Monday, March 13, 2006

Why We Need Purim in the 21st Century

On the eve of Purim 2006, the relevance of the holiday's message seems almost embarrassingly obvious. Even those who only intermittently tune into world news must know that two high-profile, modern-day Hamans have been busy promoting their highly un-original plan for the destruction of Israel -- the leader of Iran and the leader of Hamas.

Weirdly, if you mush together H-A-M-A-S and I-R-A-N, guess what you get??

That's right. Haman lives. But not for long.

The way-cool story of Purim, compellingly rendered in the Scroll of Esther, or Megillat Esther, clues us in on a recurring theme in history: Evil people will concoct evil plans to annihilate Israel and the Jewish People. Tragic events will come to pass but those who seek to destroy the Jews will ultimately be defeated.

In every generation, misguided minds have been inspired to attempt what has historically proved impossible: wiping the Jews off the map.

From Pharoah fretting that his Hebrew slaves have been multiplying like pestilence to the biblical nation of Amalek (Haman's mishpocha) sneaking up on the escaping Israelites to the H-Man himself who was miffed because little Mordechai the Jew refused to bow down to him, to the Romans, the Syrians, the Syrian-Greeks, the Crusaders and the Grand Inquisitor who all had tantrums of mass destruction because the Jews worshipped Jehovah to the lumber-headed, rape-crazed Cossacks to the inimitable evil of Adolf the 20th Century H-Man and his Million Aryan March, to the poisonously petulant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the chilling character of Ismail Haniyah and all who preach contemporary Jew-hatred, this singular notion -- Hey! Let's Kill the Jews! -- has proven to have surprising staying power.

You would think that Iran would at least conduct a Google-search before undertaking the impossible mission of destroying Israel. I really think that Ahmaninejad's administration should at least create a budget line for a research assistant to prepare a feasibility study on this matter. Think about it. For way less than $100 -- the cost of about ten-hours of work from a computer-literate Iranian teen at the teen-friendly rate of $10 an hour -- Iran would end up saving something in the neighborhood of several million dollars. In addition, the advance legwork would save Ahmadinejad several painful post-mortems with his military on just why the mission failed and how the hell the Israelis could have so easily nuked the nuclear reactor, not to mention irritating condolence calls from folks like Haniyah and Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad.

But, screw 'em. Those who don't learn from history....

Meanwhile, here in the Big City, signs of Purim are everywhere. Almost every bakery in town has hamantaschen, the traditional pastry, shaped like a triangle and filled with anything from apricot to poppy seed to prune jam to Nutella; toy shops boast of their costume selections; restaurants (both kosher and non-kosher) offer a "traditional Purim meal." Even nominally Jewish shops seductively spin their pitches in Purimspeak, appealing to Jews and Jewish wanna-be's alike.

The most extreme and entertaining example of a not-necessarily-Jewish emporium doing Jewish outreach is the East Village store New York Costumes: The Halloween Adventure ( Seemingly staffed by Dracula's nieces and nephews with a few extras borrowed from Dawn of the Dead, this hardcore costume shop was populated yesterday by the most hybrid mix of humanity: Hasidic families, hipsters, goths, terrified-looking Jews from the suburbs, little boys with kipot, Eurotourists, teen girls with low-cut jeans and Stars of David, shleppy Upper West Siders, Brownstone Brooklynites, high school drama teachers, drama queens, drag queens, you name it, most of whom were drawn by the ad campaign the store had created, billing itself as a Purim headquarters.

The store was a mecca of marvelousness for me and Little Babe, who wandered in yesterday afternoon, shortly after lunch. Our previous costume-hunting journey on Friday ended in disaster when Little Babe bolted out of Abracadabra on W21st Street in a fit of terror.

(Evidently, Abracadabra had just acquired the Vincent Price estate and macabre artifacts lined the store: a 7-ft. tall gargoyle, leering clown heads, corpses propped up against a wall, terrifying visages, moving bookcases, bloodied body parts and more.)

Though it took a bit of cajoling to get Little Babe to enter New York Costumes (eyes squeezed shut, little hand squeezing my own) after the Abracadabra fiasco, once inside, he was won over by the gay (and I mean that in the old-fashioned way) spirit of celebration and the endless merchandise filling the friendly store.

Meanwhile, during the course of our leisurely visit, we found Little Babe's coveted JS Bach wig (only $14.99 and it also doubles as a Mozart and George Washington wig!), a pair of zebra-striped sunglasses for me and a couple of prank items Little Babe had been hankering for: a switchblade comb and a disappearing-blade (plastic) knife.

