Moshe of Pe'erEver since making aliyah, we’ve joked that we could never leave Israel, and certainly never move out of Jerusalem…because of the challah. All that changed two weeks ago when the bakery that has been the source of perhaps the best kosher sweet whole wheat challah in the world closed down. After 43 years in business, the main branch of Pe’er Bakery in Jerusalem’s German Colony shut its doors.

The reason, explains owner Shoshana Sharabi, who has been at the cash register while her husband Moshe has tended to the ovens all these years is simple enough: “Di!” she exclaims, using the Hebrew expression for “enough already.” Her husband Moshe is turning 70; Shoshana is not far behind.

“I’m tired. I’ve been asking him to close for three years. Only now has he agreed. We want to travel, see the world,” she tells me. After 43 years, who am I to take that away from this 13th generation Jerusalemite who wants to spend her remaining years generating experiences that don’t all have to do with the proper allotment of poppy seeds and raisins.

It hasn’t always been easy for Pe’er’s proprietors, either. Most recently, the Sharabi’s went up against the Israeli Rabbinate, which temporarily revoked their kashrut license when Shoshana refused to pay. “They were sending a mashgiach [a kosher inspector] once a month for an hour. If I’m going to pay, he should come more often. He should do his job.” The Rabbinate fined Pe’er and Shoshana flirted with moving over to city councilperson Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz’s Hashgaha Pratit private community kashrut organization, but it never took and closing shop loomed larger.

“Where will you go now?” I ask Shoshana as I wait for Moshe to pull the final challahs out of the oven. “India is on the top of the list,” she says, and I feel the same tinge of excitement I do for young Israelis heading east after their army service. “Do you like Indian food?” I ask. “We can’t actually eat anything there, we keep kosher you know,” she scolds me. I tell her about the plethora of strictly vegetarian restaurants that are everywhere in India. Her eyes light up. Despite her role baking a very traditional Jewish food, Shoshana is, surprisingly, a recently converted vegan.

And yet, for a few days after I heard the news, I was devastated. Every Friday, for nearly 20 years, I have run the pre-Shabbat errands for our family, which include buying a copy of The Jerusalem Post, stopping at Marzipan for their gooey half-baked chocolate rugelach, and schmoozing with Shoshana while picking up my challot. Every once in a while, I’d try to mix things up and get a challah from somewhere else. The kids would always put me in my place and the following week, I’d be back at Pe’er.

Challah became even more important in the last five years when our family instituted a new Friday night ritual. After realizing we were always full after eating just the challah, dips and chicken soup, and that no one had room for an entire meal afterward (though we’d eat it anyway and then complain), we dumped the meat, potatoes and salad and only serve soup, bread and dessert.

Before moving to Israel, getting our weekly challah was much more of a pain. Living in Berkeley, California in the late 1980s, there was no kosher challah nearby; we’d have to drive 20 minutes to the Grand Bakery in neighboring Oakland. Later, when Noah’s Bagels opened its first store in Berkeley and began baking kosher challah, it was easier, but we’d still have to order in advance and there was always the possibility our bag would be given to someone else by mistake, leaving us Shabbat challah-less. At Pe’er, the supply of braided bread on Friday seemed endless.

As I lamented a post-a-Pe’er-calyptic world, Jody reminded me that I’m “grasping,” one of the essential sins against mindfulness that I’d just spent so much time working on during our recent 6-day silent meditation retreat (see This Normal Life, April 17, 2015). Much of our suffering, I know, comes from frantically trying to hold on to what’s good, or its converse: resisting the unpleasant. Both will pass – sooner than you think; it’s the nature of the universe. Moreover, grasping and resistance are ultimately about the fear of death. If I can’t get past my attachment to a particular bakery, how will I ever deal with the truly inevitable?

Pe’er isn’t vanishing from the scene entirely. A satellite branch in Mahane Yehuda, run by the Sharabi’s son, is staying open, with the same recipe (for now at least). It’s not as convenient, but if we invite Shabbat guests who are regular shuk shoppers, maybe they can give us an occasional blast from the past.

