Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Oh, my stars!!! What a performance!

Yom shlishi, 24 Kislev 5775, Erev Hanukkah.

I recently learned an expression in Hebrew:
".רק משוגעים סופרים את הכוכבים" (Rak meshuga'im sofrim et hakochavim.)

Only madmen count the stars.

I love this expression. Probably because it sounds beautiful in Hebrew. And because I think it would make a great title for a book. And perhaps because it makes me think of my dear "father," Avraham Avinu -- surely not a madman -- who was told by God that his children would be more numerous than the stars. The very idea to the childless prophet must have been perplexing and exhilarating. I know that when the part of this awe-inspiring character is played very well, I am transported to another dimension of possibilities. Care to be transported? Time to see Count the Stars!

Photo credit: Rebecca Flash Kowalsky
The Raise Your Spirits acting troupe has never disappointed me. This talented local group, based in Gush Etzion, gives me so much personal pride. These are my friends and neighbors, teachers and fellow writers. Some I know to be very shy people off-stage -- but when they are onstage, they blossom to life, as if there were something about those colored lights that enhances the flower inside each woman's soul. I have been blessed to see six of their eight productions. Count the Stars: The Journey of Avraham and Sara, is an original musical written by Sharon Katz and Avital Macales, with able musical and choral arrangement by Amit Ben Atar and Gayle Berman, respectively. The play is directed by Toby Klein Greenwald, and choreographed by Sara Orenstein.

Whether Avital Macales is playing a Jackie-Kennedy-esque Queen Esther or a spiritually connected Avraham Avinu, I believe her absolutely. She totally becomes her character. Her vocal command and range have always held me in thrall.

Photo credit: Natan Epstein

And who knew that my fellow blogger (Ima 2 Eight) and neighbor, Rachel Moore, also has such a believable stage presence, and such a wonderful voice?! Her Sarah complemented Avital's Avraham so completely, I felt myself crying with them over their childlessness, and laughing joyfully with them when the promise was finally fulfilled. It didn't matter that I know how the story comes out. Their heartfelt singing and acting made it real and fresh for me.

A real surprise was Chana Singer as Lot. I had fun with her, because even at intermission and immediately after the play, she stayed in character, sparkling with the fun of "being Lot." It was easy to believe she was a young prince of a famous desert family. This is her first performance with Raise Your Spirits, and I anticipate seeing her with the troupe in the future. She also created the poetically-drawn logo for the Count the Stars poster and tee shirt.

L-R: Eliezer, Lot, Sarai, Avram

Photo credit: Bati Katz
Some of the hallmarks of Raise Your Spirits productions are the graceful blend of pathos and humor, and of impossible but totally fun time warps. The irrepressible Sharon Katz as Avraham's servant Eliezer leads the talented pack in just the right amount of comic relief throughout the suspense and drama of the play.

Egyptian border guards take custody of Sarai
As our hearts are gripped by the fear the caftan-clad Israelites feel during desert famine, we are shifted to a comical scene of Western US sheriffs (complete with swaggers and cowboy hats and Texas accents) who crack us up as their Egyptian border guards spirit off Sarai to Pharoah.

The "Mesopotamian Idol" live TV show!
 The show is kicked off with a game show atmosphere that involves the play's audience in a typically silly game show audience warm-up... and later in the play, we are brought to hushed and emotional tension as Avraham bargains very believably and very humbly with Hashem over the lives of the people of Sdom.

How I wish I could tell you about the individual performances of each of these talented women and girls! There is so much to praise -- the direction, musical arrangement, dance choreography, costuming and makeup -- and so many individuals worthy of mention... Rather than risking leaving out a friend's name or failing to mention a particular person, I'll take the chicken's way out, and tell you that there was not a person on stage who let the audience down. All of these very talented ladies, young and older, worked together to make our spirits soar.

If you -- ladies only, of course -- have yet to treat yourself to a Raise Your Spirits production, I welcome you to make this the one. You deserve a special night out -- and the price of the ticket goes toward the very worthy cause of raising the spirits not only of those who have suffered from terrorist attacks, but for all of us -- in the audience and on the stage -- who need to focus on the joy of being part of Jewish history rather than on the headlines, if even for a short time.

Go to the website -- Raise Your Spirits -- to look into upcoming performances, and to buy tickets.

You can count on it: your evening or afternoon with these stars will be time well spent.

All photos not otherwise credited by Debra and Orlee Kodish.

Play synopsis (from the site):

A world of idol worship, cruelty, human sacrifice. A world of falsity and frightening superstition. A world saved by the goodness and beliefs of one man – Avraham.

