Fear and Loathing – the fight for sanity in the Middle East and beyond.

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The saying goes that the first casualty of war is truth – but when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians it seems that it’s sanity that goes out of the window as the firing begins. This conflict is the political equivalent of LSD – distorting the senses of all those who come into contact with it, and sending them crazy.

For the first time in decades I find myself neither living the conflict nor working on matters concerned with it. But despite the five thousand miles between Washington and the Middle East, it is still able to exert a grip upon my attention and emotions, distracting me from work every few minutes to check online, on the latest developments. To paraphrase – you can take the boy out of Israel but you can’t take Israel out of the boy.

As I study the latest pictures on the internet, I try to identify where the missiles have struck in Israel, the location of the Iron Dome batteries, and the areas that have been hit in Gaza. My upbringing and experience of more than ten years living in Israel mean that I am not, and will never be, an impartial observer to the conflict or anything concerning the country and its neighbours. I feel guilty about not being there with friends and family, while at the same time harboring relief that Lysette and the girls aren’t enduring the fear of missiles falling from the sky.

But what I continue to find fascinating (and not in a good way) is how that this conflict manages to elicit such strong emotions and opinions even among people who are far removed from it by background, experience or location.  And also how each new outburst of violence seems to be accompanied by increasingly stronger reactions. This stands in contrast to other parts of the world where the longer the conflict the greater the disinterest. While tens of thousands of civilians have died as a consequence of war in Syria, South Sudan and elsewhere, and while countless millions live under brutal oppression in North Korea and Iran, it is this diminutive triangle of real estate at the far end of the Mediterranean that rules the air-waves and the op-ed pages. Where people have failed to come out and demonstrate at the injustices being wrought in Aleppo, Pyongyang, Juba and Tehran, crowds have gathered in recent days to give vent to their anger, outrage and hatred (overwhelmingly directed at Israel).

When I was a journalist I concocted a theory to explain the disproportionate attention and passion afforded to Israel and the Palestinians. It is simply the Bible and Koran brought to life 24/7 on-line, on TV, Radio, and in print. Billions of people around the world, overwhelmingly Christians, Moslems, and Jews, know of the ‘Holy Land’ from their holy texts. They have imbibed the ‘notion’ of this place as an idea or representation of faith and identity, and have it as frame of reference. It may not bear any relationship to current realities, but it acts as a license for people to feel strongly about the here and now. Add to that, millennia of bloody history between the monotheistic faiths, as well as among them, post-colonial carve-ups, post-colonial guilt, anti-Semitism, philo-Semitism, Arab nationalism, Zionism, oil, water, demography, geography, Islamism, Islamophobia, secularism, fundamentalism, global power plays, local disputes, and much, much more – and you have the perfect cocktail for hallucinogenic properties of the this conflict.

And like an ageing hippy whose brain cells are addled from too many drugs, so every new outburst of conflict brings less coherence and makes the possibility of any reasonable discussion ever more impossible. Seemingly obvious and innocuous points such as the fate of civilians caught in conflict, the importance of intent in carrying out actions in war, the inexcusability of racism and more, are all lost in the foam-filled ranting of the impassioned. Nuanced views (such as in this recent piece in the Independent) are few and far between, and only seem to open up their proponents to abuse.

When conversations are reduced to screaming matches it is better to remain silent. I have been to Gaza more times than I can count, spent half a year living in Asheklon, spoken to Hamas’s leaders as well as much of Israel’s current leadership. But all this stands for nothing in the midst of the psychosis that has gripped people in the Middle East and far beyond, regarding this latest spasm of violence.

By way of conclusion, I remind myself that I was never interested in hallucinogens, and don’t intend to start ingesting them now.

Let me know why you think this conflict gathers such attention and if anything can be done to make any discussion of it more measured and less hysterical.

Up in arms for Independence

ENG_RWBFireworks[1]We are back in Washington following the traditional Fourth of July holiday weekend, which commemorates the humiliation of my mother country – then the dominant world power, by a bunch of – then upstart – colonies. Putting wounded national pride to one side (after 238 years, we can do that) it’s a wonderful occasion filled with fireworks, food, shameless flag-waving, and cold beer over hot barbeques. Aside from the enjoyable frivolities, for Americans the 4th July is a celebration of hard-won freedom – which to outsiders may sound corny, but to people here is deeply and sincerely felt.

We spent the holiday with friends in their lodge nestled in a beautiful wooded corner of rural Pennsylvania, enjoying (quite literally) the flavor of one of the original colonies that was a cornerstone of the USA. Saturday night was spent watching festive fireworks colour the sky red, white and blue, while leaning against our cars in the parking lot of ‘Sundae’s’ the local ice-cream parlour.

