The Person Behind The Posts

Monday, November 29, 2010

Where Judaism Makes The Most Sense

Yesterday, I had lunch with two former colleagues, now friends, from Baltimore, both currently visiting Israel. These are two of the most Israel-aware friends I had in Baltimore.  Both speak Hebrew far better than I do.  And they were kind enough to let me, ahem... advocate for their respective aliyah (aliyot?) during our lunch.

It's no secret that, across the board, unless there is some really compelling reason not to make aliyah, I'm a big fan of reminding people who, like these friends, are profoundly Jewishly-identified and are Hebrew speakers to boot, that they belong here.  It's actually quite a challenge for me to NOT talk about it.  Because really, at this point in Jewish history, what other Jewish decision is as compelling?

On some level, it was indescribably surreal to be sitting in a cafe in Jerusalem with these two friends and to be the Israeli among them.  The whole time, I kept thinking how lucky I am that, among the three of us, I'm the only one with a teudat zehut.  I live here.  I'm a citizen of Israel.

At some moments, I can still hardly believe it.

Earlier that morning, I went to ulpan as usual.  On the way in to class, I saw a couple of "only-in-Israel" sights that made me smile.

I had to take this photo at a distance because I didn't want to arouse suspicion.  This is a group of Israeli soldiers, gathered in the plaza outside my classroom building in the middle of Jerusalem.  There was another group of soldiers off to their right and each was being addressed by a commanding officer.  I have no idea what the gatherings were about, but I feel so privileged to see Israeli soldiers  nearly every day.

At our stage in life, our daughters, their friends, and the children of our friends are all right around army age.  So we hear an increasing amount of army talk in our house.

I see soldiers on the bus nearly every day, especially on Sundays when so many of them are returning to base after spending Shabbat with their families.  I see soldiers in the Central Bus Station, guarding their guns and eating felafel at the same time.  I see soldiers nod to us as we drive through the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim.  It's part of life here.  As a mother and as a citizen, my heart swells with pride at the sight of our soldiers.  I have to be honest.  I just never felt that way about American soldiers.  Here, the soldiers are truly, literally, our sons and daughters.  In America, it was never so personal.

Finally, a greeting of the season.

Nope, not THAT one.

The Jewish one.

One day, on the way to ulpan, this giant menorah just popped up on the street.  I just love how the Jewish holidays spill out onto the streets here in a completely organic manner.
I know I said that the menorah was the last picture for today, but there was one more tiny moment recently that really brought home how integrated Jewish life is here.

Since Jewish law requires that any paper with Hashem's name on it be buried as a sign of respect rather than thrown away with potato peels and burned toast, observant Jews always have a dilemma about what to do with these papers.  Sometimes they come to us in publications, in photocopies of sources from Torah lectures and in books that are no longer in good enough condition to retain.

In Baltimore, there were men we called (and paid) to come and pick up boxes of these sorts of materials. They would accumulate for weeks and months before we had enough to make it worthwhile to pay someone to come and cart them away to a local Jewish cemetery.

But now, for me in the Holy Land, in the only Jewish country in the universe, there is an easier solution.  Just a few kilometers from our apartment, on the way out of the city, there's a giant yellow receptacle for these sorts of papers.  The Hebrew on the sign reads "genizah" which literally means archives, but is understood as the place where holy books, magazines and papers may be deposited and will be treated with proper respect.  To date, the most famous geniza is known as the Cairo Genizah.  Perhaps someday, this yellow tin can will come to be known by scholars as the Ma'ale Adumim Genizah.  Until then, it's just another reminder of how lucky I am to live in the one place in the world where Judaism makes the most sense.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Israel Moments

A collection of tiny experiences, "Israel moments", from the past week or so.

Like many English-speaking olim, I have often thought that I could make a living here editing Hebrew to English translations.  This sign on a door in the building where my ulpan meets cracked me up.  Then I realized that it's probably better English than what I sound like in Hebrew.

