Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hello U.S. and A

Having been home for 48 hours, I've already delighted in some of the luxuries that make up American culture: last night I slept with my feet fully on the mattress. I had four free refills at a restaurant. This morning I took the car out of the garage and drove around, just drove around. I saw a bottle of air freshener sitting on the windowsill and decided to read the label—directions, purpose, storage and disposal instructions, precautionary warnings and potential hazards. Do you want to know why I did this? Because I could. Because I could. Ain’t English grand? Anyway, I promised you a final Israeli update, so here we go.

On August 16th, the Ra’anana Express train came to a grinding halt in the first round of the playoffs against the Natanya Tigers. We faced Columbian ex-minor leaguer Raphael Rojano who’d had arm problems for most of the season. Let’s just say he didn’t have arm problems come playoff time—a fastball around 90, a sharp slider, and a change-up that he saved for special occasions. Our best chance came in the last inning when we benefited from one of the worst judgment calls (see: oxymoron) I’ve ever seen. You’d think the officiating would have improved over the season…but no. Tiger center fielder Josh Doane caught a line-drive around his shins and our resident German ump (I won’t tell you his nickname) decided that he hadn’t caught the ball, but trapped it. Our batter, Donny “Boom-Boom” Mott Jr. was so sure that the ball had been caught he’d already retreated back to our dugout. Only after the Natanya coach started yelling at the ump did Donny realize the call and scamper to first base. U.S. Ambassador and league commissioner Dan Kurtzer took the field and overruled saying Boom-Boom had left the base path, thus he was out. Now there’s a true diplomat: he got his goal and managed to save face for the umpiring crew on a technicality. Sanity was restored and the Tigers quietly ended the inning, game, and season for the Ra’anana (Banana) Express.

I have no regrets about the season. We tried our best and came up a bit short. You can’t win ‘em all. And as our head coach Shaun Smith likes to say [insert Aussie accent], “It’s all about the process.” My college coach used to say the same thing and they’re absolutely right. What you get out of the path is just as valuable as what awaits you at the end. After putting in the work and seeking the counsel of some very smart baseball men over my lifetime, I feel like I’ve fulfilled whatever baseball potential was hiding inside and for this I am deeply indebted to everyone that’s joined me on this path.

The season having come to a close, I decided to do two things: exercise my vegetative state on the beach and travel a bit. The biggest change to report from the beach front is the sheer number of French tourists. Several factors contribute to this: firstly, during the month of August, basically every French person goes on vacation. Long live the French and their work ethic. Secondly, last summer nobody vacationed in Israel because of the Lebanon disaster. Thus, with the current state of relative political calm, every single French Jew came to Israel. Yes, every single one. There is nobody left in Paris for minion. But seriously, if someone could somehow find out what percentage of French Jews are in Israel right now, I would love to know because they are everywhere. Even the French are complaining that there are too many French. In any case, it was great for me because I got some practice polishing up on la belle langue.

So let me tell you about Eilat and Petra. Eilat is the Vegas of Israel, just without the gambling. It’s a ton of gaudy hotels and cheap touristy shops along the Red Sea that never seem to close. Most surprising though was the group of Orthodox Jews, with tzitzit and all, dancing to incredibly loud techno music on top of a pimped-out conversion van and encouraging others to join in their rave. I had to stop and ask someone about this because I just didn’t understand what was going on. Doesn’t Jewish Orthodoxy connote an internal piety and separation from secular culture? Apparently this is not the case with the followers of Rabbi Nachman from Uman, a learned man who lived some 200 years ago in what is now the Ukraine. This sagacious fellow urged his followers to dance and sing on his grave during Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year. To this day thousands of Hasidic Jews make the pilgrimage to honor his request. My Israeli buddy Daniel Maddy-Weitzman (D..M. Dubbs for short) told me, rather skeptically, how people claim miraculous life improvements after dancing on the grave. So anyway, the pious (?) followers of Nachman have interpreted his teachings as dancing to loud music on top of automobiles. To each Jew his own.

The reason I went down to Eilat in the first place was to access Jordan and the ancient city of Petra. Petra is pretty cool—it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. I’m going to do my best to describe it to you, but honestly, there’s no way I’ll be able to scratch the surface or even do my tour guide Tariq any justice. I should be putting up some pics on facebook but you definitely want to google this place and if you’re ever in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, don’t miss it.

Driving to Petra from Eilat on the tour bus was kind of crazy. We passed several Bedouin goat herders who travel across Arabia by camel and tent. Can you imagine spending your life without internet access? Unrelated but equally interesting, King Abdullah’s smiling face is plastered on billboards in every single village, just to remind his people how handsome he is. There’s something strange about this but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Anyway, after some spectacular mountain views and being solicited for camel rides, we arrived at a narrow gorge where an earthquake millions of years ago formed a natural fortification to Petra’s entrance. When you’re walking down this magnificent passage you can’t help but feel like Indiana Jones, except for all the tourists taking pictures. Over the last several thousand years, Petra has been under control of many peoples: Nabataeans who worshiped pre-Islamic Arab gods, Romans, Arabs, and Christians to be sure. Its architecture was further influenced by the Egyptians and Persians who may also have had a stake in the city. What made Petra so strategically important was the fact that it lied on both the ancient spice and silk trade routes. If one thing is certain, those Petra merchants sat on nice rugs and ate some well-flavored hummus. The extraordinary part about Petra (and what allowed its preservation) is that the original inhabitants, the Nabataeans, constructed the town entirely by cutting stone out of mountain walls! We’re talking palatial structures carved out of stone with no jack hammers. Going to Petra is like taking a time machine back to the B.C’s.

Being back in the states, I’m finally starting to realize what a fantastic journey this has been. It seems like yesterday that I was ordering my first authentic falafel on pita and now I have to settle for the cheap imitations we have here in the US once more. I hope you’ve enjoyed my diatribes or at least used this as a means to procrastinate from something like paying the bills, an endeavor I should start figuring out pretty soon.



  1. My wife and I were wondering what it was like being in the IBL, your blog is a hoot!

    We happened to sit next to your folks and brother at Ra'anana's opening game against Tel Aviv.

    Glad you guys enjoyed our little corner of the Mid East :-)


  2. Ben ---your blog---
    You know when you have been in Israel for two months ---is a riot.
    Good luck to you. We met you after a game one night. You kindly signed a ball for my son.

    We enjoyed the games immensely. Thank you to you and the other players and the league for bringing baseball to Israel. We did not really fully realize what we were missing! I took my native born neighbors to a last Gezer game. They said the same thing. They did not realize what they had been missing. Come back next year. We will cheer you on!

  3. Ben-
    This was a highly entertaining blog with lots of interesting info too.. You do the Ford proud. Good luck to you. John-H'ford '73