December 28, 2014

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

I have roughed it. At least I thought I had…until last week.

Over the years, I have backpacked through Southeast Asia and trekked the Himalayas. I have slept in yurts, barns, shacks, tents and palapa huts, in dark forests, under sequoias and in steamy jungles.

I have slept at 16,000 feet in a tent buffeted by a snowstorm, waking to see that the water in my bottle was frozen solid.
I have seen rats dancing on barn beams overhead, beady red eyes dancing in a flashlight beam as I hid in my sleeping bag. 

I have slept in a tent deep in bear country, hoping curious nocturnal bears would not have a hankering for Sensodyne toothpaste and devour me. I have slept on a wooden bench in a Sikh truckers’ tavern, waiting to hitch a ride from a frozen outpost to civilization, surrounded by bottles of alcohol labeled XXX.

I have trekked into the wild, bathing in ice cold rivers, bereft of toilets, beds and chocolate (yes, chocolate) for over three weeks.
And I have surprised a hairy tarantula spider, squashing it unannounced on a toilet seat. (To this day, I do not know who was more in shock: me or the squirming, freshly pancaked arachnid.)

Yet, last week on a trip to the Judean Desert, I was challenged like never before. The night before our hike, we all piled into a Bedouin tent at Metzukei Dragot. We brought sleeping bags and were given a mattress each. Our tent was windproof, waterproof and even had a small heater. The tent was huge and our group of 22 had a canvas wall to separate us from another group. Beside our neighboring campers was yet another partition. In total, about 70 people of all ages were cozying up for the night in three sections.

The bathrooms and showers were conveniently located nearby. Seemed like it had all the makings for satisfying, soft-style adventure. We even brought along our dog who sat up, wildly alert, listening to all the new sounds of the desert.

These were the sounds of the desert:
-The clicking of shesh besh pieces moving around a board till the wee hours of the night. 
-A baby screaming. And stopping. Then screaming and stopping.
-The automatic dryer in the mens’ and womens’ bathrooms. How many hands were there to dry? And why all night long?
-Crunching of feet on gravel so loud, I kept looking up, thinking for sure someone was lost and about to step on me. 
-The shesh besh players who finished their game and went to bed but forgot to whisper. 

Some 70 people were asleep (correction 68 as neither my husband or I could get shut eye), yet one man kept asking his wife where his things were “Yaeli, where is my pillow?” he screamed, flashing a beam in every direction. “Yaeli, where is my toothbrush?” he roared, rustling through bags and nearly catapulting the thin canvas between us and them.

My restless, indoor dog who sleeps on silk carpets looked at us pleadingly as if to say, ‘you expect me to actually sleep here?’

Then silence. Ahhh. I repositioned myself, ready to finally sleep, aware that I needed to be well rested for the next day’s hike. The alarm was set for 5:20 a.m., which was probably four hours away.

If I thought the night sounds of the desert were wild and varied, I was in for a surprise. Within minutes, Yaeli’s husband started to snore, dreaming of shesh besh pieces coated in gingerbread and dancing sugar plum Yaelis pirouetting with his lost shoes and socks.

His snores were so thunderous, the poles in the tent shook. It was a new kind of desert storm; unpredictable, I would hear a snore and with no new exhalation, I would fall into a light sleep, only to be hit with an onslaught. His snoring was also contagious, with a second trombonist from the deep dark recesses of the tent joining the cacophony. 

My husband elbowed me and asked if I could sleep. My dog pawed me, looking at me pleadingly as if to say, ‘You actually expect me to curl up at your feet here?’

Whispering, we grabbed our sleeping bags and the dog. Where was my left shoe? Why was Yaeli asleep? She could find it for me. Yet how could Yaeli ever sleep a single wink with such a champion snorer by her side?

We opened the tent flap and fled to the safety of the car, pulling down the seats in the Mazda 5 to make a flat surface. The dog took the driver’s seat (of course) and curled up in a little ball as we pulled shut the back door. 

Silence. No snoring and no hand dryers. No crunching gravel. And no sleep.  The surface was so hard, every position I tried ached. I even gave myself a black eye trying to pull up my sleeping bag and missing. Now it was TJ the dog’s turn to snore.

As for myself and Amir, we basically lay in pain all night in the absolute silence of the desert. No need for an alarm as we did not sleep a wink. 