Days were mainly spent hanging or floating around in the local lake, eating or planning what to eat next. Taking a break from the serious business of idleness, we drove one day to Bedford, the local picture-postcard town which has figured in some of the key events in America’s history. According to a local signpost George Washington stayed in the town while putting down the 1791 Whisky Rebellion – a local uprising against a new tax. The insurrection began following an attempt by the Federal Government to raise taxes in the form of whisky and resisted by local people who saw it as breaching the principles of the recently fought American Revolution against the British.

Nowadays the peace of Bedford is only broken by the sound of old bikers riding up and down Main Street on their Harley Davidsons. The main thoroughfare with its art deco petrol station, domed courthouse and numerous bars is like a Norman Rockwell painting brought to life. At first glance it contains all the virtues of small town America in all its down to earth and welcoming glory.

While there are some tourists, the town mostly serves the needs of the local rural community. A few doors down from the S and S appliance store and opposite the local Italian restaurant is the innocuously named Cove Creek Outfitters (‘premier sporting and apparel company’). Downstairs past the fishing waders and walking boots is a room containing sufficient weaponry to wage a small war.

Alongside the back wall are over one hundred types of rifles lined up with military-like precision. Inside the glass counter along the front are an equal number of hand guns, and next to them a few choice items including semi-automatic weapons that seem better suited to war zones than such a pastoral setting.

Something for the weekend from the local gun shop

Something for the weekend from the local gun shop

In surveying the hardware, I casually asked manager if as a foreign citizen I could get a weapon. ‘No problem, just more paperwork’ came the response. Given that there is no waiting period to get a gun in Pennsylvania, if I hadn’t left my passport at home I could have purchased – there and then – my very own Glock.

The same holiday weekend as I was enjoying the peace of rural Pennsylvania, fourteen people were killed and a further sixty eight were injured in gun attacks in Chicago. The amount of bloodshed managed to get the casualties (briefly) into the national news. Given that approximately 30,000 people a year in the US die in gun related incidents (including suicides), it takes a sufficiently large dose of death and destruction to win attention. Nowadays it’s only the horrific massacres of innocents in elementary schools, cinemas, and college campuses that are able to generate significant interest and outrage.

Growing up in virtually gun-free Britain I was conditioned to the absence rather than prevalence of guns. In those days (as is mostly the case today) the police fought crime with batons rather than pistols. I therefore fail to see the attraction or necessity of guns. At a stretch, I can understand why people might want to hunt, foregoing the sterile supermarket aisles for the gritty backwoods in search of meat for supper. But what eludes me is any possible explanation for the ready availability of weapons whose specific purpose is to maim or kill others with maximum power and minimum effort.

Living in Israel attuned me to the ubiquity of weapons, and I even became used to having a soldier’s M-16 resting against me in a crowded bus. But that country has been in a constant state of war for all of its existence, and despite the proliferation of weapons there is more a sense of sad acceptance rather than pride in gun ownership. In Israel my daughters participated in drills in case of missile attack (such as the country is now experiencing), which while unnerving were also understandable. In the US, the girls are forced to undergo ‘lock-downs’ during which they have to hide in complete silence in their classrooms in case of attack from an armed psychopath, who would have bought his weapon with ease on the basis of a right, rather than a need.

In trying to make sense of this situation, I have attempted to see guns as an outgrowth of American history and political culture. I remind myself that America was founded in a revolution against oppression, on the promise of ‘government of the people by the people’. I tell myself that in the US, gun ownership is seen as an embodiment of that power and of protection against tyranny. I try to see in Pennsylvania’s ‘Whisky Rebellion’ two hundred years ago, an example of the distrust viscerally felt towards the Federal Government that still burns strong today. But all those explanations crumble to dust when confronted by the raw numbers of those killed by weapons.

Americans – as I have discovered – are extraordinarily open, warm, generous and friendly. I don’t believe that the people of Bedford, Chicago or any other part of the US are inherently more violent than others around the world. So how can the horrifically high homicide rate be explained? If not by the nature of the people then it must be by the force of their arms.

The problem of course is that discussion of guns has fallen hostage to powerful political and commercial forces (the US is the largest domestic market globally for weapons). People here have become prey to cynical fear-mongering by the vested interests of the National Rifle Association who have managed to cow weak politicians into following their recipe for gun madness.

And so in the wake of American Independence Day it is a sadly ironic that as people here celebrated their hard won freedoms, many failed to see how they have also become prisoners of their right to bear arms.

The Game is (still) on……….

