Shuk HaCarmel experience just felt more civilized, especially since, once you've wound your way through it, you can find your way onto Nachlat Binyamin an adjacent pedestrian walkway with hundreds of artists and craftspeople displaying and selling their wares. The artists in Jerusalem sell almost exclusively to tourists and their designs and products reflect their market. Their product tends to be cliched and souvenir-ish; Jerusalem cityscapes and skylines, portraits of hasidic Jews, and other objects to instill piety or ward off the 'Evil Eye'. The artists in Nachlat Binyamin feel more legitimate. Selling to tourists and locals alike, what they offer has wider variety and is more interesting and creative. Tel-Aviv is a more interesting, more creative, more tolerant, and as the eleven year old remarked feels safer than Jerusalem. Granted this may be because she now sees every payas-and-beard-wearing male as a potential attacker. But I also think she senses what I and the wife do: Tel-Aviv is just a cooler, more energized and exciting place. People seem more laid back and less judgmental. Unlike Jerusalem, they also care about their appearance and style. From Nachlat Biyamin we walked up Sheinkin Street, which has all kinds of fashion boutiques, including many familiar American and European brands like Diesel and Aldo. Our real reason for traipsing up Sheinkin was to make a pilgrimage to Cafe Tamar. The wife had been telling the eleven year old about this legendary meeting place of authors, poets, musicians and artists that dates back to before statehood. A photo was taken, but the eleven year old was too shy to go inside and wasn't at all impressed with her namesake cafe. She described the scruffy customers drinking and smoking under the canopy outside as "washed-out druggie failures." I haven't a clue what else she might have expected. From there we went back to our now favourite restaurant in Tel-Aviv 'Yosveta' (the same place we lunched the last time) on the beach for amazing smoothie fruit drinks and American helpings of pasta and vegetarian sandwiches that rival Montreal's Cafe Santropol. Finally, the heat was too much and we decided to give the beach one last chance, at least the wife and five year old gave it another chance. The eleven year old and I found a shady seat along Shlomo "Cheech" Lahit Promenade where we could stand bikini-watch. They apparently don't make one piece bathing suits in Tel-Aviv, or have never heard of them, because no matter the age, shape or size, every girl, woman and grandmother was wearing a two-piece. Which either means there's a great opportunity here for a bathing suit manufacturer, or the women here have a ridiculously inflated view of themselves. Then again, the view was, for the most part, pretty good as fas as I was concerned. According to the bathers the water was super clean this time, giving credence to the report about our last experience being an aberration because of an offshore ship dumping garbage. As head judge of our 'favourite places to swim in Israel' committee the five year old has officially bumped Tel-Aviv's ranking to number three ahead of Qisariya (but behind Nitsanim and Ein Gedi) since the facilities are superior and the beach just as nice.

DAY 16 - Shabbat
I've decided to take my day of rest today on Shabbat, for a change. A day to stop and reflect. The wife and fourteen year old have gone to the Arab market in the old city to shop for tchotchkes: the Arab market being the only place to shop for tchotchkes in Jerusalem on Shabbat. The rest of us are hanging around the apartment. The sun is shining as usual, not a cloud in the sky, but the air feels slightly fresher today. The sixteen year old and her boyfriend are hunched over the living room table scattered with little plastic mosaic-like tiles with letters on them. Occasionally one or the other announces 'Peel!' They're playing a game called 'Bananagram' which is a combination of Scrabble and Dominoes and apparently de rigeur in every Shabbat observant home in Jerusalem. Listen closely and you may hear "Peel!" shouted triumphantly (it denotes some sort of spelling victory) in every quarter of the holy city, which is a bit funny when you think about it since in Hebrew peel means elephant. But I am not thinking about elephants or bananas. I am thinking of expectations, the ones I had in coming here, the ones I have in being here, and the ones I will have when I leave. The wife and I have continually talked about our respective expectations, and how well we're faring relative to them. If nothing else, this city, this country is all about expectations, and its opposite disappointments. In the modern art collection at the Israel Museum you find the surrealist artist Rene Magritte's famous 1959 painting called 'The Castle of the Pyrenees'. The painting depicts a massive gray boulder surrounded by clouds hovering in the air over rolling waves. On top of the boulder stands a non-descript medieval castle. The boulder defies gravity mid-air while the frothing, crashing waves beneath it articulate the very force threatening to drag it down. It is a dreamscape. Physically impossible, and by virtue of its impossibility suggesting the physical reality to which we terrestrial beings are bound. The boulder should fall, would fall into the sea if it were not in a painting and not solely a matter of artful depiction. This is not a boulder, and not a castle, this is paint on canvas, an artist playing with representation and our expectations. Which is exactly what Israel does; plays with representation and expectation. We constantly ask ourselves what this country represents and what we can and should expect from it, and what it can and should expect from us in return. Ever since we arrived, the big news coming from abroad and soliciting not less than three opinion pieces in the Jerusalem Post (the right one, the wrong one, and the one in the middle?) is about the Jewish-Methodist shidduch of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky. A lot of opinionated people seem to care. What does it represent? A step forward for Jews in America and a model for the kind of openness that does not currently exist in Israel (the only legitimate marriage here is one sanctioned by the Orthodox Rabbinate)? Or a step backward? An example of the dangerous pathway that ultimately leads to Jewish perdition by intermarriage? And what of the Rabbi and the Minister together under the chuppah on Shabbat?! And what of the fact that the groom insisted on wearing a tallit and kippah? It's a positive thing that Marc cared enough to wear those potent symbols of his Jewish identity, one commentarist wrote. Marc should be ashamed of himself for perverting those symbols, wrote another. Strangely enough, being here, in Jerusalem, I don't care. The hoopla and outrage seem equally silly to me. What happened (and will happen) between Chelsea and Marc is not the end of Judaism or the Jewish People, or a new beginning. And yet it's taken so seriously; representation and expectation. Some of my reactions to being here have taken me by surprise. I was overwhelmed emotionally on our first day at the Wall, and not by being at the Wall, this most hallowed, all-important spiritual locale, but by being there with my wife and four daughters. It suddenly hit me that the last time I was standing at the Wall (incidentally, during a freak snowstorm) I was alone (my girlfriend/wife-to-be, had returned to Montreal) childless and confused. Eighteen years later, here I am, returned with a wife and four healthy beautiful children. Unbeknownst to me, without even realizing it, I had spent the last eighteen years on track to completing a circle, and here I was standing at the finish line/beginning, a generation later. I felt the most profound sense of being truly and deeply blessed I have ever felt in my life. I was ambushed by the second most moving moment I've experienced so far. It was in the scupture garden of the Israel Museum. I took a series of photos of the girls standing in a variety of postures and positions on the famous scultpture by Robert Indiana that spells out the word LOVE in a square of Hebrew letters (AHAVA). The Judean Hills and the cloudless azure sky are the backdrop. Taken together, the photos evoke and represent exactly how I'm feeling; all the promise and possibility, the hope and expectation, of our four ladies finding their own place and positions around LOVE. What else really matters? I suppose that Chelsea and Marc must feel the same way.

