The game stays the game…

If you’ve met Taly or me, then you have probably heard how much we love ‘The Wire.’  I believe it is the greatest American television show ever.  I even wrote two papers about it during my senior year of college.  In addition to its entertainment value, the show is a striking social commentary about the modern American city.

When I found a video of the 100 best lines in ‘The Wire,’ I knew I needed to share it.

For those of you who haven’t seen the show yet, you might not want to watch the clip.  Instead, you should get off the computer, go buy all five seasons of ‘The Wire,’ and lock yourself up with Omar, Stringer, Avon, Jimmy, Bunk, Lester, and the rest of the gang, for the next 2 months!  Then come back and watch the clip.

Everyone else, sit back and relive the greatness that is ‘The Wire.’

Enjoy!

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It’s Gr-r-reat!

I don’t eat frosted flakes, but that animated tiger was right about one thing: there is nothing quite like breakfast.  In my opinion, no other meal is equal.  I would never eat dinner or lunch for breakfast, but I jump at the chance to have toast slathered with peanut butter and topped with banana for dinner, or a pita stuffed with hard-boiled egg, cheeses, and Israeli salad for lunch.

Now that Taly and I are both working, we both have a similar morning routine (although Taly is not a morning lover).  We eat breakfast together and read the news, often pausing to give our thoughts or ask each other’s help in understanding the details of a confusing story.  When we don’t have a physical newspaper or access to online news, Taly and I brush off our mental cobwebs with a crossword – although we avoid the  NYTimes Sunday crossword.  We usually don’t finish a whole crossword in one sitting since we don’t want to let too much distract us from our always-tasty food.

How to start the day right: good food and a (non-NYTimes Sunday) crossword

Freshly made biscuit, egg, and, cheese sandwich for a weekend breakfast

Back in the U.S., my favorite breakfast is toast covered in Smucker’s all natural, smooth peanut butter and sliced banana, drizzled honey.  Taly doesn’t like peanut butter, though, so I am alone in my love for this breakfast item.  If we are in a hurry, Taly and I usually just eat cereal.  If time (and available ingredients) allows, we often make toast or biscuits topped with a variation of some, or all, of the following: avocado, cheese, tomato, and egg.

Cheese, tomato, and avocado open-faced sandwich on homemade bread

In Israeli, no breakfast compares with the morning meal Taly’s safta serves us when we spend Shabbat in Herzliya.  By the time we wake up, burekas and pitas are already coming out of the oven and being put on the table.  After this, the number of dishes on the table multiply.  Israeli salad, mashed avocado, homemade hummus, hard-boiled eggs, fried eggplant, ktzezot, a variety of cheeses, and orange juice somehow manage to fit on the small table.  The challenge is choosing what to eat from the countless options.  Before doing anything else, I heap a large mound of Israeli salad onto my plate.  No matter what I choose to eat, I always want to have enough salad.  I usually start with a pita stuffed with avocado, hummus, tzfatit cheese, Israeli salad, hard-boiled egg, and a slice or two of eggplant.  I mix any remaining salad with cottage cheese and a little avocado.  It’s a delicious way to start the day!

A sampling of the breakfast options in Herzliya

The meal’s final touches are coffee or tea with something sweet (eating something sweet after every meal is necessary in Israel… I don’t complain).  Sometimes the dessert is rugelach Taly’s safta picked up from the grocery.  I’ve eaten a variety of rugelach in Israel (including ones from the famous bakery Marzipan in Jerusalem), and I think the supermarket rugelach Taly’s safta has for us is by far the best.  Even better in terms of breakfast treats is the apple jam Taly’s safta makes.  A simple spread comprised of cooked apples and a few spices, this jam is perfect atop toast with a little bit of white cheese or halva.  Since it tastes amazing and is made of apples, it must be healthy – so I make sure to slather it on my toast so as not to miss out on any of its restorative properties.