Reassuring Little Babe that we would get the remainder of his JS Bach costume from our local Salvation Army shop, we journeyed uptown to the Jewish Museum ( to see the Sarah Bernhardt and Max Liebermann exhibitions.

Little Babe's reactions to the two exhibitions were exactly the opposite of what I would have expected. He was bored silly by the captivating multi-media Bernhardt show which featured footage of her performances, artifacts, costumes, jewelry, posters and paraphernalia and sighed and yawned his way through the darkened space, barely glancing at the video screens which showed her fainting and gesticulating and creating her own immortality.

Unexpectedly, however, Little Babe was quietly attentive as we walked through the Liebermann space, listening as I read him the gallery notes, commenting on the canvases, perking up when I pointed out sites in Amsterdam that Liebermann had painted and we had visited, noting the increasingly somber cast of his self-portraits, growing pensive as he contemplated Liebermann's iconic career coming to a grinding halt as Hitler rose to power and his work was officially banned, removed from museums, his artistic footprints erased as if he had never existed.

"Hitler didn't just hate Jews. He also hated art," Little Babe observed as we were leaving the exhibition.

The sadness of the abrupt end of Max Liebermann's brilliant career (he died in 1935 and his wife took poison upon learning that she was to be deported to Thereisenstadt in 1943) stayed with me for several hours after we left the Jewish Museum. Yes, it seemed appropriate to hear his tale on the eve of the eve of Purim (Hitler as Haman), but the message of Purim is triumph not tragedy.

Thus it was that I found myself barrelling northward with Little Babe in our red Dodge Caravan towards another mecca -- Trader Joe's ( -- to buy ingredients for hamantaschen, the cookies that are shaped like Haman's hat and most deliciously symbolize the defeat of our enemies. Tonight, after Little Babe and I return from the revelry that is the public reading of the megillah in shul, I wil roll up my sleeves, clear a kitchen counter and make my buttery, whole wheat and Nutella hamantaschen, which Little Babe and I will then distribute to friends and homeless folks alike tomorrow afternoon, on Purim Day.

Sometimes I feel sorry for my children, growing up in a horrible new, post 9/11 reality, so different from my own secure, suicide-bomber-free childhood. When I was a kid, Israel was under constant attack but the rest of the world seemed chastened, horrified by the Holocaust, on their best behavior vis-a-vis the Jews. In those days, it seemed that the Arabs were the only outspoken enemies of the Jews (until we found out, of course, that ya couldn't really be Jewish in the Soviet Union either and that there were Jewish prisoners of conscience, still, the persecution seemed part of the whole corrupt and dysfunctional Communist mishegoss).

In the horrible new world in which my kids are coming of age, the hatred of Jews exists in sensaround, coming from all directions and in all guises. Sometimes it even comes from within, with Jews spouting the worst -- and most cliched -- type of anti-Semitic sewage.

A recent example of this was the appearance of the miscreant Norman Finkelstein on the Columbia U campus last week, invited by (big surprise) the Muslim Student Association, venting his tired tirade of Jew-hatred. The child of Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein has a worldview that posits that Jews have misused their victimization to gain cold hard cash and exonerate themselves of acts of inhumanity. Most unoriginally (yawn), Finkelstein calls Israel the greatest perpetrator of these crimes. Blah, blah, blah.

(Someone get this guy onto a couch... and fast. If anyone was ever in need of psychological help, it is Norman Finkelstein. I heard the guy talk at Columbia in 2000 and he is the most pathetic, f%*ked-up little specimen of manhood I have ever beheld. Hey Normy...Newsflash! You hate your parents, not the entire Jewish people. You hate yourself, not Israeli schoolchildren. It's called displacement. Get some help before it's too late.)

The world in which I was raised was NormanFinkelstein-Free. Back in the good old days, no one in the civilized world would give Norman the Nutjob a podium...unless by podium one meant a soapbox on the Bowery, where my "aunt" Lillian used to take me when I was a tiny little Bungalow Babe in order to learn about the inequity of the world and become galvanized to acts of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.

Ao, another new and disturbing feature of my kids' collective world seems to be this mutant creation -- Kill-Me Norman -- trying out out-Jew-hate Adolf and Mahmoud and Ismail and Mahathir and all those pea-brained neo-Nazis meeting in the hills of Idaho or wherever-the-hell.

Which means that our people need the bravery, vigilance, intelligence and historical long-view of Mordechai and Esther more than ever.

