29 November 2008

From 5 & 12 November 2008

A Tale of Two Elections

I've had the song "Oh Happy Day" stuck in my head since Wednesday morning. Despite fivethirtyeight.com's electoral prediction, which was after all accurate, I'm in shock. I cannot believe America not only elected a Black man as President, but elected him in a very clear majority. He got more Jewish votes than Kerry did in 2004. He won Ohio. He won Virginia. HE WON INDIANA.

After a long time waiting, my official ballot finally came in the mail. I rain off to send it back to DC, only to face a barrage of questions from the female clerk at the counter (whose hair, along with that of Arab teenage boys, further proved my theory that the Middle East is the final repository of the Jheri curl). “Wow, this is for the elections! Isn’t it late to be voting now?” began the barrage of questions in Hebrew: “Who are you voting for?” “Why?” “How do you say official results in English?”
Then the questions turned into personal favors, the clerk knowing better than to release a native English speaker before she’s satiated her linguistic needs. “What is this term in English?” explaining a phrase that seemed rather important to her job yet up until now totally unknown in English. I had never heard of it, so I passed. “Wait! I have one more question. Can you translate this thing I got and tell me what it’s for?” She proceeds to get her purse and extract two samples of Clinique moisturizer. I tell her they’re both skin moisturizers, even though the round container looks like it should be for eyes. She thanks me and I flee the scene.

Election Day commenced with work, a much needed nap and off to watch the results with friends. After a few episodes of The West Wing and some political but civil jabbing at one another’s presidential preferences, I offered a toast over kosher Spanish sparkling wine, celebrating democracy on America's election day and Israel's civil anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.

It wasn’t until Pennsylvania was called, then eventually Virginia and Ohio that reality began to sink in. Watching CNN's live coverage from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and then Obama's speech in Chicago, choked up and at a loss for words at 7am, I came up with the following senitment I thought I would never say, certainly after the last eight years: I have never been more proud to be an American.

Exactly one week later, it was my first Election Day as an Israeli ctizen. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and most cities & towns were to go to the polls to elect their mayor, town- and regional councils. In Jerusalem the stakes couldn’t have been higher, though most polls predicted a win for Nir Barkat, the “secular” candidate, a businessman from the hi-tech industry.

The day started off like any other, with me reluctantly getting out of bed after only a few hours’ of sleep and going to work. Hoping to vote before work so as to volunteer with the one of the candidate’s campaigns, I instead enjoyed a post-work Belgian waffle with coworkers and raced home to vote. Patrolling the streets were white vans with print-outs of how many people had voted by 4pm based on total number of eligible voters and whether they were “Haredi” (ultra-Orthodox) or secular.” The driver emphatically pleaded to the pedestrians via loudspeakers to vote, lest the Haredi candidate win.
I picked up my Interior Ministry voting information postcard, which had a print-out of my polling station’s address. My polling place is a religious public elementary school around the corner from me. The narrow road was packed with voters’ cars and booths of the various parties running for city hall. The security guard at the gate was checking bags and directing traffic to two different poll stations, mine and another school on the same campus. Once I entered the school, I was further relegated to a classroom that corresponded to a specific sub-category under which my vote is placed. One voter is allowed into a room at a time, with the setup featuring a table with four people and a sky blue science fair poster board display, behind which, is the voting booth.
After verifying my identity and checking me off in the roster, I was given two empty envelopes and instructions how to vote: the yellow ballots were for mayor, the white for city council. Only one yellow ballot was to be placed in the yellow envelope and only one white ballot in the white envelope. I went behind the science fair board, which had the official voting laws posted in small Hebrew print. Beneath it were multiple wooden cubbies with various white or yellow slips. The yellow slips had the names of the mayoral candidates in Hebrew, with only one listed in Arabic as well (the other official language of Israel). The white slips had the names of the parties in small type and one to three letters above it in large type for each party for city council. As Israel is a nation of immigrants, many of whom had to grasp Hebrew as a new language very quickly, measures were taken to ensure that anyone could understand how to vote. The large-type letters were understood to be easy enough for anyone eligible to vote to remember, and they’ve stuck for all this time.
I stuffed the correct envelopes left, dodging an array of electioneers and screaming voters trying to park on a one-way street. Initially planning to help volunteer on my candidate’s campaign, I was too tired to move and slumped into a chair, listening to the coverage on TV and radio. With the exit polls confirming my candidate would win, I joined friends at one of the many parties for people who voted. Eventually we ended up at my candidate’s official party in a hotel on the west side of town. The venue couldn’t have been better picked: on the other side of the road is the entrance to Mount Herzl, Israel’s national military cemetery, and on the other was the entrances to a Haredi neighborhood. In limbo between two worlds, the supporters inside waited all night for the first official results to come in from City Hall.

