If You Only Knew… Part 5 (Epilogue) 

Ben had intended this to be the last of his recent ‘stories.’ He was still working on it when he passed….

I know I know…trials and tribulations make one stronger. For as long as I can remember, I cut my teeth at Life’s misery table while wading through the labyrinth of suffering. Despite carrying my load on the long and winding ‘Via Dolorosa,’ I’m grateful for what I already have, and accept that which fate binds me to. As I arise in the morning, I think of the privilege of simply being alive — breathing, loving, thinking, and creating while resting in the awareness of how ephemeral this all is. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. For the last year, I’ve been shaking my head to the point of questioning whether the distinguished doctors managed to confuse Lou Gehrig’s with Parkinsons. Every day I stare at the man in the mirror and repeat the same rant, like a never ending mantra: “…hey, I didn’t sign up for this crap!” When the last package for my life was delivered, I signed upon receiving it – as we all do – just to realize that I hadn’t read the small print…

It is my bad luck that this has happened to me. No, I should rather say: ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future. Because such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have borne it without pain. So why see more misfortune in the event than good fortune in your ability to bear it?”

Be it either Evolution or Creation – is this the best we could be or do? How did we turn into such a self absorbed, whiny, egotistical, entitled and lazy species –huh? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can?

Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration over this. Perhaps you have a more noble heritage to carry forward.

If You Only Knew… Part 4 (Rite of Passage)

A long time ago in a land far, far away…young people gave up their best years and sometimes their lives for the good of society, while preserving their nation, freedom, religion and culture and striving to live in peace with their neighbors. Straight and proud, they surrendered their lives, resembling ripe fruit falling off a tree; they thanked nature and the tree on which they grew. Their sacrifice wasn’t born as result of coercion, fear, brainwashing, indoctrination or social pressure, but of the pure virtue of Altruism and the strong desire to live as free people in a tiny strip of land, shielded from slavery, anti-semitism and persecutions. They walked in the footsteps of great Men and Women; Judges, Leaders, Prophets and Kings; Moses, Deborah, Gideon, Jehudit, Joshua, Samuel, Nathan, Saul, David and Solomon just to name a few, and many others who walked upon the earth thousands of years before them and whose actions echoed into eternity.  Although Altruism and Individualism are opposed like oil and water, given an existential threat they will co-exist: “…and the wolf shall live with the lamb…” Isaiah 11:6. After all, when the stakes are high, as in War and Peace, everything is possible and…Kosher.

“Above all, this country is our own. Nobody has to get up in the morning and worry what his neighbors think of him. Being a Jew is no problem here.” Golda Meir, former Israeli PM

Military service In Israel is mandatory for Jews and Druze alike, while other minorities such as Christians, Moslems, Bedouins and Cercessians join in on a voluntary basis. Most Israelis are drafted into the military at the age of 18. Men serve three years and women two years. They join the reserve forces and usually do up to several weeks of reserve duty every year until their forties (women are exempt from reserve duty). An alternative for those who receive exemptions on various grounds, is a national service which involves programs of service in hospitals, schools and other social welfare frameworks. Some ‘righteous’ Jews exempt themselves from the revered military duty:  the ultra–religious who believe that endless Torah studies are as important and dangerous as defending the country on the battlefield (including the ‘Satmar’ sect who presume that the man–created state of Israel is an abomination and has no right to exist). On the far left of the political spectrum lurk the professional conscience ‘refuseniks’ who won’t enlist in a ‘colonial and immoral imperialistic’ army … huh? My dear mother would roll her eyes and offer one of her many Romanian ‘pearls’ of wisdom: “…large is God’s garden, and many fools are gathered there…”.

I met and dated my first wife in high school. At eighteen she joined the Military Navy and at twenty I joined the Air Force. Our children, now aged 39, 35 and 27 have also served their country. In order to become an ‘auto pilot systems’ technician, I underwent a ‘basic’ infantry preparation course which included live ammunition and grenades practice, intense physical training,  fitness evaluation, pain endurance and sleep deprivation. The emphasis was on making a better soldier, by combining strength with intelligence and ‘stress inoculation’ i.e. becoming impervious to stress or the mistakes that stress causes. There are two ways to go about military service: one can be a trouble maker, thus spending their time in a military jail, or one can strive for Excellence! Every year during the Independence Day celebrations, 120 selected soldiers are invited to the President’s Residence, to be honored for doing ‘It’ differently than their comrades. There are no monetary or other benefits involved, other than bragging rights and the elated feeling of being counted as the best of the best.