DAY 16 - Saturday evening
We have to delay our trip up north by a day due to a nasty ear infection that the sixteen year old contracted some time Friday/Saturday. She had been complaining of ear blockage/water in the ear, for about 24 hours and, thinking nothing much of it, we tried a series of home remedies. By the end of Shabbat her mild discomfort had become exacerbated to genuine pain and so we knew that a doctor would have to be seen. Eight o'clock last night we rushed to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, which is a newish and expanding complex of buildings in a suburb of Jerusalem. The donors wall at the main entrance indicates that North American money plays a huge role in the development of this impressive facility which includes an attached hotel and shopping centre. We were prepared for another adventure, this time trying to navigate the medical system as a tourist. It took us some time to make our way through the various buildings in the nighttime dark to finally arrive at the emergency admissions, which was not well indicated with signage. As Shabbat was just about to end it was not at all busy. At admitting we had to fill out a simple form and pay 1500 shekels (about $400 CAN, insurance reimbursable) right off the bat. Then we were ferried over to see a nurse who took us right away, asked a series of questions (staggering through half English half Hebrew) and sent my daughter to have an IV site put in. We thought it was overkill so we convinced the male blood nurse just to take a sample for blood tests instead - which they had insisted on doing even when we said that too was unnecessary - and if the patient needed an IV drip later they could jab her a second time. Up to that point we were all super impressed with the medical system. The facilities are incredibly modern, clean and efficient. But from that point on the waiting game started. We were told that we would have to see a doctor (duh, but what we didn't know was that they meant a specialist) and were asked to wait outside until he was available. We waited for about an hour and half until they called us again at about 10:30 pm. We were now told that we would have to go into the main building across the courtyard to the ENT (Head and Neck Department) on the sixth floor to see the doctor. When we got there the doctor saw us immediately (in fact he was standing in the hallway expecting us) and my daughter underwent a most thorough examination. Having been in such a situation with a child more than once before I expected the doctor to ask a few questions and then look in her ear with the standard handheld device that the doctor stuck in my ear as a kid. Not so. The young specialist laid the patient on the table and inserted a device which magnified her inner ear canal and projected it on a screen. I hadn't had this much fun since journeying through my intestines via camera during my colonoscopy. He explained the problem - a small pearl-like bubble could be clearly seen on her timpanic membrane (eardrum) which he said was caused by a bacterial infection. "If she says she is in pain she's not lying" he commented. He gave her an ear drop anesthetic to numb the pain, wrote a full report (in English), and wrote prescriptions for two types of antibiotic. He was patient, unrushed, and methodical. He said she would have to be seen for a follow-up in the next few days and provided the information to make another appointment. We then had to return to the emergency room in the other building to report back to the admitting nurse who would then give us some starter drugs to last until the prescription could be filled tomorrow morning. From there we had to go back to the admissions kiosk to check out. These last two steps took maybe ten minutes. We were out by 11:30ish total elapsed time from arrival to departure was about two and half hours. The last, and most challenging step was getting my car out of the parking lot. When we arrived it was still Shabbat so all the lots and gates were open and because I had no idea where we were going and the patient was in excruciating pain, I just dumped the car in the first available space. When we left it was business as usual, all the gates were down, and I had no way of getting the car out since I had no automatically-dispensed parking ticket. It took about twenty more minutes to find the attendant and pay the 36 shekels ($10) demanded to have the gate raised. It seems to me what we experienced stacks up quite well against the Canadian medical system. The examination and treatment were much more thorough than we would have received at home, to the point of overkill. The facilities definitely top any Montreal hospital (then again we'll have a brand spanking new super-hospital soon). On the one hand, all the running back and forth between buildings struck me as sort of unnecessary. On the other hand the emergency room and waiting area were quite empty, which meant more beds there for the real emergencies. My grade B to B+.

DAY 17 - Sunday
The sixteen year old stayed home and started on her antibiotics while the rest of us met up with Israeli friends, a husband, wife and three young boys, who were back home visiting family from the States where they now live. We ended up at The Bible Lands Museum located next to the Israel Museum. This was our back-up plan after our original choice for an activity was to meet at the Bloomfield Science Museum which turned out to be closed on Sundays. Bloomfield has a lot of hands-on type activities, and hence would have been ideal for three rambunctious little boys. Bible Lands has one of the country's most impressive collections of ancient archaeology dating back 5000 years, but is decidedly on the cerebral side. Our friends were late in getting into Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv and when they arrived we warned them that finding parking on site of the museum would be impossible. We parked our respective vehicles in the vicinity (ours around the corner directly across from the Knesset). Finally, the two families met at the museum, a place where I could have easily spent an entire day on my own. We managed to keep the kids semi-interested for about an hour and a half. From the museum, our friends insisted that we join them for an early dinner in Abu Ghosh, an Arab town fifteen minutes outside Jerusalem. They claimed that a restaurant there makes the best hummus in the Middle East. The hummus was indeed excellent, as were the unending variety of salads that arrived at our table non-stop. Tomorrow, all things being equal, we will be northbound for two days.

