August 23, 2013

To Make A Crying Child Smile

Last week I wrote about the abundance of kind acts in Israel. And just this week, we read about a rare, wonderful and heartwarming episode.

Inbar, a young, 11-year-old girl from Rehovot has cancer. She is given a special opportunity to go to Camp Simcha in New York, a sleepover camp for children with pediatric cancer. Together with her parents she filled in the forms, had all the medical tests completed and counted the days until she, together with 29 other Israeli children, would fly to New York. Camp Simcha is dedicated to uplifting the spirits of children with cancer. Under medical supervision, campers enjoy talent shows, carnivals, helicopter rides and many other fun activities.

Inbar boards the plane and sits with the new friends she has made. They chat excitedly and wait for takeoff. As standard procedure, Chai Lifeline staff collect the children’s passports. Inbar’s is missing. Everyone in the group frantically searches for the missing passport.

In a scramble, other passengers on the plane start to search. They alert the El Al flight attendants who also look under the seats and in the overhead bins.

The ground crew retraces Inbar’s steps from the terminal to the plane. No sign. Without a passport she cannot fly, so they escort a tearful Inbar off the plane. She is heartbroken. Here is an opportunity that may never come again.

As the plane leaves the terminal and heads down the runway, the pilot is given permission to take off. Suddenly, the girl who was sitting next to Inbar finds the passport in her own backpack. She holds it up high like a trophy and everyone is overjoyed.

The flight attendants tell the pilot who stops the plane and radios the flight control tower to explain the situation. The pilot and the airport staff confer and after 45 minutes, they decide to let the plane come back for Inbar.

With tears in her eyes, Inbar sees the plane turn around and head back toward the terminal. It looks likes it’s coming back for her! The plane parks outside, the doors are unlatched doors and, like royalty, Inbar is escorted aboard amidst cheers, clapping and choked tears. The director of the Israeli branch of Chai Lifeline said all the passengers shared Inbar’s excitement and that this was one of the greatest moments he has ever experienced.

This kindness is unheard off in all international airports and on most airlines--especially after the fear and threat created in our post 9/11 world. Once a plane taxis out for takeoff, it simply leaves. It cannot turn around for a passenger like a cab. And it does not matter if the circumstances are dire or sad or tragic. The plane has a schedule to keep and money is lost when it sits on a runway for too long. A passenger is a seat number and a booking code, not a child who is suffering from cancer.

But on El Al, according to this beautiful story, we are all one. We are human beings who laugh and who cry and who, unfortunately, suffer. The pilot, the flight attendants and the passengers on this flight also hope their own children will be healthy, happy and able to enjoy every wonderful opportunity that life gives us. 

The proof is in the eyes of a smiling, joyous Inbar who is, right now, enjoying each minute she has at Camp Simcha. 
Israelis' hearts are full. Be it performing acts of kindness or helping the sick, they insist on taking that extra runway to make a crying child smile.

August 16, 2013

A Chagall Wedding

In our daily morning prayers, we speak of important actions that we should strive to do. They are honoring one’s parents, performing acts of kindness, going to synagogue early, opening one’s home to guests, visiting the sick, providing for the bride, escorting the dead, absorption in prayer, bringing peace among people and studying Torah.

Today, despite the negative stories of Israel upon which the outside world continuously harps, this tiny country is a living testament to such kind acts. There are an abundance of real and current examples of how this country is filled with light and goodness like no other place on earth.

Last night, a special community in Tsfat 'provided for the bride' in a most meaningful, giving way. Here is how it happened.

One week ago, tourists from Holland were travelling around Israel and decided to visit Tsfat. They stopped in at the Tree of Life Cafe, the neighborhood health-food restaurant. The couple was with their two daughters, who were 11 and 13.

They sat sipping refreshingly cool juice under an umbrella and started chatting to Noam, a young 17-year-old waiter. Noam was dati, a religious Jew, and he was curious. They happened to mention that they were not married, which is not uncommon in Holland and in many other Western countries.

The waiter was astounded. He looked at them and at their beautiful daughters and asked, “Don’t you want to get married?”

The couple smiled and replied, “We never really thought about it. Sure, we do.”

“I’ll plan a wedding for you,” the young waiter shot back, beaming.

This was last Friday.  The waiter contacted a rabbi, then found a young couple who runs a Carlebach service at a local shul. Then he called his friends who called their friends. A young woman named Leah acted as the wedding coordinator. The date was set for the following Thursday night and the ceremony was to be performed at the old Ari Sefardi synagogue.

As the excitement mounted, the couple to be married invited everyone they met to the ceremony. They bought dresses for their daughters and waited for the anticipated day.

People in Tsfat, who had barely met this couple started shopping and cooking. Young girls on school vacation (my daughter included) decided to be waitresses and helped with all the food preparation. Professional photographer Jodi Sugar volunteered to take pictures and Meir Glaser, who performs in Carlebach-style concerts, was on hand with his guitar.

