Saturday, February 14, 2009

We don't get fooled again!

"It is the worst thing for an Israeli to be, a freier in his own eyes and in the
eyes of other Israelis."
--Tom Segev, Israeli journalist and historian

There is an interesting and totally Israeli concept we discovered recently. And it explains a whole heck of a lot Israeli behavior. It seems like the essence of all Israelis, more than Zionism, is to never be a freier. What's a freier (also spelled fraier, frayer, frier)? It means sucker or chump or pushover.

It seems like the thing that Israelis fear most is being a freier, or even being perceived as being a freier. They don't like being taken advantage of or fooled, and they don't like being accused of doing it to someone else.

Thou shalt not be a freier

By Shahar Ilan

It doesn't just seem that the term freier (sucker), or more exactly - the abysmal fear of being a freier - is a completely Israeli matter. Several local researchers have investigated the Israeli institution of "the non-freier" in depth. One of them, Dr. Linda-Renee Bloch of Bar-Ilan University, explains that the term, which has Germanic roots, exists in other languages, including Russian, German, Polish and Romanian. But in some of them, its meaning is completely different. Even in other places where it describes someone whom others can easily fool, the concept of freier is not a cultural symbol like it is in Israel. Even the English word "sucker" doesn't play as central a role. During her research, Bloch collected more than 1,000 articles that mention being a freier. In the Haaretz newspaper alone, the word has appeared more than 1,000 times in the last decade.

Jeff was at lunch the other day with some co-workers who, in trying to edify him on the Israeli culture, explained the term freier to him. He told me that it was like a light bulb went off in his head. It's an Ah-Ha! moment, to be sure. Jeff told me about this concept, and I have been thinking about it non-stop. I am reminded of a lot of our dealings with Israelis. I don't want to label an entire nation, but the concept of not being a freier explains a whole lot of the reasons why Israeli behave the way that they do.

Simple things like why do Israelis rush onto an elevator on the ground floor instead of letting the others out? Why do Israelis take up two lanes in traffic and merge incessantly? Why do Israelis crowd to get on a plane or a theater even though there are assigned seats? Why are there no lines in Israel, just a mob of people in front of a door? Why do they bring a cart full of groceries into the express aisle? Why are Israelis so confrontational? I had read in other places that Israelis are rude. I had been told that Israelis are pushy. Israelis are none of these things. Israelis just refuse to be seen as a freier. Ah-ha!

After talks with Palestinians broke down yet again, then Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu proudly told Israeli journalists: "I am no freier! We are not suckers," he said. "Israel cannot give and give and not get anything back in return." Even now, talks are being held up because current PM Olmert says that there will be no deal unless Israel gets back the sole POW/hostage that Hamas had captured. One soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured two and a half years ago, is holding up peace talks. I found a t-shirt that read: Shalom Ken Frier Lo! Shalom=peace. Ken=yes. Frier=sucker. Lo=no. "Peace, yes. Frier, no!"

But even in everyday life, I see this behavior everywhere. Once I scrutinized a restaurant bill for a minute too long. The server rushed over to aid me. In broken English she went on and on trying to explain the charges, long after I had handed her a credit card. I said "it's ok, it's ok, I pay now." But she wanted to explain, so she got out her cell phone and called a friend for a translation. The extra charge was tax. She went to big lengths to explain because she didn't want me to feel like I was a freier.

Yesterday, there was a huge traffic jam on the freeway due to an accident and weekend traffic. Jeff, who is in essence an Israeli driver now, forced his way from the on-ramp into the incoming traffic. This is the way Israelis drive; they force themselves in. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the same car that Jeff 'cut off' was forcing his way back into traffic! The guy had maneuvered his way from behind our car to the oncoming lane again, just so that he could cut our car off. So Israeli! He didn't want to be seen as a freier.

I heard it explained like this: In America, a sucker is someone who buys a stereo out of the back of some guy's van in a parking lot. In Israel, a freier is someone who doesn't know about the guy with the van in the parking lot and instead goes and buys his stereo in a store.