DAY 18 & 19 - Monday & Tuesday
It's been a whirlwind tour and we're back in Jerusalem. Everyone agrees that two days in the north was not nearly enough. Most of our time was spent trying to escape the heat. On the drive back today the car digital thermometer registered 47 degrees. While the girls napped I worried about the temperature at which cars overheat and tires start exploding on the searing pavement. What's more, the 47 degree point was reached just as route 90 southward dropped down into the Dead Sea region past the checkpoint which separates the mostly arab west bank from Jewish territory. I kept imagining scenarios where I would be asking a donkey-riding bedouin for help getting my wife and three daughters back to Jerusalem on whatever means of transport he might have at his immediate disposal. But my worry was all for naught and we arrived safely in the golden city in practically sweater-weather, 36 degrees. As for the north, yesterday was one of our best days in Israel. We stopped at Hamat Gader which calls itself 'Israel's Garden of Eden' and the claim could almost be believed if the garden of Eden came with an elaborate petting zoo and the Middle East's largest crocodile farm (200 of the beasts). There was also a parrot show and a huge 30 foot waterslide that only our eleven year old, from the family, was courageous enough to fly down. All to say that the kids were happy as mud-caked baby hippos. And the parents were happy too because Hamat Gader, located 10 kms east of the Kinneret in a rugged valley overlooked by Jordan and visible from Syria, is simply one of the most beautiful corners in Israel. It has been inhabited for more than 4000 years and was a favourite of the Romans who built an amphitheatre and baths there because the valley is fed by mineral rich hot springs that bubble up to the surface from volcanic sources. Yes, I said HOT springs. So there we were lying in spring-fed pools and waterfalls and jacuzzis in sulphurous water that was actually hotter than the 45 degree air outside. Luckily, there are also cool pools so hopping from one pool to the other we alternated feeling drained and invigorated. We stayed at Hamat Gader until closing time (5:00) and then headed up the eastern side of the Sea Galilee. We stopped at Kibbutz Ein Gev at a restaurant that according to Frommer's is Israel's largest with seating for 700. We weren't looking for more crowds, but we were looking for a place that catered to families and served fish (at least the wife and I were looking for fish) and this restaurant is renowned throughout Israel for fish cuisine, particularly their specialty, something called Saint-Peter's fish. People come from all over to try it. I don't know much about the New Testament reference but I can say that the species is native to the Kinneret. The wife and I can attest that their specialty is delicious, light, not fishy-tasting, not bony, gently seasoned with garlic and spices, and lightly grilled. It was the best meal we've had in Israel so far and the view from the shoreline, the Kinneret at sundown, added to an ambiance of day-ending satisfaction. Heading straight off to bed would have tied a ribbon on the perfect day. Unfortunately, there was the small matter of driving 30 km more north to Qatzrin in the Golan where we had rented a room at the field school. Qatzrin is the so-called 'capital' of the Golan. A town of about three thousand inhabitants, the government has poured money into the town to settle it, and it shows. A quiet, quaint municipality with a towncentre, schools, sports complex, a mall, all the needed amenities, and well laid-out neighbourhoods that bring to mind some of the Cote-St. Luc neighbourhoods developed in the mid-70s. Rolling down the main route into town I was excited to catch a glimpse of tanks on military manoeuvres on the adjacent field; Qatzrin is also the Israeli miliary headquarters of their Golan operations. While we drove through the Golan on the way to Safed the next day, along the narrow, swervy-curvy, rising and falling roads, Sidney noted how many fenced off fields there were with signs that warned against trespassing on fields that may be mined. The wife was underwhelmed by our accomodations at the Qatzrin field school, but I'm not sure what she expected from a facility used to board students. We got a 20 by 15 foot room with two single beds and two bunk beds. There was a small fridge, a bathroom with toilet, sink and shower, and best of all, air-conditioning! In spite of the three inch foam mattresses and plywood underpad, I was charmed. I was less taken with the joint the next morning, my spine was as crooked as a Golan sideroad - no chance my back would stand even a single more night - but the next morning Annetta said she was warming up to the place. The kids had a fitful night too, although Eden said she loved having 'a sleepover' with the whole family. A complete breakfast with scrambled eggs, various breads, yogurts and salads, was served in the field school dining room and we were out by nine for the drive down the Golan, across the north shore of the Kinneret, and up to the famed mystical mountaintop city, Safed. The view on the climb was spectacular. We parked the car and strolled through the artist's quarter of the old city. In one gallery/boutique the saleslady we met was a Montrealer who had moved with her husband to Safed a few years ago. It was already getting hot and the kids were losing patience so after a stroll through the narrow alleyways of the Sephardic quarter Safed would be history for us. A quick stop for ice-coffees and a drive-by visit of the famous cemetery where the great mekubalim (mystical rabbis) of the 17th and 18th century are buried and we were on our way. Safed was not much like I remembered it, owing I suppose, to Madonna's influence (our Madonna, not the first one); it was very touristy and built-up with residential buildings, houses, hotels and kabbalah study centres. What we really needed now was to come down from the mountain for a cooling off via immersion. Rafi, our host at the Qatzrin field school had recommended a reed-shaded estuary that feeds the Kinneret called Maj'rase as the perfect place for a refreshing dip with the kids. We had to drive back across the northern shore of the Kinneret from Safed, cutting across many famous Christian sites including the Mt. of the Beatitudes where Jesus gave the sermon on the mount. It seemed that with temperatures climbing into the low 40s we were not the only ones with dreams of baptism-style relief. There were buses and cars filling the lot and lined along the side of the road to the entranceway of the reserve. The wife and kids hiked the wet-trail, meaning they marched along the stream with the throngs, beginning in ankle deep frigid waters and ending an hour later in mid-thigh waters. I took the dry trail next to the stream occasionally dunking my head. It wasn't a long leisurely stopover, like at Hamat Gader, but the kids said they enjoyed it. The almost two hour drive back to Jerusalem in the heat of the day was described above. The ladies conked out in the car while I white-knuckled it.

