Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Inside one of your gates in your land

All of sudden he appeared in front of me, but he was not a supernatural vision or an angel.
I was walking with my head in the clouds during one of the first chilly evenings of Jerusalem, letting musings about aliyah and galut roll freely in my mind. And all of sudden he appeared in front of me.
Young, mid-twenties, velvet kippah, dark pants, white shirt, and navy blue jacket. I automatically classified him as a Sephardic yeshiva student.
“Can you help me?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have any money.”
I knew I had no coins and I wasn’t going to pull out my wallet in a lonely, poorly lit alleyway since I wouldn’t want him to grab my wallet and run away with all its content. Or a hidden accomplice of his.
“I’m really hungry…”
This statement gave me complete certainty that there was an accomplice hidden somewhere. One thing I remember from my time in an Orthodox yeshivah, in the summer of 1991: hunger was not the enemy, heartburn and binge-eating were. The students were served a generous amount of food at every meal, always the same gloppy, salty, wilted, deep-fried and over cooked but abundant dishes. The memory of the colorful plastic bowls and plates quickly conjured up the smells from those days next to my growing anxiety for this young man and his lurking accomplices.
“I have to go. Good evening.”
Then the unexpected, that leaves you speechless and throws you in a dark pit for days.
“Let’s go to your car. If I suck you off, what can you give me?”
My standard answer “I don’t pay for sex” didn’t seem to fit here. I just strode away from it all, but it all followed me. I hastened my pace, and all sort of questions about this young man started whirling in my mind. Why is he doing this did he run away from his yeshivah where’s his family does he really need money what can I give him I can’t get too involved in this but I could buy him some food at the convenience store screw the accomplices I could get him some food and ask if he needs anything else was he kicked out of the yeshivah because he’s gay and now he is hungry does he have a place to sleep did his family kick him out too no he can’t stay on our couch
I went back as fast as I could, in the hope to reach him and get him some food, but he had disappeared. I hadn’t gone too far away, less than a block, but he had disappeared. He could have walked in the opposite direction of where I went looking for him, he could have found someone nicer who had given him the little money he was asking for, he could have found someone who had  taken him up on his offer.
That night I couldn’t sleep. Three weeks have gone by since, and whenever I walk the alleyway I still feel the sting of shame for not helping someone who might have legitimately been in need. I’ve looked for him in the neighborhood; I’ve seen him in every Sephardic guy I’ve crossed; but now I’m losing hope to recognize him and right the wrong.

What if he was an angel?

And I never went to bed… (Zohar, Miketz)