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I had intended on writing a post about the issue of race in America, but in recognition of the World Cup fever that has overtaken this country I feel compelled to pen some observations about the gathering love affair between the American public and football (aka soccer).

As mentioned in my previous post, I approach this subject armed with ample quantities of ignorance and reluctance, as one of a shrinking minority that has little interest in the game. But given that everything from buying gum at my local 7/11 to travelling in a lift now involves some discussion of the latest match, I feel obliged to add my ten cents worth (or whatever is the equivalent amount in the UK).

Putting the action on the pitch to one side for a moment, there is actually something interesting to be observed about the attendant side effects of the World Cup here in the US. Firstly, while packing bars, restaurants and spare conference rooms (at least at my workplace), Americans seem to have surprised themselves with the level of interest and excitement generated here by the World Cup, and their national side’s participation in it.

Commentators have gushingly noted how this World Cup is netting (warning: this piece will be sprinkled with football metaphors) the highest US TV audiences ever, for soccer. Almost 25 million people watched the fixture against Portugal (that’s about 1 in 12 people across the whole of the country). And judging by the ghostly quiet on the streets of the Nation’s Capital during the USA-Germany match even more of the population was glued to a TV screen yesterday (excepting yours truly who was at an fitness class attended only by a distracted instructor and one other person). Figures also show that the US is fielding the largest contingent of foreign fans in Brazil – way in excess of any Latin American or European country.

Furrowed-brow discussions have ensued about what this all means, given the long-standing sporting isolationism of the US. Traditionally America has seen itself akin to the UK’s position regarding Europe, as summed up in the apocryphal newspaper headline, ‘Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off’. For example, the ill-named World Series Baseball Championship involves only teams from North America.

The issue of the World Cup’s following has even become a political football (!) with some saying that it denotes a coming of age for the USA in joining in this global pastime, while others asserting that it demonstrates a temporary (and unwelcome) foreign fad. Leading the charge on the latter viewpoint is conservative ‘commentator’ Ann Coulter, who sees in football’s popularity a sign of the USA’s moral decay. In a display that seamlessly marries ignorance and nativism she asserts that, ‘no American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.’

Coulter sees something fundamentally ‘un-American’ about soccer, seemingly implying that it has been smuggled across the Rio Grande by people set upon undermining very fabric of the USA. This charge must mark a first alongside the (more credible) assertions that the game is responsible for work absenteeism, hooliganism and increasing the profits of breweries. And yet within Coulter’s poisonous brew there is something worth examining.

Many beyond the flaky ideological fringe see in the soccer phenomenon, a sign of an important (and positive) change within American society. In recent decades US has undergone a huge demographic change, most markedly with the increase in the number of Hispanic Americans. It is now estimated that at least 50 million out of over 300 million people in the country are of Hispanic origin. Spanish is now commonly heard in DC and other places on the East Coast, far from the traditional Hispanic heartlands in the West and South. With this demographic shift have come changes to the some of the old ways, including – many say – in sporting terms – the rise of soccer, which is now attracting not just big crowds but big money too.

But to the inexpert eye, I think this is only part of the explanation. Passing the bars in down-town DC, and where we live in the suburbs, most of those glued to the games don’t look like the newcomers of Ann Coulter’s nightmares, but instead resemble the very people whose ‘great-grandfathers were born in the US’. There is undoubtedly a degree of faddism to the current soccer-mania, but it also seems to reflect a desire to be part of something alongside the rest of the world. The US lacks national teams in most games popular elsewhere, and soccer may provide that sense of belonging. In more concrete terms, there is the fact that the game is probably reaping the rewards of the soccer Moms and Dads who invested their Saturday mornings (as I do now) in taking their kids to weekend matches. I suspect that many of those 20 or 30 something’s now sipping beer over World Cup games grew up kicking a football rather than handling one.

For me this means, that my trial by football will continue. The US is through to the last sixteen. But thanks to my daughters I am learning to distinguish Beckham from Beckerman, and Dempsey from Rooney, which will probably stand me in good stead in finding my place in the USA.

 

Meeting my match – in football

liv and edie soccer1Americans aren’t meant to care about soccer, (football to the rest of the world), and for me that presented a bonus in moving here.

I have lived a life of blissful ignorance of most things football. Unlike virtually every English male I know, I fail to get excited by how Manchester United, Chelsea or some other billionaire’s plaything are faring in the Premier League. When asked which team I support I instinctively reply ‘Arsenal’ – mostly because it was popular with my friends in the 1980’s. But any follow-up questions leave me stumped. I have only the vaguest idea of how the team is doing and who plays for them. I feel my eyelids becoming heavy when questions arise about key players, injuries, tactics, or virtually any detail that even a lukewarm follower of the Gunners should know. Over the years I have spent endless hours in bars having accompanied friends to watch games, only to find them absorbed in the match while I am equally enraptured in willing the clock to move quicker towards full time.

