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I’m an American living in Israel, and today I watched the Presidential inauguration live on C-Span (weeping profusely at all the right moments, as I do), wondering why the hell I’m here.

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Tomorrow is election day in Israel.  It’s one of the most harrowing, uncertain elections in recent memory.  Unlike my firm Democratic roots stateside, I’m firmly undecided in Israel.  It’s a strange position to be in.  Being “liberal” or “conservative”

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doesn’t mean much when there are literally a dozen parties from which to choose, nobody will win a majority, and it will be up to the President to grant coalition-forming power to the party most able to form a working parliament (Knesset).  Let the cabinet-bargaining begin.  I’m wavering between Meretz and Labor.  If it were only a matter of voting my beliefs, it would be Meretz, the unwavering liberal party with human rights at its very core.  However, in Israel “making your vote count” OR “not throwing your vote away” often means to vote for the ideologically closest medium-to-large party, helping to put them in a position to get enough seats to form the ruling coalition.

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That party this time is Labor.  For a long time now it has been almost invisible in government, and now, it’s suddenly stronger, perhaps a real threat to (what used to be center-right) Likud (who now readily form coalitions with ultra right wingers and build new settlements and buy up East Jerusalem and openly threaten Iran).  I grew up in a Jewish Labor youth movement.  My problem isn’t Labor, most of its ideals are fabulous.  I’m just off religion, and would very much like a party that’s doing something about human rights in Israel.  The Arab issues, the territories, the settlements, Jerusalem, the immigrants, refugees (legal and illegal), asylum seekers, foreign workers, ignorance, prejudice, and hatred.  And of course a party that is not interested in starting WWIII.

It’s baffling.  Voting what you believe or voting to enable a party that could potentially topple Likud’s Bibi (Netanyahu).  I did the latter last time in 2009 when I voted for Kadima and its leader Tzipi Livni.  She didn’t win, and both Meretz and Labor lost major numbers in parliament because so many liberals ran center to Kadima to “make their vote count.”  Did it, with such a seat loss?

I think I’ll vote my conscience tomorrow.  Politics are best left undisclosed in polite circles.  I’ve learned far too much about fellow employees and friends of the family, things that disgust me.  Racism is so blatant it doesn’t shock most people.  Is it time to go home?  I still refer to America as home.  Do I miss it so much, see it through such rose colored glasses, because I’m not there?  Perhaps.  Probably.  But there is no beautiful national rhetoric here.  No togetherness.  No dreaming big dreams.  No building the future together.  I heard a woman yesterday saying, “I’ll vote for the opposite of what the Arabs want.  Anyone they’re for, I’ll be against.”  No “We the people.”

Is it possible to love one of your countries more than the other?  Is love even necessary?  Is absolute loyalty?  Is it even possible for a dual citizen?  I obviously came here for a reason.  Now, I can’t remember what that was.  Is that a sign to leave?  I’m far from elated at the prospect of tomorrow’s election.  I’m expecting disappointment.  Do I care enough to participate in the fight when there is no unified vision?  I feel most Israelis don’t even care about peace anymore, and for those that do, the realistic prospect of attaining it seems next to impossible.  How do we balance being good citizens, acting responsibly, giving of ourselves, with being good TO ourselves and trying to live happy lives?

I’m just going to focus on President Obama’s wonderful speech today, maybe watch some West Wing reruns, and daydream of better times.  Twiddling my thumbs uselessly, until tomorrow.  At least I get a nationally-sanctioned vacation day – something the USA could actually use.

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“One last look…” he said. There goes a man who knows the value of treasuring a moment. Linger he did.

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Eating in America (continued) — Budget Vegetarian Dining Adventures

New York cuisine proved to be far more interesting than Chicago’s, although I am certain this isn’t at all a rule.  This is probably because I saw more friends, ate less at my sister’s place, and was generally “on vacation.”  Here are the places, some exceptional, some pretty mediocre, that I patronized.