My love for breakfast goes beyond the unbeatable food: breakfast is one of the best times to spend quality time with loved ones. I remember sharing the breakfast table with all of my siblings before school.  After they went to college, one by one, and I entered high school, breakfast became a time I shared with my dad (my mom usually left earlier for school).  We’d split the paper into different sections and exchange after we finished reading.  I peppered my dad with questions about politics, sports, world events, and any Doonesbury references I didn’t get.  Among other topics, he patiently explained Balkan history, Ronald Reagan’s economic policies, the Supreme Court, the Red Sox’s pitching woes, and why George Bush’s avatar was a centurion’s helmet.  I always questioned his answers as I craved more information.  I often returned to a previous day’s topic for clarification or elaboration, and our breakfast times became like a lecture series, with each morning building on the previous ones. I am thankful for my dad’s patience; I believe our morning routine helped my critical thinking and primed my brain for each day’s exertions, as well as developed my ability to operate at full mental capacity in the morning.  Beyond the intellectual development, it was great to spend those forty-five minutes each day with my dad.

So now, I love eating breakfast with Taly each morning.  Even if we are in a rush, or even if we spend most of the meal reading the news, the time together invigorates me and enriches the rest of the day.

Frozen Hoops

In November, the New York Times website featured a video and an accompanying article on the Tikigaq School in Point Hope, Alaska, and its men’s basketball team’s, the Harpooners, pursuit of a fourth consecutive state championship (the video can be found here).

As someone who played countless basketball games on the court in front of my house, playground blacktops, rickety armory gyms, and indistinguishable high schools, but for whom the game never became an all-consuming passion, I am drawn to stories about people for whom the small courts and isolated gyms are defining.  I call these people “gym rats,” but in the case of the kids from Point Hope, Alaska “gym marmots” or “gym arctic hares” might be a more apt name.  I am torn between envy at their drive to excel in basketball and worry about the over-emphasis of a game in children’s lives.

Point Hope stands in stark contrast to densely populated basketball meccas like New York and Los Angles, or even smaller cities like Seattle and Portland.  This tiny, isolated Alaskan town is located on a spit of land on the western-most extension of Alaska’s North Slope.  The Harpooners’ men’s and women’s teams must fly to all of their games; their shortest trip is an hour and a half, but some games require up to twelve hours in the air.  For the kids at the Tikigaq School, basketball isn’t just any old extracurricular, it’s an all-consuming activity that requires a major commitment of time and effort.

With about 900 residents and only 60 high school students, basketball dominance would seem to be demographically unlikely, if not downright impossible.   According to the article, the community credits much of the team’s success to its people’s history of whale hunting.  Whale hunting, like basketball, rewards teamwork and perseverance.  Basketball, like whaling before it, has become a tradition for this town and its people: younger siblings shoot and dribble courtside while they eagerly wait to join in their elders’ pick-up games; fathers and grandfathers can point out pictures of their past triumphs in the high school’s trophy cases.  In addition to history, the Tikigaq players credit their passing ability to the cold, frozen environment that, before the town had indoor courts, meant they always played on surfaces too cold for much dribbling or outside shooting.  Faced with these conditions, teams pass and cut rather than rely on one or two players to take their defenders off the dribble.

The Harpooners’ achievements are amazing and serve as an example of how willpower, practice, and effort can make victories even without a large talent pool.  Still, the article doesn’t address the Tikigaq School’s academics, or what happens to its players after their high school playing days are over.  A Google search turned up no information about Point Hopers playing college basketball, so I assume not many are going to school on athletic scholarships.  My questions, then, are the same ones I ask about all places where high school athletics are held in such high esteem not only by the players, but also by the community.  What happens after the four years are over?  What else do these kids take away from high school besides the memories of state championships and hours in the gym?  They must have missed a lot of class because of their long travel times, with basketball prioritized over school.

These concerns are also prevalent in discussions about professionalization in football and basketball at NCAA Division I institutions.  Although critics worry about student-athletes’ lost opportunities given the amount of time athletic programs require them to devote to their sport, concerns over student-athletes at the college level focus on the amount of money teams generate for their schools and the NCAA.  At the pre-college level, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) coaches and organizers are often accused of using their players as cash cows and tools to land themselves college athletic jobs.  A town glorifying its high school athletes with little regard for their scholastic or personal development seems less damaging because there is less money involved, and, unlike with AAU teams, little benefit to the people rooting on the athletes.

