September 20, 2007

Postcards from Israel – A Passion for Pomegranates

Shana Tova from Israel. Celebrating the Jewish new year in Israel is a feast for the senses and the soul. For me it all begins with that pomegranate tree outside my kitchen window. By August, which is Elul, the fruit is already deep red and full, its 613 seeds ready to burst forth. And as Elul ends, I see more rimonim (pomegranates) appearing.

In the china section of department stores, clay, glass and plastic serving plates, candy bowls and honey pots are proudly displayed, all crafted in the signature style of rimonim. On the sidewalk, gift shops sell baskets filled with rimonim and candies, already wrapped in cellophane and tied with a bow. The corner store and the stationary store also get into the spirit, displaying their own gift baskets stuffed with chocolates, jars of honey and cookies. I see pots of honey and rimonim pop up on billboards and adorn flyers stuffed into my mail box. Accompanying them all are Shana Tova greetings.

As for shopping, the grocery stores are packed with people mulling over the produce section, filling their carts with fresh pomegranantes, red and green apples, plump dates and spindly branches dotted with date palms. And of course, oversized jars of honey are on special, proudly sitting at the entrance of the store. In the baking isle, I ran into a woman pushing a cart of Osem cakes. My daughter was crying because I would not let her push our overloaded cart (after it collided into a stack of pickle cans, I took away her 'agala' licence for the day). This lady, a perfect stranger, wiped Talya's tears away and said, "Ma kara, metuka? Have some honey cake." She then told me that if I buy two cakes, the third one is free and then continued down the aisle peddling her produce.

And so we celebrated the New Year. On Rosh Hashana afternoon, as I was sitting in my garden, I heard a shofar blowing in the distance. Tekiya, Teruah. The notes pierced the afternoon with clarity and resolve. My daughter then walked in and said she saw a man with his young son walking up and down the street blowing shofar to all who had not heard – and in our neighbourhood, that meant many. He stopped joggers in their tracks, people out for a stroll with their dogs. I bet he even found people in their cars, on their cell phones and listening to their ipods. But all took the time to stop, listen and reconnect with that deep resonant sound – a still small voice that was with us at Sinai and is, Baruch Hashem, with us today. Let it awaken our souls and inspire us for a meaningful, fulfilling, safe and healthy new year.

Postcards from Israel – Special Delivery

Special Delivery

I like the word 'postcard' because it connotes a picture of a foreign place and always contains a personal message. I would like to send out my own personal postcards to give a glimpse of life, a small peek into the wonders of living in this country.

A friend who was staying with us was due to return to return to Toronto last Wednesday night. The day before his departure, he saw an email asking if anyone flying to Toronto could bring back a sefer torah. I do not know how this message originated but if it was sent out to ten people, I imagine that within hours, it had circulated onto laptops and desks in Jewish homes and offices around the world and back again.

He called the phone number on the email and heard that the Torah was 'taken:' someone else had responded first. From this I learned that Torah deliveries must be a popular mission and all requests are snatched up fast. Our friend was despondent at not being able to fulfill this mitzvah and prepared his baggage to go to the airport.

The very evening of his flight, he received a call that the Torah was now available. Apparently, the original eager courier got the country right but the city wrong; he was going to Montreal and not Toronto. Was our friend still he interested? Of course! Addresses and phone numbers were exchanged.

At 1 am, a tiny rabbi with a long black coat and straggly white beard arrived at our home, a Sefer Torah in his arms. He had traveled in a cab from Jerusalem to our home for over an hour. We were all total strangers. He came into the house, took the Torah out of a duffle bug and laid it upon our dining room table. He then began to recite a few pasukim. He carefully rolled the torah back up, dressed it in a tallis and slipped it into a duffle bag, carefully marked with an arrow so that the Torah would not inadvertently be set upside down.

He then thanked my friend (gave us an invitation to come stay with him for a Shabbos) and slipped away into the night. My friend was left with a brand new sefer Torah probably worth about $30,000 and a long but meaningful flight ahead of him.

It is remarkable that a single email sent out into cyberspace can connect perfect strangers, enable a mitzvah and solidify the special trust that Jews have in one another. Even in these days of spiritual darkness, we trust strangers – and entrust them with something so valuable and a mission so important. .If my friend were to,
G-d forbid, drop that Torah, who knows how many Jews who would be fasting for 40 days.

