Saturday, November 28, 2015

A long time ago...

As we get older in life, it sometimes feels like parts of our youth seem to fade into dreams or myths or events that somehow we remember, but it is a memory clouded by the mists of time.

I can’t tell you the exact time or the exact date, but I can tell you that one of the earliest memory I’ve ever had is of going to a movie called The Empire Strikes Back way back in 1980.  In the small town of Somerset West where I lived, we had a single cinema called Mini Cine 1.  This was before the days of multiplexes and massive shopping malls and an endless supply of movie choices.

But I remember entering the dimmed theatre surrounded by my two brothers and my sister and my mom and my dad – who was the exact same age then as I am now.
It was the first movie I ever remember seeing in a cinema.  And still now, 35 years later, I can recall the thrill that filled me, and the anticipation that surrounded me, and the exhilaration that I felt at the adventure on which I was about to embark.  For this was something new, something fresh, something I hadn’t done before.

And after seeing a bunch of ads for cigarettes – yes they existed then, the biggest screen I had ever seen in my life leapt from its canvas with an explosion of sound that only John Williams could produce – a sound accompanied by images I had never seen.  And, as if I was being hit by a massive lightning bolt, I was thrown from this world and hurled across space to a galaxy far far away.   My sensors went into overload – tapping all the parts of the brain that my young and new body had never seen or felt.

Because as I watched this outer world adventure of swashbuckling heroes and ominous villains, it wasn’t just the movie I appreciated.  It was being in a moment of time that when I look back now is etched into my soul – like an immovable object that stays firm while the world around it changes. 

And when I think back to that night, there are some details that are as vivid as if I was back there this very second. I enter the doors and walk on the carpeted floor that slopes downwards.  I sat in those brown seats that were so big, it felt like I had my own sofa.  The music that would fill my ears with delight, as I watched the opening scrolling words rise up before me.  And I remember how the cinema was empty – so my brothers and I were running up and down the aisles, sitting in every seat we could to try to get the best possible view.
And then there are others details that go beyond the description of mere words.  Because they are feelings.  The feeling of excitement that filled me.  Being out during the evening on a cool winter’s night.  The excitement of receiving free lollies as we’d enter the cinema.  The smells of popcorn.  The hum of the projector starting up and the bridge of light transmitting above our heads. The ticket stubs that unlike the ones of today were like flyers decorated in colours and images.

Life changes for all of us, but there are moments that seem to transcend the normal passage of time.  Moments which cannot be simply defined.  Moments that are precious and unique and special and moments that no other person on earth can ever feel the same about – because they are yours alone.

And when you’re a kid of 6 years old, the whole world is a mystery.  Every moment of every day is an adventure to itself.  The smallest things we take for granted in our daily lives are colossal events that define you and make you dream in a world where dreams often fade away like morning mist.

That night, in a small town in South Africa, in a place farthest from the brightest centre of the universe, Star Wars took me on a journey that sometimes I still feel I’m on.  Oh – I’m aware of the real world.  And I’m aware of its pitfalls and tragedies.  And I’m aware of the despair that sometimes accompanies life.  But I’m also aware of the wonder and mysticism and the adventure and the excitement of dreaming about worlds so different to our own.

And now many years later, as I’ve reached the same age as my dad was when he took us to see Star Wars, I too will take my kids to a new Star Wars movie and share with them a moment in time and an adventure – one that will hopefully one day in the future, many years from now, cause them to remember a moment in their childhood with fondness and with mystery and with excitement the way I still do.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Robin Williams - he lived before he died