Thus it was with a certain degree or relief that I anticipated coming to live in the States – a land that seemed to share my indifference to the game worshipped just about everywhere else in the world. No longer would I have to feign familiarity or interest in the ups and downs of teams at national and international level. My foreign stature also relieved me of any required knowledge of baseball, basketball, or American football. Or so I thought.

It turns out that the US is a land which is slowly gaining the soccer bug. Livvy (shown in post-match victory pose with her number 1 fan – Edie) is one of hundreds of girls and boys who play on a local field every Saturday, in the local children’s league. Her team – the ‘Maroon 13’s’ take the game seriously, with mid-week practices, and end of season medals. And while soccer may be a foreign import, the kids are overwhelmingly as American as apple pie – as are the coaches.

I approach Maroon 13’s games with big dollop of fatherly pride and also a fair degree of trepidation – not I might add in anticipation of my daughter’s performance on the field – particularly as she exhibits skill on the pitch clearly not inherited from either of her parents. My nervousness is rooted in being uncovered as a soccer ignoramus. I live in particular fear of one of the other Dad’s whose daughter is the lynchpin of Maroon 13’s defense. He is an avid Arsenal fan despite having been born and raised 3,000 miles from the Holloway Road. The presence of a fellow ‘Gunner’ (at least that what he thinks) is an opportunity for him to discuss the minutiae of the team’s performance. As a result I spend the Saturday morning matches dodging him along the touchline, desperate to find myself wherever he isn’t, so that I don’t get caught in a chat about which I know nothing.

The World Cup is only adding to my discomfort. Earlier today, two workmen – both DC natives – came to my office to put up some wall fittings. Alongside repairing my poor attempt at DIY, they were eager to discuss England’s chances in the competition. Given that I don’t even know my Group A from my Group H, and wouldn’t be able to pick out the England players (except Rooney) in a line-up, we had a stilted conversation that I kept trying to steer back to where my global map and white-boards should hang.

The only football quote I know (and which I use if caught in a tight corner when discussing the game), is that attributed to Bill Shankly who said, ‘some people believe football is a matter of life and death…. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ The game certainly inspires near-religious devotion in England, Europe, Latin America, and much of the rest of the world. And while the US could once be relied upon to be once agnostic about soccer, it now seems it is becoming being slowly drawn into the floodlit sacrament of turf, ball and studded boots. And given the growing fervor of Livvy and latterly Edie in football, it looks like I might have to ‘up my game’ just to keep up.

Are you too feigning interest in football? If not – how do I start developing an interest? Advice urgently required!

Facing up to the Flag

Vietnam Vet on Memorial DayMonday was Memorial Day in the US. It was sobering, sad, and impressive.

We went to the Vietnam Memorial near the White House, to witness the thousands of grizzled veterans visiting the site from all over the country to pay homage to their fallen comrades. The Memorial is sunk into the ground, and like the conflict itself, sits like a scar in the landscape.

Here is a photo of just one of the many who crowded into the site, to lay a flag, or flowers or simply stare at the thousands of names of the American war dead chiseled into the marble.

Times of remembrance in all countries are occasions when the national colours are displayed. And in the US, it is thus, but only more so. On ‘ordinary days’ the Stars and Stripes can be found as the decorative backdrop on suburban streets, in shopping malls, people’s offices and elsewhere.

Coming from the UK, this overt display is unusual and disconcerting. The prevalence of the Stars and Stripes and reverence given to it, is part of the fabric of life here. It is something that is instilled at an early age, as I have discovered from the daily morning ritual at Livvy and Edie’s school (as illustrated by them below).

The Pledge of Allegiance is completely alien to my upbringing and a phenomenon that initially made me squirm with very English discomfort. Growing up in London in the 1970’s the Union Jack was something to be avoided rather than embraced. This wasn’t due to any lack of loyalty to Queen and Country – quite the opposite. My parents felt proud and lucky to have been born and brought up in Britain. But in those days the national flag didn’t feel as if it belonged to people like us.

I remember when I was about ten years old walking with my father through the local shopping area in Ealing where we lived. At the junction of the Broadway and Bond Street, just outside Clark’s shoe shop and opposite John Sanders department store was the unexpected sight of Union Jacks fluttering in the breeze, and alongside a few men handing out pamphlets to passing shoppers. I can’t recall what I felt, but even today the thought of those people and the flags sends a shiver down my spine.