“Why didn’t you offer your son to take over the German Colony bakery?” I ask Shoshana. She has other plans for the building, which she and Moshe own. They plan to turn it into apartments for rent. The thought of the venerable Pe’er building, where I’ve spent so many fleeting moments, becoming another luxury ghost village, rattles me, but again, megiah lah – after 43 years, the Sharabi’s have earned it. They don’t owe us anything. It’s business. And surviving nearly half a century in a city where restaurants are lucky to last half a year is commendable.

The truth is, there are plenty of alternatives to Pe’er in the neighborhood already: a new bread shop on Emek Refaim Street and another on Bethlehem Road in Baka have opened up recently. French patisserie Ness bakes up a doughy challah, though it’s not sweet enough for me. The Coney Island Knish shop sells a pretty tasty whole wheat loaf. And there’s always the reliable Herby from Beit El. Maybe I’ll even take up baking – homemade always trumps store-bought.

Clearly, we don’t have to make yeridah – that is, to leave Israel – just yet.

My Pe’er lament appeared originally at The Jerusalem Post.

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Monty close-upWhen we were considering buying a dog for our family four years ago, I had three conditions: that it not shed (because I’m allergic to dog fur), that it not poop (because no way was I going to be picking up warm dog droppings daily) and that it not bark (as a chronic insomniac, I’d be quickly enraged if what little sleep I do get was interrupted).

Well, one of three aint to bad: our little white Maltese has hair, not fur, so I don’t sneeze, but he does need to relieve himself (and as a good citizen I clean up nice). And of course he’s a dog so he barks.

The latter probably saved our house from some pretty severe water damage recently. Remember that freak thunderstorm a couple weeks back that dropped an inch and a half of rain and hail on Jerusalem starting at about 3:00 AM? Before daybreak, the city had received more rain than the average 0.9 inches that usually falls during the entire month of April!

At about 4:45 AM, I was woken up by our dog barking and yelping. I tried to ignore him, hoping he’d knock it off after a few minutes, but he kept at it, becoming ever more frantic. So I got up and made a quick pit stop in the bathroom before checking on him downstairs.

My feet sloshed into water.

I called out to my wife Jody, who I had heard using the bathroom a few minutes earlier, so I assumed she hadn’t fallen back asleep yet. “Is the floor supposed to be wet?” I asked, a question that could only have made sense when twisted through the still strong influence of the sleeping pills I’d taken earlier in the evening. I groggily turned on the light in our bedroom. There was water coming through the door from the living room, reaching almost up to the tail end of our bedspread.

The living room was flooded. The old Chinese carpet that has been in the family for 40 years was sporting strange brown stains. Water was heading under the couches, moving towards the stereo and the CDs; it was cascading down the stairs into the kitchen and then down the second set of stairs towards the kids’ bedrooms.

I stared dumbfounded and barefoot in the face of the flood. Jody was quicker witted than me in my Zopiclone induced stupor and quickly determined it was coming from the front terrace; the ferocity of the downpour had overwhelmed the two drains, the only ones where we had not installed a plastic guard against leaves and other debris from the planters above.

For the next hour, we threw down towels to stop the flow and Jody, in pajamas, boots and a raincoat, cleared leaf after leaf and squeegee-d the water back down the drain while lightning confronted the pre-dawn sky. About half way through, I finally woke up enough to realize that I ought to put on shoes too.

As I was squeezing out towels and tracking stray streams across the house, I thought: home owning is a bitch. But then I remembered what it was like to be a renter and the thought of calling our old ba’al habayit (landlord) at 5:00 AM made me glad that this was our problem and nobody else’s.

I was also well aware that things could be far worse. Earlier in the week, I paid a shiva call to my cousin whose mother, my Aunt Claire, had passed away at the age of 92. He told me a story about how, on her honeymoon, the cottage she was staying at caught fire and burned down. Claire escaped unhurt, but her groom sustained burns over half his body. Infection set in and he only survived because, as an American serviceman, he was first in line for a then non-standard treatment: Penicillin.

When it was clear we’d bested the flood, I realized the dog needed a walk. It was 5:30 AM, but he’d been upset and it wouldn’t be humane to put him back to bed without at least giving him the opportunity to do his business first. I put on my coat and leashed him up. As I opened the front door, my next-door neighbor was standing there with a frying pan.

“Did your house flood, too?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “But our electricity is out.”

