Friday, March 30, 2012

Shaking on it

I had my first incidence of a Jewish faux pas on this trip.  One of my male colleagues came into the office where I was camped out to say hello.  I got up and went over to shake his hand in greeting.  He politely responded with, “no, I don’t shake”, and then continued the conversation where he had left off, as if nothing had happened.  I was taken aback and felt my face flush.  On the one hand, I felt embarrassed for not having realized, based on his dress, that my professional gesture would be a violation of tzniut (modesty).  The Orthodox interpretation of this Jewish value dictates that, with few exceptions, men and women who are not related are forbidden to touch.  At the same time, his demur was so disorienting that reflexively felt insulted – as if he had sat down to dinner at my house and refused to eat what I had prepared because it was unclean.  

Of course, my taking it as personal affront was ridiculous.  It is rather pointedly not so.  After our encounter, I spent some time reading up on tzniut.  Rabbi Aryeh Klapper writes in Text and Texture, a blog of Orthodox Jewish thought, that the intention of tzniut is “to preserve and expand the domain of intimacy” by ensuring that it is reserved for one's spouse.  Touch is deemed to be an intimate gesture.  (If you want to learn more about tzniut, I encourage you to read his thoughtful and articulate piece.)  It literally had nothing to do with me.  And yet… if shaking hands is part of my professional code of conduct, if I communicate partnership and trust through appropriate and respectful touch, how do I reconcile his traditions with mine?

Most of the GreenRoad team in Israel is essentially secular.  They partake in core Jewish rituals – we did a toast for Passover while I was in the office during this visit, and we lit Hannukah candles when I was here last time—but they drive and work on Shabbat, they eat pork and shrimp, and they generally live a life that is unencumbered by halacha, or Jewish law.  But there are a handful of people in the company who are observant.  This is accepted, respected, and incorporated into the way the company does business.  The colleague who greeted me (without a handshake) earns his day of rest mightily; he is online at all hours, working away, responding to after-hours emails within minutes.  But he sends a text before Shabbat begins to let the rest of the team know he’s off.  And another when Shabbat is over.  The team won’t check in any code during Shabbat, even if they’re working.  As one of the leads explained to me, “It’s out of respect.”  

I'm decidedly unorthodox in almost every way imaginable, and I like myself just fine - but I'll admit that sometimes I feel a little jealous of the zealous.  There are times I wish I were a true believer, just because rules relieve the stress of decision-making. Black and white is easier to manage than grey.  And, admittedly, intimacy is kind of a lost art in our society, where we feast on reality TV and chase it with tabloid celebrity exposé.  If tzniut is, as Rabbi Klapper says, intended to preserve and expand intimacy, and intimacy is “constructed by exclusivity of exposure”, maybe there is something to it.  Who is to say how many sensuous relations began with the pretense of chastity in a handshake?  (But then again, who's to say it wasn't a handshake between two women?)

I have been thinking about tzniut not because I have any intention of not shaking hands, or because feel drawn to Orthodoxy, or because I feel that God wants me to be more observant of Jewish laws- but because, honestly, it kind of resonates.  Because in some strange way, it is easier to say “I can’t” than “I won’t” – and there are situations where it may be better to say “I won’t” than “I will”.  There are outcomes where, if you peeled back the onion, you would find a rather innocent-seeming root.

I’m sitting here writing this with the full intention of posting it in the least intimate forum imaginable – Facebook – so I am laughing at myself a bit right now.  Most who know me would say that I am more often rightly charged with TMI than with modesty.  But that gesture of denying the hand I offered has me wondering… maybe freedom of expression is not always so freeing.  It is the spiritual equivalent of the omnivore’s dilemma.  

At the end of the day, I feel fortunate to have had this encounter, because anything that gives you good food for thought is a gift.  My colleague was asking no more than that I treat his beliefs with respect, as he does mine.  It’s not so much to ask.  So why did it feel threatening?  I'll have to mull that over some more.