When I heard that Robin Williams had died, I was instantly shocked.  How could someone we have known, and watched, and enjoyed for so long – simply be gone.  That shock eventually dissipated and was replaced with an overwhelming sense of loss and emptiness.  It is a loss that is hard to quantify, when so much of what he’s done seems intertwined with our lives.  Who can forget his portrayal of Genie in Aladdin, or his words of inspiration and truth in Good Will Hunting?
Despite the sadness of knowing that there will no more Robin Williams movies, we are also lucky that so much of his work remains for us to watch and enjoy.
Although Robin William’s death is a tragedy, there are of course, far more real tragedies in the world that occur every day, such as death and famine and war where thousands of people die, but nevertheless his death is one that the world seems to have taken personally.
The reason why people around the world are so effected by his death is that in him lies a reflection of all of us.  We had a person who achieved amazing things, who caused us to laugh and cry, who fought with demons and seemed to conquer them for a time, only to ultimately fall by them.  He probably reflects both the best of what we can be as well as the fear of what we can become.
The tragedy of Robin Williams is that he had so much more to give the world.  In there lies a microcosm of all of us.  We all have potential – some realised and some not.  Robin Williams was a life cut short, but at least he lived before he died.
In this world, the ultimate tragedy of life is not simply dying, but not having lived in the first place.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The night time shopping adventure

It’s winter here in Australia.  Which means it’s cold.  Well… I mean, not snow covered streets cold.  Or ice rinks in the middle of the city cold.  Or thirteen layers of clothing cold.  But cold.  Unless you’re in Darwin where it’s 32 degrees today (or 90 Fahrenheit).  But… it’s also 32 degrees there in the middle of summer, winter, spring and autumn.  So that doesn’t count.

But here in Melbourne, it’s 10 degrees at the moment or 50 Fahrenheit.  So that’s cold.  But as cold as that is, I’m kind of excited because… I have a mission.  Now, it’s not a regular mission and I probably won’t get an award.  In fact, I will get chastised, but nevertheless I’m looking forward to it.  Because as cold as the night is, and as dark as the streets are, and as chilly as that winter wind blowing through the trees feels – I have to go out.  To do some shopping.

That’s right – I have been told by my wife that we need cheese, biscuits, milk, cupcakes, some apples and bananas and a big bag of crisps.   Well, actually that bag of crisps wasn’t on the list, but I’m improvising.  It should take 15 minutes I’ve been told.

And let me tell you, I love going shopping at night.  Because, you see, being married with kids, means it’s like for the first time in the day, I get some ME time.  And not to mention how extremely cool it is to find a parking instantly!  Yup, back to my bachelor days.  The days where I’d cruise the aisles of the local supermarket, looking for the ready to cook meals where all you do is peel the plastic back and stick it in the microwave for 7 minutes.  I was pretty good at those.  So here I am again, strutting my stuff through the multi-coloured aisles, feeling like a reeeeeeeeeal man – oooooooo look!  A special on dish-washing liquid!

But you see, as I scan the list of things that I need to buy, I soon realise that it isn’t quite as easy as I thought it would be.  A few things for my wife equates to about a trolley load for me.  And what is up with the different kinds of soy milk?  I thought soy or not, but it turns out there’s soy lite and soy heavy.  Milky soy and creamy soy.  Soy which tastes like milk and soy that tastes like almonds… or is that almond milk?  Soy for weekends and soy for weekdays.  And as I stand in the aisle staring at the multitude choices, I remark smugly to the person next to me that technically it shouldn’t be called soy milk at all, since it’s not even milk.  Unfortunately, people who go late night shopping don’t seem to appreciate the intricacies of conversations of the types of milk – or any conversations at all really.

And after phone call thirteen to my wife, I finally establish the one I’m supposed to get.  But then it comes to biscuits – and this is where it gets tricky, because I have to ask myself the question the men who do late night shopping ask every time.  Are the chocolate biscuits in the chocolate aisle or in the biscuit aisle?  Luckily with technology, we have now have smartphone apps for supermarkets.  So most of the time when you see people walking around staring at the phones, it’s not because they’re on Facebook, it’s because they’re looking for the right aisle to find what they’re looking for.

Then there’s the fruit section which we can clearly see has been designed with a target female audience in mind.  Because every time I take one of those silly packets, I spend the next ten minutes trying to open the bloody thing!  I’m rubbing my two fingers, trying to pry it open with my car keys, not even knowing if I’m attempting to do it on the proper side.  I even try stabbing a hole in it then pulling it apart that way. Finally when I do manage to get it open, I see some lady walk by, grab a bag and open it effortlessly!  What is their secret?? 