Day 20 - Wednesday
I have finally done it. It's taken three weeks in Israel and I've finally found the happiest place in all of Jerusalem. It's a place where, like every public place, there are mobs of people. The religious are there with their straggling, toddling broods, their single, double and triple strollers, but unlike other places they're not rolling over toes and being jammed into thighs. In this place the religious and the secular, the Arab and the Jew, pass without seeming to notice one another, or rather there pervades throughout a tone of sobriety, a civilized sort of indifference that transcends cultural and religious differences, and simplistic opposing paradigmatic terms like tolerance and intolerance. The happiest place in Jerusalem, I believe, is the modern, fully air-conditioned, sprawling, multi-storey, American style shopping mall. Okay, I may be exaggerating on the basis of my experience this morning. After all the driving I did over the past two days up north, today was to be a break for me. The wife and two older daughters would spend the day shopping at the Jerusalem Mall, while I took the younger kids to an activity; our choice being the Bloomfield Science Museum, which was founded and endowed by Montreal's own Neri Bloomfield, and was highly touted as an excellent, fun hands-on activity for kids. The elder ladies were dropped off at the mall and we headed off to the science centre. Well, you have never experienced unpleasantness until you have stood in line for fifteen minutes in the hot sun, then paid $35 admission for the privilege of battling hordes of out of control Israeli kids clambering for 'another turn' at generating voltage by spinning a wheel, or lifting heavy lead weights using rope pulleys and levers and letting them crash to the ground. It was as if Jerusalem had closed every other 'family-friendly' activity in town, and since kids younger than 5 are admitted free (for absolutely no apparent reason considering that not one of the installations would be appropriate for that age), every diaper-clad Shmulik and runny-nosed Rivkele was brought along. My two girls took our experience in stride, better than I did. A choking claustrophobia got to me. I lasted a couple of hours by sheer fortitude and stamina - and because I dreaded having to leave the air-conditioned facility to go back out in the 40 degree heat. By lunchtime I was calling the wife in a controlled panic to let her know that we were on our way to the mall to meet her. It was like an oasis in the desert. I may be overstating one thing. I do believe with all my heart that the shopping mall is the happiest place in Jerusalem, not solemn, or morose, or unnecessarily serious, or reflective, with not a hint of anything spiritual. But the parking garage is absolutely the unhappiest place in all of Jerusalem, of this I am also completely convinced, which would be somehow fitting ie. to have to go through hell to get to heaven. Now I know why virtually every car in Jerusalem is dinged and dented and paint-scratched. It's because they've tried finding parking at the Jerusalem Mall. Jerusalemite drivers apparently don't agree with 'no parking' signs or zones, think their cars can fit in 'spots' of any size, don't believe in directional arrows or so-called 'exits' and 'entrances', and apparently the car manuals here, under the section entitled 'Horn', tells drivers that 'manic and inappropriate use is mandatory in the parking garage at the Jerusalem Mall'. We met the rest of the family for lunch at Yotveta, the Jerusalem branch of our favourite Tel-Aviv beachfront vegetarian restaurant. McDonalds this chain ain't - I mean this in terms of consistency. The menu is the same but, we may as well have been dining at McDonalds so non-similar was the quality. The aspect about the Mall that most differentiates it from other crowded places we've been, besides the ample space that better accommodates the numbers, is that I understand mall rhythm whereas I still can not apprehend the rhythm of other crowded Jerusalem places, whether the Bloomfield Science Museum or Machane Yehuda. The same goes for the traffic - different rhythm. I don't get the urgency. The bold, honking global intolerance that seems to extend to everything everywhere. Except in the mall where everyone seems to be content, blithely engaged in a hands-on activity for grown-ups, the religious and secular, the Jew and the Arab alike. We were only too happy to stay at the mall until late this afternoon - I have never been so happy to extend my time at the mall, ever, really. Those who've had me shopping with them, or to put it more accurately, dragged me along, know that five minutes more at the mall is usually wayyyy too long. Tomorrow, we are back to the real world, by which I mean, 200 CE and Massada.

DAY 21 - Thursday
There was a rude knock on our door at number 10 Aleph HaRav Chen this morning at 7 AM. Fortunately, The wife and I were already awake and getting the kids ready for our scheduled trip to Massada. We wanted to get there as early as possible. The prospect of being on the top of a desert fortress mountaintop in one of the hottest places on earth after noon didn't appeal. We thought that if we got an early enough start, we might be there by 9ish, spend a couple of hours visiting and then be on our way home by lunchtime. In fact, the knock on our door was about the heat. A fit-looking, tanned, grey-haired man introduced himself as Yehuda Bertinoff in thick Hebrew accented English, asked if we were who we were, and presented us with a document. He said that a special committee of the Prime Minister's office had been struck to deal with the problems arising from the heat wave that has settled on the country since approximately July 29th and that copious examination of travel records indicates this was the date of our arrival. Further examination by a team of specially convened Hebrew University meteorological-history graduate students (I didn't know such a field existed but apparently Hebrew U is a world leader) has revealed that individuals with our exact names arrived in Jerusalem from Montreal precisely eighteen years ago when there was another freak meteorological occurrence, in that instance, the heaviest snowstorn in more than a hundred years. The Prime Minister's office has therefore determined that we are a national threat and the only way to end the freakishly hot weather that has plagued the country for the past month is to expel us. The document Mr. Bertinoff presented, certified and stamped by the office of Binyamin Netanyahu himself, was an Order in Cabinet asking our family to leave the country within five days, the deadline coincidentally falling on next Tuesday, the very day of our flight. I explained that we were scheduled to depart anyway, and then Mr. Bertinoff turned to leave, looking satisfied that he had done his service for his country. The door was closed and I packed up the kids and we were off on the 100 km drive down to the Dead Sea and Massada. It was an excellent trip. Massada has developed an exquisite museum of archaeological finds on site which was not there when I visited last. We did manage to get there early and left by about noon. On the way back we re-visited Ein Gedi for a refreshing dip in the springs and waterfalls. On the drive back to Jerusalem the thermometer of our car hit 51 degrees. According to latest weather forecast for Israel this heat wave will in fact break the very night we leave, and August 2010 will go into the history books as one of the hottest on records. I just hope they allow us back into the country sometime.