I think this is an illusion.  In Point Hope’s case, is it possible that there is a ceiling to the opportunities for youths?  A ceiling so low, in fact, that basketball victories fulfil the players’ potential and don’t come at the expense of anything else?  I don’t think it is the case that high school sports are necessarily purer than college because of money isn’t as prevalent.  The lack of money involved doesn’t mean there isn’t something wrong with promoting athletic success at the high school level to the ultimate detriment of a student’s future.

Although this article doesn’t give any information about the town’s economic health or the opportunities available for young people, The New York Times ran another piece about the battle over Point Hope’s natural resources (the article can be found here).  While oil abounds in the ocean off Point Hope’s coast, many in the town worry that the oil industry will destroy their traditional way of life while simultaneously bringing jobs and revenue.  If basketball has also become a staple in Point Hope’s society and cultural legacy, would oil money bring distractions and opportunities that might slowly decrease the lure of basketball to children? Basketball is a relatively cheap game.  It thrives in impoverished areas where children lack abundant economic, educational, and social opportunities.  For Point Hope, oil brings money and opportunity.  These opportunities will threaten basketball’s grip on children’s time, hopes, and dreams.  While the oil industry means potential harm to Point Hope’s environment or cultural traditions, the money and jobs it provides also make a wider range of futures available. For example, if parents find better employment because of oil development, they might be able to afford to send their kids to college.  Seeing the possibilities, they might push their kids to work harder in school, and this might mean fewer hours to play basketball.

I still envy Point Hope’s Harpooners’ basketball success, even if I doubt whether the lengths they go to achieve it are healthy for children and teenagers.  I value having played sports in high school and college and I wish I had practiced more, but I knew for a long time that my future wasn’t on a court or a field.  Perhaps I am lucky I was never good enough and didn’t live in a place that valued athletic success so highly because I never felt pressure to make sports my main pursuit. Sports are often glorified given the myth that they offer life-changing opportunities for those without other avenues to personal betterment.  Since professional athletes often have remarkable personal stories of triumph, we tend to believe sports offer a greater source of opportunity than they actually do.  People who become professional athletes have supreme natural talent, and their lives are a blueprint for a replicable path out of adversity.

If this a topic that interests you, I strongly recommend the television show Friday Night Lights for a highly realistic but fictional portrayal of Dillon, a football crazed Texan town, where athletic dreams clash with educational and social development.  The show is based on an equally interesting non-fiction book of the same name, which I also recommend.  For anyone interested in the connection between basketball and society in America, the documentary Hoop Dreams is an amazing story about two kids growing up in Chicago and dreaming that basketball can be their ticket to somewhere else.  Hoop Dreams is particularly enlightening because it goes against the traditional myth of athletic triumph and explores what happens when sports don’t pan out.

We’re on the “Faceshuk Watchlist”!

MentalManna was picked up by Faceshuk, a social network which “brings the whole (more AND less) relevant Jewish and Israeli Blogsphere to your fingertips.”

Cool? We think so!

Check out our new Faceshuk group page (even though it may look a little empty right now): http://faceshuk.jewpi.com/groups/mentalmanna/

Please ignore the below-listed codes. We need to throw them in to get admin-status on our new Faceshuk group!

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Missing Basketball? Try Israel!

(The deli counter at a grocery store in Hertzeliya on a Friday morning)
Butcher: (To me, in Hebrew) Do you play basketball?
Me: (in Hebrew) Sure, I used to play in the United States.
Butcher: (Question in Hebrew I didn’t understand)
Me: (Searching my Hebrew vocabulary) Uh…
Butcher: (Says something to the next person in line)
Other Customer: (To me, in English) He says you are an American basketball player and he wants to know what team you play for here. Netanya?

