Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Buying Frozen Spinach in Israel

I really am going to teach you a trick about buying frozen spinach in Israel. But first I want to tell you why I think it's important, even if you don't like spinach. ¹

In 1991, Tzvia Ehrlich-Klein published this little guidebook to help people make the transition to everyday living in Israel. It was full of useful information.

When she published her guidebook, most olim from America lived in a mercaz klita (absorption center) when they first arrived in Israel. Phone calls were made on public phones using asimonim (telephone tokens).

Asimonim. Photo credit: jr.co.il
We're talking a decade before Nefesh b'Nefesh was even founded.

I'm working on an updated guidebook, chock full of helpful hints for today's olim. Because as soon as olim arrive in Israel, we have to learn tons of new things. Sometimes, a neighbor will give us a useful tip. Other times, we have to learn the hard way. 

My goal is reduce the amount of trial and error by equipping olim with practical, useful information.

Like this.

I knew that the Hebrew word for spinach is תרד- tered. But it took me years to figure out that there are (at least) two different kinds of frozen spinach sold in Israel. 

I definitely noticed that the frozen spinach pellets I was using came in two sizes. I just thought it had to do with differences in the factory that produced them.

I was wrong.

Turns out, the larger pellets are called עלי תרד (spinach leaves) and are frozen spinach leaves. They take longer to defrost and always end up wrapped around the blade of my immersion blender.

Spinach leaves
The smaller pellets are called מדליוני תרד (spinach medallions) and are minced or chopped spinach.
chopped spinach medallions - much better for my green smoothies
I think you can see why I got confused. I just looked for the word תרד. Unless you see them side-by-side, the bags are virtually identical.

While we're on the subject, notice the red oval at the top of the bags pictured above. That's the Sunfrost logo. They are the most widely available brand in Israel. Sunfrost offers lots of varieties of frozen vegetables, beans and rice and the quality is very good. They also tend to be more expensive than other brands.

Now that I've shared my spinach tip, I want to hear from you. I know that if you've been living in Israel for more than an hour, you've got at least one.

So, what have you figured out about life in Israel that you'd like to pass on to new olim?

Or what small mistake did you make that you'd like to warn others about?

Here are some topic areas to get your creative juices flowing:

  • food shopping
  • celebrating chagim in Israel
  • public transportation
  • dealing with government offices
  • crucial Hebrew vocabulary
  • running a household, utilities
  • money and banking
  • education
  • shopping in general
Feel free to respond in the comments below, or email TipsForOlim@gmail.com. That's also the email address to use if you'd like to be updated when the guidebook is ready for purchase.

¹ The reason spinach is so awesome in green smoothies is because you can't really taste it. All those nutrients and, despite its reputation, there is absolutely no bitter taste. Spinach for the win!

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Stories and Tips to Ease Your Transition to Israel

As my own aliyah journey unfolds, and as I continue to learn new things about how daily life works in the Holy Land, I've published lots of practical tips for managing our new lives in Israel, both on this blog and in Facebook posts.

After almost seven years in Israel, I'm ready to take these random tips, add tons more, and put them all together in a neatly-organized, practical guidebook for olim.

I'm envisioning a book full of tips and stories about the kinds of things olim learn from neighbors and from one another. 

Or from trial and error.  

Or just from error. 

Things like:
  • Finding trash bags that actually fit your kitchen trash can 
  • Surviving your first asifat horim (parents' meeting)
  • Figuring out which item near the sign is actually on sale
  • Cooking a vegetable you've never seen before
  • Knowing which Facebook groups are best to turn to when you need specific advice
  • Mastering the Hebrew slang that is really critical for olim
  • Learning what time of year strawberries and fresh garlic are in season
  • Adjusting to Sunday being, ahem... Israel's Monday 
  • Cleaning your floors without an American mop
My goal is to produce an encouraging guidebook, full of concrete tips as well as amusing stories. I want it to be both fun to read and truly practical.

To make this happen, I'm going to need lots of input from olim of every vintage, whether you got off your aliyah flight yesterday or have been here since before the Six Day War.

Please feel free to comment on any or all of these.

1) Do you have a funny/cute/embarrassing story of a mistake you made as a new olah/oleh? For example, did you wash your clothes in fabric softener for a year because you didn't yet know the word for detergent?

2) Do you have a serious story of a mistake you made as a new olah/oleh from which others can learn? For example, did you fail to respond to a piece of Hebrew-language mail that you really should not have ignored?

3) What's your #1 tip for living successfully in Israel, even if you've been here for years? Can be something practical or maybe a motto you've adopted.