We went downstairs where he, presumably, was planning to flip the switch on the fuse. Instead he walked right past the electrical cabinet, opened the door to the garage, got into his car and drove off, frying pan in hand, leaving his house dark and damp.

I went back to bed puzzled. Was he planning to wake up his electrician in the middle of the night and clobber him into coming over with that frying pan? Maybe since they had no electricity he was going to a friend’s house to whip up some eggs? He could have done that at our house.

The answer came the next morning when I ran into him blow drying his soaked electric box while waiting for the electrician: it turns out he gets up at that hour every morning to use the mikveh (ritual bath) and he had a new frying pan that needed toiveling (immersion before use).

The dog, by the way, had stayed dry in his bed – the water hadn’t made it to that point in the house yet, although it was coming close and, had we not gotten up in time, he would have been one wet Maltese. Rather, he was upset by the thunder, which continued unabated until the sun finally rose.

We let him sleep in our bed with us for the rest of the morning – something we never do. After all, with his barking, he’d earned it. (I can still do without picking up after the poop, though.)

I first reported on the flood in The Jerusalem Post.

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Meditation retreat pictureAfter months of election obsession, rapaciously reading everything I could, poring over polls and talking with anyone and everyone I could for the better part of the winter, I did the only thing left to do.

I shut up. Literally.

Just a few days after the votes were tallied, my wife and drove up to Kibbutz Ein Dor for a silent Jewish meditation retreat organized by Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels of Or HaLev – the Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation in Israel, and Rabbi James Roth, head of the U.S.-based Awakened Heart Project for Contemplative Judaism.

For six days, from 5:30 am every morning, we did nothing but sit and walk and eat mindfully, meditating on mats in the communal hall, deliberately stepping slowly through the trees and foliage of the kibbutz’s campus quad-like retreat center, punctuated only by teachings and instructions by the retreat leaders, group Q&A and short one-on-one sessions. I turned off my phone and disconnected from the Internet. No email, no Jpost.com updates interrupted my silence.

When we emerged nearly a week later, Israel hadn’t bombed Iran, no UN declarations had been made calling for a Palestinian state, and Netanyahu had not yet formed a coalition. Nothing much seemed different on the outside. But inside, for me, everything had changed.

Mindfulness meditation, whether given a Jewish spin or taught entirely secular as with the research-based MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) system of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in a nutshell, posits that nearly all of our suffering is caused by our thoughts and if we can become aware of those thoughts as they are coming up and not go chasing after them willy-nilly, reacting blindly according to our habitual and too often unhealthy patterns, we can regain our equilibrium and perhaps even find peace and equanimity.

Family therapist and meditation blogger Roger Nolan describes it like this: “Imagine that you are sitting at a railroad crossing in your car while a long, slow-moving freight train is passing through. Every freight car represents a thought arising in consciousness. If you keep looking straight ahead with your gaze soft, you can watch the thought cars pass by. Sometimes, however, a pretty freight car catches your eye, and you continue to follow it with your gaze, thus succumbing to the ‘train of thought.’”

At the retreat, Rabbi Jeff Roth quoted an old Buddhist adage: “Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.” The meaning: pain (both emotional and physical) is part and parcel of the human condition. You can’t avoid it. But when your thoughts cause you suffering, that’s unnecessary. And a mindfulness practice can help you do something about it.

Here’s an example that happened to me during the retreat. We were sitting down for Shabbat dinner. No one was talking – other than saying Amen to Kiddush, it was a silent meal. I positioned myself across from my wife Jody – even though we weren’t even making eye contact (another retreat recommendation), it’s a nice way of quietly connecting. (And no, we didn’t speak even in our shared room.)

But when Jody got up to wash before bread, a latecomer entered the room and took her seat. Now, he surely had no idea that Jody was sitting there, but I couldn’t talk to tell him. And my thoughts started going crazy. “He did that deliberately. He doesn’t care about other people. What chutzpah! Who does he think he is?”

Now it happens that this guy was a “smiley” type – he always had a grin on his face even when he was in silence. And as I looked at him, I started to grin, too, and then a little laugh – no more than a barely audible giggle – emerged from somewhere inside of me. Were any of my thoughts true? No. But look at how much suffering I’d called up. For what?

