The Person Behind The Posts

Sunday, January 30, 2011

After Ulpan

Me, sitting my ulpan classroom during a break. (Photo Credit: Leah)

Assuming I live through tomorrow, I will have achieved one of my most important goals as a new immigrant to Israel.  Almost every weekday (Sunday-Thursday) for the past five months, I left my house by 7 AM, took two buses, spent approximately 5 hours thinking, speaking and writing in Hebrew and then took two buses home.  Then I took a nap.

Tomorrow is my last day of the official 5-5-5 ulpan for new immigrants - five hours a day, five days a week for five months.

It was exhilarating and exhausting.

Over the five months, I have studied with students from more than a dozen different countries, including -
D from Chile (Photo Credit: Leah)
G from Ethiopia (Photo Credit: Leah)
B from the UK  (Photo Credit: Leah)
S from Italy (Photo Credit: Leah)

M from Uzbekistan (Photo Credit: Leah)
T from Brooklyn (Photo Credit: Leah)

I did my homework nearly every night, but I skipped class a small fraction of the time (did I mention it was exhausting?) and I didn't study quite as much as I could have. Every time I skipped class, my kids gave me a hard time for being a poor role model.

Still, I gained more than I could have anticipated.

I gained intellectual humility, realizing that 10 year-old Israeli children will probably always know more Hebrew than I will.

I learned the Hebrew keyboard (more-or-less).

I learned how to conjugate verbs in four tenses.

I was moved by the intelligence of Hebrew, which is based on 3-letter root words that connect words with related meanings.

I gained a renewed appreciation for adult students who, having mastered at least one other language, are willing to start over in another.

I gained the willingness to open my mouth and try to approximate what I mean using the Hebrew words I have in my linguistic quiver.

I gained a deep, deep appreciation for Renana, my ulpan teacher, who speaks slowly and repeats herself over and over without ever getting frustrated.

The very gifted Renana.

I gained limited kind of mastery over the Egged bus system and overcame the anxiety associated with negotiating the buses alone.

I started speaking Hebrew occasionally in my dreams.  Sadly, I cannot speak any more fluently in my dream life than I can in my real life.

I learned the value of Google Translate and Hebrew Verb Tables.

Lots of pluses and a few minuses.

I think we spent too much time on writing exercises, although it's possible that my Hebrew handwriting got a tad less childish looking.  On the first day, as she looked over my shoulder at something I was writing, I told Renana, "I write like a child."  She replied encouragingly, "You write like a new immigrant."  In Hebrew, of course.

I would have wanted to spend more time speaking, but at times there were 25 or more students in class, so giving everyone a chance to speak was not that viable.  But I seized every possible opportunity to speak in class, to ask and answer questions and to tell my little stories.

I still make lots of mistakes in my verb tenses, but I forge ahead anyway, approximating my intended message as best as I can.  Sometimes, when I know I am going to be dealing with a non-English speaker, I look up key vocabulary and rehearse what I need to say in advance.

Tomorrow, after the official 5-5-5 ulpan is over, I have an appointment at a private (and expensive) ulpan to see if an intensive 1-on-1 will help me gain more confidence and be able to use the skills I have been working on for the past five months.

In all, it's amazing that the State of Israel provides this benefit to new citizens completely free of charge.  They even paid for my first textbook.  Even though it wasn't quite enough, or quite the right kind of instruction for me to feel totally confident as a new Hebrew speaker, it was an amazing gift to be able to spend these first months this way.

I am very grateful for the opportunity.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dear FeistyFrummy

A few days ago, I got a very substantive comment on a previous post.  Since I don't know who the comment writer is, I can't answer her privately.  So I elevated my response to a full-fledged post, especially since she asked about one of my favorite topics.

Here was the comment:
FeistyFrummy said...
Hi Bat Aliyah! So I have a somewhat serious question to ask you. I know that it's ultimately my decision but I was wondering if you could shed some light on the subject. My parents have just made aliyah and I've been in Israel for the past two years learning. The first year I wasn't even slightly interested in making aliyah however the second year changed everything and I was convinced Israel was the only place for me. I am now in college in America where everything is easy again but as of this moment, I have come back to visit my parents for vacation... but I just can't picture myself living here anymore. I know it sounds like I just got all caught up in the comforts of American society but I don't know. I guess what I'm searching for is some chizuk. Got any to spare?

