Darkness at the edge of town

As the darkness settled over us, I felt an unanticipated sense of panic. I had been expecting to be unsettled, startled, certainly disoriented; I didn’t realize it would bring up so many deep and hidden emotions.

To set the stage: my wife Jody and I were dining in the Black Out Restaurant at the Nalaga’at Center in Jaffa. Nalaga’at calls itself a “cultural, entertainment and training center” for deaf, blind and deaf-blind Israelis. A troupe of a dozen actors puts on a play each evening that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming as it illustrates what it’s like to live with their particular disabilities.

Many theatergoers choose to start their night with a meal at the Black Out, a restaurant where blind and seeing impaired waiters guide their guests through a meal in total darkness. Not just “dark,” but total – not a speck of light seeped through the heavy curtains. We were even instructed to check our cell phones before entering, to prevent any light if they flashed from swarming through the room like Internet-savvy fireflies.

Our waitress Ma’ayan introduced herself to us and then led us to our table by placing hands on shoulders. We had to feel for our chairs, locate our water and glasses and silverware as if we were blind – which for the next two hours we essentially were.

There are two meal options at the Black Out – dairy and fish; we opted for the former. Within each option, there are three entrees and a “surprise me” choice, where the chef picks the dish and the diners try to discern what they’ve been served (mine was some sort or ravioli with sweet potato and peas – unusual but good).

First, though, we were brought a basket of fresh baked bread, pre-buttered with garlic and dried tomatoes. Perhaps (or probably) because one of our senses had been taken away, the taste of the bread was astonishing.

Jody and I also used the breadbasket to navigate the table, and to find each other’s hands to hold as the volume from the other diners in the small space cranked up towards metal head level, threatening to sonically overwhelm us. Ma’ayan explained that when you can’t see someone and you’re not used to that, you naturally tend to shout. The ears also compensate for the lack of sight, amplifying everything.

Which is when I started to panic. The sound level, which I am loathe to call deafening for abuse of a cliché, although it might nevertheless be the most appropriate, became oppressive, much like the humidity we’d earlier slogged through outside on the Jaffa beach.

I became silent. Jody tried to engage me in conversation. I couldn’t respond. It was then Jody’s turn to panic – had I left the table without telling her? Where was her usually unstoppably chatty husband?

Upon hearing Jody’s concern, I snapped out of my momentary melancholy fairly quickly, but my words were forced, uttered more for the sake of compassion than ordinary discourse.

Once the main meal came, my alarm was mitigated somewhat. I tried my best to eat with a fork, but lapsed too often into using my hands – after all, no one could see me, right?

Everyone will react differently to the temporary deprivation of one or more of their senses. Jody was calm but couldn’t keep her eyes open. My response to the sounds around me (made worse by the presence of a particularly boisterous group of un chaperoned teenagers) was not entirely surprising: I have always been sensitive to noise and the Black Out restaurant magnified that susceptibility a hundredfold. I can’t imagine how it must be to live like this all the time. I am thankful I don’t have to. And saddened that others do not have that choice.


New CD captures Kabbalat Shabbat in Tel Aviv

The new CD from Tel Aviv's Beit Tefilah

It’s Friday in Israel and, as sun begins to set later this afternoon, more than 1,000 people will gather at the Tel Aviv Port to welcome the Sabbath Bride. It’s the weekly Kabbalat Shabbat service, run by the Tel Aviv-based Beit Tefilah Israel (“House of Israeli Prayer”), an organization which has set for itself the task of building ” an active Jewish community which speaks to the breadth of the secular public.”

Now, the egalitarian, pluralistic Beit Tefilah has released its first CD with music from their popular Friday service by the beach. The CD has 17 songs which are performed by the Beit Tefilah Ensemble, led by Atalya Lavi who participated as a contestant on the ninth season of “Kochav Nolad,” Israel’s version of American Idol.

The CD – called “A Tel Aviv Prayer” – includes both classic Kabbalat Shabbat liturgical works (such as Lecha Dodi and Adon Olam) and music composed to Israeli poetry (for example Haim Bialik’s Shabat HaMalka). There is even a Hebrew version of the Louis Armstrong song “What a Wonderful World” that substitutes for one of the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat.