Here’s to exploring all the traditions of the world with an open heart.  May life be richer for it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Last night, we went to dinner with a few of our Israeli colleagues, enjoying one of the many excellent restaurants at the Tel Aviv port.  The conversation turned to Iran – but sideways, as usual, through a vein of humor. (It was something along the same lines as the bumper sticker I once saw that said “Sarah Palin in 2012 | The world’s going to end anyway.”)  It’s a strange thing, being in this place that is reduced to a series of really frightening headlines around most of the globe.  Tel Aviv is one of the most vibrant, progressive, alive cities I know – it’s parasurfers, gelato shops, world-class dining, and all-night dance parties.    And yet, the threat of war looms all the time.  Israelis themselves are somewhat desensitized to it in daily life.  Every parent has or will have children in the army.  Everyone my age has lived through war and served in the military.  Memorial Day in the US is about shopping; in Israel, it is the most solemn day of the year.  Our GM describes the time he lived in the Bay Area as kind of dull compared to the ever-present thrill of being surrounded by people who want to kill you.  So while no one is naïve about what could happen, there is also a sense that it has happened before, and will happen again, and you might as well get on with your life and make the most of it while you’re still alive.

I struggle with this premise a lot.  It sounds good to say that you should live every day as if it could be your last.  But chances are that it won’t  be your last.  And that creates a dilemma.  If I knew for certain that tomorrow would be my last day on Earth, for example, I certainly wouldn’t be here, seven thousand miles from my family; I would be at home, holding my kids until the very last moment.  But the odds are that I will live not only through this trip but also well past the day my mortgage payment is due, so I will probably need the paycheck I’m working towards.  And my kids would look at me funny if I held them tightly through a veil of tears, telling them over and over again that I loved them – they’d probably play along but secretly be wondering whether this might be an ideal time to ask for the iPad, seeing as Mom was being so nice.  If I knew there were no tomorrow, I sure wouldn’t bid the world farewell by doing laundry… but if tomorrow comes, I’m going to want clean underwear.  

So, on a daily basis, I’m not acting as if I could go any minute.  I plan, I postpone, I sow seeds that can only be harvested in the future.  But this creates a different dilemma: the sense that I can put things off on the assumption that the future will actually come.  Lately, I’ve been obsessed with defining my life’s purpose, and I am worried that the clock is ticking and I still haven’t figured it out.  I have a vision floating out there that someday, things will quiet down, and I will have time to do what I was put here to do; but honestly, the world is such a mess right now that I don’t know whether I should wait.  I look enviously at my cats, who seem to feel none of this struggle.  

Sunday morning, I went for a run through the city of Jaffa, a place that was inhabited 7,500 years BCE.  It’s my favorite route here.  At 7:00, it’s very quiet; just me and a few guys sweeping the streets.  I love being in a place that is so ancient.  It makes me feel insignificant – like I can get off this crusade for purpose and just live, because in the end, we are small, and we will be survived by that which preceded us.  I think it’s why so many are drawn to mountains and oceans: they remind us that the world doesn’t rest on our shoulders, and in our insignificance, we can finally relax.

I came back at night to some terrible news from my mother.  Her good friend’s son had been snorkeling that day when a motorboat hit and killed him.  His youngest son had been with him.  His wife and three other sons were on the beach.  He was my age.  He was not in a war zone; he was in Turks and Caicos on vacation.  In an instant, his family’s life went from a dream to their worst nightmare.

It is hard to think of his life as insignificant.  I felt heartbroken thinking of his four kids screaming for Daddy.  I don’t know where it left me in my search for purpose, or my level of comfort with not having found it.  I just knew I wished I were home.  