  • Popover Cafe

    Popover Café – typical yuppie breakfast place with a specialty in super-inflated-fluffy popover buns (if you can call them that).  We got in early-ish (before 10:30) and didn’t have to wait for a table.  Lots of interesting egg dishes.  Funny rule in NYC – no alcohol served before 12 noon on Sundays.  I really wanted my bloody mary or mimosa.  I really did.  Finally stateside in a proper decent breakfast place, and no booze to take the edge off the weekend.  Goodness.  I made up for it that night, though.

  • Landmarc.  Ick. Ick.  Overpriced ick.  Besides a salad or something, close to no veg options of interest on the menu.  There are daily pasta specials, and one was agreed to be made for me sans meet.  The waitress went on and on about how todays risotto was great.  And I love risotto.  Better than fetuccini  alfredo any day as a veg option.  And you know what I got?  Pretty much fettuccini Alfredo.  No risotto.  We were in a hurry and I was really hungry.  I didn’t say anything.  So I’m saying something now.  First of all, if you’re a tourist in NYC – don’t go to TriBeCa besides the World Trade Center site.  Seriously, there’s nothing to see.  I really don’t want to put people down, but only wealthy artists and yuppies live seem to live there.  It’s not too pretty either.  Second, if you live there or are visiting someone who lives there, I wouldn’t go to this restaurant, especially if you don’t eat meat.  There’s a perfectly charming bakery down the block on Duane.  They’re way famous and overpriced, too, but at least you can’t mess up a cupcake or croissant too badly, and their mint tea really hit the spot when I was stuck in a huge downpour.  Just don’t eat in TriBeCa unless you do your homework.  Ugh.  At least the wine was good, and they had plenty of half-bottles.  Getting pleasantly sloshed took some of the frustration off of the crappy pasta.
  • Better Being Underground – yes that’s the name – awesomeness in a paper bag.  Tzaziki egg salad sandwich.  Incredible gourmet soup with pears and I can’t remember what else.  Not cheap but not expensive, given the amazing ingredients and speed.  It’s one of those sit-down-break-open-a-bottle-of-bubbly-just-because kind of lunches except it’s in a tiny basement without any seating and you grab what you want or wait a couple minutes while they make it for you.  Yes.  At least al fresco dining was to be had at a sweet little park across the street.
  • Food Exchange Café – At least it might be.  It could be the Oxford Café.  I can’t remember the name, so I’ve googled the entire (59th and Lexington) area, and these two seemed the likeliest candidate.  The only two options on the block, and both sound like delis.  Honestly I was only there for a few minutes.  I’m writing about it because it seemed like a typical office-worker-lunch.  Very NYC.  A hurried lunch if I’ve ever seen one.  A counter.  All the diverse, delicious sandwiches already made.  You point, they grill or not, according to what you want.  You pay somewhere else.  It comes out to you.  You stand and eat.  Or you go to a tiny park facing some giant bridge and noisy intersection on 59th.  It’s all good.  My three-cheese caprese was just that.  I miss Italy.
  • Pomme Café Astoria – it’s nice that people realize that they’ll get more business if their décor is just right.  It helps if it’s all in the right neighborhood.  And Astoria seems to be just that.  Really hip.  Lots of cool looking restaurants.  If not for the lack of high buildings and slightly shabbier look, it could be the Upper East Side, not Queens.  The food was very pretty on the plate.  My mushroom truffle risotto was perhaps the best thing I ate in NYC all week, miniscule as it was (as it should be, say I).  Again, yes, maybe I should give them a break because it is a French place, but there was nothing veg on the menu besides that risotto (an appetizer), the onion soup, and two salads.  And it was a beautiful authentic upscale French bistro menu.  Great, great, creamy, crisp crème brulee.  Just as it needed to be.  This place I would recommend.  Great drinks list.  I had Talisker and Johnny Walker Green.
  • Brooklyn Label Cafe

    Brooklyn Label Cafe – Organic tofu and cheese and potato scrambler.  Oh yeah.  My friend always gets the scrambled eggs that come with a huge side of roasted beets.  It’s delicious.  Lots of creative veg.  Lots of creative non veg.  It’s a rocking joint.  A raving recommendation from me.  It’s such a hipster spot.  Really warm and welcoming.  The food is just interesting, flavorful, and comforting.  Yay for Greenpoint!