Jacobson-Maisels related a similar Shabbat dinner story. The food on the retreat was “elegant vegetarian” – wholesome and surprising in its simplicity. All week, there’d been no dessert except for a few packages of waffelim. But on Friday night, at the end of the buffet line, there was what looked like chocolate cake. “Oh boy,” Jacobson-Maisels thought to himself. “This is going to be great.” But as he got closer to the “cake,” there was a sign: Chocolate covered polenta. “Yuck,” Jacobson-Maisels griped. “I don’t want that. That’s going to taste terrible!” He tried it anyway. And it was good. But the thought – a dashed expectation of real chocolate cake – had created unwarranted anguish.

None of this was new to me. I’ve participated in two silent retreats run by Jacobson-Maisels and one with the Tovana organization, which has been running Vipassana style retreats in Israel for nearly 20 years. I attend a weekly meditation group in Jerusalem. I understand the logic and theory of the connection between thoughts and suffering. But this time, something clicked. Somewhere between the sweet polenta and the luscious trees of Ein Dor, a penny fell and there was someone there to hear it – me.

It was due in large part to Sam Harris.

Harris wasn’t at the retreat, of course. He is best known as one of the most outspoken of the New Atheists. Along with Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and philosopher Daniel Dennett, Harris has mercilessly skewered religion in best selling books such as “The End of Faith” and “The Moral Landscape.” He is also, surprisingly, a serious student of mindfulness, which is the subject of his 2014 book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.”

“There is a connection between scientific fact and spiritual wisdom, and it is more direct than most people suppose,” he writes in “Waking Up.” Harris then spends much of the book’s 256 pages trying to dispel the concept of the self. “The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion,” he writes. “There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain.”

This turns out to be critically important, because if there is no “I” in there directing my thoughts, it’s much easier to not be attached to those thoughts or to believe that they say something integral about who I truly am as a person rather than being random and – as I’d come to realize in the case of the Shabbat dinner incident – frequently ridiculous.

Harris takes a staunchly secular approach. But this was a Jewish mindfulness retreat and retreat leader Jeff Roth was saying pretty much the same thing – with a Jewish twist.

Roth linked the sense of self (or lack thereof) to the story of the Garden of Eden. The opening of the book of Genesis, explained Roth, is not about the creation of the universe but really a parable about the emergence of human language.

Language is by definition dualistic. In order for there to be the concept of a “tree,” everything else has to be “not a tree.” And since the sense that one has a self is tied into thinking, which cannot be separated from language, the self is inherently dualistic too. It’s heady stuff, but we see it everywhere in the real world. There is “me” and “you,” “enemy” and “friend,” “human” and “God.”

When we first meet Adam in the Garden, he was pre-language. As Roth sees it, eating from the tree of good and evil – another dualistic symbol – ushers in the advent of language. But it’s ultimately a trap, a mode of thinking out of sync with both science and later strains of Jewish theology, which stress the oneness of everything

At the end of six days, I was far from “enlightened,” but I’d developed at least a few new skills and, yes, even some insights that have stayed with me so far. My wife and I stopped at a restaurant on the drive back to Jerusalem and ate so mindfully that I was compelled to explain to the waitress why we were slow in finishing our meal. “I noticed,” she nodded. Normally, I’d be terribly embarrassed. But I let that thought go.

The next day, while parking my car in a garage, another driver cut me off, nearly causing an accident. I began to honk my horn and flash my lights. “What a jerk!” I stewed. Then came that little laugh, a reminder of Shabbat dinner on the retreat. Did I really need to suffer over this thought?

It took me a full 24 hours to have the desire – or maybe the courage – to open the Internet. The politicians were still quibbling, relations between Obama and Netanyahu were growing chillier still, and social media was all abuzz over whether Jon Stewart’s replacement was anti-Semitic. Would that they all could spend just a weekend on a silent meditation retreat.

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Freeform SederThe run up to tonight’s Seder included a remarkable – and decidedly disturbing – discovery in the Blum house: no one in our family really likes Pesach. Actually, it was worse. Some of us really hate Pesach. The preparation, the cleaning, even the Seder itself doesn’t rank highly on our list of peak Jewish experiences.