These were the white supremacists of West London from the far-right National Front who’d chosen to come to our leafy suburb as it was situated a few miles from Southall, home to thousands of recent Indian and Pakistani immigrants. While the NF failed to win popular support it did succeed in appropriating the flag and making it a symbol to be feared rather than revered.

The only time I can recall being enamored with the Union Jack was when my parents took us up to Buckingham Palace on the night before the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 to see the decorations and hubbub for the anniversary. I was so absorbed in the elaborate arrangements of flags hanging above Pall Mall, that I walked straight into a lamp-post acquiring an egg-shaped bump on my head to accompany the mini Union Jack I’d been given.

The physical imprint passed quickly but the political association of the flag as an object to be avoided (along with lamp-posts) stuck with me for a long time. I partially carried my aversion to Israel, where the exploitation of the national colours by ultra-nationalists made me wary of joining in any display of flag-waving, even with ideological fellow travelers from the left (although the anthem and much else besides made my chest swell with pride).

It has taken the unapologetic American embrace of the Stars and Stripes to see the national flag as something which can be used – with extreme care – to generate a positive and unifying sense of identity – free of chauvinism.

The sentiments embodied in the US Pledge of Allegiance are commendable in encompassing nationhood as, ‘indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’. The inclusion of the phrase ‘One Nation under God’ jars with my secular disposition and – in my view – is at odds with the separation of religion and state as set out in the Constitution. Interestingly this change was only introduced sixty years ago in a flush of new found religious enthusiasm by then President – Dwight Eisenhower.

Nonetheless in articulating national values as synonymous with basic human rights the Pledge gets my support. Of course there are those who see the Flag, the Constitution, and American history as a whole, as license to adventurism, intolerance, insane levels of gun ownership, and much else besides. But given that if we are to have nation states (and they are increasing in number rather than diminishing) it is better that the flag be identified with inclusive tolerant values, and harnessed as such. It also seems vital that those of all political stripes (particularly those like me who are somewhat allergic to displays of national devotion) take ownership of the flag – so that it is not left for the chauvinists and bigots – like those from my childhood in Ealing.

In practical terms this means I am at peace with my daughters’ daily pledge to the Flag, and understand why many of my neighbours proudly hang the Stars and Strips from their front porches. But given my lingering inhibitions I will keep my pledges silent, and fly the flag by sentiment rather than overt display.

So let me know What you feel about your national flag…..

The Star (of David) Spangled Banner

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Recently a friend’s father died. ‘Suzanne’ as I will call her, decided that she would sit shiva for one night at her home. Many friends attended – not having been able to accompany Suzanne to the funeral which was held in her father’s hometown a few hours away. Nothing strange about that you might think – except that Suzanne is a Quaker, as was her father.

Suzanne’s husband ‘Jeff’ is Jewish, and as such they have, over the years, taken their kids to a local Reform synagogue. Their family life is a fusion of faiths with Christmas Tree and Chanuka lights at winter-time. But it was Suzanne – not her husband – who became involved in the synagogue through her children’s attendance at its Hebrew school, to the point where she was running the parent teacher association.

Coming to the States from Israel, and before that the UK, this kind of seamless religious integration between Judaism and other faiths, was completely foreign. But I am now coming to understand the peculiarities and positives about Jewish life in the US.

When Lysette and I first arrived in the Washington area from Tel Aviv, we felt nervous about re-entering life in the ‘Diaspora’. In Israel, we identified in our family life as hilonim (‘secularites’), meaning in practice, we kept Kosher at home, did Kiddush on Friday night, went on hikes or socialized on Shabbat, and virtually never ventured to our local orthodox synagogue (there was no other brand of Judaism around). But our kids spoke Hebrew fluently, learning about the meaning and traditions of Jewish life in their supposedly secular kindergarten and school. In our own way we also celebrated the festivals including, putting up our Sukkah in autumn (like most of our secular neighbours), lighting the Chanukah candles in winter, holding a seder night at Passover. The Holy Days were the national holidays, making synagogue feel unnecessary in this all pervasive (and positive) Jewish and Israeli atmosphere.

I recall one occasion when close family came to visit us from England.

‘Do you like going to shul’, my cousin’s husband asked my daughter, Livvy, then aged six.

Her face reflected back puzzlement by way of response.

‘Bet Knesset’ I said, using the Hebrew rather than Yiddish word for synagogue.

‘But we don’t believe in Elohim (God)’ Livvy retorted.

