NCIS Tel Aviv?

Every morning, at my kitchen counter, I leaf through two Israeli dailies, both of them in English.  The Hebrew papers I read in cafés, not every day.  I watch the TV news at 8 pm, on Channel 2.  I rarely watch the Israel Broadcasting Authority news in English, but you can see it – and everything else I just named – every day, on the Internet.  An engaged American Jew in Beverly Hills or Boston can read Ha’aretz or Yediot on his or her smartphone, the same way I do.  If you get into the habit, you can be no less well informed than a Jew in Jerusalem. 

But your experience of the information will be different.  Reading Israel in the Diaspora is not the same as reading it here.  I don’t mean that the experience is “lower” for Jews who have not made aliyah.  Certainly, aliyah is not a realistic option for every Jew.  And the choice of non-aliyah may also facilitate certain important Jewish values – religious pluralism comes to mind – as many of us who live here are well aware, sometimes ruefully. 

I’m drinking Italian coffee, turning pages in my hometown paper, the Jerusalem Post.  I sail past an op-ed about “self-hating” Jews and land on the back page at “Arts and Entertainment,” my favorite section.  A photo of four young, smiling tourists posing at the Western Wall, like a Birthright pic on Facebook.  Headline reads: “CSI stars ‘gather evidence’ in Israel.”  Subhead reads: “Four actors from the cluster of CBS-TV crime-scene investigation dramas visit Israel for the first time and declare it ‘close to a utopia.’”

Such an article cannot be skipped over.  The four guys in the picture seem different from the stressed-out characters they play.  They are on vacation, relaxed, having fun – “the actors Segwayed in Tel Aviv, floated in the Dead Sea” – and not solving gruesome murders in front of the camera, take after take.  The best line in the story belongs to Owen Benson Miller, who plays an African American cop in “CSI:Miami”:  “As a Christian, he says he ‘had very high hopes for Israel and it’s lived up to and surpassed what I had in mind,’ despite hurting his knee while horseback riding in the Galilee.”  In other words, not quite a utopia. But close enough.

The eight-day trip was arranged by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.  The Post article is credited to Israel 21c, a news service providing articles that engage the reader while stressing Israel’s brightest sides.  You may have read this story too, on a screen near you.

Al Buckley, who plays “Adam Ross” in the New York version of CSI, is “an Irish Catholic familiar with the Bible. “  Buckley says he “feels healthier from eating Israeli cuisine,” singling out the cucumbers and tomatoes for breakfast and the “unbelievable” hummus, possibly “the best I’ve ever had in my life.”  (Carmine Giovinazzo – “Danny Messer” of “CSI: NY” – is pictured but not quoted.)

On the Israel 21c website are two additional group photos, at Caesarea (Herodian grandeur   meets beachfront lifestyle), and at a medical technology firm that has developed an “exoskeleton” that can enable paraplegics to walk.  Summed up in the words of the one Jewish actor in the group, Ryan Wolfe of “CSI: Miami”:  “Israel is the finest combination of the ancient beginning of civilization and the most progressive, cutting-edge community of right now.” It is Wolfe who pronounces Israel “as close to a utopia as I’ve ever seen.”

The CSI article, judged in its own terms, is a home run of hasbara – variously translated as “explanation,”  “public diplomacy,” “PR,” or “propaganda.”  Indeed, it’s a Hollywood version of Israeli reality – idealized and prettified – and genuine, so far as it goes.  Once, Hollywood made movies like “Exodus” or” Cast a Giant Shadow,” warming the hearts of Zionists everywhere.  Now, they make “Munich” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” whose messages are less clear, perhaps subversive.  So the hasbara specialists in California and Jerusalem team up and take another tack, enlisting familiar TV faces as enthusiastic pitchmen for the Jewish State.

Is this a good and valuable thing?  Is it worth the money and effort?  Does it work – and on whom?  Breathes there a soul who believes that Israel is all peaches and cream?  At the end of the day, does it aid Israel’s cause to flood the information marketplace with stories that omit fundamental, omnipresent problems – or do such efforts often backfire?  Is the bright side disingenuous by definition?  But does every story have to include conflict and death, like an episode of “CSI”?  Isn’t it nice to be uplifted once in a while? 

Reading the 21c story against the Israel I live in, I am unavoidably put in mind of a poem called “Hollywood Elegies,” penned in Los Angeles around 1942 by the brilliant German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht.  He was not a Jew, but he was a Marxist, and fled the Nazis too.  He landed in California in 1941 and tried to work as a Hollywood screenwriter, but without much success.  Meanwhile, more adaptable émigrés, such as Billy Wilder, were thriving.  Brecht was not so much a refugee as an exile, and his acerbic view of Hollywood reflects it.  In the “village of Hollywood,” he wrote, people have

. . . come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven.  It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
As hell.
(Translation by John Willett)

I don’t mean to exaggerate, but you do get the point.  Imagining an Israel of omnipresent prosperity and leisure, cutting-edge science and heavenly beauty, is indeed utopian, in the undying spirit of Theodor Herzl’s fantasy novel of 1902, “Altneuland.”  But Israel has never been a utopia, and won’t be anytime soon.  Just ask Reform rabbis, Eritrean asylum seekers, Palestinians, frightened haredim, displaced Gush Katif settlers, underpaid workers, disgruntled students, and pretty much anyone else who lives here. 