Not wanting to look like complainers or poor sports, we slunk back into the tent in the morning as everyone woke. They all looked alert, well rested and ready for adventure. I had a swollen eye, an aching hip, a sore back and a swollen ear drum. My dog looked a bit like a wreck, although he was wagging his tail. 

I bet Yaeli and the snorer were about to start and new round of backgammon as we set foot on the trail. And as for the day's adventure, you can read about the desert hike here.

December 16, 2014

Swords Into Plowshares

Tonight, as darkness cloaked Eretz Israel, we lit the first candle of Chanukah. The wicks, floating in vials of olive oil, flickered as they brought light into the night. This is symbolic of the Jewish people; our mission is to light up a dark world.

Our contemporary world is cloaked in a very thick black cloth, where many try to deflect our light into darkness with lies, hatred and acts of terror. Despite these threats, dangers and bloody acts, the enemies still do not understand that our very DNA instructs us to create, invent and give. Despite all. For this is our essence.

One recent tragedy was the massacre of five innocent men in Har Nof, including four rabbis who were slaughtered while in the midst of prayer, draped in tefillin and tallit. These innocent, unarmed civilians and one policeman were murdered in cold blood with butchers' knives and guns.

Their widows and orphans did not cry for revenge or for more spilled blood. They did not riot in the streets or spew hatred. They did not insist on more bloodshed to avenge their deep loss and their spiritual leaders did not call for destruction. 

These widows and orphans cried. They buried their loved ones and beseeched the world to bring in light to elevate the souls of their lost husbands, fathers and grandfathers--to help redeem us from darkness. The community spoke wise words of Torah to counter this evil while the families issued a letter calling for solidarity, love and peace. Here is what they said:

With broken hearts, drenched in tears shed over the spilt blood of holy men – the heads of our families. We call on our brethren wherever they are – let us come together so that we may merit mercy from Heaven, and let’s accept upon ourselves to increase love and comradery, between each individual and each community.
We ask that every person accept upon himself on this Sabbath Eve (Parshat Toldot, November 21-22, 2014), to set aside the day of Shabbat as a day of unconditional love, a day during which we will refrain from words of disagreement and division, from words of gossip and slander.
May this serve to elevate the souls of our husbands and fathers who were slaughtered while sanctifying God’s name. God will look down from the heavens, see our suffering, wipe away our tears and put an end to our tribulations.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Moshiach (Messiah) speedily in our days. Amen.
Signed with a torn heart,
Mrs. Chaya Levin and family
Mrs. Bryna Goldberg and family
Mrs. Yaacova Kupensky and family
Mrs. Bashy Twersky and family
In focusing on a world of unconditional love, peace and truth, these families flooded the world with light.
To elevate our celebration of the Jewish Festival of Lights this year, one creative metal sculptor decided to carve hannukiahs out of rockets. Shrapnel from fallen Kassams that terrorized Israeli civilians, evil shards from rockets that crashed into Israeli children’s bedrooms, caved in kindergartens and terrorized busy roads, were used by artist Yaron Bob to turn instruments of death into vehicles of light.
Etched into the menorahs are the words ‘beat their swords into plowshares.’ These meaningful words are from the Book of Yeshayahu (chapter 2, verse 4):
And he shall judge between the nations and reprove many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Called Rockets into Roses, Israel is once again showing the world light, transforming death and darkness into beauty, meaning, hope and peace.  To complete his mission of hopefulness, this artist is donating a portion of the sales to building portable bomb shelters in the south of Israel.

This mindset is natural to the Jewish people and reminds me of the selfless words of Racheli Fraenkel whose son Naftali was murdered by terrorists last June. She does not speak of bitterness and hatred, rather she focuses on unity and dignity.

The more darkness tries to gain a foothold in Israel, the harder we push back with light. This is our mission and we take it seriously. 
So when we light our menorahs over the next seven days of Chanukah, we should express thanks for the many miracles G-d has sent us and endeavor to bring an abundance of light into a seemingly dim, bleak world. 

Let us pray that nation shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’

Hannukah Sameach

December 9, 2014

Mother Gave Me Paper Whites

Mother always gave me paper whites. 