“What about you, ‘righteous preacher/baker’, how did YOU fare”?  You may rightfully ‘poke’ me. Well, truth be told, I was a trouble maker – a ‘good’ trouble maker and a rebel who has no respect for the status quo. I took on the system, challenged its practices and knowingly forfeited the right to belong to the ‘crème de la crème’ hall of fame.  Nevertheless, at an early stage I was offered the option to become an officer, an offer which I kindly declined, and so it came to a pass that after six years my military career ended, and I was honorably discharged with excellent recommendations. Everywhere I set foot during my life, I was perceived as the ‘Disruptor’ – the misfit, the one who sees things differently, who is not fond of rules and who brings the winds of change. Now, at the age of 62, I look back on my life in Israel and reflect upon the finest 33 years when I lived in a society that recognizes and rewards excellence and individual achievements.  You see, ‘Grasshopper,’ you are not entitled to a medal just for showing up! Nothing is accomplished without sweat, and no greatness is created suddenly!

I should go so far as to say that my rite of passage from childhood to adulthood occurred at the age of 20 (I opted to complete my secondary education before enlisting in the army). Suddenly, I was thrown into a cauldron raging with activities that gave the impression of both chaos and a well-choreographed dance. Eventually everything felt precise and had a genuine seriousness about it. As time passed, and weeks turned into months and years, I realized that the trials I encountered introduced me to my strengths, for difficulty shows the true nature of humankind. Soon enough, I became in tune with myself and stopped letting my emotions override my mindful, rational and clear judgment. I discarded my old clothes of the past, which resembled the aimless, self-centered and irritable ME. My character was molded and forged into the man I was meant to be: becoming my own master, an invincible human being who lives his life through compassion, strength and honor. During those 6 years I was part of a journey which didn’t feel like one, because there was no actual destination—except that when it ended I was not a child anymore…

If You Only Knew… Part 3 (Coming to Canada)

Twenty years ago, in April 1999 I touched the shores of the Americas at the age of 42, finding myself thousands of miles away from my birthplace and home, with the intention of embarking on a new journey and establishing a new life. My initial impression was as an alien from a distant galaxy whose intergalactic ship was sucked through a black hole, and following a strange time-warp, crash landed on this blue planet. Both in Moldova and Israel, I had Iived in small towns, and the alienating emotion that befell me when I first discovered Toronto carried a heavy weight of sadness. The thirteen hour, non-stop flight across ocean and time zones, transported me into a surreal realm where humans eat in their cars while driving, and others sleep on the street in plain daylight with their bodies covered in cardboard. Self absorbed and gaze-avoiding crowds fill every public space as if moved by an invisible energy force, and at traffic lights aggressive windshield washers force themselves onto unsuspecting drivers and cars. The rhythm of life around me was constantly accelerating and threatening to draw me into this human whirlpool. Observing children who crowded the busy sidewalks and greasy and blackened subway platforms, while clutching a hungry puppy and asking for food and money – offered a momentary glimpse into the soul of a broken society that has abandoned the younger generation and its own future, and performed the ancient pagan ritual of human sacrifice on the altar of self-indulgence, greed and materialism.

I wasn’t reaching for greener pastures, aspiring for better life opportunities, or escaping an oppressive regime. My religious and civil rights, as well as sexual orientation and freedom of speech were deeply anchored within the law equal to all. What may possibly persuade a man, any man – to leave behind family and a vast network of friends, army buddies, and social and business connections which were developed and cultivated over the previous thirty-three years, and venture into the unknown? I departed from a land of warm and friendly people, who shared a rich culture, and a proud and ancient history; the land of milk and honey. How could any man leave a country where it’s possible to purchase beer at every corner store and drink it just outside the door, without getting dirty looks from passersby or being unceremoniously thrown in the back of a police cruiser by a couple of black–uniformed, tough looking gentlemen who swore to ‘serve and protect’? The readers may rightfully question the sanity of anyone who in his right mind, committed this unforgivable ‘beer transgression’, and declare him as mentally unstable and dangerous to himself and society! To his defense, the poor fellow claimed that after all, sanity and happiness are an impossible combination, and he was being led only by the dreams in his heart. He held fast to his dreams, for he knew that someday they would become true…

This man, our protagonist, followed his heart and pledged to the woman he loved to share his life with her for all time and space. He followed her across land and sea into the unknown, and despite the alienation that surrounded him in this foreign land, SHE was a place where he felt at home. It was a home that carried the promise of happiness which in his mind was just to have someone to love; a kind of love that awakens the soul and makes the heart feel safe. He, who previously knew genuine grief, was now able to experience moments of true happiness, for all he knew was to live well and love well…

If you Only Knew… Part 2

Back in April, after the decision was made to re-open Walla, I called for a staff meeting. It was a full house with all 4 of my employees present. These days I consider myself to be the official ‘Nobody’ at the bakery, while also performing the detested role of slave master. After unveiling the new ‘battle’ plan which included developing new products and the re-opening of the Bistro for brunch and lunch, I scanned the faces of the ‘four mutant ninja turtles’ for any visible emotions or vital signs of life. Leonardo and Michelangelo agreed to embark on the new journey, and Raphael joined them after being offered a full-time position. Donatello was squirming in his chair while making long faces and eventually gave me his piece of mind: “Walla is your dream, NOT mine – I don’t need or want to live it!” He stormed out of the room in a fit of rage, followed shortly by … Raphael. The bleak reality was that in less than 3 minutes, Walla had lost 50% of its production team! 2 mutants were gone and 2 ninjas remained . . .