I continue to be fascinated by what bus drivers use to decorate their buses.  Last Saturday night, I was on a bus that was all done up in the distinctive yellow and black colors of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team.  I didn't get a photo of that, but I did get this curious decoration recently.  I thought it was clever Israeli security that keeps us all safe on the buses, but apparently, it's been Spiderman all along.

The Israeli buses are also a place where one can learn proper Jewish values.  We may shove our way onto the bus in a most disorderly manner, but once on the bus, we are reminded to get up and offer our seats to passengers who are elderly.  The words "mipnei sayvah takum" come from the Torah (Vayikra 19:32) and are translate as, "Show honor to the elder."

The other Israel moment I wanted to mention is a weekly occurrence.  Let me say that, in general, I have a long history of not feeling comfortable or happy in shul.  But since moving here, I have found that the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night has become a major spiritual highlight of my week.  To my ear, the communal singing of Carlebach melodies is pure, sincere praise to Hashem who sustains us every moment of life.  I enter the shul when it is still light out.  I get there early and watch my neighbors and friends trickle in.  By the time the Kabbalat Shabbat service is over, night has descended.  I feel uplifted as I walk up the hill to our home.  Invariably, the shul across the street from us is letting out just as I get home, so I see some more of my neighbors on the street.  It's a wholesome, holy feeling and, on those rare occasions when I'm not in shul Friday night, I genuinely miss it.

Go figure.

This place seems to be changing me.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

We Are Here

I'm writing from the midst of a difficult week.  My husband is on his first trip to the US since we made aliyah and I am home with the girls.  In a normal week, that would be easy to manage, but this has been anything but a normal week.  Medical issues, bureaucratic issues, emotional and financial issues are all on high alert in our home.  I have no idea why so many things have come raining down on us all at once, but I do have a very strong sense of having transitioned in a major way to living my "real life" here in Israel.

My thoughts frequently turn to Hashem to ask for help managing the multiple challenges with which my family is being faced.

And I remind myself to be grateful for the fact that, no matter how much pressure gets heaped upon us, we are here.

Over Shabbat, I had a conversation with two lovely young women from North America who are here for the year, studying at a decidedly non-Tzioni seminary.  We were debating whether, in the absence of the Third Holy Temple, it is an obligation in Jewish law to live in Israel.

In truth, there is debate on this point in the rabbinic literature, primarily because the Rambam (Maimonides) did not explicitly list living in Israel as one of the 613 mitzvot.  The RambaN (Nachmanides), asserts that the Rambam made a mistake by not explicitly listing aliyah as a positive commandment in Sefer HaMitzvot.  The RambaN does consider living here as a binding commandment for every observant Jew, for all time.  In his commentary on parshat Achrei Mot, the RambaN teaches, "that the fundamental aim of all the Torah precepts is to see the whole of Israel dwelling in the Land."

Indeed, it's possible to argue, based on other teachings, such as the idea that if a husband wants to make aliyah and his wife does not, he may divorce her and she forfeits the protection of her ketubah, that the Rambam essentially agrees.

Why then, might he have chosen not to explicitly list aliyah as one of the 613 mitzvot?  I can think of several reasons.

Perhaps he felt it was so fundamental a concept that it didn't need to be articulated.  Perhaps he took for granted that the necessity to live in Israel would be clear to his readers.

To my mind, it's more likely that Hashem wanted us to get the spiritual reward for figuring it out.

Rabbi Yehudah He-Hasid traveled through Poland urging aliyah and finally came to Eretz Yisrael with hundreds of followers in 1700.  The Chatam Sofer sent Jews to Eretz Yisrael in 1799, urging his followers to take concrete measures to help bring about the Redemption.  The Vilna Gaon sent several waves of students to settle here in 1808-10.  These are just a few examples of rabbinic support for aliyah.

All before the establishment of the Third Holy Temple.  And all way before May 14, 1948.  Does Hashem returning dominion over Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish people through the hands of the nations of the world change the halachic obligation?

Very few Torah Jews would argue against the idea that living together in Israel is the ultimate destiny of the Jewish people, but some argue that it isn't required just yet.