It is nearly 4:30 in the afternoon on the Eve of Purim 2006. Little Babe has just come home from school, dramatically dragging himself across the threshold in a manner that would have made Sarah Bernhardt proud. He is faint with hunger, valiantly and prematurely opting, at the age of 10, to observe The Fast of Esther, which commemorates Esther's fast before she petitioned the foolish, love-besotted King Ahashverosh on behalf of her people. Big Babe, unmindful of the fast, has come home from his Columbia dorm to forage in the kitchen and select his Purim costume. Middle Babe and HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) are asleep in India, having attended a Megillah reading earlier in the evening. Soon, I will begin to pull together the pieces for my own costume for synagogue tonight, either a mod go-go dancer or a loopy old Miami Beach matron, whichever one makes me look thinner.

As I stand uncertainly in the foyer of the 21st Century, I gratefully embrace the holiday of Purim. Purim is an unapologetic, kick-ass celebration of Jewish survival. It is a no-holds-barred collective thumbing of our nose at our enemies. When Haman's name is mentioned, we boo and yell and grind noisemakers and sit on whoopie cushions and stamp our feet and even blow trumpets to blot out his name. When we read that he and his sons are hung on the gallows which he built for Mordechai, we cheer. The reading of the Scroll of Esther is a great, participatory psychodrama. We dress up in costumes. We repeat verses along with the megillah-reader. Purim is The Great Dictator, The Producers and The Rocky Horror Picture Show of Jewish holidays...all rolled into one.

And when we reach the end of the Scroll of Esther and Haman has been defeated, we party like it's 1999.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

F%*k Buddies and Alternate Side of the Street Parking

HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) left for India two days ago with sixteen graduate students and Middle Babe, our seventeen year-old daughter. As a professor, he has a grant to study religion in a foreign country and will be gone for two weeks. Because of this, I am stuck moving our red Dodge Caravan from one side of the street to the other in that urban choreographic maneuver known as Alternate Side of the Street Parking.

(I'm also stuck walking Alfie the Pomeranian twice daily, which I try to do while moving the van. Multi-tasking is the Manhattanite's only shot at survival.)

Having last moved the van on Tuesday morning (Wednesday, in our neighborhood, is an Alternate Side of the Street Parking-Free Day), I had only a hazy recollection of the parking regulations for the south side of W105th Street, where I had scored a spot after only 25 minutes of block-circling two days earlier. I did remember, however, that the street rules were in effect from 8:30-10:00 a.m. After a futile conversation with the affectless operator at 311, Bloomberg's telephonic gift to NYC, I realized that I needed to haul my butt down to W105th Street by 8:30 or risk being ticketed.

Let me be candid. It was a shock being out at 8:15 a.m., venturing well beyond the parameters of my regular Alfie pee-pee 'n poop circuit. I am not accustomed to witnessing the Upper West Side waking up. Working out of home office in my Morningside Heights apartment, I begin my professional day by 7:45 a.m. and typically do not see the outside world until late in the afternoon. This possibly masochistic workstyle is shared by my assistant, Julie, who works out of her home office in much the same way. I am moved to leave my office only for meetings, emergencies (Gd Forbid!) and trips to the gym, though due to the location of my gym at the JCC of Manhattan (, I am usually able to multi-task my workouts with social or professional networking.

Anyway, unaccustomed as I am to joining the morning herd of students and professionals shuffling up and down Broadway en route to office or class, I found myself withdrawing into a reverie about a recent conversation with a friend (all names have been changed to protect the innocent. Any resemblance to people you might know is strictly a product of your dirty imagination.)

My friend Talia (no, let's call her Mary Alice), called to bring me up to date on her relationship with David (uh, how's Christopher?), which has been going on for about a year. Mary Alice is 45 (make that 35). Christopher is 50, (actually, let's say 40). She is an editor ( about cocktail waitress?) and he is a lawyer ( A professional cricket player!) They met at Makor (umm, make that The Learning Annex.)

From the way she spoke about him, it was obvious, at least to me, that Mary Alice cared for Christopher a great deal. Though they didn't see each other a lot, there seemed to be a strong bond between them.

Anyway, after a particularly romantic Sunday at the Mohonk Mountain House (...whoa, I didn't mean to write that! I meant the Sheraton Tara in Parsipanny, NJ) Mary Alice called Christopher and they gushed happily about their time together. The day had been extraordinary for Mary Alice and Christopher said it was special for him, too. They spoke several times during the week, but it was only as Shabbat (er, the weekend), was looming that Mary Alice realized that she had initiated all the phone calls they had shared.

"I'll call you tomorrow," promised Christopher on the Thursday night of their final phone call. But he didn't. Nor did he call once during the week. Something was up, Mary Alice thought. But what? In the course of the previous weekend, Christopher had extolled their friendship in addition to their sizzle between the sheets. But she also remembered a warning note creeping into his voice when she pointed out that they never discussed their feelings for one another. "If you feel things are going in that direction..." he said ominously, looking off into the distance.

