Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tips for Jewish Tourists

The following addresses Jewish tourists of all denominations.

Going to Europe? Great! Good for you. You surely deserve a break. Here are a few useful tips. Please do not let anything get to you, it has already gotten to us. All that follows is based on actual facts.

1. Planning trips in advance is a great idea. Planning them 10 months in advance is a bit over the top, but hey, it’s your life. Mapping out your itinerary is commendable. Calling people at 4:30 AM in August to inquire about Kosher facilities for your February trip is strongly discouraged. Remember, there is a world outside Brooklyn and it has different time zones. Your evening is our [very, very] early morning and we’re tired. Thank you.

Some of you like to jump on a plane with no prior notice and land in exoticlandia with your backpack, ready to conquer a strange land with your globally renowned charm and wit and powerful dollar.
Ah the sweet spontaneity of youth. It’s great, you know, but please try not to call us 2 hours before the Seder, looking for a host for yourself and your five giggling JAPS friends. We love guests and so do other families, but food and table space are limited. We love you and care for you and you’re special because you’ve come ALL-THE-WAY-FROM-AMERICA! but there are hundreds of people just like you. We’d know, they call us all the time. And guess what, I came from America too but I still have to peel mountains of potatoes.

Rabbis have families.
Gasp! I know!
So if you’re stuck in the airport and have nowhere to go (whaddya mean, nowhere to go? Play tourist!) think twice before ringing our bell at 7:30 am because you need a place to daven. First of all, there are shuls. Second, sometimes the rabbi’s children come home for Pesach and some of them may be sleeping in the living room, so where do you want to don teffilin, in the kitchen? And that bell is annoyingly loud. Grumble.

The needs of the local community often come before the needs of the tourist. Sorry, that’s the reality. We’ll gladly advise you, but we can’t baby-sit you.

We will gladly answer questions about shul hours and locations, mikveh, kosher food, phone numbers of rabbis in adjacent cities. However, we cannot understand why someone would ask a rabbi for hotel recommendations and sightseeing tips. We have a typed list of hotels and youth hostels, but we can’t give you the exact rates, vacancies and cross streets. Nor could we spend the day on the phone explaining how to get to all the tourist spots. Call information, or look it up on the internet. One more thing: I don’t know if the main synagogue is north or south of your hotel. Cities here are a jumble of short streets and alleys and we don‘t carry a compass. You will find no North and South on street names. We won’t hang up on you if you ask all these strange questions, but think twice before doing so and buy a guidebook. Pretty please.

Don’t ask stupid questions.

Relatives and close friends get the special treatment of course, but if you are my father’s cousin’s neighbour’s teacher’s friend don’t expect us to move one of the kids to the sofa in order to accommodate you. The frum world has grown and we just cannot operate that way anymore. You’re welcome to come over for a meal or two or three, but we need our sleep too.

Kosher food is either nonexistent or expensive. When planning your trip, try to obtain a list of available foods in the countries you will be visiting (e.g. certain brands of Tuna fish) and bring some non-perishables like instant soups and pastas.

Taking pictures of/at famous spots: cool. Taking pictures without knowing what you’re looking at= not cool. Did you make the trip just so you could tell your friends you’ve been here, or do you actually want to learn something?

At the Shabbos tables, tourists often like to discuss the peculiarities of the country they are visiting. That’s perfectly fine, but please stop wrinkling your nose and proclaiming how ‘strange’ everything is. It’s not strange, it’s different. You can’t expect the whole world to look like Israel or America. And don’t expect to understand the natives. You’re here to have fun, don’t give us a thorough analysis of our country based on the work of a NYT correspondent. He died in in 1992. Yes, we read English. But we eat with our hands to entertain you and give you something to write home about.

Euros are expensive.

If you’re too broke to afford a Youth Hostel, don’t travel.

Don’t commit embarrassing indiscretions. The Jewish world is a small one. You know what I'm talking about.

There are many decent tourists whom we enjoy helping out. This tirade was obviously directed at the more demanding and troublesome visitors. Just remember that the world doesn’t revolve around you and your trip, and all will be fine.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hidur Mitzvah or Exaggeration Central?

Last week, a local mini-mart went from grocery+fruit store to Tu B'shvat Higia chag la'ilanot.
Half of the store was filled with dry fruit of all shapes and colors, a full two weeks before the 15th of Shvat, and I had to go elsewhere for some products.

I don't know how Tu B'shvat worked for you, but in my days we learned about the day, sang a few songs, planted a sappling in the school yard and had some dry apricots and raisins, then went on with our lives. In Israel I learned that people had a Seder Tu B'shvat with a variety of fruits, not too overblown.

Whenever I enter the mini-mart and see the abundance of strange fruit, I'm torn between two thoughts:

1. Isn't it nice how people use giant Menorahs on Chanukah and spend loads of money on exotic dried mangoes for Tu B'shvat? Maybe we should all try to aggrandize mitzvahs!

2. Who am I kidding, Hidur Mitzvah my foot. It's Brooklyn materialism at its best, my house is more bourgeois than yours, my menorah is bigger and my Tu B'shvat fruit more expensive. My store has 300 varieties of raisins, how about yours?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Living large in Switzerland

I came across a compatriot's letter to a journalist. In the missive, he describes the way his friends live in Lucerne, Switzerland. Ready for the figures? Here they come.

