My Word: Good times, bad times

There is a fun side to Israel that those of us who live here take for granted and those who don’t live here can barely imagine.

Jerusalem Light Festival, Damascus Gate  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem Light Festival, Damascus Gate
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Lighten up, Liat! Your opinion pieces have become so depressing lately.” Thus urged a “disappointed” reader. And he has a point. But it’s one thing to try to be witty and it’s altogether another to write a lighthearted op-ed on the threat from Tehran; Turkey’s less delightful side; the tragedy of the migrants; the recollections of past wars; or any other topic I have tackled recently. Very few writers can sustain biting satire on such subjects. Me? After a few attempts, I find that any laughter is my own, expressed in gasps of hysteria, mercifully muffled because my tongue is stuck in my cheek. It’s one of those areas I prefer to leave for cartoonists whose political caricatures can depict the situation in a few neat lines and even fewer words.
The former fan who feels I failed him did get me thinking, however, about the stories I haven’t covered in my column this month. So, despite the missiles falling in the South (and almost center of the country) and no reason to feel reassured that any new regime in either Cairo or Damascus would significantly improve our sense of security, I nonetheless offer a review of some of Israel’s other burning issues.
Top of the list: The weather. Yes, it is not the metaphorical heat that has been getting us down – we’re used to that – it’s the heatwave. In common wisdom, the weather is one of those things that everybody talks about but nobody does anything about. Judging by the last two reports of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, if he were not retiring next month, he could conceivably put together a commission of inquiry that would conclude that ultimately it’s the fault of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz playing a supporting role for failing to fund research or something. It doesn’t really matter what he writes in his reports because sadly we all know that even those who read them soon forget them.
Still, the unusually hot June days have meant that life as we enjoy it focuses on cool nighttime activities or making the most of having a Mediterranean coastline.
Fortunately, Israel does not lack a night life – and not only in Tel Aviv, the City that Never Sleeps.
June 6 is a date weighed down in Israeli history as marking the start of both the Six Day and the First Lebanon wars, 45 and 30 years ago respectively.
This year, I found myself in a completely different world.
Opera does that for me – transports me somewhere else. Physically, I was at the foot of Masada, the desert fortress which is more a national symbol than a tourist site; mentally I was following the emotional havoc Carmen leaves in her wake wherever Bizet’s opera is performed.
In order to attend the dress rehearsal of the Israeli Opera’s Spanish extravaganza, I turned down a press tour of the opening of Jerusalem’s Light Festival and the start of Hebrew Book Week (not that I’m complaining).
It strikes me that this is the side of Israel that those of us who live here take for granted and those who don’t live here can barely imagine.
The opera festival premiere, for instance, was screened live at different sites around the country for those who either couldn’t get to the stunning desert location or (more likely) couldn’t afford it. Among the locations with the free screening was Gan Hashlosha (Sachne) National Park, an oasis of natural pools in the Beit Shean Valley once voted by Time magazine one of the 20 off-the-beaten track attractions in the world.
Jerusalem is probably the best-known city in the world. Its cultural life, however, is still a little known secret. This year, the Light Festival outshone the veteran Israel Festival, whose shows and art performances were taking place the same time.
Hebrew Book Week is also a sign of spring in the Holy Land. It is one of the country’s best inventions, living proof that the People of the Book still have a place in their hearts and homes for the written word. Data published ahead of the event revealed that on average a book is published in Israel every 80 minutes (“far outnumbering the incidents of violent crime,” as one cynic pointed out.) All over the country, open air stalls are set up offering special deals and the public devours them as much as Americans would enjoy free apple pie. This year, the celebration of the Hebrew language was marked with a heated debate (including in the Knesset) about the rights and royalties of Israeli authors. While the readers feast on the special three-for-the-price-of-two deals, writers say the discounts leave them starving.
Another hot topic of discussion was the fate of the winnings of Chess Grandmaster Boris Gelfand. It seemed like the whole country followed the games Gelfand played against India’s Viswanathan Anand in a dramatic face-off that determined the final outcome of the World Chess Championship in Moscow on May 30. Even though he ultimately lost, Gelfand returned home to a deserved hero’s welcome and an across the board debate over whether it was fair that his runner’s up prize money be taxed.
The annual Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv raised neither eyebrows nor passionate discourse. Even the posting of a Gay Pride feature on the IDF’s official website would not have gained much attention had it not been for the debate about the ethics of staging the photo of two male soldiers holding hands. (That gays serve in the Israeli army is a given.) The fate of the illegal migrants certainly produced headlines. The dilemmas and stories are heartbreaking. Last week witnessed the departure of a planeload of migrants for South Sudan in “Operation Going Back Home.”
Many of the refugees noted they were heading for the unknown in the perilously poor, newborn state – still under threat from its larger Muslim neighbor. I couldn’t help but think we’ve come a long way since refugees and idealists headed to the nascent Israel in 1948.
It’s a good job we didn’t wait for peace to miraculously happen before building the country and being able to enjoy life. We’d still be waiting.
This month also saw myriad celebrities visit Israel and leave starry-eyed.
The list included Madonna who launched her world tour in Tel Aviv; US actor David Arquette who came to film an episode of his travel show and, at age 41, celebrated a belated bar mitzva at the Western Wall; and Google chairman Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt praised “the start-up nation” as a miracle and told the prime minister he appreciated that military service of Israeli citizens gives them a huge advantage in the hi-tech field, making them more mature, independent and organized.
Also last week, Facebook announced it was buying the Israeli company for an estimated sum of between $80 million and $100 million.
At least Israelis are turning the bitter lemons of the security situation into something far more palatable.
May the miracles (and the little pleasures) never cease; may the missiles (and the heatwave) stop soon.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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