Each December, she would hand me a gift-wrapped pot with bulbs poking out of rocks. It didn’t look like much. I would be depressed by the onset of winter, a time when horizon and ground melded, the dark, drab sky perfectly morphing into the dark, drab concrete; and when the frozen, drab slush would seep into my permeable, drab boots.

This was when I most needed color and nature. And my mom knew it. I would set my paper whites in front of a window and carefully water them. In no time, little white daffodil-like flowers would bloom, filling my house with a sweet jasmine scent.

The days of paper whites ended when I left to live in Israel nine years ago.  I moved into an apartment with a rooftop just last August. Under the scorching Israeli summer sun, the garden was nothing but parched earth and hardy weeds.

My mom, who passed away in November, is gone. I sat shiva for her in Toronto, flew back to Israel and returned feeling empty—until I went up to my rooftop. There I was greeted by hundreds of paper whites glistening in the sun. 

While I was gone, the fall rains and cool nights awoke them, while the sun encouraged them. And now, as I sit beside them, I take in their sweet scent and remember.

Those potted paper whites craning for a speckle of Toronto light have been replaced by hundreds of plants shimmering outside in full sunshine. Each morning, I watch the sun rise over the Shomron, delineating mountain from sky blue. And then I take out my siddur and pray beside these flowers. 

I remember my mother with each sweet breath because she is so much a part of this. 

Mother always gave me paper whites. And she still does.

November 25, 2014

Arise Mourner

Isaiah's wise words: Chapter 60, verse 20.
Arise mourner. Arise. Arise. 

The rabbi said this three times--and still it was not enough.  I felt glued to my chair, paralyzed, afraid. And then, as if a puppeteer pulled a string, I rose from my chair and braced myself to face the world: a new, hardened reality; a world without my mother.

My father, brother and I had been sitting shiva for seven days. The house was filled with people who came in from the outside, bringing forth warm memories and stories of my mother. The photo albums came out and family history was shared. There were hugs, many consoling words and lots of nurturing food. We hibernated inside the house sitting low on our chairs. Family and friends came and left, then others arrived, some reconnecting with us after decades.

Uplifting. Tiring. Meaningful. Distracting. Necessary. I was an emotional chameleon.

When my mom passed away, our hearts were pried open like shy clams whose precious pearl had been wrenched out and stolen. And after the levaya, our hearts closed tight, leaving us broken, robbed, left alone with a deep, gaping hole inside.  These days of shiva helped to fill our shell, revealing glimmers of the pearl that was lost.  We could see who cared and who was touched by my mother; and we were reminded how she made a difference to people’s lives, be it a small act or a friendship from many years ago.

Arise mourner.

He was telling us to get up and walk outside, completing a symbolic return to the world after having lost a close relative. The rabbi then quoted this beautiful passage from the Book of Isaiah:

“Your sun shall set no more, your moon no more withdraw; for the Lord shall be a light to you forever, and your days of mourning shall be ended.”

My legs felt weak as I headed to the front door. The world outside was so big and so cold.

As I took my first shaky steps outside, I gasped for air, drowning in tears as if a dam wall broke inside me. I held onto my father’s arm as we made our way in silence. This was a walk into a new harsh reality where the players in my small family were further diminished. This was now a world of my brother, my father and I.

As soon as we came inside, there was no more time for reflection or tears. Life began with a flurry of packing suitcases, driving to appointments and catching my flight back to Israel. I would be leaving this shiva house, once my childhood home, saying goodbye to my father and my brother and having a final cry at the graveside of my mother. The wind howled, the snow stung and my tears flowed as I recited Tehillim at her grave, kicking the frozen, unresponsive mud that was filled in just a week ago.

I am now in in transit. Literally and emotionally. Sitting here in the Heathrow airport lounge, I feel a gash grow inside. I have moments when I want to go up to a stranger, a woman the same age of my mom and say, “ My mom is gone. Can you give me a hug?”  Yet, when walking in crowds of people dragging suitcases, I feel as if I have entered a new phase of humanity. It is a club of sorrow. How many of these people here in this airport have lost a loved one? Are some rushing to visit someone ill in the hospital? We all carry sorrows, and the older we grow, the more wounds we will carry.

I watch the El Al plane taxi to the gate. This plane with the Star of David on the tail will carry me home. I cry with the understanding that I am headed to our Jewish homeland.