As she was painstakingly mining their previous conversations for additional clues and conducting a full-scale a Relationship-Year-in-Review, Mary Alice had a profound revelation. She and Christopher hardly ever went out together. For the space of one year, their relationship had taken place almost entirely within the confines of a bedroom.

Sitting with Talia (um, Mary Alice), at Cafe Edgar's (I mean The Olive Garden), I felt like a character on an episode of Sex in the City, an archetype -- the sympathetic married friend with a healthy touch of realism that the sad yet starry-eyed single gal is in desperate need of.

Yes, it was possible that Christopher had suddenly had to leave the country or that he entered a witness protection program or was sequestered as the member of a jury on a high-profile murder case, but something in my gut told me otherwise. Since the best-selling phrase, He's Just Not That Into You had already been co-opted, I felt moved to tell my friend a true thing or two, Bungalow Babe-style...but she beat me to it.

"I thought we were soulmates, but it turns out that we were just F%*k Buddies," she said sadly, yet sagaciously, having analyzed her year-long tryst from every possible angle and being forced to conclude that it was only just that, after all -- a tryst.

Ever since I first heard that phrase uttered by the brilliantly bizarre store manager played by actress Jane Lynch in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, I have both loved and hated the sound of it. F%*k Buddy. So shocking yet succinct. F%*k Buddy sounds like the grown-up participant of a Play Date. If I had a F%*k Buddy and wanted to see him (or her), surely our Mommies would call each other to make arrangements.

F%*k Buddy. So carefree. So unadorned. So friendly. So no-fees/no-obligation. It's the sexual equivalent of Commerce Bank, which took the formidable grown-up aspect out of banking and made it as brightly-colored as a candy shop (they even have bowls of red lollipops) and as inviting as a toy store. The message of Commerce Bank is come and play. You can almost forgot that your money hangs in the balance.

Here's what I've observed as a very-married Babe in the Big City: in the crazed, over-programmed professional and personal lives that we lead in this metropolis, single babes often unwittingly become the F%*K Buddies of men who pass themselves off as prospective boyfriends (forget husbands, for now. This is not about marriage as the ultimate aim, but emotional intimacy.) Sometimes women are fooled by an emotional con artist; other times, they delude themselves when the reality is as bright as bling. I know that there are some mythic, uber-liberated chicks who claim that they aim only to be someone's F%*k Buddy, not girlfriend, but I don't believe they represent a critical mass of femalekind.

As I walked the streets early this morning to save my van from being ticketed, I thought of Mary Alice and the quest for love and intimacy and the phenomenon of adult F%*k Buddies (until this recent conversation, I had kinda thought that F%*k Buddies and Friends-with-Benefits were strictly adolescent pursuits). I was wondering how many men get burned by being the unwitting F%*k Buddies of women. I was considering how to write about this subject without going off on a rant against guys or even the concept of F%*k Buddies...which might be okay (not to mention fun) as long as both (or more) parties agree that the raison d'etre of their relationship is f%*king and nothing else.

Such as love. Or intimacy. Or caring. Or even friendship.

As I reached the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and W105th Street, I suddenly realized that the concept of Alternate Side of the Street Parking regulations had everything to do with what was on my mind. Instability is the theme of our contemporary urban lives. What is good on Monday is bad for Tuesday, but it's okay for Thursday... just not on Friday. You're okay where you are as long as you move by 8:30 or 11:00 a.m. Don't even think of standing there. It's fine if you're with me on Sunday but not on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Saturday morning is okay, though.

Just make sure to leave by noon.

And let's agree that feelings have absolutely nothing to do with what we do together.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Of Shmendricks and Other Threats to our National Security

While shlepping through Loehmann's yesterday with Middle Babe, I had an epiphany. Shmendrick, one of my favorite words in the Yiddish language was, in fact, only a mamaloshen* wannabe, a Yankee Doodle Dandy wrapped in Jewish garb, trying to pass as a Hebrew homie.

This startling revelation came to me as I beheld a row of men sitting outside the dressing room on the second floor, clutching the pocketbooks of their respective damsels and more often than not surrounded by a bevy of bags.

