The Person Behind The Posts

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Milk in Bags and Other Consumer Behaviors for Olim

After nearly a year living in Israel, there are certain consumer habits we've acquired that are beginning to feel normal.  Because of its uniquely Israeli packaging (and also because it's price-controlled), buying our milk in plastic bags always makes me feel very, very Israeli. Occasionally, when there's no 1% milk in bags and I have to buy an ordinary cardboard container, I feel let down. (Not to worry. I don't get so depressed that therapy is required.)

Before Pesach, we bought a new plastic pitcher for our milk bags.

This one was an upgrade, because it has a built-in razor blade to slice through a corner of the bag to open it.  (I know how jealous you must be feeling.)

Knowing exactly how large a cut to make in the bag is something of an art form. After nearly a year here, my brother just taught me a milk spillage-reducing trick:  hold the corner opposite the opening as you pour. Brilliant!  I haven't spilled a drop since.

Here's another thing it took almost a year to figure out.  Each bag o'milk contains 1 liter, which is about 4 cups, so we go through them pretty quickly.  On any average day, we have 3 or 4 spare bags in the fridge. But we had no decent system for storing them until very recently.

What can I say?  It takes awhile to figure these things out.  This was a container we almost threw away because it had no lid.  But it's perfect for 4 bags of milk.  I'm so happy!

The produce here is different.  For example, the potato skins are much thinner, so I never peel potatoes anymore.  And I can't get 10 oz. boxes of chopped broccoli (which I used to buy 6 and 8 at a time), so now I buy bags of frozen broccoli florets, thaw the broccoli in the bag and then cut them with standard kitchen shears.  I save time not peeling potatoes and take a little more time with the broccoli.  It all works out in the end.

Kedem grape juice is available here, but it's sweeter and thicker than the Israeli grape juice we've come to prefer.  We had a favorite brand but we started experimenting to see if we could save a few shekels on something cheaper.  In the end, we decided that there really is a difference in taste and we went back to our favorite brand.  While my husband was making kiddush this Shabbat, I noticed the embossed image of two spies carrying a really big cluster of grapes - straight out of last week's Torah portion - right on our grape juice bottle.

I've starting writing cooking temperatures for new recipes in Celsius.  And I've gotten the general gist of weather temperatures, thanks to these three things:

1) While we were still in America, I flipped the toggle on my car's temperature gauge to Celsius so I could begin to correlate the number to the feel outside the car's windows.

2) A friend and fellow olah taught me this neat trick for estimating weather temperature:
30 is hot
20 is nice
10 is cold
Zero is ice

3) And another friend taught me this trick for converting Celsius to Fahrenheit temperature in my head:
Double the Celsius number
Subtract 10%
Add 32

We have malls here, but I've never seen a factory outlet center. Unless you're a tourist looking for souvenirs, there isn't much recreational shopping in Israel.  Which is just fine with me.  A few weeks ago, while my husband was in America working, I went to the grocery store all by myself for the very first time.  That was enough shopping excitement for me.

Okay, one last cheap consumer thrill for now.  I love being able to buy special Shabbat toothpaste and toilet paper in virtually every tiny corner grocery store all over Israel.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Epic Fail

[Hodel is leaving on a train for Siberia] 
                                     Hodel: Papa, God alone knows when we shall see each other again.
Tevye: Then we will leave it in His hands. 
- Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Almost a year ago, we made aliyah with a 15 year-old.  We joined our older daughter who made aliyah by herself the year before.  This morning, my now 16 year-old daughter walked through security at Ben Gurion airport on her way to Baltimore, and I don't know when I'll see her again.

From the time she walked through the glass doors past where we could no longer follow her, until just a few  hours ago, I barely spoke.  I craved silence, needing be alone with G-d, to figure out how to deal with the loss of her in our daily lives.

I've left Israel so many times in the past.  Always, in the last days and hours, I would gaze with great intensity at all there is to see here, trying to burn images into my brain so I could take them with me.  In these last days and weeks before her departure, I had to continuously remind myself that I'm not going anywhere.  I confused her departure for my own.

Rabbi Simeon said: "G-d gave Israel three wonderful presents, but each one was earned through pain and suffering: The Torah, the Holy Land, and the World to Come." 