Beit Tefilah isn’t the first Israeli congregation to release an album of its music. Jerusalem’s Jewish Renewal community Nava Tehila did that already a few years back and has started work on a second CD.

The new Beit Tefilah CD is for sale online at If you want to try before you buy, every song is available to stream from the site too.


Sweating the small stuff too

Hutzot HaYotzer arts and crafts festival

While it’s the big news that gets all the headlines, sometimes it’s the small stuff that’s the hardest to sweat. Last week, terrorists attacked along the Israel-Egypt border just north of Eilat. The ensuing days have been filled with IDF strikes and Gazan counterattacks. More people have died.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, the seminal rap-rock band HaDag Nahash was playing a concert at Sultan’s Pool as part of the annual Hutzot HaYotzer arts and crafts festival. Our 17-year-old daughter Merav had a plan to dance up a storm with her friends at the show. She got all dolled up, then received a phone call.

“There’s a terror alert in Mamila (the mall that is adjacent to Sultan’s Pool). Everyone’s been ordered to get off the street and hide in the stores. There are police everywhere. It’s really serious,” her friend on the phone said.

“What should I do?” Merav asked us. “I want to go…”

“…but you don’t want to die,” I finished her sentence.

“Right,” she responded.

We checked the news. There was indeed a “high alert” going on in Jerusalem, but it was mostly along the highways entering the city from the north and west – Highway 443 was reported to have back-ups for up to 10 km coming towards the checkpost from Modi’in. But nothing written about trouble in town.

“If they’re locking down the mall, they must have some good lead,” I speculated.

“Maybe I could get to the concert from the other side,” Merav offered.

“No, they’ll have closed everything,” I said.

“And the other way is kind of dark,” Merav remembered. “Oof, this sucks! I really like HaDag Nahash.”

“And I really like you…alive,” I replied. I wish I were trying to be ironic.

Merav sat in the kitchen, now with two of her friends. While we’d tried to leave the decision up to Merav (with some strongly worded parental advice), one of her friends had much stricter marching orders.

“My mom says I can’t even leave your house,” she said gloomily.

The truth is, this kind of terror lock down has been pretty rare in recent years. During the early 2000s, it was a nearly daily occurrence, but nowadays we take for granted that we can sit at a Café Aroma and sip an iced limon-nana on a warm Jerusalem night with carefree abandon.

But an arts and crafts festival with tens of thousands of nightly attendees makes a pretty good spot for an attack. It’s a reminder that, despite our protestations and blogs to the contrary, Israel is not quite yet that “normal” nation we proffer it to be.

And yet the contrary is just as true: we say (and we mean it) that we won’t let the bad guys stop us from living our lives. If Merav had received a call just then saying the threat had passed, she would have been on the next bus to town, with our blessing.

The girls wound up reluctantly taking a pass on the show. We watched a family movie instead: “The Invention of Lying.” It was an amusing distraction.

Later, Merav talked to a friend of hers who had made it to the show. It was amazing, Merav quoted. “But he said everyone was terrified. They spent the whole concert looking around, trying to spot if there was a terrorist in the crowd.” She added, almost parenthetically, that she was, in fact, glad she hadn’t gone in the end.

There was no terror attack and the threat level was lifted by morning. My wife and I are scheduled to attend the festival and show on Tuesday (Ehud Banai is playing live). And unless the roads are closed, we’ll be there, defiant, proud and enjoying a warm Jerusalem evening.


El Al – just like home (and with the nomination to prove it)

Airline Passenger Experience Association

Earlier in the week, I wrote about dropping my youngest son at the airport to fly as an “unaccompanied minor” to Los Angeles. We could have chosen many different airlines – Delta, Continental, US Air, or a flight routed via Europe – but we opted for El Al. For many Israelis and Jews, it’s sort of a gut reaction – of course, we’ll choose El Al, they’re the safest. And we’re supporting the Zionist endeavor.

Then, those of us who are old enough to remember, will shudder with memories of surly stewardesses and a seating configuration in coach that packed twice the number of rows into the same space as a comparable transatlantic flight, resulting in a situation where, if the guy in front of you leans back while you’re eating, you don’t need a spoon to eat your yogurt. And then there was El Al’s well deserved nickname “Every Landing Always Late.”

