April 24, 2014

Saluting Unity

Army boots, green beret, stand tall.       Stiff salute, single file, roll call.

We stood at attention as soldiers raised the Israeli flag, opening the ceremony.

Yesterday was my daughter’s swearing in ceremony (tekes hashba'a) at her base. She, along with 116 girls and three guys, had just completed basic training.

With a son in the army and lone soldiers in my home, visiting bases and attending army ceremonies has become a regular privilege. But I have never been to an IDF base that is mostly dedicated to women. And I have never attended a ceremony celebrating the army achievements of 19-year-old girls.

The girls stood in formation, their black boots splayed. They looked powerful, confident, capable. Some wore skirts and other pants. A few had their hair specially braided for the occasion, while others wore their hair tied up in a bun or a bouncing pony tail.

Some were short, some tall. Some black skinned, some freckled and fair.  It was a union of many nations, many societies and many religious beliefs on one tiny basketball court, on one base and in one neat formation.

They were each called up by their officer and commander, saluted and received a Tanach, the Jewish bible. They ran back in line, glowing, their wide grins filled with pride over their achievements.

I had heard from my daughter that these young women were from all parts of Israel. Some grew up on non-religious kibbutzim, while others were city girls. Many (including my daughter) were religious girls who had just completed studies at a midrasha.

When they had their first Shabbat on base, the religious girls asked the non-religious girls to come to synagogue. Some had never before been into a shul and many had never opened a siddur. They came to synagogue out of curiosity and respect for their new religious roommates and friends.

The girls prayed, they sang and they danced.  They helped their friends daven and pulled them into their swinging, stomping circle. They were one. My daughter said it was one of the most meaningful Shabbats she has ever experienced.

And when the base commander spoke to the parents, kippa on his head, officer insignia on his shoulders, he spoke about this time being significant in the Jewish calendar for working on perfection. He reminded us, religious and non-religious alike, that although we may be from different backgrounds, together we can create a synergy.

Yesterday the girls swore to serve their country with dedication and devotion. They had a sparkle in their eyes, a jump to their step. They had developed a respect of one anothers differences and a love of unity. This is the beauty of the Israeli army.

This is tikkun.

As Jews and Israelis, this is our strength and these girls represent our future. 

April 17, 2014

Hitting the Israel Trail

First day chol hamoed Pesach. The Passover Seder is behind us, the extra calories are bulging atop us and the sun is glistening above us. We’re compelled to hit the trail.

We have been walking the Israel Trail for eight months now, completing a section every few weeks. To date, Amir and I have walked from the northern most point at Kibbutz Dan to the southern tip of Lake Kinneret and from Beit Oren south to Modiin.

That makes about 300 kilometers out of 1,000. We are in no race to complete it and are savoring each and every step of the way. Walking is one of the best ways to experience Israel’s natural wonders.  We have walked along the coastline, dipping our tired feet into the sparkling Mediterranean. We scrambled atop ancient Roman aqueducts and crawled into prehistoric caves. 

Each hike is a unique and magical experience. We have since formed a local hiking group and have charted our travels on our website. Check out

Map of our route.
Today we started at Beit Oren in the Carmel Mountains. We parked our car on Road 721. 

This windy, mountain road travels eastward through the heart of the Carmel Range, an area affectionately called Little Switzerland.

The trail immediately led us uphill, climbing through forest. At one place near the top, we had to hoist ourselves up through a narrow stone passage. Our hiker dog TJ (who too has done about 300 kilometers of this trail) found this point impassable and needed an extra push from behind to make it through. 

Breathless, we arrived at the top, having climbing 500 meters within the first hour.  Walking poles are highly recommended for this hike.

We then hugged the side of the shady mountain and walked eastward, marveling at the caves and formations in the limestone that seemed to drip, the carstite creating smooth pillars and windows in the rock face.

The trail climbed up again to a lookout. At the top, we could see the devastation from the Carmel Forest fire that raged in December, 2010, killing 44 people and creating a natural disaster. 

The trees on the ridge were skeletal, while the brush underneath had grown back strongly, surrounding us with wildflowers and scents of thyme and oregano.

We walked past the Carmel Forest Spa and saw vistas that stretched across the range to the Mediterranean where we could see white sailboats bobbing on the water in the distance.

We passed an ancient burial cave where once five ossuaries were placed.  Soon after, we saw a recreational area with picnic tables, washrooms and fresh water, a perfect place to stop and rest. This park was close to the archeological sites of Chorbat Rakit and the Yisach Cave.

The path then descended steeply though thick forest. As I had no hiking poles, I grabbed onto branches and roots to stop from sliding and tumbling as we went down into a valley. 