I offered the ‘other’ Sharon to manage the front of the house, customer orders, purchasing, etc., to which she kindly agreed. For the next couple of weeks Walla limped along as we tried to re-group around the basic products while conducting damage assessment. Since we lacked capacity to produce pastries, Bourekas, buns, cheese sticks, pizzas and quiches, we made the difficult decision to be closed on Saturdays (the most lucrative day of the week). The financial fallout for this small business was catastrophic. We were now open only Wed.—Fri. and eventually, Tue.–Fri. Perhaps, in the larger scheme of things this was God’s message that I had been abusing the 4th commandment, “You shall remember and keep the Sabbath day holy.” Apparently, now would be the perfect time for me to return to the bosom of my people. Oy, after all, God does work in mysterious ways. What do I know? I’m just a baker.

One day, after we posted a ‘now hiring’ ad, Caravaggio, a long-time customer walked in, hugged me (a touching act of kindness which unfortunately I can no longer reciprocate) and expressed a wish to train and work with me at Walla. I had made a habit of discouraging all job applicants, for the purpose of vetting and screening, and this time was no different. The usual ‘shtick’ included: “I will be hard on you and demanding…You’ll be miserable, you’ll suffer and…I’ll make you cry”. Simply put, I was promoting the image of a professional ‘Ogre’. The ‘trick’ worked like a charm time after time; all those who ‘baked with their mothers and nanas’ left the building as soon as they heard ‘miserable….suffer,’ even before they heard the ‘crying’ part.

Caravaggio was not put off by the warnings. We sealed the ‘interview’ with another hug (hmm… these are quite addictive). And then there were 3. I was optimistic that the Walla show will be on the road again. Caravaggio had all the qualities of a good employee: motivation, dedication, initiative, competency and a love of good food. We developed new products and the future looked promising. Last Wed. at 12:15 pm. I corrected/criticized Caravaggio’s work in the kitchen, and when I went home at 1 pm. they became the latest casualty of ‘The Ogre’ (sound the bugle), leaving in tears and vowing to not return. This promising career ended after only 6 weeks of training. And then there were 2. .

Last Thursday Leonardo landed in the hospital for a few days (thankfully now recovered). And then there was 1: Michelangelo was left holding the fort! Our good friend Bruce the sailor (below) was visiting from the coast, so we enlisted him to meet us in the bakery in the early morning on Fri. for the sacred mission of baking the bread, buns, bagels and baklawa. Phew, we had made it through the week by the skin of our teeth. Never a dull moment or a lack of drama in the bakery. .

To be continued. . .

If You Only Knew… Part 1

I will first say that I promised to behave. I promised to temper my Middle Eastern / Mediterranean /Eastern European, free-run, free-range, farm-to-table, and gluten-free temperament as I continue with my rants. It is disheartening that now as the ALS breathes down my neck, I, who was a soldier of life, a warrior, lord of the castle, master of my own destiny, have to lay down my armor and arms and allow others to lead me on a leash like a blind and docile poodle. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I will try to express all the anger, disappointment, aggression, and frustration that bring my blood to a boil, in a mild and serene manner (deep, deep breath here – Lamaze, yoga anyone?).

‘Sharon, my lovely wife, tries to keep a lid on all this and save me from myself. She’s the pure embodiment of compassion, and wouldn’t swat a mosquito even under the threat that she might turn into the Michelin Man after repeated bites. Little does she know that long ago I hired mercenaries to do the dirty job of ‘taking care’ of the pesky blood-suckers: bats have settled in to our home for the promise of free food and cheap room and board. I’ve named them the Seven Samurais, and when their friends join in, they become The Dirty Dozen. They keep the skies clear of enemies so I can sleep better at night. Quid Pro Quo. The enemy of my enemy is now my brother in arms. ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum’ : If you desire peace, prepare for war.

Please note: due to the ever-watchful eye of the Animal Rights Society, no mosquitoes were harmed or offended during the writing of this piece. And they were paid above minimum wage plus benefits.

Since our society has lately become more and more censored, I reluctantly submit my head to the PC guillotine (can I invoke my civil rights?). There will be no public shaming or crucifying. If this were a video, the faces would be blurred and pixeled, and the voices would be distorted and sound like they were coming from the bottom of an empty wine barrel. All the witnesses have been placed under the Government Protection and Relocation program and were issued new IDs. By the time this piece is finished it will have the bland flavor of a vicious Rottweiler who after he was neutered lost his ‘cojones’ and chutzpah, and then was muzzled. All he can do now is think of unicorns and smell the daisies.

I fondly remember the good-old-days of Archie Bunker and Al Bundy, when people had thicker skins and things could be said openly, no apologies necessary. Suddenly, past memories of living under a Communist regime seem more palatable compared to our so-called ‘free’ society of today. Back then, citizens did not muzzle one another. That was solely the government’s job.

To be continued. . .