Friday, January 29, 2010

Tefillin Bombs, Tu BiShevat, and Scraping By

Yom shishi, 14 Shevat 5770.

This "ad" was shamelessly stolen directly from The Muqata.  It may have been conceived in the mind of Joe Settler, who stole it from the El Al version.  This is how genius works.
(Hat tips to Jameel and Israel National News)

As Shabbat is also Tu BiShevat this year, here are some pictures of what's available in Jerusalem malls just before the chag.

I can't give it over well yet, as I have some more research to do for sources.  But I heard a beautiful dvar Torah this week (at Hadassah's "Amen Party."  Thanks, Hadassah, for a wonderful time with very special ladies).  Devorah asked us why the seven species were those chosen to elevate above all others, when we have evidence in the Torah that special gifts given to monarchs were often completely different (and perhaps more elegant) choices.  What makes these seven -- wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, or date honey -- special enough to be given unique attention in blessings, and in the festival of Tu BiShevat, as well as at other times throughout the Jewish year?

Devorah taught us that there is a detailed explanation in the Gemara that gives us an answer that is at once surprising, and also typically Jewish.

It seems that these seven species require very special attention, at very specific times in their growth, to develop at all.

What better reminder is there for a Jew to look to Shemayim at all times, to avoid taking for granted our day-to-day gift of survival?

Recently, I wrote about weighing out agarot to buy provisions at the end of the month.

Nu, so we're at the end of the month again; and I am extremely happy.  There is a simple sweetness to scraping together those coins, to having a family that accepts compromising to get by at the end of the pay period.  I suppose I wouldn't be thrilled if this were my life every day.  Nor would I be thrilled if every day were imbued with the exhilarating high of pay day.  In fact, each of these days is precious purely because of the existence of its opposite.

Being "in the money" once a month makes me grateful.  Being at the more "sporty" end of the month also makes me grateful.

This is perhaps the secret of Tu BiShevat's seven species, and of being a Jew.

I wish you a wonderful, sweet Tu BiShevat, filled with a cornucopia of blessings!

Tu BiShevat: The Jewish "New Year for Trees"
Chag: Holiday
Dvar Torah: literally "a word of Torah" -- refers generally to any sermon or talk on the weekly Bible reading 
Amen Party: a recent (or recently-revived) custom of saying blessings followed by heartfelt "amens" on behalf of those in need of special heavenly assistance
Gemara: Jewish oral tradition
Shemayim: Heaven
Agarot: The 10-agarot coin is the lowest-value coin in Israeli currency in circulation -- 1/10th of a shekel, each 10-agarot coin currently is worth less than two cents.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Geshem Blessings

Yom revi'i, 5 Shevat 5770.

We tried very hard to be good Jews before we lived in Israel.

We said the prayers for rain, even when we were unable to start our car, which was stuck in a foot of snow and ice.  We tried to have Eretz Yisrael in mind.

We learned in our Jewish youth the midrash of how Hashem was so angry at the serpent for misleading Chava that He gave the serpent the worst punishment imaginable to a creature of Hashem:  He caused the serpent to become a snake, crawling on its belly on the ground, the very dust providing its nourishment.

Naturally, the question is asked, "How can having all the food one needs, available all the time, be a punishment?"

The answer is a poignant lesson in the extreme.  Imagine if your father would tell you, "I am utterly disgusted with you.  You are a total disappointment to me.  I never want to see you again."  Then, he reaches into his wallet, and takes out his checkbook.  He writes a check for you, for a million dollars.  "Take this," he says.  "It will take care of all of your needs.  Don't ever call."

The snake's food is always there for him.  He need never cry out to Hashem to provide for him.

The Jew in Israel must always cry out for rain, as Hashem did not give us unlimited sources of water via uncontested rivers and lakes.  Our Jordan River is constantly under siege by neighboring countries.  And we must constantly pray with real kavana for our Lake Kinneret to be full enough to provide the water we desperately need.

In the old country, we prayed, as per the instructions in the Artscroll siddur.

In Israel, the rabbis call for special days of fasting and prayer.  We deprive ourselves of food, and feel our collective prayer for rain as one overwhelming voice crying out from the depths, until, at last...

...when the first drops come, there is a collective sigh, a spiritual shaking of each other's hands.  "We did it.  We finally got it right.  We finally got something right together.  Hashem heard us..."

Perhaps this is the beginning of the ultimate good, when we will make peace among ourselves, when the world will at last see us for the good that we give, as per His design, in His holy name?

We will not rest.  We will not assume, nor place our trust in man, nor in princes.

We will continue to cry out to Hashem for our needs, and try to do His will in this world.

The knowledge that we pray not only for ourselves, but for the world, gives us a sense of higher purpose:  You who listen to prayer, grant dew and rain on the face of the earth, satisfying the whole universe from Your goodness.

We in Israel who so desperately need achdut, unity, feel a rush of hope that we have gotten a step closer, no matter what  is going on in the headlines.