And so my overworked phone decided to commit suicide. A few minutes before Shabbat it jumped off my pocket head on onto the stone steps leading to my apartment. Its clumsy suicide attempt failed, but its touch screen and my sabbatical peace were irreversibly shattered. I browsed all the ads in the newspaper until I found my bank account’s match: for only NIS 999 ($285 /€210) at a store-chain near home I could get the same phone that other store-chains were selling for NIS 1299 ($370 /€270). That was a bargain!
On Sunday am, following two dear friends’ advice, I went to try and have it fixed or have my Japanese iPhone unlocked. I could’ve gotten the screen fixed for NIS 400 (almost half of what I paid for the phone), and the Japanese iPhone unlocked if I dished out NIS 800 ($230/€170). The NIS 999 cell-phone looked more and more like a bargain!
I walked in the store full of hope, upset to part way with NIS 999 I don’t really have this year, but excited at the thought of the new toy. Yes, there would be the nuisance of reinstalling all the applications but it would be just a small price to pay to be again connected to the world. If someone had told me that I was about to waste a whole morning on what should have been, if done in honesty, a few minutes’ transaction, I would have not believed them.
The seller gave me the advertised phone and asked if I wanted to extend the warranty for one more year for only NIS 200 ($57/€42). I turned his offer down, I just wanted the NIS 999-one-year warranty crappy phone. The seller, however, was determined to make some extra cash off me, and here please admire the this man’s creativity, his quick wit.
As I’m handing him my credit card he informs me that on this phone Hebrew is blocked and therefore it does not type in Hebrew.
In disbelief I tell myself what’s the point of getting a phone that won’t write mails and messages in Hebrew, given that most of my interactions are in Hebrew? This other one (mind you, the exact same model but in a different color box) would type also in Hebrew. What would the price difference be? NIS 200, and this would include a warranty extension. I pay NIS 1200. The warranty is not valid outside of Israel so I have no use for it if I really leave the country in June, but the phone types in Hebrew, and that’s what counts.
Outside is pouring down as if it were Japan during the rainy season, and the winter cold made it more unpleasant. Walking back home it’s not the rain that’s bothering me. It’s a nudging feeling that I had just been taken in, and this sensation becomes stronger and stronger with every drop of rain.
My crappy phone I bought in Italy types in Hebrew, Arabic and Greek, it could type also two variants of Chinese if I wanted to! Why wouldn’t this one, sold on the Israeli market, not type in Hebrew?! But why would the guy lie to me? But Android has Hebrew built in! How could the NIS 999 one be different? No, no, it’s ok, it’s not the OS the problem, it’s that on the other model Hebrew is blocked. The guy said so! And I have to pay for the warranty extension! But I didn’t want an extended warranty! It’s ok.
Home. I dry myself out, pull out the receipt and start reading it. There is no trace of the warranty extension on it, and the phone is the same exact model that was advertised for NIS 999, just that here it’s marked NIS 1200. At this point I’m furious. I need a phone. To talk myself out of returning it, I open the box and put it to charge. Including the fraud, the phone was still cheaper than at the other stores and NIS 200 are not a big deal. Yes, it’s not a big deal, but it’s my money! It’s almost one week’s worth of food. But maybe the guy told me the truth. I have only one way to find out.
With my new toy in my pockets, I go to another store: Do you carry this model? Yes, this one (pointing to what at the other store would have been the NIS 999 phone). Does this model type in Hebrew? (That same “WTF is the foreigner talking about?” look I didn’t expect to receive outside Japan.) All the models we sell here type in Hebrew. Could there be any model in which Hebrew was blocked and doesn’t type in Hebrew? The salesperson’s eyes have now the “Do you think I have nothing better to do than talking with you who are not going to buy anything?” look, but he still answered, a clear, unequivocal ‘no’ and left. On his end no more questions taken. I needn’t any more answers.
Across the street from the store when the ill-starred purchase was made there was another cell-phone store, so why not? Same story as 5 minutes earlier. At this point I’m really indignant and I walk straight into the cheater’s store. The salesperson sees me and he’s definitely not happy. Me neither. I waited for my turn.
Where does it say on the receipt that I bought an extended warranty?
Inside the box there is a paper.
Here’s the paper. It says only 12 months.
Oh, let me fix this for you, and he starts tinkering with the keyboard, gets up, mumbles something, looks carefully in some catalogues, grumbles, types some more, seems to go online to look for information, types some more, and finally gives me a new, doctored receipt.
You see, here it says One year extra warranty. Is everything ok no?
You know, I really don’t believe that the NIS 999 phone doesn’t type in Hebrew. Why didn’t you sell it to me?
No! In that model Hebrew is blocked! With the pouting face of a merchant whose honesty has been called into question groundlessly.  
Really!? Android types in Hebrew on every phone…
No! In that model Hebrew is blocked!
Thanks. Not really fine, but anyway... Thank you.
And I leave. I’m in no position to start a fight.
Outside of the store I look at the new and improved version of the receipt: all he had done was to mark down to NIS 1150 the price of the phone and to add one line NIS 50 warranty extension. I really saw red! The original price for the extension he had told me was NIS 200 (by the way, the price of the extension written on the paper inside the box was NIS 300) so this bogus NIS 50 was nothing but his way to get rid of me ASAP before his other potential customers could have a whiff of what was going on. So I walked back in the store.
You know, you told me the insurance was NIS 200. How come you wrote NIS 50? Why did you lie to me?
No, the PC did not let me change it… (Yeah, NIS 50, yes, NIS 200 no?!)
Why did you charge me NIS 1200 for this phone that you advertise at NIS 999?
That model is locked.
Look, I don’t believe you.
Listen, I’m telling you.
I would like to believe you, but I can’t.
He must have been relieved when I finally walked out. It was still raining as I walked home, but I was now singing and dancing because I was going to do what any faithful American Express customer would do in this situation.
And, oh boy, I slept well that night.

