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Savor Classic Oldies from 1987-2007
1. What is Chelm? Why is this website called Chelm-on-the-Med?
I once weighed calling this column “Never Mind the Times” but chose “Chelm-on-the-Med” because in so may ways, Israeli public and private life seem modeled after Chelm, an actual Jewish town in Poland that for generations served as the butt of Yiddish folk humor. Nobody knows when or why Chelm got tagged with the role of being ‘a paradise filled with life-embracing fools’, but reading in the Hebrew papers about a enterprising security guard who chose to hold up the very bank he was hired to protect against suicide bombers and a court ruling on a divorce settlement requiring the divorcee to pay his former spouse one pregnant goat a year for the next 35 years – raising serious questions over ‘who got whose goat’ – I knew if there truly was a Chelm, it was here at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean – in Israel.
Chelm-on-the-Med is not new. It ran for eight years (1987-1994) in the international news monthly Israel Scene, under the title “Gleanings”, then for a short time in the Jerusalem Post as “Fine Print”. And some Israeli aberrations reported in the press got addressed in a Friday op-ed column laced with satire called “Sabbath Piece of Mind” that I once wrote for The Nation z”l in the late 1980s, and the Hebrew news weekly in Hebrew Haolam Hazeh z"l in the early 1990s.
Vignettes from the Israel Scene column were often used as fillers in Jewish papers in the USA, and the column was reprinted in a host of pro-Israel Christian Zionist newsletters, including Bridges for Peace and The Vineyard.
So if you are middle aged or older – yes, I’m back. Now resurrected under the title “Chelm-on-the-Med”, my columns seek to give those who don’t read Hebrew a taste of daily life in Israel that is not a personal blog. And most important – give people reasons to LAUGH about Israel, instead of feeling SAD, ANGUISHED, DISHEARTENED, WORRIED, DISENCHANTED, UNCOMFORTABLE, ASHAMED OR ANGRY.
By all means, recommend it! Tell the managing editor:
Until further notice, any commercial print media – Jewish or other – is free to run two or even three vignettes per issue as a ‘filler’ – provided that attribution is given: either "courtesy of Chelm-on-the-Med© Online" or "www.chelm-on-the-med" or Chelm-on-the-Med© (with a hyperlink). There is no change whatsoever for reprinting these stories.
The full column is available for syndication: Any commercial print media has permission to run up to five full columns to ‘test reader response’ – under the same credit provisos and this is free of charge. If after that, a paper or periodical wants to run Chelm-on-the-Med in full on a regular basis, they should contact me directly about syndication rights.
By all means. Feel free to run two even three vignettes per issue from the latest column posted as a ‘filler’ – provided that attribution is given: either "courtesy of Chelm-on-the-Med© Online" or "ww.chelm-on-the-med.com" or Chelm-on-the-Med© (with a hyperlink). There is no change whatsoever for reprinting these stories. And please send me a link or copy by snail mail (D. Ashkenazy, POB #6, Kfar Warburg 70998, Israel). I’d love to see it.
If you would like to run the entire column, contact me first to receive written permission.
Pro-Israel advocacy groups, on or off campus, are free to use any number of vignettes in the course of their work on campus – without any limitations. Transform Israel's image – one chuckle at a time! In written material, please add a footnote as to the source: either "courtesy of Chelm-on-the-Med© Online" or "www.chelm-on-the-med.com" or Chelm-on-the-Med© (with a hyperlink). There is no change whatsoever for advocacy groups reprinting these stories.
We suggest you begin by undermining images of Israel as a ‘militaristic' country with the true tale of an Israeli soldier whose ultimate Jewish mother snuck into boot camp every night to accompany her son on guard duty because he was afraid of the dark, and another young man who served three years of conscript service as ‘IDF magician'. Or undermine stereotypes of Israel as ‘a country filled with religious fanatics' with the tale of an orthodox rabbi who doesn't ride on the Sabbath who decided the best way to serve the needs of two congregations on opposite sides of Caesarea was to press into service a pair of rollerblades. Or a Chief Rabbi who issued a ‘Never on Sunday' directive to religious courts hinting divorce proceedings filed on a Sunday were probably the work of couples overworked by too much togetherness during a very long Sabbath.
Israel is a real country. It has its share of silly politicians and Kafka-like ordinances, dumb two-bit crooks and weird court cases, people with harebrained schemes, and even its share of hookers – Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, newcomers and old-timers…like everywhere else.
Painting Israel as black or white – whether just the good parts or just the bad parts – is dehumanizing. Moreover, there are a host of stories that could take place only in Israel that will touch or amaze readers – for instance, the time when the listening audience to an early-morning radio program were asked to make up an ad-hoc funeral party. The unusual request broadcasted on the Voice of Israel came from a kindly Tel-Aviv neighbor of the deceased, after the woman died without any surviving kin. Seventy mourners showed up, coming from as far away as Gedara - thirty kilometers to the south, and Natanya - thirty kilometers to the north, underscoring that being a party to a death in Israel is not necessarily an invitation to a murder. It may even be a mitzvah.