Shopping. Men. Dressing Room. Sh-Men-Dr....Ick! In a flash it came to me! Some clever Webster musta pulled this word together after witnessing this pathetic phenomenon I was now privy to -- men cajoled into joining their women on clothing shopping expeditions and then reduced to waiting for them while they tried on zillions of outfits in Loehmann's famous communal dressing room in search for that perfect metziah!**

I'm guessing that the origin of shmendrick is early 20th century when indeed, the retail industry and the shmatta, er, clothing industry abounded with Jewish names and Jews were renowned as tailors. Probably, some young de Toucqueville went traipsing through a famous Manhattan department store, say, B. Altman, saw the waiting men exuding quiet desperation and was moved to exclaim, "Shmendrick!!!" (all the while thinking, Shopping...Men...Dressing Room...Ick!!!) whereupon one of the men who had been waiting for about five hours fell down from the surprise of hearing a male voice and his wife, emerging from the dressing room after having tried on her 275th dress, discovered her husband lying atop her (now-destroyed) ostrich-feather hat, hit him on the head with her purse and everyone around thought that shmendrick had to do with the guy who fell down and was hit by his wife and its original meaning was lost forever.

Though its origin was misplaced until this very minute, the phenomenon of the shmendrick lives on.

Case in point: yesterday, Shmendrick Row at Loehmann's boasted a diverse gathering of dudes including a committed to co-parenting dad with an infant strapped to his chest in a Baby Bjorn; a cooler-than-thou leather-clad hipster in his early thirties; a middle-aged out-of-towner in clashing shades of beige; and a Hasidic man conducting business on his cellphone.

Around the store, several other Shmendricks shlepped after their women, wearing looks that reminded me of Alfie's expression when I deliver him to the dog groomer at the beginning of the summer for his annual haircut.

God, they looked miserable, those shmendricks! Beholding them, I wished to inspire them to revolution, to rise and throw off their shopping shackles and run unimpeded into the bars of Chelsea to engage in some real male bonding over beer and a ballgame. What the #$%& were these guys doing here...and what woman wanted this abuse on her conscience? Certainly not I!!

As I trudged behind Middle Babe, carrying her shopping bags from H&M and Abracabadra (costumes from Once Upon a Mattress, performed last week by her high school, starring her as Princess Winnifred the Woebegone), I tried to imagine dragging HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) with me on a shopping excursion and realized that having him around me in any retail setting was sure to induce misery, perhaps more in me than him.

HOBB is the most anti-consumerist person I know. Buying couches for our living room for the first time after 22 years of marriage this past fall (previous couches were all family cast-offs) nearly resulted in his hospitalization from emotional trauma. Our little march down the aisles of Tiffany and Co. nearly 23 years ago to select my engagement ring had to be followed by a nourishing lunch at The Great American Health Bar after his blood pressure fell precipitously. He has been known to bolt out of Bloomingdale's and meander through Macy's in a zomboid state, alarming security guards and shoppers alike. Even popping into Fairway to buy dinner fare is something he tries to avoid.

Dragging this dude with me in order to have him sit on a bench with a group of condemned men -- think of them as Dead Men Shopping -- so that I can pop out of the dressing room every five minutes to grill him on whether this dress/skirt/suit/pair of pants/bathing suit/shoes/necklace/bracelet/pair of socks makes my butt look big seems to me an act of intolerable cruelty, not to mention a completely futile venture because our marriage is a big-butt-free zone, that is, HOBB has never once told me that my butt looks big in anything (even when it most certainly has) most likely because someone tipped him off to the fact that you can NEVER, under any circumstances, EVER tell your wife that her butt looks big.

And anyway, having HOBB along while I drift mindlessly through rows of frocks would completely ruin the therapeutic aspect of shopping for me. I might have to talk to him, destroying the lovely reverie I enter into. I might have to help him find the men's room. He might try to talk me into buying an article of clothing that is annoyingly modest, more suitable for synagogue, say, than my current sacriligious style. Come to think of it, I cannot think of a single reason to have him along, in fact, if he actually insisted upon accompanying me on a shopping expedition, I might have to melodramatically threaten to throw myself off the top of Daffy's Herald Square.

I can carry my own frickin' bags, for godsake!!!

Lest you think that this is a rant against men shopping, please let me reassure you that I believe men are entitled to the same retail indulgences as their female counterparts. And just as Shmendricks are completely pathetic, so, too, Shwomfricks (Shopping...Women...Fitting Room...Ick!!!) are just as terrible to behold: women turned a shade of bilious yellow, leaning against the wall of a place like Syms, trying to ignore the fact that their husbands' waistlines have grown another 4 inches since last year.

In fact, for anyone dying to receive acclaim for coining a faux Yiddish word, Shwomfrick is up for grabs. E-mail me to find out how much it'll cost you to pass it off as your own invention.

Let me be orthodox about this: the only time it is appropriate to accompany a member of the opposite sex on a clothing shopping expedition is when you are their parent. So that's what I was doing yesterday with Middle Babe and gladly do for her brothers, Big and Little Babe. Of course, at 21, Big Babe prefers to shop by himself and favors such outre venues as ebay and the Salvation Army on W96th Street, where he has scored amazing purchases for peanuts. I wish that Time Out New York ( would take notice of his style and feature him in their magazine. (Att: Fashion Editor. He can be reached via his blog at And 10-year-old Little Babe can only be dragged to a limited number of dressing rooms before having a complete meltdown and tearfully petitioning me for a pet hedgehog.