Sadly, I am not in Israel to play basketball, and the only fifteen-footers I will shoot will be on the court across the street from my office.  Still, it isn’t surprising to find Israelis on the lookout for Americans playing for teams in the holy land.  With NBA owners and players currently at loggerheads over how to divide the league’s $4 billion in annual revenues and the NBA season consequently on-hold, I call your attention to Ligat HaAl (the Israeli Basketball Super League) as a good place to get your hoops fix.

Ligat HaAl was founded in 1954.  The league’s teams also compete in the Euroleague and many of European basketball’s top tournaments.  Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv has won the most Ligat HaAl titles, with 49 to their name.   As evidence of Israel’s global basketball stature, Maccabi has also won five Euroleague titles, including back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005.

While it is true that Israel’s number one sport – like almost every other country except America – is soccer (or “football” if you aren’t an American), the Jewish homeland has a long and storied history on the basketball court and its fanbase appears to be growing.  I remember watching Israelis Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld star for UConn in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, when shooting around in my driveway as a kid, I pretended I was Doron Sheffer hitting last minute shots.  Although he chose to return to Israel after playing at UConn, as a big guard with good ball handling and court vision, I have no doubt he could have played in the NBA.

Israel’s biggest basketball star, and current most visible athlete, is Omri Casspi.  After playing in the Israeli League from 2005 to 2009, Casspi played solidly for the Sacramento Kings for two seasons before being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers this off-season.   As you can see below, he is famous enough to merit the Wheaties box treatment from Israeli cereals.

He isn't on the cottage cheese, but Omri Casspi wants to be a part of your balanced breakfast.

Although long established, Israel and America’s basketball ties have only recently received attention from many non-hardcore basketball fans.  While still in America, I read a few articles touting Israeli basketball clubs’ signings of various American players for this coming season, and it piqued my desire to watch a little basketball while in Israel.  The NBA lockout means more American players, especially those just out of college, are looking to teams overseas for playing opportunities.  Under the Law of Return, American players who have a Jewish parent or grandparent are immediately eligible for citizenship and thus can bypass Israeli league rules regarding the number of foreign players allowed on each team, making them particularly attractive signings (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/sports/seeking-route-to-the-nba-through-israel.html).

Israeli clubs didn’t sign any American superstars, but each team carries a few American players on their roster.  A moderate NBA fan or college basketball fan will be able to recognize many names from standout performances in the annual NCAA March Madness tournament or from the lists of journeyman roster-fillers who make the rounds of NBA teams each season. The roster for league powerhouse Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv lists six American players, including former college standouts like Gonzaga’s Jeremy Pargo, Kansas’s Keith Langford, and Duke’s Jon Scheyer. (I wonder if being a Duke player inspires this much ridicule in Israel?)

Beyond these former NCAA stars, Maccabi Tel Aviv made the league’s most publicized offseason move when it signed guard Jordan Farmar, formerly of the New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Lakers.  Farmar was a solid NBA player, but from the highlight reel Maccabi posted, I would have sworn he was a perennial All-Star.  Kidding aside, based on the level of attention Farmar’s signing brought to Israeli basketball, I believe it will have a positive impact on the game here.

Not only am I excited to watch a few games, but I’m also curious to see if increased interest in Israeli professional basketball will motivate more Israeli youths to pick up the sport.  So far, I’ve only seen kids playing soccer in the parks and on blacktops. Yet Ipicture Israel as a relatively untapped source of at least some basketball talent.
During my time in Israel, I’m excited to learn more about the history of Israeli basketball.  Maybe it will motivate me to get back out on the court for a little shooting, or even a few pickup games if I can find a few people who want to play.

Shalom from Israel!

Dear Everyone,

Shalom from Israel!

We arrived safe and sound last week (if a little cramped from the airplane seats), and we have hit the ground running.  For our first few days we stayed at Beit Yehuda hostel in Jerusalem while we got to know the other Career Israel participants, saw some of Jerusalem’s sights, and generally acclimated to Israel.

One of Jerusalem's many winding streets.