It seems to me that there is enough ambiguity in the sources to argue that one can stay in Lakewood, Monsey, Flatbush or Baltimore for now.

It frustrates me that I haven't yet crafted a compelling case for why choosing to live your life in someone else's country is, minimally, chaval and, at least according to the RambaN, a violation of Jewish law.

But mostly, it hurts my heart to hear Torah Jews justify it because the Moshiach is not yet revealed and the Third Holy Temple is not yet standing on Har HaBayit.  My understanding of Redemption is that it's a process in which we have to participate, not some kind of heavenly chocolate bar that we will be handed, all wrapped up in shiny paper.

I'm grateful that we're here already and I worry for the Jews that are ensconced elsewhere, having chosen to take a "wait-and-see" approach.  And that gratitude extends even to weeks like this one, when every day brings with it a new test.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Israeli Flag Dancing

Maybe other countries have these, but I never heard of them until we enrolled our children at Yeshivat Rambam in Baltimore.

Every Yom HaAtzmaut, while at least half the religious Jews in America are pretending that nothing significant happened on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar 5708), the students at Yeshivat Rambam produce a program for the community both to honor those who lost their lives defending the State of Israel and to celebrate another year of her independence.

For me, the highlight of the evening was always, always the candle-lighting ceremony where families who were making aliyah in the upcoming months were honored by the community.  However, the Israeli flag dancing, known as daglanut, came a close, close second.  Daglanut, especially the years when my kids were the ones carrying the flags, is a grand and pride-filled celebration of the Israeli flag and all it means.  It's basically synchronized (more or less) marching with huge Israeli flags.  Like with a fireworks display, some of the choreography borders on spectacular and gets a big rise from the audience.

This past motzei Shabbat, way, way after I should have been in bed, I sat on stone steps near our shul and watched the performances of Shabbat Irgun.

Shabbat Irgun is the culmination of a month of intense Bnei Akiva youth group activity around a theme.  Although my children are too old now to really participate, rumor has it that this year's theme was aliyah.

But more importantly, the Shabbat Irgun tekes (ceremony) included four-and-a-half gorgeous minutes of daglanut.  The real thing.  Israeli kids.  My neighbors' kids.  Israeli flags.  My national flag!  In Israel.  In my neighborhood.

Once again, new immigrant tears welled up in my eyes and I was reminded of what a privilege it is to live here.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Kraft and Hershey's vs. Osem and Elite

People often ask me what consumer goods they should stock up on to put on their lift.  I have my own opinions, of course, but I thought it would be instructive to ask others what they think, so I posted the question on Facebook and a few lists that olim from America read and I was flooded with responses. 

Here are the questions I asked:
  • If you made aliyah from America recently, what consumer goods did you bring with you on your lift?  
  • What did you not bring but wish you had brought?  
  • What did you bring but found was unnecessary?
  • If you've been in Israel awhile, I'd like to know what you still stock up on when you visit the US.
To make the analysis (ha! a more scientific sounding word than what I actually did with the results) more manageable, I'm limiting this discussion to consumable goods, such as food and household products, as opposed to hard goods like furniture and appliances.

It turns out there are strong feelings associated with even asking these questions.  Some people feel that it's important to wean oneself away from American products as soon as possible:

"I made up my mind before I came that I was going to live here totally, not pine for what I left behind."

"besides a few spices here and there, i really don't see the point in bringing over food items... i've either modified or dropped most of my fav recipes-- and added a ton of new ones. you will get used to the tuna...and if not, you'll live! pasta is no diff here and can be cheap on sale. same w/ most other things...and if not, you don't eat it!"

"There's a fine line between being comfortable and feeling at home, and really TRYING to bring Target with you every chance you get." 

Others feel just as strongly that there's no harm in continuing to use American products either because they are significantly cheaper, of superior quality or simply not available here.  In the absence of mega-stores like WalMart and Target, perhaps many olim simply haven't learned where to buy the things they need.  As we learn more about which brands to buy and which stores carry which items, our list of "must-haves" will likely decrease.