Think of Israel this way, "the Jewish people have been freiers for 2000 years and they'll be damned if they're going to let it happen again. The thing is, this is sometimes taken to extremes. Some think that obeying the law (particularly when no one is watching) makes you a freier - paying parking tickets, obeying traffic laws or paying taxes can be a freier's hallmark. " -- from This American Life

It seems like being a freier applies to most everything. Rules especially. A freier follows the rules. And everyone knows that those who follow the rules are suckers. Those who get ahead in Israeli society know how to bend the rules to fit their own goals. I am not sure if that's why there are corrupt politicians here (there are corrupt politicians everywhere). But I know there is a whole lot of illegal parking!

I am now convinced that Israelis are not cheap. I don't think they haggle neccessarily to save money. I think they haggle (both sides, the seller and the consumer) because they do not want to be taken as a freier. Once when I was in the process of being short-changed at the shuk, the guy who was trying to cheat me smiled broadly and gave me back my correct change and an extra piece of bread. I think he was giving me his approval, "She may be an American, but she is no freier!"

Anyway, if you think about it, it's quite a big conundrum. Here you have a society where in almost every situation absolutely no one wants to be seen as a freier. Unstoppable force vs. immovable object. But compromises happen. People argue/negotiate. Things eventually get done. To me, though, it all seems like such a big waste of energy.

Here's some one's great blog post of being taken as a freier in a supermarket:

Another about not being a driving freier:

Finally, what has to say about kindness:

Monday, February 9, 2009

Election Day!

Tomorrow is Election Day here in Israel. While the country will effectively have a new president, they are actually voting for a party, not a candidate.

This top office is not called president, it's called Prime Minister, who is the head of the party that has the most seats in the Knesset (the Israeli senate basically, though there is no house of representatives). Israel has a president, Shimon Peres, but it's more of a ceremonial role. The Prime Minister must reach an accord between all of the many parties in Israel's coalition-style government.

So while there are maybe a dozen or more political parties, there are three front-running parties in the country. They are Kadima, Likud and Labor. Kadima and Likud are very close.

Kadima= Benjamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister
Likud=Tzipi Livni (a woman!), Minister of Foreign Affairs
Labor= Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister, current Minister of Defense
(also, the spoiler party, on the very hard right is Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party)

So when people go out to vote, they are voting for a list of candidates for each party. The party with the most votes gets to have their leader be Prime Minister. But since there are so many parties, the vote is split, and in order to get a majority, one of the front-running Prime Minister candidates needs to get the support of other parties to boost its numbers. The other parties are represented in the Knesset according to the share of votes they received. This election is kinda special, though, because the current Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert of Kadima, is resigning due to an investigation into corruption in his office. Though Livni won the September election, she was unable to form a government. So now there is a full-on election.
As you know, Israel has what one might call "instant citizenship". You come to Israel as a Jew and you can become a citizen if you like. That means that there are thousands of people voting in this election that are new citizens, many of them from Russia, many of them lacking basic Hebrew, and many of them haven't been here very long. If the current polls are any indication, a whole heck of a lot of these votes will go to the very hard right candidate Lieberman. One story I read quoted a rabbi saying that a vote for Lieberman is a vote for the devil. Why? He is so far right that it will surely bring up an uprising of the Arab community.
Also to the right, and currently the front-runner by a hair is Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi owes Hamas a debt of gratutide, because if it weren't for their incessant shelling and the susequent war, the country wouldn't be right as it is right now. Bibi will send Israel into war again, to be sure.
Livni, by comparison and though Defense Minister, is a moderate. She is 50 and has had a comparatively short political career. She was protege, kind of, of Ariel Sharon, who promoted her from within while he was Prime Minister. She seems to have the youth vote, which is sick of political corruption. Perhaps she is courting it: it was reported that she took over the DJ booth at a Tel Aviv night club over the weekend, giving a speech and then playing nationalistic songs.
Though the race is close between Livni and Bibi, with Bibi having a slight lead, the 'undecideds' are at 30% here. That's huge. When J and I went out to dinner and drinks that other night, I took an informal (and quite lubricated) poll of the people around us. Everyone hated all of the candidates, and was choosing the 'lesser of two evils'. Half of the people I talked to weren't going to vote, or said that the would make up their minds when they got to the polls. the other half were voting for Livni. When I asked the follow-up, "who do you think will win?" everyone, without a fault, said Netanyahu.
Hamas rockets are still dropping on Israel today, a day before the election, so it's no wonder that Netanyahu has an edge. Not to play the gender card, but in times of war, could a male-dominated society like this one actually vote for a woman? Even a woman who has been Defense Minister for years, and who once worked intellegence for Mossad? I don't want to be cynical, but I don't think so.
Back to Lieberman and how he plays in all of this. Here's some analysis that I read this morning in Haaretz: "Even if Kadima gets one or two more seats in the Knesset than Likud, Netanyahu, together with other right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties, will be substantially larger than the center-left bloc. And even if Lieberman joins Livni. she needs another right-wing party to form a government, because Meretz and the Arab parties won't support a government that includes Lieberman. Livni's bloc, which today stands at about 52 or 53 seats, will lose 12 or 13 spots the moment she goes with Lieberman." So Lieberman, while not having enough votes to win, could end up being a king- (or queen-) maker.
Up until the war ended, you wouldn't know that there was an election coming up. There were some billboards and ads, but not the amount that we have seen the past couple of weeks. The press seems to have covered the candidate equally.
I am not sure who is going to win. I like Livni because she was the candidate I saw most during the war coverage. She is tough and well-spoken and has this no-bull demeanor. It's not really clear what will happen if either candidate wins, either. But, once again, it's an exciting time to be in this country.
-----> Coming up in Bitai Avon: If all goes as planned, we are heading to Egypt next weekend. Also be on the lookout for a Purim report (it's the Jewish Halloween).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tu Bishvat