I don’t recall articulating my atheism, but it had obviously been picked up from the way we led our lives and the difference between us and the dati’im (religious), who Livvy observed attending synagogue.

When we got to the States, we realized that this situation wasn’t going to hold if we were to invest our children with a strong and positive Jewish identity.

On our first Yom Kippur in Washington, a short while after arriving, we drove to a local synagogue about which we had heard good things. In Israel, the Day of Atonement consisted of Livvy and Edie cycling around the streets, which were for this one day in the year, completely free of cars. Instead the roads were packed with the bikes, pedal scooters, and skateboards of those who weren’t in synagogue, but who wanted to take advantage of the lack of traffic and pollution. In Washington, en-route to the synagogue for our first family Diaspora Yom Kippur, Edie glanced at the car alongside ours which had bikes stacked on a rack in the rear and declared, “look, they must be Jewish too”. For her, and for all our family, being Jewish had come to mean doing the same as the people around us.

Thus began our journey in the US through the differing strands of Judaism in our vicinity; including Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and more. We ultimately settled on a relaxed Liberal Conservative synagogue, with the girls attending, in addition to regular school, an Israeli-style pluralistic Hebrew school.
Jewish life here on the East coast of the US is very different from how I remember it growing up in London. As a child you instinctively dropped your voice in public when uttering the word ‘Jewish’, and the general tenor was that this was something to keep low-profile and private; British on the outside, but Jewish within.

In the US, being Jewish is part of the vernacular, a variation upon a theme, like I imagine Catholicism to be in the UK. I feel constantly surprised by how much Jewish culture has become part of American life. Yiddish phrases effortlessly pop out of the mouths of non-Jewish celebrities on TV, the papers are filled with matza related recipes around Passover, while at the same time of year President Obama holds a Seder at the White House.

I was brought up to believe that being Jewish wasn’t easy and was meant to be far from effortless – a bit like digesting gefilte fish. The local synagogue I attended as a child was traditional and cold, both in temperature and practice, with the officials (all men) attired in suits and shiny top hats. In Israel, the Orthodox was the synagogue we didn’t go to. But America is a country built upon the notions of freedom, choice, and convenience. And that has come to mean endless selection in all aspects of life; from breakfast cereals to the kind of Judaism you feel like practicing. The end result is seductive and inviting.

This has meant – in the American context – taking Judaism out of its particularistic closet, and making it seemingly more universal and accessible within society as a whole. It has become (mostly) synonymous with liberal values, acceptance, and openness. The synagogues are warm, comfortable, places with welcoming people on hand to guide you through the range of services – religious and social – on offer. This is all very strange to me, schooled in the private nervousness of Anglo Jewry and the public assertiveness of Israel secularism. But then this is the New World, which while foreign, also offers something novel, curious and maybe ultimately – homely.

Home and Away

My (tourist) LondonBritain has always possessed a particular solidity, a certain knowledge that aspects of life can be relied upon to remain the same. The weather is likely to be drizzly even when it’s meant to be sunny, people will find endless ways to discuss it even when there’s not a lot to say, and everyone will complain about the Royal Family but then go weak-kneed at the prospect an infant member of the monarchy, or a Royal Wedding.

Last week I visited the UK for work and for a much-rushed diversion to see some friends and family. The trip was fun but also unsettling. After leaving the country seven years ago, it’s beginning to feel like unfamiliar territory, as if the solid damp ground has begun to shift beneath my feet.

Firstly the newspapers were full of speculation about the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, speculating that the nationalists north of the border may just win the vote. I have always felt about British patriotism much as I have about tea; fine – so long as it’s not too strong or too weak, and best accompanied by something sweet and soothing such as the shipping forecast on Radio 4 or a chocolate digestive! So it was very strange to hear that the Union (or at least part of it) which has been around for hundreds of years could – by democratic consent – pass into history. I found myself reacting to the prospect with sadness and confusion, which felt strange and unwarranted since I don’t live in Britain and that it’s unlikely to make much difference to life in London – that part of the UK with which – if at all – I most identify.

And then there is the change to London itself. It could once be depended upon to offer up crumbling public services, a familiar mix of communities – mainly gathered in from parts of the British Commonwealth, and a general urban malaise. But the city has changed – not quite beyond all recognition – but rather like a participant on a makeover show, who has become a snazzier, sexier version of what they once were.

Tube trains not only run with reliable regularity, but they are clean and modern. Stations are unrecognizable; Blackfriars, which was once distinguished by its dirty orange wall tiles and urine scented pedestrian tunnels, is now a gleaming modernist steel and glass structure, resembling a hi-tech haven rather than the commuter hell it once was.