One point that I thought was especially well-made was that, the longer you live in Israel, the shorter your list of "must-have" American products should be.  When I asked vatikim (long-term residents), their lists were indeed much shorter.

In my highly unscientific survey, certain items came up again and again.  I've categorized the items mentioned most often into a few lists.  For your amusement, I appended the list of 60+ other items that were mentioned at least once to the end of this post.

Items available in Israel but are expensive and/or of different (often inferior) quality:
American cheese
Children’s books in English
Cotton swabs (True confession: I made aliyah with a lifetime supply of Q-Tips :-)
Cosmetics (make-up)
Double-sided tape
Foil - pre-cut foil, heavy duty foil and heavy foil pans
Games and toys
Kitchen garbage bags
Linens - sheets, towels and blankets
Onion powder
Paper goods (especially paper plates and paper towels)
Sewing patterns
Shoes and sneakers - especially narrow widths
Underwear and socks
Vanilla - the real stuff
White tuna
Zip-lock bags

Items that are not (yet) available in Israel:
Crystal light
Hot cocoa mix/hot chocolate
Candy (especially M&M's, Reese's, Hershey's, Jelly Belly) 
Condensed cream of mushroom soup
Salad dressing mixes, especially ranch, Good Seasons and Pfeiffer's Italian dressing
Spices:  Mrs. Dash, taco seasoning, chili seasoning, chili powder, garlic salt, celery seed, dried sage, Lawry’s season salt, pumpkin pie spice, cream of tartar, poultry seasoning, dried onion, Italian seasoning mix
Stain removers - especially Zout, Shout and Spray & Wash 
Wilton cake decorating items

Items people miss that can’t be imported:
Fake crab
Kosher Chinese (Despite what I have heard again and again, I've never had "real" Cantonese kosher Chinese food in Israel.  Generic Asian food doesn't count.)
Lactaid milk

If you're still reading, here's the whole list, in no particular order, of items that were mentioned by at least one person:

cans of pie filling 
Centrum vitamins 
large size Tums and Maalox
a lot of sewing  accessories
Kedem grape juice
10-pound bag of pancake mix
decaffeinated cold brew tea
Neutrogena face wash 
baking powder
coffee beans
coffee filters
instant coffee
Pam baking spray 
Schick Intuition razors
Swiffer wet jet liquid 
Starbucks coffee
macrobiotic foods
Tom’s deodorants and toothpastes
maple syrup
Croydon House Matzo Ball and Soup Mix
Barkeeper's Friend
lamb chops
Nail Strengthener
ink cartridges
decaffeinated black tea bags
LaChoy soy sauce
soft corn tortillas
egg roll wrappers 
Morningstar farms bacon and sausages
Baker's Chocolate - 100% cacao with NO added sugar
canned salmon 
dried mango slices
Scotchbrite scrubbing pads
Luna bars
Jif peanut butter
instant hot cereal
brown sugar 
chocolate chips
drink mixes for kids, especially Kool Aid
"Red Hot" hot pepper sauce
cake mixes in flavors you can't buy here
three ring looseleaf stuff
manila envelopes
cat treats 
blank greeting cards
lip balm
Thomas' English muffins
almond milk
feminine hygiene products
Planter's peanuts
Rubbermaid stacking ice cube trays
mechanical pencils
white out
sticky notes
favorite brands of pens
saran wrap
paper lunch bags
duct tape
facial soap
acne cream
Mr. Eraser
Clorox wipes 
dryer sheets
contact lens solution

And finally, a story from Bracha Osofsky about importing consumer goods.

There was a time 2 years ago when we had one friend visiting from the U.S. and another visiting from England, and my neighbor's mother was also visiting from the U.S.  The American friend had brought a sliced Miller's American cheese from NY for her daughter, the British friend had brought kosher cheese from England for Nahum and the neighbor's mother was buying Israeli cheese to take home with her. We find that the same thing happens with chocolate - Elite, Hershey's and Cadbury all circle the Jewish world at once!