Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Toy Story 3: Spooky, funny and full of life

The lovely Miss Wendy and I recently spent a delightful evening with pals Susan and John watching Toy Story 3. John’s man cave it turns out is really a mega-entertainment center, the perfect place to watch Sheriff Woody and his animated friends.

This time around the folks at Pixar and Walt Disney Studios have yet again managed to produce a film that offers up a few lessons about life in a fun and totally entertaining fashion. The story has Andy, that would be Woody’s, ah, human, heading off to college and all the toys anxious about their future.

Everything seems light and bright and moving in the right direction when Andy decides to take Woody along with him to college and save all the other toys from the trash bin by storing them in the family’s attic. Of course all doesn’t go according to plan and the toys end up in daycare hell!

Sunnyside, at least the toy side of things, is run by Lots-o’-huggin’ bear. His fuzzy heart was broken years earlier by his, ah, human kid and now he’s oh-so spooky in a cuddly sort of way.

“Lotso” and his band of thugs turn life into the proverbial living hell for Andy’s toys until Woody figures out how to save the day. My guess is most of you have already seen the film and know how the heroics play out. I’ve got only one word for the rest of you. Netflix!

A thousand years ago when I was a kid, animated films were aimed directly at youngsters. They were mostly sweet little cartoons with just enough dark energy to keep things interesting. So there was the witch in Snow White and the hunters in Bambi, Captain Hook in Peter Pan and Cruella de Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The villains were mostly hidden away in the shadows, laughably evil and bigger than life.

The bad guys in Toy Story 3 are much spookier, often funny but also creepy. Their spooky mojo isn’t linked just to things that go bump in the dark and fill our sleep with nightmares. Okay, there is a clown and a lumbering big baby with a drooping eyelid. But the characters are also saddled with a boatload of human frailties and psychological scars, acting out their fears and causing problems. That’s scary stuff.

I imagine youngsters find the movie fun. There’s lots of color and plenty of noise, enough sensory stimulation to keep them focused and entertained. And I guess they can follow the plot, at least on the surface.

But Toy Story 3, and much of the animated work coming out of Hollywood these days, is being produced for a much larger and older audience. It’s not just the high-tech animation that’s pure genius and pulling in crowds.

Like all good films, Toy Story 3 offers up a pitch-perfect script. So it’s the words, I’d argue, that ultimately hold together the fine work of the film’s actors, animators, producers and directors. Those words, interestingly, focus on the human condition – aging and change; friendship and love.

Films are all about the suspension of disbelief and once upon a time that just didn’t happen for me when watching cartoons. Woody and his talented team of creators have changed all that. Now, apparently, all I need is a dark room, bag of popcorn and something special from the folks at Disney.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Judaism by the numbers: Good, bad and okay

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today, let’s crunch some numbers and figure out what it means to be Jewish.

There are approximately 13 million Jews in the world – six million in the U.S., six million in Israel and another million or so spread around the globe. Those figures vary a bit depending on census numbers pulled together by various organizations and how they define what it means to be a Jew.

In a willy-nilly sort of way, I’ve come up with an algorithm that digs into the census figures and offers a good idea of what I think it means to be Jewish today. Essentially, my reasoning links up with an earlier posting that suggests most everything can be broken into thirds – good, bad an okay.

In this instance, forget about the subjective spectrum of good and bad and substitute affiliated, somewhat affiliated and don’t give a damn. Under the weight of this idea, I’d argue there are 4 million Jews in the world who are deeply committed to Judaism, Jewish culture and the Jewish people; 4 million Jews who are somewhat committed to such things and 4 million who eat lox and bagels and know some dirty words in Yiddish! And yes, I know that my figures don’t add up; but I’m trying to keep this simple for all my math-phobic readers.

Here in the Land of Cotton, what this all means – and, worth noting, is documented by the local Jewish federation – is that about 40,000 Jews belong to the 30 or so synagogues in the area; another 40,000 are affiliated in some fashion with some sort of Jewish organization – community center, federation, ADL, AJC, JF&CS – and another 40,000 have a favorite deli they nosh at regularly.

Now this is where it gets complicated and the beauty of my algorithm comes into play. The 40,000 Jews who are deeply committed – at the very least they are affiliated with a shul – can be broken into yet another group of thirds.