It pains me to put it this way, but… Sicily:1, Israel:0.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

And they shall tell to the elders of his city: “This son of ours…"

One month has passed since I left.
Transition out of Japan has not been as emotional as I expected, and the “reverse culture shock” repatriated expats talk about has not hit me yet. Could it be that I made peace with this change during my last stay at the Zen monastery?
Or it could simply be that I still am an expat.
If you care to read them, here are a few of my observations since I am back…
There are no Japanese around here. And this, my friend, is the real cause of everything that goes wrong.
Since there are no Japanese around here, everyone is really, and I really mean “really”, loud. And intrusive. And nosy in a not so subtle way. And if they themselves can’t be loud enough, they’ll honk their car-horns or speed with their mopeds or motorbikes to cause disturbance. Especially at night. And if they’ll run out of gas they’ll find an empty beer bottle to use as a ball and play soccer in the street, in nightly competitions, rooting loudly for one another, until the bottle goes to pieces.
Since there are no Japanese around here, none cleans after their dogs in the streets. Or their horses. Or their donkeys.
Since there are no Japanese around here, many have no respect for their surroundings, or for public property or their neighbor’s. Vandalizing the environment they live in gives them a special satisfaction, and they seem to desire living in a dumpster. Which is where they truly belong.
If animal droppings were not enough, since there are no Japanese around here, people litter constantly and everywhere, apparently oblivious to the garbage bins at every corner. On auspicious days street sweepers go out, but they always manage to leave some garbage behind, here and there, as street decorations, perhaps. Or perhaps it is some sort of secret code in a game they are all playing.
Since there are no Japanese around here, time-tables are post-modern street art, or boards on which to scribble private notes and messages to one’s lover. Trains and buses are late anyway. If they run, that is.
Since there are no Japanese around here, none bows back when you greet them. Some just grunt.
Since there are no Japanese around here, you should not expect any politeness in commercial establishments. The fact that I just left in your lousy store a €50 bill is not even worthy of a smile. Don’t wait for me tomorrow.
Since there are no Japanese around here, there are not as many automatic vending machines., and the few ones (not much of a variety anyway, just cigarettes or condoms) are either jammed or your money will cause them to jam and not deliver what you just paid for. And when you'll bring this up with the person responsible for them he won’t believe you and brush you off.
Even thought there are no Japanese around here, some basic items cost as much as in my old neighborhood in Tokyo. Is this an attempt by the locals to attract Japanese customers?

But maybe I am wrong. There must be at least one Japanese around here. It must have been a Japanese who taught the local youth, drunk and high in the streets until dawn, the ancient art of paper-folding: this morning I found on our doorsteps an used tampon, gracefully folded like an origami.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Have you entered into the springs of the sea?

Knees aching from the week long, 5-hour a day Zazen sessions and frequent seiza
Feet aching from the long walk. 
I could have really missed this temple. Really, nothing special.
And then an arrow sign with the faded character on it. I immediately knew it did not point just to any waterfall but to a sacred waterfall. And so I went, following a dirt path that soon lead me along the flank of a ridge, the mountain on my left side, on my right side a ravine.
The silent millenary cryptomerias were tracing mysterious characters with their roots on the ground on my right. On my left - stones, fallen branches, stumps, shrubs, dried cracked trees turning into shards, moss, created a landscape that made me oblivious to the fact that here and there the path was narrow enough for only one person. A brook was gurgling at the bottom of the ravine, and I was trying to engrave it all in my memory.
Not another human all around. Rare birds only broke the quiet.
What a great way this country has to bid me farewell, I thought.
At the end of the ascent a few wide stone steps marked the way to a level ground where more cryptomerias and Japanese maple trees enclosed a simple unobtrusive shrine. A gable roof floating on 4 wooden poles, no walls, turned the whole gorge into a sacred space. On the table for the offerings two bundles of fresh flowers, a bronze incense burner, a small mound of salt, and a bowl with clean water: all signs that someone tended to the place.
On the other side of a stone torii, as if ejected from the bowels of the earth, a small wooden honden on a rock enshrined the kami of the waterfall. The opposite side of the sacred precinct was marked off by the start of the ravine where the brook falling from the flat top of the mountain resumed its course.
The water from the plateau above was dropping to its new course from underneath one big rock to which a thin shimenawa was tied. This meant only one thing: there must have been a way to get closer to it. And there it was, partially hidden by a rock, the bridge that connected the two sides of the ravine.
On the other side the passageway from the bridge to the waterfall was guarded by a winged creature surrounded by a fiery halo. The eagle-beaked deva had a human body, held a sword and a lasso and his hair were tongues of fire. From that point on the way to the rock was not a dirt track anymore, and closer to the big rock with the shimenawa there were man-made steps of gray slates, and rocks had been placed in a row to form a parapet for the passageway to a niche. Spaced on the wall metal candle-holders, for pilgrims to place their candles if they came here at night.
The area looked like it had been formed by an earthquake in the days of creation. The rock that now serves as a partition between people’s trips and the world must have detached itself from the flank of the mountain; smaller rocks tumbling from higher above had filled a crevice in the mountain and now were contained in the net created by the roots of several maple trees. At some point humans had channeled the flow of water through a stone spout, but until that moment millenniums of water falling from the original bed of the brook, some 6 meters above, had carved a niche that had enough space to stand in line and wait for one’s turn. The walls of the niche, covered in moss, showed their sediments in various hues of red. At the mouth of the niche a pine-wood panel blocked the view of the practice under the waterfall, and a V-shaped shelter that leaned against the side of the mountain created a space safe enough to leave one’s belongings unattended while practicing under the waterfall. And so I went.

