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May 25, 2012

Flight


A crowd gathers. Chatting, joking, milling, shifting on their feet. They are waiting for something.

A crowd thickens. Little boys chase each other, spinning imaginary circles around their dads. Women hover on the hillside. They look down at the men, a sea of black and white with wide brimmed hats bobbing in the evening breeze. Little girls draw closer and moms hug their newborns ever so tightly, hearts transmitting anticipation.

An old rebbe emerges and the crowd is silenced. The sea of black and white parts to let him cross. He holds a huge, black torch, cloth dripping in oil. Thick kerosene floats across the courtyard. He gently touches the torch to a pyre and as it licks the edge, flames leap to the stars. Joy erupts, the band starts to play, men chant and their feet sweep into a sweet, hypnotic dance. “Bar Yochai, nimshachta ashreicha, Bar Yochai, how fortunate are you...” Each verse of this meaningful Kabbalistic song extols how Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai perfected himself every one of the ten sefirot.

Lag B’Omer in Sfat is genuine. The town of Meiron, just across the Nahal Amud valley, is the original source of this unusual holiday but it attracts crowds so thick, and a tsunami of joy so full, it is hard to connect in Meiron, let alone breathe.


I prefer to be in Tsfat, to watch the light feet of the chassidim, be uplifted by the chanting and to see Meiron’s blazing bonfire at a safe distance, standing on Tsfat’s sun-bleached steps.

Each year, I leave Ra’anana, with its own style of Lag B’Omer, to be here. Ra’anana specializes in fireside hot dog roasts, but the bonfires are often fed with wood pinched from construction sites and dumped into stolen shopping carts. Teenagers gather to drink and kids insist on staying up all night. They jump around their flames, savage Lord of the Flies, then abandon their fiefdoms, leaving empty chip bags and sticky pop bottles beside embers that continue to burn a thick, sickly smell, coating  the town in ash. This is as far from spiritual as ice in the Negev.

Near Meiron, in the spiritual town of Tsfat, I can touch Lag B’Omer. I look at the Chasidim dancing in multiple circles and jubilant rows, little boys perched atop shoulders, their young heads swimming proudly in their father’s streimels. I see young girls in long skirts and tight braids, and babies perched on young mom’s hips.At this moment, I feel joy and happiness in this life of innocence. And this is beauty. This is where spirit can dwell and nurture and erupt into heartfelt song.

Have Ra’anana folk lost their innocence to the call of internet, movies, tight jeans and break dancing? It is hard to balance spirit and matter, and perhaps when we choose to become more attached to the material world, we silence that small, still voice.

I crane my ear to the sound of a violin. A group of men are now dancing in the street. A young boy in jeans enters the circle. The chassids open their arms to include him and then link hands, tap their feet and sing. They are so light, complete and present, they could fly.

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May 8, 2012

Forget It!


“Forget it.”

Forget it. These words still sting. They are akin to saying ‘give up.’  Throw in the towel. Laisse pisser. Sayonara.

One morning last week, I was on the phone with my son’s yeshiva. I was trying to sort out a simple tuition issue. But before I could even address my matter, I had to pass the secretary’s litmus test. And yes, I failed. Yet again.  Before I could emit a two-syllable word (forget about complete sentences), the secretary interrupted me, saying, “Your son is in the foreign students program, yes?”

Well, no. I mean sort of. Truth be told, I should be in the foreign students program. But my son, well, believe it or not, he is fluent in Hebrew even though it may be hard to believe.

So after I had so elegantly established myself as the mother of an Israeli yeshiva student, I tried to explain the reason for my call. For this phone conversation I needed some basic banking vocabulary, an ability to conjugate verbs in the past, a memory larger than an iguana’s and a cool head.

I stuttered. I spoke in infinitives and if I did conjugate a verb, my past perfect became future. My masculine nouns were adorned with Spanish adjectives. I sputtered.  My feminine numbers came out French. Or was I supposed to use the masculine form of numbers when talking about bank statements?  I winced. 

Four sentences into my drivel, the secretary interrupted me again and in perfect English she said, “Forget it.”

Forget it? This was code for ‘Lady, you are giving me such a headache, I can’t take it anymore. Switch languages right away before I jump out a window or hang up this phone.’

I felt as if I were being sent to the back of the class. I failed. Miserably.  I swallowed my pride and switched to English. Within half a minute, I communicated my concern, she looked into the matter and the problem was solved. Click.

Foget it! Perhaps these words also spelled ‘relief.’  They granted me the ability to relax, to regain dignity, to solve an issue quickly and to slink back up to the front of the class.  

But why did the secretary  make me suffer? If she spoke English, why did she watch me toss in the rapids so long without throwing me a rope? Why did she not stretch out a hand and correct my Hebrew, maybe offer me a missing word, some encouragement? 

