Balabusta boosts the shuk

At Balabusta. Image: Ben Bresky, Israel National News

There’s nothing like a summer in Jerusalem. That’s a catchphrase I find myself uttering frequently to friends contemplating a visit to Israel’s capital. We’ve got the weather (hot during the day – like everywhere – but cool at night – very un-Tel Aviv) and, increasingly, a level of culture and fun that no one can beat – not even that decadent beach bunch down the hill.

Just look at the schedule so far. There was already the Israel Festival, the Festival of Lights, the Jerusalem International Film Festival, Steve Reich’s Different Trains at the Tower of David, a series of intimate theater and dance performances in people’s homes, the Woodstock Revival, and coming up: the annual Wine Festival at the Israel Museum, the Beer Festival, the Arts and Crafts Festival…you get the idea.

And smack dab in the middle is the Balabusta happening at the Mahane Yehuda open-air market, taking place Mondays in July. Balabusta is Yiddish for a “good housewife.” At the market, it’s an excuse for a street party. We went last week and had a great time, as did the many thousands of people who made the narrow walkways of the shuk (as the market is also known) feel like a bullet train at rush hour.

The pay off, though, was worth it: a wide variety of music, theater, kids performances and discount eats. Along the main drag of the market were two stages on the roof. One was a rotating roster of rock bands; the other had a puppet show featuring a massive marionette of a bird so large it needed five puppeteers to operate it. Smaller bands and a DJ corner (featuring Israeli rapper Segol 59) hob nobbed with the fruit and vegetable sellers. Navigating the crowds was slow moving at times, but there was no real jostling between attendees.

Mahane Yehuda has become quite gentrified over the past few years, with upscale cafes and restaurants interspersed with gourmet cheese and nut stands. One shuk stalwart is Itchikdana, a tiny Indian vegetarian restaurant that serves some excellent thalis. For the Balabusta festival, they were offering up a “taster’s plate” for only NIS 10. You could choose from several different types of fried dishes (samosas, tempura-like carrots) and a potato curry along with yogurt and chutney sauces. It was just the right size and very filling. The best deal of the night.

Balabusta continues tomorrow and next Monday night, from 5:00 PM – 11:00 PM. Entrance is free, though expect to buy some “treats” (we found a decent baklava for dessert).

The view from inside

Image from

How often do you turn to your doctor and say – please give me a very unpleasant and painful procedure? But that’s pretty much the drill as we hover around the age of 50 and ask our family physicians to schedule a colonoscopy. The health funds recommend that everyone 50 and up get a colonoscopy and then afterward once every 5-10 years.

So that’s how I found myself one morning last week at Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem in the gastro clinic, waiting for my turn with no small amount of trepidation. Revise that: make it outright fear. Yes, I know that the anesthesia given for the procedure is supposed to knock you out so completely, you don’t feel a thing. But as a chronic worrier (and a writer who learned the golden axiom), I need to be shown, not just told.

The gastro clinic at Sha’arei Tzedek is being refurbished, so I was temporarily shunted down to what appeared to be a glorified supply closet next to the Emergency Room. That’s where a gruff but efficient nurse hooked me up with an IV in my hand to administer the sedative.

The actual room where the procedure is done was more doctor-friendly. But, as I lay on the table waiting to get started, suddenly a crew of office staff burst in – apparently to install a printer!

The nurses brought in a portable mechitza (not much more than a curtain on wheels) to separate me from the workers. I turned to my doctor in concern. “Would you like me to ask them to leave?” he suggested kindly. Well, um, like, duh, I responded.

I then asked him to please give me extra drugs. “The maximum you can do.”

That was actually the last thing I remember. When I next opened my eyes, I was in the recovery room with my wife Jody at my side. She appeared quite relieved. “You looked like you were dead,” she said.

In truth, the procedure had been as painless as they said. Now, as to the preparation, don’t get me started. You can put all the citrus flavor you want into that purgative drink, but it still tastes like motor oil coated with sewage. Or worse.

How did my colon do? Well, I’m supposed to follow up with my doctor in a month when the results from a biopsy come back, but I assume that if it was anything major, the doctor would have put a rush on it.

Colon cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer and can usually be detected by colonoscopy. I asked for it, I got it, and it wasn’t so terrible after all. If you’re in the appropriate age group, talk to your doctor and don’t be afraid. I won’t be…next time.

Modern minimalist train brings Steve Reich’s music to Jerusalem

Modern minimalist train brings Steve Reich’s music to Jerusalem

Steve Reich’s Different Trains rumbled into town this past week and the results were stunning – one of the must-see concerts of an already overflowing Jerusalem summer.

Reich is the godfather of the modern minimalist music scene, patron saint to more art/pop-oriented artists like Phillip Glass and Brian Eno. His compositions are highly repetitive: the trick is to find the tiny variations that seep through his wall of rhythmic sound. The best way to describe a Reich piece is to listen – check out the YouTube video below.

Different Trains by Steve Reich at The Jewish Theatre Stockholm

Reich wrote Different Trains, which won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition, in 1988 for string quartet with electronic voice. What that means is that four musicians play viola, two cellos and sampled violin (on what looks like a hi-tech drum set) while the voices on tape repeat phrases throughout the performance. The voices are then mirrored by the instruments: every time a certain man speaks, it’s doubled by the viola; every time a woman speaks, it’s doubled by a cello, Reich says an interview included in the 84-page full color booklet that’s given out to the audience.

