Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Home again, after a trip to California to welcome my first granddaughter into the world. Mother ‘JJ’ and baby ‘Alia’ are both doing fine, but I still can’t get my internal clock working right after the unreal plane, train and automobile trip back home. Even after no sleep during the 40 hour trip itself, I haven’t slept more than three hours a night since I got home.

That being the case, I don’t trust my mental processes to holding forth on anything very complex -- such as why Israel should be condemned for protecting its seacoast from armed terrorists, while that every other country in the world feels free to protect their own coastline and borders. Or why the White House Press Corps would choose to tolerate an ignorant and racist bigot who served as their Dean for so many decades. Helen Thomas’ racist proclivities, her various hatreds and insanities, have been well known for years and years. The only question is, why did her colleagues tolerate her for as long as they did?

No, I’ll leave such weighty matters to other bloggers. Instead, let’s play the ‘how different it is’ game and compare Israel and California.

This trip I rented a car, and because I was driving myself all over, I was paying much more attention to what I was doing than I ever did on previous trips when someone else was at the wheel.

I haven’t lived full time in California for about a dozen years, so obviously enough, many things have changed. I needed to pay close attention to road signs and all California’s endless freeway signs since most of the freeways seemed to be under construction at least in part. As I drove, it occurred to me how difficult it must be for a non-English speaker (let alone reader) to navigate the complexity of California’s highway system.

No doubt that sounds funny -- but living in Israel, I have been grateful, many times, for the fact that most road signs and even city streets bear both Hebrew and English designations. Even when I know the Hebrew word, being able to see it, read it, and mentally process it is impossible in the split-second you’re allotted when you’re driving a car.

As I whizzed by freeway signs in California – 98% of which appeared in English only –I had to marvel at how difficult that would be, if you weren’t fluent in English.

One of the many things I love about Israel: here, the overwhelming majority of us are either immigrants ourselves or children or grandchildren of immigrants. The difficulties involved in assimilating to a new culture aren’t far distant for most of us, and hence there seems to be a greater degree of compassion for newcomers who struggle to adapt, including learning the language.

For the most part, Israelis reach out to help, not to criticize. In fact, yesterday I had a little additional ulpan -- Hebrew language class – while riding in a taxi. It seems my Russian driver noticed I mispronounced the name “Smilanski” – the name of the street beside my home. He said it correctly and made me repeat it after him. Ha – I loved it! Would that happen in the US? I doubt it.

As I drove, another difference occurred to me. The prevailing opinion around Beersheba is that we are overloaded, inundated, top-heavy with shopping malls. That sentiment arose again, when our mayor released his “Blueprint for Beersheba” and in it, FOUR new malls are scheduled to be built in addition to the several we already have – which, as I say, many locals already think is too many.

In contrast to that, I remember interviewing Mike Oknin, the developer of Beersheba’s glitzy New York-style ‘OnePlaza’, one of the newer malls. I asked him about that “too many malls” opinion and he laughed. “Beersheba is critically short of malls,” he insisted. “We’re way underserved. We need many new malls, in many new locations.”

Obviously that statement constituted local heresy, but again, driving around Rocklin and Roseville, CA – Placer County foothill communities just north of Sacramento – I began to see what Oknin was talking about. The Roseville/Rocklin area is lovely – slightly hilly, green at this season, wide, clean streets with lots of trees and parks, brimming with new, single family homes – not McMansions, especially, but nice two-story family homes, most of them on quiet streets with pools and good-sized yards.

Once you encountered a major thoroughfare, however, shopping centers -- in astonishing profusion – ruled. For miles, endlessly, on each side of the road, shopping center followed shopping center. While many were similar in appearance, these weren’t strip malls by any standard. Most were graceful Spanish-style buildings with courtyards, trees, planter boxes and – needless to say – ample parking. Bearing elegant names like “Stanford Ranch”, “Quarry Pond”, “The Fountains”, “The Galleria” each appeared to host dozens to hundreds of small shops while most boasted one or two of the larger stores – Target, Trader Joe’s, a theater or a grocery store.