And, as Jews, even in such a dog-eat-dog world, we are still very willing to (and in this case, literally) bend over backwards to help others. My friend had lots of luggage, a flight change in Munich with tortuous departure times – and yet he was thrilled to be able to put his personal needs aside and help out. We still are a very unique people.

I can just picture my friend – certainly not exhausted from a gruelling 14-hour voyage – to the contrary, elated…dancing through Canadian customs with an upright duffle bag!

April 3, 2007

Biking Israeli Style

Last week, around 6:00 a.m., yawning, I opened my shutters and was greeted by a deep blue sky. I thought of my bicycle and was instantly energized. After a cup of coffee, rushing around waking the kids, organizing school bags and lunches, I was finally able to take out my bike. Amir, always an eager cyclist, joined me.

When we leave the house, we have a choice of routes; turn left and head west to the fields or turn right and head east to the fields. The beauty of living in Raanana, or anywhere in tiny Israel, is that the towns are surrounded by farming communities. In sprawling North American cities, one could ride for hours before finding open fields. We can see them from the top of our street. This morning, we turned left.

Before long, we left the main road and sailed full speed down an empty farming road, passing by fields of tomatoes. A few months ago, zucchinis were growing here. The crops are always being rotated. And everything that is planted thrives in this rich red soil. Just fifty years ago, this whole area was swamp land. And for many, many centuries, nothing could grow here. Now, everything grows here ­ yet another miracle of this land.

I looked to my right and saw the Judean hills on the horizon, speckled by small villages.

We passed large cacti on the road side, its pink fleshy sabra fruit ready for the picking. And then grove upon grove of orange trees, Clementine trees, lemons and grapefruits. In March, the citrus fruits are in full bloom, with a delicate jasmine-like perfume. I breathed in the heady scent and felt so happy, so privileged to be experiencing this moment.

Amir, always searching for new routes, decided to veer off onto a small sandy path. At the end, it opened up into fields of wheat. I looked at the golden stalks and was astounded how each one looked so intricate, like it was perfectly braided. Looking up, I could see the white buildings on Netanya and beyond, the sea. I remember the day we biked to the sea. Leaving our bikes on the sand, we sat by the shore and watched the surf, mesmerized by the waves.

Amir then disappeared in a grove, looking for a road and I tucked in after him. It was cool and dark inside, the trees densely planted. We walked our bikes through the trees, looking for a way out on the other side when I spotted a perfect avocado hanging from a tree. I looked at another tree and saw more avocadoes dangling on thick stems.

Now when one has grown up in a cold climate and tried to grow avocadoes as house plants, this is a momentous discovery! My avocadoes in pots barely reached a foot high and always lost their leaves. These trees were huge!

I reached up and gently plucked one avocado to take home. I remember I once took a souvenir potato home, still hot from the warm ground. And often, when we are thirsty and tired, we pick an orange from a tree -- and these are always the best fruits we have ever eaten.

We made our way back to the road, eager to taste our new discovery and arrived home refreshed and envigorated. We have had a dose of the sun, the smells of the fields ­ and now, with a zest of lemon, a taste of the softest, ripest, most delicious avocado ever tasted!

Now this is a perfect start to the day ­ and where else can one do this but Israel?!

January 7, 2007

Mornings In Israel: A High-Wire Act

I recently found another entry that was written right after our arrival. And, yep, we are still racing the clock each and every morning,six days a week, just like every other Israeli.

Israel. This is a beautiful, wonderful, miraculous country. We love living here. But being from Canada, I sense a different energy here. Life is frantic, high-wire, fast. People are charged, electric, extreme. Why so?

Is it because this is a hot country? Having traveled to many warm countries including places in the Caribbean, South East Asia and South America, I am a bit confused. I’ve seen men in Thailand squatting on their hind legs for hours, smoking and watching the world go by. I’ve seen boys sauntering across rice paddies atop water buffaloes in Sulawesi. So where does Israel’s wild pace come from?