Together with his life’s partner, Sara, Avraham introduced thoughts that shook the foundation of mankind – only One G-d ruled the universe, and He desired a world of goodness.

Ridiculed and threatened by those around them, Avraham and Sara never stopped providing the example of kindness, caring for others, hospitality and gratitude to the Creator.

The reward for their valiant willingness to go against the crowd in order to live lives of holiness – a son, Yitzchak, who would carry on the family’s tradition of loving-kindness; descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and a country, Eretz Yisrael, from which a future people will grow and serve as a Light Unto the Nations of the world.

In today’s turbulent times, we find strength and guidance from Avraham and Sara, as their lives give us the spiritual DNA we need to confront the trials of life and soar like stars to the heavens.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

In Times of Darkness, I'm Thankful for My Jewish Family

Yom chamishi, 5 Kislev 5775, Thanksgiving.

Along with all of my fellow Neve Daniel residents, I received a note with the following several-times-forwarded message:

"this is what Har Nof ppl got on the door handle this morning"

I wasn't sure what to expect. Threatening messages, God forbid? In the current terror climate, after the events of the previous week, that was the first thing that came to mind. As soon as I opened the email and saw the first sentence of the note and the chocolate bar, I got a lump in my throat. Not of fear, but of an emotion you can only feel when you are surrounded -- physically or even only spiritually -- by family.

The letter basically says the following:

Our brothers, dear residents of Har Nof!

The Nation of Yisrael is one body, with one soul.

The pain is universal:

The community of Yisrael is in terrible grief

and in deep pain.

In our difficult hours -- many of Am Yisrael stood by our side.

Now -- we are by your side.

You are in our hearts and in our prayers.

We add [our voice to the collective] Torah, faith and prayer

"In the name of all of Yisrael."

God's blessing upon you, only be strong and courageous!

With love,

The citizens of Itamar

After I read it, I tried to tell the letter over to the Dearly Beloved... and by the time I was finished, we were both choking back tears.

There is much here that is beautiful. The act is touching, by itself. The letter and the gift of sweetness were from a community which was devastated by a terror attack in 2011 in which six members of the Fogel family were brutally massacred as they slept.

And while this is a beautiful story all by itself, there is more to this lovely deed that is worthy of note.

The love letter was delivered by the citizens of Itamar -- a primarily Israeli Dati Leumi community in the Shomron -- read that "settlers dwelling over the Green Line" -- given to a largely Anglo Hareidi community in Jerusalem -- read that "not East Jerusalem, and therefore mostly uncontested Jewish property." It is a reminder that we are all one family of Jews, undivided by how we dress or daven or learn Torah, where we live, or if where we live is considered to be politically correct. I only mention this to you in case you are fooled by the media into believing that when the going gets tough the family will be divided. We are truly one body with one soul -- and we are in this together!

On this eve of the American Thanksgiving -- this is something for which I am truly thankful.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Life as the Sea, Friends like Waves

Yom sheni, 3 Cheshvan 5775.

I am so far behind in writing to you about what has been happening in Israel! It seems to happen any time there is a great weight of sadness. I have much respect for my friends in the Jewish blogosphere who continue to write even when their is much collective Jewish pain. So I have to catch up soon, with God's help, as I climb with everyone else out of the well of sadness.

I want to write about our seventh aliyaversary which passed on October 10. I want to tell you about the wedding of Stunt Man and Molly McMolly! I also mean to write about the Parade of Nations (who love Israel. Admittedly, some countries were probably represented by all five of the people therein who love Israel...). You need to hear about the storyteller I met at Stunt Man's place of work. And about the chol hamoed trip up north to see the Atlit detention camp, and the Tomcar rides, and the visit to the Druze villages.

For now, I'll just share yesterday's adventure in Netanya with a few of my "Coffee Talk" online friends. (We have been meeting for a few years online. At a certain point, it occurred to us that meeting each other f2f -- face to face -- was an important component of our friendship. We have met several times now, at various places around Israel.)

As with many other stories, this one is best told in pictures. Whenever my friends get me off of my beloved yishuv, I am reminded of how easy it is to move around this fascinating country... and I mean to do more of it!

 We juggled locations and times and dates and schedules... and in the end, only seven of our group could meet this time. What did we discuss? Our brilliant children and grandchildren, of course. Our latest endeavors, artistic, professional, or related to our hobbies. ("You are looking at the Summer Triangle; and those three bright stars are called Deneb, Altair and Vega...") I hang out with very talented, smart ladies: musicians, photographers, biologists, hematologists, psychologists, restaurateurs, writers, mothers, wives, friends... So the conversation is far from boring.

