Toilets here and there

Fortunately in Israel, we have nicer bathrooms than this one in Nepal

Abby Leichman has written one of the most off-beat and yet voyeuristically engaging Top Ten Lists I’ve read in a while on Israel21c. It’s a compilation of the best public toilets in Jerusalem. Now, while such a grouping is necessarily gender subjective at best (after all, Abby couldn’t visit the men’s side of her chosen bathrooms), it still represents an alternative eye into Israeli society.

I have to admit that moving to Israel has brought up my own fascination with public facilities. On the one hand, it’s the often-lacking comparison with the luxury of North America. I remember a month back, when my mother came to visit Israel for the first time, she was decidedly less than enamored of the old school gas station toilets (the ones out back, around the side of the station, not the newer “lavish” facilities inside the mini-mart).

Still, she has nothing to complain about. A few years ago, I was driving with the family from San Diego to Los Angeles at 3:00 AM to catch an early morning flight from LAX back to Israel. We needed to use the restroom, so we stopped at a gas station. “Sorry, it’s out of order,” the not particularly interested clerk mumbled. We got back on the highway but the next station we pulled into also had a toilet that mysteriously was “being cleaned” (there were no cleaning supplies nearby). After the same thing happened another couple of times, I got the message and found a bush in back of a Denny’s (which apparently wasn’t one of the 24-7 restaurants I remember from my youth). Bottom line: I’ll take stinky Israel over non-available America any day.

An outdoor bathroom in the Serengeti

It’s also hard not to appreciate the lowly Israeli facility after traveling in the third world. Most Israeli toilets flush; they usually have seats (other than a few in the Old City, squatters are a rarity in Israel); any bad smells tend more to the urine spectrum (don’t even think about the other side!); and these days you can even find toilet paper and soap.

Here’s one more praise for the Israeli restroom: very frequently, the walls for your stall go all the way to the floor, so that you’re actually in your own separate room. Nearly uniformly (and especially at hotels and airports), North American public toilets have short knee-length dividers between stalls so that you are forced to see your neighbor’s shiny shoes wiggling around (not to mention the uncomfortable audio feedback).

So, thanks Abby, for bringing to light the unseen heroes of the Israeli toilet. If you want to go even deeper into the bowels of the public facilities, visit the user-generated toilet site, which has literally thousands of photos of the fabled stand up facility from all over the world (I particularly liked the one from the Mir Space Station).


Sunk costs on the road to Tel Aviv

Traffic along the Ayalon Highway

The evening was intended to be a gala celebration of the partnership between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. 400 Angelenos, in Israel on a Federation mission, along with another several hundred local Anglos of Angeleno-descent, filled the Smolarz Hall on the Tel Aviv University campus. There was a program planned with glamorous entertainment: opera, performance art, modern dance and drumming, all emcee’d by the aging master of kitsch Haim Topol who, without any coaching, it was rumored would be belting out “Sunrise Sunset” in full Tevye voice.

My wife Jody, who grew up from Los Angeles, scored us a pair of tickets. It sounded like a worthwhile way to spend a few hours. But the traffic gods deemed otherwise.

The event had a 5:00 PM starting time, which is already pushing it, throwing commuters into the worst of the Tel Aviv rush hour. But our back up started even earlier: just getting out of Jerusalem took us close to an hour.

But sometimes, long rides can be serendipitous. At about 40 minutes into the ride, the radio program we were listening to began a discussion on “The Upside of Quitting.” The host’s talking point was that, when evaluating a situation – whether it’s a job, a marriage, or in our case the traffic – there are both “sunk costs” and “opportunity costs,” and both play a big role in when and whether to call it quits.

A quick economics lesson: “sunk costs” are the time, money, and more intangible commitments we’ve made to a particular project that keep us from wanting to abandon it…even if we know in our hearts it’s not the right thing. “Opportunity costs” are those things you could be doing with your time if you weren’t sinking it into the wrong activity.

I have experience with both – in 2001, for example, I took a job at a large hi-tech company. My position was esoteric and brand new; only the CEO really knew what was expected of me. He quit two days after I started. I intuitively knew I should too, but I had already accepted the job, turned down other offers, received a company car. Mentally I was “sunk.” As expected, without my patron, the job became a never-ending hell and I wound up, entirely through my fault, losing almost three years in “opportunity costs.”