One third is deeply involved – they attend Shabbat and holiday services, keep kosher, know all the words of the Birkat Hamazon; another third is somewhat involved – they attend services on a semi-regular basis, don’t keep kosher but won’t eat pork or mix milk and meat, and at least know what the Birkat Hamazon is. Members of the final group attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, eat lobster and shrimp, but never with a milkshake, and are pretty sure that the Birkat Hamazon is some form of yoga. In short, being Jewish in the 21st century means different things to different people. Go figure!

A footnote. My algorithm – or at least the idea – has informed the building of synagogues in the U.S. for at least the last half century. In the late 1950s, architects were trying to figure out how best to build sanctuaries that were cozy and intimate. The problem was that on any given Shabbat, as detailed above, only about a third of the members would show for services. Build an expansive sanctuary and it was often empty. Build a cozy sanctuary and it wasn’t nearly large enough to handle the crowds on the High Holidays.

The solution, of course, was to build the main sanctuary next to the shul’s social hall with a moveable wall between the two rooms. On the two days each year – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – when attendance tripled, the back wall of the sanctuary was pushed aside and the once intimate space was now large enough to easily handle the overflow of holiday worshipers. Problem solved – yesterday and today!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Who knew garbanzo beans could be so tasty!

My stomach was gurgling this afternoon and I wanted something light and tasty to quiet it down. I’ve turned my back recently on all things sugary and loaded with fat – donuts, cakes, cookies and ice cream … deep sigh. So my options seemed limited.

I was sorting through the usual stuff in the fridge – veggies, fruit, cheese – when I spotted a container of garbanzo beans. Yech! The lovely Miss Wendy has taken a liking to the whitish legumes in recent years, tossing them atop salads and other simple dishes. I find them both nasty and bland; so initially I pushed them aside.

Then I recalled scarfing down a shawarma gyro last week that was lathered with hummus and realized that I’ve been eating garbanzo beans for years, albeit smashed and tarted up with an assortment of condiments.

Having absolutely nothing better to do and feeling oh-so creative, I decided to make a batch of the Middle Eastern spread from scratch. My first problem is that other than chickpeas – just another name for garbanzo beans – I had no idea what ingredients were needed. A quick google search – hey, I’m a high-tech sort of guy – solved that problem and then a quick search of the fridge and pantry and I was good to go. Here’s the recipe I found on about.com under Middle Eastern foods.

Nor’s Hummus extraordinaire1 can chickpeas (15 oz.)
2 tablespoons roasted garlic
½ tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon oregano

In a food processor, process beans, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and oregano until desired consistency. If hummus is too thick, simply add olive oil in small increments (1/2 teaspoon) until desired consistency.

I smartly decided to use a blender instead of hauling down our food processor and the results were just fine. My hummus might not be ready for the Food Network quite yet, but it was smooth and delicate, tastily infused with a rich blend of garlic, oregano and the citrusy tang of lemon juice.

It only takes 10 minutes or so to whip everything together, and hummus is low in fat, sodium, carbs and sugar. You can spread it on just about anything and it's perfect as a side dish, appetizer or snack.

Up next? Baba ganoush.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lincoln Lawyer has twists, turns; a few surprises

Matthew McConaughey has jumped just a bit outside his comfort zone in The Lincoln Lawyer, returning to the courtroom for the first time since he hit gold with A Time to Kill. For years McConaughey has been phoning in performances, playing lovable, likable characters in forgettable romantic comedies.

This time around he remains likable as a street-smart lawyer who mostly works out of the back of his car. The movie has lots going for it; interesting story and well-written screenplay with more twists and turns than the Pacific Coast Highway. It also has just enough action to keep things real and moving along, and a killer cast – Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe and the always delightful William H. Macy.

Mick Haller – that would be the McConaughey character – stumbles into a case that, at first blush, seems to provide some easy money for just a little work. A young, good-looking rich guy has been arrested for beating up a hooker and he claims he’s being framed. With just a little effort Mick seems to have won the case before opposing attorneys even have a chance to chat.

What Mick and all of us munching away on our popcorn in the dark don't know is that the rich kid is a sociopath and Mick’s being setup in a most canny and sinister fashion. Just as things start turning sour, I realized The Lincoln Lawyer was actually making me think and pay attention to what was happening on the big screen. I love when that happens.