Then there’s the specials I see lined across the aisles, like that packet of cherry flavoured coffee.  It’s true we don’t need it or like it, but if I just buy 18 packets, I get the 19th free!  What a deal!  Men are far more logical than women.  And another thing I take personal pride in is that I always look at the price per 100g price.  I will be making sure that I get the most bang for my buck!

Then there’s those wonderful self-serving checkout, which I personally like, because any situation where you don’t have to talk to people is a win.  However, since all the regular checkouts are closed, it becomes a logistical nightmare when you have more than three items!  Because there’s no space!  And every time I move a bag to make more space, an alarm starts blaring.

But you see we men can be quite skilful at shopping, and not many people are able to turn a 15 minute shopping session into an hour and a half.  Of course, when I do make it home, I get told that’s not the brand the kids like, or what was I thinking getting this one?  And why did I get 19 packets of cherry flavoured coffee.   My persuasive argument on specials was clearly not hitting the mark.

But despite the trauma, I’m able to sit back and enjoy those few fleeting moments where I was once again a man’s man.   Where I was in charge.  When I made the decisions.  Where I decided - what’s that??  Oh no!  We’re out of sugar! 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

G-d predicted the mobile phone

In the olden days – I’m talking about pre 1995, you would write something called a letter that took hours to write, perhaps for a love interest that lived across the globe.  You’d craft it in your finest hand writing, being extra careful to avoid spelling mistakes and making sure you said all you wanted to say.  You’d then go down to the post office and (gosh) send it by mail to your friend across the world, using square shaped objects called stamps.  And for weeks, you’d check the post box each day, anticipating a reply, hoping for the reaction you wanted, nervous if you had sounded cool enough or sensitive enough – or completely stupid!  And when that day finally came, where the mailbox would contain the reply you had been longing for, you’d treasure the envelope, caressing it close to your heart, waiting for the right moment to peel back the paper covering and reveal the carefully crafted words inside.

But something happened in the last twenty years.  Our lives changed irrevocably, and the gaps between the lives of our generation and our parent’s generations became a chasm, changed in such a fundamental way that it could never be unchanged again.

Because around that time back in 1995 the Internet hit its strides and started becoming our source for… well, for everything.

Since that moment, all the world’s knowledge became available on a computer, and even since then and now, the very definition of a computer has changed.  These days, all information is now available at our fingertips – we don’t even have to move to unlock the secrets of the world.

And of course, the lines between work and home have also blurred.  And although the idea of leaving the work at the office hasn’t changed – what has changed is the fact that the office in now in your pocket.

Along with the advent of Facebook and Twitter and other social media, our lives have become extremely busy.  We are constantly tied to our handheld devices, scanning them for instant information, immediate results, and live streams of news events.  We even customize our notification alert sounds so that we can simply hear if we’ve been mentioned in a Tweet, or tagged in Facebook, or emailed from a particular account.  We don’t even have to look at our devices – but we look anyway.

Our lives have become fast – so fast, that anything less that instant gratification feels… flat.  If you send someone a text, you remain fixated on your phone, expecting an instant reply, despite the fact that it could be ten in the morning here, and two in the morning there.  And if you don’t get one, then suddenly, you ask yourself, am I being ignored?  Why haven’t they responded?   Why did I get so few Likes??

And with that expectation of instant answers and instant feedback, our senses have become dulled – those moments of anticipation evaporating in the knowledge that everything is instant.

Our lives have become so fast – that the scenery around us has blurred.  We do not always notice the trees swaying gently in the breeze, or the birds tweeting excitedly, or the scent of flowers blooming in the fresh morning air, or the laughter or the tears or the sadness or the joy in other people’s faces as they walk by.

But you see, G-d predicted the mobile phone, and He predicted the pace at which we live our lives, and so right back in the beginning, He gave us Shabbat – the Jewish day of rest.  But he did not do it stop us from watching the latest cat video from YouTube, or the latest Instagram pictures of a cute baby on top of a volcano, or the latest sports results from the European soccer league.  He gave it to us to take a breather, to sit back and think, to spend time with our families, and even dream for a while.  Because every great idea in the world started from a dream.