Recently, Jews the world over re-read the weekly Torah portion “Shelach-Lecha,” which features the famous tale of the twelve spies sent by Moses to check out the Promised Land.  After 40 days of evidence-gathering, they return with sobering news.  In verses of close proximity, Israel is described as both “a land of milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27) and a “land that devours its inhabitants” (13:32). 

In the Bible story, the Israelite masses despair, and want to return to Egypt, for which they are punished.  They will die in the desert and not enter the Land.  But now that we, their distant heirs, have re-entered Israel, the spies’ candid prefiguration of Brecht seems both valid and necessary.  On the other hand, a Hollywood segue to a Segway in Tel Aviv sounds pretty good too.

Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of its Engaging Israel project.

C.S.I.: Dating

Some people say you can learn everything you need to know about a person on the first date.

That’s when people reveal themselves, because it’s before they
feel something is at stake. Will she like me? What will he think of me? I hope I make a good impression.

The beginning — the preliminary phone call, the casual party conversation, the unwitting meeting of total strangers on a plane, an elevator, a funeral (don’t ask) — is the best time to glean all the information you can from a person.

Most of the time you don’t understand the significance of what the other person is telling you, but it will prove to be invaluable later on, should there be a later on.

It’s kind of like being a police investigator at a crime scene. Police need to interview suspects immediately following the crime — to catch them off guard, before they have time to construct a story, an alibi, an alternate narrative where the details are changed.

In the case of dating, the suspect is your potential partner, but he doesn’t know it yet and so he reveals all sorts of clues about himself in order to seem open and emotionally in touch. You, the investigator, have this one rare opportunity to probe delicately this first time without seeming invasive, needy or psycho, because, hey, you’re just talking, casually, you know, as friends.

Ironically, the more you like the person the less you’ll reveal about your true self because you’ll want to impress, and it will take months for the other person to find out who you are, unless the other person is paying attention in the very, very beginning, before you try to pull the mask over his heart.

For example: In our first conversation, Mike tells me he’s divorced.

“What happened?” I ask.

Because isn’t that a natural question?

“She cheated on me,” he admits.

“Your wife cheated on you?” I say, barely holding in my incredulity. Now that’s a new one. And it’s too unusual to be untrue. Not to say that women don’t cheat, but it’s a man-bites-dog story, and it leaves me speechless, like if you ask someone how many siblings he has, and he responds that his twin died.

“I’m so sorry,” I say. “That is so terrible.”

It is.

“Oh, it was a long time ago,” he says, explaining his cavalier attitude.

I guess that’s why I can get away with asking so many pointed questions. Questions I won’t be able to broach two months from now because he’ll know that I’m onto him. The suspect will realize I’m on his tail, using all my investigations and exculpatory examinations for evidence in the case I’m building against him — i.e., The People vs. Mike Schwartzstein. (The people being me, and all the friends I bring evidence to of why he may not be good enough.)

But for now I can ask him things like “How long was she cheating on you?” “How did you find out?” “Who was the guy?” “What did you do?”

It is too sad.

“How could she do that to you?” I lament.

“No, it wasn’t all her fault,” he backtracks.

What a guy. Trying to take the blame.

“We’re still friends,” he says.

Something seems wrong with this.

“You’re still friends?” I ask. “How can you be friends with the woman who cheated on you?” Could a person be so forgiving? So cavalier?

“Well, she had her reasons,” he says. “I understand her reasons.”

Mike says he wasn’t always available to her; he was working really hard; he wasn’t home a lot; he felt insecure about his income so he was working two jobs, and so he understood why she did it. By the way, she’s still married to the guy she had the affair with.

It didn’t add up. She wasn’t a lying, unfaithful person if she was still married to her lover. And yet, Mike didn’t seem bitter, hurt or vindictive. Is he such a magnanimous man?

I decide to let it go, because it is only our first conversation. I don’t know that it would be one of our last conversations on that subject. That’s right — we started to really like each other; hence we were more circumspect. Every discussion began to have larger, personal implications. Why did he date that woman for only two months? Will he do the same thing to me? Why does he hate his mother? Does he hate all women? Why did his wife cheat on him? Will he be able to trust someone else again?

But he wouldn’t talk about it anymore. He wouldn’t talk about any of them. He thought I was hounding him. The truth is, he was onto me. The suspect pleaded the Fifth. And so, I had to go open my initial file: I found strange similarities between the two cases. Mine and hers.

He wasn’t available to his wife = he wasn’t available to me.

He didn’t suspect anything was wrong = he didn’t like to hear me complain.

He never went to counseling with her = he didn’t want to talk things over with me.

She cheated on him = ???

In the end it wasn’t a simple algebraic equation. My emotions were already involved; I was too close to the suspect to be impartial. But in reviewing the evidence, my only conclusion was that the suspect had a rap sheet with a long record for unavailability. He left the clues in the very beginning, and all I had to do was find them.

I didn’t cheat on him; I don’t do that. But I did leave him. Otherwise I’d be his next victim.