How could this be? Everyone likes Passover, right? After all, it’s the holiday that nearly every Jew observes, in one way or another. In Israel, 82 percent of Jews who self-identify as secular still attend a Seder. And, of course, 100 percent of self-identified religious Jews find themselves reciting the Haggadah. Were we alone in doing, but disliking, the holiday? Or are there closet Seder haters like us?

The truth is, this is not the kind of news you want to blurt out. It’s like saying “I know you’ve been eating in my kosher home for years but I forgot to tell you we serve bacon on our milk dishes.” (That was an example only, OK?) So I didn’t survey friends and families on how they felt about the holiday.

To be sure, there are plenty of reasons even the most fervent might find Pesach to be a pain. I understand the value of telling and retelling the origin story of the Jewish people, and eating matzah, the bread of affliction and hurry, is an excellent, highly tactile way of helping you feel as if you, yourself, came out of Egypt, as the Haggadah commands. But why does it have to be for seven days? The matzah message comes through loud and clear after one. All the rest is constipation.

Then there are all the magical elements that inevitably have me scratching my head in befuddled annoyance. If you immerse an everyday fork or a knife or a metal bowl in a pot of boiling water and pay some bearded guy a bunch of shekels, it will magically come out kosher for Pesach. How does that work, scientifically, I mean? Does the heat somehow expel the formerly meat or milk status of the utensil? If so, why doesn’t my cutlery reset to its default state every time I wash the dishes at home in hot water or use the dishwasher? And why could my grandmother bury forks in a flowerpot but me, I have to dutifully traipse down the street to the guys manning the pot and pay up?

When it comes to the ritualized obsessive compulsiveness over Pesach preparation, I can emphasize with the kvetching and disdain. But the Seder itself – that was supposed to be the pay off: family, food and a Haggadah filled with Ridley Scott produced twists and turns. Come on, who doesn’t like sticking their finger in a wine glass and flinging blood while pointing at their siblings and yelling, “you’re the wicked child!”

But now it was on the table. A family discussion had laid bare that many of us found that even the Seder was less than awe inspiring. The main part of the Magid, which tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt in excruciating detail – with its one-upping rabbinical scholars explaining why it wasn’t 10 plagues, it was 50, no it was 250! – followed by Hallel (praising God) and more Hallel and even more Hallel; it just seems to go on and on and our family wanted to flip the off switch.

Yet with Pesach just days away, in-laws flying in from the U.S. and an impressionable young couple already invited, we had to do something. I called up Naftali, a friend who had joined us for Seder several years earlier and had done his fair share of Torah learning. I shared our story. While their situation wasn’t as dire (their kids are both under four; they haven’t had time to move past the wonder of just getting through the first verse of Ma Nishtanah), Naftali admitted something I’d never considered.

“You know,” he said without blinking, “we don’t actually say all the words. In fact, we skip most of the Magid.”

“Skip the Magid?” I thought. Is he crazy? Doesn’t it say somewhere that you are commanded to hear every word? (Actually, that’s regarding the reading of the Megillah on Purim, so my bad.)

Ayeka-2But as I thought it over, it seemed he might have a point. Rabbi Aryeh Ben David agrees. Ben David runs Ayeka, an organization he calls a “Center for Soulful Education.” A couple of years ago, he sent out a pre-Passover email. The headline of one section was “Don’t Teach – Evoke.”

“The Seder is not a learning event,” Ben David wrote. “If the rabbis had wanted us to learn, they wouldn’t have asked us to drink four cups of wine (they weren’t talking about grape juice). We have 364 days of the year to learn about the Exodus. The Seder is an experience to evoke our hearts and souls.”

He gave further instruction to Seder leaders: “Please do not metamorphosize into the ‘Rabbinic Scholar’ for one night a year. Your job is not to preach and impress everyone with your erudition, but to create a safe space for others to share.”

Aryeh Ben David is a friend and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t suggesting we drop the text entirely, but with his implicit permission, I made a command decision. Why not mix it up a bit? Or more than a little bit. Why not totally go with the flow?