DAY 22 & 23, Friday & Shabbat
We're definitely in winding down mode. On Friday, the wife and fourteen year old went back to Machane Yehuda to do some food shopping and then down to Jaffa street for souvenir shopping. I took the younger two to Kibbutz Ramat Rahel which is within the municipal bounds of Jerusalem, perched on a hill about a ten minute drive from our apartment. The wife heard that the kibbutz has a lovely pool with ample shaded grounds open to the public. So in an effort to beat the heat we packed a picnic and headed over. The kibbutz advertises itself as a 'hotel resort' and the claims are accurate. The facility is not 'luxurious' by North American standards (nothing here is) but the pool is large and the grounds feature beautiful views of the Judean hills - you can see all the way to Bethlehem. When we got there it was pretty crowded (as usual) but we managed to find a shady spot under a tree and the girls spent much of the day in the pool, while I dug into a novel by Eshkol Nevo, a hotshot new Israeli writer getting international attention. Last night we were invited to bring in the Shabbat at friends' apartment, for the second time this trip. She is an ex-pat Montrealer and her husband a transplanted American. They are the only two people we know who have toughed it out and made a life for themselves here. If they weren't so individually accomplished (she is a doctor of psychology and he works for the government in urban planning) we would admire them for that fact alone. As much as I enjoy driving on Shabbat in Jerusalem it doesn't look like I'll be doing much today. We're all moving very slowly and our only plan for the day is to start the new week with a 'sound and light' show tonight at David's Tower in the Old City, one of the few touristy things we've done here. But as we're winding down I thought as a means of summing up I'd share some numbers, compiled anecdotally and idiosyncratically:

Our Trip in Numbers Days: 24
Average normal temperature for August: 30 degrees centigrade
Average temperature August 2010: 34.3 degrees centigrade
Warmest temperature we recorded: 51 degrees centigrade (at the Dead Sea)
Average rainfall for August: 0 mm
Rainfall for August 2010: 0 mm
Kilometeres driven: 2021 kms
Highest geographical point reached: 900 meters, 3200 ft. (Sefad)
Lowest geographical point reached: -422 meters, -1385 ft. (Dead Sea)
Museums visited: 6
National parks visited: 10
Pools visited: 2
Hospitals visited: 1
Ice coffees consumed: 50 (estimate)
Restaurant meals consumed: 8
'Milkies' and 'Danies' consumed (pudding treats that are an Israeli favourite): 100 (estimate)
Litres of water drank per person: 80 (estimate)
Bottles of sunscreen used: 3
Weight lost (me): 7 lbs
Belt loops reduced (me): 1

DAY 24 & 25 - Sunday & Monday
Our winding-down pace has slowed to a crawl. I think everyone is pretty anxious to get home. The last couple of days - we head out to Ben-Gurion airport tonight for an early morning flight tomorrow - have been occupied with tying up loose ends and getting ready for departure. Yesterday, the sixteen year old and I spent another three hours or so at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital for her follow-up appointment. The patient has finished her antibiotics and says that the ear is feeling better, but there is a constant ringing. Another $85 USD to the Israeli medical system confirmed that her ear is mending nicely but there appears to be water behind her eardrum, which we are told will likely evaporate on its own, no further treatment necessary. However, the specialist we saw this time recommended that she have a hearing test. When I asked if this was absolutely necessary, and whether it can wait until she gets back to Mtl, the doctor said, "it should be done sooner rather than later "to rule out the one percent chance of a 'surprise'". Another example of overkill it seems. He also said that the infection probably developed when she went swimming in the Kinneret. If we choose to arrange the appointment for a hearing test it will have to be done with the assistance of the school where she will be studying beginning on Thursday. This is something we'll be discussing this afternoon when we visit Kibbutz Tsuva to meet with the program head and drop off her valise. Our daughter will be sleeping in the apartment in Jerusalem tonight and then she'll take a bus to the kibbutz tomorrow morning. Yesterday afternoon the wife and I went for a stroll around her old neighbourhood in Old Katamon/the German Colony. This area is Jerusalem's Westmount or Forest Hill, prime real-estate. We walked down clean residential streets with large houses on lots, as opposed the crowded apartment buildings one sees in every other neighbourhood. One street was as wide as a North American street with ample sidewalks - and for the first time I really felt the impact of the difference in scale from what we're used to in Canada. For a brief moment it felt like I was breathing easier. We spent our last full evening in Jerusalem having dinner at a lovely non-kosher Italian place called Foccacio's located downtown just off Ben Yehuda that was recommended by Frommer's. We sat on the terrace. The atmosphere was pleasant and breezy, the food was good and the price very reasonable. This is something that the wife has remarked on - the restaurants have really improved in the twenty years since she lived here. We haven't eaten in restaurants often to save on cost (and to experience fully the joys of market shopping for fresh locally-grown fruits and veggies), but most of the meals we've had have exceeded expectations with large portions (most times one dish was shared by two) at decent prices; our meal yesterday for example, including the wife having a glass of wine, cost 230 shekels with the tip which comes to about $65 CDN for the entire family. Service is also improving, although in general your waitress or salesperson still makes you feel like they're doing you a big favour. There never developed in Israel a 'customer is always right' consumer culture. It's been more like 'wait your turn and I'll come to you.' After dinner we walked around Ben Yehuda, mostly the sidestreets off Ben Yehuda actually, where there are happening restaurants, American and British style clubs/bars, and little shops with crafts and art. A few general observations, and misconceptions dispelled: The tractor-driving balaklava-wearing arabs we passed on our up north did not cover their faces for fear of being labelled 'colluders' working for Jews. Rather, the masks help with the heat - though I'm not sure how. There are many reasons for the dirtiness of the city, including the psychology of apartment living - nobody seems to think it's their responsibility to keep the communal garbage bins where each apartment dweller dumps his/her bag of trash tidy. But another reason, for the bad smell in particular, is the season/weather, specifically the lack of rain in the summer. I'm thinking that Jerusalem must smell much fresher in the fall, winter and spring. With regards to Israeli parenting, a woman named Sarit who we met at our friends' apartment last friday confirmed our experience that the kids rule the roost in the average Israeli family. Interestingly, she works as a parenting counsellor, a sort of Israeli super-nanny interventionist (which, incidentally, is a wildly popular tv program here). She told us that many Israeli parents have trouble saying 'no' to their kids, indulge them excessively, and do not know how to set limits. Ironic, considering that Israel is all about limits; walls and checkpoints - but maybe that's why parents don't impose many in the home. This explains the seemingly parentless kids we constantly saw smacking their siblings around and running between the tables in the restaurants. And finally, in many respects, I've gotten used to it here. I feel more personally connected to the news here than at home, daily and international events have greater immediacy and urgency. Although, it surprises me that the aspect about life here that matters least is that everyone is Jewish. The very fact alone seems to cancel out it's importance, at least on a daily-living basis. The wife is right when she says that because everyone here is Jewish the opportunities to live 'Jewishly' and the definition of what that may mean are much broader. To live as a Jew in Montreal usually means that you have to fit in one box or another. And yet, a few weeks here and what is mattering to me are not Jewish-specific aspects of social living, but rather, things like taking care of the environment and treating one another with politeness and basic decency. However, it should also be said that with everyone living on top of one another as they do here, it is astounding that they achieve the levels of common decency that they do. And with all we have in Canada, the resources and the space, it borders on shameful that we can be so preoccupied with pettiness, and do not achieve much much more.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