  • Café Grumpy – Awesome green tea.  Great to work at.  Quiet.  Funky.  Yes, yes, yes.  I wish we had cafes like this in Israel.  Hip and quiet and tasty and so internet friendly you’d think it was the Skokie Public Library.  Gotta love Brooklyn!

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In SE Asia, the best jobs pay $0.40 per hour

I saw parts of an interesting British documentary/reality series this past week on Channel 8.  The BBC series was called Blood, Sweat, and Takeaways, and followed 6 young Brit food consumers (one a picky eater, one a fast food junkie, one a rich gourmet foods enthusiast, etc, etc) as they were taken to Southeast Asia to:

“live and work alongside the millions of people in south east Asia’s food production industries. They must catch, harvest and process food products that we eat every day, seeing behind the scenes of the tuna, prawns, rice and chicken industries for the very first time.”

It was fascinating to see how our ultra-cheap chicken and seafood are caught and processed, and it was equally devastating to see how the people who caught and processed this food lived, how little they were paid, how hard they worked, and how much they sacrificed in order to even procure these “lucky” jobs.  Even the underworld of the sex trade, so rampant in Asia, has many direct connections to the food processing industry.

The series was also incredibly annoying due to these exceptionally obnoxious British 19-22 year-olds constant complaining, whining, and getting grossed out at every other job they were demanded to do.

What I found poignant is that despite their whinging, each were changed, as we saw in the concluding “follow up” portion of the film.  Some were simply more respectful in their eating habits, more open to trying new things, and were adamant about buying fair-trade products.  One girl even went back to try and help some of the women separated from their families, and was writing to newspapers and magazines with pitches on the subject.

The real eye-opener, and the question this documentary raised, is what this says about locally grown food products.  It seems common sense to buy from your local farmer, sign up for the local organic veg box, visit the farmers’ market, etc.  How can supporting and getting involved in your local agriculture be wrong?  In the US and Britain there have been what seem to be nationalist campaigns to buy British meat, or buy American beef (or cheese, or corn, or whatever).

One young man in the series was a young farmer, his family farm going generations back.  A very nice guy, he was one of the few that made the show tolerable.  He and he alone never complained, worked harder than the rest, and was often the only one working when others refused (e.g. gutting fish on top of one of the smelliest sewer-rivers imaginable and picking, packing, and lugging hundreds of kilos of rice).

Before the experience, he had been a staunch “Buy British” supporter.  Being a farmer, this makes perfect sense.  No complaints here.  But upon his return, he had changed his mind and was educating his friends on the matter.  Why?  The food industry in Asia supports millions of people.  Maybe more.  There would be no big Western food companies, whether they be MacDonald’s or Lean Cuisine, without ultra cheap foodstuffs.  Even fancy restaurants are affected.  Not every eatery can afford locally caught fresh fish and shellfish.  I know from experience at having to defrost and clean hundreds of prawns and scallops and mussels every day at a very high-end restaurant in Tel Aviv – one that specialized in seafood.

Now more than ever before we live in a global economy.  Our smallest of choices can and do affect economics in other countries.  Do the workers suffer?  Yes.  Do we want to pay less for our food?  Most of the world doesn’t.  But even for the idealist, does stopping to buy these “sweat shop” foods help anyone?

I don’t know the answers yet, but I will be seriously looking into this.  I think that the best I can personally do right now is to look for “Fair Trade” products.  This ensures good treatment and good pay for the workers.  I like my local organic veg box, for the time being.  And I have ALWAYS wanted to know who harvested the supermarket fruit and veg, where it all came from, what the names of the (potential) migrant workers were, pesticides used, genetic modifications made, how long it all even took to get here, etc, etc.  Maybe it’s time to finally find out.

We owe it to ourselves (if not the world) to know where the nourishment we put into our bodies comes from, and who was involved in bringing it to us.

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