Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, and Pontification

Most of us have family and friends who live far away, sometimes oceans apart. We understand, despite our best wishes and intentions, that we’re not going to see them in person very often – even in times when we’re allowed to freely travel hither and yon, which is not now. But good friends who live a few hours away, shouldn’t that be doable? Why can’t we get together when we’re not being locked down or too intimidated by the virus? Frustrating, isn’t it.

Two of our favorite people, The Levines, fit into that category. How far is it from where we are to their yishuv atop a hilltop north of Karmiel, a few hours by car or half a day by train? Yet we had not seen them since last Sukkot, after which, Barbara L. had a knee replacement, followed by complications from the surgery that kept her out of commission. Then Barbara C. went to visit in the States, and she and I headed off to Africa, followed by Purim, and you know the rest, the ups and the downs, the changes in regulations and circumstances that I have chronicled and you knew about anyway. We couldn’t let this state of affairs continue. But what to do?

One thing became obvious: our friends, being appropriately cautious given their health issues, were not about to drive down into our part of the country – with its high infection rate – any time soon. But they were more than willing to entertain us. It would be up to me and Barbara C. to make the decision.

She was hesitant. We also have legitimate concerns about the virus, even though we’re both in pretty good health for our age. Is the case count going up or is it going down? Is it safe to ride the rails? My response to her concerns was as follows. If we wait for the ‘all clear’ signal, when everything is back to normal, we’ll be sitting here for quite a spell, getting even older and crankier. Things may get better or they may get worse; before they do get worse, let’s just go.

When in doubt, play it ‘by ear.’ Assuming the daily case count hadn’t gone through the proverbial roof, we would take the train and head north on Thurs., Aug. 21 – also assuming that Yael, The Levine’s daughter-in-law, hadn’t jumped the equally proverbial gun and delivered her baby boy early.

One of my selling points was that riding the trains is relatively safe. We knew that they were limiting the number of passengers on each ride, and we had heard that they had personnel going up and down the cars, making sure everyone was wearing a mask. How do you control the number of passengers? Make people register on-line in advance for a specific trip, that’s how. We signed up for the 11:03 from the Navon station, changing at Savidor in Tel Aviv, and again in Haifa for the train to Karmiel.

Would you be shocked if I told you that NOBODY was checking at the Jerusalem station to see if anybody had actually made a reservation? (There would be a confirmation message sent to your phone if you had.) But the cars were not crowded and there were personnel checking for masks. Of course, this being Israel, on each leg of our journey, there was a different policy.

As we would be on the road when we normally eat lunch, we had brought sandwiches with us. I started munching on mine during the second leg of our journey (meaning I had temporarily removed my mask). The lady who was checking for masks, going back and forth through the cars, saw what I was doing and let me slide. However, on the third leg of our trip, when Barbara tried eating hers, she was immediately given the thumbs down by the more punctilious guard on duty. No eating allowed; masks on! (Before I go any further, let me mention that on the return trip Sunday morning, they did check for reservations at the Karmiel station. Good thing we made them.)

If we had a car, I could have loaded it up with fresh-from-the-farm corn and heirloom tomatoes from Ben the organic farmer and lots and lots of rosé wine to bring with us. But we don’t. Forget the corn and the tomatoes; The Levines will have to make do with Supersol’s best. I can probably take about three bottles of wine with me and no more – a pity.

Every year, Barbara L., as her contribution to the general well-being of humankind, does a review of as many Israeli rosé wines as she can get her hands on. Last year, she managed about forty, although there are others that we couldn’t locate. I say ‘we,’ because tracking down all of these offerings is a job for more than one person. A lot of wine is grown in the area around where The Levines live, but not a lot is on offer from the few retail establishments in Karmiel. That’s where I come in, scouring the wine stores in Jerusalem for additional entries, taking careful notes of what is available and where, making certain that what’s on offer is the current vintage. (Rosé wines have an insanely short drinking window: one season, that’s all, before they lose their oomph.)

Since before Pesach when the first new rosés started appearing on the shelves, I’ve been keeping track of the inventory at a number of the stores I frequent. I’m like the little boy who gets to go to the Toys “R” Us store in the mall, well in advance of the Holiday Season. Look at all the stuff they have! Much more than what his parents are going to buy him, and he can’t possibly decide. I want this; I want this; I want this. I wasn’t going to buy any rosés until I knew when we would be seeing our friends, but still: I want this one; I want that one. Maybe this has happened to you; maybe not.