If a youngster at the table starts signing Ma Nishtanah out of order, don’t stop him, just do it. Ditto for Dayenu. Even if you haven’t gotten to the 10 Plagues, if it’s time to say, “That would have been enough!” so be it. And you know all those songs at the end of the Seder – Had Gad Ya and Echad Mi Yodea – the ones we look forward to all night but when it’s finally time to sing them, everyone’s too tired or too drunk or both? So sing them earlier, sing them at the top of the set. You can always circle back and include something you’ve missed. Or not. And always make time for a corny joke from Safta. (A favorite from past Seders: if a doctor carries a black bag and a plumber carries a toolbox, what does a mohel carry? A briskit!)

I don’t think we’ll change the order so much that we start with the Shulchan Orech (the meal itself) although it is an intriguing idea. But for some years now, we’ve been serving meaty artichokes instead of pale parsley for karpas, which goes a long way towards staving off hunger. And the hard-boiled eggs frequently arrive before we’ve slathered maror on haroset in a Hillel sandwich.

Chabad-House-Kathmandu-300x224Four years ago, we spent Pesach in Nepal, where we joined the world’s largest Seder sponsored by the local Chabad. With 1,100 Israelis attending that year, nearly all secular, it was an unprecedented opportunity to make the Seder meaningful to a uniquely captive audience who couldn’t care less about sticking to the traditional order. But the rabbi’s mission was different: he aimed to yotzei the assembled multitude – to ensure that they heard every word – and he subsequently raced through the Haggadah as if it were a “greatest hits” album, speed reading the entire story in under 50 minutes (including the songs).

I didn’t know it then, but the seeds of our freeform Seder were planted in Kathmandu. By opening up to the moment, allowing in surprise and embracing flexibility, might we more fully realize another key principle of the holiday: to feel truly liberated? That, after all, is the main order of the day.

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Who Took My Bar Munchies?

by Brian on March 22, 2015

in Just For Fun,Reviews

Butterball in IrelandWho ever heard of a bar without bar munchies? But that’s exactly what happened to us recently when my wife and I mustered up the courage to head out with friends on a cold Jerusalem night to check out Gatsby’s, a much talked about new cocktail lounge in downtown Jerusalem.

The first thing to know about me is that I’m not much of a barfly. I can count on one hand the times I’ve gotten rip-roaringly drunk, and most of those were over the last few years at the Jerusalem Wine Festival, held at the Israel Museum every summer. I was a resolute teetotaler in high school; when drinking was de rigueur, I was de nerd. I preferred geometry to Guinness. I never developed a taste for beer, which made fitting in at parties a challenge: I don’t recall my suburban high school classmates decoratively sipping Daiquiris while they banged on the provincial bong.

But I loosened up a bit as I got looser with my years and, while beer still doesn’t do it for me, I do appreciate a well made cocktail. Gatsby’s is the latest in what has become an international trend – high-end bars creating their own mixed drinks. The son of good friends of ours is one of Gatsby’s mixologists. He worked in a classy cocktail bar in New York City before returning to Israel, and the cocktails he’s made for us at his parent’s house were well considered, painstakingly planned, and delicious. Imagine what he could do with a whole bar behind him!

Gatsby’s trick is that it’s supposed to mimic a 1920s style speakeasy. The bartenders all wear bowties and suspenders. The entrance is through a “secret” wall of books that slides open (no door handle to give away what’s inside). There’s no sign outside to let guests know they’ve found the right address. And even so, they’re sold out nearly every night. (We made reservations the week before.) About the only 20’s touch missing was the music; I expected some Dixieland or Swing, at least some soft jazz. But the speakers were blasting trance and pop hits that would have made Duke Ellington jelly roll over.

Gatsby’s has a two-for-one happy hour and we’d heard their bar munchies were to die for – both creative and cheap. The Jerusalem Post gave Gatsby’s a glowing review that included not just the drinks but the bar menu. So we skipped dinner and planned to ply ourselves with starters. But when we were seated at our corner table, our waiter apologized but there would be no bar munchies tonight.

Unbeknownst to us when we reserved, there were two special chefs cooking up some rather gourmet sounding (and expensive) delights for the evening. OK, but maybe they could bring out some nuts or chips, a little cheese platter? I was already somewhere on the border between puckish and ravenous and I didn’t relish the thought of this lightweight drinking on an entirely empty stomach.

Our waiter checked with the kitchen and said he could bring us out some starters…in about 20 minutes. Which got me wondering: can you drink first and then eat, so that the food soaks up the alcohol retroactively? That didn’t sound particularly likely.