And why is my Hebrew so bad ? I have actually completed Kita Daled in ulpan. Over the years living here, I have done so many ulpans, I am a connoisseur of Hebrew language classes--yet I am a delinquent in disguise.  In classs, homework assignments may have been flawless but my conversation was abysmal. 

Perhaps my Hebrew is weak because I live in Ra’anana and have no Israeli, Hebrew-speaking friends. Or maybe it’s a reaction to my children rolling their eyes every time I open my mouth. It could be my age, an iguana-sized brain or a lack of caffeine.  

This topic wears me down, so let’s just forget it. 

May 2, 2012

Snow, sandals and sandwich bags


“I found a carrot for my snowman’s nose."

Talya plodded though the snow, crouching down to perfect her masterpiece.  I leaned forward, curious. How could she produce a carrot on this frozen mountaintop? Was it some kid’s leftovers from last summer’s picnic? I examine it closely and see she has found an orange water bottle cap. Her brother Shaya is envious and goes off on his own garbage collection. Within seconds he too produces a cap.  It is  blue. Guess this sparkling white patch of snow is not so pristine.

But this is not the Alps, the Laurentians or the Rockies. This is Israel. It is April and we are on top of Mount Hermon. 

Boys with black velvet kippot crowd around our snowmen that now stretch out plastic straw arms and stand at attention topped by bright red bottle caps.

“Abba. Look what they are doing!”

Is there a word in Hebrew for snowman? These boys have obviously never seen such a clever thing before.  And in order to create their own version, they throw off their shoes and slide across the snow in stocking feet before squatting down to work. Their father produces plastic sandwich bags and instructs his boys to use them as mittens.

The sun is blinding up here. Shrieks reach a high pitch as adults and kids hurl themselves down the slope on plastic toboggans. A man in an orange vest hopelessly tries to keep order, using a megaphone to shout out instructions.

“Walk up the hill to the right,” he trumpets. “Boy in the black pants, ‘Zooz, move!’”

Too late. A woman in a headscarf flies into him and they tumble down the hill, toboggan flying ahead of them.

Almost everyone here is wearing black pants. It seems as if half of B’nai Brak has piled onto busses to come out and play in the snow. And all the girls have gray socks. They too are wearing plastic sandwich bags, but these are inside their Shabbos shoes.

Foofzig shekalim,” the megaphone blasts. This Arab guy is trying out his Yiddish. A group of giggling B’nai Brak girls rush over to rent a toboggan.

Khamsum shekalim,” he screams again, this time in Arabic.  Arab families pile onto their toboggans and play bumper cars down the slope. One boy runs after his brother and pushes a healthy dose of snow right down his back. Large knit kippas fly down the hill as a group of Nah Nach Nachman Breslevers laugh alongside the Arabs.

Everyone here is having fun. Together.

I look at the streams of people arriving from the chair lift and can imagine the chaos that will ensue when they will all slide down and all walk up--all in each others' paths. Not so different from driving a car in this country.

“It’s getting crowded up here,” I announce. “Time to go back down.”

I take a photo of the snowmen. My daughter looks back at “Frosty” dejectedly, already suffering from snowman separation anxiety. The day is heating up and I don’t give Frosty a long lifespan. I keep this information to myself as we head to the chair lift.

As our cable car ambles down, we see streams of people coming up. Young men in black hats, their wives in shiny sheitels sitting beside them. I see Arab girls in sandals, their bare toes swinging freely though the air.  How will they walk through the snow, I wonder, fascinated.

I turn my head in shock as I see some boys coming towards me, the metal bar on their cable car raised. They are completely exposed with nothing but the clear mountain air between them and the jagged rocks far below. I gulp and caution them. In the next cable car is a woman with an infant car seat nestled beside her. My eyes widen. And then a young girl passes by with a tiny two-year-old beside her. She could fall out at any moment, I whisper to myself. Young boys pass by us singing “Gesher Tzar Meod.”

Life is a narrow bridge. And we must not fear at all.  This cable car ride has proven to me that these people officially fear nothing in the world but Hashem.

Preferring to look away from such danger, I focus on the ground far below. Where else in the world can you look down from a chair lift and count kippot? A multitude of kippa clips gave caution to the wind, releasing kippot from heads, releasing a volley of black shooting stars.

“One, two, three, four,” Talya and I chime out. We then count woolen hats and dejected single mittens all strewn across Mount Hermon.

As we rest our wet cold feet  in the car and drive down the mountain towards the warmth and heat near the Jordan River,  I think about our morning. I cannot decide whether the snow or the people were more fascinating. But with certainty, I do know is that this is a country of extremes; where else can Arabs, secular Jews and the Orthodox laugh together as they play in snow, then eat by a gurgling river set in a lush  canopied forest--all on the same day?