Arise, mourner. I brace my new reality as I come home to my life in Israel.

November 18, 2014

A Woman of Valour lovely mom.
This beautiful eulogy for Denny Nathan was written by a close friend of forty years, Reva Stern. Reva read this at the levaya on November 13, 2014.

I humbly stand before you at the bequest of our beloved Denny. It’s hard to imagine anyone having the presence of mind, or the strength of character to consider their own eulogy, but then Denny wasn’t just anyone.

The friends and colleagues who formed the continuous and beautiful line of affection and love that surrounded her during her time in palliative care prompted Denny to whisper to me, “Imagine if I had passed away from a sudden heart attack... I would never have had the time to discover that so many people cared about me.” There it was... the familiar, sincere and irresistible humility that was always present. In a moment of vulnerability, Leonard, the stalwart Brit, left the room in tears. Denny seemed bewildered and exclaimed: “I know he loves me, but I never imagined he could love me that much. I am so blessed.”

Denny knew her time was limited and she wanted to use every minute of it in the company of family and friends. When she was too weak to talk, she would listen contentedly with eyes closed. The worst mistake we could make was to presume she was sleeping. Whenever she heard such a suggestion, she was quick to open her eyes and join in the exact context of the conversation.

One day, Leonard was working on a crossword puzzle by her bedside and was stuck on an answer. He muttered the query out loud and from behind closed eyes we heard the word “Askew.” It was the very answer Leonard had been seeking. We applauded and Denny offered him an enigmatic smile.

There is a celebrated verse from the Hebrew Bible that asks “A Woman of Valour, who can find?” She was Denny. She embodied qualities we would all aspire to encapsulate.

Denny was incorruptible, fiercely loyal, quietly courageous, passionate about life and dedicated to her family and friends... and that is the essence of valour. But beyond the attributes of honesty, fidelity and morality there was an entire goldmine of characteristics that not everyone was privy to.

Most will know that Denny was brilliant on stage, a devoted advocate for Israel, skilful at crafts, adept in the kitchen and an expert in proper usage of the English language. Some of you might know that she was a gifted artist. Her colourful paintings expressed her imaginative and delicate view of the world. But I’ll bet that most of you won’t know that Denny had a lovely singing voice. I knew about the singing, but much to my chagrin, I could never get her to use that lovely Julie Andrews voice on stage because I was sworn to keep her secret.

After a forty year friendship, the news of her childhood wish to have become a fashion designer was something I learned only recently from Leonard. I thought after decades of 4 hour lunches and heart to heart confessionals, I knew all there was to know... but of course, there was always more.

After the diagnosis, Denny confided that it was her promised mission, to be present for one particular celebration. And she, as always, kept that promise when a lifetime of hopes and dreams were fulfilled this August as Denny, looking like a beautiful Helen Mirren doppelganger, watched her son Barry, wed the love of his life.

Her deep affection and respect for Nicole and Amir was boundless. Her love for her children was always palpable. Denny gushed with pride every time she updated her friends about how her brave, mature and amazing children and grandchildren were contributing to their new homeland of Israel... and we kvelled with and for her.

Denny came from a large family, but only one other sibling moved to Canada. Her sister Joyce, whose sense of humour and her care and devotion to Denny during her long goodbye was deeply comforting to Denny and so heart-warming for the rest of us to witness.

The first binding friendships Denny and Leonard embraced when they moved to Montreal, Canada were the open arms of Sarah and Sidney Brickman. That connection continued on to Toronto. It was Sarah and Sidney that guided Denny out of her home and into Beth Tikvah Synagogue where Sarah, Sidney helped to formulate a plan that ultimately led to Denny climbing out of her shell and onto centre stage where she was truly a star.

For decades, Denny and Leonard joined Rochelle and Ray on a whirlwind theatre foray to Shaw and Stratford. Just weeks ago, the foursome headed off as usual on their annual theatre adventure. Denny, ignoring the exhausting symptoms of chemo went determinedly along. Upon her return, she offered me her insightful and candid critiques on each production she had seen. That was tradition. She was not one to ever break with tradition.

The protection and commitment provided by her husband, children, sister and her entire extended family was warm, loving and touching. It was like spending time with TV’s, The Waltons. This is the family that Denny, as matriarch, raised, gathered and guided. She is that woman of valour.