Not only did the Municipality post the actual results as they came in, but have a breakdown of votes by polling station. According to the results, my station saw 53% of its registered voters, 86% of whom voted for Nir Barkat. As for city council, the top four parties are a great demonstration of my neighborhood’s demographics: “Wake Up, Jerusalemites!” won the most (composed for secular and religious 20- & 30-somethings), followed by Meretz (non-socialist left wing party), “Jerusalem Will Succeed” (Barkat’s list), and a combined Mafdal/National Unity list (right-wing and Modern Orthodox).

Pictures from the day: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2400595&l=19d9a&id=818841

Here's to two of my candidates winning in the Trifecta of Democracy: The American Presidency and Jerusalem's Mayor.
Next race: 10 February 2009, Israel's National Elections.

02 November 2008

01 November 2008

The months of September and October in Israel are exhausting. Around every corner is another holiday waiting to start, just when you’re finishing digesting the meals and liturgy of the previous holiday, with a hangover haze just barely vaporizing away.

Yom Kippur, as always, is so unique in Israel – from no cars on the otherwise lethal roads to services that are less dirge-filled and more upbeat in nature and sound to the popular newspaper including in their pre-holiday edition a translation of “Into the heart of Darkness.”

Halloween has come and gone with little fanfare here. In line behind a few American tourists at the supermarket, who were trying to explain Halloween to the cashier in broken Hebrew, she asked semi-rhetorically why they were buying individual beers and why we didn’t have Halloween in Israel (or as she called it at first, “Holi-day,” ironic because she had an Indian last name). I explained that we already had Purim, which is just as crazy of a celebration. Incredulous at myself for defending Halloween’s absence in Israel, I gathered my items and sulked out of the store.

My taste in Halloween television specials has changed, due to the absence of American television channels (or television altogether). This year I did not watch “A Garfield Halloween,” which was always the scariest special, or the movie “Hocus Pocus;” nor did I watch the annual specials on The Simpsons or Roseanne, mainly due to their blocked statuses on YouTube. This year was devoted to “A Disney Halloween,” which proves The Magic Kingdom can tap into a darker side; and an episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie entitled “Swimming Up Stream” which is hilarious for its un-PC nature (Hallaloween, ‘nuff said).
Then there’s the ubiquitous but never disappointing “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” It’s such a classic that it deserves watching again and again, savoring the title sequence, Snoopy’s insane laughter and hallucinogenic voyage through the World War I French countryside amidst a horror film-worthy soundtrack. I could go on and on about it, but thankfully someone at Slate.com summed up its uniqueness.

Another October holiday is my birthday. After deliberating how best to celebrate, political & musical serendipity came into the picture. The Saturday night following my birthday held in store two important events: the town hall meeting in English of candidates in the Jerusalem mayoral elections, and a monthly dance party at a local bar with my type of music being played. The elections take place 11 November, exactly one week after a certain other election day.
I got to the event 15 minutes before it was planned to start and it was already packed to the rafters. Housed at the Great Synagogue’s social hall, every native English speaker squeezed him/herself into the massive hall. Seemingly the only non-Orthodox person under 70 years old and not from the NYC metro area, a BBC reporter latched her eyes onto me and asked me about my preference for mayor. Having prepared a question for the ultra-Orthodox candidate in advance, I gave her a 7-minute response that seemed to impress her. Finding a place to stand near the industrial air conditioner, I had a direct line of sight with the dais. Jerusalem Post Editor David Horovitz was the moderator and I didn’t envy his job for one second: Between the candidates who unanimously opted to speak beyond their allotted 15 minutes and an audience who got more and more ornery with each comment that didn’t exactly match their personal opinions, the scene was more like a general meeting at a kibbutz 60 years ago that some might find quaint and nostalgic but I found embarrassing. The ultra-Orthodox candidate doesn’t speak English, so his associate was asked to translate into English – only he thought he could give a paraphrased translation. “Translate what he said!” was the audience’s response. The Russian oligarch spoke meanderingly, accidentally using the word “Palestine” in describing the eastern part of town and where few of those in attendance would dare be caught frequenting. Actual booing and hissing was the audience’s response. Then the candidate I’m backing got up to speak and his eloquence got me all weak in the knees. Is if there wasn’t any one else for whom to vote this 11 November, his words was a much-needed relief to my ears.

I left early to start the second part of the celebrations, indie rock dance party in the city center. Far less drama and a lot of needed fun.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people from various walks of life about the American elections, some of whom are cognizant of the issues and can argue intelligently. And then there are those who find it acceptable to use unsubstantiated arguments that at best make themselves sound dumb and at worst a racist.
I give native-born Israelis a lot of credit for their complicated national and local politics, not to mention all they endure in life. But before one more Israeli tries to convince me that Obama is some closeted Muslim out to destroy Israel, I have the following response: Instead of giving you an intelligent reason why he is none of those things nor do they matter if he actually was, take a look at how our collective culture views people of color and whether that has any thing to do with the garbage you’re about to talk about Obama:

Here's to the next two weeks' worth of elections that will usher in the change we so desperately need in the world.