My four-year-old daughter Talya goes to gan. The doors open around 7:30 a.m each morning, six days a week. This is very early for a Canadian who is used to school starting around 9:00 five days a week. So I generally get my three older children off to school first and then slowly wake up my youngest daughter who is always tired in the morning. I hate the morning rush and like her to enjoy one-on-one time with me. She dresses, picks a snack for the walk and we head off at a leisurely pace. She loves to pick flowers for me as we stroll. Holding hands, we talk about the street cats that we see, the tree where we once spied a beautiful woodpecker, about her new friends at gan.

When we arrive at gan, the children are usually busy playing. Sometimes she sleeps late (till 8:00 am) and when we get there, the ‘program’ has started. The ganenet is stern. She is angry. She insists we be there for 8 o’clock.

For what? My Talya understands very little Hebrew. She is in a new country and spends the whole day at gan. She has no down time. She is not studying for bagrut. And she is only four!

Now I see that this frantic pace is ingrained at an early age. I watch parents madly dashing around in their cars each morning, speeding recklessly on the roads, trying to get their kids to gan so they can grab a highly caffeinated coffee and head off to work - and then only to sit in maddening traffic jams as they commute to Tel Aviv.

I also watch parents madly dashing to pick up their kids every afternoon, double parking on the roads, pulling up onto sidewalks, regardless of who is in their way. They then all send their children to chugim; swimming, soccer, tennis, piano, karate. Kids go to bed late. They wake up early. And this starts at the age of three.

I am happy to be a part of a nation of go getters and of high achievers. I just crave a quiet moment, a day of sleeping in, of seeing my kids lounge around in their pjs, or having nothing to do but jigsaw puzzles. I long for people to slow down and let me into a lane of traffic, and to have them respect a line in the bank instead of butting in.

But this is Israel and that was Canada. We are now all cramped into a country so tiny, the cities practically blend into each other: Tel Aviv, Hod HaSharon, Ramat HaSharon, Raanana, Kfar Saba, Herzliya, Netanya. Sometimes it just feels like one big traffic jam.

And although people may be rude to one other, deep down people do care about each other. Maybe people here want to move forward and achieve so much, they just can’t sit still.

I may want my water buffalo, but when it comes down to it, I guess I’ll trade it in for another hit of coffee each morning. As for that woodpecker, I haven’t seen it in a while; were too busy running so Talya could be there on time.

Mental Health Days

I was just going through some old journal entries and I found this. It was written just after we made aliyah and well before we started this blog. Reading back on this, I can see how much has changed for my children in the past year They are well adjusted socially, confident, happy and now call Israel home. The Hebrew language, however, is still an issue.

My cell phone rings. It’s my 12-year-old son. “Mom, I’m feeling sick. It’s a virus. I just threw up.”

There is silence as I figure out how to respond.

I decide to pull a hard line approach.

“It’s probably nerves. I know you can pull through this. You’re strong. Call me later.”

The phone rings an hour later.

“I just threw up again. This time it’s real. I need to come home and I’m sure it’s a 24-hour thing. I can go back to school tomorrow.”

We play this dance for an hour longer until the school calls me and insists I come and pick up my child right away.

I sheepishly turn up at the school to pick up my son, looking like a mean, uncaring parent. He walks out of the school guiltily but there is a spring to his feet. He has been saved. Once home, he runs up to his room and flops on his bed, finds a book and dives in. He is home. He is secure. The floppy pillow is familiar, the buzzing of the air conditioner is soothing. He falls asleep.

This is the first of many episodes. I am quite sure of this. And, watching him curled up in his bed, I know now that I have to permit it, hard line or not.

We have just moved to Israel and my son, who, with his eight years of Hebrew Day School education, does not understand a word. He is in a new house, living in a new and very foreign country. He has to go to a new school and make new friends. And to make things even more stressful, he was to dorm at school tonight for the first time.

He truly feels relieved; saved from being teased and jeered at; saved from feeling inadequate, stupid; and from being the one who doesn’t understand a thing. He is saved from having to eat dinner with a group of boys he doesn’t really know, most whom first met way back playing tag at gan. And, finally, saved from having to share a room with five strangers.

He is trying his best and has been marching off to school at 6:20 every morning for two weeks, sitting through class after class of incomprehensible jabbering, then returning home at 6:30 p.m., his books full of doodles showing cartoon giants torturing their captives. (Is he feeling that abused?) We are told that he will catch on in a few months and that we should be patient. So he doodles, and we wait.