 For all of our efforts when we lived elsewhere, we never felt as clearly our sense of purpose, our sense of connection to our Creator, to each other, and to our Land, as we feel when we speak of the weather here in Israel!

Spare us and have compassion on us and on all our produce and fruit, blessing us with bounteous rain.

May we merit life, plenty and peace as in the good years...

Geshem: one word for rain.  Just as the Eskimo has many words for "snow," the Jew has many words for "rain."
Midrash: an explanatory story, illustrating and clarifying difficult Biblical concepts
Chava: Eve
Kavana: intense focus

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Can you say "adaptability"? Sure. I knew you could.

Yom chamishi, 28 Tevet 5770.

[The] susceptibility of an organism to...become suited to or fitted for its conditions of environment...

One of the key ingredients in a successful aliyah is adaptability.  If I may spend a moment or two in the "bli ayin hara, puh-puh-puh" place, I'd like to brag about my kids' success in bringing this spice to our aliyah.

 Lots of Sports Guy's friends have big screen TVs, and some are even equipped with the techno-magic called "Slingbox."  By this means, the young hopefuls are not deprived of major staples of American existence, such as NFL football playoffs.

Frequenters of this blog know that Sports Guy lives, breathes, eats, sleeps, coaches and plays American football, with occasional breaks for basketball and paintball.  (His rebbeim and teachers are well aware of this fact.)  And he is a foaming-at-the-mouth Baltimore Ravens fan.

So his father and I suffer the occasional pang of regret that we have not given him the world (i.e., Slingbox and TV).  We don't have Slingbox because it's not in the budget.  We don't have TV for various reasons, among them that one pays a television tax in Israel for even owning (but not necessarily hooking up) the device.

But Sports Guy and his brothers share their parents' idealism about living in Israel:  It's not about transplanting the USA to Middle Eastern soil.  It's about living in The Holy Land, while still maintaining some of what makes us uniquely us.  For Sports Guy, that means following the NFL Playoffs, but in a humbler manner.

  I wish you could have seen Sports Guy sitting hunched in front of that computer monitor, watching and waiting with bated breath as his Ravens made those little black bars move across the screen toward the Patriots' goal.  And the way he pumped his fist in the air, and danced around the room like every other crazy sports fan, when his team scored a touchdown...  it would have brought a tear to your eye, the way this kid could act like he was having a party, in front of that 12-inch screen.  It certainly brought a tear to mine -- along with a prayer of gratitude.

I knew I had experienced one of those rare "great mothering moments" when I overheard him telling his father: "...and Ema found a radio broadcast of the game, without me even asking!"

Adaptability.  It is the key to truly living in Israel.  Sometimes, it looks like the Stunt Man, deciding at seventeen that ketchup tastes stupid if it's not made by Osem.  Sometimes, it looks like the Yeshiva Bochur, choosing his attire based on what looks more "settler," because that feels authentic to him.  Sometimes it looks just like Sports Guy, making himself contented with a computer-generated image and a satellite radio broadcast.

Bli ayin hara, puh-puh-puh: an expression used to remind the listener that although I'm about to brag about my children, I don't want to bring any jealousy (with its attendant evils) upon myself.  Call it a bubbemeisa -- and "old wives' tale" -- if you like.  I ain't messin' with tradition.
Aliyah: a term meaning "going up," in this case, a Jew immigrating to Israel
Rebbeim: rabbis, in this case, school rabbis, teachers of religious subjects
Osem: a major Israeli food manufacturer
Yeshiva Bochur: a young man who studies at a post-high school Jewish religious school

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Family Car

Yom sheni, 18 Tevet 5770.

People often ask us how we get around.  Jerusalem is thirty to forty minutes away, depending on traffic; and grocery shopping is easier with wheels.  So we brag a little about the family car.  It's big.  It's green.  And it can seat at least forty of our best friends, and their luggage.

Gratitude being a big part of being a Jew, let me share with you a few of the things I love about our car.

Since we have a competent driver, we can all sit in the back, shmoozing and grooving on the scenery.

AND I can make googly-eyes at the Dearly Beloved, without endangering our lives.

There is plenty of room in the "trunk" to store all of the groceries we could possibly want to load into it -- at least all that one monthly paycheck can cover.

And let's talk kedusha.  This morning, for instance, while our faithful driver navigated much scarier traffic than I ever want to deal with, we listened on the speakers to a "Kol Chai" radio broadcast of a commentary on this week's parasha from the holy Ohr HaChaim.  A public radio broadcast of the parasha hashavua is definitely not something I remember experiencing as I tooled along on the Beltway.

It is true that you can't set your clocks by when the family car will arrive to pick us up.  One of the things that we have come to love about Israel is that pretty much the entire country respects Chasidic time.  And let's face it:  the Germans made the trains run on time.  'Nuff said.

At the end of a long day of transporting many of my friends around -- and even people we don't know, as we are very generous -- someone else cleans and stores our family car.

This post is respectfully dedicated to all of the interesting, warm and hard-working Egged bus drivers with whom we've traveled, as well as their extended support staff back at the station.  Thanks, guys!  We wouldn't be anywhere without you.