There’s a lot going on in Karmiel: lots of light industry, lots of the usual malls with their usual stores, houses of worship, health clinics, schools, and the like. But when we’re with The Levines, we focus on the basics: a Thursday lunch at one of the few good kosher restaurants in town and the Friday shopping excursion: newspapers at the book store; bagels at Roladin (kept in the back room for special customers only); the one wine store in the area, whose proprietor knows Barbara L. as a loyal but demanding customer. I accompany Richard in his peregrination through the local Supersol, at least twice as large as our local version, as big as a sports arena. Richard is not as organized a shopper as he’d like to be, so it takes us a while to go through, with me eye-balling all the merchandise that we can’t find in our pipsqueak of a store.

The final stop on our whirlwind tour of this super-mall is Richard heading over for Asian take out, planned for our lunch back at Har Halutz. It is well-known that our host has a healthy appetite, so he will essentially order four times what he would normally get if he were eating alone: stir-fry with salmon, egg rolls, huge quantities of sushi, sashimi, and similar dishes. Welcome to Left-over City – enough food for Fri. lunch, a third meal on Shabbat, with still more for them to finish after we’re gone. All in all, we arrived back at chez Levine with six large, blue IKEA shopping bags full of victuals.

Lunch and then to work. I get to make the barbecue sauce! (Taken from the back of the Brer Rabbit molasses bottle: Combine in a saucepan 1 cup ketchup, 1 cup red wine vine vinegar, ½ cup brown sugar, ¼ cup molasses, 1 ½ tsp. liquid smoke, ½ tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. black pepper, ¼ tsp garlic powder, ¼ tsp. onion powder. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-40 minutes.) By this time, Richard has fired up his oversized gas grill (the size of a small car) and will barbecue several meals-worth of chicken. Yes, we will eat well over Shabbat, but you knew that already.

It is quiet on Shabbat in Har Halutz, especially on the little bit of property that is The Levine’s, a small house surrounded by lots of foliage. The trees all around have grown in the thirty years they have lived there and are now taller than the building. (The Levines just finished paying off their mortgage, a  not so common occurrence these days.) You can hear the trees rustling, the birds tweeting, at night the wild boars crashing around and the foxes scampering through the bushes, much to the dismay of Jameson and Boobie, the resident canines. No cars or motorcycles on their block, no screaming teenagers (OK, here and there a dog barking). If we could only bottle the tranquility….

A cynic might complain that, with all the silence, there isn’t much to do in this yishuv of 140 families. Fair enough. Whatever excitement you want, you have to create yourself, and what we create – in addition to the satisfaction of a good meal with plenty of good wine (or coffee from Power Coffeeworks  in the morning) – is exemplary conversation, always the icing on the cake, as far as I am concerned.

I am often involved in discussions with many of our friends. But Richard and I – without planning to or meaning to – will stumble onto a topic and begin ‘pontificating’ on it late into the night, well after the ladies have retired to their respective pillows. Our thoughts could be about something as esoteric as wine and natural farming or as newsworthy as the proposed treaty between Israel and the U.A.E. (looks like the old ‘two-state solution’ to me – for better or worse.) We might start out thinking we agree and realize we don’t; we might start out thinking we don’t and realize that we do. We might wind up with the fall-back position in the gemarrah: teiku (No way we can solve this now, so let’s move on). Whatever the outcome, we have complied with the basic rules of pontification: stick to the topic, make a modicum of sense, and listen to the other person – who might be right, after all. It’s important that you be on the same proverbial page, and if not, at least in the same chapter, the same book, or, minimally, in the same library. If not…..

(Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. It was on my first trip to The Land in 1980, and Barbara and I were traveling around the country courtesy of the Egged bus company. In those days, the best place to eat in many of the small communities we passed through was often the little restaurant in the bus station. We were sitting – no idea in which one – having a meal. A few tables away was a random collection of bus drivers and cabbies having some sort of conversation. The noise level from that table began to rise as two of the fellows started arguing. Finally, one of them stood up and got himself a glass of water. He returned to the table, slammed down the glass and demanded, Is this water or is this coffee? Coffee, was the immediate reply. If you’re not going to agree on the contents of a glass, you might as well stop right there – if you’re smart.)

By now, you know that my favorite question is, What can possibly go wrong? But you’ll also hear me ask something like, Why do you say that/how do you know that’s true?  I won’t depress you by listing some of the answers one might get to that kind of a question, but you can guess if, for example, you’re on Facebook – the world’s worst place to have a political discussion.

My point is that a pontification session should be relaxing rather than as stressful as some conversations turn out to be. In fact, that was the raison d’être of our sojourn on the little mountaintop that The Levines call home. Our stimulation would come from the wine, the coffee, the fine food, and the meeting of minds, and the cares of the world would take second place – if even that. We would all engage in the three R’s: reading, relaxing, and reposing. There would be a four-hour trip back, more than enough time to be reminded of the woes of the world, everything that we would be all too willing to put aside – if only we could.

Let me close with this reminder: the virus is highly contagious, but so is stupidity and ill-will. So, wear your masks and filter your thoughts, and we’ll get through all of this somehow.

More to come.

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