Next day, I get a call from the school office at Noam. This time it’s my 10-year-old daughter. “Mom, I have a headache and I can’t concentrate. I have to come home.”

She caught on to this game quickly. And so did we. She was home within the hour, sprawled across the couch playing Game Boy. Safety. At least Game Boy is something she understands well. She later told me with great authority that she needs a break, a kind of mental health day. And she estimates that she will be due for one about once a month. I should write down the exact date in case she calls me sooner than she’s due.

Yet today, she happily left for school, not a care in the world.

I imagine the stress of sitting all day and not comprehending a thing takes its toll. I know it would on me. And as the school year progresses, and the home work does not get done, they will surely feel as if they are failing.

I now know that just to get up and go to school each morning is worth an A+. That’s the hard part. The rest will, with time, fall into place.

The house finally empty, I look at my dirty breakfast dishes. I spy my six-year-old son’s pencil case lying on the counter and my heart breaks. Although he does not have the hardship of higher level learning, he will be lost without his crayons and pencils. I can just see him sitting at his desk, lost amidst the chatter of kita aleph, unable to color in the boxes, or write the aleph, beit. He doesn’t know how to ask for help and he cannot conceive of a mental health day – he doesn’t yet know how to call home.

Oh Chanukah, Oh Chanukah, Come Light the Menorah...

(I wrote this entry a year ago, but our feelings are still the same…and the donuts are still as delicious and caloric as ever….)

Feel like I am on an emotional roller coaster. There are so many wonderful things about our new life in Israel. And yet, there are so many stresses to pull me down. Consider these amazing advantages:

* Jumping into the car at 11:00 am and driving south into the dramatic rocky desert with rolling mountains, tall dunes and deep rocky valleys. Climbing up to the ruins of a 2,000-year-old palace. We hiked around, jumped back in the car, downed a few slices of kosher pizza and were home by 8:00 p.m. (Yes, this was our tiyul to Masada.)

* Hanging out at Park Ra’anana in late December and watching my children run around in T-shirts. I sat on a bench reading the paper and then watched the sun dip behind the palms.

* Returning to Park Ra’anana because it’s so much fun and having my children clamber up a tree because climbing is exciting and because they are hungry for some plump perfectly round sweet oranges. On the way out, we shake a lime tree and bring a few home to squeeze onto dinner.

* Walking around on a Chanukah night and seeing menorahs in EVERYONE’S front window. Driving out of town and finding huge chanukiahs at town entrances, some electric, some with blazing torches, all proudly standing tall so every car can view them and remember the miracle.

* NEVER, NOT ONCE hearing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. (I am a scrooge.) Blissfully happy to forget all about Frosty the Snowman knowing that, even if he turned up, he would he would turn into a puddle in a few seconds flat ‘cause it’s still warm here.

* Silent Night? December 24th was the precursor to a normal work day that was complete with a morning paper, rush hour traffic, school, line ups at the bank and mail. No pre-Xmas build-up – just the sighting of one chocolate Santa in a grocery store and a foil Xmas tree in a Russian book store in Kfar Saba.

* Sufganiyot? Forget the oily, puffy dough filled with a dab of jelly and smothered with icing sugar. Roladin Bakery here has brought this tradition to a new level. Their small donuts are filled with either white or dark Belgian chocolate and topped with a generous serving of chocolate and, if you wish, a sprinkling of hazelnuts to make this a rival for any truffle. If you are going to indulge in 400 calories (the calorie count of an average sufgania), you may as well do it in style.

* Going to the local garden centre and buying a large clay pot and then filling it with fragrant flowering lavender. I did this stam but also because I have never planted outdoors in January and lavender is just so beautiful -- and it is flourishing this time of year (as is the cyclamen, the hibiscus, the bougainvillea).

Just Another Day in Israel

What seems to be just another run-of-the-mill day here can often morph into an entity of its own.

Do car pool, grab a coffee and run off to the opthamologist for a regular check up. Sound normal? Amir and I present our Macabi health cards to the receptionist at the eye doctor. She swipes my card, asks for it again and then tells me that I am not in the Macabi system.

“How can that be?” I blurt out in my broken Hebrew. “My children are in the system, my husband is. We are a family.”