In a way, Shabbat is that spiritual rejuvenation our minds crave, as well as the physical rejuvenation our bodies need.  Perhaps, it really does allow us to stop and smell the roses, where before we did not even notice them.  Of all the commandments that G-d gave to us back on Mount Sinai, it’s probably the one that is the most community orientated without even mentioning the community!  And the reason is that it actually forces you to put away the technology that controls our lives and interact on a social level with other people.  And in a modern technological society like us, social interaction seems to be an art slowly disappearing.

The world is fast – so fast, but if we slow down just a little, the blurred faces we see going past us can come into focus once again.  And the emotions we all wear upon our faces can become clearer – so clear that the beauty of the world can be revealed to us so that we may gaze upon it with our own eyes, and not just through the amoled screens of a mobile phone.  

Perhaps the apathy that seems to govern much our lives can be replaced with empathy – and oh how better the world would be then…

Monday, July 28, 2014

Defending Israel from abroad

To the average Australian and New Zealander, Israel is a faraway country in a troubled region that does not affect them on any daily basis.  But, as so often happened in the past, the war in Gaza at the moment has taken on international connotations.    In the streets of Melbourne and Auckland, there are protests against Israel, which permeate with anti-Semitic imagery.   Israeli flags are burned and Israel is accused of genocide.  Left wing fascism is in full swing led by people like John Minto, a notorious anti-Semite of who I have written about previously.  Tellingly, no protests have been organised against Russia or Syria where the death toll has topped 170000!  Yet, Israel is not just a faraway issue, and there are times where it comes right back to us and to our community, such as the story of Guy Boyland.
Guy was originally a New Zealander whose family made Aliyah when he was a young boy.  He was featured on the front page of the New Zealand Herald, where his grandfather in New Zealand paid tribute to this bravery and patriotism.  From all accounts, he was someone who loved his adopted country of Israel and died while destroying tunnels thereby making it safer for all Israelis. 
Too often, in the diaspora, we speak of support for Israel, and we write tributes to Israel, and we defend Israel on radio shows and in newspapers and that is important, yet there are no articles written by Guy Boland, and there are no radio interviews given about his support for Israel.  Instead, he actually defended his country and he fought for it and died, so that many people could live.  He, like many of the international volunteers, turned a theoretical support into a practical one.
Sometimes, in the diaspora, there are internal conflicts going on in Jews that care about Israel.  It is a real tribute to the bravery and courage of those Jews who choose to put themselves in harm’s way for a just and righteous cause.  From a far flung corner of the world, we salute them and all the people and soldiers of Israel who stand, sometimes alone, against a darkness that threatens us all.  They are not just defending the people of Israel but the Children of Israel too.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Being Jewish in a modern world

The Pew Research Centre’s recent report on Jewish identity is a sobering reality check on Jewish identity and what it means.  Although the report is based on American Jews, there are many factors that lend themselves to diaspora Jews in general. 
Of the report, the most alarming figure that comes to mind is that 58% of Jews marry out of the faith.  That means that it’s more common for Jews to marry non-Jews in America today.
When I look at Jews in Australia today, it is also quite common for Jews to marry out of the faith with figures reportedly ranging from 25% to 30%, although in reality it can be much higher.  Although intermarriage has always occurred, it is only in the last 50 years that it seems to have taken on an ever increasing rate. 
But what is driving this increasing rate of Jews leaving the fold, as it were.  Does being born Jewish really mean anything anymore?  The reality is that there has probably been a steady erosion of Jewish identity through the years, and by saying Jewish identity I don’t mean just religious - being Jewish means lots of things to lots of people.
Perhaps with increasing globalization, we consider ourselves citizens of the world, rather than any ethnic religious group.  It might be that in this ever busy world where time is the most precious commodity, we don’t have the patience to be bothered with something so seemingly trivial as Jewish identity.  It could even boil down to simple economics.  Getting a formal Jewish education at a Jewish day school in Australia is highly prohibitive, costing up to $30000 for a single student, meaning if you had three kids, you’d require an additional income of $100000 a year, which puts it out of many peoples’ reach.  There are, of course, alternatives such as yeshiva schools, but not everyone is comfortable with sending their children to a religious environment.
The reality is that there is probably no single factor that has caused Jewish identity to erode, but it is a reality of assimilation in an open and free world of which no diaspora community is immune from America all the way to Australia.  The most important reality check in all this is that children of mixed marriages, even with a Jewish mother, have diminishing chances of retaining their Jewish identity in the future.
Is that even important though?  Well, that depends on the individual and how important being Jewish means to you.  We are a part of a 4000 year old people that somehow through pogroms, exile, war and genocide have still managed to remain as an identifiable people through the ages.
Over 300 years ago, Blaise Pascal, the great French philosopher, was asked by King Louis XIV of France to give him proof of miracles. Pascal answered: "Why, the Jews, your Majesty ― the Jews."
I don’t believe that as a people, the Jewish people are in danger of disappearing; however as individuals many of us are destined to be absorbed into our surrounding cultures, leaving our Jewish heritage behind. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