Haveil Havalim, Issue #250, is up at Tzedek-Tzedek.  He does a nice, loving job with other people's work -- and with his own.  Give it a read.  Some of my best friends post there.

Shmoozing:  talking, chatting, shooting the breeze, chilling
Grooving:  Ask your parents.
Googly-eyes:  Ask your grandparents.
Kedusha:  holiness
Parasha hashavua:  weekly Torah reading
Chasidic time:  The best way to illustrate this concept is to share the following joke.  "What happens when a Chasid (an extremely spiritually-oriented Jew) marries a Yekke (a German Jew)?  Forever after, the couple arrives at every function exactly, precisely 45 minutes late."
Egged:  NOT pronounced like something rough boys do on Halloween night to other people's cars -- pronounced "EH-ged" -- the name of the most prominent bus company in Israel

Friday, January 1, 2010

A couple of responses to Michael Hirsch

Yom shishi, 15 Tevet 5770.  (Yom huledet sameach, Yeshiva Bochur!)

Michael Hirsch published in The Jerusalem Post an article entitled "American Aliya - An Exercise in Futility."  (The article can also be found here, at  In his essay, Hirsch basically slam-dunks into the ash can the entire program of Nefesh B'Nefesh, apparently because it has not emptied the Jewish streets of America into flights headed for Israel.  The article was subsequently published by the estimable Rebbetzin Dr. Rivkah Lambert Adler on her "Baltimore Chug Aliyah" list (which can be sought -- and joined! -- at

What follows is a response by one list member, followed by my comment.  (Since without Rivkah's help, I seem never able to make Yahoo work, I'll re-post here.  Google and I understand each other.)

What is the value of this article? Who cares whether promoting aliyah helps or does not help one million people move to Israel.

Promoting aliyah is designed to help one person and only one person. You.



I suspect Michael Hirsch is correct.  But with all due respect, I am very grateful for Nefesh B'Nefesh.  No, the organization may not turn the regrettable tide of Jews clinging tenaciously to the Diaspora.  That will be in G-d's hands, as is every other miracle.  But Rabbi Fass and Tony Gelbart made it possible for people like my family to rise above the reality of not enough assets to fulfill our personal dream of making aliyah.  And a read of their mission statement reveals that there is not a word about bringing every recalcitrant American Jew to live in Israel.

The core mission of NBN is to revitalize Aliyah and to substantially increase the number of future olim by removing the financial, professional and logistical obstacles that prevent many individuals from actualizing their dreams. In the process of fulfilling our mission, we aim to educate and inspire the Jews of the Diaspora as to the centrality of the Jewish State to the Jewish people and its desirability as a Jewish home. Such enhanced awareness will send an unmistakable signal of Anglo-Israeli Jewish solidarity and of our mutual determination to strengthen the State of Israel and thereby increase the likelihood of an ever expanding Aliyah reality.

This seems to me to be a humble and worthy goal.  NBN wants to help those who would be living in Israel, but for "financial, professional and logistical obstacles."  They are accomplishing this goal.  I can't speak for all of the olim who have been aided by NBN; but I can tell you that without them, the Eastmans would still be living in the US.  And NBN aims to increase awareness, to educate and inspire.  The fact is that every one of us who gets our break via NBN has the potential to bring a few of our friends on our coattails.  Several of my friends who wanted to make aliyah have finally convinced their spouses, in part "because the Eastmans did it."  There are even a few who never entertained the thought of aliyah who now credit us with having made the concept worthy of consideration.

To a degree, then, I agree with Tzvi's point -- it shouldn't slow down NBN's efforts that they may not bring Home a million Jews.  Is not each soul as a universe?  But I would also argue with Tzvi that we should care about the sad realities that keep many Jews from making aliyah, because my understanding of the Jewish mission is that it's not "all about me."  We are one organism.  So we should try to enlighten the other parts of us to join us here.

Rabbi Akiva is the quintessential Jewish example of the power of a drop of water, followed by another drop of water, followed by yet another, to make even the impossible a reality.  Just as a simple am ha'aretz, hostile to the rabbis and totally ignorant of Torah, could be convinced by the water wearing away the rock to begin learning at 40, and to become one of our greatest rabbis -- so too can a people be reached, one oleh at a time.

Keep up the work you are doing on Hashem's behalf, Rabbi Fass and Mr. Gelbart, heedless of naysayers' statistics.  You are doing holy work.  Yours is not to complete the task -- that is up to Hashem.

But neither is it our task to derail the mission with doubt.

Welcome Home, to the 200-plus new olim who arrived on December 30th!  Keep up the good work, NBN!

Yom huledet sameach, Yeshiva Bochur!: Happy birthday, Dovid!
Chug: club
Rabbi Akiva:  one of the greatest of our rabbis and commentators, who started as a simple, ignorant shepherd, and was convinced that even he could learn Torah, by seeing that drops of water had worn a hole in a rock, little by litte
Am ha'aretz:  ingnoramous
Oleh: a Jew who makes aliyah (immigrates to Israel) -- plural: olim