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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Still, I Am Grateful

Many of us, when we first come to Israel, fall in love hard. We're like newlyweds who are still in the purest stage of love. Our heads are in the clouds and we just cannot believe we actually live in Israel. We notice everything. And everything is just so wonderful here!

Then, after a time, we get knocked around a little. We get cheated. Or stuck in a bad rental apartment. Or money starts to run out. Or we can't get something as simple as X or Y or Z done in this crazy county. Or we miss our loved ones. Or we actually calculate what a bowl of onion soup in an average restaurant in Israel costs in dollars. Or we still can't communicate well enough in Hebrew. Or we realize that we have chosen to live in a very, very complicated country in a very, very stressed-out region of the world. Or. Or. Or.

And we start to feel a little like this guy ----->

Today, DH and I were driving into Jerusalem and, without warning, I was smitten all over again. We're somewhere between our third and fourth aliyahversary. It's just an ordinary Thursday. And yet. And yet. I was overwhelmed with thoughts of how many things here are so precious to me. I asked DH if he also sometimes feels this way. And in under five minutes, we came up with a list of things we love, so much, about this country.

My computer sits on a desk right near a window that faces the street. Some evenings, as I work, I hear a man pacing in front of the shul across the street shouting, "Ma'ariv! Ma'ariv!"

When we drive into town to meet friends or run some errands, the sign that says "Bruchim HaBaim. Welcome to Jerusalem." still gives me chills.

There's a kelim mikvah right outside the housewares store.

On the way to do our grocery shopping, we drive past dozens of empty, densely-packed sand dunes. On my way to buy bread and cucumbers, I easily imagine Avraham and Sarah walking across these same hills.

On Shabbat mornings, around 10 AM, there is a Bedouin shepherd, a young teenage boy, who brings his flock near the edge of my community. He sits on a rock while his sheep graze in the grass and stubble that lies outside our fence. And I watch them as I pray.

The radio announcer tells people what parsha we will read in shul this Shabbat. And very early in the mornings, at the beginning of the broadcast day, he says Shema.

Directly across the street from my apartment, there are two shuls and a paper/bottle/old clothes recycling station. And on Fridays, there is a flower seller there. And erev Sukkot, someone sells lulavim at the same spot.

The streets one neighborhood away are named for Biblical instruments. In another neighborhood in another town, the streets are named for stones on the Choshen Mishpat. Our streets and our cities are named for Jewish ideas, Jewish personalities, Jewish history.

Every time I travel on one of the 66 buses a day that link my home to Jerusalem, I feel very acutely that I am part of the miracle of the Ingathering of the Exiles. I didn't just move to a new place. I am part of the fulfillment of an ancient Biblical prophecy.

Relatively often, I'll meet someone who doesn't yet live in Israel, or who is in process, but who isn't yet a Jew. I'll understand their longing. I don't know by what merit I was born a Jew. Or by what merit Hashem picked me to come live in His Holy Land. But I am just so grateful.

Because, despite it all, I so love my life here.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Purim Photoblog with Rashi (Commentary)

Standard Purim costumes include princesses, clowns, cowboys and sports fans. But some Purim costumes need a bit of explanation. Here follow a handful of clever, creative, homemade costumes spotted this Purim that may need a little, ahem.. clarification.

waze is a combination GPS and social media app that was created in Israel and sold to Google for $966 million. Chana and Jeremy Staiman dressed as the waze logo.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Staiman
They even took the waze theme to the next level and included this sign with their mishloach manot. Since Jeremy owns a graphic design business, they really raised the bar beyond where we ordinary mortals can compete.

Lisa Cain's costume is punny. She's displaying a pair-o-ducks (paradox).

But wait! There's more! Here, she's wearing a shift (a loose-fitting dress) and a pair of dimes, representing a paradigm shift.