There’s little violence and absolutely no car chases in the film. The pop of the two gunshots in the movie play out much bigger than all the automatic gunfire on display in most action adventures because the story unfolds in such a plausible fashion.

For those very same reasons, the film only managed to pull in an estimated $13.4 million during its opening weekend. That’s not necessarily bad news for McConaughey. Those tepid receipts actually represent the top-grossing start for a McConaughey non-comedy-or-action movie since his breakout in A Time to Kill. Go figure!

More importantly, at least for me, Miss Wendy and the 100 or so others in the theater, The Lincoln Lawyer offered up an entertaining way to spend the first day of spring. Of course, give me a dark room and a bag of popcorn and I’ll watch just about anything.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Grab the booze and your favorite costume

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Winter is a fading memory and it’s time for a little fun!

Purim is only a day or so away and it’s time to party. The festive holiday, a bit of Mardi gras with a very Jewish accent, begins Saturday night and once again we’ll be reading about a land far, far away and a beautiful queen who saved her people. Did I mention there will be drinking?

Purim is the stuff of fairy tales, a delightful story filled with good and evil and, if you happen to be Jewish, a really great ending. The players include a powerful king, Ahasuerus, and a really nasty guy, Haman; a hero, Mordechai, and a beautiful queen, Esther.

Once upon a time the king got rid of his queen and picked a new wife. Meanwhile, the really bad guy gets really angry at our hero and orders that he and all his fellow Jews be killed. Our beautiful queen – that would be Esther – just so happens to be a cousin of our hero and, of course, a Jewess. The plot thickens.

The king, with lots of help from Esther, learns that the hero, Mordechai, uncovered a plot to kill the king, saving his life. He also learns that his queen is Jewish and the really evil guy, Haman, wants her cousin and all the other Jews in Persia slaughtered. The king decides instead that Haman should be killed and that the Jews, if attacked, can defend themselves. They are and they do!

Really, this is all too detailed to make up. Also, it’s pretty much all written down in the Biblical Book of Esther, Megillat Esther, the last of the 24 books of the Jewish Bible to be canonized by the sages of the Great Assembly.

Some of the assembly’s fellow sages – that would be the rabbis of the Talmud – came up with a wonderful idea when trying to figure out how best to recall Esther, Mordechai and their heroic deeds. They decided Purim would be a grand time to have a party and get drunk. Purim, btw, means lots in Hebrew; as in, Haman decided to cast lots to figure out the day to kill the Jews.

“A person,” the rabbis of the Talmud suggested, “is obligated to drink on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.” Much has been written about this obligation, but that’s fodder for next year’s posting on Purim. Meanwhile, gin, tonic, three ice cubes and a wedge of lime. Enjoy and Chag Sameach.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Humpty Dumpty and the information highway

The New York Times’ David Brooks makes the point in a recent column that our president seems to have shifted gears in recent months. Obama, the candidate who was all about change, is looking much more like Eisenhower now then, say, FDR. Today he seems to be a man content with the status quo, believing apparently that there is virtue in patience.

Of course, Washington is a place where patience often morphs into stagnation. Obama certainly wouldn’t be the first president intent on shaking up the established order, only to learn that battling Congress is often an onerous ordeal that moves at a snail’s pace – if at all.

Politics isn’t something I spend much time writing about here and I’m not about to start now. Why bother? I’d end up either preaching to the choir or alienating my very good friends on both the left and right who obviously don’t understand the subtle nature of living life as a reactionary.

No, it’s the difficult problem of change that I’d like to address today. There’s been a great deal of it going around lately, most of it a product of the new technology that has revolutionized the way we go about living. Once upon a time we chatted on blocky, black phones, listened to music on stereos, read books for information and entertainment and got our daily dose of news from local newspapers and national magazines.

Telephones – at least the sort you plug into wall hookups – stereos and records are fading memories. Meanwhile, book, newspaper and magazine publishers are struggling to remain viable in a world that spits out faster and cheaper ways to communicate daily. Most all of these changes have made life much more efficient. Entire industries – and millions of workers – have gone the way of the dinosaur. But, hey, nobody ever said life would be a bed of roses!

At first blush, it seems that much change has happened in the last decade. But the proverbial handwriting was on the wall long ago. Back in the late ’80s – that would be the 1980s – I can recall sitting in meetings at that place with the printing press, listening to reports that detailed the decline in newspaper readership. There was much wailing and hand-wringing. Committees were formed and studies commissioned.