We met at a mehadrin dairy restaurant right on the water. I can recommend the food; though for the prices, the portions were not as generous as some of my favorite places in Jerusalem. (Except for the health salad -- which could easily have fed two or three of us!)

During our meal, we also shared Torah thoughts, and spoke about the concepts of achdut (Jewish unity), especially given current events. We managed to discuss politics and our very strong opinions about Israeli foreign relations with complete respect and peace -- which is one of the reasons I love this very diverse group so much!

 I arrived earlier than the rest, thanks to catching an Egged bus before the traffic jams that trapped my friends began. The downside was that I had a lot of time without them. The upside was that I had a lot of time with God's amazing creation, and with other interesting people I was privileged to meet.

They introduced themselves as Izzy and Denise Edelstein, formerly of South Africa, and now living in Atlanta, Georgia. They were here for weddings and grandchildren, the best of everything! Izzy was for many years a family doctor ("They don't make those anymore," he said). We chatted about the home visits of the family doctor in the "olden days." He and Denise have been married for 61 years, and are clearly best friends.

They took a photo of me, too, "just to prove you were here!"
Lovely people, who seemed to have all the time in the world to chat with me about travel and children and getting older. May the Dearly Beloved and I grow older with as much grace, and with the blessing of the fine friendship they share.

I also met a young couple with a baby named Tzippy in her stroller. I explained to her that her parents would not always take her on their romantic dinner dates. She was really fun! Her father mouthed the words silently with a joyful-but-hollow-eyed smile: "She's. still. up..." I commiserated, and gave him the bracha that she would not still be up at 3 AM...

And then there was the Decorator Cat... and the mongoose. Yes, we have it all in Israel.

 Strange but cute little fellows! Fortunately, they seemed calm about being photographed.

 Of course -- next to the wonderful and charming human beings with whom I was blessed to spend a few hours -- the best part is the sea and the setting sun. May we always remember to be grateful, no matter how sad, difficult, or frightening our world becomes, for all of the beauty and goodness around us.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made the great sea.*

We dedicate our words of Torah and our acts of kindness to each other from this special evening to the memory of Yemima bat Avraham Avinu, הי״ד, that her innocent neshama might have an aliyah.
photo from Voices magazine online
Treat life as the sea,
heart as the seashore, and friends like waves.
It never matters how many waves there are.
What matters is that one wave touches the seashore.
an anonymous Urdu poem

*said upon seeing the ocean or the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in thirty days

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

War Report: Three Teens and Bombs and Tee Shirts; Feeding and Praying for Our Boys

Yom revi'i, 3 Av 5774.

"Together we will win!"
Was there ever a time before the three boys?

Many very sad things have happened lately, and are still happening. Yet my Nation is more united than it's ever been. Most people in the various "camps" -- religious vs. secular, politically right vs. politically left, carnivores vs. vegans, what have you -- are setting their differences aside to stand behind the soldiers, as they clear the tunnels aimed with death at Israel's heartland.

Individuals and organizations are taking turns traveling to the south and to hospitals to feed, cloth, pamper, encourage and entertain our troops.

Here is a letter I received from a friend about her sons at the front:

When your kid calls from a war, racing toward incoming rockets seems logical. What did he want from home? Anti-fungal cream, especially if it would help with ringworm and athlete's foot. Apparently, nine days without changing your socks or taking off your army boots is not great for your feet. "And Mom, can you bring those two boxes of Wacky Mac I didn't eat on my last leave home?"

The soldiers were mostly relaxed. They are determined and motivated to carry out their mission. There was NO complaining. On the contrary, we were shown the incredible piles of things that have been donated to add comfort where possible: mountains of socks, baby wipes, mosquito repellent, food, drinks, etc. Their vehicles are covered with letters and pictures sent from a loving and grateful nation. Shocking how much 20-somethings appreciate the efforts made with crayons. But they do!

Photo from Facebook - no idea who took it
My son lost a friend today, a guy who was with him in their early days in basic training. War, even when it appears that you are winning, is not the game our guys would prefer to play. His friend will be buried tomorrow. May his family be comforted. His buddies from basic will not attend the funeral. They will be back in Gaza by then working on the tunnel they're assigned to destroy. Their efforts to protect their families, their friends, and their nation trump their need to mourn right now, even though this hit them very hard.