The path then took us into Wadi Chiq, an old riverbed. We walked along the dark, cool wadi, slowly heading uphill. 

A few cows that had found refuge here refused to move, merely blinking back at us as we tried to pass. TJ was of no assistance here.

We left the wadi and climbed up the side using metal bars as hand grips to pull us up the steep rocky slope. (TJ had to be pushed up here too.) 

This path continued uphill until we finally saw the roofs peaking out above us.

Exiting the trail, we found ourselves in the midst of a foreign, honking, urban world. Leaving the tranquility of the trail behind and stepping into a strip of car mechanic shops and zooming buses of Highway 672 made me a bit shell shocked. Not wanting to move, I blinked like those cows in their cool refuge way down below.

But this the beauty of Israel. You could be in an urban setting, yet if you follow a colored blaze just to your left, then walk a few steps, you will enter into a natural paradise.

It took a few minutes, but we soon realized we were in a Druze village called Usifya.  I had never been there so on the way home I googled it. I landed on the mayor’s welcome page and found this.

Want to visit Usifya?  Maybe the mayor needs a better translator!

During our post-Seder hike, we had had walked for six hours, burned many calories, yet had covered a mere 11 kilometers. The elevation map will explain why.

Weary, our feet tired and our bodies sweaty, we felt elated at having discovered another exquisite part of Israel.  

Fresh air, open vistas, a trail map and a pair of hiking shoes. This is Israel living at its best.

Chag Sameach

April 10, 2014

A Full Marathon (of cleaning)

Coca Cola issues special design for Passover .
Signs of Pesach are everywhere in Israel: at the car wash line up, in the packed grocery stores and on the roadside where  over-sized garbage bags sit filled with our chametz. Passover is even on Coke bottles and doggie food. 

And Pesach  cleaning is also in full swing. This year, I have the special privilege of preparing two homes for Passover. It is like signing up for a 10-kilometer marathon and, without training, deciding to run the full 42.195 kilometers! Two homes equals two kitchens equals heaps of work.

For this equation, I must draw deep--and I cannot sail away like the characters in my novel Let My RV Go!

Here is a description of the task at hand as narrated by Pauline in my novel.

Organized women go room by room, emptying drawers and airing out every piece of clothing. They search under beds, rustle through cupboards and dust windowsills. Their findings can be astounding. Errant Cheerios roll out between bed sheets; broken cookies are unearthed and pockets are emptied of stale candy. It is a ritualized, intensive spring cleaning of sorts. And when a room is complete, a sign goes up on the door: Chametz-free Zone. Of course, the true translation of this sign is “Children stay out.” For some reason, children are endemic chametz carriers. It sticks to them like glue.

When I start seeing Manischewitz matzah boxes in the kosher aisle, I wish someone would invent a detector that sniffs chametz from a mile away. It would look like an x-ray machine, similar to those you find at the airport. Our kids would pass through after school every day, and if there is a particle of chametz on them, a big siren would blare. Of course, the Jewish mother is the best chametz detector of all. When she is in pre-Pesach mode, nothing slips by her. Go ahead, just try to smuggle a cookie into a home that is kosher for Passover.

After the bedrooms and living rooms have been cleaned from top to bottom, on go the rubber gloves and the elbow grease. It is time to clean the kitchen. This can take days and in some cases, I see lights on in homes all night long. Kitchen cupboards are cleaned and lined with shelf paper. Fridges, stoves and ovens are scrubbed. All chametz food is removed and a separate set of meat and dairy Pesach dishes replaces the everyday dishes. Dusty boxes filled with Pesach cutlery, glasses, pots, pans and cooking utensils are shlepped up from the basement. The work is so thorough, it feels as if we move into a brand new house every spring.

Pauline opts out and hires an RV so she sail away and clean a dashboard for Pesach. This is the season to read all about her adventure in Let My RV Go!  I too have many friends who are quietly locking their doors and going to resorts for Passover, breathing a sigh of relief at avoiding this greasy ritual. But I, who have a bounty of cleaning ahead of me, must look at my work in a positive light.

I establish that cleaning is good exercise; it enables me to stretch, bend, lift, pull and toss. It is true cardio as I run up and down stairs scrambling to find misplaced items. I heave furniture from corners, releasing dust bunnies into the air, pull out ovens, uncovering entire new continents of dirt and heave the dining room table across the gritty, dusty floor like a Viking longboat rower. No need for a gym these days. Or yoga, I realize, as I reach up on tip toes to dust high shelves, then stretch my hamstrings to pick up the dropped cloth. Continuously. Repetitively.