For at least a decade, well before the internet took hold and began reshaping the world, a wide variety of plans were put in place to increase circulation – focus on the core city and younger readers; write more expansive features dealing with lifestyle issues; pay more attention to the suburbs; change the paper’s design, font style and web size – trust me here, it’s a newspaper thing; use more photos and play them bigger; use less photos and play them smaller.

Despite all these efforts, circulation continued to plummet and then, in the late ’90s, the full impact of the internet began to be felt. It would take another decade of planning and committees and high-paid consultants to figure out that newspapers were, ah, toast! One last desperate effort was put in place to turn things around.

Teams of consultants, editors and reporters spent tons of hours rethinking the newspaper biz – how we do what we do and how we change it; what the paper of the future should focus on and what it should look like. Team leaders spent hours attending focus groups, listening to all the things “real” people wanted in their daily newspaper. Designers were hidden away in secret rooms, whipping out prototypes of edgy new sections. After years of effort, the really big editors and the really big consultants came up with a massive master plan and a detailed timeline was created to implement the changes.

But a funny thing happened as the newspaper of the future was rolling out. The economy cratered and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Sometimes we plan for change and sometimes it’s unceremoniously thrust our way. To their credit, the really big editors at that place with the printing press, their horses and men, have done a good job pasting together Humpty Dumpty’s shell. But if you look closely, you can’t help but notice they haven’t been able to cover over all the cracks. Worse, in all the scurrying about, I don’t think they’ve managed yet to find Humpty’s heart!

I hope they’re still looking.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Charlie Sheen, Snooki and Eleanor Roosevelt

I was listening to a movie review recently on NPR of Sweet Smell of Success, a memorable film produced in 1957, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. The film, loosely based on the life and sleazy work of Walter Winchell, has been gussied up and re-released.

The NPR reviewer, wanting to provide a bit of context and a sense of the moral bankruptcy at the heart of the film, used a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt to begin his report. “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

Long ago, when the information highway was patrolled by hacks and closed to the public, gossip columnists like Winchell had the power to make or break celebrities. His weekly column was filled with truth, half-truths and lies.

Winchell’s work was all about people and Sweet Smell of Success is a heartbreaking indictment of the damage that can be unleashed by small-minded hacks focused on the daily drivel of life. With the explosion of the web in recent years, there are now thousands of Winchell wannabes; many freelance bloggers, others part of huge media enterprises.

I fear that if Eleanor Roosevelt managed to rise from the dead, she would look about, hear all the meaningless nonsense that fills the airways, blogosphere and celebrity rags and correctly surmise that her once great country is no longer the home of the brave but a land of small-minded fools.

Instead of ideas and events, it seems the majority of folks today are much more interested in Charlie Sheen missing his twins birthday, Scott Disick’s – no, I’m not at all sure who he is and care even less – struggles with sobriety; and Richard Hatch’s return to jail. Then there are the continuing ups and downs of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie; Jewel, Cher and Lady Gaga; Snooki and, ah, the Situation – what the hell is that all about; the housewives of New York, Beverly Hills and Atlanta; and some guy named Bieber!

Have some of our fellow citizens become so bored with life, unwilling or afraid to pay attention to the real issues of the day, that they need the constant buzz and distraction of celebrity boobs screwing around and screwing up their lives? Such crap has always been part of the fabric of life, but as we push into the 21st Century the sideshow seems to have taken center stage and the next generation has lost its focus on what’s important.

At first blush, it seems the only people discussing ideas are screaming bloviators – a really dismal piece of news, if true. But when you stop and exam all the Sturm und Drang filling the airways, it becomes clear such pundits are talking not so much about cosmic ideas of change, but instead focusing their spleen and venom on, you got it, personalities.

If given the opportunity, I’d tell Eleanor to remain buried. Even if she managed to find her way back to life, all the small-minded talk today would bore her to death.

MIND ROT: This would be Snooki (photo above), the latest in a long-line of talentless schnooks wasting our time and filling the airways.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Budapest shul offers glimpse into the past

It's Friday, time yet again for another Posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today we travel to Budapest and visit one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in the world.