We do live in a crazy country. I doubt there is another place in the world that allows/encourages soldiers to invite family and friends to visit during a war. And maybe this is one of the few places where you keep the radio on so you can hear the announcements of where rockets are headed as you are driving in that direction; but you drive on nonetheless, praying that at the end of that journey there'll be a 21-year-old who needs a hug from his parents as much as they need hugs from him.

We did hear from our other son after Shabbat. He is fine, but more than ready to finish what his unit needs to do and turn the rest over to the younger guys. He says that he and his reserve unit buddies are too old to be away from wives, children and their lives. 

Tonight we hugged one son with a sigh of relief. Tomorrow he goes back into Gaza. Our married son awaits the next mission (unless he's already there); and we pretend to go back to our lives. May God grant them success and return ALL OF THEM home healthy and whole!

Normal summer moments still exist, thanks to the IDF and the Iron Dome.
The days run together. You try to stay as "normal" as possible. It's not as challenging for us as for our friends in the south, as it's always been for our friends in the south, living under rocket fire for nearly fourteen years. Fourteen years! Children have been born and have grown up with rocket fire and the "Tzeva Adom" siren as the background music of their entire lives.

But even for the rest of us, the war plays in the background if you are a mother, father, sister, brother, significant other, or friend of a soldier. Which everybody is. Your heart breaks over and over again at the losses felt by others, the losses that won't end. Our hearts ache for our family members and friends.

If your son calls, you cling to his voice with every ounce of love and faith and hope your heart can produce. I've asked friends how they are coping, and there is a consensus: you live with two minds. "The bad guys must be eradicated; the shelling must once and for all be stopped; we mustn't yet again stop before the job is done, or we'll be sending another kid to the front in eighteen months or so." (I've sent three sons so far to three wars -- as have many other mothers.) But the other half of our brain is saying "Make a cease fire already. I want him home NOW."

Last Monday was a beautiful little oasis in time, as Stunt Man came back to civilization for the first time in three weeks. He was a little thinner, but he was in pretty good shape physically and emotionally.

Stunt Man on 24-hour leave, seeing his future apartment for the first time. "Nice job, Molly McMolly!"

I discovered something interesting today. If I get away from the news, I feel a bit lost. Unless I get away from the news, leave my house, and go and participate in a mitzvah. Today I joined a group of dedicated people in Efrat to put together yet another of the collections of presents to be delivered to the soldiers at the front. One of the organizers said, "We gave first to the soldiers in Nahal, Tzanchanim and Golani, because they had lost friends. But we are trying to get enough donations together to send out 40,000 packages, because each soldier needs encouragement and our gratitude." (A shout-out to the Maresky family for opening their home and for hosting this effort.)

"Looks like a Neve Daniel kaytana out there." Romi, managing the troops.

"They've had enough candy. Let's send them some nutritious junk food!"

Need your spirits to be picked up? Do a mitzvah with a bunch of nice people. [Photo by Jonty Maresky]

Our kids writing love notes to the soldiers

All the goodies wrapped up to look like a big piece of candy.

People of all ages work side-by-side to prepare the packages.
The T-Shirt Project – A NEW INITIATIVE

Many of the chayalim are not able to carry their siddur​im, tefillin, tehillim, onto the front. Many in the IDF don’t have them. Every soldier needs extra protection to defend us in this war​ – right now. While they appreciate all the items we send in a bag – the treats and necessities – we can’t help beyond our human capacity.

This week – we will be giving soldiers a T-shirt with a printed message on the inside of the shirt – written over their hearts​.​ It is a short Passuk from  King David’s Tehillim, (Tet Zion - 16) which beseeches God to protect, and give refuge.
The passuk is (מכתב לדוד שמרני )
         שמרני אל כי חיסיתי בך – “Protect me, O God, for I have sought refuge in YOU.”
There will also be a personal letter to the soldiers to give them chizuk and remind them that King David conquered Goliath, and the side of Good will win over the enemies.

The outside of the shirt will be illustrated with "Thank IDF Soldiers."
The main idea is to give each soldier their own "Personal Protective Iron Dome" –  a strong Passuk connecting them to Hashem, in a subtle and yet strong way​, and understanding deeply that we need Hashem’s help in times of war as our ​S​ource of protection, refuge and life.
This is a "NU Campaign" and "Thank Israeli Soldiers" initiative.

How can YOU help?

Our objective is to supply every soldier in the IDF with this good quality ‘Dri-Fit’ T-Shir​t – eventually – (with your help)​. Connecting each one of them to Hashem, to us, to Am Yisrael and to the world.