4) What did it take you awhile to figure out that you wish someone would have explained to you from the beginning? For example, it took me almost seven years to notice that there's a difference between frozen chopped spinach and frozen spinach leaves.

what small thing have you figured out about life in Israel that you'd like to pass on to newer olim?

Or what small mistake did you make that you'd like to warn others about?

Feel free to respond in the comments below, or email TipsForOlim@gmail.com.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

They Ruined the Kotel for Me

Photo credit: attractions-in-israel.com
Like so many other people, visiting the Kotel was an important part of my first-ever trip to Israel. To be honest, I pushed off going until the end of the trip. The Kotel! I understood it had potent, concentrated spiritual power. And I was a little afraid of it.

When I finally built up the courage to experience it for the first time, my husband and I walked to the Kotel Plaza. He went to the left and I went to the right. We agreed to meet back at a certain point in 20 minutes.

Once under the spell of the Kotel, I started weeping. I cried for so long that I was still crying when it was time to meet my husband in the plaza area. Unable to explain why I was crying, we went into the Rova and sat at a restaurant. And I was still crying. 

I couldn’t understand what had come over me. And I certainly had no words to explain it to him.
You would think that such a powerful emotional experience would knit me to the Kotel forever.

But you’d be wrong.

Let me state for the record that I am an Orthodox woman, married to a rabbi, now living in Israel. The Kotel ought to be a spiritual sanctuary for me. It is not. I hardly ever go to the Kotel anymore.

The purity of my first experience has been ruined - by politics, by power games and by overt sexism.

There is a 26-second video currently circulating on Facebook of a Japanese man at the Kotel. He is pictured hugging the Kotel, crying out. I don’t understand Japanese, but it would be clear to anyone that he is praying and crying with great feeling. At the end of the video, he falls into a bowing, prostrating posture.

I don’t know what religion, if any, this Kotel visitor follows, but I do know that Shinto and Buddhism are the two main religions in Japan. Chances are pretty excellent that he’s not a Jew. Despite that fact, he is permitted to worship in his own distinctive way at the Kotel. No one harasses him. No one arrests him. No one attempts to kick him out of the Kotel area.

And yet, actual Jewish women who wish to worship in their own distinctive way at the Kotel, with tallit and tefillin and Torah scrolls, are routinely harassed and have been arrested.

Men routinely sing, dance, shout and pray out loud on their side. Bar mitzvah boys are frequently accompanied by small groups of musicians who drum and sing.

Photo credit: Herschel Gutman Photography
However, when Jewish women gather in a group to pray, they are accused of being disruptive. They are maligned for compromising the purity of the Kotel. They are called an array of unspeakable names. They are routinely slandered.

I personally don’t pray with tallit, tefillin and rarely get near a sefer Torah.  But it’s hypocritical, at the very least, to say that a non-Jewish man can prostrate himself at the Kotel, praying to his god(s). Visitors of all the world’s religions can pray there to the gods they worship.

But Jewish women are obligated to behave as if the Kotel is an Orthodox shul?

Either the Kotel is a spiritual home for all of humanity or it’s an Orthodox shul whose visitors must abide by halacha.

You can’t have it both ways.

Here are a few other ways the Kotel has been ruined for me.

Women, even elderly women, have no alternative but to stand on plastic chairs in order to watch a Bar Mitzvah taking place on the men’s side of the mechitza. It’s a breach of derech eretz to not have found a safer, more dignified solution in all these years. If men had to stand on plastic chairs to watch a family simcha, you can bet this situation would have been addressed a long time ago.

It took me awhile to understand why, whenever we went to the Kotel, my husband reported having no problem getting a space right at the Wall. Women would be standing three deep, waiting for a space directly at the Wall. Then I realized that the women’s section is a fraction of the size of the men’s section. I suspect it’s gotten smaller over time.

Look at the first image, above. You can clearly see the disparity.

I grant that there are times, like Birkat Cohanim, when men really need more space. So build a moveable mechitza for those times if you must. But why are women disadvantaged with significantly less access to the Wall 100% of the time?

Besides having the lion’s share of space, the men’s side also has tables and umbrellas.

Since I’ve been in Israel, I’ve learned that the Kotel isn’t anywhere near as important, or as holy, as Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount). So the Kotel itself, despite its significant reputation, is simply not an important part of my Jewish life.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for this:

The Third Temple according to the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

When Women Pray Out Loud

Three years ago this month, I wrote about a powerful spiritual experience I had with a group of Jewish women I had never met.