Yes, FeistyFrummy, I believe I have some chizuk to spare:-)  What follows is my entirely personal, idiosyncratic take on the aliyah decision.  I am neither mincing words nor editing myself for political correctness.  I feel that, by asking, you have given me permission to respond from my heart.

It has been my experience that all aliyah decisions can be divided into three main categories:
1) The religious imperative
2) The historical imperative
3) Something else

The religious imperative

For a Torah-observant Jew, always, but especially since 1948, the decision about where to live, where to settle, where to make one's life, is not one of personal preference (like, say, vanilla or chocolate).  Hashem has made it very, very clear where He wants us to be.  A few years ago, I wrote a post listing all the books in which this truth is self-evident..  Any of these books can make the case better than I can, but I especially recommend a reading (or a re-reading) of: 

To Dwell In The Palace: Perspectives on Eretz Yisroel
by Tzvia Ehrlich-Klein
Feldheim Publishers
A thought-provoking collection of articles, addressed to religious Jews in the West concerning the mitzvah of aliyah. I first read To Dwell in the Palace when it was published in 1991 and I was still firmly enmeshed in my Diaspora Judaism. I've reread it many times since then, and it retains its power to move the soul. Do not miss the section called, "Things My Shaliach Never Told Me."

Eretz Yisrael in the Parashah: The Centrality of the Land of Israel in the Torah
by Moshe D. Lichtman
Devora Publishing
Why do so many Jews still choose to live in the Diaspora? To answer this question, the author analyzes every reference to Eretz Yisrael in the 54 Torah portions, demonstrates the overriding importance of Eretz Yisrael and encourages Diaspora Jews to at least consider making aliyah.

Talking About Eretz Yisrael: The Profound And Essential Meaning Of Making Aliyah
by Rabbi Pinchas Winston
This book is a forthright argument meant to encourage Torah-observant Jews to urgently consider making aliyah today.

Each of these books argues that there is a religious imperative to live in Israel.  Yes, there are religious people who believe that the religious imperative does not apply until Moshiach arrives.  To that, I answer with a quote from Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal:

A person who refuses to take action, simply waiting for Mashiach to come and carry him off to Eretz Yisrael, shows that he does not believe in Mashiach at all.  His faith is only external, and it causes him to fool himself. - Eim HaBanim Semeichah, p. 473

The historical imperative

I have written about the historical imperative here and here and here.  In a nutshell, the historical imperative boils down to the observable reality that Jewish life in America is contracting.  Just this week, we heard the news that the religious high school where our children were enrolled when we lived in America is closing its doors at the end of the school year.  That's only one event, but it's symbolic of the direction in which Jewish life is headed outside of Israel.

Spiritually, it has been said that the Shechina, the feminine aspect of Hashem that is closest to us, has already departed and left the Jews outside of Israel bereft of spiritual protection.  We can clearly see how that might be so in the diminished size, influence and economic strength of the American Jewish community. 

I believe, with all my heart, that the days of the American Jewish community are limited in number.  I can't say whether it's a matter of months or years, but I can say that it is completely legitimate to make one's decision about aliyah based, in part, on the fact that, like every single diaspora community in history, the American one will not last forever.

If you are a young person without ties, you ought to think very seriously about whether you want to tether yourself to a waning society or whether you want to put down your roots in the only place in the world where Jewish life is guaranteed to survive and prosper.

Something else

Not everyone makes aliyah for religious or historical reasons.  There are a myriad of other reasons - wanting to be part of the Jewish people even if one is not religious, economic opportunities, felafel, innovative hi-tech industry, Bamba, cultural opportunities, entrepreneurship, low-cost health care, etc. etc.

I'd like to close with a story.  About five years ago, my husband and I had guests in our sukkah.  Our guests were a couple who had moved to Israel after their wedding and came back to the US for a few years "to earn some money".  Twenty-five years later, having been sucked into the vortex, they were still in America.

FeistyFrummy, don't make that mistake!  The "comforts of American society" will not last.  Your future is here, in Israel, with your parents and the rest of Am Yisrael.

Don't join the losing team.  

There's no future in it.