She smiles. “I am glad you are a family. But you are not in the system. Go to the Macabi office right away. Then call us back to make another appointment.” I am dismissed. Looks like my eyes are going to have to wait another decade before I get around to caring for them.

I leave Amir, half blind with wildly dilated eyeballs, and drive off to the main Macabi office in Raanana. I dutifully get my number and wait a good half hour only to be told that it is not Macabi’s fault. I need to go to Bituach Leumi, the national health insurance office.

The woman at Macabi who is busily punching in my teudah zeut number then pronounces that I have no status. In other words, I am, according to the Israeli government files, a nobody. I have been living here for a year and a half and am not recognized as anyone. Yes, I officially have four kids and a husband - they are on file, but me? I am erased. I know that I must get back into the system quickly because, if G-d forbid, something were to happen to me, I could be refused treatment.

I scramble from the office and run smack into Amir who is leisurely sitting outside cradling a cafe hafuch. His eyes are still dilated. Having just been told that he officially needs glasses, he’s decided to play this for all it is worth.

He squints up at me, questioningly. “Who is that? I can’t see.” I grab his arm in mine as if we are a 90-year-old couple and hurriedly lead him back to the car, chattering on about my latest challenge. Problem is, us seniors can’t remember where the Bituach Leumi office is. Just like Amir’s eyes, my memory is a blur, having conveniently blocked out my previous visit to Bituach Leumi.

We first decide to check whether Bituach Leumi is even open on a Tuesday ay 11:30 am. Israeli offices never keep the normal 9-5 hours daily; that would be too boring. Instead, the hours are scattered across the week like sea shells swept ashore.

Amir actually has the phone number and we dial. Of course we reach a voice mail with a detailed menu. But first we have to select a language; we can choose between Hebrew, Arabic and Russian. What, no English? No representation of the most popularly spoken language in the world? (Sounds like the impossible phone system at the TV tax office - but that is another story.) Given my authority of the Hebrew language, I feel I may do better selecting option 2 and talking perestroika.

Amir forsakes options 1,2 and 3 and decides to get a real live Israeli to do the job. And who does he see first? An unassuming fruit vendor. So this poor guy who is weighing a pile of clementines has a cell phone shoved into his face.

“You speak English?” Amir begs him. He nods affirmatively, throwing a bag of potatoes on the scale.

“Good. Please find me someone on the phone who speaks English.”

This is a typical aliyah moment: us frustrated olim are so helpless, we can’t even make a phone call. So lost and pathetic, we don’t even know anyone who can help. But hey, we’re in Israel and everyone here loves to help.

The fruit guy confesses that navigating through Bituach Leumi is hard even for Israelis. Dropping our phone into a box of cucumbers, he suggests we stop wasting our precious cell phone time and just drive there.

We arrive at the office and they won’t let us in. There is a note on the door that we can’t read and a woman from inside speaks to us through a microphone. Our response to whatever she is asking is, “Does anyone speak English there.”

Silence. Amir assumes that the office must be on strike. We wait.

Finally a guy comes out to help. In English, he explains that half of this office, the part that I need, has relocated to another part of the city and, miracle of miracles, it is open for one more hour today. We get directions and head over there.

The line up is out the door and this is just the queue for security. Security is tighter than that in most airports; we have our bags searched, we empty our pockets. As we walk through a metal detector, our bags are x-rayed. Machines beep and ding, armed guards hold their guns close and we slowly file into a massive room the size of a central bus station.

Chairs fill the room. People sit bored in these chairs, staring listlessly at electronic numbers that never move. Amir gets us a ticket stub. Number 124. I look at the number on the screen. It is 116. Not bad, I think.

It’s been a lot worse. One time, we went to the Misrad Hapanim to get a passport. Our number was at least 50 behind the flashing number…that is, until Amir spied a discarded stub on a table. He slyly shuffled over to it and, when no one was looking, scooped it up fast up as if it were a pesky fly. He then opened his palm a tiny bit and said, “Look what I got!” I peeked and saw that he had the next number in line! It was like Jack bringing down the golden goose from his latest trip up the beanstalk. We chuckled over that one for ages, so proud that this find had gained us back another hour from our day.