Cleaning two homes is also a great time to focus and to evaluate what I really need. It teaches me that I actually have too much in two places. And, cleaning is actually spiritually uplifting.
I even have chametz-free dog food called Focus.

Uplifting? Did I say that?

I empty my kitchen drawers and wipe them down. Tossing out broken items and creating a growing giveaway pile of unused utensils and pans, I keep in mind that order equals freedom.

“Ah ha” I say, throwing out about a dozen lidless glass jars, giving my pantry newfound order, “this is a form of liberation.”

My neat pantry and spice cupboard actually give me a peaceful state of being. And as I start to dust and sponge the cupboards, I realize that my mind has become uncluttered.

In a Torah class, I recently learned that structure gives meaning to our lives. And physical order can lead to a spiritual order.  We do not have to look too far to realize that order is a large theme of Passover. The word ‘seder’ means order and the entire Haggadah begs us to follow a strict order of operation. Once complete, the goal is to achieve spiritual freedom.

So my start to this freedom is a clean house. Or two twinkling houses. I may have a sore back, elongated hamstrings and calloused hands.  I may feel like I did a full marathon and moved into a brand-new house; yet I know it will be satisfying to have order in my home and my mind. These will make my spirit sparkle as we sit down to our Passover seder.

Wishing everyone a chag kasher v’sameach, a holiday that is spiritually uplifting and filled with personal liberation.

April 2, 2014

Cut From One Cloth

A baby girl!

I remember the bubbly joy and excitement of this day well. After having a baby boy two years earlier, I could now dream in pink, shop in pink and dress ‘her’ in pink. I picked out baby bows and lacy headbands, frilly dresses and cute baby tights for Aviva’s chubby baby feet.

As my daughter grew, I continued to choose delicate girly dresses, velvets and silks, ruffles and lace, proudly draping them across her bed. And Aviva would march right past them, pulling on summer T-shirts in the middle of January and corduroys in the heat of the summer. 

She was fiercely independent, knowing what she liked and wanted at an early age. The only time she ever wore a Princess dress was when she took out her tricycle for a spin, tearing down the sidewalk and dunking her Barbie’s head in muddy puddles.

Monday night, nineteen years later, I sat on Aviva’s bed. A different outfit was strewn across her bed. Khaki green. Stiff. There was a skirt, a buttoned shirt, a pair of black shiny boots, a thick belt, pants and a Leprechaun green beret. This was the army uniform she would be wearing for her two-year army service.

I watched her pack and as her rucksack filled up with bed sheets, woolen socks and plain, white cotton shirts, I too became filled, brimming with pride. Here was my Aviva entering a new phase in her young life. Discarding freedom and spontaneity, qualities that are taken for granted by most youth around the world, she was trading them in for something much larger. She had decided to dedicate the next two years to help secure the future of Israel.

As a religious girl, she had a choice. She could have either declined service altogether or she could have done a year or two of national service, working in hospitals or needy communities. She considered her options carefully and decided that the army was the place for her.

Her high school discourages the idea, and even some families in our own community look at this option nervously. A religious girl in the army? This is new, scary territory for many, but not for Aviva. And not for many other observant girls here in Israel.

Our religous soldiers-to-be
The number of girls entering the IDF is on the rise. In 2010, only 935 religious girls drafted; in 2012, some 1,503 girls entered the IDF; and in 2013, 1,616 girls went in. There are many options available for religious girls, including the seminary learning track. Aviva chose this and spent the last seven months learning Torah in an inspiring environment.

And just yesterday, she joined 30 seminary girls at the Bakum where they were inducted into the IDF and started basic training. It was all smiles yesterday as these girls gathered with their large bags, excitedly taking photos, hugging and chatting as they awaited the start of a new way of life. 

It may not be easy, but it will be meaningful. These girls will grow stronger both inside and out. They are religious pioneers who will prove that service in the army is available to all. Being religious female soldiers demonstrates that we can be one nation. 

It does not matter what our ‘outfit’ is or what our religious beliefs are; what matters is that we are unified in a respectful way. 

As Aviva related to me last night, “On the bus ride to our army base, I sat beside a girl. We were wearing the same uniform so she did not know I was religious and I did not know her background. It did not matter and that’s the way it should be. No judgments. Just respect. And it was so beautiful because we were all equals and, for once, unified.”

Cut from one cloth.

Maybe my toddler racing on a tricycle with a muddied Barbie was foreshadowing. And maybe I will now be dreaming in green. The one certainty is that I am a proud mom of a daughter who races to carve her own tracks.