The Dohany Street Synagogue, one of the top tourist attractions in Budapest, is minutes away from the heart of the city, a comfortable walk from the Danube, Chain Bridge and other popular landmarks across the inner city of Pesh.

Remarkably, the shul isn’t showing her age, even as the Jewish community here observes the sesquicentennial of this exquisite facility. It’s been over a decade since the building received a multi-million dollar face lift and was restored to its original glory after near destruction during World War II and years of neglect by the communists.

Hidden from view by shops and apartments, the shul is slowly revealed, bits of its exotic features and intricate masonry coming into view once you make your way into the Jewish quarter.

At first glance the building is a euphonic blend of towers and stained glass, arches and onion-shaped domes, all wrapped together neatly in a Byzantine-Moorish style. Design details — an eclectic blend of whirls and swirls and painted brick — add richness and depth to the structure.

The other-worldly, decidedly Middle-Eastern feel of the place is balanced and enhanced with religious iconography, including Jewish stars and a large mosaic of a menorah spilling across a gathering spot in front of the synagogue. For those still uncertain what they have stumbled upon, the entrance is topped with a phrase in Hebrew taken from the book of Exodus: “And let them make Me a sanctuary so I may dwell among them.”

The richly-ornamented interior borders on the surreal, an over-the-top blend of colors, shapes and architectural styles. The expansive space — it’s one of the largest synagogues in the world and can hold nearly 3,000 people — has a warm, golden glow about it, filled with light that’s filtered through yellow-tinted, stained-glass windows.

Rows of wooden pews, well-worn with age and use, rest heavily on a simple floor. An aisle of mosaic tiles in an intricate star-like pattern runs the length of the shul, about half the size of a football field, from a set of stained-glass doors at the entrance to the impressive, ornately-decorated bimah.

A pair of massive chandeliers comprised of a series of glass globes dangle high overhead while dozens of other fixtures, all mimicking the same look, hang from the ceiling, the upper railing of a second-floor balcony and atop the third-floor balcony’s balustrade. While the entire space is magnificent, the bimah — the artistic and spiritual focus of the synagogue — demands attention. It’s set off by an ornate, intricately-designed gate, two towering menorahs and an arch, soaring three stories high.

A dome of heroic proportion, covered in abstract frescoes, hovers above the ark, mirroring the shape of the golden crown that tops the Aron Kodesh. The ark is immense, the size of a small house with its own arches and columns, adorned with architectural detail in gold relief. It holds sefer torahs, many taken from synagogues across Eastern Europe destroyed during the Holocaust.

The Dohany Street Synagogue almost suffered the same fate as those other houses of prayer. What exists here today is all the more remarkable given the shul’s history, especially over the last seven decades.

Signs of a Jewish presence in the region first appeared nearly 1,000 years ago when Roman emperors still ruled the area. For the next eight centuries, Jews here, as across the rest of Europe, lived through periods of persecution, benign neglect and, occasionally, enlightened acceptance.

In the middle of the 19th Century, during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, Jews were not allowed to live in the city of Pest — it, and the neighboring communities of Buda and Obuda, would consolidate in 1873 as one city, Budapest. Despite the housing ban, anti-Semitic outbreaks quieted and, interestingly, talk of full emancipation was in the air.

It was during this period, when all seemed possible, that the Jewish community of Pest decided to build a new synagogue in the heart of their community on, Dohany Street. They hired a Viennese architect, Ludwig Foerster, and made it clear they wanted something grand — beautiful, large, exotic and, perhaps, a bit like their neighbor’s churches. Foerster got the message.

He created a Jewish basilica — a long-aisled hall ending in a dome-covered aspe, featuring ornamental frescoes, arched windows and stained-glass doors and windows. He even managed to include a 5,000-tubed organ. Foerster then filled the cavernous space with ritualistic bits of judaica — the ark, menorahs, eternal light and stars.

The Jewish community flourished and the Dohany Street Synagogue became an integral and impressive part of the city for decades. Anti-Semitism, unfortunately, also remained part of Budapest and the region. But it wasn’t until the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s, that Jews were openly persecuted once again and the Dohany Street shul entered its darkest hours.

As the world moved toward war, Hungary aligned itself with Germany and Italy. In the late ’30s and early ’40s, the country enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws that set limits on the jobs Jews could hold, schools they could attend, where they could live and who they could marry. Despite such draconian measures, Jews in Hungary remained relatively free. All that would soon change.

