The Person Behind The Posts

Monday, September 26, 2011

Feeling Very Elul-ish

For how many years did I go through Elul thinking mostly (only) about the Rosh Hashana meals and the guests?  I have an old friend who used to ask me, as a chag was coming up, what I was doing to prepare.  What new thoughts did I have?  What had I learned?  How was I different?

I didn't always have a satisfactory answer in the past, but if he were to ask me this year, I would have lots to say.  This is our second Elul in Israel and I'm feeling very Elul-ish today.

A different friend introduced me to the music of Yosef Karduner some years ago.  One of his songs, Achat Sh'alti (Tehillim 27:4), has never left me.  And in Elul, when we say this chapter of Tehillim every day, its message resonates even more powerfully within me. There is only one thing to desire - to be close to Hashem.

Though regrettably, I can't remember the source, a short time ago, I heard an inspiring thought that has also taken up residence within.  If the actions we are engaged in bring us closer to God, we should continue them. But if they create or perpetuate distance, we should turn away and do something different.

So I have been trying to do more God-centered things.  Instead of reading novels, or reading novels exclusively, I started learning lengthy commentaries on Sifrei Navi'im.  More often than not, when I want to read, I'll pick up Me'am Loez. In this way, I've already been though about 1000 pages of Yehoshua and Shoftim and am about to start Shmuel Alef.

I've been saying eight specific chapters of Tehillim most days.  These chapters have either been recommended during times of personal and national challenge or have particular significance to me personally.  I've always found it hard, hard, hard to connect to God through liturgy.  Even though I know a good chunk of tefilla is actually Tehillim, I find that a Sefer Tehillim opens my neshama in a way a siddur just doesn't.

I make the effort to go to shul for Kabbalat Shabbat most weeks.  It embarrasses me to admit how desperately disappointed I feel if a certain part of the davening is skipped or sung in an unfamiliar tune that precludes my participation.  But when I am there, welcoming Shabbat, singing with my neighbors, I often enter the zone of transcendence, however fleetingly.

I'm not up to anything close to an hour of hitbodedut, though I admire and aspire to such a spiritual practice, but I'm consciously try to talk to God more during the day.

From an increase in the volume of email I get, I know that what I write is being read. That's very gratifying. Although I write largely for myself, I am also privileged to be in a dialogue with some readers. Sometimes they write to tell me how reading about my journey strengthens them.  Sometimes they write to ask my opinion about their own aliyah dilemmas.  And sometimes they write to tell me I've offended them.

I don't like to hear that I've offended people.  It's never my intention.  And, especially during Elul, as I try to remember to be kinder to others, knowing that I've made someone upset, however inadvertently, hurts me.

Sometimes I think I should just shut up.  Just write cute and uncontroversial "only in Israel" stories and never risk making someone else uncomfortable, angry or offended.

But I know that's not my truth.  I constantly remind myself that I have a message.  I totally understand why my fervent beliefs are distasteful to some and why they make me an easy target for being called judgmental.

This too is the work of Elul.  Should I be quiet and let my fellow Jews, especially the ones I know to be committed to Torah, swirl around in the muck of galut?  Does it bring me closer to God to live my life as I choose and to zip my lip regarding the choices others make, however misguided I believe them to be? Or, and this is the horn on which my dilemma always hangs, do I have a responsibility to sound the alarm?  To attempt to wake the slumbering souls of those for whom I care, whose lives, whose priorities, are so blinded by the darkness of exile that they lash out at me instead of trying to understand my message?

Even as I debate this internally, I know that I'm not going to shut up. The ringing in my own head is just too loud to ignore. Can I refine my approach? I probably should, though I don't know quite how. Can I cease urging my fellows to awaken from the spiritual indolence of life outside of Israel?

I might just as easily stop breathing.

These thoughts distract me from the other, more mundane work I have to do today.  I'm overcome with a visceral feeling, an awareness of my neshama calling attention to itself.

Indeed, I'm feeling very Elul-ish today.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Living with Economic Uncertainty

When we came to Israel on aliyah, I was absolutely mentally and emotionally prepared to make many sacrifices in the material realm - much smaller living quarters, less convenient transportation, more difficult shopping, tighter budgets, harder work for much, much less pay, and on and on.

