Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Summer Roundup

It's been a very eventful summer, to say the least. Little GuitarGirl is all growed up with one daughter on staff at Camp Shalom and the other one moving up the ranks and now ensconced at Camp Solelim. With autumn in the wings, Miriam is set to go off to Israel for the year and Yona starts high school.

My mother's memoir is getting ready to be published, and I'm busily working away at the one-woman show based on her life in Siberia, as well as transcribing Dad's oral history. It's premature, but I've picked out the appropriate props for Mum's show. They include: her first kitchenette set (circa 1954); a modest writing desk; and the chair she bought from Suzette's dad's furniture store the year she separated from Dad and lived at 12 Rockford Road in Willowdale. Those are the remnants of her life in Toronto that I've stored away in a little cubby in Englewood, NJ. I've also picked the music, including much vintage Polish and Russian stuff from the military and movies of the WWII era. I've also included Hollywood favourites of hers.

We went to Israel for a couple of weeks on what was to have been a productive business-meets-pleasure trip, but which became my struggle with a very nasty stomach virus. There was much of that going around Jerusalem, where we were headquartered. That knocked the wind out of my sails for around 10 days. I mostly slept, ate dry rye toast and drank tea.

When my energy level somewhat returned, I convinced Marty that we needed to go to the desert, away from the intensity and noisy continuum of Jerusalem. I wanted to look out and see magnificent sandy dunes, Sodom apple trees, crevices where the flash floods rage in winter, flocks of goats along the side of the road, and the Dead Sea in the background. I wanted to hear the sound of God, unencumbered. I wanted to feel the breeze that comes at 5.30 p.m. when the night air starts to blanket everything and forgive the baked ground its crusty summer blister.

We researched and found a bed and breakfast in Arad called Beit Ahuva. Since that was my Hebrew name, I thought it was worth a try -- if only to go down to the desert and consort with the locals and forget the noise and the congestion of the city. And all the English that dilutes the Middle Eastern experience. We were not disappointed. In fact, we were embraced by Yoel, the proprietor, who invited us to a barbecue he was having for a few friends at home that evening. We decided it would be easier if our new friends called us by our Hebrew names, so Ahuva and Moshe it was. In Yoel's crowd there are three people named Moshe, so it got more interesting as the beer and booze flowed, and as the platters of food came out. I even found a fellow Siedlecki in the crowd, who happened to be the daughter of a woman from Siedlec who married someone named Siedlecki. We immediately became fast friends.

I had been off meat for a good while by then, but the smell was irresistible. The Moshe who was called Mussa (Arabic for Moshe, despite the fact that like me, he is a Polish Jew with Lodz roots) was grilling away a mixture of beautiful cuts of tenderloin, chicken and some other fresh-cut and marinated meats. All things being equal in the Holy Land, the meat was neither kosher nor hallal, NOR shall I tell you from which Levantine brother this meat was purchased. This is how it is in the desert. There are no TV cameras here, showing you hordes of angry religionists gargling to God while threatening death and destruction to their enemies (that's about an hour away from here, which is considered pretty darned far). Everyone here is friendly; everyone has a gun. But these things are never discussed. What's more of interest these days are the upcoming Israeli elections, the new plant that got approval in a very hush-hush manner, the new mall that is supposed to be happening. You can get a villa overlooking the desert here for $125,000. Or a lot for much less. They are not eager to bring the masses from the city down here. That's just a lot of talk.

Back in Jerualem, after this wonderful getaway, we made some progress catching up with work, rescheduling meetings and seeing people we had been trying to see. There was nothing on TV: My football team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, was off. But then I got word of a Betar Jerusalem v. Wisla Krakow game that sounded interesting. I felt a low-level excitement. There was a buzz in the air about this match. We hit a local sports bar in a trendy neighbourhood of Jerusalem where the sound was turned up as the first game, at Teddy Stadium (just up the road) was taking place.

The bar went quiet. We shouted at the TV. We were tense. We were quiet, and then we shouted at the TV some more. At half-time, Jerusalem was down and it looked like the Krakow team would take the game.

But surprise of surprises when the next morning the paper came, heralding a Betar Jerusalem victory over the Polish team. The city of Jerusalem sprung to life. The game had stimulated great discussion. What was our fascination with this game? It seemed to affect the Eastern European Jews more, but the Sephardic Jews were also empathetic.