It was early one morning in Medzibuz, Ukraine. I walked to the tziyun of the Baal Shem Tov to pray.

As I walked alone down the path, I heard women singing. It was very loud. I opened the door and I saw, right away, that it was overheated and packed beyond reason. There must have been a hundred women in a room that's about 400 square feet, standing wherever they could, amidst six large kevarim.

I was about to turn away to leave when the arms of a stranger pulled me in. And I entered something unworldly. A hundred women were chanting.

Twenty-four times they sang this verse from Tehillim.

Hoshia et amecha uvarech et nachalatecha orem v'naseim ad haolam.
Save Your nation and bless Your inheritance. Tend them and raise them up forever. (Ps. 28:9) 

Over and over, louder and louder, hands raised to the heavens.

Beside me, an old woman put her hands on the head of a young woman. A bracha that the young woman should find her zivug flowed from the old woman's lips.

After the 24th repetition, the prayer leader signaled the end.

Absolute silence.

Tears sprang up in my eyes. I heard weeping all around me, saw the precious faces of women I didn't know, wet with tears.

The collective prayer of these women raised me to transcendence. I was no longer in rural Ukraine. I was somewhere else, somewhere higher.

This is the power of women at prayer, when we are free to pray out loud. The lack of this has been a painful deficit for me for a very long time. I came to Ukraine and found it there.

Last night, almost exactly three years later, I found it again.

My husband and I traveled to Tiveria with one of my Torah teachers. She and I were hoping for a brief, private meeting with Rabbanit Leah Kook. Rabbanit Kook is married to the mekubal Rabbi Dov Kook and is the granddaughter of Rebbetzin Batsheva and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky.

We were told that the Rabbanit has kabbalat kahal, where she meets the public, from 6-7 PM. We arrived in Tiveria just before 6 PM and located the address we were given. We walked through a gate, down a dark path to a locked door.

There was one other woman already there waiting. Within a few minutes, two other women had arrived, including one older woman completely covered, except for her face and hands, in a shimmery grey cloth.

At 6 PM, Rabbanit Kook herself, wearing a purple snap-on vest cum apron embroidered with the words l'kavod Hashem Yitbarach (to the honor of God, the Blessed One), unlocked the door and, with a huge smile and good spirits, welcomed the five of us in. Up a short flight of stairs, we entered a small, simple room with a table, about 15 chairs and floor-to-ceiling bookcases, filled with sefarim.

More women came in while the Rabbanit stood by an interior door, held onto the doorpost, and prayed.  I was in that small room for about 35 minutes and I was completely, utterly and uncomfortably out of my element.

It didn't become clear until just before we left that we weren't going to be able to see her privately. Instead, we got a window into the power of what Jewish women's prayer can be when there are no men around.

It seemed to me that most of the women were regulars who knew exactly what to expect. I, however, was nothing if not dumbfounded. I felt like the most ignorant Jewish woman in the history of the universe. While the 15 or so women recited some text in a distinctive, unified cadence, patting their thighs to keep rhythm, I struggled to figure out what they were saying. Eventually,  nafal li ha'asimon (the penny dropped) and I realized they were reciting Tehillim.

The Rabbanit screamed Toda Abba! (Thank You Father!) a dozen times. She shouted Anachnu ohavim otach! (We love You!) over and over. And when she closed her eyes and screamed Moshiach! thirty times or more, I knew I had never seen anyone pray this way.

One woman brought a small vial of scented oil, which was passed around. Each woman said the bracha borei minei b'samim, blessing God for being the Creator of different types of fragrances, to which everyone else answered amen, before breathing in the scent. Brachot said out loud seemed to be a big thing, because the Rabbanit gave out cups of water and each woman who took one made a shehakol out loud, again with everyone answering amen.

The Rabbanit went back into the kitchen and brought out a large metal bowl, dinged from much use, filled with dough. In keeping with the mood of the room, she made the bracha for taking challah loudly. Then she did something (okay, yet another thing) I never saw before.

She took the bag with the challah that she had broken off and rubbed it on her knees and on her eyes and said, lo ko'ev (it doesn't hurt/it shouldn't hurt). Then she passed it around and everyone had the chance to rub the bag of dough on the part of her body that needs healing.

Everything I saw was so otherworldly that I'm sure I don't remember the exact sequence. I do remember that Tehillim 20 (Lamnatzeach Mizmor L'David) was recited at least 12 times, over and over, with the same cadence, the same specific emphasis on the final words Hashem hoshea haMelech.

When I agreed to go to Tiveria, I had no clue about any of this. Today, I have a completely different awareness of how one's relationship with Hashem, and with tefillah, can be.