Dena Udren was pregnant this Purim, so she dressed as a shana m'uberet - a "pregnant year" which is how we refer to a leap year in Hebrew. When the Hebrew year is a shana m'uberet, a leap year, there are two months of Adar. She's wearing two of the kabbalistic/zodiac symbols for Pisces which goes with the Hebrew month of Adar.

Here, I'm wearing a Ki"POT" Barzel and an IDF t-shirt. In Israel, the Iron Dome, which intercepts and destroys short-range rockets, is called kipat barzel (כִּפַּת בַּרְזֶל). 

This one is... wait for it... a pop quiz.
Photo Credit: Laura Ben-David

Okay, this one had me scratching my head for a bit, but I think I got it. The caption is Gar'in Torani, which is a group of idealistic, young, Zionist, religious families and singles who move to a community together to try to strengthen the community's level of Jewish commitment. Gar'inim is also the Hebrew word for sunflower seeds. So this is a sunflower hat with sunflower seeds that look (to me) like a community of people. The tzitzit on either side is a symbol of the religious identification of the Gar'in Torani.

Thanks to Chaviva Braun for her commentary on my commentary. The picture is of her son who, together with his wife and 4 children, are part of the Gar'in Torani in Migdal haEmek.

Some costumes have an only-in-Israel political flavor. And in Israel, politics is generally bundled together with religion.

This one is a reference to the current culture war between those who serve in the Israeli Defense Forces and those who don't. In Hebrew, this concept of social equality is called shivyon b'netel. Instead of b'netel, his sign says, "The people seek equality "b'petel!" Petel is an Israeli brand of concentrated drink mix. Notice the two bottles he's carrying around his neck. The one on his left is dressed in an army uniform and the one on his right is dressed in a black hat and the black clothes associated with the Charedim who generally oppose serving in the IDF.

Photo credit: Avi Staiman

On a similar note, here's DH dressed as "Charedi Chaim from Yereeshalayim" who is completely against the idea of yeshiva students being drafted and required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. He's holding volumes of books that yeshiva students study and his signs say:
NO DRAFT (only beer)
No Uzis. No Floozies. Just me and my Chavruzees. 
(Uzis are submachine guns. Floozies is a tasteless reference to women and chavruzees are actually chavrusas or chavrutot which means partners with whom one studies Torah.)

When we delivered mishloach manot to a family with 2 year-old twins, they thought DH was Uncle Moishy.

This is the real Uncle Moishy.

One more on this same theme. This is Sandy Honigsberg dressed like someone opposed to service in the Israeli Defense Forces and in favor of continued government subsidies for yeshiva students. His sign says, "God is proclaiming, 'Death to Tzahal. Where is my money?'" Tzahal is an acronym for the Hebrew words Tzva Hahagana LeYisra'el which refers to the IDF.

Photo credit and photo identification: Yoni Kremer

This is our neighbor wearing an ironic t-shirt. It has very short sleeves and the words, "It is forbidden for Jewish women and girls to dress in immodest clothes," emblazoned across the chest.

Another neighbor is dressed as a member of Women of the Walla group of Jewish women who wear prayer shawls, pray and read from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. 

And just to end on a lighter note, here's my newly married daughter and her husband as Mario and Princess Peach.

Just kidding. Here they really are...

And because they are just so adorable, here they are again:

Hope you had a great Purim!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Jew... and His Wife

I don't know Elad Nehorai, the man behind the Pop Chassid blog. But in a recent post, Nehorai writes about how ba'alei teshuva are uniquely positioned to point out inconsistencies in the Orthodox world. Since we ba'alei teshuva come to Judaism with fresh eyes, having rejected much of the pull of the surrounding secular culture, we are already trained to notice what Nehorai calls "mistakes". He asserts that it's our job, not just to notice them, but to "rebel", that is, to point out where the traditional Jewish world has gone awry.