25 Days in August - Diary of a family's journey in the Holyland


DAY 8 - Wednesday
We finally managed to get the early start we desired, out the door by 7:04 local time. Amazing how motivating your own set of wheels can be. Our destination for the day: The Dead Sea. The roads heading out of Jerusalem were relatively quiet and we managed to navigate across town onto the route bound for the lowest point on earth without too much problem. We passed the turn-offs for Ramallah and Jericho, now under Palestinian Authority and off-limits to Jewish vehicles, and then took the swervy, curvy road down to 400 metres below sea level on a highway so smooth it would embarrass our provincial politicians. We were fortunate on many accounts. For one thing we arrived at the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve ten minutes after opening which meant that the parking lot was virtually empty and the hiking paths were uncrowded. For another thing the five year old waited until we had arrived and was out of the brand spanking new rental car before heaving her breakfast flakes and milk onto the pavement. The empty stomach didn't stop our intrepid five year old from participating in two easy hikes, one in the morning up Wadi David and the second in the afternoon up Wadi Arugot. Ein Gedi is a wonder. The surrounding lands are desert dry hills rising hundreds of meters above while green wadis with waterfalls are found along the trail below at refreshing intervals. We dunked ourselves every chance we got. We encountered wildlife; frogs, freshwater crabs, Ibex and a peculiar rodent called a Rock Hyrax (the Dead Sea equivalent of a squirrel that looks like a North American groundhog) but avoided the highly poisonous En Gedi viper native to the region. We ate a picnic lunch, visited a 3rd century era synagogue on the park grounds that was recently uncovered with an exquisitely preserved central mosaic that includes the names of patrons and sponsors; in two thousand years not much has changed in synagogues. We ended the day in the early afternoon - it was 43 degrees seaside - by floating in the Dead Sea, re-discovering anew every rash and small cut on our bodies.

DAY 9 - Thursday
Hit and miss. We decided on a morning visit to the Sorreq stalactite cave 20 kms outside Jerusalem followed by a picnic lunch at a nearby park. The drive through the Judean hills feels similar to traveling through Quebec's Laurentian mountains only the roads are narrower, steeper and twistier, and not as well indicated. If you want to get to a centre; Jerusalem, direction to Tel-Aviv, even to a larger town on the edge of the hills like Bet Shemesh, it's no problem. But the guidebook and road signage are not nearly as clear when it comes to lesser known stops like Sorreq. I drove more or less on instinct and a sense of the general direction where we were supposed to be headed. There was one false stop when I read the word Sorreq in Hebrew on a tiny roadside sign which turned out to be in the wrong place - that's something else you see here; two and three locations with the same name, which often turn out to be entrances and exits to the same nature reserve at various locations. The road map provided by the car rental company didn't indicate the route number we were on and, after driving up and down through the hills for a while we determined that we better call the Sorreq office. The man there didn't seem to have a clue where we were, however, from his description I could tell that we weren't far. The stalactite cave is on the western edge of the hills where you get a clear view of the land sloping down and flattening out all the way to the Mediterranean Sea 40 kms away. We took the tour of this delicately preserved site which included an introductory film. The cave was discovered by mistake in 1968 at a quarry blasting limestone rock for the construction of the city of Ashdod. Our tour guide gave explicit and extensive descriptions of how the stalactites and stalagmites were formed. But the one piece of information he omitted was how old the cave was. I had an inkling why this might be, so I asked. He said, well, there is geological and theological consistency on when the cave appeared; about 20 million years ago. I hadn't asked for theology, but I guess every question about the land here requires a theological answer. Where the 'consistency' might be I couldn't understand given that according to Judaism the world was created about 6,000 years ago. And how long did it take for these incredibly beautiful and varied formations to be created? I asked. About 5 million years he admitted. From Sorreq we drove to Sattaf, a favourite hiking park for Jerusalemites which the guidebook decribed as having a restaurant, welcome centre and a fresh water spring where hikers have been known to swim. After another series of miscues and false turns we finally found the park entrance based on directions provided by a bystander. We ate lunch at a picnic ground on site and drove down to the supposedly popular natural spring - it was just too hot at midday to hike the kilometre down and then up again - and good thing we didn't walk because the pool was dirty and unswimmable. Which brings me to the most disappointing aspect about the Holyland so far. How shamefully unclean it is. Litter was scattered all over the Sattaf picnic area and along the hiking trails. It's a situation that one finds everywhere, in the cities and in these JNF funded nature reserves. What happened to the old adage about cleanliness being next to Godliness?