All the while Denny was in palliative care, she was, as always, kind, appreciative and especially considerate of the medical team. She never failed to thank them and praise them.

Denny asked me to tell you all how much she appreciated your good thoughts and wishes and that you should tell anyone going through this final passage of life, how much you matter to them. It meant everything to her.

She maintained her dignity, grace, humility, class and compassion to the very end; but then I’m sure that none of us are surprised at that. She was a role model always. For the first time in my experience, I understood the semantic difference between dying and passing away. In those last days, Mario Lanza sang to her, Joyce massaged her hands, Leonard offered her words of affection and love. Nicole and Amir, Barry and Alina were close by her side ready to do whatever gave her comfort. Denny purred, she smiled, she closed her eyes and she dreamed.

Denny was my friend, your friend, your loved one... and we are and will always be blessed to have had her in our lives.

November 14, 2014

Baruch Dayan Emet

Despite her illness, my mom danced at my brother's wedding in August.

On Wednesday, the 18th of Cheshvan, a dear soul left this world. My beloved mother Denny, Devora bat Avraham, passed away after a full year battling fighting cancer. Her last three weeks were spent in palliative care in a Toronto hospital. We were at her side when she passed.  She was a wonderful husband, mother, sister and friend. 

As a daughter, I wanted to share a few words to describe how exceptional she was as a mom.  My mom. May her soul be blessed.

Imagine a knock on the door.  A little girl is standing there. “Hi,” she says, “Can you come out and play?”

Seems like a regular childhood story, right?

Well, not really. This little girl was not asking if I would come out to play; she wanted my mother to come out to play.

Of course my mother always said ‘yes.’ There could be laundry piled up or dinner to be made. It didn’t matter. Eyes twinkling, smile beaming warmth, she would run outside, pulling me behind her.

‘Let’s go out and have fun,’ my mom would say, grabbing my hand. And we would play wall ball and draw hopscotch boxes in colored chalk on the driveway. My mom taught my friends Double Dutch and was a skipping master.

Over the years, my friends and Barry’s friends loved to hang out our place, the Nathans; there was always a huge jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table, my mom crouched over, patiently searching for that elusive piece, inviting our friends to join in the hunt. She played board games for hours, be it Boggle, Scrabble, Monopoly, Clue. You name it. My mom was there, surreptitiously teaching us skills such as fair play, concentration, numbers, spelling, reading and deductive reasoning. Was it professor Plum in the library with the revolver? Ask my mom. Crossword challenge; seven letters with an ‘x’ in the middle? Ask my mom.

She was an adult, yet her ‘child within,’ shone. “Come, play, she would cajole me, her sullen child. “Have fun. Even if you have to pretend. “ “And smile. Even if you don’t feel like it. Show the world a smile.”

This was a small part of her deep wisdom. Whatever path Barry and I picked, she was behind us. She was our ally, always giving us the freedom and space to choose and decide.

And, as many of you know, the paths I took were not exactly ‘close to home.’ Be it backpacking in the Himalayas, becoming Observant or moving to Israel and taking along her four beloved grandchildren, she was on my team.

She never questioned Barry or I. Instead she simply loved us for who we are, and with her big, warm heart and wise soul, she came along for the ride. It was this respect, love and trust that helped Barry and I grow and become independent.

She was an artist when it came to creating a place of love, warmth and acceptance.  Young and old, and everyone in between felt this when they got to know her. She was always more concerned with everyone else's needs and never her own. Even in the last few days, lying in her hospital bed, she would ask about others with true concern. And not once, during the 12 difficult months of her illness and three hard weeks of being in palliative care, not once did she complain about her own pain and challenge.

My mom will be dearly missed by us all; by her loving sister, Joyce, who was by her side every day, all day; her devoted nephews Martin and Stewart; her son-in-law, Amir and daughter-in-law Alina; her soul mate of 60 years, Len; her grandchildren Ariel, Aviva, Shaya and Talya; and by her children Barry and I.

We will cherish every moment we had with her. Even in the last few days, we felt her love; be it a small wink of her eye when she had no strength to talk or the kisses she would weakly blow, she continued to warm our hearts with her abundant love and show the world a smile.