Sunday, August 31, 2008

A little nepotism is a GOOD thing.

Yom rishon, 30 Av 5768, Rosh Chodesh Aleph, Elul/31 August 2008, Sunday.

Chodesh tov.

Here: check out my kid's blog!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Visit with Tatte

Yom revi'i, 26 Av 5768/27 August 2008, Wednesday.

"Thanks for the call, Son. Let's talk again soon, okay?"

Joe said goodbye to his father, and cradled the phone in his hands for a few moments. He felt guilty that he only spoke with his father occasionally. The old guy really seemed to love the contact. But Joe was so busy... He switched off the computer, feeling another twinge of guilt. Too often -- and today had been no exception -- he played a fairly simple computer game while he talked with his father. Most of the time, he could stay focused; but every once in a while, his mind would wander. He always hoped his father couldn't tell. He told himself that he was usually pretty smooth, and that his dad was busy with his own thoughts anyway. But Joe didn't completely convince himself. He promised himself that he would improve.

This worry, that he was not being a terribly good son, ate at him. Finally, he decided to talk it over with his rabbi.

"I just feel like I'm not doing my job somehow, Rabbi Michoel. My calls seem half-hearted... I get distracted when we're speaking. I know Dad would like it if I called more often, and if I didn't rush through the calls. I really try, but --" Joe had trouble continuing. "I think my mother would have expected a little more -- attentiveness. Do you have any suggestions?"

Rabbi Michoel looked thoughtful for a moment. "Yosef, you have been talking about moving closer to your father for the last few months. You know how much the rebbetzin and I love having you near us. You've become like a son." The rabbi smiled. "You are never distracted when you talk with us."

"Well, that's because we're here in the same room, Rabbi." Joe smiled sheepishly. "It's hard to play "spider solitaire" when I'm sitting in your living room."

"Yes," nodded the rabbi, with a gentle smile. Rabbi Michoel paused, and then looked at his talmid meaningfully. "It would be very difficult for us to let you go; but we would understand, if you felt you had to move closer to your father."


As he stepped away from the door of his father's home, Yosef felt an exhilaration that brought him close to tears. He replayed the conversation in his mind. Seeing his father's face in motion really changed the quality of the dialogue. His father's face crinkled into laugh echoes when they spoke, giving Yosef the impression that his father was much younger and stronger than he had thought, when their communication was merely aural. He had never realized how closely his father hung on every word, as if just hearing Yosef speak gave him intense pleasure. And Yosef seemed to himself so much more articulate in person, perhaps because he was completely focused on the interaction.
Another positive result of his move was that Yosef felt drawn to the visits with his father, in ways he had never felt compelled to phone. If he felt a little lazy back in the old neighborhood, it was easy to come up with twenty rationalizations for why he really was too busy. But here... the very physical nearness of his father caused Yosef to bypass his own rationalizations. Before he even knew what he was doing, it seemed, he was out the door of his apartment, and on his way toward his father's home. Or, it would seem only natural to stop by on his way home from work. He was grateful for the relative effortlessness of fulfilling this once-difficult mitzvah.

"I can't believe how much better our conversations have been since I moved here!" he thought to himself. "Unbelievable. I could have saved myself a lot of grief." Yosef laughed at himself. Why had it taken him so long?


As I stand at my living room window, watching the clear blue sky resting on the Mediterranian horizon, I am exhilarated by the realization that once again, I am in the middle of my davening, without having had to force myself to begin. It's as if the very air of Eretz Yisrael does some of the work for me.

I am no tzadika. Some days are harder than others. Some of my visits to tefilla are less fulfilling than others. It's not that my mind never wanders. But pulling it back on track seems easier.

I am awed by how much easier it is here for me to be in spiritual mode, than it was in Chutz l'Aretz. I am overjoyed at how much more often I can really feel that I am talking with my Tatte b'Shomayim. My thoughts, my connection to the words and their several layers of meaning, and to my Jewish self, all seem much clearer here, in the heart of our history.

Thank you, Hashem, for letting me live so near You.

Please make it easier, clear all the obstructions, so that all of my siblings will come Home. I miss them; and I want for them this wonderful level of connection with You.

And even higher...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"The wasteland will rejoice..."