DAY 10 - Friday
Got off to an early start today. The wife ran down to the makolet (the corner store) to pick up a few provisions before we headed out to the coast. First stop would be a 10 am reservation made at the Ayalon Institute and Museum in Rehovot a few miles south of Tel-Aviv. When she came back from the store, she told me she had bought me a present and slipped a Jerusalem Post out of her bag. Handing it over she looked at the front page and cried out, "Oh My God!" I panicked, "What happened, what happened?" thinking the worst; danger, tragedy, a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. "It's friday today!!" And this is how we discovered the reason why last night when we visited the Bible Lands Museum that supposedly opens late on Wednesday evening it was closed. Because it was Thursday! This gives you some idea about how completely out of it we are. Somewhere along the line we lost track of time and hours and days became centuries and all of it started meaning the present. We arrived at the Ayalon Institute exactly on time. Ayalon is a stone's throw from the famed Weitzmann Institute of Technology. But Ayalon is unique and little known. It's not even found in guidebooks. The wife was tipped off by a friend who said it was a highlight of her trip to Israel. It did not disappoint. Actually, the Ayalon Institute is the site of a pre-State era 'kibbutz' where the Hagana made bullets in a clandestine factory, literally underground. The story is incredible. In 1945 a small group of Scouts in their early twenties from Tel-Aviv were planning to set up a kibbutz just south of the city. They were approached by a leader of the Hagana for a secret operation. After a long night of debate and without any explanation about what the operation might entail they agreed to participate. The result was the construction of a 'fake' kibbutz built under the noses of the British where the members worked for 10 hours a day in ungodly conditions to manufacture bullets. This became the sole supply of ammunition of the Hagana during the Mandate period and the primary source during the War of Independence. On the tour of the site we went underground through hidden passageways (there were two entrances to the factory - one in the kibbutz laundry room and the other behind the oven in the kibbutz bakery.) Our guide was a most fascinating and articulate young man named Yonatan who talked about the moral and philosophical dimensions of the project. "What drove these people to sacrifice and risk so much to achieve the goals they believed in? Had they been discovered they would have immediately been hanged by the British." It's a mystery, he said with a hint that this kind of sacrifice would be unimaginable from young people today. He believes from speaking to some of the survivors, that a lot of it had to do with the collectivist mentality of the kibbutz movement, the importance of seeing the connection between an individual life and larger goals of the collectivity that positively effect future generations. Yonatan then told us that he was a member of a kibbutz movement called "Dror LeYisrael" and lives in the area. It's a movement of educators who work in a variety of fields and with various groups committed to closing the gaps between divergent strata of Israel society, the old and the young, the religious and the secular, the politically Left and Right, the Arabs and the Jews etc. Meeting Yonatan was heartening and Ayalon was impressive and meaningful. After Ayalon we drove 30 kms south to a beach between Ashdod and Ashkelon called Nitsanim. Paydirt: Here was the pristine, uncrowded, clean, Israeli beach we had been dreaming about.

DAY 11 - Shabbat
Two observations: First, the streets are empty in Jerusalem on Shabbat, sanity returns to the capital. What a pleasure it is to drive. Second, this country has an obsession for the underground. There are tunnels and caves everywhere. One has the impression that the real comings and goings of life in the Holyland, the truly important activity, the genuine history, takes place underground. (One also thinks of the daily reports of terrorists smuggling arms and goods into Gaza through a network of tunnels.) Yesterday we visited a clandestine factory making bullets in 1945, today it was cave-dwellings and an underground olive oil factory from 245 BCE. The caves of Beit Guvrin are located about 45 kilometres south of Jerusalem, in the lowlands between the Judean Hills and the Negev. It's a national park that covers more than 1200 acres and has kilometers of rugged hiking trails over tels (unexcavated archaeological hills). Beit Guvrin is renowned for its more than 800 caves, most of which have not yet been explored. It was the site of a pre-millenial Hellenistic city, as well as Jewish (first Temple Period), Arab and Byzantine settlements, so it is particularly rich in archaeological finds. There are magnificent so-called "Bell Caves" that are three storeys high and formed from ancient quarries. In other excavated portions there are underground burial sites, a vast network of cave dwellings and cisterns, also, an ancient olive oil making factory (with stone presses, crushers and oil-capturing pits) and our favourite, an underground aviary for breeding pigeons cut into the limestone in the shape of a cross two storeys deep with two thousand holes in the walls (pigeon guano was collected for fertilizer and the birds were bred for cult sacrifice.) When it's 37 degrees you either need shade or water. The payoff hiking in Ein Gedi were the waterfall springs. At Beit Guvrin the payoff is the cool of the caves. The five year old wasn't quite up for the full challenge, so after lunch, when the temps had reached their maximum, I took the eleven and fourteen year olds deeper into the park. The girls were amazing, and it was not easy. We had brought along a lot of water and the park provides various water sources and shady spots along the way. But it didn't help that I guided us in the wrong direction for about ten minutes when I misread the map trying to find a shortcut back to the parking lot. We finally returned two hours later. The wife said she was fifteen minutes away from sending out a search party. The days being as hot as they are, we are happy to return home a late afternoon siesta, and go back out in the cool of the evening.