But what choice did I have? So I ordered the most kosher sounding starter and hoped service on the drinks would be slow. The menu was all in Hebrew and the waiter spoke like a contractor trying to explain the source of a water leak: gushingly fast and with little to hold onto except a few keywords. I heard “fish” and “labeneh” (a yogurt like cheese) and “grapefruit.” Bring it on, and fast.

But there was another problem: the fish was fine for me, but nothing on the menu was vegan and my wife is. So, even though I might be able to fill up on cheesy fish with grapefruit garnish, or whatever I’d just ordered, what would she do? “Maybe I can bring in a sandwich from the Aroma next door?” she asked. “Let me check,” our waiter replied but the answer was quickly no.

The first round of drinks was too prompt, arriving well before the fish mix. We were obliged to begin.

Now here’s the thing: they were really good. I mean, like Eric Clapton cocktails from heaven good. I ordered the “Fitzgerald,” a classic drink made with imported Angostura bitters, gin, sugar, lemon and egg whites. It went down smooth as an oyster (or so I’ve been told) and was, as our more alcoholically experienced drinking companion opined, very “adult” in flavor. My wife’s drink was equally unique – a local creation called the “Painkiller” which included rum, pineapple and coconut and was served in what looked like a real coconut. “It’s just a coconut shaped glass,” our waiter said, deflecting our expectations, but not much, as the alcohol was quickly working its way through our empty bellies.

The fish eventually arrived – at NIS 42 – it was tiny but fabulous. The conversation flowed, we ordered a second round (it was Happy Hour after all and, despite the lack of food, what, were we going to turn down a free drink?) and then an old friend walked in. I turned my head to say hello and the room spun. Ah, I remember that feeling: I once had a virus that turned into vertigo and I felt like throwing up for a week. If cocktails were software, I’d be asking: is that a feature or a bug?

Eventually, it was time to go. As we got up, somehow, the table, with all of our mostly drained drinks, flipped onto its side, spilling in slow motion what was left onto the couch, the floor, the guests at the next table over, but miraculously not breaking anything. Bow ties swooped in to mop things up. We sheepishly made our way out. I turned to my wife and asked, in all seriousness, “How did that happen? I think it just fell over by itself. That is so weird.” That maybe we’d knocked it over never occurred to us in the strange state we now found ourselves in.

That state included a rather stupid decision we’d made earlier in the evening when we decided to drive to Gatsby’s rather than take the bus. I didn’t anticipate getting this drunk – after all we were supposed to be supping on those famous bar munchies that weren’t. Now what were we going to do? We couldn’t drive home safely. We’d trashed the bar. And my wife was far beyond famished.

And there it was, shining like a beacon from sobriety: “The Vegan Schwarma,” a fast food restaurant where my wife could choose from a full menu of no meat, no fish, no dairy options: vegan schwarma, vegan burgers, vegan schnitzel, vegan pizza, vegan falafel (OK, that’s already vegan).

We split a burger. It cost all of NIS 30. Maybe it was because of the alcohol, but it was the best dang lentil, rice and nut patty I ever ate. No wonder the McDonald’s across the street closed.

In time, the inebriation subsided and we were able to drive home, me at the wheel, my wife spotting for oncoming traffic. When we told our story to the kids at home, they rolled their eyes big time. There’s nothing they like less than seeing their parents get stupid.

But I did feel stupid. The whole idea of drinking made even less sense now than it had when I was in high school. The truth is, as good as the drinks were, we enjoyed that fast food vegan burger far more than the cocktails. In the days to follow, we kept coming back to it as the “peak moment” from the evening. Our cocktails plus the frou-frou fish starter cost us over NIS 150. We could have bought five vegan burgers for that price!

I’m not dissing Gatsby’s – if you eat first or pick a night without any guest chefs experimenting in the kitchen, it’s a top-notch establishment that makes by far the tastiest drinks I’ve ever had. But still…

Two days later, it was Purim. Friends invited us for a lavish seudah – the traditional afternoon meal for the holiday – in which they promised the booze would be endless and everyone would leave totally plastered.

We gracefully declined. Even if they had munchies, my drinking days are over. That is, if they ever really started.

I first wrote about drinking and vegan burgers at The Jerusalem Post.

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