Tuesday 24 April 2012

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?

This week Israel celebrates its 64th birthday. What better time than now, to reflect on the words of the Declaration of the State, as read out by David Ben Gurion all those years ago:

"THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open to the immigration of Jews and for the Ingathering of the Exiles from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
PLACING OUR TRUST IN THE ROCK OF ISRAEL, we affix our signatures to this proclamation… in the city of Tel Aviv… on the 5th of Iyar, 5708 (May 14, 1948)."

I love the "Rock of Israel" bit, which apparently was a euphemism for The One Above, and which satisfied both the religious and the anti-religious among them.
And it's rousing, patriotic stuff, and certainly worth reminding us all, what this country is all about. I could of course, add:

"THE STATE OF ISRAEL will promote the development of pensions and other freebies for workers [sic] in the Israel Electric Corporation, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Bank of Israel, even to the extent of cutting and withdrawing social benefits to the rest of the population; will cover as much land as possible by the widest and most wasteful roads that befit a tiny, densely populated modern state; and will patronize the weakest deciles of the population, irrespective of race, creed or sex, by promulgating an infinitesimally small tax change that improves their take-home pay by up to 12 shekels a month."

But I won't, because it just doesn't seem appropriate.

And Wednesday also sees one of the oddest, most peculiar features of the Israeli calendar. I'm referring to the juxtaposition (and we don't use that word often enough, do we, possums?) of the somber Memorial Day, which morphs, seamlessly, into the joyous Independence Day. And what better encapsulates this dichotomy than the extraordinary tale of Yona Malina.

He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1967, but his family moved to Switzerland when he was still young. He grew up not knowing his Jewish origins, as his family, devastated by the experiences of the Holocaust, chose to forget those origins. But in time, and with encouragement from his beloved grandmother, his full family history came to light and, as a young adult, he visited Israel, where he fell in love with the country.
He happily unearthed his Jewish roots, studied Hebrew (to add to his other fluent 7 languages) and the holy texts of Judaism, and adopted a Hebrew name, Yona.
In 1995, at the age of 28, just after finishing his ulpan (a five-month intensive Hebrew course for new immigrants, where I met Yona), whilst traveling to Hebrew University by bus, he was critically injured in a terror attack. The medical staff at Hadassah, however, managed to save his life, though he was paralyzed from the neck down, and remained dependent on life-support.
I visited Yona in the week after the incident, in the intensive care unit of Hadassah hospital. He was allowed one visitor at a time by his bed. He was unable to speak. Or, at least, he could move his lips, but given his condition at the time, no sound came out. It was the oddest conversation I had, as I had to lip-read to understand him, (which is pretty difficult). A nurse asked me what language Yona spoke, because so far she's heard every language under the sun from all the visitors and she didn't know what language she ought to speak to him in!

His amazing parents, the incredible Eva and Jan, flew Yona back to Switzerland where he was cared for in an institution which is regarded as one of the best in the world for people in such a condition. But Yona was not happy there, and insisted, despite his paralysis, that he be allowed to emigrate, once again, to Israel.
He did so. With the help and support of incredible friends and family, Yona returned and was placed in Tel Hashomer, that vast hospital-cum-village. Though well cared for there, it was not ideal, and he petitioned the High Court to live in his own residence away from the hospital. The High Court granted his request, and he moved, together with a round-the-clock staff into an apartment in Kiryat Ono. 

I used to visit him often, and his parents would fly out regularly. He continued to study, joke, be interested in all around him, and to travel, when possible.
The doctors had originally estimated that someone in Yona's condition could live just one year in that state. But Yona was exceptional, an optimist, an idealist, a fighter for what he believed in.
In 2005, he succumbed to an infection that knocked him out completely. I remember his mother telling me as he lay in a coma that week, "We're waiting for God to take him". He finally passed away, May 30, 2005, 10 years after the bomb attack.

He was 38.