Yom rishon, 20 Av 5768/24 August 2008, Sunday.

Was it ever this beautiful in Baltimore?

I can't remember.

But like any good mother or grandmother, the photo album I pull out of my over-sized purse will have pictures of my beloved children and grandchildren. It won't have snaps of the other lady's kids, however adorable (she may think) they are.

Baltimore was never a place I was in love with. So the photos of the beauty surrounding that city are in someone else's wallet.

Since falling in love with this country more than 16 years ago, I have watched the miracle of the greening of the land unfold more each year, as more and more Jews return to our beloved Home. "The wilderness and the wasteland will rejoice over them; the desert will be glad and blossom like a lily." [Isaiah 35:1] Hills that were brown a decade ago look like golf courses today!

Lush, beautiful flowers and fruit trees grow in the heart of Yerushalayim.

Of course, one has to have a few photos of the cute and silly poses, catching the kids when they don't notice the camera looking at them:

And there are always the cute shots of the kids pretending to be grownups, and failing miserably:

And, of course, no photo album is complete without that shot of your dear ones that absolutely takes your breath away.
May Hashem grant me (and all of us, who dearly love this Land) many long, healthy years in which to fill our photo albums with beautiful memories. And may those who are far from the growing children be inspired to return Home, to watch the memories unfold.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

JBlogging Journal

Yom shishi, 20 Av 5768/21 August 2008, Sunday.

Well, THAT was a lot of fun!

Last night, about 200 JBloggers got together in Yerushalayim for the Nefesh b'Nefesh First Annual JBloggers' Convention. There was food, there was shmoozing, there was comedy, there was advice from some of the best in our "biz"... There was the ego-stroke of Bibi dropping by, to remind us of what we have sort of guessed, over the last few years: bloggers have grassroots power; and Jewish bloggers are useful to the folks in the hasbara (lit. "explanation," but best understood here as "positive sales spin") department. More on that later...

Let's see. What did I really love? I loved that everyone spoke into each other's chests for several seconds. Yes, the nature of name tags is that you greet the person with "Hi....... Bob," as you ascertain with a relatively quick glance the name of your fellow attendee. Normal body language at conferences of any kind. But at a blogger convention, where you may be speaking with someone whose name tag says something like "A Dwelling Place for God in the Lower Worlds" or "Two Jews Three Cats in the Political Litterbox," you tend to be staring at your conversation partner's chest for an inordinately long time. Plus, I think the whole "eye contact" thing is not such a stressed character trait in the world of virtual intercourse...

That's another thing. There were no stereotypical "blogger people" there. I mean, yes there were; but we were not all alike. There were older people, and mere teenagers, and Charedim (who chuckled adorably during some of the talks over notes they were passing on a Palm Pilot -- I bet these guys were very cute in day school), as well as happily secular folk. The Kipa Sruga crowd was well-represented, as one might expect. (Heh-LO-oh... Zionist, the Holy Land is ours, dammit, we have clear ideological reasons for being here, while everyone else leaves out the "ideology" or the "being here" part, et cetera.) There was more than one skin tone represented. Both genders. Sephardim and Ashkenazim. There were native Israelis and olim, from various (mostly Anglo) countries. Several kinds of headgear were on display (though I personally miss representation from the "Avacado Ladies"; but I appreciate that they could only be closet bloggers, as I believe they hold that the internet is ONLY evil. So I will cut them some slack for not showing up in full regalia).

No one could accuse us of being homogeneous. Though I have heard rumors that some people (who couldn't come anyway, because they had pressing engagements elsewhere) were trying to make us sound that way.

The only person who looked exactly as I had pictured him was Jameel at The Muqata. Jameel was very tall and forbidding, with dark, penetrating eyes (what you could see around his kaffeiyah), and a formidable physique (what you could see behind his Kalashnikov and his numerous ammo belts). He did bring along his bride (cleverly disguised in a full burqa and yellow smiley face mask), and photos of little Ahmed and Fatima (playing with child-sized rimonim outside the family bunker).
So at least one thing went the way I expected.