DAY 12 - Sunday
It's 7:15 pm and for the first time since we arrived a cool evening breeze is blowing down through the Valley of the Cross and up into our apartment window. Today was our last full day with the rental car, or rather this rental car. It has served us valiantly over the last 6 days in which we have put almost 800 kilometres on the odometer. It has ferried us to the Mediterranean coast, up and and down the Judean hills, to the Dead Sea, and as of today, to the upper Jordan Valley, all with air-conditioning. We are seriously considering extending the rental right to the end of the month. The plan for today was to take advantage of the car with a triple-header of touring: a drive approximately 120 kilometers north to the region of Beit She'an, where we would enjoy a dip in the water springs at Gan HaShelosha, then head over to see the ruins of the ancient city of Beit She'an, and finally stop off at Beit Alpha on the way back to gander at the mosaic floor of a 5th century synagogue. I had been to Beit Shean and Beit Alpha eighteen years ago, and remember the ruins of the city at Beit Shean, in particular, as my favourite site in all of Israel. It is truly incredible; an entire Roman-era city partially restored, with Israel's largest amphitheatre, bathhouses, streets with colonnades, market places, and temples etc. Beit Shean has been the site of important cities and major centres of trade going back to the pre-Canaanite period, through Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader periods and on, right up until today. You can not walk the site without bumping into a fallen Roman column, or a piece of sculpted marble that formed part of a building, or stepping on shards of pottery. When we arrived it was even more impressive than I remembered. In the almost two decades since I was there last, archaeological excavations have advanced a great deal and uncovered even more of the city. Beit She'an was our after-lunch stop. Our first stop of the morning was to be extra special for the kids. With the heat, part of the day had to be devoted to swimming. The wife found mention in an article in the Jerusalem Post of a park close to Beit She'an that was called by Time magazine "One of the world's twenty best 'off the beaten track' attractions," with some of the best spring water swimming in all of Israel. Well, either it was a Time magazine from 1980, or it was the West Bank edition of Time, because when we got there the place was mobbed with mostly Arab families barbecuing. In truth, the watering holes were quite spectacular but I felt too uncomfortable to enjoy myself. The wife and two younger kids swam while the fourteen year old and I sat under a rare available shady spot. It was the first day when I felt overwhelmed by Israel's Arab presence. My discomfort began on the drive up. Along highway 90, bypassing Jericho and zooming through arab towns in the Jordan Valley, Arab men are seen waiting along the side of the road, presumably day labourers hoping to get picked up for a job in the fields. Then you pass a checkpoint which defines the boundary between the green line and the Israeli part of the upper Jordan Valley, where the land turns from barren (Arab) to lush (Israeli). Finally, when we arrived at Gan HaShelosha it was all too much for me. By the time we got to the swimming hole my nerves were shot. On the way back to Jerusalem, as we reached the Dead Sea, sand squalls kicked up, like Canadian-style snow squalls only sandier. At one point I had trouble seeing the car in front. We drove to the apartment through the centre of Jerusalem, coasting past the border of Mea Shearim. Best line of the day from the fourteen year old as we passed the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood: "Next time I'm coming back in a bikini armed with a bunch of water balloons."

DAY 13 - Monday, YAD VASHEM
No photos. No words.

DAY 14 - Tuesday
We extended the rental car to the end of the trip, and as a consequence of a lack of urgency, the pace has slowed considerably. It is evening and slightly cooler. The wife took the fourteen and five year old into the centre of Jerusalem. The eleven year old and I bailed on them after going together to Machane Yehuda Jerusalem's main open market. It's a place Annetta seems to love but the kids and I aren't terribly fond of: A combination of the hustle bustle, the redolence of garbage and fish with a hint of cat piss in the air, the open displays of glazed danish buzzed by a hive of egg-laying insects, all baking gently in the sun. The market has its 'homey' charms (as in Homer Simpson). It's vast and lively. I just don't trust the food. In the meantime, I'm sticking to the pre-packaged grocery store variety. This morning we visited the Israel Museum for the second time. The sixteen year old joined us for the first time in a week. Being a veteran of Israel with friends and contacts, she has had more exciting plans than to hang around with her parents and younger sisters. When we told the five year old that we were going to the museum to see the Dead Sea scrolls, she objected, "I don't want to go to the museum to see dead squirrels!" Three hours was still not enough to cover the balance of what we missed from the first visit to the museum. We decided to work backwards, starting with the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, the incredible 50:1 scale detailed model of 1st century Jerusalem, and the Shrine of the Book (the Dead Sea Scrolls). We barely touched the Contemporary and European Art rooms, and hardly skimmed the Jewish Art and Life section which amazingly features two fully reconstructed synagogue interiors from India and 17th century Italy. We never managed to reach the ancient archaeology (my favourite) rooms before the kids threw up their hands and screamed uncle. I should also mention that last night - although it seems like we've been torturing the kids with museum overload - we took the five year old to a puppet show at the open amphitheatre in Liberty Bell Park (Gan HaPa'amon). It may seem incongruous for Jerusalem to have a park featuring a replica of the cracked Philadelphia Liberty Bell, but actually it is a reminder of the inscription from the Torah "Proclaim liberty throughout the land..." The park also has a "Terry Fox Park" section donated by some rich Canadians in his memory. We saw a group of Arab families having a barbecue on the stone benches and tables there. Jerusalem is replete with such incongruities. An international puppet festival is in town this week. We saw a traditional Italian family traveling circus; parents and their kids playing songs, singing, pantomiming, performing with marionettes, and clowning around. The five year old loved it. Tomorrow, the plan is to hit the road again. Caesaria.