Part of my acclimatization process: my first Israeli falafel.

Last Sunday we moved to Tel Aviv and officially took up residence in our apartment on King George Street in Tel Aviv.  We couldn’t have asked, or found, a better place to stay in Tel Aviv.  We are a short stroll from Shuk HaCarmel (the open air market), Dizengoff Center (Tel Aviv’s main shopping mall), a host of bars and restaurants, and the beach.

Tel Aviv’s beaches aren’t like any beach I have ever spent time at.  Taly frequently told me I’d never seen a real beach since I’d never been to a Mediterranean beach, and now I know she was right!  Cape Cod beaches are stony and cold while the Pacific is freezing and windy across the Western coast.  Where the Mediterranean’s waters lap Israel’s shores, however, is warm and sunny with gentle waves and sand like spun gold.  I have only been in the water once so far, but I have run along the beach from Tel Aviv to Yaffo almost every evening.  Watching the sunset over the sea, feeling the pleasant evening breezes, and seeing all of the people out enjoying the beach makes the miles fly by.   I’ll be truly spoiled when the time comes for us to return to the U.S.

Besides relaxing under the Mediterranean sun and exploring Tel Aviv, we’ve been busy with Ulpan (Hebrew classes) and preparation for our internships, which we start in October.  We’ll write more about these later.  In the meantime, I am steadily, albeit slowly, improving my Hebrew, and I am very excited to start work at the Institute for National Security Studies.

I move, and I briefly look back

Wednesday, June 29th was my last day in Brooklyn.

Taly and I, without too much trouble, moved my things into a U-Haul truck and back to my parents’ house, where they will remain until we return from Israel.  The move went remarkably well, especially given myriad potential problems flitting through my mind during the preceding week.  The only real hurdle was parking the truck outside my apartment, a momentous task given my parallel parking deficiency, rude drivers fighting for spots, and all the traffic outside the hospital across the street.  Luckily, Taly fought tooth and nail for a spot, and in the end we had a large enough space it didn’t matter my parking is so poor that I left the truck’s back wheel sticking out in the street.

Brooklyn sheltered me nicely for the last two years, but all the same I felt happy and relieved after the move. I was excited for a change, especially given that we will be back in New York for the foreseeable future after this year.  I share many of Taly’s frustrations, from a previous post, with NYC.  Still, I know I will miss many things about the city and especially Brooklyn, my favorite borough.  So before looking forward and while my memory is fresh, I’d liked to quickly look back on some of the two years in New York City.

New York can sometimes feel too crowded, grimy, and generally unpleasant.  I prefer to remember the city in the light of the beautiful days, and as a place unmatched in the variety of activities and locations.  I ran in Prospect Park everyday; during lunch breaks in Washington Square we could see television shows and movies filming; each weekend a different neighborhood tantalized our appetites for exploration.

Prospect Park was two blocks from my apartment, and it is easily my favorite place in all of NYC.  It is a great park for running–even in the winter, if I stayed on the plowed driveway areas.  Summer draws big crowds to the park, but we still found quiet places to sit and read.

View from our perch under a tree in the center of Prospect Park

When it was nice out, why not enjoy a sidewalk cafe or bar with someone you love?

Enjoying beers and books while we wait for our laundry.

Madison Ave might be crowded but we always found peaceful streets to wander, and we even caught a glorious day on the High Line.

A street made for meandering....

The High Line

Because it is so crowded New York is the best place for people watching!  Taly always protected me from the stranger folks we encountered.

Put your dukes up!

NYC can be intimidating because of its size and because streets are laid out in different ways in different neighborhoods.  So, navigation is important.  Luckily, I have a homing pigeon-like sense of direction, and I constantly guided us in the right direction.

Human GPS

You may notice I didn’t discuss the wonderful food NYC offers.  This wasn’t because I lack for taste and ate only microwavable burritos and pop-tarts.  No, since the many different foods available was my favorite part of NYC (tied with Prospect Park), I decided it deserved a post all to itself.  So, coming soon: a short history of two years of culinary delights!