This morning, as I prepared for Shabbat, I cut my way inexpertly through a whole chicken (which we buy because it's much, much cheaper than buying chicken parts).  I also had to defrost and then hand cut the frozen broccoli for the broccoli quiche because the 10 oz. boxes of chopped broccoli that were a staple on our US shopping list are not available here.  More than half the recipes in my recipe book are defunct now because I can't get the ingredients they require.

The transmission in our 2001 car (our only car, the one that I hardly ever drive because gas is the equivalent of $8/gallon or more) went up on Wednesday without warning and had to be replaced. Not a small expense.

In the US, we were often in a position to save money each month.  We live a much, much simpler material life here and money is,without question, much tighter.

I anticipated that.  Every day that I take two buses to work and two buses home for what would be a 15- minute commute if I drove in a private car, I am aware that we are called upon, in all sorts of ways, both significant and negligible, to sacrifice in the material realm to live here.

I'm probably not like the majority of olim, but I often feel that I would be willing to sacrifice nearly anything to live here. If I were forced to live in America again, I'm convinced I would shrivel up and die, right in the driver's seat of my brand new Toyota or in the living room of my 4-bedroom, 3-bath private home.

Frankly, it's very difficult for me to relate to olim and prospective olim who are drawn to the idea of aliyah but conclude that the material safety and security in America is just too hard to walk away from.

For starters, I believe it's illusory.  Hashem runs the heavenly treasury and can provide for people in Israel just as easily as He can in Indiana.  The material sacrifices I make to live here, I make with love. Ironically, while I'm intellectually aware of our diminished standard of living, I don't generally experience deprivation.

I also believe, as I've written many times before, that the easy material life outside of Israel is coming to an end as the Diaspora shuts down.

I do understand that college students who plan to make aliyah after they "finish their education" think they're making a wise choice, but I believe they are, in the end, choosing material goals over spiritual ones.

I do understand being nervous about making it here.  I do understand that some families have a harder time than others once they arrive.  I do understand that not everyone is willing or able to live in profoundly diminished material circumstances.

Please don't misunderstand.  We live a much simpler material life here, but thanks to Hashem's loving kindness, we are not living in anything remotely resembling poverty.  It's not what it was in America, but it's not the agony of being unable to put food on the table either.  While we do live with economic uncertainty more than ever before, I, like many others who successfully adapt to life here, choose to see it as an opportunity to rely even more on Hashem.

More than anything else, perhaps it is exactly the willingness to live with economic uncertainty that separates those who come, and stay, from the all the rest.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Blind to Spiritual Economies

Once a week, I go to a neighbor and speak with her in Hebrew for an hour.  Since my vocabulary is limited, our conversations have often been less than entirely scintillating.  However, she's a very patient woman and lately, we have tried to share Torah thoughts with one another in what, more-or-less, passes for Hebrew.

My Hebrew tutor is the daughter of Iranian immigrants, married to an American oleh.  Her English is excellent, so if I get stuck, I use the occasional English word to communicate an idea.

I was telling her about an email I received from someone who calls himself, "LOST IN NEW JERSEY".  I don't know his real name, but he is a young married man with two small children under the age of 3.  His neshama knows that he belongs in Israel, but he's afraid to make aliyah primarily because he's worried about how he's going to make a living.  In America, his wife has a job, though he does not. His American rabbis are not encouraging him.  The core of his question is this:

"Does HakbHu really expect me to just pick up move and believe that "don't worry everything will work out fine when I get to Eretz Yisrael"? Can I really expect Hashem to do that for me?"

My answer to him was lengthy and I don't intend to reproduce it here.  But I made one point that bears repeating, especially after what my tutor taught me today.

Unemployment in Israel stands at 5.5%, a figure that is historically low.  By comparison, unemployment in the US is above 9% - close to double.

A lot of American Jews are still operating under an old paradigm.  And this is how my tutor explained it to me (in the name of a Rav, a Mekubal, whose name I didn't quite get):

When the majority of Jews lived in America, Hashem sent a shefa, an overflow, of material blessing to the US.  However, since the majority of Jews now live in Israel, the direction of the flow has shifted. Israel's economy is strong and getting stronger. The economies of the US (and Europe and Russia) are in decline.  One doesn't have to be a Torah Jew to see how clear this is.  Just watch the news.

There was a time when it was a very legitimate question to worry about parnassa, about livelihood, when leaving the US and coming to Israel where material life was, without a doubt, much, much harder.  But now?!  Now it's the opposite.  

Unfortunately, some people are still blinded by the old paradigm.  They are blind to spiritual economies. They can't see that the direction of the bracha has changed.  But from here, it is so clear!

The economy of a country is based on spiritual principles.  Material abundance is received where Hashem sends it down.

The majority of Jews live here now, so we in Eretz Yisrael are benefiting from the bracha being gradually redirected - from America to Israel.  May it grow clearer and clearer to more and more Jews every day.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

GUEST POST: From My Mirpesset #7

NOTE FROM BAT ALIYAH: I have long admired Michelle Gordon's lyrical prose about her new life in Israel.  She gave me permission to share her recent Rosh Hashana update, which I do here with great pleasure.

Red, ripe rimonim at Rami Levi

FMM #7: The Season of Pomegranates

I'm falling in love all over again.  It's the first day of school.  The radio plays back-to-school songs, songs about the aleph bet and being the smallest boy in the gan (and also "Don't Know Much About History" for good measure).  From my mirpesset I watch backpack-laden children head down Rehov Brodi towards beit sefer Evelina de Rothschild.  The sky is cloudy, the air cool.  I sip my coffee and feel the tiniest bit of nostalgia for my ulpan days. 

It's the season of ripening pomegranates.  Their delicate crimson petals have long ago dropped, making way for the shiny green fruit, now reddening, their crowns heralding Rosh Hashana.  I love to watch the seasons of the fruit trees - lemons in winter, plums in early summer.  Here in the Garden of Eden.  Chodesh tov, shavua tov, shabbat shalom - these words of greeting are now part of our lives. And our days are indeed tov.

After two years in Israel, life here is both more predictable and yet continually full of new discoveries - we discover new parts of the country with our hiking club, new pearls of wisdom with our Torah teachers, and new slices of life far from the tourist scene.  Such as my friend's high tech workplace in Har Chotzvim with two kosher employee cafeterias - one dairy, one meat - where I feasted on meat kreplach, savory sweet potatoes and lemony radish salad.  Adam and Eve didn't have it this good.   

There are predictable characters - the Bedouin woman squatting outside Mr. Zol in her black embroidered kaftan, selling fresh parsley and mint yelling, "Bo-ee, na-na, bo-ee, na-na, petrozillia giveret"; the macho shuk vendor near Jaffe Rd. shouting a deep gutteral, "Aaaggggvaaaniot shalosh shekel" as if he's got uncontrollable Tourette's syndrome. And  the unpredictable - like the woman cooling her feet in a shop window fish tank, goldfish swimming around her painted toenails...

I have three jobs now and they're mostly in Hebrew.  That is until the end of the day when my foreign language skills disintegrate and I ask a patient to please remove her legs, and another to make an appointment with the picture frame.. (My Russian manicurist tells of once running into the street after a customer who had forgotten to roll his pants legs down, yelling "Sir, sir, take off your pants"). I enjoy my work, my colleagues and the little perks of employment in Israel.  Like getting a gift certificate to the grocery store before Pesach, a bottle of wine for Rosh Hashana and an invitation to my boss's Succah party.  We start our monthly staff meetings with a d'var Torah.  Then we have lunch.  Why?  Because in addition to being the people of the book... we are a people of food.

We are a people of food and Jerusalem is a city of festivals.  We are constantly entertained.  Even when we don't want to be.  The occasional heavy metal beat of a distant summer concert "rocks" us to sleep at night.  But it's not unpleasant.  Songs in the key of life, to quote Stevie Wonder. 

After spending a good part of the summer in the USA I managed to catch Jerusalem's post-Tisha B'Av burst of energy.  In less than two weeks I attended the International Puppet Festival, a Tu B'Av Dance Festival for women in ancient Shilo, the International Arts and Crafts Fair, an evening of Shakespeare in the Park and the Israel Wine Festival - dreamily wandering the gravely paths of the Israel Museum's sculpture garden, sipping Teperberg's bubbly Muscato and re-uniting with old ulpan pals while the evening breeze and the live jazz music wafted around us.  

Sometimes living here feels like being in summer camp, taking an afternoon rest before going out for the evening activity...

My small contribution to the arts in Jerusalem includes having my adult Broadway Jazz dance students, sequined vests and all, perform "Steam Heat" at the Beit Shmuel theater.  I'm preparing lesson plans for the coming year for "One Singular Sensation" (Chorus Line) and "Cool Boy" (West Side Story).  I love choreographing (Marty still runs the other way when I take over the living room and get into my creative zone) and I find it thrilling to watch my students learn a whole new movement vocabulary.  American Jazz music is one of Uncle Sams' best exports and we're taking it to the streets.  Earlier this summer we (Studio 6 students and teachers) entertained an evening crowd of pedestrians at Kikar Zion on Jaffe Road.  

Jaffe Road.  This is perhaps the greatest entertainment of the Summer of 2011 - the new light rail, the rakevet hakala.  Shiny, sleek and gleaming, it glides through the center of town in sharp contrast to the old British Mandate era buildings of Jaffe Road and the eldery shuk shoppers schlepping their wheeled carts filled with chicken, plums, zaatar bread and olives.  The light rail's first few weeks (coinciding with the end-of-summer-what-to-do-with-the-kids period) were free of charge.  Large families piled on, young and old, Jews and Arabs.  As expected, most natives had no concept of letting passengers off the train before they get on.  This train, this new animal is baffling to many.  But no worries, I aim to civilize the uncivilized, one at a time by loudly proclaiming "Slicha!" to train etiquette offenders and explaining proper train manners.  It's a tough job but somebody's got to do it...

We work, we play, we pray.  One of Marty's great joys is attending Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kol Rina synagogue in Nachlaot.  The neighborhood, built over a hundred years ago, is a maze of low buildings of stone and concrete, with water drainage channels in many of the streets, reminiscent of Roman cities.  Walking through Nachlaot is like time-traveling back several centuries.  The synagogue is in a windowless bomb shelter painted pink with wall fans that make a noisy attempt at keeping the air moving.  The davening style: sweaty Carlebach, and standing room only on Friday nights.  Lecha Dodi alone takes about twenty minutes and after that someone says "Letsgo" in English as if it were a new Hebrew word, the chairs are moved back and the energetic dancing and jumping up and down goes on for about ten minutes.   Marty says, "The room is jammed, so to use an engineering term - the energy density is very high."

In the men's section, Jews of many flavors. Turbans and streimels, black velvet hats, fedoras, white caps, black kippot, knitted kippot, a kippah atop rastafarian dreadlocks.  You'll find striped robes, bowling shirts, tie-dyed shirts and jeans.  And Marty in his REI shirt and pants, grinning and soaking up the sheer electricity of the davening, prayers fueled by achdut, brotherhood.

There's no denying that Jerusalem is a city of prayer. Citizens might catch up on their morning davening on the bus, or even in the waiting area of their physical therapy clinic.  Some street names have a holiness to them - each time I take a cab to my job at Rehov Gesher Hachayim in Makor Baruch, I am asking the driver to take me to "the bridge of life in the source of blessing".  Indeed.

With each passing day, month and year I more deeply understand the meaning of "L'heot am chofshee, b'artzenu, eretz tzion, Yerusalayim" - "To be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem".  As the season of pomegranates leads us toward a new beginning, we wish you a life of abundance, bursting at the seams; a life of fullness, the way a seemingly full glass of pebbles fills even more when water pours in the spaces between the stones.  Shana Tova U'metuka.  M'chakim l'chem.  We are waiting for you.



Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Third Jihad

Feeling safe in America?  Forget about roller coasters. Watch The Third Jihad for free online instead. It will shake you up plenty.  It's not even about the Jews.  It's about the existence of radical Islam in America and their very explicit plan to replace Western society with Islamic law. 

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Shake Off Your Attachment

Earlier this week, I got an email from someone in America who has hit a snag in aliyah planning.  They are on track to get here soon, but their house hasn't sold and they are beginning to panic. In the somewhat rambling email, the writer wondered aloud if the lack of even one offer on their very desirable home was an indication that Hashem does not want them to leave.  The email asked for tefillot for their successful aliyah and that they get an offer on their house at a very good price very soon. This was my response:

I'm so glad you reached out, because I have a LOT to say on this topic :-)  I hope I'll be able to communicate my thoughts clearly. First, let me review our experience for you from a bit more than a year ago.  We also had a house in a very desirable area. We eventually sold it for tens of thousands less than we might have expected. And we were very grateful.  Frankly, I was prepared to walk away, so strong was my desire to leave. 

Practically speaking, I made a donation to Western Wall Prayers and had a shaliach daven for the sale for 40 days at the Kotel.  We had a contract less than 48 hours after he started.  But I also applied a spiritual perspective to the whole situation. I have been blogging recently about the difference between how things look from chu"l and how they look from here in Eretz haKadosh. I would love to have you read this post. The two points from that blog post I most want to emphasize for your situation are:

  • that there is a finite, and rapidly diminishing, amount of time in which Jews outside of Israel will be able to make aliyah with dignity.
  • that we all, Jews the world over, must stop relying on anything (e.g., money, foreign governments, political machinations, military action, nature, etc.) other than Hashem.

  • I believe that Hashem is purposely collapsing the US economy in order to loosen the hold materialism has on the Jews who remain. I don't believe that the economy will recover. From the perspective of Jewish history, economic recovery will only serve to keep Jews in the US longer and that is counter to the path toward geula. For you and your family, that means that you're sitting on quicksand and the best advice I can give is to cut your losses and get out. 

    Years ago, I saw a Holocaust-era movie, and for reasons that only became clear to me recently, one scene stuck in my mind all these years. At this point in the movie, Germany was already under siege and Jews were liquidating everything they could to escape before things got worse. In this scene, a wealthy German Jew was negotiating to sell his big, beautiful house for about 10% of what it had been worth the year before. He took the deal because he needed to raise cash to escape. 

    Gd-forbid American Jews should face that situation, though one of my rabbis, Rabbi Nachman Kahana, says that if Jews don't get out soon, they will be lucky (and grateful) to be able leave with their pajamas and toothbrushes in a plastic bag.  I certainly don't have to teach you Jewish history; you know that has happened countless times before. 

    Israel has one of the strongest economies in the world right now, and we are promised much more in Sifrei Navi'im. The Shechina has left chu"l. Get what you can and get out. Lower your bar for what you think you need, both to leave and to live here. Liquidate everything you can and buy shelkim while the dollar is still worth something. (Although who knows? We may not need cash in a post-Moshiach world :-) 

     The noose is tightening. People here feel it very strongly. We're thrilled that you're coming soon. Throw away the paradigm you have about what you think your house is worth and rely on Hashem.   

     You asked: Is Hashem trying to tell us to stay, or is this a nisayon about our commitment to the mitzvah of yishuv haaretz? 

    For sure it is the latter! Who gets here without nisayonot? No one I know. Financial problems, health problems, problems with kids, housing instability, the list is endless.We have to EARN Eretz Yisrael and it's so hard because it's worth so much. The price tag is high because the merchandise is so valuable.* Do not be fooled by thinking a bit more cash in your pocket will protect you. Only Hashem protects. That's a lesson in emuna especially for our time, as the gates of Jewish history are closing. 

    I believe everything I've said to you here in the deepest part of my neshama. You'll see. Hashem will decide what's to be with your house. And in a very short time, you'll be coaching others to cut their losses and come while they can. 

    Hashem is calling your family to come Home. Shake off your attachment to your house and what you think it's worth, get on that plane and get here already. 

    all the best for a klita kalah, 

     * Hat tip to Rabbi Moshe Lichtman. This idea comes from his book Eretz Yisrael in the Parashah.