Looking around this vast room, it seems as if the whole country is right here; young soldiers in their khaki uniforms; religious women with flowing head scarves; tiny babies asleep in their strollers; toddlers darting under the chairs; a school age kid with his finger up his nose; old men with walkers; young women in tight jeans and stilettos; and people crying. Yes. First there is anger, stomping, screaming. People crane their necks to see who is making the commotion. A hard-faced woman sits behind the counter, stonily watching someone’s sad life being vented at her. Then tears. But these clerks are immoveable and eventually the victim packs up their documents and wearily slinks away.

The numbers on the electronic board do not move. Yet time does and my day eventually slips by. I soon notice that people are so eager to get to the wicket, if one does not move the second the number appears, the spot could be snatched up by a number vulture, eager to prey on anyone who gets distracted. So I sit and stared at the board, then get into take off position when I think my number is next. And I make it without a fight!

However, my clerk does not speak English. As I try to assemble some basic Hebrew words in my head, Amir appears and says he will take over. And he does well. In the end, I have to fill in one form and wait a week. And I don’t even have to pay anything.

I am told that this problem occurred because I was supposed to report to the post office one and a half years ago to register for national insurance. How was I supposed to know this? I can’t even make a simple phone call. It just took the government that long to catch up with me.

So now I exist on a form on someone’s desk in Kfar Saba. And I hope to be input into a system. It’s well past lunch time, my kids are coming home from school already and I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything significant.

Yet that’s how life is in Israel. When you have your coffee in the morning, you just never know if it’s gonna be one of those days……

Simchat Torah

So Sukkot turned into Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Everyone gathered at synagogue to make the blessing for rain. After all, we have had over six months of sunshine and deep blue skies – it’s time for some rain.

About a dozeon or so of the shuls in our neighbourhood somehow manage to coordinate the timing so that everyone is out in the kikar, the traffic circle nearby, for hakafot and dancing. People swirl with the Torahs, children sway on their father’s backs and everyone claps and sings. And, then as if time were suddenly up, everyone goes back to their seats in their respective shuls.

And as soon as the chag is over, the smart, more experienced people take down their suukahs. I love this holiday so much that I have a hard time parting with the sukkah and I just want to keep it – little did I know that the rain bracha is quite effective!

That evening, Aviva and I walked over to Yad Levanim for yet more hakafot. And since the chag was over, there was a live band set up outdoors. There was a mechitzah so that women and men could dance separately and there was energy here beyond belief. I would have thought that these people would have been worn out from their dancing earlier on in the day – but that was definitely not the case.

And everyone was there. They brought their grandmothers, their babies, their lawn chairs, their blankets and their coolers. Vendors set up booths selling corn on the cob, cold drinks, glow in the dark trinkets. I saw everyone I knew and I could not move. As for Israelis, the more the merrier, yet Aviva started to complain about claustrophobia right away and yanked my arm, “Let’s leave.”

But I just wanted to watch the young girls and I pushed against the current of the crowd until I could have a glimpse. These high school girls put their all of their koach into dancing. They link arms and dance in lines, hopping back and forth in unison, stooping, twirling, singing, clapping. I love watching but the steps are so beyond me, I dare not even try to join in.

One of Aviva’s classmates spied her and tried to drag her into the fray but she resisted and would not let go of my arm. It is these moments when we feel so moved to be here and yet so apart from it all . Aviva felt almost offended by the noise, the physical contact, the crowds and was bowled over by the sheer energy here. I myself love this but I cannot dance like this. I do not have this exuberance but my soul is so nourished by the energy. I want to stay and soak it up but Aviva has to leave and this I respect. Maybe next year she will feel as if she belongs.

I woke up the next morning to a crash of thunder and the heavens opened up. Geshem! The rain that we prayed for arrived. And it had politely held off until the bands had packed up their drums and guitars; until everyone was utterly exhausted and hoarse from so much frenetic dancing and singing; and until they had safely taken down their sukkahs - almost everyone, that is!

“The sukkah!” I shouted and I leaped out of bed to see if I could salvage some of the paper artwork from the sukkah that the kids had made. Within seconds I was drenched by the cold rain. And after so many months without rain, it felt so strange and yet so good.

The cotton ‘walls’ of the sukkah and bamboo schach were drenched within seconds and I knew that the rainy season was now officially here. Looks like I will get my wish keep the sukkah up after all. In fact, I may be waiting quite a while for these to properly dry out before I can store them away until next year.