Friday, June 17, 2011

Where's Your Utopia?

This week, dedicated in memory of my paternal grandparents - Sylvia and Les Seinfeld - whose yahrzeits both fell this week, Sima bas Mordechai Yaakov and Eliezer ben Zelig.



I was lucky to grow up with grandparents around.

My grandfather ("Pop") used to tell us stories about his childhood. Sometimes he would talk on and on until it felt like your mind was going numb, but he was always so caring and always smiling. Nevermind that we'd heard the same stories over and over, we had a sense that it would be wrong to say so, or to appear disinterested.

Here's the kicker: Every story had a point, some kind of moral.

As I reached adulthood, Pop's monologues became more brief, until he was able to distill the moral wisdom in a single sound-byte.

One of these was his attitude towards intermarriage.

He never said that it mattered to him whether or not I married someone Jewish. But he did have a firm opinion:

"Every family should have a religion" with a strong emphasis on the "a".

He told me this at least 6 to a half-dozen times.

Pop explained that having a single religious/spiritual/however-you-want-to-frame-it tradition in the family is important for "shalom bayit" (harmony).

Both he and my grandmother excelled at shalom bayit, that was one of their highest values. They were amazing at modeling how to care for each other. Family meant everything to them. So you can imagine how they felt about my failure to settle down nearby.

But if you had asked me back then to list the top places where I might settle down, my list probably would have looked something like this:

1. Paris
2. San Francisco area
3. French Riviera
4. Rome
5. New York

(not necessarily in that order)

Note that Israel is not on the list.

It wouldn't have even made it into the top 10.

Farthest thing from my mind, absolutely nothing pulling me there.

Imagine my surprise, then, in the mid-90s, when I find myself not only living in Israel, but enjoying it!

...except for one thing: the bureaucracy.

Every country has bureaucracy, but I'd never experience anything like this. My new wife and I would show up at the city office to deal with my property tax (charged to renters) and after an hour in line find out that I needed some document that we'd left at home. So I'd return the next day with that document only to be told by a different clerk that I needed yet another one that we'd left at home.

It would the same routine at every government office.

We finally figured out that we needed an "everything folder" in which we kept triplicate copies of absolutely everything - American documents, Israeli documents, photos, bank statements, water bills, phone bills, insurance documents, rental agreements, letters of reference, etc. etc. etc.

This maddening experience was the one thing that really made life in Israel unpleasant.

In late 2000, we moved to America. Guess what we discovered?

American bureaucracies can be just as maddening. (Especially with the growth of computerized phone systems - invented in Israel by the way - where you never can get a real person on the phone.)

So it took coming to America to feel shalaym (complete) about living in Israel.

Question for your table: Chances are, Israel isn't very high on your list of places to live either. What would it take, hypothetically, to get it into the top 5 or 10?

Shabbat Shalom

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