I know many people who made aliyah, and I also know many stories of trials and tribulations - economic troubles, legal problems, housing issues, health problems, family challenges.  How many times did I hear Anita Tucker, spokesperson for the former residents of Gush Katif say, "You have to be zoche (you have to merit) to live in Israel," implying that it's not for everyone?  Rabbi Moshe Lichtman teaches that, just as in shopping, where a more valuable item commands a higher price, many people pay a high price to live in Israel, exactly because it's so valuable.

Today, I faced that dead on.

Kol hatchalot kashot: All beginnings are difficult.  We knew full well that bringing a teenager on aliyah was risky.  The first few months here were challenging for all of us, but especially for her.  As she reminded us over and over, she was the only one in the family who didn't get to choose aliyah.

In response to her early difficulties settling in, her father (my ex-husband), offered to let her come back to Baltimore to live with him.  As a result, nearly her entire first year in Israel was spent half-heartedly, with a foot in both worlds.

No one can succeed at aliyah like that.  Especially not a teen.

So she flew to America today without a specific plan to return. 

Yes, I could have refused to let her go.  If you think that would have been a good idea, I'm gonna guess you never parented teens.  At least now, she has the chance to make the choice she feels she was denied.  If she chooses to use her return ticket in August, she will be choosing Israel for herself.

As a result of my blogging and my work with the Baltimore Chug Aliyah, I regularly hear from people who long to make aliyah.  Some need practical advice. Others most need spiritual support.  At least a dozen times a week, I share essays and articles meant to strengthen the desire of other Jews to make Israel their home. What I have been able to share with hundreds of other Jews, I have been singularly unable to convey to my own child.

The poetic irony that my own daughter, in boarding that plane this morning. rejected one of Hashem's gifts that I especially cherish does not escape my notice. Lest you imagine otherwise, our parent-child relationship is a loving one and our connection is deep.  Hers was not a spiteful act.  

I will never stop davening that she comes to understand what it means to be able to live in Israel, that she comes to feel the pride of a Jew who is finally Home, that she opens her heart to Israel and that she comes back to strengthen this Land with her presence.

In the meantime, the fact that she chose Baltimore over Israel this morning feels like my own personal epic fail.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chasm Spasm, Again

Last week, shortly after yet another person who lives in Israel told me he's going to America this summer, I updated my status on Facebook to say:

"I feel like I'm the only person I know who has no plans to go to America this summer."  

Thirty-six comments later, I knew I had stirred up a controversy. Early responders, all olim from America, used strong language to announce that they have no such plans: 

  • I have no intention of going to America ever.
  • I don't! America is a terrible place to be.
  • don't do it!!!
  • We are not going there....I cry every time I get home from anywhere and the States is the PITS to visit!!!!
Twelve comments later, someone in America took offense. 

Every time I write about this topic, it tends to generate strong reactions. So let me try to be as clear as I can.  There is a world of difference between someone (and for the purposes of this discussion, I'm really only talking about Torah Jews here) who would love to live in Israel but can't right now for a whole array of legitimate reasons and those who have a tenacious connection to America and who simply do not see aliyah and a life in Israel as a desideratum.

A few years ago, I heard Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum, visiting Baltimore from Israel, speak about how every generation has its unique challenge.  A generation or two ago, the challenge was Shabbat observance - how to remain gainfully employed in America while guarding Shabbat.  He reminded us that this issue overwhelmed a generation of Jewish immigrants but is hardly spoken about by American Jews anymore. The issue of our generation, he claimed, is undoubtedly aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.

What I said on Facebook bears repeating here: "Many of the people I know who have made aliyah have very strong feelings about the (lack of a) future for Jews in America and are, frankly, puzzled by the continued, steadfast loyalty of Jews to America. My sense is that, if it wasn't for friends and family (and Target), I don't know how many of us would actually ever go back."

That's the chasm spasm that seems to be gripping Torah Jews.  There are approximately 5.5 million Jews in Israel and approximately 5.5 million Jews in America (though many argue that this number includes approximately 2 million non-halachic Jews).  The next closest contender is France with less than 500,000 Jews.  So, since the vast majority of the world's diaspora Jews are in America, the controversy centers there.