I won’t live every day as if it were my last.  But maybe I can try to love that way.  It is the one thing that no one can make up after you’re gone.  And whether you're in the Middle East or Caribbean paradise, you never know… you just never know.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tel Aviv

I’ve decided to start writing a blog.  Not that the world needs more bloggers.  I’ve spent years snubbing the blogosphere as a club with no standards for membership, a sort of Gong Show with no gong.  But I’ve spent the same years wishing that I could write more, that somewhere in my past, between assistant editor of Erehwon and Vice President of Product, I had figured out how to write for a living.  And somewhere in the past 24 hours, it dawned on me that if I wanted to write things for other people to read—things that didn’t have titles like “Marketing Requirements Document” or “Release Notes” – I could just dismount from my high horse and join the bloggers.  So here I am.  Goodbye, horse.  My blog begins in Tel Aviv. 

At 5:30 this morning, I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport for the third time in six months.  I have been traveling for two days.  I haven’t had more than an hour or two of sleep since I left San Francisco, took a red eye to London, worked in the UK office for the day, and took another overnight flight to Israel.  But I felt the energy of this place the moment we landed.  I always do.  It’s something I’ve heard other people describe, so I know I am not alone.  When I went out to get a cab, the sun had just risen in a perfect orange ball over the airport.  I am always looking for signs, especially when I am dispiritingly exhausted, and walking out into the sunrise was all I needed to know that I had left home to come home.  I love it here.

It was 6:20 by the time I got to my hotel.  I was more than ready to collapse into bed, but the gentlemen at reception told me that he didn’t have any rooms ready, and I’d need to come back at 9.  Two and a half hours to kill, on Shabbat, at sunrise… Tired as I was, I put on my walking shoes and headed for the beach.  

Even at dawn on a Saturday, the Tel Aviv beach path is buzzing with energy.  The hard-core runners are already out in bands, competing with bikes, dogs and walkers for the right of way.  This city is seriously physically fit.  There are people out here running the way I do when the doors are about to close on Caltrain – but they are doing it for miles and miles.  I couldn’t keep up with them if they were all wearing clogs and carrying mini-fridges.   

Fortunately, I don’t have my running clothes this morning, so I am pretending that I want to be walking instead of running – even though that isn’t true.  Runners make me want to run.  There is something sexy about morning runners - all those men and women busting their asses, their faces stern with effort- while most of the world is sleeping in.  It foments a certain lust, something I want, or want to be, especially when they're people I don't know.  Somehow, the anonymity makes them grander.  I think the language barrier helps too; I can’t understand them for the most part, so I assume they are having important conversations while they run, perhaps about national security, economic inequality, water conservation.  In reality, they are probably complaining about a bad night’s sleep, dissing their co-workers, and fishing for compliments on their parenting or their hair-- just like the rest of us.  If I knew what they were saying, it might not have the same heat.

About an hour down the beach, I stop at a café for a latte and a croissant.  My favorite part about reading the menus in Israel is looking for transliterations of words I know, like “KROSONTZ” or “STAYK”.  I usually try to order in Hebrew, and if it’s not too busy, the waiters are usually happy to let me stumble through, making sure that I don’t accidentally get a quail sandwich for breakfast  and gently correcting me when I ask for the receipt instead of the check.  I love sitting by myself at cafes and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations – particularly parents with young children, because they tend to speak slowly and clearly enough for me to follow along.  Then I walk home, repeating phrases to myself – zeh ha-acharon achshav, cheshbon b’vakashah, ani rotzah mashehu matok… The words come back to me when I hear other people saying them.  No one even looks at me as if I’m crazy when I talk to myself.  They probably assume I’ve got a Bluetooth hidden somewhere, that I’m actually having a conversation with someone other than my inner Hebrew tutor.  Truth be told, I wouldn’t behave any differently even if they did think I was nuts.  The beauty of being halfway around the world by myself is not much caring what impression I leave.  Solitude is a luxury in the life of a mother with young children, and I revel in it, even when my heart aches from separation.

So now I am back at the hotel, at 9:25, still waiting for the room.  But ultimately, it was a blessing in disguise that I got kicked to the curb when I got here.  It’s a beautiful sunny morning, and instead of being up in my room sleeping through it, I was out with the people of Tel Aviv – my home-away-from-home people.  Jewish people.  The people of Israel.  Shalom, brothers and sisters.   You are so beautiful.