We learned very useful stuff from the panels. Trep said "Be nice." The Shrapnel Babe countered with "I am only doing this for myself." (I later found out that she did a TON of stuff for other people, like helping to take care of a sick little boy; so it was hard to see her as a real toughie). Gil told us to avoid the sin of being caught up in self-aggrandizement, while Bogner came off totally humble by sharing with us the overpowering joy that comes with watching the number of "hits" grow. Benji pointed out that his panel was the first he had ever seen which had an armed moderator. ("Welcome to Israel!") I think the most powerful piece of advice I walked away with came from Dave of Jewlicious. "I encourage you to get out of the house. Get away from your computer. Get a bicycle." Now this is JUST the perfect thing to say to people with studio tans, whose goal of changing the world, one post at a time, can best be achieved while staring at a 14-inch screen.

There is much more fun stuff to write about; but I want to get to what affected me most powerfully.

Zavi Apfelbaum, Director of Brand Management, Foreign Ministry, spoke to us, in the fragment of time left to her by Bibi. If her title doesn't make a lot of sense outside the world of marketing (and what does THAT have to do with the government???), think about hasbara again. The bad guys have been really remarkable at anti-Israel/anti-Jewish propoganda over the last couple of decades or more. And we have been really lousy at same for at least the same time period. She showed a short film that included a focus group concept, wherein people were asked to describe, in terms of a house, different countries. Italy was "warm" and filled with "food and wine" and "telling stories" and "loud talk and laughter." It was a colorful house, fun to be in, and painful to leave. When they were asked about Israel, they could not come up with anything without being led. When they finally began to describe Israel's "house," you would think that they were talking about Beirut, or Saudi Arabia. "Strict." "Unwelcoming." Prejudiced against blacks. "They wouldn't want us to come in." No women allowed out in public. No children. No joy. "What would leaving Israel's house feel like?" "I'd be happy to get out of there..."

This is SO not who and what we are! We are so many colors and flavors! Even the most "strict" religious households have such happiness and sharing, music and laughter. Great food -- hey, we can DO food! Being a woman in a Jewish home can be such a powerful and beautiful position. But they -- and this focus group was in America, which "supports us, because they know we are the good guys" -- don't get us. They don't see who we really are. The lies of the meraglim have permeated the world, and even our friends believe we can't make it here.

So the job is to get the word out. Israel is amazing. Jews in Israel are varied and in love with life and talented and interesting and fun and deep and spiritual.

I think the main reason for this conference was summed up by Yishai Fleisher. "Keep making aliyah, every day."

After 25 years of marriage, I am blessed still to have a mad crush on my husband. I will work very hard to have the same love for Israel, after she and I have lived together for 25 years, and more, b'ezrat Hashem. And I will not be afraid to speak about it, to whomever will listen.

Shouts out to Gavi and Bogner and the Goddess and Yishai and Ben and Baruch and Baila and Yaacov and Benji and Mush and Devra and Gidon and Paula and Rahel and RivkA and Danny and Chayyei Sarah and NafNaf and Shoshana and... well, this could get ridiculous!... to everyone, for making it such a lovely night.

Now, time to get out my bicycle, and see if I can make a difference.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Day in Yerushalayim

Yom rishon, 16 Av 5768/17 August 2008, Sunday.

We picked a very hot day to see how people "do summer" in Yerushalayim. If hot, humid Baltimore would adopt some of these hobbies, life in that city might be just a bit more pleasurable, I think. Kids were playing in public fountains all over town -- and no one was yelling at them. In fact, there were fathers sitting and learning nearby. Families were enjoying outdoor barbecues in the parks.
We met some friends for lunch in a busy restaurant in the Ben Yehuda shopping mall. Once again, we were reminded of a positive difference in the dining experience in Israel: in the States, there is a sense of being rushed from one's table for the next customer. In Israel, one dines and shmoozes, and actually needs to accost the waitperson for the check. (Of course, there will always be exceptions. If you can find that sort of restaurant -- other than a serve-yourself establishment -- on the Eastern Seaboard, please let me know for my next visit.)
We stopped in at our favorite bookstore, M. Pomeranz Bookseller, on Be'eri. The books we had ordered had not yet arrived. But we had a lovely chat with the proprietor and one of his long-time employees. That held us in place long enough for a very old friend to stop in. More chatting, and another reminder that there are no coincidences. Call me biased, but this fact seems even clearer in the Holy Land.