Are Torah observant American Jews beginning to feel somewhat defensive about their decision to stay in America?  Are olim guilty of rubbing the noses of American Jews in it?  

It took me nine years from my first thought of aliyah to our aliyah flight.  So I, for sure, understand wanting but not being able to.  

But, for myself, I am really and truly, genuinely puzzled by those who simply do not want.  I'm sorry I can't be more PC about this but no, it really isn't a matter of personal preference.  We're not talking chocolate or vanilla here.  "Hashem is here. Hashem is there. Hashem is truly everywhere," is a nice children's song. It's not a justification for staying in America at this time in Jewish history, while storm clouds grow darker each day.

There are hundreds of Torah quotes, and many sefarim that make the case so much better than I could ever make it. (Just ask and I'm happy to recommend one, or 10 :-). If you don't have any intention of making aliyah,  at least don't kid yourself into thinking that Hashem doesn't care where you live as long as you keep His mitzvot.  If you think your life in America is kosher, even mehadrin min hamehadrin, at least be honest enough to acknowledge the the truth of the words of Rabbi Ya'akov Emden who teaches that Eretz Yisrael is, "The peg upon which the entire Torah hangs."

If you can't come right now, you can't come.  Anyone can understand that. But if you are a committed Torah Jew and you don't even want to come?

That's a chasm I just can't understand.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Some Days are Diamonds. Some Days are Stones.

Yesterday was a very hard day.  It's been a packed week, but yesterday was the most intense.

Our community lost a young, 25 year-old man who died trying to save someone else from drowning. This death, sudden and shocking, sits heavily in my belly.  We only met this young man once, back in the fall, when he joined his parents for a meal in our sukkah.  But this was probably the hardest funeral I have ever attended.

Funerals in Israel are much rawer than the often sanitized choreography of a Baltimore Jewish funeral. Limited seating often means most people stand.  In this case, there were so many hundreds of people that we stood outside the Beit Chesped, along with a couple of hundred other people who couldn't fit inside the main hall.  But we heard everything.

There were 7 or 8 speakers, all of whom painted a picture of an astonishingly kind and gentle soul.  Young men and women who knew him well were standing with red eyes, holding on to one another, seeking the strength to deal with this incomprehensible loss.

And after the speakers, the body was escorted to the burial site, wrapped simply in cloth and carried on a stretcher, not hidden in a decorative coffin.  This is real.  This is raw.  This is death.

The faces of the family members are burned in my brain.  White with grief.  Eyes that stare but do not see.

I can't shake it.  I can't stop thinking about it.  My neighbors buried their son yesterday and I am nauseous with the memory.

Directly from the funeral, we drove to the wedding of the son of other friends.  A huge, elegant wedding in a hall that was surprisingly tucked into a commercial district.  The chuppah, in the middle of the wedding hall, opened directly to the evening sky.

Many, many friends and acquaintances from the Old Country.  Gorgeous music.  Lots of food.  Lots of joyous simcha.  I cried there too.  The contrast was hard to hold.

We arrived home late and I was utterly spent.

Some days are diamonds.  Some days are stones.

And some days are both.

Thank you Tehillah for help with the image.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Rendered Speechless

I majored in Speech Communication in college.  I chose that major, not from a long history of passionate commitment to saying, "When I grow up, I want to major in Speech Communication," but from a technique I recommended to the students I taught in career development classes for years after.

I took the undergraduate catalog (which was still available in a paper edition in those ancient days of yore), circled every course that I wanted to take and majored in the department that had the most of them.

I have always been fascinated by human communication.  It's a process I cherish.  Which is why, when I find myself rendered speechless, it's especially painful for me.

Last week, leaving shul after Kabbalat Shabbat, I ran into two young women who were standing outside.

Me: "Shabbat Shalom.  Are you visiting?"
Them: "Yes, we're here from such-and-such seminary."
Me: "And who are you staying with?"
Them: "Family X and Family Y."
Me: "Very nice.  So, you're at the end of your year.  What are you planning next?  Shana Bet (a second year in seminary)?"
One of them: "I'm going home."