You've gotta love this country...they have special food for almost every holiday. A lesser holiday, but still one to celebrate with sweets, is Tu Bishvat; it's kinda like Jewish Arbor Day.

It's not an official holiday, no one takes off of work or anything, but school children celebrate, and there are programs in the country. There's a national program aimed at planting trees and kids have a little break during school and eat dried fruits and nuts. From (which answers all of our Jewish questions):

Tu B'Shvat is the new year for the purpose of calculating the age of trees for tithing. The Torah states that fruit from trees which were grown in the land of Israel may not be eaten during the first three years; the fourth year's fruit is for G-d, and after that, the fruit can be eaten. Each tree is considered to have aged one year as of Tu B'Shvat, no matter when in the year it was planted. It is customary to plant trees and partake of the fruits of the land of Israel to mark the occasion.

Jewish tradition posits that time is both linear (we are progressing) and circular (that each time of the year has a spiritual similarity to the same point in the other years). And so, just like a place can be holy, a particular time, being simply another dimension, can be holy. Just like a place can have a certain attribute, a particular time can have a certain attribute.

To put it in larger terms, Jewish holidays are _not_ a re-enactment of an event, or simply a memorial or remembrance of an event, but rather it celebrates an appropriate time for a particular aspect of human growth.

So the holiday used to have more of a practical purpose (determining tithes) rather than a fun one (trees are great and lets eat almonds). Now, the newspapers have huge special supplements advertising all the activities, and it's a day for people to visit the kibbutz and plant a tree. It *is* somewhat ironic that these special supplements in the newspapers are quite thick... But back to the holiday, it seems to have become very secular and more of an Earth Day kind of thing than anything remotely spiritual.

But I digress, I did mention cookies, didn't I! Seeing as almond trees are the first ones to bloom, their fruit (or nut, rather) takes center stage on Tu Bishvat. Almond cookies, and cookies stuffed with dried fruit are now all over the place. An article tells me that almonds are mentioned nine times in the bible. It says that almonds are one of the earliest cultivated foods in Israel. Almond in Hebrew is shaked, and the word actually means "wakeful hastening" in reference to it's impatient blossoms. The almond cookies that you get here are exactly like the ones you get in Chinese restaurants, but chewier.

So happy Tu Bishvat. I'm off to the bakery!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Here we go!

I have to explain why we both look so tired and terrible in this picture. It's 3 a.m.! The game started at 1:30 and we went to bed at 5. Here's the story.

After asking everyone all over for a place that might be showing the game, we just happen to walk past an Irish Pub two blocks from our hotel that had a sign outside advertising the game! It's amazing what you find when you take the wrong way back. The place was just perfect for watching the game. Lots of big tvs, and good beer, and they served a free buffet at half time.

