Monday, April 17, 2006

Ilu, ilu hotzi'anu

I almost spent Shabbat Chol HaMoed locked in an office building.

Since we in Israel are spared the horrors of the three-day (Thurs-Fri-Sat) yontiff, I decided to take advantage of my chol Friday to go into the office and catch up on some emails. In general, I never come into work on Fridays. So I did not know that the entire office building is closed and locked every Friday at 2:30pm.

I was hard at work at 2:30, so I must not have noticed when all the hallways lights went out. Nor did I hear the large metal door to the stairwell being securely locked and barred. And I certainly did not hear the elevator being grounded. But at 3pm, I got up to go the bathroom and noticed that all the doors were locked. There I was, alone on the fourth floor with nothing but a bottle of water, three coconut cookies (hardly shalosh seudot, that), and a roomful of books.

It could have been worse. I almost resigned myself to spending Shabbat reading in solitary confinement when I remembered that I was supposed to leyn two prakim of Shir Hashirim the next day. And give a d'var Torah. And show up at dinner and lunch. So I had to get out somehow.

I tried to think creatively about how to liberate myself. I am friendly with the security guard at the McDonald's across the street (he used to be the security guard at the yeshiva), so I thought I could holler out the window to him -- but McDonald's was closed for Pesach (or at least it was closed that day). So no luck there. I then realized that I could call my boss for advice, but I was way too embarrassed to own up to being in the office on a Friday afternoon. So I was stumped. I ate one of the coconut cookies and tried to answer some more emails to distract myself. But then I started to panic again.

The most embarrassing part of this story is that a similar thing happened to me on my second day at Random House. The woman who was training me, Meredith, sent me to deliver an interoffice memo on the floor below. I accidentally went through the "Emergency Only Alarm Will Sound" staircase (instead of the regular internal staircase) and ended up in a 35-floor stairwell in which the door to every floor was locked. (Believe me, I know -- I checked each one multiple times.) I finally sounded the emergency alarm on the sub-basement level, pushed open the door, and ended up in the dumpster area between 52nd and 53rd streets on the backside of Park Avenue. I did not have a good answer when Meredith asked me what had taken so long....

Anyway -- back to Jerusalem. In the end, after phoning up a friend who calmed me down considerably, I realized that I could call our office assistant and ask her for the number of the landlord. That worked. Our landlord Moshe (I am NOT making that up -- that is his real name), shrugged his shoulders and said, "Az mah?" He was already back in Tel Aviv at this point, he told me. But he said he'd call me back in a little while. I gritted my teeth and vowed that I would not call him back until he called me. I did not want to act like the impatient American I was.

That resolution lasted for twenty minutes. I finally called Moshe again and he said, "Nu?" Nu what? Turns out he had managed to turn on the elevator from afar -- but I guess he assumed I would just figure this out. Anyway, I sailed down the elevator to freedom and had much more kavanah for the rest of Pesach. Like Bnei Yisrael, I had been set free by Moshe. The elevator was turned on and off for just enough time so that I could pass through. Ya'aleh v'yavo indeed.

Anyway, I think that was enough of an adventure for me this Pesach. Dayenu, I hope.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The historian of science comes to the seder

I just read a tshuva written in 1859 by Rabbi Slomo Kluger of Brody, who opposed the use of matzah-making machines. Apparently, the first such machine was invented in France in 1838 by an Isaac Singer. A heated (375 degree) halachic debate ensued, as Rabbi Kluger's teshuvah attests.

According to R. Kluger, there are at least four reasons why one should not eat machine-made matzah on Pesach:

1. It is impossible to clean all the little internal parts of the matzah machine, so one can never be certain that it is free of chametz.

2. Matzot were generally round until the nineteenth century, and it would be a great break with tradition to start eating square-shaped matzot. ("V'ata na'aseh ha-matzot m'rubaim??! Lachen nelech b'ikvot avoteinu.")