In the Old City, an older man walking with a young man, both in tefillin, reminded us of the preciousness of being in our own Land. Was this a father and son, or a rosh yeshiva with a beloved talmid? It didn't matter. In the Rova, every kind of Jew can be himself, without feeling out of place. The shawls handed out to some women at the Kotel may have given them food for thought; but every Jew is welcome.

The main theme of the day was that life is about time with people and Hashem. When we Americans are working so many long hours to live the American Dream, it is sometimes impossible to take time for that reality. Israel can afford us the opportunity to enjoy a simpler life, if we don't try to recreate the USA here. There are no guarantees for an easy life; but I don't remember tripping over that option in the USA either. But Israel has allowed us to emphasize the things we cherish the most: human interaction, time to be ourselves, an increasingly central relationship with our Creator. I am so grateful that we have this privilege. I pray that Hashem will not take it away from us. I pray that more and more of our dear friends will be able to join us at Home.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

For Mama, a"h

Yom sheni, 3 Av 5768/4 August 2008, Monday.

This post is quite out of character for this 'blog. But at the moment, I have no other forum from which to participate in the Carnival of Overdue Thanks. So bear with me...

Before she was born, her mother tried the wire hanger method of birth control.

Both mother and fetus survived, much to the mother’s chagrin. Which she never let the baby forget, until she was able to dump her off onto an abusive relative, at the tender age of three.

My Mama died at 63, after a lifetime of tragedy. Of being unwanted, by family and husbands. Of dreadful illness.

Of changing herself into whatever she thought might keep a husband at home.

I owe her a book, and I hope to write it one day.

For now, let me use this opportunity to say thank you to her.

When I was a very little girl, Mama married a second time. A dreadful incident happened (which I was to dream about for the next thirteen years). I told my dear Mama, who broke a potential cycle of abuse by leaving the bastard.

How many mothers -- especially young, unskilled-worker mothers of two tiny kids -- take the risk to believe the words of a three-year-old child? How many mothers DON'T stay too long, rationalizing their child's nightmare life?

Mama married again, to another man who didn't love her, but who was at least not a child abuser. She raised four kids, without the benefit of a mother's or father's wise guidance.

Prior to the cancer and diabetes that wrecked her very short life, she added to the lives of many people. She would "hold court" in one of the local cafes, where all the lost souls could come and count on a caring ear and a bit of cheerful wisdom. "How are you today?" someone would ask her. Mama (feeling like three-week-old mutton soup) would spread her arms in an embrace of the world, and say "I feel FAN-TAS-TIC!" And the smiles she created would light up the world.

Her native wisdom has helped me to raise my sons to be healthy individuals.

Some of her special guidance:

"I am going to give you the best eighteenth birthday present I can. I give you yourself. Take good care of it. You can still ask for advice; but you belong to yourself now."

"Don't worry. The child you had at five is the man you will have at 35."

"A child becomes interesting when she is 35."

"Why can't people celebrate their differences? God made different colors for a reason."

"All roads to God are the right one."

Dearest Mama, I want you to know that I miss you. I do not understand why you had to have such a rotten life.

When other people are lined up to ask Moshiach, "Why did we have to suffer the Holocaust?" -- I will be in a different, much shorter line. "Nu? What was the deal with my Mama?"

Life damaged you extraordinarily. Yet you never gave up. If you ever felt sorry for yourself, you never let us know. You loved us, beyond unconditionally. We could not have grown up to be healthy adults had you not been such a miracle of coping.

There is no thank you big enough for trusting the word of a little girl, thereby changing the course of her life.

Please accept this small fragment of gratitude. And may I -- ever your child -- request yet another favor? Could you put in a good word at The Front Office for RivkA bat Teirtzel? She could use a refua shelaima.


Your Little Girl


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My Devorah Day (from August 2006)

Yom revi'i, 5 Av 5768/6 August 2008, Wednesday.

“Carry three liters of water per person per day.” As I glanced at my half-empty one liter bottle, I sort of wished that this sign had appeared several kilometers ago, or preferably, back at the youth hostel. As it was, I had equipped fourteen people with one liter of water each, thinking I was terribly clever to have thought of water at all.

