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.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

You know you've spent two months in Israel when...

We'll, the regular season is winding down and I am proud to say that the boys from Ra'anana have battled their way into the playoffs...along with every other team in the league. It was smart to include every team in the playoffs because if they had stuck to the original plan, a two-team playoff, the losing teams would have probably waved the white flag long ago. This way everybody has a chance and baseball can be an unpredictable game.

I know I've said this before but this league is unlike any other than I've experienced. Can you imagine a bunch of rough-and-tumble, tobacco-chewing baseball players taking pre-game to techno music blaring in the background? And then there's all the non-Jews who now sing Hatikvah, the Israeli National Anthem, before each game. One of my non-Jewish teammates went so far as to tattoo "baseball" in Hebrew letters across his arm. Perhaps the greatest difference is the fact that we play games six days a week. Of course, staying healthy is an issue, but the schedule has several benefits. For one, if you lose or just have a bad game, there's no time to whine or psych yourself out because you must immediately start preparing for the next game. And on the other hand, every day games allow the players to get into a very regular rhythm. This is also the first league I've ever played in where I know my competitors intimately. As an outfielder, you can talk smack to your buddy on second base like, "you better not run home on a base hit if you're smart." From the opposing dugout you hear things like, "if you get another hit, you're buying dinner tonight." While this closeness works most of the time, sometimes it backfires--like the time we almost got into a melee over a hit batsman and then had to share the bus back home. What would the bus driver have thought if he looked in the rear-view mirror to see people being chucked over the seats and punches being thrown?

As the dog-days of summer roll on, tension and frustration with self and league have become commonplace. A good example of said frustration may be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHb2fVcKHkg . Pay special attention to the pitcher and also see if you can pick me out. The umpires have received the brunt of the players' frustration. And while these umpires are by far the worst I've ever seen in my life, I admire their perseverance, because if I was as bad as them, I would have quit a long time ago.

Knock on wood, the season is ending pretty well for me. For one, my limbs are all in tact--mainly because of the shiatsu massages I've been receiving from Tiger, the league physio(therapist). He calls me "magic carpet". Take from that what you will. My Jewish genes are inescapable. On the field, I seem to have found my happy place at the plate, something about breathing out of my eyelids and cutting down on strikeouts because they're fascist. I take it one game at a time and let my teammates handle the rest (note: if you haven't seen the movie Bull Durham, do).

As my time in Israel draws to a close, I've spent countless hours contemplating what I've learned and how I've grown. After spending so much time in this beautiful country, I'd like to think that I'll take a little bit of Israel with me when I go. That's why I came up with this list:

You know you've spent two months in Israel when....

...you consider 90 degrees a cold front.

...you start saying things like, "the 5.10 sheckel bus ride will get us back to the green village by 23:00."

...you consider Domino's a gourmet pizza option.

...you are no longer phased by the 7-minute mid-movie smoke break.

...you urinate wherever it's convenient.

...you feel cheated if you don't stay out until 6 a.m.

...you hear a Cindy Lauper techno remix and don't change the radio station.

...you say to yourself, "you know what, the male speedo really isn't that bad."

...you say to yourself, "I think I could survive on sunflower seeds and chick peas alone, and furthermore, more than one ice cube is really unnecessary."

Sunday, August 5, 2007

All-Star Game, Masada, Dead Sea, J-Roo

Where to begin? Let’s begin with Jerusalem a.k.a. J-Town a.k.a. J-Roo. I’ve now been to Jerusalem 2.5 times. The first time I went directly from the baseball field with my teammate Justin who lives there and studies at a Yeshiva, or bible school, if you will. Imagine two baseball players covered in dirt strolling through one of Jerusalem’s most religious neighborhoods. Let’s just say we were getting sideways looks from the hasids (religious men) as they stepped out of synagogue that night.

During this trip I visited the Kotel—the Western Wall. Here are a few little known facts: the Western Wall was actually a retaining wall for the now destroyed temple, but Western Retaining Wall doesn’t sound quite as snazzy. Also, the picture hanging above your bubie’s mantle shows only a portion of this iconic wall. What you don’t see is an indoor cave-like section where the wall extends. Inside the tunnel is a vast collection of torahs and prayer hot spots. Visiting the wall is a crazy experience. It’s not every day you see religious men engaged in prayer with army officers strapped with rifles marching behind them. Everyone at the Kotel needs a yarmulke (head covering), so if you left yours at home, the fine people at the Kotel provide cardboard hats, free of charge. Also, beggars run rampant at the wall. What a brilliant business move. How can you say no the needy when you’re at one of the most religious places in the world?