Finally Thursday arrived. The young waitresses, who were wearing matching black skirts and crisp white blouses, complete with matching jewelry specially bought for the occasion, helped set up. Their main job seemed to be guarding the candy as small children, whose prime motive was to fill their tiny palms with fistfuls of sugar, buzzed around like a swarm of bees.

“Wait for the chuppah,” they girls chided.

As the sun dipped behind Mount Meiron, blushing behind a soft pink and orange veil, the Dutch family left for synagogue.

The food was ready, the chairs were set out and the guests started to arrive. And as soon as the stars shone brightly above,  the couple stood together in the stone courtyard of the ancient synagogue. Four men, including the young waiter Noam, held a tallis over their heads. A young boy softly played the flute while his father strummed a guitar.  Shlomo Carlebach, if he could have been here, would have been touched. Everyone was smiling.

Stories of Torah sages, illustrating the importance of giving and sharing in marriage, were shared. The bride slowly walked around the groom seven times, their new friends recited the traditional sheva brachot and a glass was smashed.

“Mazal Tov,” everyone shouted and clapped. Guests erupted into song and dance, colorful confetti and candies swirled through the air and, on key, all the kids dove to the floor, mini submarines on a sweet-toothed mission.

Later in the evening, the chassan (groom) brought out his violin and played classical music with love and devotion. With the moon, the stars and the sweet sounds of violin, he could have stepped out of a dreamy Chagall painting. 

“This is the happiest day of my life,” the bride cried, hugging her daughters close.

Everyone laughed and everyone cried.  They danced and sang in true Tsfat style.
The wedding came about with spontaneity, and the speedy preparations were done with love. The ceremony was meaningful, heartfelt and filled with joy.

Chasnasat Kallah,’ escorting the bride, is a mitzvah that is alive and well in Tsfat. 

August 2, 2013

Our Dinner with Roy

Colosseum by Roman moonlight
Packing for our trip to Rome, we messaged a friend who had spent time there. “Any tips?” we asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Go for dinner with Roy.”

If anyone has ever seen the movie My Dinner with Andre, they will know what we experienced.  We arranged to meet Roy at a kosher restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto.

 It turned out that Roy was an American who fell in love with Italy, art history and archeology. He dedicated his life to this passion, becoming a world- renowned expert on Italian art and Michelangelo and is the co- author of the book Secrets of the Sistine Chapel.

Our table was outdoors on a bustling cobble stoned street. We ate authentic Roman Jewish cuisine and toasted with a Chardonnay from the Golan Heights. We felt at home.

“Do Jews live here today?” we asked.

He answered that the Jewish Ghetto is now a trendy neighborhood. The kosher restaurants are filled with native Romans who are not necessarily Jewish as these eateries are known to have some of the best food in the city.

“Did you know that many Roman dishes are actually from the Jews?” he asked.

“You are eating 2,000-year-old recipes,” he said, as we crunched on a fried artichoke Hebraica style.

Roy with my daughter Aviva.
Roy is an expert on the Sistine Chapel. Not only is the local expert an Observant Jew, the priests often ask him to translate Latin. We asked him how this happened and he explained that after many visits to the Vatican as a guide and countless hours spent staring up at the ceiling, he started to notice some unusual details in Michelangelo’s paintings.

He researched and discovered that Michelangelo had a strained relationship with the Pope who commissioned the Sistine Chapel. The painter also felt bitter about the power and corruption in the Church during those times. Then Roy discovered that Michelangelo, who was originally from Florence, grew up learning Jewish mystical texts.

Aided by this background history and the help of a co-author who had an indepth knowledge of the Tanach ( the Jewish Torah and writings of the Prophets), they deciphered the art. The result is a fascinating story of Dan Brownesque mystery and intrigue. Roy has earned the respect of the Vatican as one of its best tour guides. He takes dignitaries on tour and speaks worldwide as an authority on the subject.

“Do you tour the Vatican wearing your kippa?” we asked.

“Sure,” he answered. “I wear a white kippa as it is easier for my group to spot me in the crowd. I am proud to be the only one wearing a white head covering in the Vatica---aside from the Pope.”

We asked Roy about whether Jewish law permits Jews to tour churches and he explained that there were differing opinions, but the Ramban said it was fine. We had gone to the Sistine Chapel earlier in the day, drawn by the beauty of Michelangelo's art, and not for the religious significance.

We talked and we talked, suddenly hearing the clinking of glass. Waiters folded tablecloths and rearranged the tables. It was just like My Dinner With Andre. 

Fountain in the Jewish Ghetto
We walked along the ancient street, our footsteps echoing. At the end of the road were ruins, soaring columns backlit  by a full  moon. Roy explained that these were the remains of a Colosseum, the blueprint for the larger Colosseum we had seen earlier in the day. It was also once a theater, the place where Roman dignitaries gathered and socialized. 

Below were ruins that looked like ancient stalls.  This was once Rome's fish market. Being a fishmonger was one of the few jobs that was given to the Jews. We imagined the thick crowds milling in the Ghetto,  the fishy smells, the sounds of chopping, of scales creaking of coins clanking. 

It was all eerily silent, yet these cobbled alleys, carved stones and ancient recipes are a testament to Europe's oldest Jewish community.