The population also appears to have undergone a major overhaul. The city is more Tower of Babel than Tower of London, with the mix of French, Polish, Arabic, Somali and many other languages co-existing with longer established Jamaican, Indian, Irish and Cockney accents. New areas of the city, once no-go areas have become must see territory – such as Kings Cross, Hackney, and almost anywhere within a few miles of Shoreditch. While in London, I did a double take in reading a newspaper review of the latest in fine dining from – once gastranomically barren  – Peckham, along with the growing selection of choice food shops in the area.

None of these changes are ostensibly negative (although the benefits that possible Scottish independence will bring to the Scots is debatable), and many are clearly very good; a tribute to British tolerance, pragmatism and economic far-thinking. But in a deeply personal way, these changes send an ambivalent message, that what was once familiar is now becoming foreign, and that by continuing to live overseas it will become ever more so. It also raises a question about what is home. Is it the place where you come from? Or is it the place or places you have chosen to make your life? And at what point does the place you reside become more home than where you grew up?

Clearly food for thought and future material for ‘Foreigndaze’.

A Bump (or two) in the Road

 

It’s taken a while to understand why the soccer Moms of suburban Washington DC prefer vehicles better suited for fording rivers in rural Montana than something more (literally) down to earth. But after a few months of navigating the streets of the nation’s capital I am also thinking of getting a Humvee.

Washington home to the government of the most powerful nation on earth is at ground level, a pockmarked mess. Venturing out in the car with Livvy and Edie to birthday parties, sports events, and school runs can be a bone-rattling experience, reminiscent of long ago road trips in Albania.

And it’s not just the roads that are in dire need of a makeover. Last year soon after arriving in the US, we were at a party and I ventured to get a glass of tap water. Attached to the top of the faucet was what looked like a bulbous hand-grenade. My host originally from Holland, explained that he had installed a filter on the tap because the water was unfit to drink from the source. The underground pipes he told me were so old and in such poor condition that the authorities had taken to regularly pumping in large amounts of chemicals to off-set the possibility of city-wide gastric upsets. While this made the water safe, he said it also made drinking it, akin to sipping from a swimming pool.

At the local hardware store, alongside the garden rakes, leaf blowers and cans of paint, there are generators of varying size and power lined up for sale. Initially I assumed they were for outdoor types who couldn’t do without a full electrify supply to power the necessities such as the flat-screen TV or Nespresso machine while away camping. But my first severe Washington winter, brought home their necessity in contending with the cocktail of unforgiving storms and inadequate infrastructure.

Unlike in Europe and elsewhere, power cables are not hidden away underground, but are strung spaghetti-like between wooden pylons along and across streets. Wires decorated with braids of vegetation wend their way between the limbs of the local trees, which while pleasant to look at also mean that when powerful winds blow through the neighbourhood, the electricity goes down with the power lines and snapped branches. Having been forced to sit at home in the cold and dark on a number of occasions this past winter, we went out and bought candles, flashlights, and a stack of blankets to ensure we were properly prepared for the wilds of urban life in the US. And while the overhead wiring is – like the roads – a reminder of less developed parts of the world, it is at least it is democratic – encompassing both DC’s comfy suburbs and the struggling inner-city neighborhoods.

In trying to understand how representative the DC area’s infrastructure is of the States as a whole, I stumbled across a 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It offered little solace, illustrating not only how common this situation is, but also the scale of the problem. The report which is carried out following a study every four years looks into the state of the nation’s roads, water, airports, dams and more. It concluded that the US’s grade point average for infrastructure had risen to – a D+! And that was the good news! The paper also reported that the grade for drinking water improved to a D, but with the addendum that, ’much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life’ with an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year. Replacing the old piping would cost $1 trillion according to the engineers. As for the roads, the report said that over two hundred million trips are taken daily across the nation’s deficient bridges, which have an average age of 42 years.

Having absorbed the findings I felt a sudden affinity with the survivalists of distant Idaho or elsewhere in seeking refuge from the perils wrought by the Washington. Although the danger comes less from an imaginary overactive Federal Government wanting to take over the lives of freeborn Americans, but more as a consequence of administrative dysfunction and neglect.

The problem with America’s infrastructure derives from a lack of public spending that has become hostage to one of Washington’s main pastimes – apart from sitting in traffic jams – political infighting. Government at all levels – local, state and federal – has become afraid of investing, for fear of being accused of squandering.

America underwent a huge phase of public spending and building from the 1950- 1970’s. But as the nation riches grew and mega-malls made their debut for eager shoppers, it seems that the consumer’s appetite to shell out for state-funded projects diminished. And here lies an uncomfortable fact of everyday life in the US – the juxtaposition of private wealth with public want.