Trip #2 to Jerusalem was one of those standard walking tours with the guide who speaks four different languages. Thank goodness she only needed English and Spanish or it would have been a very long day. One of the things you must understand about J-Town is just how much history occurred there. At one point, we were standing above King David’s tomb which was also where the last supper occurred and also the site of a mosque built in medieval times. What’s more, apparently the rock where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac and where Mohammed ascended to heaven was the same rock! What a coincidence! Those of you who strive for historical accuracy might want to disregard this paragraph.

My most recent trip to Jerusalem happened because we got lost coming back from Masada and the Dead Sea. My buddy who was driving asked me to get out and ask for directions. The only problem was I was shirtless wearing swimming trunks and sandals in yet another ultra-orthodox section of town. We ended up doing the “guy thing” and driving around aimlessly until we found the highway.

Among the many blessings I’ve had during this trip, I was honored to be named an IBL All-Star. The collection of players chosen for the game is, without question, the finest group of players I’ve ever been associated with and I’m just lucky to be able to mention my name in the same breath as them. The game itself was an absolute blast and I took some pretty sweet video recordings that I’ll cherish forever. Unfortunately, we lost a nail-biter, 6-5, and I got stranded on first base as the potential tying run after my Ra’anana teammate Matt Castillo hit a screaming line-drive to right field to end the inning. But, all in all, I think we gave the fans a great game.

One benefit of All-Star weekend is the off-time. As mentioned before, a few of us took this opportunity to see the Dead Sea and Masada. Besides myself, it was my Haverford roommate Nat, Josh Zumbrun (a pitcher who played at Air Force) and the lone Japanese player in the league, Ryoju Kihara, or Rio as we call him. I guess you’d have to be there to understand, but Rio was pretty hilarious on the trip. Imagine being on top of an ancient mountain fortress and all of a sudden your scrawny Japanese friend who speaks broken English disappears to explore by himself without telling anyone. Another classic Rio moment was when he we asked him why he’d dyed his hair completely blond. He said, “Rio dye hair because old hair no match color of Rio’s uniform.” How do you respond to that?

Anyway, for me Masada was the most mystical place in Israel. In a nutshell, the story of Masada is that during the final days the Jewish-Roman war in A.D. 72 the last of the Jewish revolutionaries were confined to a fortress at the top of this mountain overlooking the Dead Sea surrounded by the Roman infantry. Instead of being tortured, raped, enslaved, and killed at the hands of the Romans, all the 930+ inhabitants (except one woman and her kids) committed mass-suicide. Whether or not this was the right move according to the Jewish law is a hotly debated philosophical question. Of course, the issue is much much much more complex than I’ve described and is definitely worth the research and thought. Each year the Israeli Defense Force takes new members up for a ceremony where they pledge that Masada will never fall again.

We stayed up all night driving to Masada and climbed the mountain at dawn. The spectacular sunrise revealed a pristine view of the sea, the rugged mountains where the original Roman encampments are visible and the region where the Dead Sea has retreated over the years and formed a field of desolate peaks and valleys. Although these dry fields are beautiful, apparently the sea shrinkage, caused by the removal of water from the Jordan River, is devastating the Dead Sea economy. It sounds corny, but you can really feel something special in the air as you climb this mountain and explore the place where the Masada martyrs spent their final days. The pictures are up on Facebook.com and are too amazing for words. Everyone can join, so “friend me” if we’re not “friends” already.

After Masada we drove to a “beach” on the Dead Sea, but it was more like rocks leading into the water. People always talk about the strangeness of the Dead Sea, and let me tell you, they’re right. First off, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth-- woop-dee-woo. Secondly, the Dead Sea is the saltiest naturally occurring body of water in the world, which has several consequences for bathers. The negative: if you get it in your mouth it tastes like warm hydrogen peroxide with a hint of lemon and you want to vomit. If you get it in your eyes it burns rather badly. If you’re a baseball player with small cuts all over your body and/or athletes foot and/or other “bodily grievances” you can only stay in for 10 minutes before it feels like God is punishing you for that peppermint you stole from the convenient store when you were 8. But there are positives consequences as well: you cannot drown in the Dead Sea. Once you lift your feet from the sea floor you bob up and down like a cork. New swimming strokes also become possible. For instance, I invented a back stroke where one accelerates in the direction of one’s feet, not one’s head. Yeah, think about that. I can’t imagine this but apparently the water is supposed to be healthy for your body. The Dead Sea was Cleopatra’s place to rejuvenate, and word is she had good skin.

Over and Out, na-noo na-noo.