So, yeah, I'd have to say that the best, most-authentic clothing shopping experience can be shared between two people of the female persuasion, preferably if they are related. Who better to laugh and cry with in the dressing room when the three-way mirror reveals a butt that is not just big but taking over the world as we know it?? Who better to depend upon for honest appraisal of your prospective purchases? Who can better talk you out of disastrous fashion mistakes and talk you into brilliant style coups? And who can better convince you to buy something just because they actually want to wear it but don't want to shell out the cash??

So, today, RIGHT THIS MINUTE, I hereby propose a national holiday, something bigger than International Women's Month, Black History Month or even Take Our Daughters to Work Day. (Copywriters at Bungalow Babe in the Big City are currently hard at work drafting the exact wording for the charter.) While our nation was sleeping, a new generation of Shmendricks rose up -- no longer just from the suburbs or the Upper East Side or Cleveland. These new Shmendricks hail from Williamsburg (the cool section, not the Hasidic section); from Park Slope, from W86th Street, from Hastings-on-Hudson, f'crissakes!!

These neo-Shmendricks -- hip, young and sexy -- threaten the integrity of our social fabric. Sisters, unite!!! Shackle your men to the kitchen counter and take your womenfolk shopping today!!
*mothertongue, i.e. -- Yiddish
**a real find

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Kaddish for Ilan and Imette

He was 23 years old, a French Jew saving up money to move to Israel, working at a cellphone shop along Boulevard Voltaire in Paris's 11th arrondissement. She was 24, a graduate student from Boston, studying at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, living on West End Avenue. The photographs accompanying the heartbreaking, horrific articles about their respective murders show beautiful young people smiling for the camera, eyes lit with hope, utterly unable to foresee the fate that would befall them.

His name was Ilan Halimi. Her name was Imette St. Guillen. Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'may rabbah.*

The outlines of their cases have some striking similarities. Last seen by a friend at The Falls, a bar on Lafayette Street in SoHo, Imette's naked, battered, raped and asphyxiated body was found along a desolate backroad in Brooklyn last week, wrapped in a cheap, floral-patterned quilt. Her trademark mane of shiny black hair had been chopped off. Her face had been covered with strips of packing tape. A sock was shoved down her throat. Ilan was discovered on February 13th, stumbling naked, burned, beaten, bruised and bound out of the woods near a train station 15 miles from Bagneux, France, evidently dumped out of a vehicle and left for dead. His head was shaved and adhesive tape covered his hands and eyes. Acid burns covered 60 percent of his body. He had been held captive for the preceding three weeks in a cellar apartment on Rue Serge Prokofiev in Bagneux, tortured continuously. Phone calls made to family members featured the sounds of his agony in the background. Photos of his torture were sent over the internet. He died in an ambulance on the day he was discovered, en route to the hospital.

Though the French police initially resisted treating the Halimi case as a hate-crime, there is no doubt, now that the investigation is over a month and a half old and most of the perpetrators have been caught, that Ilan was chosen to be tortured and killed because he was a Jew. For Imette, only one week into the investigation, there are no leads on the motive of her killers, though experts in the field of criminal psychology have noted the serial-killer-like details of the case, the likelihood of more than one participant in her torture and slaying and the hatred -- though anonymous -- that marks the means of her murder.

Of the dozens of articles I have read on Ilan Halimi, none are finer than the one by Nidra Poller, an American writer living in Paris, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Check it out at: Meanwhile, with the plethora of pieces in the New York and Boston papers, I am hard pressed to recommend just one article or newslink about Imette St. Guillen. I have been impressed, however, with the clarity and dignity of the NY Times's coverage:

There are so many stages with these high-profile murder cases...the Breaking News stage of shocking headlines and incomplete information; the Rush to Report stage of media venues racing to retrieve new details from the case, (resulting in information overload for the general public and the creation of rumors); the Parade of Pundits stage where commentators compete to contextualize the crime or draw some greater, larger meaning from it; the A-List News stage where the story dominates newspapers and networks and seems to become a part of the world in which we live; the Relevant Yet no Longer Shocking stage where the case recedes somewhat in the mind of the public; the Also-Ran stage when the story is suddenly upstaged by an even more horrific case; and every stage after that in which work the story bobs and weaves its way in and out of public awareness even as the investigation goes on and the real-life tragedy shatters the lives of those who loved the victim.

