Friday, August 29, 2008

BASKETS FROM ETHIOPIA...A SHORT STORY

It's time to lighten up for a moment. What follows is a Musing from my collection, soon to be a Motion Picture opening at a theatre near you. (copyright 2008, Chicago, Illinois)

BASKETS FROM ETHIOPIA (BASED ON A TRUE STORY)

1. An e-mail

"Operation Promise is bringing the last group of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, where they will weave their traditions into the fabric of Israeli society. As we work together to fulfill this promise, we offer you a chance to own a piece of authentic Ethiopian culture.

A mesob is a unique, handmade, vibrantly colored woven table on which meals are traditionally served. Consider placing a mesob in your office as a decorative and useful side table, as is or with a piece of glass on top. At home, a mesob makes a great nightstand or coffee table. Take off the lid and use it as a dining table for two, as the Ethiopians do. Or turn it upside down and use it for storage.

The baskets are appropriately 3 ft. tall and 2 ft. in diameter, and they are natural straw with red, green and yellow. The cost is $360 per basket, and all proceeds will go the Operation Promise campaign. Click here to order a mesob." (an e-mail from UJC, 10 February 2006)

2. One Year Earlier

"Hey, have I got a great idea. I touched base with one of those consultants hired in the UJC Offices in Jerusalem, and did we come up with an incredible marketing scheme. To stimulate interest in the plight of the Ethiopians and in their potential resettlement in Israel, we are going to have them make really nice native baskets, 200 "mesobs" as they call them, which we will then sell to the North American Federations as a symbol of our hope for and promise to the Ethiopian community. I'm telling you this is the greatest idea for fund-raising ever -- even better that that idea a few years ago during the First Intifada to have our donors pay for "a pizza and a Pepsi" for the Israeli soldiers at the Lebanese border -- let's all buy a mesob.

Here's the plan. We're going to have Ethiopians in the camps in their country, where they are subsisting on a starvation diet, at best, make these baskets. They are going to look great -- every Federation is going to want to buy one at $500 (ed., so now it's marked down to $360. It's still a big profit item because we're paying the Ethiopians $50 and a pair of Nikes per piece ) a mesob and put it in their Federation building lobby. First I am going to have them shipped to UJC headquarters in NYC and then we will take a whole bunch to the Toronto where, at the November 2005 General Assembly, 1000's of people will be lined up to buy them. I almost guarantee that this idea will be the catalyst for the Operation Promise Campaign (which isn't really taking off). Is this going to be great!!!

And, on top of this, we are going to have tens of thousands of sticks, branches and twigs from Ethiopia delivered to the Toronto Convention Center in conjunction with the GA where we will bring in three Ethiopians to build three traditional huts (called messohs) that will vividly bring to the attention of Federation leaders from across North America the conditions under which our Ethiopian mishpacha are living. I'm telling you this is going to kick off Operation Promise, the $160 million effort to, among other things, bring the remnant Ethiopian Falas Mura community to Israel in ways that, until I came up with this incredible idea, could not have been possible. Can you picture it -- little Ethiopians building huts with wealthy North American Jews watching -- is this ever great?!! (Ed, this is not to be confused with wealthy North American Jews building teepees. In its August 3, 2007, edition, The Forward, reported -- "Bronfman corrals big names for cushy confab in Utah" -- as follows: Park City, Utah - A strange thing happened in Utah this week. Some 40 leading Jewish academics, writers, rabbis and professionals descended on the mountains of Park City where, among other things, they built teepees. Although the media wasn't invited to watch the experience, which was concluded as a 'team building experiment' by the outdoor company running it, plenty of kvetching could be heard afterward.") I'm thinking that Howard Rieger, our CEO, probably thinks I'm a genius; I'll probably get a promotion. I'll make him think it was his idea; maybe he'll write one of those great Views about this.

3. More Recently

Okay, so it's over one year later and no one is really thrilled with my plan. We abandoned the idea of Ethiopians building huts at the General Assembly when some small thinking people didn't think it was appropriate to have Ethiopian Falas Mura building what looks like slave quarters on the floor of the Exhibition Hall. What do those people know about marketing?

Then, the baskets started arriving at 111 Eighth Avenue, UJC Headquarters, last fall and are they ever fantastic -- of course, they look like something we could have bought at Pier One and they could have been made in Mexico, but, hey, we can attest to their authenticity. They are filling every nook and cranny, every hallway, at UJC. Baskets here, mesobs there and everywhere. Oh, and they smell.

It's a remarkable sight because these are really big baskets -- I mean, huge. The Ethiopians use them as a dining table. Usually it takes, as I understand it, over a year to make just one of these things but, with our money (oh, make that your money), we were able to expedite the manufacture of these handmade baskets over a matter of just a couple of weeks. I still think every federation is going to want at least one. I want one and would have bought one but, unfortunately, my wife saw one in my office and suggested it was either me or a mesob. In fact, our Chief Operating Officer wants one for his own home; wants to eat off of it like the Ethiopians do -- if you saw one of these things, you could hardly picture a group gathered around this basket eating, but I guess anything is possible.

So far, I am sorry to say. federations haven't expressed any interest whatsoever in buying a mesob or even taking one for free. What do they know about fund raising or marketing? They're still in the 20th century. In fact, our own UJC Marketing Department thinks this is and was a stupid idea -- but what do they know? I have discussed this problem with Howard Rieger; he believes the failure to get these baskets into the marketplace is further evidence of the silos we have not yet torn down here at UJC. He says he is going to do a real reorganization at UJC so we can move these things out. That's going to be fantastic!!

***

We've had kind of a tragedy. Penny, one of the UJC Secretaries, just walking through one of the halls here at Headquarters that were filled with these baskets, was bitten by a spider -- an Ethiopian spider, a toxic bite. She was placed on an IV at a hospital in New York City. Some chacham now thinks we should get these baskets fumigated -- I argued against it as it might detract from the baskets' authenticity. Risking one or two lives to achieve our goals for Operation Promise seems an appropriate and acceptable risk. Then we learned that the New York City Department of Health won't permit us to use the proper pesticides because of their potential toxicity even though this one incident was from an Ethiopian spider bite. The pesticide we need to use is too strong, they tell us-- but, what do they know? So, now we are shipping these hundreds of baskets for fumigation to New Jersey where, of course, they don't care about pesticides. Our COO thinks this is all a bad idea because who would eat food out of a basket after it has been treated with pesticides. I agree with him, the pesticide idea is a bad one. We are putting the entire project at risk because of one toxic -- uh,oh make that two toxic spider bites. Let's show some leadership here.

***

At the end of the day, this isn't going very well but, what the heck, it wasn't my idea anyway -- it was Wexler's!! (And deep discounts are available -- we have to get these out of here -- we'll pay you to take one.)"

***

During Chanukah of that year, I returned to Chicago from a vacation to find a huge box in my office. One of my dear friends at UJC had sent me a gift. I opened the box -- it was a mesob. I fell on the floor, crying with laughter...then I felt it bite me.....

Shabbat shalom.

Rwexler

1 comment:

hollie galloway said...

Hi,

I am interested in getting a masob. My husband was in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia in the late 60's and brought one home. It is faded and falling apart so we want another one.....a nice one....how can we get one of these?

Thanks,

Hollie