It sends its icy shot through my spine, the wet bone-chilling stone. In a matter of seconds under my naked feet I feel the thin layer of slime and the fear of slipping and getting hurt.

Gassho to the gush. I will stand under it for 6 deep breaths.

The first touch of the water on my chest feels like a stab with an icicle. 6 deep breaths from now.

Gassho under the gush with closed eyes.

5 breaths to go. What if the stone spout detaches itself and hits me on my head? None will know I’m here. The spout is strongly attached. But what if something else falls from above and kills me?

4 breaths to go. I leave.

If I quit now I’ll regret it forever. But what if something falls on me and kills me? Well, it means it was my time to go and probably I’ll come back.

Gassho again. 6 deep breaths with eyes closed, so I don’t see the rock falling to hit me.

Now that all the cowardly chatter in my mind has quieted down, I hear the thud of the water when it first hits my skull.

Then a constant hollow rumble filling the niche and engulfing me.

The jet of water is hitting all the one thousand petals on the top of my head, I can even see their colors changing, their layers spinning.

6 amazing breaths.

My clothes are soaked.

I can leave now.

The world around me has new colors.

I cannot leave now.

I am all soaked anyway.

Shoes off again.


12 more deep breaths, with open eyes.

The thud.

The rumble.

The one thousand petals swirling and shining.

And suddenly they are dancing in front of my eyes, in a constantly changing kaleidoscope created by the literally hundreds of thin splatters of water bouncing off my head.

At every instant thousands of tiny drops pass in front of my eyes, dancing in every direction, joyously chasing after one another. Each drop shines with a myriad of changing colors, each drop a microcosm being born and dissolving immediately after.

This is bliss. If a stone fell on my head now I would not mind.

On the edge of the red stone shielding me from the eyes of the world, translucent green moss covers mountains and valleys and forests and plains.

And I’m standing on one of those peaks staring at myself standing under the waterfall.

The clinking of cymbals from behind me.

A tekiah from a conch shell blown somewhere in the bowels of the niche. Who’s blowing it? It sounds like a shofar but it is a conch, I am sure.

The eagle-beaked deva appears on the rock in front of me. I cannot tell if he is angry at me for being here. He smiles, bows, disappears.