So we took a nap from like 9pm until 12:30 or so and then got up and heading out to the pub. The place was crowded but we managed to get seats. On either side of us were groups of American exchange students. And holding court in another corner of the bar was a rabid Steeler fan, an American who has been living in Athens for 14 years, running a Mexican restaurant. Everyone tells everyone what town they are from, and where they went to college, and we all talk about how long it's been since we have been home.

It sounds corny, but I got very homesick during the national anthem. Not because it was the national anthem, but because it was quiet and I was in a bar surrounded by Steeler fans. This is a constant no matter where we have lived. There is always a Steeler bar, and there are always Steeler fans. Even in Athens. I wished the tables next to me weren't filled with exchange students, but my friends. You don't really miss home when you are taking on new adventures, but a slice of the familiar will make you well up. Or maybe it's because it's because it's one in the morning. I get weepy when sleepy.

But the game was so tense it was definitely keeping us awake. There were so many highs and lows, and we were sitting on the edge of our seats most of the time. Towards the end of the first quarter, we notice that there are some Cardinals fans in the house too, as they begin ratcheting up their score. And then, at the very end, our team won! After four hours sitting next to strangers, we were all high-fiving each other.

The night manager let us into the hotel and said, "your team won!" Our team won!


Never on Sunday

From the moment we stepped on the plane to the tune of piped-in bouzouki music, we knew we were taking off for some place very different from any place that we had been to before. We had 8 days in Greece, which is not a lot for this country, and we were going to make the most of it.

It's winter in Greece, so our plan was to skip the islands, all of them, and instead concentrate on sites close to Athens and the Peloponnese. We decided to rent a car and tour around the country, seeing as J. has the chops now to drive almost anywhere. We would hit the Peloponnese first, then drive to Delphi and finish up our stay in Athens.

We took a very early morning flight into Athens and through much trial and tribulation got the car and set off. Armed with just a couple of simple maps, we made it to the ancient site of Epidaurus. We met a curious couple on the way in (an older gentleman and his young companion...shades of ancient Greece?), but otherwise, we were the only ones there.

Allow me a digression. As I mentioned, it is winter in Greece, but all of the sites we visited were deserted. We were often the only ones staying at the smaller inns. We had all of ancient Greece to ourselves. There are troubles in all of the countries that we want to visit, but Greece seemed to be doing better since the huge riots of December (tens of thousands of people protested the police killing of a man then). I had read of some problems with the farmers of Greece the week before our trip, but thought it was the typical gas crunch issue. When we rented our car, the agent told us that up until a few hours earlier, the main roadways in and out of Greece had been blockaded by farmers.

He assured us that the route we wanted to take in and out of the Peloponnese was open now, but to keep a watch on the news. We entered through Corinth and then drove the seaside length of the Peloponnese to exit over the new Rio-Antirio bridge (which was so modern and sci-fi looking) to get to Delphi.

Back to Epidaurus. We were the only ones there. It was a little spooky at first, but after while it got to be fun. No one was around and we had the huge site to ourselves. The main attraction at Epidaurus is the Theatre. Set into a beautiful rolling hillside, the Theatre seemed to me to have perfect proportions. I had read in a book that from the very top row, you could hear a person rustle a piece of paper on the stage. J. went to the top to test it out. The acoustics are not quite that perfect, but the sound of one's voice resonating back from all that marble is quite simply the best karaoke machine in the world. We took turns singing, and then harmonizing from the stage, turning our heads every once in a while to make sure we were the only ones there.

We drove into the tiny town of 'modern' Epidaurus for lunch. We were starving, so we just went into the first place we saw with people. Those people happened to be a half dozen or so scruffy old Greek men sipping wine and ouzo, flipping their worry beads and lounging over the dregs of their lunch. We sat down and were greeted by a fat and happy old lady who brought us beers and told us the menu: 'fish or lamb' was all she said. We'll have one of each. Both were absolutely fantastic. The fish was a whole fish, unidentifiable by me, which had been liberally season with salt and then fried. The skin had become so salty and crisp, it was good by itself. I pointed at it and asked the lady, "what is this?" "Fish." The tender lamb was served in a rich curry-like stew with carrots and potatoes. We sopped up the broth with bread. So a whole fish, a big bowl of stew, basket of bread, a big platter of thinly sliced fried potato chips, a huge salad and two half liters of beer...less than $20! Our trip was off to a great start.