Jody and I turned to each other as we listened to the program. We had sunk costs now of just under an hour. We had another hour (at least) until we got to Tel Aviv, plus a similar amount of time back. Was now the time to quit?

But we didn’t. We were too far committed. And the “opportunity” was too intangible (another night of catching up on emails?)

We arrived in Tel Aviv two and a quarter hours after we set out. We missed the reception (and what looked on the other participants’ plates to have been some very yummy food) and got the cheap seats for the show. Haim Topol seemed to be running on autopilot, exuding the enthusiasm of peasant who’d delivered way too much milk. The opera singers were proficient (and sexy, as seems to be the requirement for 21st century classical performers), but neither Jody nor I like opera much. The drumming, which included synchronized banging on steel drums with flaming baton sticks, was excellent, however.

In his introductory words to the event, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai lauded the partnership between his city and Los Angeles. It was logical that the two cities were twinned, he said. Both have an emphasis on the entertainment industry; there are stellar beaches; and probably about as many Israelis in both cities. But the biggest commonality? The traffic, he quipped.

With sunk costs like those, who needs opportunities?


Art in Umm el-Fahem

Ammar Younis has an exhibit at the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery

We visited one of Israel’s most unusual museums last week. The Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery, in the Israeli Arab town of the same name, is a small gem, way off the usual museum track, and absolutely worth the visit if you’re traveling between Tel Aviv and the Sea of Galilee…and even if you’re not.

The Gallery houses several rotating exhibitions and a permanent floor exploring the history of Umm el-Fahem and the greater Wadi Ara environs. The Gallery’s aim is to bring contemporary art of all types – not just from Arab and Palestinian artists – to an area that has been mostly devoid of museums of this kind.

To wit, the current exhibitions include a series of striking portraits of men and women from Arab villages, adorned by jewels and beads glued on top of the paintings themselves, by artist Fatma Abu Rumi; impressionistic images of cityscapes from the Former Soviet Union by Nidal Gabarin, who left Israel to train in Russia; a collection of large framed photographs from Ammar Younis, all of which prominently feature donkeys in often amusing settings; and a playful exhibition of ceramic sculptures by Jewish artist Rafi Munz which adorn the Gallery’s rooftop, overlooking the sprawling town with its 50,000 inhabitants.

The Gallery’s biggest claim to fame, perhaps, was the 1999 exhibition of Yoko Ono’s “Open Window.”

We visited the Art Gallery with a group of 30 other Jerusalemites and were hosted by 55-year-old Said Abu-Shakra, the gallery’s founder and director who is an artist himself and a former policeman. He laid out his vision for the future of art in Umm el-Fahem.

The Art Gallery was founded in 1996 in a 100 square meter space. A few years ago, it moved to its current location with 1,500 meters on three floors. Abu-Shakra has commissioned plans that will expand the gallery again in a stunning architectural design that will hang over the Umm el-Fahem’s main street.

Local residents don’t tend to visit art galleries, Abu-Shakra told the group. So the design will force people to pass under the building, coming at least into proximity to the gallery. Abu-Shakra hopes that some of those transversing the town will eventually stop and visit the gallery itself.

“We knew the cultural situation in Umm el-Fahem and most of the Arab sector was close to zero,” Abu-Shakra said in an interview with Arieh O’Sullivan earlier this year. “But I’m not blaming anyone. I’m here to build.”

Abu-Shakra provided an example in an interview with Hadassah Magazine. He invited his neighbor Yousef, a gardener, to the opening, he explained. “The next day I saw him and said ‘Hey Yousef, why didn’t you come?’ And Yousef said: ‘I did come, with my two sons, but we stood in the door and looked in and when I saw all those fancy people inside with suits and ties, I looked at myself and said, this isn’t for me, and I went home.’ Yousef represents 80 percent of the people here. My challenge is how to reach these people and make them feel part of what we are doing.

Building won’t be cheap: the plan for the new museum, which has been allocated a 4-acre plot, requires a not insignificant $40 million to be realized. Abu-Shakra said he’s willing to build in phases.

An art gallery in Umm el-Fahem is all the more surprising given the town’s recent, violent history. In October 2000, three residents were killed by Israeli police during riots that swept through the Wadi Ara region. Then, in March 2009, members of the Israeli right marched through the town (under police protection), resulting in clashes in which 16 were wounded.

The Gallery receives some money from the Israeli Ministry of Culture, as well from donors abroad. It’s hard to raise money from the local population, Abu-Shakra said, which is struggling just to make ends meet amid severe poverty and unemployment. Some 40,000 visitors came in 2010. If Abu-Shakra has his way, that will increase dramatically.