Over a period of eight weeks in the spring of 1944, Jews across the region were rounded up and forced into ghettos — one of the largest centered around Dohany Street in Budapest. Only weeks later the first transports began. Even as Soviet troops neared the Hungarian border and freedom loomed precariously on the horizon, the trains continued to roll. By mid-summer, over half the Jews in Hungary — about 500,000 men, women and children — had been deported. Most were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in southern Poland.

It was during this period that the Dohany shul became part of a Nazi military district, then an internment camp, then a deportation center. For a time, Adolph Eichman planned the “Final Solution” from an office in the synagogue. Nearby, nearly 100,000 Jews in the city continued to cling to life. It was a daily struggle and thousands died of disease, starvation and abuse. By the war’s end less than a third of the Jews of Hungary, about 255,000 people, remained alive.

The Jewish community briefly rallied following the war, but once the communists took hold of the country in 1949 the number of Jews decreased sharply. The area around Dohany Street remained a center of Jewish life in the country, but the synagogue was, quite literally, only a shell of its former self. Its roof was open in spots, windows shattered and bordered up, grounds filled with debris. Decades of neglect followed.

In the late 1960s there were about 85,000 Jews in Hungary, a decade later only about 60,000, most living in Budapest. And then the world changed.

In 1989, across Central and Eastern Europe, communist states began to topple. It all began in Poland, followed quickly by Hungary, the first Warsaw Pact country to break free of Soviet domination. Only a year later, much of the region was toying with democracy and capitalism, opening its borders to investors and tourists.

Money poured in and among the first projects to be planned and funded by sources outside the country was the restoration of the Dohany Street Synagogue. A number of philanthropic organizations, mostly Jewish and mostly American, provided cash to repair and restore the shul. The three-year project was finished in 1996.

The Jewish community also made a comeback. There are now over 100,000 Jews in the region, enough to support a day school, university, community center and 20 synagogues. The Dohany Street shul attracts thousands of tourists each year and once again finds itself at the spiritual heart of the Jewish quarter. And why not? Its founders planned a shul for the ages and today it remains as beautiful and magnificent as ever.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Does Arlene eat to live or live to eat?

Before dashing off to the airport over the weekend, the lovely Miss Wendy and I took our always wonderful niece Arlene to brunch. Arlene is bright and beautiful, a young woman focused on work, family – and food!

Most of us, of course, enjoy eating. It’s a sensual pleasure that can and should be a healthy part of life. That’s the case with Arlene who manages to both eat to live and live to eat. It’s not stretching the truth to report she has an ongoing love affair with food. When she’s not eating, she’s planning her next meal or reminiscing about a previous feast!

So we were all excited to visit Alon’s, a European-style restaurant and bakery in our little corner of the world, featuring a vast array of artisan cheeses, breads and wines, specialty food items and European-style pastries, cakes and cookies.

Wendy and I discovered Alon’s years ago when it first opened in a gentrified neighborhood close to the heart of the Land of Cotton. Alon Balshan is an Israeli who was gaining fame in these parts as a pastry chef when he decided, along with his father Maurice, that it was time to open his own place. The rest, as they say, is history. Fortunately, part of that history was the opening of a second Alon’s in the northern suburbs. No more schlepping across the city for Sunday brunch!

Despite being indoors, the newer Alon’s has the wide open feel of an outdoor market; one of those happening, high-energy spots you stumble across in Europe and other exotic locales. It’s filled with salads and sandwiches, a variety of meat and fish dishes, specialty coffees, drinks, snacks and tasty treats – chocolates and gelato, freshly baked pastries and other sweets.

Stuff is placed about in what seems to be a haphazard fashion, but my guess is there’s a sophisticated master plan to all the madness. Shoppers wonder about, free to stumble across culinary treats at a leisurely pace. You can pack it all up and take your tasty treasures home, or order up one of the day’s specialties and eat in a small dining area or, better yet, outside on an expansive patio.

That’s where Arlene, Wendy and I ended up for Brunch, after fussing about like kids in a very well-stocked candy store. The Caramel Banana French Toast – custard-soaked brioche with caramel-poached bananas – was tempting; but I had images of my doctor wagging his finger at me and whispering an ugly word – sugar. Well then, how about the Ricotta Soufflé Pancakes – fluffy ricotta pancakes made with spelt and served with Alon’s chocolate hazelnut sauce. Yummy, but filled with carbs. Yikes!