It was beastly hot, and very humid. This was our group’s day off, after a week of working to clean up the destruction brought on by a month of war with Lebanon. We were privileged to be hiking in the Golan, up and up, over rocks and scree, toward Mapal Devorah. I had hiked in the Golan before, to the Black Falls near Avnei Eitan; and I was looking forward to the cool, refreshing dip in the pool.

“Dress appropriately. Wear walking shoes and a hat.” Well, at least I could feel good about this. I was wearing my great walking shoes, which had aced out all other styles, after years of walking all over Israel. My head was protected; and I had convinced all of the young heroes to wear hats. I had never remembered Israel being this hot and humid!

“The trails are suitable for fit hikers only.” No kidding! I used to be in pretty good shape, but it had been a while since I had seen the inside of the gym. After an hour of hiking, and two incidents of concern over other hikers, a brief prayer seemed wise. “Hashem, please don’t let me make a fool of myself by passing out. Please get me to the falls.” The water was gone; and I could imagine that my bright red face would give concern to anybody who might bother to take a look at me.

I strengthened myself by focusing on the great judge and warrior, Devorah, who had shamed Barak into facing the Jewish people’s enemies. It did not matter that we had been told that this Devorah Falls was named for a different Devorah (or even that this Falls may actually have been the Gilbon, as one fellow hiker opined). To me, we were pushing ourselves forward with a warrior queen as our leader. One of the ladies behind me was starting to hyperventilate. “We are the daughters of Devorah!” I cried, “And we can do anything!” She gave a throaty roar, and continued on.

At last! We made the Falls! The guys threw off various articles of clothing, and waded out into the water. We three women had a few decisions to make, without the benefit of a rabbi’s guidance. We figured out how to get into the water in a tzniut manner. And we helped each other to maintain our dignity and modesty while we swam. Not easy, but it added to the sense of accomplishment.

After swimming out to the falling water, and letting it pour down on my head, I floated off by myself, looking up at the perfect blue sky. Let me try to share with you how it felt. The relief of the cool water, after all that work… The intense beauty of the green growth around the falling water, tiny pink flowers laced through the emerald green… The laughter of the boys nearby (for there was no man-ness in those sweet kids playing under the waterfall, not to me, in those moments)… The warmth on my face… The rainbow shot through the falls… I began to cry with gratitude. “Thank you, Hashem, for giving me the privilege of being here, in the Golan that I love so much. Thank you for keeping me strong enough at nearly 50 to make this hike… Thank you for my beautiful family…” I begged Him to protect my soldiers, the anonymous group of young men for whom I had been davening since the beginning of this latest of Israel’s wars. I felt a shelaimut, a completeness, with Hashem and His creation, that I had never felt. I was in the center of a truly perfect bubble of time.

After a nice period, we got out of the water, and put ourselves back together. It was time to make the short but vertical climb to the parking lot, where the van and driver awaited us. A group of young people (and one very brave father of one of the young people) shot ahead. There was a group behind me, who were helping and being helped. I was in the middle, now by myself, able to sing softly, and hang onto the intense feeling of connectedness to the Briah. Even though the remainder of the hike was straight up, my wet clothing made it tolerable, even pleasant.

Finally, I made it to the parking lot. It was closing on evening. Since we were too few to have a minyan, men were standing at various edges of the parking lot, some draped in glowing white tzitzit, all wrapped in their own thoughts, davening to Hashem at their own paces. I stood in the middle of the quiet lot, feet together, eyes closed. You know how you feel two inches taller, when you achieve something physical you didn’t know you could do? I felt strong and healthy. I was marveling at the human body’s ability to stand perfectly still, perfectly balanced, even without sight. I was drinking as deeply as I could this incredible feeling of wholeness. All of my senses were heightened. I was in tune with the warmth of the sun on my skin, and the corresponding coolness of my wet clothing. I could smell the heat and green growth and motor oil in distinct layers of scent. The sound of the lazy, buzzing flies was intensified. I kept waiting for them to land on my face, prepared to brush them away. None landed. Just that slow, summery buzz, to add to my feeling of being one with G-d’s Creation.