It is late on a Saturday night. I am enmeshed within yet another stage -- the Horrific Proof of Man's Inhumanity stage. I desperately want to go to sleep yet I am haunted by the brutal murders of Ilan and Imette, a Hansel and Gretel who wandered into the witch's house and found out the terrible truth about fairy tales. They seem familiar to me, perhaps because I am so familiar with their too-short biographies right now. Imette lived on the Upper West Side -- my own neighbhorhood. Ilan lived in Paris, a city I dearly love (despite the growing anti-Semitism there, which began well before this celebrated case). The footpaths of their lives might have overlapped with my own.

The proximity of certain passings seem to transcend mere coincidence. Famously, there are the cases of elderly spouses dying close together; in fact, just last week I attended a shiva **for a friend's father whose wife had passed on five weeks earlier. I remember the death of Mother Teresa following on the heels of Princess Diana's death. We were living in Jerusalem at the time and when I heard the news of Diana's death, I burst into tears, instantly falling into mourning for an iconic woman whose life could not have been more different than my own, but whom I had always identified with. When, days later, Mother Teresa died, I felt that she had willed her own passing, knowing that Diana -- too young, bereft of her small sons, was in need of her consolation in heaven.

So, too, I feel that there is a spiritual connection between the deaths of Ilan Halimi and Imette St. Guillen. Somehow, I see Imette -- the dedicated and brilliant young student of criminal law -- summoned to heaven by the Celestial Court after the despicable murder of Ilan, enlisted to train an army of angels so that they might intervene in earthly affairs when mankind, fueled by hatred, turns most inhumane.

*Great and Holy is His Name. The opening words of the Kaddish -- a prayer of mourning recited by an immediate family member.
**The seven-day period of mourning proscribed by Jewish law.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Confessions of a Thursday Night

I blush to file this post. Last night, I had the most mindblowing experience one can have courtesy of a telephone.

My husband flew to Denver yesterday morning, leaving me all alone in New York (not counting Big Babe, Middle Babe and Little Babe, Alfie the Pomeranian, Sam the Hamster and the newest hamsterettes -- Emma II and Rebecca II. More about them later.)

Separated by thousands of miles and a time zone, we nevertheless achieved intimacy by watching the Colbert Report together -- he from his hotel room, me, sprawled on the living room couch, breathlessly checking in with each other during the commercial breaks.

What woman doesn't fantasize about being with two men at once? Last night I lived the fantasy, with the help of television and telephone. It was like nothing I had ever experienced...a telecom menage-a-trois.

Post-Colbert, spent yet satisfied, I was channel-surfing when suddenly I wiped out on the shore of Larry King who was interviewing a Britney-blond Roseanne Barr. If ever one needed proof that blondes are, indeed, dumber than brunettes or redheads or even really senile people with white hair, here it was. Blond Roseanne was a LOT dumber than the Brunette Roseanne I remember.

I tuned in just as Larry King was prompting the exceptionally loud actress to talk about her turnaround sixteen years ago, after her life fell to pieces. Across the bottom of the screen viewers were reminded that she had multiple personality disorder, depression and other tsurris.* How was she able to eventually pull everything together?


Now, I am not a dedicated Larry King fan (in fact, I often don't get him) but I appreciated the twinkle in his eye when the K word fell from Roseanne's lips. Oh yeah, we're gonna have some fun. Kabbalah is Jewish, he asked/prompted the (embarrassingly enough) Jewish Ms. Barr. Roseanne seemed stuck, agreed that Kabbalah was Jewish, but then began talking about how universal it really is, how for centuries, people from around the world practiced it. Even Christians, she pointedly said.

Others have ranted about this, so I don't want to be redundant (or unoriginal), but really, what the @#$% is up with celebrities and Kabbalah???? If ever something was laughable, it is this. Imagine, an esoteric Jewish mystical tradition involving rigorous study and spiritual practice based on intimate knowledge of Jewish text and tradition suddenly co-opted by the most shallow people on earth....but really, just as a brand name. They have no clue what Kabbalah is about and the shanda** is that those huskters who are busily promoting the practice of celeb-kabbalah don't even have enough public relations acumen to realize that the more intelligently their practitioners can speak about Kabbalah, the better they will be able to sell their brand.

Maybe that's why I just saw cases of Kabbalah Energy Drink being handed out for free on the Columbia campus.

Meanwhile, the Roseanne ridiculousness was just an unfortunate cap to what had actually been a magical evening in the life of Bungalow Babe in the Big City...oh, and I mean before the Colbert-HOBB (husband of Bungalow Babe)-me adventure. But that magical experience was rooted in a very sad moment in the life of Little Babe who was home from school because of the snowstorm (that never actually happened, but what the hell).