So, Wendy and I settled for the All-American Breakfast – couple of eggs, home-fried potatoes with onions and bell peppers, and wheat toast. Tasty, nutritious and oh-so healthy.

Arlene managed to stay away from the sugary stuff, while pushing the culinary envelope just a tad – smoked salmon and two poached eggs, drizzled with hollandaise sauce and topped with fried capers and baby arugula, all resting on a crispy potato latke. Just the sort of thing you’d expect your yiddishe mama to make!

We sat, and ate, and chatted; then ate and chatted some more. Glancing about, surrounded by others enjoying the day, the whisper of small talk blending euphonically with the sweet and savory smells of the nearby market, it was a little difficult to believe we were outside a strip shopping center and just a hundred yards or so from one of the largest shopping malls in the region.

That’s the magic of tasty food and good company. My hope is there’s a lot more of those things in all of our futures.

TASTES AS GOOD AS IT LOOKS: Smoked Salmon and Potato Cake Benedict (photo above), one of the specialties at Alon’s Bakery & Market.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Israel messy blend of old beliefs, modern politics

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today we jump aboard my time machine and travel back to Israel. The story below is from my archives. I thought it worth posting here, given the events playing out in the Middle East at the moment. Israel is the only true democracy in the region and what I experienced during a trip to Israel several years ago speaks volumes about both the messy nature of a working democracy and why such a system is worth defending.

A poignant, melancholy Hebrew tune filled the tour bus as I neared Jerusalem, the spiritual focus of a 15-day trip to Israel that had begun a week earlier in the bustling, modern city of Tel Aviv.

My 29 traveling companions, all but two members of Congregation Etz Chaim in the Land of Cotton, grew silent, anticipating our first glimpse of the ancient city that remains at the heart of three of the world's major religions.

For a week in late June and early July we had sprinted across the northern half of this tiny nation — it's about the size of New Jersey — traveling along a highway paralleling the pristine shore of the Mediterranean Sea, first to Haifa, with stops along the way at the ages-old port cities of Caesarea and Acre, then further north to the Lebanese border.

We turned east into the upper Galilee before plunging into the Hula Valley, zig-zagging our way through the agricultural heartland of the nation — useless swamps only three generations earlier — and the Golan Heights further to the east. We stopped to catch our breath for a few days in Tiberias, the beautiful and historically-rich city that nestles softly along the Sea of Galilee.

Soon enough we were back on the road, heading south through the Judean Desert, a parched, other-worldly landscape of monochromatic beige. We made a hard right turn toward Jericho — yes, that Jericho, the one where the walls came tumbling down — and began our final ascent over the Judean Hills.

And then we were in darkness, hurtling through a tunnel at the base of Mt. Scopus on the northeastern boundary of Jerusalem, a widening span of white at the tunnel's end quickly giving way to an ever expanding cityscape of sun-baked structures — domes and spires, steeples and minarets.

The music we were listening to, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), a hugely popular ode to the beauty of this place, seemed made for the moment. The iconic scene was breathtaking, even transcendent. But we were quickly brought back to earth by more mundane events — hardcore politics.

Protesters opposed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to pull out of the Gaza Strip the following August were out in force this day, blocking intersections across the city. Only minutes after stopping at an overlook on Mt. Scopus to say a traditional prayer of thanksgiving, the Shehecheyanu, we became part of the day's drama — if only for a moment — when a dozen or so soldiers began tussling with protesters in front of our bus, forcing them off the street. Eventually, about 175 protesters across the country were arrested. A month earlier, during a similar demonstration, about 400 people were detained. This interplay of things spiritual and political continued for the next several days.

Early the following morning, I awoke to shouting. Glancing out my window at the Sheraton Jerusalem on King George Street, I saw several men behind cordons that blocked the area to traffic. An hour later I stepped off an elevator into a lobby teeming with security guards putting the final touches on a massive security barrier. I later learned that a national economic summit was underway at the hotel and one of the speakers that evening was Prime Minister Sharon. As many in our group headed for our tour bus, we spotted Binyamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister (and now, Prime Minister, yet again), being whisked into a waiting freight elevator by a couple of unsmiling government agents.

