Wednesday, September 23, 2009
After Twenty-One Years in Israel
How strange that I spent my 21st anniversary of making aliyah in the very place I left on August 28, 1988: New York City. This trip, which I called my Farewell Tour until good friend renamed it First Farewell Tour, was accentuated by a couple of excursions to my childhood home (Forest Hills) and my children's childhood home (Teaneck, NJ). For some reason I had expected to see both places in worse shape than when I left them, but I was pleasantly surprised to find them the same or better. Post-war apartment buildings that blocked my bedroom view of the Empire State Building in 1947 have been converted to co-ops with luxurious landscaping in front of their upgraded lobby doors. Young families seemed to be using every inch of recreation space, and an overall wholesomeness was in the air. My elementary, junior high, and high schools were still in use and, in preparation for the start of the school year, the doors were open for teachers and administrators. They were also open for old alumnae, as my old chum (from the second grade) and I discovered, although we were a bit taken aback by the proliferation of security guards in the lobbies.
In contrast, my views of Manhattan were discouraging. I suppose it's not surprising that, what with the recent financial disaster, the investment capital of the USA should show signs of distress, but I was still shocked to see so many empty storefronts on Madison Avenue. Apparently the thriving middle-class has adopted Brooklyn as its up-and-coming home base, a great irony to one whose relatives fled Brooklyn as soon as possible 60+ years ago. I have to remind myself that New York is a city of very rapid change, and the up-and-down cycles of various neighborhoods proceed more quickly than in slower-paced places - i.e., most of the world. I just never before saw a "down" cycle on the Upper East Side.
The other thing I noticed about New York City, which was always a country-within-a-country, is that is has lost some of its "otherness" with respect to the rest of the USA. The prevalence of national chain stores made it more like a "mall with a subway". Some of those chains started in New York decades ago, but the flagship stores have lost their edge: shopping in Bloomingdale's in New York is no longer a unique experience: you can shop in a similarly-appointed Bloomingdale's in any upscale shopping mall throughout the country, and the salespeople will be equally unhelpful. Even a nice lunch spot like "Le Pain Quotidien" which I would have taken for a New York discovery, seems to be an international franchise imported from Belgium. Globalization does have its down side: homogenization.
It was with mixed feelings that I returned to the building boom in Tel Aviv. From my very limited understanding of economics, the head of the Bank of Israel, a transplanted American named Stanley Fischer, saved Israel from serious financial calamity this time around, by showing unwavering resolve against the pressures of local crony capitalism principles. Thank you Stanley!
To keep from feeling smug, I remember having similar faith in Alan Greenspan, so things can always take a turn for the worse. I think I'm a bit sad at the state of the world, but it could just be the remnants of jet lag the week of reflection preceding Yom Kippur has got me down. And saying "goodbye" to my children and grandchildren yet again reminds me that there's no free lunch. Damn!