Finally, after about ten minutes of standing just so, I opened my eyes. My clothing was covered with devorahs, with bees! There must have been fifty of the little yellow polka dots on the black dress. I was not afraid. I have never been afraid of bees, anyway; but at that moment, I had clear understanding. They were drinking water from my wet clothing. What an odd feeling of purpose: I was providing water for Hashem’s bees. It was beyond okay. It was perfect. The van driver came running toward me, gesticulating wildly, telling me in Hebrew what I knew already. I gently waved him away. “Zeh beseder, zeh beseder. Ani yoda’at.” He shook his head (“Crazy Americans!”), and returned to his van.

After a few moments, I gently shooed my bees away, and returned to the van, as the rest our party crested the hill.

Monday, August 4, 2008

My Land Keeps Calling Me Home

Yom sheni, 3 Av 5768/4 August 2008, Monday.

There is so much that I love in Eretz Yisrael, so much that makes it Home to me.

So many shops and businesses have mezuzot on the doors.

Tour buses stop along the highways at mincha, and groups of 30 or 40 school children shuckle their way through the afternoon prayers by the side of the road. (Actually, the girls daven fervently; the boys shove each other and bother the girls. It is refreshing to see that my sons have a large and normal chevra.)

All kinds of women come to the Kotel on Shabbat afternoon: elderly ladies in shaitels with tichels, pressing gnarled hands against the stones and kissing their fingers, weeping for dark, unknown tsooris (both their own and the kehilla's), and davening with so much kavana, Moshiach should be here by now... young girls in elaborate fringed head scarves and flowing dresses of many colors, bringing all the power of Tsfat and new-found ahavat Hashem to their fervent prayers for the safety of Israel, for the healing of Am Yisrael, for success in finding their z'vugim... young, dark girls balanced on stiletto heels, in jeans of the painted-on variety, bright tops covering a bit less midriff than necessary, blonde curls flowing over much darker history... I am in awe of this last group. They are here, at this only-holy place, instead of hanging out on Rechov Ben Yehuda with boyfriends. They may meet them at earlier or later hours; but right now they are here, and with much feeling in their prayers. I know someone will be annoyed with me for being proud of them (either because of their status, or because it seems patronizing); and yet I am. I am so glad they are here, and I hope their prayers are answered, too.

As Shabbat wanes, I sit on the creamy white stone steps opposite the Kotel, eating the challah rolls and herring provided for seudat shlishit. By twos and threes, young Litvish bochrim begin to decorate the steps below me with a uniform sea of black hats. They talk and joke and eat, and after a while, the ruach leaders of the group begin to lead z'mirot. After a few minutes, they get a rhythm going, and one song leads into another. While they lack the intricate harmonies of the men in established choirs, they have the power and exuberance of youth. The absolute joy their singing creates brings tears!

Little children play in the streets at night. On Shabbat, they play IN the street itself; but even during the week, they are outside on the sidewalks, well after my friends in Baltimore would feel it safe to leave them outside alone. Big children of five or six watch after little toddlers. They seem so happy. (It stuns me to see very young children shepherding their tiny siblings across Jerusalem via buses!)

Jews of every background are nice to me, and helpful, and patient. Taxi drivers and pharmacists help me with my Hebrew, offering aitzot for improving my study. Everyone seems to say "Be'ezrat Hashem," and "Baruch Hashem," even when they exhibit no outward signs of religiosity. It is mind-bending and humbling. It is indescribably sweet. As a dear friend of mine says, these "people speak my idiom."*

There are several radio stations which feature conversations about Hashem. Even stations with more mundane formats work into conversation something about the Parasha, or toss out quotes from Pirke Avot. You just don't get this on the American airwaves in too many places. Certainly, I could not enjoy the serenity of living in a small town in the US of A, and still get to hear the Shema at the opening of the radio broadcast, nor "Hatikva" at the end.

And speaking of the mundane: in Chutz l'Aretz, one must say "Asher yatzar" into one's cell phone, or while appearing to read a map on the wall. Otherwise, the locals may think that the Jew should be wearing foil on her head, as she is obviously communicating with the Mother Ship telepathically. In Israel, no one gives a second glance at a Jew whose lips are moving in silent prayer, regardless of the location.

This is what it is to be Home. To be taken for granted, in the warmest possible way.