That evening, after a full day of touring, including the site where it's believed King David established the original city of Jerusalem, our group returned to a frenetic scene of security guards, city police, fully-armed soldiers and a lone, hovering helicopter.

We escaped the area an hour later, heading toward Norman's, a kosher steak and burger joint in the German Colony, a small village of trendy shops, boutiques, restaurants and private residences. Every intersection we crossed had at least a dozen soldiers, the largest concentration of troops centered around Liberty Bell Park. On our way back to the hotel several hours later the numbers had doubled. Curious, I asked a security guard in front of the Dan Panorama Hotel, across from the park, if he knew the reason for all the added security.

"You know Gay," he said in broken English. I nodded that I understood. "You know Heredim," he added, using the Hebrew word for members of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. "Soldiers keep them apart."

I had heard that the fourth annual Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade was to be held this day, but had no idea that it would require such security. It was only when I read in the Jerusalem Post the following day that a haredi youngster stabbed two people in the parade of 5,000 marchers that I understood the increased troop and police presence, especially around Liberty Bell Park where a gay pride rally and festival were held.

I also read in the Post that Sharon had, in fact, shown up at the economic conference at the Sheraton the evening before and spent a great deal of time blasting opponents of his disengagement plan, including Netanyahu, his finance minister and political nemesis.

Politics is a constant in Jerusalem and across Israel, but the transcendent nature of the land can't be overshadowed for long. During a walking tour that took our group along the cobblestone plazas and alleyways of the old city of Jerusalem, church bells — we were only a hundred yards or so from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest sites in Christendom — began ringing. Within minutes, the hiss and squawk of a loudspeaker atop a nearby mosque gave way to the ancient chant of the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. And a few minutes later, far in the distance, we could spot the Western Wall where Jews gathered for Mincha, the afternoon prayer service.

Bruce, our stoic, funny, thoroughly informed guide, broke into a huge smile. Gesturing with animated delight to the sights and sounds that surrounded us, he struggled for just the right words to capture the truth of the moment. He managed only one short phrase. But it was just about perfect. "Only in Israel."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Logo lunacy! Zionist plot or anti-semitic rant?

Take a close look at the logo here. At first glance, other than being just plan ugly and a really good example of bad marketing, there’s little to say, right? Au contraire!

The bloated, zig-zaggy icon is the logo for the 2012 Olympics in London. It’s been roundly panned by art critics, Olympic officials, Brits of all stripes and now me! If you squint your eyes or twist your head in just the right way, you might be able to make out that it’s some sort of pop representation of the coming year – 2012!

Those of us living in the Land of Cotton during the ’96 Olympics know how weird things can get during the planning process. Game organizers, for whatever reasons, often end up pushing the creative envelope, producing dreadful icons and images to market and promote the mega-event.

Remember Izzy – short for Whatizit – the ill-conceived and universally criticized mascot of the Atlanta Games? Even after it was tweaked, Izzy remained an abomination – a nerdy, bluish cartoon character that appealed to absolutely no one. Okay, there was that one toddler from Uzbekistan that found Izzy charming!

The London logo has been in the news recently, not because it’s just plain ugly, but because of the politics of a very weird nation – Iran. Some of the members of Iran’s National Olympic Committee have been squinting just a little too hard when checking out the logo and think it resembles the world “Zion”.

Bahram Afsharzadeh, the secretary-general of Iran’s Olympic Committee has fired off a letter to IOC president Jacques Rogge, condemning the logo as “racist” and calling upon other Muslim countries to also protest the design. After all, Zion equals Israel and we all know how these progressive countries feel about the one true democracy in the Middle East.

I imagine, if you work really hard, reading the logo vertically and twisting it about, you can sort of find “Zion” buried in the awkward, bulky design. What I really think is going on, however, is Afsharzadeh and his friends have managed to turn the logo into a Rorschach test of sorts and, predictably, are projecting their paranoid fears on a benign design.

Iran, meanwhile, is threatening to boycott the London Games. The IOC has rejected the complaint. Hopefully that means Iran will, ah, screw its courage to the sticking place and hold true to its plan to pass on the 2012 Games.

If so, the Zionist conspiracy that really was no conspiracy at all will result in the London Games becoming an Iran-free zone. Mazel Tov! Sounds like a fantastic result that most of us can applaud and support.