May everyone enjoy a wonderful Yom Haatzmaut.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Is it just me, or are things getting better and better?

Why is this Pesach different?
Is it? Well it's Pesach 5772, spring of 2012, and we should be out there celebrating.
It's the spring holiday, the festive time of year when we eat dried sheets of cardboard and dream of chocolate Easter eggs. Traditionally, we remember when we, the Israelites, were delivered from slavery in Egypt, and became a free people.

I think it's highly appropriate that we take this opportunity--when Israel is being vilified in the international media, and when Israeli diplomats get invited only to the wrong parties--and count our lucky stars that we have what we do indeed have. No, I don't mean shingles. I mean, those everyday parts of our lives that have changed over the years, and which should remind us of how dreadful it used to be. So let's clap our hands, bang those cymbals, rattle those pots and pans, and thank The One Above for:
  • Cheaper phone calls. Don't you remember you used to have to argue with Bezeq to get a new line, and then wait for months? And when you wanted to call abroad, you had to stay up till 2 in the morning to get the cheap rate, by which time you'd forgotten what it was you wanted to say? But then the phone sector was opened to competition and we never looked back. In the old days, we would have to make firm arrangements, by letter, three weeks in advance, to meet a friend at 9 (but obviously not turn up till 10 past). Now, however, with the latest smartass-phone technology, and for only 155 shekels a month, I can telepathically send an SMS to my friend who lives in the flat below, who I spoke to, via facebook not 3 seconds ago, just to let them know that I won't be ready until 10 past! It saves so much hassle!
  • Television programs have got so much better too. There used to be no choice at all. Everyone would be sat at home, watching Upstairs Downstairs on the only channel available, because there was no alternative. Now we have 154 channels, some of them in languages that we understand, offering a non-stop stream of fascinating documentaries, cookery knock-out programmes, and canned-laughter comedies that would bring tears to Mona Lisa's cheeks. And yet, still, we're all glued to The Voice, or Big Brother because… er… 
  • Political justice. More and more former politicians, cabinet ministers and presidents, are finding themselves where they always deserved to be: Maasiyahu Prison! And in no way does this seem to have affected the quality of our legislation (though it has brought down the quality of our prison population).
  • Currency regulations have gone. Once upon a time, in defense of the shekel, so they claimed, it was forbidden for an Israeli citizen to hold foreign currency. I remember, as a tourist, I was once in Haifa, looking to exchange my pounds for shekels. I asked a kiosk owner, innocently, if he knew where I could change money. He looked left and right (just like in the films) before whispering "I'll change it for you." All very hush hush, cloak and dagger stuff. Now we can all hold as much foreign currency as we like, and if you are thinking of selling a few dollars, there's a distinguished looking gentleman, just call him Stan, who stands on the corner of Kaplan Street, Jerusalem, every morning at 9:30 who'll be willing to buy any spare dollars you have for a good price. And the shekel doesn't seem to have suffered, mate.
  • Israelis are far better looking than they used to be. Astonishingly this has happened at exactly the same time as my eyesight has got worse. It must be something in the water.
  • Affordable luxury. It used to be the case that only billionaires could afford the most expensive properties in Israel. But today, what with the purchase-groups, subsidies, social protest tent city domino effect, and the cottage cheese campaign, even common, or garden, millionaires can snap up a luxury apartment or two in downtown Tel Aviv. Apparently the last penthouses are on sale in the Bergen-Gandhi-Yoohu project for a little under 5 million shekels, which includes valet-bicycle parking and a whole week's supply of cottage cheese.
  • Ethnic diversity and tolerance. There was once upon a time a terrible social divide between the Ashkenazim (the East European establishment of lawyers, judges and poets) and the Sephardim (the North African, swarthy, raucous no-collar workers). But today we are all one, or, in the words of Rav Mecher "We are all kitniyot eaters, now".

May you enjoy the Pesach/Easter break. Happy holidays.