We drove through miles of olive trees and ended up in our stopping place for the night, the charming village of Nafplio. "Legend has it that Nauplios, grandson of the sea god Poseidon, founded the city. Nauplion passed from the Byzantines to the Franks in 1247, then to the Venetians, who fortified the city and Bourdzi Island. Turkish forces occupied the region in 1540..." Then it was recaptured by the Venetians and then went back to the Turks, etc. The old town where we stayed is a tiny little peninsula with a dozen streets and one heck of a beautiful sunset. There is the island fortification (Bourdzi) and a hilltop fortress called Palamidi (from the second Venetian occupation).

The old town was built for wandering, eating, drinking and shopping. And that is what we did. Dinner was forgettable, but for one thing: the first (and last) time I tasted retsina. Retsina is a white or blush wine which has been aged in pine barrels. The nose, and unfortunately the taste, are all of pine resin. I woke up with a very bad headache the next day, and only after a couple of glasses of the stuff. I guess you have to try everything, even that which is bad.

Bright and early the next morning, we packed up the car and headed for Mycenae. This is also another site where we saw only one other couple. Another 'according to legend' story: Mycenae was founded by Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae who supposedly erected the city's massive stone walls with the help of Cyclops (yes, those Cylcops). The man who unearthed Mycenae claimed that he had found the grave of Agamemnon (though that was believed for a time, it was later discovered that these ruins were too old). But the really aren't new at all. They could be the oldest rocks I have ever seen. 16C BC. That's old.

You enter the site through a massive gate topped by two now headless lions. Immediately on the right after you enter are the double walled circular burial tombs. They are just so curious looking, almost alien-looking, ringed by these headstone-like rocks. Further up through the site are the remains of a palace and ramparts, but it's the graves that make this site interesting.

I guess it's the graves that give us almost all of the objects we see in the museums. Had people not been buried with this all this stuff, it would not have survived.

Anyway, back in the car and heading for the long drive to Delphi. Half of the drive is along the coast of the Peloponnese, which is beautiful. Then you cross over the bridge (we could have taken a ferry, but decided on the bridge) to the other side and it is almost mountainous. Very different landscapes. We drove alongside the mainland mountains for an hour and a half and then come upon a vast plane of olive trees. But as you drive the miles and miles through them, you begin to climb up a hill. Up and up and up the signs point to Delphi. Looking down you can see that there must be thousands of olive trees in the valley. They extend almost to the ocean, and that's what you see: a vast swath of green and then the very blue sea. It's breathtaking.

We walked through the little town of Delphi which seems to exist for tourists who aren't there. We found a restaurant and sat by the window and watched the sea and the olive trees until the sun went down. The wine tonight is much better than last night's retsina! We wandered around town until we find a semi-full restaurant. They must all be locals who live further up the hill. The place smells of wood smoke, so I know what I am ordering...meat, grilled meat. I get lamb and J. gets something unidentifiable (both are very good). From the edge of my seat I can see the kitchen. There is no chef, really, he is more of a butcher. He has a massive cleaver, and he cuts every dish to order. I see an order of lamb chops go through. A thundering and confident whack cleaves another chop off the big cage, and then he hammers it with the side of his blade to flatten it. A little seasoning, onto the grill it goes. Another fantastic meal, also very cheap.

It is raining and cold in the morning and we bundle up and lumber out to see Ancient Delphi. The story is better than the site: Delphi was founded by Zeus, and by the 2C it was a holy place dedicated to the Goddess Gaia and her daughter Thermis, who as the story goes was guarded by her son, the snake Python. "A hymn attributed to Homer tells how the god Apollo in 750 BC killed the Python and took his place, giving oracles through a priestess known as the Pythia (later called the Delphic Sibyl). The priestess (always a woman over 50 whose life was beyond reproach) would go into the temple and enter a trance, delivering ambiguous replies. ...During it's hey-day Delphi attracted pilgrims from all over the Greek World, from Spain to the Black Sea."