Looking forward to hearing from you again,
Bat Aliyah

Saturday, January 15, 2011

This Would Never Happen in America

One of the things we love about Ma'ale Adumim is the range of services available here in the city.  We have four grocery stores, a gas station, an indoor mall and an outdoor mall, a community center with an indoor pool and an outdoor pool, countless makolets (corner groceries), six (maybe more) pizza shops, a really lovely dairy restaurant, a place to change currency, extensive health fund services, a nearby industrial section with laundry service, excellent bus transportation to Jerusalem and much more.

We also have our local library, which has a small English section.

Photo Credit: Jacob Richman -
While we're grateful to have something, in truth, the English book selection is pretty random and a large part of the collection includes books that are either quite old or pretty obscure.  Honestly, it was a bit disappointing. I am a major reader.  As a lifetime loyal public library patron. I am still in search of an alternate source to feed my book addiction.

We understand and appreciate that the municipality's budgetary priority is probably not English language books. Nevertheless, on our last visit, we were grateful able to find a handful of books, mostly classics, to borrow.

Tonight, I dipped into my husband's stack of borrowed library books to find something to read and pulled out this classic:

The Power of Positive Thinking  by Norman Vincent Peale
I didn't get very far before I saw this note, taped into the book on the Table of Contents page.  It was clearly handwritten by another library patron some time ago.  The tape that holds it to the page has yellowed with time and the handwriting has an old-fashioned quality to it.

The note reads:

To the Reader
There are many interesting suggestions in this book but be forewarned ----
Jesus Christ is on every page.  It is a book based on Christianity & belief in Christ.
If 210 pages of Christian ethics & belief doesn't faze you - O.K.
If it does - find another book.

I had to laugh.  Where else but in a library in Israel would you find such a thing??

Friday, January 07, 2011

It's Better To Buy It In Israel

Two months ago, I wrote a blog post about which consumer items olim may want to bring on their lift. I posted the question on Facebook and on a number of discussion lists and lots of people responded. Their responses allowed me to come up with quite an extensive list and that particular post was particularly widely read and commented on.

Many vatikim (long-time Israelis) wrote to let me know that some items people thought they couldn't find here were, in fact, available in one location or another.

As I'm learning, shopping in Israel is often a matter of knowing where to shop.  Many consumer goods Americans are used to using are, in fact, available here, but perhaps not (yet) widely.  And there is often a premium price associated with imported goods, so it still may pay, if one has connections with cooperative neighbors, friends or relatives who travel between here and the States, to bring certain things back in their luggage.

Even though there are some things I still ask people to bring, I am beginning to identify and appreciate the consumer goods that really are better here.

As a follow-up, I asked people to identify the things they preferred to buy in Israel, either because they are not available elsewhere or because they are better or cheaper here.

Foods that are better, cheaper or available only in Israel

Iced Coffee - Israeli iced coffee is a coffee-flavored slush

Doritos and cheese curls - kosher and pareve 



matbucha - spicy veggie salad

olives and pickles - especially Bnei Dorom brand

halavah/halva – very different here and available in fresh and packaged varieties

zatar – a spice

schug – a spicy condiment


milk in a bag that fits in a specially-made plastic holder

vanilla beans from the shuk

dried coconut

roasted watermelon seeds

schwarma and, need I say, felafel


ice cream - Israeli ice cream is generally smoother and creamier than the US kind

Papagayo’s lafah and dips – Papagayo is a chain of all-you-can-eat meat restaurants

dried pineapple without added sugar - granted, they look unappealing but they are very sweet

hot cocoa - kosher and pareve - found in the coffee section in 1 Kg bags

kabukim or butnim Americaim - Though there's a dispute about what these are called, these cookie-like-covered nuts are sometimes with sesame seed topping

pistachio nuts - entirely different, much richer than the ones from California

Spring brand juices 

Fresh bread and other bakery items


shells for women and girls - much more plentiful and easy to find in much greater variety (i.e. with or without sleeves, different lengths and different materials) 

men's and boys' white shirts -  inexpensive, especially in Bnei Brak

boys' pants -  inexpensive, especially in Bnei Brak

girls' Shabbat clothing - inexpensive, especially at Pinat Hazol in Bnei Brak 

scarves/mitpachot and hats for women - much more variety and much, much cheaper 

Other Items

olive oil soaps

Shabbat toilet paper -these are soft, cheap and available nearly everywhere

Shabbat toothpaste - liquid or gel

chut for crocheting kipot - can found in some basic colors for as little as 1 shekel at the shuk

double-sealed containers

rosemary shampoo and conditioner

lice combs - let's not dwell on this one...