The writer's friend is a 30 year old High School teacher who earns 10.000 Sfr* (6200 Euro, or 8002.34 USD) a month. This is considered an average salary.
His wife is a hospital doctor who earns around 20.000 sfr per month. The couple enjoys a high quality of life in Lucerne: their monthly expenses total about 5,000 sfr, spent in this fashion (amounts refer to Swiss francs):

1400 for a 5 room apartment (that's not counting the bathrooms and kitchen), 150 for maintenance, electricity and phone (there is no gas), 600 for food etc, 800 for restaurants and cinema (at least twice a week), 300 for clothing.
We're up to 3250. The remaining 1750 include various expenses such as car insurance, gas, the gym, tennis club, two yearly trips, gifts, etc.
In short, the Swiss couple does not lack anything in life, yet these two manage to save about 25,000 sfr a month! That makes 186,000 sfr a year in savings. (Conve

Are you moving yet?

*Also known as CHF

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Measures and weights

That time of year has arrived, when one has no choice but go shop. After navigating the multicultural, dense, unwashed biomass otherwise known as your local Shoprite on Sunday at last the cashier was in sight and all eight hundred ninety seven and a half items are sticking out of all orifices in the shopping cart.

Beady-eyed, patently indifferent store clerk starts scanning in the agriculturals, probably thinking how these people are preparing to spend the rest of the decade in a nuclear fallout shelter, cut off from all civilization. As she swings those bags left and right, all beeping and flashing and blinking like a NORAD situation room, my antenna tells me that something is wrong. Not sure what or how yet, but the number stream just doesn't make sense.

Aha, I say. Are those onions ? -- Why yes, they are ! -- The Chilean Sweet Obscenely Mutated ones ? -- Yup, that's them.

At that point, I had to rehash my memories. I wasn't quite sure if even fertile Chilean soil was capable of producing onions that weigh in excess of a pound. She brings over the manager. I propose calling the Guinness Book of Records, and probably someone with a Geiger counter as well - as we all know, pound-onions are a staple food of the Hulk. After much whining, manager is persuaded to reweigh the bloody thing. And lo and behold - different scale reports only a half of proposed mass.

Long story short, the salesgirl had her umbrella hanging on the scales. It will take a full blown audit from Deloitte and Touche to find out how much exactly of their quarterly earning this girls umbrella was responsible for. And we had to rescan every darn item. But at least this check did not exceed the gross national product of Mozambique.

It appears that...

...more and more people are coming to realize that there is a very well balanced middle ground. All I can say is.... doh?

Friday, January 12, 2007

New York, New York

What makes NYC ugly is the windows. Apartment buildings and Brooklyn homes would look so much nicer with these:

As opposed to these monstrosities:
These space-saving excuses for portals to the world are not even sealed well. In my previous apartment I was forced to cover the interior of the windows with plastic sheeting sealed with clear tape, in order to avoid the cold drafts. Even with the heat on at full force, one cannot escape the wrath of the NY window.
Now, in our 6th floor bedroom, an icy draft blows onto the beds. I am reluctant to repeat the plastic sheet process, because we do occasionally need fresh air.

However, things get really bad at night when for some reason the heat is off. Yes, off. Don't sleeping people need heat? What about people like me who get up a few times throughout the night and nearly freeze to death just going to the bathroom at 4 am? What if there are people in the building who work at night? Or old people who start the day bright and early at 3:30 am?

Tsk, progress.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Jewish Blogs, Promoters of Ill Will

Why is it that 90% of Jewish blogs have such a negative tone to them? We're all tired of hearing that bad news sells the papers, but alas, the expression still holds true.
It's good that issues are discovered and dealt with, I just can't bear it when things are blown out of proportion, usually by renegades but not always.

Anybody who has been or has known the subject of a news story knows to what degree the facts are often distorted, stretched, even falsified. Once the entire media world picks up on an occurrence and misrepresents it, you know never to trust the news outlets. That's where the exploding world of bloggers came in, it all seemed so idyllic, until bitterness took over.

There are plenty of interesting bloggers who try to present accurate facts and analysis of them. There are honest political, linguistic or Torah-related bloggers who don't get too mixed up in the pettiness blogging sometimes carries with it. Sadly though, the majority of Jewish bloggers seem inclined to denigrate, and this small percentage of the Jewish population represents Judaism to many of those who only learn about us through online interaction.

Things often sound so much worse on paper. An example is the chassidic world which is very often criticized; readers probably imagine neighborhoods full of people with grim long faces, black and white lives, curtailed childhoods. The truth is usually the opposite, proof of a couple of unsatisfied residents shouldn't blind one to the fact that there are plenty of smiling, giggling, colorful chassidim about.

Another matter I've noticed is the way people who belong to one group within Judaism often criticize all groups which they disagree with or even strongly despise, however they will not tolerate criticism of their own. An example is Chabad: criticism of this movement is live and loud, you will find something nearly every day of the week, but when a Chabadnik tentatively attempts to criticize or analyze the Litvish world, woe unto him or her, commenters immediately attempt to shush the blogger, they viciously write that the Chabadnik has no right to do this. Logic?

There are many problems in the real world, but not all are as prevalent as the bloggers try to make them sound. Coming from a non religious town, I wish I could grab some of the bloggers who live in frum communities and tell them how lucky they are, how ungrateful they are for all they have. They don't realize how much has been given to them, what they were born into, and how much potential they have to rectify problems. It breaks my heart sometimes.

This is why I should stop checking JRants.