Wednesday, February 19, 2003

The haphazard results of today’s woolgathering
Up till about ten years ago or so, although I'm not sure exactly when the change to plastic cards came about, all the public phones in Israel were operated by little tokens with holes in the middle. My mother always used to send me back to the army after a visit home with a pipe cleaner (left over from Dad's pipe smoking years) twisted into a ring with about twenty to thirty tokens thread on it, so I could keep in touch ("Why didn't you use your cell phone, Ima?" "We didn't have them in those days, dear". Gasp of horror mixed with pity when contemplating poor mother who grew up in the dark ages.).

A short explanation for Martians or readers aged thirteen or less (and I hope the comparison causes neither offense): You had to put your token in the phone, or more than one if you intended to make an inter-city call, listen for the tone and then dial. When the other side answered the phone, the token dropped. From here stems the popular Hebrew phrase "Nafal lo ha'asimon" or "Yarad lo ha'asimon" literally translated as "the token has dropped for him" or "his token has gone down". It means, of course, "He got it" or "He suddenly understood it", an Israeli equivalent of "Eureka!" or a light bulb going on in a little bubble over a cartoon character's head. The funny thing is that young people, like my girls, who have never seen a token operated public phone, continue to use this phrase, without knowing where it comes from or what it really means.

I have had quite a few big tokens dropping in the past two and a half years. This has definitely been a serious token dropping period of my life. Actually, all of life is a series of tokens dropping (Wow. That was deep! I've cracked the meaning of life, at last!). Blogging is especially full of dropping tokens, because instead of just floating mindlessly along, you find yourself trying to translate the sensation of floating into words in order to share it with your readers. It's like the first time I used a public phone in Eilat to call home in the north. It took just two seconds for five or six tokens to drop and I started scrambling hysterically to get more tokens in before I got cut off.

When I was reading the Haaretz article about Israeli artist Mosh Kashi I linked to on Thursday a token dropped with regard to something or other. Just a little one, not a transatlantic call. I’m not quite able to put it in to words just yet, but it’ll come to me eventually. In the part that wasn't translated into English, Kashi talked about quality and, in this regard, discussed the importance of food in his childhood home. He said his ability to appreciate good food is something he has taken with him in life, so that the first time he tastes a type of food, wherever he is in the world, and he gives the example of sushi, he can tell if it is of good quality or not. This is true for him regardless of his extremely humble beginnings.

He also talked of his mother inspiring him artistically with the way she made ma'amouls. These are little date filled parcels of dough, absolutely scrumptious. My mother-in-law excels at these. When Kashi described his mother making them, I could clearly see my mother-in-law sitting patiently, and lovingly shaping each one in her fingers and gently laying it on the baking tray. She can spend hours doing this, and make hundreds. And when she's finished the ma'amouls she'll start on the homemade marzipan, which she calls by its Ladino name, massapan.

Things have a different pace in the east.

In the east, there seems to be more time to enjoy life's richness, and in the east, if the Jews are anything to go by, this is not a pleasure to be experienced by the wealthy alone. There seems to be time to make at home and enjoy foods that are complicated to produce and rich to the palate; to roast your own coffee beans; to bring the coffee (no, not “instant”!) to the boil three times in the finjan; to listen enraptured to a twenty minute long love song, in which the singer only begins to sing after a ten minute instrumental introduction. And I’m talking ordinary, “uneducated” people, not just culture vultures.

In the east, quality seems to be measured differently than in the west.

My life is western and I like it, but whenever I have slowed down and taken the time to slightly touch things more eastern I have been enriched by them.

Mosh Kashi is not what you'd call an "ethnic" or “eastern” artist. His work is modern, precise. But if I understand him correctly, certain qualities that were present in his impoverished home, empowered him to circumvent the barriers that stood between him and what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be. Having seen my mother-in-law patiently making ma’amouls and other foods that are also extremely time-consuming and often laborious with such amazing peace of mind, completely unencumbered by the multitude of other things she had to do, I can understand how this would prepare Kashi for creating works of art like these. And it gives me an insight into how, like Mosh Kashi, but in different ways, both my mother-in-law’s sons grew up to be such special people.

A very large proportion of Israelis are people who were born and bred in Arab or Muslim countries or are the children or grandchildren of those who were born and bred in Arab or Muslim countries. These are no longer people expected to merge into an existing society like in the early days, or like in other places in the world to which they emigrate. They are the existing society (a fact that exposes the absurdity of claims that Israel is a European colonizing entity). They are an integral part of our society’s very essence, so much so that in many instances, to single them out is becoming increasingly artificial and forced (and is usually the practice of politicians and social activists who stand to gain from emphasizing social rifts, not to mention a certain ignorant blogger).

And, surprise surprise, they largely accept democracy as the best (or the least bad) mode of government.

So why is it that so many westerners believe that this is not possible for their former neighbors?