I love the America's Cup - I just don't understand it!

The America’s Cup yachting race is one of those events in world sports, which generates excitement, anxiety, angst, elation and depression.  It is also one of those sports that no one actually understands!

So I decided to sit down – well it was about 6am so make that lie down – and watch one of the races between Team New Zealand and Team USA taking place in the San Francisco bay.

You see - this is how it works.  They start off with a countdown which is somewhere around 5 minutes.   A white line then appears in the sea like magic!  It must have taken them ages painting it, especially with the sea moving and all… Unlike a running race where you shout ready, set go – the America’s Cup is more like ready, set, slow!  They are not actually stationary prior to the race starting – they are in constant motion circling around each other and making grinding noises.  Anyway, the race starts – and they’re off!  I know this because the white line finally washes away.

At this stage, the commentators are particularly excited – not sure why yet.  Oh right, there was a gybe or is it a tack?  Thankfully, there are also lots of camera angles and computer screens showing computer generated imagery of exactly who is winning, because to tell you the truth, it kind of all looks the same on tv!

The commentators then start going crazy, because apparently, Team New Zealand did a starboard tack, which I think means something on the right.  A couple of questions here like - what the hell is a tack?  And what the hell is starboard?  I mean – where am I – the Starship Enterprise?  Why can’t they say left or right like regular people?
The commentators are now delirious as they start shouting something about an ebb flow coming in from the warm southerly current.  Yes, I also don’t know what that means.  They almost pass out now, because apparently Team USA have a code zero!  A what - ?  The only code zero I’m aware of is the one that you have right after having a big Indian dinner, and you’re running down the hallway towards the toilet yelling “Code Zero! Code Zero!”

Suddenly, the race has taken a dramatic turn – or tack!  Team New Zealand are way ahead and heading for a win, when suddenly the match referee who is sitting in another boat somewhere fishing calls for the race to be abandoned – as 40 minutes have passed.  Apparently under the rules the race can only be 40 minutes, so as not to delay proceeding.  So instead of letting the team win, they now have to extend the day by another hour instead of another 5 minutes.  Perhaps on bizarro world that might make sense, but here in the real world where we tack and gybe, it doesn’t!
So the race comes to a sudden end where there was clearly no winner – unless you include the team that was about one kilometre ahead.  Everyone is now standing around and talking excitedly about the day’s events.

It’s always amusing watching people talk about things about which they have no idea.  People are kind of nodding knowingly, arms folded and all, giving an appropriate grunt when needed and saying things like, “Yup, that’s what I was thinking.”  It’s like when your car breaks down and you stare into the engine, with the bonnet up, not knowing what the hell you’re staring at!  But being manly and all, you don’t actually want to admit that and end up making inane comments like, “Yeah, engine spin cycle definitely sounds a bit off”

Anyway, so the race continues with Race number 417 just having been completed with so many questions remaining.  Will there be enough hot air in the room for the next race to start?  Will the wind direction change?  And will Nicholas Cage get off Alcatraz in time before it explodes?

The America’s Cup – it’s like an old relative from a faraway country.  We don’t really understand her, but we love her anyway.