In many respects, on the outside, Beersheba’s newer shopping centers don’t look any different from those in Placer County. But once you’re inside and walking around, the difference is obvious. In Beersheba’s shopping centers, almost all of the individual businesses in each are exactly the same. There’ll be a Steimatsky's, a Body Shop, Mango, Castro, Fox, etc, in addition to at least 10,000 individual – and virtually identical -- shoe stores. (Which is odd all by itself, by the way. After all, this is the land where our Founding Father was once directed to take off his shoes, ‘for the place on which you stand is holy’. So why are there so many shoe stores? I don’t get it – and I can’t even begin to imagine how they all stay in business.)

But there’s the difference: in the US shopping centers, while there might be some duplication, for the most part, within a region, all the individual businesses within the various centers are different. In Beersheba, each shopping center contains very nearly the same stores. The only thing different is the style and location of the mall itself.

What we need here are more different kinds of shops. Well – let’s get real: what we really need is a Costco and a WalMart. And maybe a Thrift Town for cheap used books.

One last observation: I don’t think anyone in California cooks anymore.

When I go visit my kids, I try to carry on my own wonderful mother-in-law’s tradition. She’d drive up, carry in her suitcase, and within minutes, our home would be filled with the marvelous aroma of her cooking – some things she’d bring with her, but other dishes she start cooking as soon as she arrived. As a young working mother, I appreciated that more than anything I could imagine. I loved it. What a treat – her wonderful cooking, some of which would be packed away in our freezer to enjoy long after she left.

I try to do as she did, and one of the things I planned to make – and leave – was spaghetti sauce. Homemade, with mother-in-law Mary’s recipe. Who knew that was going to be so complicated?

I started out at a major grocery store – brand name, a huge place, ten million items for sale – and was once again stunned by how little of it I actually wanted to buy.

No wonder Americans don’t eat vegetables! With few exceptions, all you could buy were plastic-wrapped packages of pre-washed, pre-cut (sometimes), “prepared” vegetables – which obviously lacked any hint of their original flavor or texture.
Appalled, I left the vegetable aisle and set out to find a can of tomato paste – the sauce starts out with fresh tomatoes, but usually needs one little can of tomato paste, too.

After finally locating the endless “pasta sauce” aisle, I started looking for plain old tomato paste. It didn’t exist. There were literally hundreds of kinds of prepared pasta sauces – every flavor you could think of and a few I could hardly imagine – bologna flavored pasta sauce?? There were also rows and rows of flavor packets to add to prepared sauces. But was there any plain old tomato paste? No. I finally found a clerk and asked – she didn’t know either but called someone else who suggested, “Try the ethnic foods section.”

Ethnic foods? Tomato paste? But there it was – in with the Mexican food. A tiny can of tomato paste – the kind you used to be able to buy, Contadina brand, for 8 cents a can when they went on special. Today there were four cans – total – to pick from, a brand name I’d never heard of. Price? $1.69 a can. Good grief.

Right about then, I started longing for the chaos of the Middle Eastern shuk – the endless rows of vegetable bins, filled to overflowing with fresh fruit and vegetables, much of it picked this morning. Where nothing at all is prepared, there isn’t a white plastic tray in sight, and the only plastic is the bag you use to carry home your hand-picked produce. Instead of the canned – and identity-free -- Muzak, I pined for the clamor of hundreds of vendors shouting out their wares, complete with the pushing and shouting and absolute insanity that prevails most of the time.

Funny. It hasn’t been that long, but now the shuk seems familiar – while the refined silence of the suburban American grocery store feels completely foreign.

It was a perfect trip. I’m glad to be home.


  1. First of all, Mazal Tov Gadol! The Grandparent Club welcomes you. Secondly, here in New York we easily get all the tomato paste we want but the plastic wrapped, hermetically-sealed fruits and vegetables, especially the bagged lettuce, drives me nuts. Kol tov, Jeff Lambert

  2. I love it! So did you ever get that spaghetti sauce made??

  3. First of all, thanks, Jeff. I'm happy to tell you that the new granddaughter has TWO legs, but I would have been almost as happy with FOUR -- plus fur, a tail and a wet nose, of course! ha! The granddaughter is really lovely and it was really hard to leave her -- took lots of tears at the airport.

    And Sally -- thanks for asking! Yes, I did. I paid the ransom for the "ethnic foods" tomato paste, then went to an alleged "farmers market" to buy the fresh tomatoes. Unbelievable!!! The farmers market was even worse than the grocery store -- ridiculously expensive, poor quality fuit, but I had no other choice. I bought the tomatoes.

    How was it? Ask JJ and Titus -- they seemed to enjoy it!