3. Poor families relied on matzah baking for their livlihood, and it would be a form of theft (gezel) to put them out of work.

4. Matzah-baking requires kavanah, and a machine cannot possibly have kavanah.

Rabbi Brody fought bitterly against machine-made matzah, but apparently he was overruled. By the beginning of the twentieth century, almost everyone was eating square matzot out of the mass-produced boxes.

To this day, however, some chasidim continue to forbid the use of machines to make matzah, primarily because of reason #1 above. They claim that it is impossible to adequately clean the matzah machine, and one can never be 100% certain that there is no chametz inside.

But even the rabbis of the mishnah realized that it is impossible to be 100% certain that one is free of chametz. The second mishnah of the first perek of Psachim reads as follows:

"They need not fear that a weasel may have dragged [chametz] from one
room to another or from one place to another, for if so, [they must also fear]
from courtyard to courtyard and from town to town, and there would be no end to the matter."

The rabbis are disussing whether a person who is cleaning the house for Pesach needs to worry that a weasal (hulda) might drag chametz from one part of the house to another, contaminating those areas that are already clean. (It's like the scene in Sesame Street where the man sweeps the floor in muddy boots, and can't figure out why the floor is still muddy after each successive re-sweeping.) They conclude that one need not worry about such a possibility, because if so, one could worry forever "and there would be no end to the matter." At some point, one has to take on faith that the house is clean enough.

The house or the matzah machine, that is. Nonetheless, Rabbi Brody's other objections to machine-made matzah hold some water (and flour) even in our own day. We do need to be concerned about the poor people in our midst -- hence the custom of giving ma'ot chittim before Pesach. And we do need to have the proper kavanah when it comes to matzah -- b'chol dor vador, etc. I'm comfortable saying that we don't need to worry about breaking with the tradition of eating round matzot -- but then again, I've always been rather square myself.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Netvision nightmare

When I got into the office this morning, the internet on my computer was not working. This never happened at Random House, though I did experience occasional computer problems. On such occasions, I would call tech support and they would send a technician immediately, and the problem would be resolved within fifteen minutes.

Not so in our little agency in Israel. When I discovered the problem, I asked my co-worker what to do. "Do you know anyone who knows computers?" she asked, as if this were the obvious way to resolve the problem. And so I called my friend Ph, master computer fixer, who stayed on the phone with me for an hour as I unplugged and replugged various cables and tried to follow the coils that snaked behind the desk, over the bookshelves, and through a hole in the wall. No luck. Internet Explorer could still not open the page I was trying to find.

I then called Netvision, the internet service provider. After twenty minutes of holding, I got a man named Ilia who asked me if I preferred "Hebrew or Eeeenglish." We spoke Hebrish for the next hour and a half -- each of us responded in the other person's language but used the technical terminology of our own. "Eifoh ha-cable?" "Is the menorah lit up?" At one point, I sighed in exasperation, and Ilia said, "You have to have emunah. That is all that matters. Then it will work." A frum technician. Just what I needed. Unfortunately, my emunah was not enough to perform t'chiat ha-metim on the broadband router.

Ilia transferred me to Iddo at Bezeq, who didn't even pretend to speak English. When Iddo told me he was putting me on hold for the fourth time, I said, "Arghh! Israel drives me crazy!!" Iddo told me that I should stick around and see what it is like during a war. Ok, Ok -- excuse me!

While I was still on the phone with Iddo, Ilia (who had hung up on me to take a break for lunch) called back from Netvision to tell me that he thought I should buy a new router. At that point, I had Iddo on my cell phone and Ilia on the office phone, and both were listening to each other. At that moment, my boss walked in with our accountant, and both tried to talk to me at once. My head was spinning and I wished that someone would unplug and restart ME.

Three hours later, we had one computer up and running and one still down. This meant that I could work, but our assistant could not. So she went home and I stayed in the office until 8pm trying to make up for lost time. Fortunately, this is Israel, so no one really expects that anything will get accomplished all in a day's work....