It is easily illustrated by my local Mall – a shiny marble palace of designer labels, cosmetics, the latest in hi-tech electronics and much much more. But having pulled out of the Mall’s parking lot, reality bites in the form of the rutted road beyond its confines. What is unsettling from a foreign perspective is the disconnect between the over-abundance inside, compared with the paucity of the public spaces outside. And much like the bitter political and cultural divisions, this difference appears to be widening as money isn’t invested where it is most needed.

In the meantime I have taken to strapping the girls in with particular care into their car seats before heading out, and making sure their bottles contain only filtered water.

Springing Forth

Blooming DC

Spring as we all know is the time for new buds of life to break forth, for color to fill what was barren and for the sun to emerge from behind the clouds.

It is in that spirit that the ‘Foreigndaze’ blog is launched. After a very long hibernation, I have decided to add some personal colour to the internet with observations on aspects of life – mainly in the United States –  but also from elsewhere, running the gauntlet from food, the American flag, tales from my travels and more.

But this first submission begins on a seasonal note to mark the bursting forth of blossom from every corner of DC. After months of winter which featured periodic deluges of snow, ice and rain, the city is letting out a collective happy sigh with the sudden flowerings and warmth. And in the USA nature undertakes this seasonal shift with an explosion of activity full of specatacle which leaves the UK, figuratively and literally – in the shade. Blossom blown from the trees fills up gutters with multi-coloured leaves. Beatrix Potter like scenes with bouncing rabbits and scrambling squirrels are played out in suburban gardens bursting with new plants and flowers.

Having grown up in a country which would comfortably fit into a medium size American state, most things in the US appear (and are) bigger: the cars, the shops, the people, the food, and also…the weather. Where in England there is a breeze which ruffles leaves, here gales gust and blow, felling thick old trees with apparent ease.

British seasons arrive in national character, somewhat meekly and apologetic in manner as if having stepped in quietly through a side entrance. In Washington they barge in through the front door with a brazen call to attention. Spring – as already mentioned – is a riot of activity and color, as if the forces of nature had just knocked back one espresso too many. Once the hyperacitivity of this season has passed, the DC summer arrives with a sodden knock-out blow of humidity accompanied by lush vegetation and a blazing sun. Autumn (aka fall) is a leafy carnival of crunchy leaves: fiery reds, pale yellows, translucent oranges, sandy browns, filling up the gardens and streets to knee level. It suddently gives way  to a barren winter-scape of naked grey trees,overcast skies, and teeth chattering temperatures.

A country’s climate is in many ways a weather vane (pun intended) of its national character, or the other way around.  Before coming to Washington we lived in Israel where heat (with very little cold) came in differing gradations depending upon the time of year , ranging from gently warming to ‘singe your eyelashes’ hot. This bears a striking resemblance to the temperament of Israelis who lack any sort of moderating temperature control for their emotions. Similarly the UK exists under near permanent cloud-cover where reports of good weather and more often that not dashed by capricious rainstorms.  Similarly British people often seem quietly downcast, waiting with resignation for what life or the elements will bring.

By contrast, the American climate demands attention, and not just to the weather forecasts which warn of yet another impending snow storm or heat wave. The seasonal variations require considerable hard work, cleaning up the detritus of the past season and preparing the ground for what’s coming next. Our neighbourhood is a hive of activity with people trimming, sweeping, cutting, and planting. I am currently nursing blisters and scratches having joined in the communal clean-up, hav ing filled seven large brown paper sacks with leaves, twigs, weeds and much else. This fervent activity also seems descriptive of the American character, which places high values industriousness in every aspect of life. Despite the periodic harshness of the climate, people here seem to pitch themselves against the forces of nature with an energetic optimism. Americans seem to relish clearing masses of vegetation when most Europeans would be happily sitting back with a long, cold beer.

There is much to admire in the power of nature in the US. It packs a punch even when it is ‘regular weather’. On extreme end of the scale it is humbling and scary. During ‘tornado season’ in the Mid-West, the news regularly reports of communities reduced to matchwood, with tearful residents pledging to rebuild their lives as soon as possible.

Americans have both shaped their environment and been shaped by it. This is very place different from William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant’ England. It is a tougher, harder country which has historically has brought a lot of privation en-route to the land of plenty it has become today.

The weather brings home the fact that this is a very different landscape from Europe and certainly from the Middle East. And what is true for the climate is representative of so many other aspects of life: politics, social attitudes and much more.

All of which I hope will provide a steady stream of material for future (regular) instalments of this blog.