I was at the JCC's gym talking to one of the coolest rabbis in the world, Rabbi Levi Kelman of Kehillat Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem (in the States for a visit), when my cellphone rang. It was Little Babe calling from home. Tearfully, he informed me, "Rebecca is dead."

I stopped breathing. Rebecca is Middle Babe's best friend. Wild panic overtook me for a millisecond until I realized that I would not be receiving such horrific (Gd Forbid, pooh, pooh, pooh!!!!) news from my 10-year-old son. The Rebecca in question was a rodent, his beloved hamster.

"Oh, sweetie!" My heart went out to Little Babe who loved his pets and all animals. I pantomimed to Levi the contents of my conversation and he uttered an appropriate, barukh dayan haemet.*** Promising Little Babe a funeral in full regalia later in the day, I urged him to remove Rebecca from her cage -- wearing plastic gloves, of course -- place her inside a ziplock baggie and write a nice headstone inscription for her on an index card.

The rest of the day seemed to fly by in a haze of workaholic frenzy and suddenly, it was nighttime and Middle Babe called from New Jersey, where she had been hanging out with BOMB (boyfriend of Middle Babe) since her school also panicked because of the (non-) weather and let the kids out early.

"I'm really sorry, Mom, but could you come and pick me up???" she asked, plaintively.

I looked out the window where our red Dodge Caravan was parked, covered in ice and snow. Ugh. Actually, I was just settling in for a night of relaxation and Little Babe was looking sleepy to me. Cleaning off the car and driving it on icy roads over the GW was not really what I had in mind but yet, there was Middle Babe in New Jersey and HOBB was in Denver, so it looked like I would be shortly scraping ice.

As I got ready to drive westward, I realized the silver-lining of this excursion. Rebecca the Hamster!!! She was as yet unburied, lying fetal-curled within a Target-brand zip-lock bag on the windowsill of our front hallway! Lovingly, Little Babe had included some pine shavings for her comfort and a beautifully-written headstone inscription that began, "Dear Reb. I wish you weren't dead. But you are."

Little Babe's pet deserved a proper burial...and she would be getting one. In New Jersey.

Ten minutes later, Little Babe, Rebecca the (dead) hamster, Alfie the Pomeranian and I left the overheated confines of our apartment and headed into the arctic air. Yes, it took about 15 minutes to de-ice the car, and yes, my hands froze. Still, I was glad to be able to perform this final mitzvah. (Judaism takes proper burial very seriously).

Here's where my values got screwed up a bit. As we were driving to the highway, I was suddenly saddened by the thought of Rebecca's empty cage and realized that Petco on Broadway was probably still open at this hour. "How about stopping at Petco to look at the baby hamsters?" I suggested to Little Babe who was quietly mourning Rebecca in the back seat.

"YEAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" he yelled enthusiastically. Fifteen minutes later, we emerged with not one, but two new baby dwarf hamsters, which he immediately named Rebecca II and Emma II, after Emma the first who was killed this past summer by Felix the Evil Cat, Big Babe's (former) feline.
Little Babe's face shone with joy. Though delighted to see his mood lifted, I did worry about transmitting the ethic of a beloved pet as an instantly replaceable commodity.

Once in New Jersey, we tracked down Middle Babe and BOMB at a Chinese restaurant. Mooching off of their tea and fortune cookies, we planned Rebecca's funeral. BOMB suggested a local park. Little Babe and I had practiced the service on the drive over the bridge and we informed Middle Babe and Bomb that the funeral would be New Orleans-style, in homage to Mardi Gras and the city's rebirth after the devastation of Katrina.

And so, it came to pass, that around 9 pm, Little Babe, Middle Babe, BOMB, Alfie and I stood shivering in a semi-circle next to a naked tree (elm? oak? birch?beech? redwood? do Jewish people know anything about trees??) in a snowy park in Teaneck, NJ, singing Kol Ha-Olam Kulo Gesher Tzar Meod (The Entire World is a Narrow Bridge), an appropriate dirge, followed by Glory, Glory Halleluyah, in both English and Hebrew. That was the NOLA part of the funeral. Placing Rebecca the hamster in the snow, we all participated in covering her burial baggie with snow and said nice things about her, such as that she didn't bite us and didn't poop too much when we let her run around the apartment.

With the atmospheric sound of a New Jersey Transit train running in the background and Alfie straining the leash, overwhelmed by the unfamiliar scent of New Jersey's dog population, we stood in the pristine snow, paying our respects to a small, furry friend, accompanying her on her journey to Hamster Heaven.

*troubles, woes
***Blessed be the True Judge. What one says upon hearing of a death.