But, as Mr. D. would intone, the times they are a-changin.

El Al has been nominated for six awards from the Airline Passenger Experience Association in Overall Flight Experience, Best In-Flight Magazine, Best Ground Experience, Outstanding Safety Video, Best Cabin Ambiance and the Middle East regional category.

APEX includes as members most of the world’s regular airlines, as well as media corporations, marketing companies, and plane and flight equipment manufacturers. The award ceremony will be held next month during the APEX 2011 EXPO in Seattle, Washington.

Other than the best magazine and safety video (which are mere distractions from the main show), the other nominations are quite impressive. They will of course be no surprise for travelers flying El Al in recent years. The flight attendants are delightfully Israeli (meaning both brash and willing to overlook the rules – “you want to store that oversized duffle bag in the aisle – no problem”) and the hot bagels and pita are pretty tasty, especially compared with the half frozen kosher TV dinner option on Czech Air (really, don’t get me started).

The category for Best Cabin Ambience makes me smile – I wonder who the voters are? Probably weighted heavily with other Israelis. Because if there’s one thing you can say with certainty, it’s that from the moment you board an El Al flight, you’ll feel like you’re visiting long lost family from Holon: lots of talking (at all hours of the night), heavy gesticulation (“sorry, was that your drink?”), and unrepentant hogging of the arm rests if you’re lucky (downright snoozing on your shoulder if you’re particularly prone to snagging snorers).

Some 60,000 passengers from all over the world took part in this year’s survey, which included about 70 airlines from 37 countries. Go team blue and white!


Unaccompanied minor

I took my 13-year-old son to the airport last night. He was flying as an “unaccompanied minor” to Los Angeles to meet up with his grandparents who have promised him two weeks of unmitigated American fun (roller coasters, beaches and all you can eat sushi – yum, I wish I was 13 again!)

The unaccompanied minor (or UM, as the El Al staff calls them) program is a mini-industry for the airlines. There must have been a dozen kids, ranging in age from six to fifteen, in the posse, all wearing their UM plastic pouches draped around their necks. For the privilege of keeping their kids from wandering astray in the duty free, buying 12-packs of Toblerones, parents pay $100 each way.

We got to the airport the proscribed three hours before the flight – usually that feels excessively cautious, but seeing the crowds jostling towards the check in counters during one of the busiest summers in history at Ben Gurion International, I was thankful to have the time.

I wasn’t sure exactly where to go – I’d been told something about a mysterious “counter 98” – so I went to ask a security person. “Come with me,” she said somewhat sternly. Uh, oh, I thought.  Had I done something wrong? Nah, she was jumping us ahead of the thousand or so sweaty passengers to the front of the line. Cool – this was better than in the years when I got to stand in the “short line” to fly business class!

This also presented us with a problem – er, an opportunity – since we now had nearly two hours free before the UM’s were supposed to return to counter 98 to be collected by the El Al staff and whisked through security and passport control.

There aren’t a lot of pickings in the shopping lounge open to the public at the airport. A McDonald’s, a couple of cafes and a Pizza Hut. Also a pharmacy and a Steimatzky’s selling overpriced books that you can buy for half once you cross the Atlantic (hey, how come the social justice movement isn’t protesting the high price of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union?)

My son ordered a sandwich and a water. NIS 40, the kiosk salesperson said. Yowza, can you say price gouging of a captive audience. My slice of pizza was NIS 18 – just earlier in the day my son complained that he’d had to spend NIS 12 for a slice at the mall and that was pushing it.

We ate slowly, talked about the trip, the excitement of flying alone, and the Flash Pass Uncle Dave bought for the their day trip to the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. Before we knew it, the two hours were up and I was hugging my big boy goodbye as he was sucked through the bowels of Terminal 3.

As I drove home, I thought about the time when I first flew alone, also to my grandparents, and how such an adventure marks a kind of rite of passage, even more momentous than the bar mitzvah that preceded my son’s trip just a few months before. Sure, getting an aliyah to the Torah is nice, but sitting in a window seat without your parents and ordering as much Coca Cola as you want – now that’s the real deal!