I can also leave now.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

And ye shall not wrong one another

What is a poor guy to do when suddenly the kami has decided to send a downpour and there is no other shelter around, but the endless, monotonous series of stores of the sandou? The poor guy just walks into the closest one and starts looking at the merchandise. A sandou is the street leading up to a shrine or a temple, usually lined with shops selling souvenirs,  traditional finger-foods and sweets, and every other kind of chachkes any pilgrim should buy. Luck had it that the poor guy caught in the rain walked into a store specializing in items made of semi-precious stones. After looking around once and twice, the rain not stopping, what was the poor guy trapped in the least interesting of all stores to do, but to keep looking and feign interest?
At some point, the rain still pouring down, halakhic guilt kicks in: is he giving the shopkeeper the impression to be somewhat interested in the merchandise? Is the shopkeeper thinking our poor guy trapped by the rain is going to buy something? Don’t inquire about any item! Should he pay some sort of “rent” for using the store as a shelter? If so, how much should it be? In order to shut off the voice in his head our poor guy decides that buying a chachke would probably be the right thing to do and, with the complicity of the rain, he starts looking at prices. 
Holy cow! Getting soaked in the rain wouldn’t be a bad idea, after all... 
He finally notices in a corner a display of replicas of magatama, stone beads found in archaeological digs around this city, Izumo. How expensive can they be, he wonders and starts looking at tags.

Now let me take a detour and I shall tell you something that happened to me this past June during a trip to another town, Joetsu. I had seen the magatama at the store of the archaeological museum when I had visited Izumo two years before. On the bullet train to Joetsu that day the thought of Izumo and the magatama surfaced in my mind together with the regret for not buying any. At the time I did not know what they were, they looked like stone fangs and I really did not care for them. On the train that morning I thought there would not be another chance to buy one since I had no plan to go back to Izumo and I had not seen magatama anywhere else in my trips. As they say here shouganai, there isn’t anything to do about it at this point.
I met with Ishihara-San, we went about our business and after lunch he said: “Wait for me. I want to give you something to remember this day.” He went to his apartment in the company’s dormitories and came back holding a flat wooden box. During our lunch he had told me that the company had transferred him from his hometown to Joetsu and now he lived there alone, that there wasn’t anything to do in the area, and he didn’t have close acquaintances. Now he added that in his free time he had taken up working the stones he collects at the beach, and wished to give me one of the objects he had made. So he lifted the lid and showed me half a dozen magatama he himself had made.
My jaw dropped, he thanked me.
Probably he thought my reaction, caused by the magatama materialized in front of me, was a sign of admiration for his work. I took them in my hands one by one, looking for the perfect one, the one where color would match elegance and smoothness of form. They were all flawlessly round. Not a crack, not a bump.
How long it takes you to make one?
10-12 hours. Wow! And he’s giving me 10-12 hours of his life...
I chose my magatama and he attached a braided string to it so that I could hang it from my cell phone and after a few more pleasantries and a couple of bows I was on my way back. On the train home I kept thinking about Ishihara-San, the magatama, lonely Ishihara-San looking for the right stones on the beach, and the strange thing had just happened.

Last week, 7 months later, I was in Izumo again, trapped in a store, and as I looked at the price tags my jaw dropped. Not a chance to leave this place unscathed. There must be one magatama that won’t cost me an arm and a leg. The tags were written on both sides: on the one the price, and on the other a description of the healing virtues or of the supposed magical power of that specific stone. So in part because I had time, in part because I wanted to practice reading Japanese handwriting, in part because I did not want to buy a stone that would get me married or pregnant, I read all the tags one by one, until the stone giving “the courage of making the right decision, Yen 4270” appeared. Holding the magatama I was determined to pay and leave the store despite the rain. Wow! The first right decision already and it isn’t even mine yet!
At the counter the shopkeeper informed me that every item in the store is hand-chiseled and then proceeded to pelt me with questions about myself, the reason of my trip, if I like Japan and Izumo, why am I there, what do I do in Japan, in short the usual stuff. Then he asked “Do you know what a magatama is?” Really?! You ask me if I know what a magatama is?! Time to show off! I launched into an explanation of magatama that surprised him and myself. I was not even aware I knew some of the words I used. I guess some vocabulary has stuck in my memory.
And you know what happened? The anonymous shopkeeper gave me the magatama as a present, causing my jaw to drop once again. He put the magatama around my neck and after that I rushed in the rain to the train station.
As for Ishihara-San’s magatama, I never attached it to my iPhone because, you see, I have this funny habit of leaving it on top of piles of books in bookstores, drop it in fitting rooms or on cab seats, and I would not forgive myself if one day that phone call that tells me they have found the cell phone would not arrive and I would have to part from Ishihara-San’s generous gift of 10-12 hours of his life.