We would have a few days to play "Monday morning quarterback" and figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how "we" were going to prepare for Game Two, which was to be played at week's end in Krakow. Fans bought their tickets and made their way to Poland. The team was delayed due to a mechanical, and arrived to Poland exhausted. The management took a trip to Auschwitz to pay respect to Holocaust victims. There was a murmuring about the anti-Semitic nature of the Poles, and particularly of the Polish fans.

Game Two was the elimination round for a face-off against Barcelona. I was torn. I didn't really know where my loyalty lay. Was I going to be faithful to Poland, or to Israel? Could I be objective?

I joke about the nature of football, calling it "a man soap opera." But in fact that's just a front for how I really feel. It's about gaining power in the international arena for a fleeting moment -- to feel almighty and to represent your people, to lift their spirits, no matter how powerless governments and armies make them feel.

According to Wikipedia:

Two Jerusalemites, David Horn and Shmuel Kirschstein, decided in 1936 to form a local football team. David Horn was the local chief of Betar, the youth movement of the Revisionist (liberal nationalist) Party, a pre-statehood Zionist movement. To this day Beitar fans are generally identified with that movement's successor party, the Likud or other right-wing groups. The leaders of the youth federation saw this as a project to produce a football club with Beitar's self-defined qualities of Hadar (self-respect) and Hod (glory). The earliest squad was composed entirely of Beitar youth members, including a future government minister, Chaim Corfu. They played initially at the "banana field" close to Beitar youth group's "nest."

Beitar's association with the Revisionist Party quickly brought them into conflict with the British authorities of that time, as well as the fans of Hapoel Jerusalem, a team connected with the Jewish socialist Israel Workers Party (Mapai) in the years 1939-48. Most Beitar players were also secretly members of the Revisionist-affiliated National Military Organization (Irgun Zva'i Leumi) or Freedom Fighters of Israel (Lehi), two groups in open rebellion against Britain's control over Palestine. In the 1940s the British arrested most of the group's players, exiling them to Eritrea and Kenya along with many Irgun and Lehi leaders. Part of their defiance (which also included legendary prison escapes) was the forming of the Beitar Eritrea side that included Micah Aharoni, Corfu, and the goalkeeper Moshe Baruch. In 1948 the British Mandate ended and the interned players were repatriated to the new State of Israel.

As for Wisla Krakow, Wiki says:

The history of Wisła started during the fall of 1906, when (probably in October) Dr. Tadeusz Konczyński organised the Krakow Błonia, the first football tournament in the city. He also founded four teams (among them one came from the Second Real School) and football uniforms which came to him from England. The school's team (also called Szkolnikowski's team) was given light blue shirts with a black bowl on their chests, which was divided by a blue belt. This is why they were called "The Blues". Their first captain, and also the person to coin the name "Wisła" was Józef Szkolnikowski - goalkeeper. Prof. Tadeusz Łopuszański was the club's first chairman.

In September 1907 "The Reds" (Jenkner's team) merged with Wisła, and soon after "The Pinks" did the same. That is when Towarzystwo Sportowe Wisła officially began. The Blue shirts were changed to red, but the black trousers remained. When the first uniforms arrived from Berlin, two light blue stars were present on the shirts. It was decided that only one would remain, though its colour would be changed to white. This is how "The White Star" became the recognized symbol of the club. From that time on the club had its ups and downs, winning national championships and gaining European qualification. The club was also relegated on three occasions to the second division.

The fateful day came when the two teams met in Krakow. I watched the match. I knew from the instant Betar took the field that they were not equipped to deal with this very focused, very professional team on their home turf. At the end, the pundits said, "I told you so" and the headlines would read, "Habayta (homeward)" in the papers.

It was hard to watch that game and not think about the dual loyalty - how some people may want Jerusalem to beat Poland because it's about Jews against their former neighbours. On the other hand, it was clear that this was football - plain and simple. And that Wisla Krakow was going to win and face Barcelona no matter what, because that's what was on their minds. The Israelis seemed distracted and beaten down by the end of the first half. The overwhelming sound of the Wisla Krakow fans was deafening, even from all these miles away.

The Israeli commentators did their job with great resignation in their voices, but they were intent to note that there was nothing anti-Semitic about the behaviour of the fans, the Polish news stories, etc. This was purely about the best athletic team. And Krakow was it. And the Brozek brothers are truly amazing athletes that deserve our respect and praise. Period.

My gut was that I would now root for Krakow to overtake Barcelona. Which I did.

Nothing left to do but get ready for September.

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