Different Trains is at its heart a Holocaust composition. The trains initially take the listener across the U.S. – “from Chicago to New York” intones one of the voices – but quickly, we are transported to Europe and we realize that the speakers are Jewish, recounting snippets of testimony from the Second World War. Sound effects of trains swirl through the room, bouncing back and forth across the speakers. The performers themselves wear costumes that could either be train conductor uniforms…or prison camp pajamas.

Sitting in the audience, I was taken back to my college days at Oberlin College when I took a course in electronic music and we studied Reich’s early work. But I’d never heard it played live until now.

Different Trains is being performed as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture in a cavernous room inside the Tower of David Museum that has never been open to the public before. You can see the tall arches of the space – the kishle, as it’s called, was used as a prison in the days of the Ottoman Empire and is surrounded by moat – but the rest is draped in black.

Inside there are tens of oversized glass sculptures, shaped like mis-formed light bulbs or perhaps tears from an unseen giant. Some are transparent, others opaque. The artist, Ann Wahlstrom, was a student of world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly.

The musicians sit in the midst of the glass space, on a podium with their backs to the audience. On either end of the rectangular room are screens where video plays images of trains juxtaposed with scenes from the Holocaust. It’s not meant to titillate; nothing is graphic but the message is nevertheless unnerving.

The entire production was put together by Pia Forsgren, director of the Jewish Theater in Stockholm. Forsgren took Reich’s original standalone work, created the video herself and designed the space with Wahlstrom’s glass installation.

She then hired a Swedish ensemble – the Fleshquartet – to perform the piece, and commissioned them to create their own companion composition, “Tears Apart,” which serves both as a commentary and complement to the swirling repetitive style of Different Trains, while adding a more accessible melodic line. At one point, the performers leave their instruments to “play” the glass sculptures. It’s mesmerizing. The entire show, with both pieces, runs just over an hour.

Forsgren’s visual interpretation of Different Trains was performed 62 times at The Jewish Theater in Stockholm during the 2008-2009 season. It is playing until July 21 in Israel. Tickets are pricey and seats limited, but it’s well worth the journey – don’t let this train leave the station without booking your seat.


A trip to China…with local personality

For a people that, stereotypically, is in love with Chinese food, it’s always surprised me that, in Jerusalem at least, there are so few Chinese restaurants. All the more so given that other Asian food – sushi in particular – is all the rage.

A new kosher restaurant, the not very creatively named Beijing, opened up a few months ago on Gaza Street. The food is pretty good and very decently priced. But it was the staff that stood out.

To describe owner Avner’s welcome as warm would be to undervalue his enthusiasm like cottage cheese at a yard sale. He greeted us as if we were his only customers (admittedly there weren’t many, but the hour was early). He explained that his restaurant has been operating for some 10 years in Mevesseret Zion; this is his first foray into Jerusalem.

His second in command, Omri, was even more effusive, not to mention opinionated. Speaking fluent English and sporting a long ponytail, Omri was candid about the competition (Ryu – interesting but too much “fusion,” Yossi Peking – drek, Sheyan – fabulous but double the price of his current establishment).

He also warned us off the chocolate dessert (not authentic; it was added only recently due to “customer demand”) and recommended the fried bananas instead (it’s the banana peel that’s fried, making for an authentic if somewhat stomach churning option).

This was a graduation dinner for our daughter Merav, so we let the kids order freely. We’d also gotten a great deal on Groupon – half price coupons and we could use up to three at a single table (we did). Our entrees included the sliced duck “chef special” (tasty, if a bit chunky), a Yakitori chicken on a stick in peanut butter (more Thai than Chinese), sweet and sour chicken with veggies (my favorite), and a very presentable pad thai with rice noodles.

Avner boasted that all of the pasta is made on the premises – I couldn’t tell, but then I’m spoiled by the unbelievable Thukpa (a Tibetan noodle soup) we ate while on trek in Nepal earlier this year.

Can I recommend Beijing? Sure, why not. The prices (under NIS 40 for most entrees) are excellent, the food quite good, and the service delightful. I think we’ll be going back.


Israeli iPhone app climbs to #52 in two days, then gets taken down

Latest entry to the “what were they thinking” department: a new Israeli iPhone app that lets users spy on their family and friends, which the developer, Kobi Snir, insisted was for “parental control.”

“I wanted to give parents a way to track their kids, to see with whom they are talking and about what,” Snir told Ynet.

That’s probably not what the thousands of people who downloaded the SpyKey app (it climbed as high as #52 in the entertainment category) were thinking about. The app works like this: for $4.99 you download the application to your iOS device (iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch). Then you download an additional program from the developer’s website which you install on your “target’s” computer. After that, anything written on the target’s computer is automatically shown on your i-device screen. Ynet called it “espionage for dummies.”

It’s fair to guess that most of the folks who ponied up the $5 were more interested in spying on their potentially straying spouses or that malicious pointy haired boss (shout out to Dilbert).

Even more in the “what were they thinking” category was Apple. Why did the iPhone giant – which runs every app through an in-depth review process – approve SpyKey in the first place? Did they buy Snir’s pitch? Or did someone at Apple want to use the app for him or herself perhaps?

We may never know. The app was taken down after just two days.