I worked for Myths & Facts for 3½ years as an investigative journalist writing dead-serious advocacy material – two books, countless white papers and op-eds, but I’m aware what a limited effect such arguments have. Yes, www.Israel21c.org and others try to dilute news focusing on conflict with stories of Israeli technological breakthroughs and cultural life There are countless personal blogs – but no one wants to report that Israel’s minister of interior sought to make headlines by mesmerizing a chicken, leaving the bird on its back without so much as a squawk of protest, looking like an oversized zapped cockroach. Or that the same week lardheads at an Akko dog food plant chucked 200 metric tons of fat down the drain instead of into the cooking vats, rendering 55 M NIS ($13.7 M) of damage to a new sewage treatment plant inaugurated three weeks earlier.
Humor is the Jews’ oldest and most effective weapon and it’s high time we began using it to re-brand Israel as a regular member of the Family of Nations!
A lot of things that make some adults uncomfortable will be viewed as very cool by adolescents. In fact, I think the zany, irreverent intriguing encounter with the Israel that Chelm-on-the-Med offers will make Jewish kids think Israel is a very neat place – a vast improvement from the image of a gloomy and dangerous…and yes, dead serious and humorless ‘tight-ass’ country that focus groups have found. For more on the 'problem' with "Israel education" in the Diaspora read my op-ed in ZEEK and my critique on teachingisrael.com I encourage rabbis, educational directors, camp directors, youth movement leaders and anyone else involved in Jewish education, to quote or use these stories in another way in their Israel curriculums and social programming. There is no change whatsoever for their use by educational entities.
The only question that remains is - who will elicit the biggest smirk: The group of youngsters who in 1990 decided to make a quick profit by turning public garages in empty office buildings into one-night-stand standing-room-only drive-in discos between 10 PM and 4 AM, charging entrance fees at the gate then blending into the night. Or partially-unidentified ‘benchmarkers' who in 2007 began attaching little engraved plaques to benches along posh Rothschild Boulevard in Tel-Aviv - declaring "Amnon's Bench' or ‘Hilah's and El'ad's Bench', leaving city officials scratching their heads at this strange graffiti, and police weighing whether to stake out the benches to try and nab the young pranksters...should they actually try to grab a seat.
First of all, outrageous and very funny things continue to go on even at the height of hostilities, whether connected to the conflict or not. In 2001 a visitor at the Tiberius lockup brought his closest buddy four piping-hot falafels filled not only with the usual condiments but also laced with 45 gram of heroin stashed inside the balls that left the bearer of gifts in a genuine pickle. And there's a Ramat Gan resident whose life caved-in in an Iraqi missile attack during the 1991 Gulf War when the shock of a nearby explosion hit home - knocking a nondescript jewelry box off a shelf exposing some very revealing photographs of his wife in the arms of a stranger.
There is nothing ‘inappropriate' about a funny book about Israel, and believe me - humor's therapeutic: I penned the stories that that make up CHELM's December 2008/January 2009 columns during the Cast Lead campaign - between the ‘thud', ‘Thud', and ‘THUD' (but no ‘BOOM') of incoming GRAD rockets falling east, west, north and south of the village where I live, near Ashdod.
In 2002, at the height of the Terror War (2000-2005) there was a satire program of mock newsroom satires called Only-in-Israel that drew an average audience of half a million viewers. One broadcast literally on the heels of a terrorist attack (e.g. with the usual live coverage from the scene that was streamed to viewers just before Only-in-Israel went on the air) registered the largest audience ever - 750,000. The ability to almost defiantly laugh off despondence at unbearable moments and embrace life to the fullest - most of the time, is one of Israel's secret weapons. To do so, Israelis have synergized laughing and crying into one verb: bochek - from boche (cry) andtzochek (laugh).
One last word: In October 2002 at the height of the Terror War, a well-meaning Jewish woman in Florida revealed that she had gone on three Solidarity Missions to Israel that year. Three. When asked ‘why' she said it was like "visiting a sick relative in the hospital"... This one-sided picture of Israel ‘in the worst of times' has to be combated because it is both lopsided and untrue. Viewing Israel only through a political lens or only as a conflict-driven story unconsciously and unintentionally demonizes Israelis just as deliberate ‘Israel Bashing' does - because it robs us Israelis of our humanity, our complexity, our full lives.
I'm following the ‘courageous' example of Randy Cassingham who writes This is True. As he notes in his FAQs - ‘standard' depends on your point of view. An average American would write I like "This is True." A typical Brit would write I like "This is True". American style is illogical and counterintuitive, he argues (correctly). As an editor, I would never do this in tweaking an academic volume. But this is a humor column. Just as I take liberties with the English language, I'm taking liberties with American punctuation where it 'seems right'...or wrong, as the case may be.
NOTE: All stories cited in the FAQs can be found on the website, either in the Archives or under ‘Classic Oldies'