His post reminded  me of something that has long distempered me. I have see it so often over the past 25 years, and yet, each time I see it, it still makes my systolic blood pressure rise 20 points. It makes my eyes bleed. It makes me want to scream.

ITEM: He Who blessed our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - may He bless this entire holy congregation along with all the holy congregations; them, their wives, sons and daughters and all that is theirs... [Mi Shebayrach following Yekum Purkan]

ITEM: For this betrayal, the Jewish People were punished by being condemned to wander in the desert for forty years, until they would all die, and only their children would enter the Holy Land. [Actually, only the men of that generation, save Yehoshua and Calev, died as a punishment for the Sin of the Spies. The women of that generation did not die in the desert.]

ITEM: When I was learning about Simchat Torah for the first time, I read in a book of Jewish customs that every Jew dances with the Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah. I was so naive at the time. I thought that meant that every Jew dances with the Sefer Torah.

ITEM: In a siddur, the words of prayer are grammatically correct only if the person praying is male.

ITEM: Ishto k'gufo - "His wife is like his body."

ITEM: "All men are Jews, though few men know it." — Bernard Malamud

ITEM: Ish Ubeito by Eliyahu Kitov. Translated as The Jew and His Home: A Guide to Jewish Family Life.

These are seven exceedingly random examples. I could have listed a hundred and seven. Or a thousand and seven. Or ten thousand and seven. All examples of the Jewish world's maddening tendency to say Jew when what is really meant is Jewish man.

Sometimes, it is necessary to refer to Jewish men separately from Jewish women. I have no issue with that. However, having been made aware of this maddening tendency, I'll thank you from refraining from co-opting the words Jew, all Jews, the Jewish people, etc. when what you actually mean is:


or this...

or this...

or even this.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Spiritual Hunger

If we would feel spiritual hunger the way we feel physical hunger, 
we would solve the whole problem of life.
 Getting to Know Your Self: The Gateway to Recognizing Your Inner Strengths
by the author of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

I've been thinking about spiritual hunger quite often lately. Is it a residue of my visit to Uman where I spent an intense week doing not much more than praying, learning Torah, crying and trying to connect with God, coupled with just enough eating and sleeping to sustain my body? Or is it a function of living in Israel, where the spiritual aspect of life is just so loud?

No matter. Here I am, thinking about how to notch up the percentage of my day in spent in God consciousness. According to a lesson I received from the brilliant and remarkably personable Jerusalem-based teacher Yehudis Golshevsky, in Chassidut, there are only two mindsets. A person is either attached to kedusha (holiness) or to shtuyot (nonsense). There is no neutral space in Chassidut. I was very struck by that lesson, even as I continue to argue against it in my mind. Surely some things in life are pareve - neither advancing our relationship with the Divine nor detracting from it.

I certainly came to Israel in order to grow closer to God. Yet, sometimes, the daily challenges of living here distract me from that goal. Getting from place to place on public transportation instead of hopping in my car. Earning enough shekels to sustain ourselves. The frustration of not being able to communicate easily with the health care system, the store clerk, the government. Trying to acculturate while feeling very much like an immigrant. Trying to balance the ridiculous and the sublime aspects of living in the Holy Land. These are the quintessential conundrums of religious olim. And they are mine as well.

I had a dream recently that I met with a therapist and I told him that all my troubles, whatever I feel I lack, are spiritual in nature. I know this is true. After nearly 3 ½  years in Israel, it's time to get serious about the next chapter of my spiritual story.

Years ago, I lived alone in an apartment in a not very Jewish area of Baltimore. Often, I would drive down a certain street on my way home. One day, I noticed an office building off to my left with a sign identifying it as belonging to a utility company. Now I knew that building did not just go up overnight. It had been there the whole time. I had just failed to notice.

And that's something like what I feel now. The depths of Torah have been here the whole time. I just wasn't paying enough attention. Too wrapped up in daily challenges, or shtuyot, or whatever.

For me, my success in adjusting to life in Israel can be measured by how heightened my spiritual hunger is.