Blah, blah, blah: there's a treasury, sacred way, theater, temple and museum. Perhaps it's the weather, or the fact that we locked our keys in the rental car that morning, but we are not digging Delphi. As the rain starts to come down, we decide to leave for Athens.

High in the mountains we pass through a couple of ski towns (which are packed with tourists) and then come upon a taverna. We are famished, lunch is served. The taverna overlooks a mountain, and though the menu is in English and the place seems kinda touristy, the food turnd out to be great. We order the plat du jour, menu del dia, blue plate special and end up with a very filling and wonderful three course lunch. It starts with salads and snacks that include kebabs and stuffed cabbage, then onto a huge wood fired half of a chicken (for me) and then finally, some kind of apple strudel/pie thing with a thick cream anglais-style topping. I fall asleep in the car and Jeff wakes me when we get close to Athens.

It's a long day when we finally get to our hotel in Athens, the Ocher & Brown. It is plush and posh and the bed feels oh so good. I am too stuffed from lunch for dinner, so J heads out and gets a gyro. He loves it so much that we go back there in a couple of days.

The next day brings more rain, so after our included a three course breakfast, we head to the National Archaeological Museum. The museum houses the actual ruins of Mycenae, a huge collection of classical art, kouros, and most notably for me, Cycladic art.

Do me a favor and go to Google images and type in "cycladic art". I lack the capability to explain these pieces, but they are again, almost alien, and modern-looking, like Brancusi sculptures; though they are from 3000-2000BC. These sometimes faceless sculptural interpretations of the human figure are smooth and compact, with arms tucked close into the body. They have faces that look like the back of a shovel and totem-like bodies that are interpretation of human form, not the idealizes copies that you see in classic Greek sculpture. Like so much on this trip, Cycladic art is new to me, and a wonderful personal discovery.

You know what's cool? J. knows all of the ancient Greek myths. I am sure I took a class somewhere along the way, but I have long forgotten them. Though I am not sure if his knowledge is garnered by way of Graves, or Clash of the Titans, most of our trip has been comprised of him telling me stories. It's a lot of fun, being told stories, and he seemed to like telling them too.

The next day in Athens brings a lot of sun and the pinnacle of our trip, the Acropolis. The Acropolis is one of those places that I am almost afraid to see; one of those places that you have seen so many pictures of, you wonder if it can possibly compare to the images already lodged in your head.

Like most things in our travels, getting there is half the battle. The Acropolis sits on the top of seemingly the highest hill in the city, and you see it every time you turn a corner. So after climbing to the top, passing by yet another theater, you go through the grand Beule Gate. On the right is the Temple to Athena Nike and on the left is a massive pillar (atop which used to sit the Agrippa Monument). Though in a perpetual state of construction, this is all pretty impressive. And then you climb and come upon another gate, the impressive Propilea. Go through that and there is it. It sure is spectacular.

Much has been written about the Parthenon, about it's perfect proportions and intricate construction. I will say this, it's big and it's falling apart. It is undergoing massive renovations too. But I like it all tumbled down. Like your hair-do when you wake up on the morning after your wedding, or the table after a New Year's party: everything's all falling apart and somewhat smashed in places. But it still looks good, and you can see what used to be.

Also on the Acropolis is Porch of the Caryatids, see the photo at the top of this post, all of statues are copies. In the far corner of the Acropolis is a outcropping with a large Greek flag. Here's the story:

"When the Germans occupied Athens in WWII, the Evzone who guarded the Greek flag which flew from the Acropolis, was ordered by the Nazis to remove it. He calmly took it down, wrapped himself in it and jumped to his death.

The plaque by the flag commemorates Manolis Glezos and Apostolis Santas, the two eighteen year-old heroes who tore down the Nazi flag flying from the Acropolis on the night of May 30th, 1941. It is of particular interest because these names are known not only by Greeks, but by many Europeans, because this act of courage and resistance to Nazi oppression was an inspiration to all subjected people."

We saw many more ruins and museums on our trip, so these are the highlights. As usual, if you want to see more pictures, they are posted here: