The Person Behind The Posts

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Natural Progression

I have no actual data to support this, but I do have a long-standing gut feeling that ba'alei teshuva and converts are overrepresented among olim.  In plain English, I have observed that those who chose Jewish observance as adults, either Jews who were born into assimilated families and became religiously observant later in life, or those who were born into non-Jewish families and chose to become observant Jews, make aliyah in greater proportion than they exist in the general Jewish population.

My own experience certainly echoes this.  I was raised in a nominally Jewish household, one that had been tossing off vestiges of traditional Judaism for a few generations.  I always knew I was a Jew, but it meant very little to me. Until it started to mean the world to me.

In a very real sense, my relationship with Israel grew in exactly the same way.  At first, it meant very little to me. Until it started to mean the world to me.

There are many parallels between the processes of becoming religiously observant and making aliyah. When I became religiously observant decades ago, I had to integrate a whole new worldview.  There was a new idiom to master. New customs to learn. A new social circle within which to interact. New ideas to study.  New foods to eat. So many things I had to relearn. And, accompanying the process, the inevitable discomfort of being a newbie. There was so much I didn't know about being a Jew that others seem to understand intuitively.

Making aliyah requires the exact same adjustments. Just last night, my husband and I were taking a walk not far from our house. We ran into a neighbor who was so happy to see us because her car had just died and she wasn't sure what to do. In the Old Country, in the former lifestyle, we knew what to do. As newly observant Jews, and again as olim, we have to figure everything out all over.

In many ways, making aliyah is a natural progression on our Jewish journeys. We have already overturned so much of our lives in the process of  clinging to Torah, to God and to the Jewish people. When we became observant Jews, we reclaimed our connection to the God of Israel, Torat Yisrael and Am Yisrael.  So too, by making aliyah, we have reclaimed our connection to Eretz Yisrael.

Like any deep growth, it ain't easy. But it surely is worth it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Do I Hate America?

When I write soft, fluffy, feel-good pieces about our new lives in Israel, I often get a heartwarming response.

That feels good.  I like showing people a side of Israel that may differ from their preconceived notions of what Israel is like. I enjoy pointing out the glory of life here and, because I blog, I'm always looking for charming, only-in-Israel stories that might translate well to blog posts or Facebook statuses.

But that's not the only thing I think about, nor the only thing I blog about.

A short time ago, I wrote a series of posts about how the gender issues in Judaism gnaw at me.  One indignant reader wrote a comment about how tiresome she finds my incessant harping about women's issues and, when I didn't approve her comment, she called me a hypocrite and let me know that she will never read another word I write.

Similarly, whenever I write about America from the perspective of one who couldn't wait to leave, I spark strong reactions from Jews who rush, sometimes in the same breath, to both defend America and to attack me.

I've been told that, by not celebrating Thanksgiving, I created a chillul Hashem (a profanation of Gd's name) in the eyes of non-Jews. By not celebrating Thanksgiving even while I was in America, it seems that I spit in the eye of the country that took in the persecuted, downtrodden Jews.  One reader drew an entire psychological profile of me based on the fact that I chose not to celebrate Thanksgiving. From this, the reader concluded that," feel nothing towards it, and feel no obligation whatsoever to express that gratitude together with the rest of the citizenry, in a non-religious, non-sectarian forum."  By virtue of the fact that I didn't celebrate Thanksgiving, s/he asserts, "But to openly state that even when you lived in the US, you felt "nothing" towards the country in the way of appreciation?... Now, imagine the non-Jew who reads that. If that does not border on the chillul hashem, I don't know what does."

Just to be clear, I said no such thing.  What I actually said was, "Thanksgiving may not be a religious holiday, but it's certainly not a Jewish one.  I'm not declaring that it's wrong to celebrate the day. There are certainly worse things a religious Jew can do than celebrate Thanksgiving. But to me, it's totally irrelevant. It's someone else's holiday."

I see, in the accusations of this reader, an unvarnished galut mentality. What is s/he worried about?  That by skipping the turkey and football, I, as a Jew, seem ungrateful to America and that non-Jews might find out and then what will they think?  It's a shanda fur die goyim - something embarrassing to the Jews that non-Jews might see. Shush! They might hear you.

And that, my friends, is why I am so grateful to live in a Jewish country. I don't have to be concerned about accusations of dual loyalty because I have none. My loyalty is singular.

Tzvi Fishman, in his blog, Hollywood to the Holy Land, recently wrote Should a Jew Celebrate Thanksgiving? His take is brilliant and well worth the brief read.  In fact, Tzvi Fishman, who routinely writes about how Jews in America need to wake up and get their priorities clear, recently published a collection of his blog posts. In his true, unapologetic style, the book is titled "From Israel with Love: It's Time for Jews to Come Home"  For 350 pages, he pounds the point that Jews belong in Israel and anyone who tries to make the case otherwise is misreading Torah.

He gets a lot of hate mail.  

To his credit, Tzvi Fishman honors the writers of the hateful talkbacks by suggesting that, in their vociferous defense of America and concomitant attacks on Israel, they are actually playing out a deep attachment to Israel.  It's negative, no doubt, but it's spiritually superior to the wide swath of Jews in America who are utterly indifferent to Israel. 

I also received a different, lengthy personal comment from someone who identifies as American yeshivish: "You may think I'm crazy, but I am very proud to be a Jewish American. (And no, my thinking is not skewed because I live outside of Israel.)... why do you so greatly despise America? You are not here anymore. So why do you (seemingly) constantly comment negatively on things/customs/natural disasters/holidays/etc. pertaining to America? I often become very upset when I see your statuses and hate towards America. I know this country may be dirt to you, but its not for all of us (Jews)."

Since this comment came from someone I know personally, I took a long time to craft my response.  It's slightly edited here, largely because I deleted personal references.  Rereading it, I am pleased at how accurately it reflects what I think, feel and believe:

I don't hate America, but I do feel very, very detached from it.  I never felt like a true-blue American, even when I wasn't yet religious and I never much cared for Thanksgiving either. So when I became religious and had such a rich calendar of celebration and so many expressions of thanks to Hashem, Thanksgiving became pretty irrelevant to me.  I wholly identify as a Jew who came from the Diaspora community of America and I thank Gd every day that I live in Israel now.

My Facebook comment was about my confusion over why religious Jews would celebrate a holiday that is not ours, especially after they make aliyah.  It was not a general excoriation of America.

Having said that, I see that you are asking for a more complete response, so I'll offer one. You felt free to speak your mind and I respect that. What I appreciate about your challenges to my position is that it shows me that you are still questioning.  You want to believe what you're being taught now and I keep making you uncomfortable.  I think that's very positive.  You're still thinking.  Kol hakavod.

You asked if I've ever studied the non-Tzioni version of these issues.  I am well aware of the view that Jews are not obligated to come to Israel until Moshiach arrives and that there are people who feel that, until Eretz Yisrael is guided by Torah leadership, living in Israel is neither compulsory nor even preferred.  I know there are American rabbeim who refer to America as a medina shel chessed and who argue that we are obligated to express hakarat hatov to a country that allows Jews to live with religious freedom.

Just as you follow your rabbis, I follow mine.  I believe that the non-Tzioni version of geula, Moshiach, Eretz Yisrael question is dead wrong and, what's more, dangerous for the Jews who cling to the Diaspora at this time in Jewish history. I also find it highly ironic that religious Jews will not move to Israel because the government is a secular one, but they willingly celebrate secular holidays such as Thanksgiving, in someone else's country.  The truth is, I find it offensive that non-Tzioni Jews are loyal to a foreign government and feel that they are not obligated to come and help build the nation that Hashem, in His great mercy, gave back to Am Yisrael after 2000 years.  I find it offensive that non-Tzioni Jews feel that it's okay to wait it out in the relative material comfort of America while the rest of the Jewish people build and die for a country which non-Tzioni Jews plan to show up to after all the hard work has been done.

I also believe that, through world events such as extreme weather, economic crashes, social unrest and increasing antisemitism, Hashem is begging the Jewish people to leave the Diaspora. And the non-Tzioni world, encouraged by their rabbis, are deaf, dumb and blind to the call.  Religious people who know Jewish history are still building magnificent Jewish institutions in chutz l'aretz, buying houses there and, in general, behaving as if their future is there rather than here. I believe with all my heart and soul that it is a big, fat historical mistake.  I am hurt, for the kavod of Hashem, that so many of His people are turning their backs on Eretz Yisrael and choosing to dwell in a land that is not ours. Learn a little Eim Habanim Semeichah and you'll see how we've already made that tragic mistake in the past.

While there are many, many moments of joy here and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else, life in Israel is not a picnic.  It's hard work and Israel hasn't come close to reaching its potential.  If there were more religious Jews here, the work would go faster. The future of Am Yisrael is here, not in the US or France or any other diaspora community.  So yeah, even while I worry for the safety of the Jews I love in America, it irks me that so many non-Tzioni people choose to sit on the sidelines in America.

It may be possible that the resentment I feel towards the pull America has on non-Tzioni Jews who are ignoring Hashem's call comes across as hate. I don't hate America. But I believe that the time has come for Jews to leave, while the gates of Israel are still open and it's still possible to come b'kavod.

It's not fun to receive and read comments that are critical of my views. But, in the end, I find that they help me clarify my message.  And for that I'm thankful.

Maybe I should go grab a turkey sandwich.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

No Turkey for Me, Thanks

Yes, I know I sound like a curmudgeon. But I seriously don't get the whole  "religious Jews celebrating Thanksgiving" thing. I didn't get it in America and I really, really don't get it in Israel.
This was the Facebook status I posted 18 hours ago. So far, there are 38 comments on my status. My pro-Thanksgiving Facebook friends, a good percentage of whom are religious Jews living here or back in the US, variously argue that Thanksgiving is:
  • a holiday lacking religious significance and basically just an excuse to get together with family and friends, watch football and overeat.
  • the time to appreciate that America affords religious freedom to Jews.
  • an excuse to party with other American ex-pats.
  • a national holiday that all Americans can share.
  • a great time to get together with non-religious family because religious Jews can drive and cook and are off from work.
It's Thanksgiving in America and today, I went to work in Jerusalem and then came home and put up the challah dough to rise, pretty much like I do every Thursday. Personally, I have zero attachment to Thanksgiving.  I stopped celebrating it a long time ago and I haven't once missed any aspect of it.
The Jewish calendar is so full of special celebrations, and a Jewish life lived well is so full of opportunities to express gratitude multiple times a day, that I personally feel absolutely no need for the ritual.  And if I want turkey and stuffing, I'll make it for Shabbat.
Thanksgiving may not be a religious holiday, but it's certainly not a Jewish one.  I'm not declaring that it's wrong to celebrate the day. There are certainly worse things a religious Jew can do than celebrate Thanksgiving. But to me, it's totally irrelevant. It's someone else's holiday. I would no more make a festive meal for Thanksgiving than for Easter or Kwanzaa or Eid al-Adha.
One comment asked, "Why does aliya have to be all or nothing? First people tell them to make aliya with the assurance that they won't miss anything they have here, then once they do, they criticise them because they speak English too much, or have too many chutz-nik friends, or have a "golus mentality", or want to keep any traditions frum chutz laAretz. I think it should be enough that they made aliya... let them travel the journey at their own pace."
As I said, in recent decades, I didn't celebrate Thanksgiving in America either,so for me, the two things are not connected.  But since the point was raised, I'd like to address it.
I live in Israel and, despite the considerable amount of time I've invested in learning Hebrew, I speak English 98% of the time. I read English books and raise charitable contributions in my community (more than NIS10,000 so far) through the sale of used English books. I have no Israeli friends, except those who also speak English. There are things I still import from the US, either because they are cheaper there or simply not available here. I miss Chinese food, WalMart, the Baltimore County Public Library and free shipping from  
I will always be an American immigrant and my kids, who came as teens, probably will be as well, albeit to a lesser extent. I am completely, totally and unapologetically okay with these realities and I am singularly uninterested in the criticism of anyone who thinks that I am not doing aliyah right.
And there is still no pumpkin pie in my oven today.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Blind Anxiety

In Holon, an Israeli city just south of Tel Aviv, I had a most unusual experience this past week.  On the grounds of the Children's Museum in Holon, there is an exhibit officially called "Dialogue in the Dark" but more commonly known as The Blind Museum.

I heard about it from my kids, who both went with school trips.

It's not a simple thing to get in as an individual because you have to go through the experience in groups of 10 and groups with English-speaking guides are less common.  So when I found that the OU Israel Center was organizing a tour for English speakers, I signed up immediately.

The exhibit puts a group of 10 people together in total darkness, led by a blind or visually impaired guide.  For an hour and a half, you have only your white cane, your wits and the assistance of your blind guide to get you through a maze of experiences, including visiting a park, a busy city street, a market and getting on and off a boat.

Our guide, Meir, was a calming presence in anxious moments.  At the beginning of the tour, Meir reminded us that we are all virtually addicted to sight, relying on it nearly to the exclusion of our other senses.

Especially in the beginning, I felt completely vulnerable just stepping forward.  I had no sense of orientation, no way to anticipate what was coming and a general, low-level anxiety about getting though the experience without getting lost or hurt.

Later, it occurred to me that this feeling was familiar.  Being suddenly unable to rely on one's sense of sight is a lot like being an adult olah chadasha and being unable to rely on one's language and one's familiarity with the surrounding culture. 

Frequently, as a new immigrant, I am faced with the need to do things that cause me anxiety.  Not paralyzing, but certainly uncomfortable. So many things are still so new and, because I don't understand the language well enough to be a confident communicator, some days, there is a near-constant hum of disquietude.

This experience, the necessity of frequently facing things that make me uncomfortable, is a truthful part of my klita story.  I didn't know to expect it when we made aliyah. 

To be certain, it's not every day that I feel it. And, as I get used to certain routines, the areas over which I feel a sense of competence increase. For example, I think I'm getting the hang of using the Rav Kav card. 

And tonight, I made cinnamon challah in my Israeli kitchen and they look and smell fabulous. 

So, for today, I've banished my low-level olah anxiety with the mitzvah of challah for Shabbat. In Israel.

And that about captures what my life feels like these days.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Letter By Letter

Back in the Old Country, when I was still a rebbetzin, there was a woman in my husband's congregation who wanted to study for an adult Bat Mitzvah.  She had wanted to do so for many years, but she was paralyzed from beginning because she thought she would have to learn to read Hebrew, and she didn't think she could do that.

I began meeting with her every week.  First I taught her the shape and name of the letter alef - the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Then we went through a Hebrew prayer book and, moving her finger right to left on each line of text, she stopped at every alef she found and said, "alef".

The next week, we added the letter bet.  Then gimel.  Before long, she purchased, and was using, her own large print Tehillim. She would move her finger from right to left on each line of text, calling out the names of the letters she recognized.

I added a new letter or two each week, and at the beginning of each lesson, she would tell me how she had stayed up until the wee hours practicing.  When my husband and I went to Israel for two weeks, rather than missing any time, she asked me to teach her four letters before we left. And while we were gone, she practiced like a demon.

In time, very gradually, she learned the names of every letter in the Hebrew alphabet and, in her way, could "read" any Hebrew text.  She often exclaimed how things in the shul were opening up for her. She could distinguish letters on the yahrtzeit plaques, in the prayer book and on the aron kodesh. I had her "read" the chapters of Tehillim that Jews around the world were saying for the safety of Israel.  She always used to tell me that, in her next life, she would be born a sabra.

When we studied together, she was 80 years old.

After she mastered the letters, we tried to move on to vowels, but I could see that it was too much for her.  Instead, I taught her to recognize the shapes of a few common Hebrew words - shalom, Israel and the two ways that God's name most often appears in print.  By then, she could "read" her text, letter-by-letter. And when she got to one of the names of Hashem, she would stop her finger, point, and say, "Hashem!" and look up at me with a huge smile.

It was a rare privilege to teach and know a person who, though lacking formal Jewish education, possesses a neshama that is so wide open.

Sally, you are still my Jewish hero.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Little Tiny Moments of Joy

Periodically, I have little tiny moments of joy here in Israel.  They aren't necessarily big enough to blog about, so I usually dash off a line or two and update my Facebook status. I thought it would be fun to knit a bunch of these tiny little moments of joy together.

What follows are the 30 or so most recent nuggets, starting in early July, when we celebrated our first aliyahversary, and ending with the one I wrote just last night.

Today is our very first aliyahversary. We have been blessed with so many brachot during our first year in Israel. I have learned to accept, with emuna, the challenges that Hashem sends to me personally. Living here strengthens my awareness that the Master of the World is always looking out for me, even when it feels like maybe He's a bit distracted.

Shop Wednesday. Cook Thursday. Play Friday. Just realized how much better this system is.

One of the biggest thrills of making aliyah is hearing about newer olim who are coming to join the family.

The Google home screen has big red hearts where the "oo" goes. Is Google aware that it's Tu b'Av, the Jewish Day of Love?

Just had a young Israeli man deliver a contract for me to sign. I asked if he wanted something to drink. Before drinking, he took a piece of paper from the contract, held it over his head and made a bracha. Man, I love this place!

Attended a beautiful outdoor Jewish wedding ceremony last night, high in the hills overlooking Jerusalem. Warm breezes. Great music. How did I get so lucky to have such an authentic Jewish experience?

I love Fridays in Israel. My daughters and I alternate cooking. My husband goes out to the makolet to pick up the ingredients we forgot and later, he sweeps and mops. Quality family time :-)

A year ago this week, I started the 5-month long intensive ulpan (conversational Hebrew class) for new immigrants. On the bus this morning, it occurred to me that the reality is, I can learn Hebrew. Just a lot slower than I would like.

So holy is the produce grown in Israel that, after I eat Israeli grapes, I make the after blessing with different wording than what I used to say in America. Same for olives, dates, figs, pomegranate and wine.

On Friday, while preparing for Shabbat, I spilled very, very hot zucchini soup on my arm. Every day, the burn it looks a little better and I marvel at the fact that Hashem made it possible for skin to heal itself.

Fun with Hebrew: I texted my Hebrew tutor about setting up our next meeting and she texted back כן בעזה. I was confused. We should meet in Gaza?! What she meant was, "Yes, B'ezrat Hashem," meaning, "Yes, with Gd's help."

‎9/11 changed my life. I was in Baltimore and didn't witness it firsthand. But on that day, I heard Hashem tell me it was time to make aliyah. In a moment, my whole perspective on the issue shifted

Today, I shopped for a new wallet, in Hebrew, all by myself. I am inordinately proud of myself.

On my way home from work, I saw my bus already at the stop from across the street. Crossing the street, I said, "Hashem, if You want me to make that bus, you're gonna have to hold it for me." Not only did I make it onto the bus just before it pulled away, but my daughter was on that exact bus. She gave me her seat and she stood the whole time while we planned our Shabbat menus.

In the mornings, as I stand in my kitchen packing lunch, I see and hear men walking to and from shul, children leaving for school, neighbors tossing their recycling, city buses passing by and, you know, life.

My brother just texted me: "Rain in jlem... G-d loves us." How can I not love this life?!

My new mantra: "Thank you, Hashem."

Every day on my way to work, I think of how much I love being amidst the bustle of a Jerusalem morning with somewhere familiar to go.

Yesterday, I saw a sign in Hebrew that seemed important to understand. At first, my eyes glazed over and I was tempted to ignore it, but I gave it a try. To my surprise, certain words were clear. I understood it was an announcement of a ruling in Jewish law. I understood that something was being forbidden but I didn't understand exactly what it was. So, in a few simple Hebrew sentences, I explained to someone working there that I needed help understanding the sign. She didn't speak any English, but she understood what I needed and called a bilingual friend to explain it to me in English. Epic success!

As I was getting off the bus just now, my bare-headed bus driver said to me, "Gmar chatima tova." Man, I love this place!

I just returned a library book that was 22 days late. The fine? Wiped out because of where we are in the Jewish calendar. There's no place like Home!

STOLEN FROM AVIVA ADLER (no relation): My biggest "WOW! I'm in ISRAEL!" moment so far (I arrived Rosh Chodesh Elul) is the radio announcer on the classical music station who announces the SHEMA every morning just before 6:00 a.m., and who, erev Yom Kippur,
wished all his listeners a Gmar Chatima Tova!

STOLEN FROM SHIRA YASHIN: My son knew a rabbi who was in a bank, and when he went to leave, the guard stopped him and said he couldn't leave. He turned around and saw that they were gathering a minyan for mincha, so he went and joined them.

An ad in the Jerusalem Post for the Land Rover features five recommended mountain sites in Israel where the Land Rover can take you to help you appreciate beauty of Eretz Yisrael.

I put my Uggs on for the first time this season so I could sit more comfortably in the sukkah. Feels Shehecheyanu worthy.

In my dream last night, I ordered a cab to take two women from our apartment to the local mall - in grammatically correct Hebrew.

I am not naive. I know how complex and untenable the options were. I understand the perspective of those who think we made a deal with the devil. But in the end, I feel proud - proud of the values of my country, proud of my Prime Minister and so, so grateful to Gd that I got to experience this day as an Israeli.

Today, as we were leaving the pharmacy, a young clerk handed us a box of Trident Tropical Pineapple gum from her basket of goodies and wished us a Chag Sameach. This moment of integrated Jewish life was brought to you by aliyah.

Just started raining in Jerusalem! Is there a bracha for this?

Reason #86,367,851 that I'm grateful to live in Israel: The Baltimore Jewish Times cover story this week asks, "Is celebrating Halloween kosher?"

This morning, I told my Hebrew tutor a short dvar Torah in Hebrew. I didn't know she was going to ask me to do that, so I wasn't prepared, but I did it anyway. Amazingly, she seems to have understood what I think I said. Somedays, I think I might eventually tame this beast. Other days, not so much.

Getting a seat on a crowded bus - just one small pleasure of life in Jerusalem.

I just opened a box of Israeli-made sandwich bags. On the box, in plain English, it said, "Produced without fear of Desecration of the Sabbath."