When I was new to Jewish life, new to Jewish practice, I was busy twirling a lot of new plates. There was so much to learn. When I moved to Israel, that became true again. But at a certain point, then, as now, I'd mastered just enough to move to the next phase of growth.

So now, I'm in the process of cracking something open. I'm exceedingly drawn to spiritual people. Something inside me races with excitement when I hear someone else speaking about God like a genuine Presence. I'm learning more spiritual material. I'm feeling the press of needing to talk to God more often and in greater detail. I'm attending more shiurim (Torah classes) and appreciating more fully how deep, how penetrating, the Torah actually is. Learning Torah like this shines a light on, and opens up for me, awareness of some of the multiple levels of reality on which the world, and God, truly operate. I have too often been oblivious.

This intensified hunger for the metaphysical is elusive and difficult to describe. I'm not sure I've adequately captured it here. I generally know when I'm in the territory of God consciousness. And often, I know when I'm not.

You'll have to excuse me now.

I have to go talk to God.

Friday, November 15, 2013

GUEST POST: Born in the USA

Guest Post by Joan Kristall

On the boats and on the planes

They’re coming to America

Got a dream to take them there

They’re coming to America

Got a dream they’ve come to share

They’re coming to America
My country ‘tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty

(Neil Diamond)

At the end of this month, I have a plane ticket to America. Two weeks, during Chanukah, I plan to see family, friends and colleagues; do a workshop and stock up at Target. A short time ago, going on 2 years in January, we landed as official citizens of the State of Israel and haven’t looked back since. It seems uncanny, but our transition has been seamless. It’s as if our ‘slippers’, so to speak, were on the runway; we eased into them and kept walking into our new life. Despite the language barrier, the cultural differences, the bureaucracy, the absence of a car and no job when we arrived, we have adapted, adjusted, acclimated and grown in affection for our new country. Amazing!

I wonder if my grandparents, who arrived on the shores of New York harbor and were processed at Ellis Island, embraced their new homeland so smoothly and quickly. Bubby and grandma came from Russia, Zayde from Lithuania. All were very young, not yet adults, coming without the guidance and support of their parents. Little money, no work, few family, but a hope that life would be better. They were running from pogroms, antisemitism and poverty. They were headed for the ‘golden medina’, the Promised Land where possibilities were endless and the streets were paved with gold.

We, on the other hand, were not running from anything or anyone. Life in Baltimore, Maryland for the past 27 years was pretty darn good. In fact, I would say it was wonderful in so many ways. It was cozy and familiar, with so many people and places that knew our name. Why would people in their 60s uproot themselves from such comfort and move thousands of miles away when their lives were very far from ‘in danger’?

I guess the two words that come to mind are yearning and dream. We were running to our Home, to a place where our heart and soul could soar.

Does it feel different from living in ‘east coast USA’? You bet! Most definitely! It has felt like the most marvelous adventure; every day there is something mildly or majorly extraordinary that happens. To be able to walk on holy ground and feel stirred by the air; to be able to be present in the land that our magnificent ancestors once stood; to witness, on the ground, a modern day miracle and to be the hosts of our own country………..well, that is a deep and serene privilege, indeed!

I am looking forward to my trip, back to the country of my birth, very much. Seeing all the people I love in one fell swoop will be, I imagine, heartwarming and sustaining. To light the second candle of Chanukah on Thanksgiving will be awesome! I’m thrilled to be able, as is my plan, to cook a turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes with marshmallow fluff and pumpkin pie for my 4 sons, as I have done for many decades. In my imagination, I can hear the football game in the background. Talk about All American….count me in!

As I think of this upcoming visit with much enthusiasm and envision the sweet reunions, big hugs, heartfelt talks and warm reconnections, I also visualize returning to Israel; displaying my Israeli passport, for the first time, and being chilled to the core, that I have come back Home.