I don't know why, but this expression always pierces me like a dagger to the heart.

Me: Touching her gently on the arm, "You know, you already are Home."
Her: "Well, I really would like to make aliyah, but I don't want to come without my family."

So I tell her about our then 19 year-old daughter who did exactly that, and how, in the end, it contributed to the escalation of our own aliyah plans.

Her: "Oh, my family wants to make aliyah too, eventually.  But I have two brothers, 11 and 12.  And as my parents always say, 'Chinuch (education) comes first.'"

This is the part where I am rendered speechless.

My standard approach when talking with young people who still believe that America is their home is to point out how things are changing, how Moshiach is certainly on his way, how life won't be good for the Jews in America indefinitely and how, as young people, they should keep their eyes and ears open, keep their antenna up, and watch for the changes that are certainly coming.

Generally, they look at me as if I have two heads.  Or maybe three.

Yes, I know how it sounds to them.  Yes, I know what it makes me sound like.  Yes, I know how it embarrasses certain members of my family.   And still, I am compelled to make everyone uncomfortable by a sense of responsibility to warn that I don't fully understand.

When I became religious, I can't recall ever feeling compelled to convince other Jews that this is the right way to live.  Though I love explaining Judaism to Jews who don't yet know the richness of their own heritage,  I've been perfectly content to let others make their own religious decisions.

Why then do I persist in urging Jews to come Home at the first possible opportunity?  Why do the repeated explanations - I can't leave my family, everything I need to be a good Torah Jew is here in my American city, my home is in the US, I can learn Torah better in America, aliyah is not a Torah obligation, America will never turn on its Jews, the State has no kedusha since it was founded by non-religious Jews, I can make a living more easily in America, etc. etc. - fall so, so painfully on my ears?  Sometimes I feel I'm in a no-win, twisted contest.

When I hear one of these rationales, justifications, excuses, reasons emerge from the mouths of American Jews, religious American Jews, I am filled with such a rush of discomfort that I can't quite name.  Is it anger, at their intransigence? Is it fear, for their future? Is it pity, that they are so blind to what's coming? It's so complicated!

What I want to feel is love.

So from now on, here's my fantasy of a totally new approach.

Me: "So, what are your aliyah plans?
Them: "Oh, we're very comfortable in America."
Me: "Well, I hope you change your mind and come Home soon.  We need you here."

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Deeply Mine

Years ago, decades ago, after a nasty heartbreak, I moved to a new city. Each time I exited the highway on the way to my new home, I trained myself to say, "When I see this particular landmark, that means I'm home."  It wasn't intuitive.  It took some deliberate self-convincing for me to call this new place "home".

I first came to Israel in 1996.  It would be a lie to say that I felt immediately at home.  I certainly found Israel interesting, but it would be untrue to say that I was overcome with the immediate sense that Israel is my true home.

As we returned, year after year, to visit, I noticed things, mostly visual, that I came to associate with Israel. Sand dunes on the way to the grocery store.  Hebrew on shopping bags and food packaging.  Dramatic hills and valleys, so different from the flat East Coast terrain with which I was familiar.  The red roofs that mark Jewish settlement.  Hebrew road signs.  Arab buildings.  Bedouin encampments. Chayalim in uniform.

Every time we left, I felt sad to part from these precious visuals.   And each time we returned, I felt a wholeness in being reunited with them.

I have always been drawn to the combination of olive green, brown and burgundy. There is a poetic way to say this in Hebrew - צבעים אלה למצוא חן בעיני - these colors find favor in my eyes.  Our previous home was decorated in olive green, brown and burgundy.  Even my husband has come to think of them as "our colors".

Today, on the bus ride home, as my eyes drank in the exact visuals that I always cherish (but sometimes forget to notice), I realized that "our colors" are basically the colors of the Israeli landscape.

This month, on completely different itineraries, for various reasons and for varying lengths of time, everyone in my immediate family will be spending time in America.  Except for me.  Despite the fact that I have not yet found an even remotely adequate substitute for the kosher Chinese restaurant we left behind, I have no desire to leave.

If only everyone I love who still lives in America would come here, I would never, ever need to leave this highly imperfect place that is, nonetheless, deeply, deeply mine.