Even if one is a woman.

Monday, March 30, 2015

We Don't Have Any Idea What Jerusalem Really Is

When my nephew, who is now in his early 30s, attended  Reform Hebrew school, he learned the story of Purim. He told me his teacher informed the class that if Mordechai was too hard for them to pronounce, they could just refer to him as Uncle Mordy.

I've often considered that story emblematic of what's so sad about certain forms of American Judaism. It's so watered down as to be tasteless pabulum, completely lacking the ability to engage the soul. Most Jews, I venture, have no clue about the depth, richness and vibrancy of authentic Judaism.

The other evening, after working at home for too many days in a row, I needed to air myself out. My husband and I went out to dinner. The meal over, I wasn't ready to return home, so we drove into Jerusalem to see if a certain Jewish bookstore was still open. It was after 10 PM when we arrived. Happily, the lights were on, the doors were open, the shelves were fully stocked and the cash register was humming.

Since we've made aliyah, I like to joke about the old days, referring to them as "back when we had money". Back when we had money, we would go into New York for a few days in June and go on a Jewish book buying spree. It's been years since I went into a Jewish bookstore with nothing specific in mind, just to see what's new that might catch my attention. My favorite thing to do in a bookstore is to scan the shelves and wait to see which books sing to me.

So we're in this Jewish book warehouse store in Jerusalem and everything I see is in Hebrew. Surely they must have some English books somewhere. I ask in Hebrew ?איפה הספרים באנגלית - where are the books in English? The clerk grunts, points and says something basically unintelligible to my ear. But he pointed, so I have a clue in which direction I ought to move.

Behold, there's a gorgeous wall full of Jewish books in English. Because I'm such a book fiend, many of the titles are familiar to me, but there are a few gems I long to own. A book titled The Soul of Jerusalem calls my name. It's the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on Jerusalem, complied by Rabbi Shlomo Katz.

I'll be honest. I don't usually understand Shlomo Carlebach. His words sound magical and his distinctive phrasing - "Open your heart to the deepest of the deep, my sweet friends, my holy brothers and sisters" - are poetic and engaging, but I never feel like I've grasped the essence of anything he said. That fact notwithstanding, Jerusalem has its own magic.

I bought the book.

And it drew me in almost immediately. Late Friday night, I was reading and enjoying, if not the specific learning, the feeling, the spirit of the book.

Then, a passage stopped me in my tracks.
Sometimes, you take a Yiddele and you tell him, "You have to keep Shabbos, put on tefillin, do a few tricks here and a few tricks there and that's all there is to it. That is all there is to Yiddishkeit." - p. 65
And with this brief passage, it hit me. We have no idea. We don't know. We have been living without the Beit HaMikdash, without the Holy Temple, for 2,000 years. At best, we have a diluted practice of Judaism. We're in the same boat as my nephew's Hebrew school classmates. Even those of us who live religious lives. Even those of us who live religious lives in Israel, we only have an inkling. We don't know the true power of living in the Presence of the Divine. We don't know what it's like to live with the Beit HaMikdash at the center of Jerusalem and at the center of our Jewish lives.

We have stumbled along for 2,000 years, doing our best to preserve what we can preserve. We have bent to the will of our host countries. We have clung to what we can. But we've lost the heart of our heritage. We've lost the supremacy of being able to visit God in His palace. We don't have any idea what Jerusalem really is, what Judaism really is.

My soul bleeds over the distortions that people call Judaism today. I'm especially sensitive to the "hadrat nashim" indignities that are increasingly foisted upon women in the name of the Torah. In my weaker moments, they enrage me. But ultimately, they are lint on a satin dress. They are meaningless perversions. They are gnats, easily flicked away. They are not the ikkar, the essence, of Jewish life.

Pesach, which is just days away, is the celebration of an important geula, of a redemption, of the Jewish people. Pesach is a placeholder for the geula shalayma, for the full, complete and eternal redemption of the Jewish people. The coming of Moshaich and the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash will restore us to a true understanding of what Jerusalem really means, of what Judaism truly is.

Until then, we are engaged in a kind of playacting. We are holding a place until the real thing shows up. It's not meaningless, but it's not the whole story. No matter how strong our commitment to Jewish law, Jewish practice, Jewish life is, we need to remember that, without the Beit HaMikdash, without the presence of God in Jerusalem, we do not know, we cannot experience, Judaism in its fullest expression.

My we each be blessed to personally experience the restoration of the soul of Jerusalem, to which Reb Shlomo hints in this magnificent volume.