grocery carts (Bubby carts) - helpful when shopping in a shuk and/or without a car

flour sifter - there is definitely more "insect awareness" here

kids vitamins with iron

Paracetamol or Acamol - Israeli brand of Tylenol

Bimba - popular kids' riding toy 

computer printer - American ink cartridge numbers are not available here

Israeli style multi-prong outlet plugs and extension cords

Shabbat plata (hot plate) - the ones here actually keep your food hot and not just "lukewarm"

religious supplies of all kinds (i.e. tallitot, glass oil holders, wicks, prayer cards, beeswax havdalah candles, and accessories such as challah knives, salt cellars, etc.)  Even US sellers generally import them from here

Bus passes - in Israel, everyone rides the bus.  There are unlimited monthly passes that cost less than a tank of gas and "cartisim" - punch cards that give you one free ride for every four.

This is just the beginning.  If you have suggestions for other things that are better to buy in Israel, please feel free to add a comment.

Hat tip: Karen Furman

Monday, January 03, 2011

A Tale of Two Concerts

Enjoy a free Melava Malka concert this Motzei Shabbat with the band Rega'im at the Matnas' Cultural Hall in Ma'aleh Adumim - featuring Adam Vinter, Menachem Ophir and special guest performers! Rega'im will playing songs from their album "She'Ya'aleh Or" as well as many Carlebach songs.

And so, though we arrived late and left early due to pressing family demands, we went to enjoy.  There were five young men, mostly religious, playing their music in the most humble of contexts.  A simple room in the local community center.

The band members sat on the ubiquitous plastic chairs that one finds all over Israel.  

Regrettably, the dark blue plastic chairs did not photograph too well against the dark blue background, but if you know this chair, you'll certainly recognize it.

Exceedingly simple refreshments, like the ubiquitous Israeli wafer cookies called "vafelim" on a plastic plate, were proffered.

I used to find the standard (and, yes, ubiquitous :-) plastic cups in Israel, as pictured above, flimsy beyond measure.  Now I realize that they are actually consistent with my values of "good enough" when it comes to things in the material world.  In contrast, plastic cups from the Old Country are hard for me to throw away without guilt because they are thick enough for many re-uses.

But I digress...

So you get the picture.  The setting was humble.  The refreshment table was humble.  The band members were humble.  And the music was lovely.  There is something ever so authentic about Israelis singing and playing Hebrew music, much of it based on tefillah (prayer) or T'Nach (Bible) texts.  In Israel.  On motzei Shabbat.

Last night, I attended a concert of a different type.

We are pleased to inform you about an exciting women's event. The acclaimed Ayelet HaShachar Women's Band from Baltimore will perform a concert to benefit families of Carmel fire victims Sunday evening, January 2nd.  Here is an occasion to show solidarity with our fellow Jews at a beautiful and enjoyable women's evening.

Photo Credit: Ruti Mizrachi -

The members of this band from Baltimore (Lisa Aronson Friedman on the left, Shalomis Koffler Weinreb on the right and especially Stephanie Rabinowitz in the middle) are personal friends.  I can't count the number of conversations I have had with them individually about our shared longing for Israel.  Back when I was also stuck in Baltimore, these women were some of the handful of friends who "got me", and got the longing for Israel that drove nearly every decision I made.

So here I am, sitting in Heichal Shlomo, an auditorium in the center of Jerusalem.  Among the approximately 200 women in attendance are a large group of friends from Baltimore, most of whom (though sadly, not all) live here now.  

Last night, I remembered the sharp longing to be here that I felt countless times, sometimes while sitting in Baltimore but most often when I was visiting Israel but knew I could not stay.

I have their CD Ohr Chadash and have heard it a hundred times.  Last night, there was something special in their music, perhaps because I was together with them, for the first time, in Jerusalem. 

Shalomis wrote their song Rachel Imeinu.  These are Shalomis' words, the ones that brought that sharp longing, and the tears that always accompanied it, back to me with such total recall:

...As patient as the afternoon moon,
Waits for her moment to shine,
Rachel Imeinu waits by the road
For her children to come home.

Rachel Imeinu cry no more
We're coming,
we're coming,
We're coming home.
One by one
we come home
We're coming home, Imeinu
One by one we come home...

May Hashem bring these special women Home very, very soon.