If you like discovering the off-beat or lesser known attractions in Israel, now is the time to visit – before the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery becomes the next big thing.


Time for “The Clock”

The Clock at the Israel Museum - closing this weekend

It’s hard to know exactly how to describe “The Clock,” Christian Marclay’s award winning art installation, which is currently on display, if that’s even the right word, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Tour de Force? Spellbinding? Unbelievable? They all come to mind.

The piece, at its most simplistic, consists of thousands of short film clips, all containing images of clocks and watches, or references to time, edited together briskly into a movie. There’s room for about 100 people on comfy 3-person white couches spread about in a dark space in which to watch Marclay’s creation.

But that’s just the start. Each film clip refers to a specific time (it might say 2:42 PM on someone’s digital watch, for example); that time corresponds to the actual time in Jerusalem. And the film runs for 24 hours. Although the museum is only open for some of those hours, there are special days where the exhibition space stays all night for those who can’t tear themselves away.

Which is how my wife and I felt during the 2.5 hours we stared transfixed at the screen. How did he do it? How did he find all of those clips, each with a clock, each showing a specific time? Did Marclay watch thousands of movies? Did he have a staff?

The mix of film clips was equally impressive, zipping seamlessly from 1930s black and white to modern drama and comedy. Robert Redford was a recurring image during our brief encounter. There were scenes of London’s Big Ben repeatedly chiming on the hour, a gagged and bound man watching the timer on a bomb countdown, clips which started out with nothing connected with time when, suddenly, the camera would pan up to show a clock on the wall displaying the appropriate hour.

Marclay uses actual and inserted music to tie the images together; to build tension and release. There are explosions and love scenes, in English, Japanese, French, German and many more language we didn’t hear but were probably coming up once the museum was closed.

The result is not only a meditation on the specific times shown via the clocks on screen, but also about how time has changed the craft of movie making.

There was also the audience, which ebbed and flowed as time passed. Sometimes it was standing room only; at other points we were nearly alone. About half way through, a large group of boisterous Israeli teens filtered in, sitting on the floor, yelling, laughing at scenes that were meant to be serious. My wife and I almost decided to leave – the group had ruined our more pristine viewing of Marclay’s art. But then the group moved on. Time passed so slowly – it seemed like forever while we were suffering these teens’ disrespect. In reality, they were there for less than 10 minutes.

“The Clock” premiered in London in October, 2010, and has since been presented in New York, Los Angeles, Venice, and Moscow. Marclay won the Golden Lion award at the 2011 Venice Biennale, where “The Clock” was featured as the show’s central exhibition.

“The Clock” is one in a string of world-class productions that have graced Israel this year. Another that stands out was the performance of Steve Reich’s Trains earlier this year at the Tower of David museum – I wrote about it here.

The show closes on October 22. The next (and last) all-nighter is tonight, Tuesday, October 18; admission is free after 9:00 PM. Run to see – before time is out.


Did you fast this Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is over, but discussion on the fast continues online. Two articles in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper this weekend presented differing opinions about whether someone secular should fast on the Day of Atonement. Neither author believes in God, but their approaches couldn’t be more different.

Taking the side of the non-fasting public, Uri Misgav says as a non-believer, fasting would be hypocritical, but he insists he is not secular, which he characterizes as a “narrow definition referring to lifestyle alone.” His actions certainly sound secular, though, as he brags that he also “did not circumcise my son.” “Am I Jewish?” he asks. “Certainly. I was born to a Jewish mother and I feel belonging to the Jewish people, its past and heritage.”

Amos Shavit takes the same argument about “belonging” and turns it on its head. He fasts, he says, “based on a desire to be part of a critical mass of people who decided to devote themselves to inner purity on this special day.” He also fasts to connect to the past – “because my parents fast, and this way I can almost touch them, even from a great distance” – and to connect to the future: “because of an idiotic need for my children to be proud of their father.”

Shavit says “I do it because of free choice.” Misgav wants choice too: “I was born and I shall die a free man.”

A recent survey by Gesher and Ynet found that 58% of the Israeli public fast on Yom Kippur. 50% visit a synagogue at least once during the holiday.

So, how about you? Did you fast this Yom Kippur? Please enter your vote in the talkbacks to this post and let’s get our own debate happening on the pages of Israelity.