Contact Nu Campaign and send to friends overseas: http://nuthreads.org/campaigns/thank-you-idf/

What if you're not in Israel, and you want to do something, anything, to help the soldiers? It can be very frustrating to be "outside," while your heart is inside. Or perhaps you are in Israel, but cannot get to any of the "hands on" projects. Are there alternative ways to help?

The Shmira Project might be an answer. The concept is to pair names of soldiers with people anxious to pray on their behalf. This project originated with Rav Simcha HaCohen Kook, Chief Rabbi of Rechovot and The Hurva Synagogue with the Bostoner Rebbe, zt”l in 2009 during the Gaza Operation Cast Lead. It has the support of people across the world and across all denominations. It's being organized in its present format by the mother of a former IDF paratrooper (whom I know and love, but who prefers not to be named unless I can name the incredibly long list of other people who are working on this project with her, both in the Diaspora and in Israel).

I can tell you that it is very comforting as a mother to read the following message on the Shmira Project's Facebook page: "My five-year-old daughter said Tehillim with me after candlelighting on Shabbat for 'our soldier,' [Stunt Man's Hebrew name]."

War is terrifying. But the Jewish people have known terrifying forever. What we have always needed is unity. The loss of those three precious teenangels brought us together in a way I have never seen. There are those who see miracles in this recent war, and attribute them to the merit of that togetherness.

I don't have answers about these days. In fact, I have a lot of questions. But I know absolutely that we can only succeed together, as a united and loving family, a family whose differences pale in the presence of our love for each other and commitment to each other. We proved we could do it for eighteen days. Let's see where we can take the love for each other, and ultimately give it out to all of God's creation.

Monday, July 14, 2014

War Report: Operation Protective Shield

Yom shlishi, 17 Tamuz, Erev Tzom Tamuz.

What's really protecting Israel, with all due respect to the IDF and the Iron Dome
While he is supposed to be tucked away in his reinforced bomb shelter, my friend Marc Gottlieb instead makes a photo of his version of the true Iron Dome. It goes viral, with comments that indicate that there are a lot of hopeful believers out there.

A woman's gotta know her limitations. To paraphrase Dirty Harry.
It's a weird, weird world. We talk to our children at war. (My mother certainly never chatted routinely with me, back in my army days. Fifteen minutes a week on the mess hall phone, if we were lucky.) My son calls me from the front periodically with instructions for wedding preparations, and laughs at my wedding outfit woes. "Young, tanned people look really good in seafoam. Older, pasty-faced Irish ladies should not wear sea-foam, at least not around their faces. I'm sticking with the navy part of my navy-and-seafoam ensemble as far as the hat is concerned." It's so damn good to hear him laugh.

Another of our sons says to his father, "You and Ema really should go to a shelter when there's a siren."

"We go to the hallway," his father answers.

The wise young soldier smirks. "Oh, yeah. Like that's safe."

"Look -- I'm with my best friend. And if the landlord's mamad gets hit and the landlord's family rains down on us through the ceiling, we'll know we're in trouble." We amuse ourselves with the image of raining balebatim. It's hard to explain the idioms to the landlord's family, because "raining humans" doesn't really translate into Hebrew. But they laugh anyway, because Americans perplex and amuse them.

My army sends warnings via cell phone and dropped leaflets in Arabic to the civilians among the enemy, warning them of an attack. The IDF gives the civilians time to leave the area. Then, they send a "knock-knock" bomb to tap on the roof of a building they plan to bomb (because it is pinpointed as a source of rocket fire). Only after these warnings do they actually bomb buildings. WHO IN THE WORLD DOES THAT???

Meanwhile, my husband and son plan the coming football season, recruiting from among the new olim -- because Jews are still making aliyah, even during war. Another son plans to travel to Israel for his brother's wedding, wishing he could be here sooner, to "do his part" in uniform, rather than standing on the sidelines, feeling ineffectual. We understand him. Many of our friends abroad express the need to be here with us in this time of crisis, rather than being safely far away. Yet another son writes passionate pleas for peace, between Israel and her enemies, between Jews and Jews.

My chavruta, a long-ago immigrant from Morocco, laughs with me about perspective. "Everything is so crazy right now," she says, showing off her grasp of American slang. I ask what she means. She stares at me, incredulous. "We're at war," she says, as if that explains it.

"Esther, I've lived here for nearly seven years. In that time, three of my sons have been called to the front in three different wars. This to me is normal."

But, of course, she is right. At three in the morning, when I cannot ignore it any more, I think and pray about how much I need each of my guys to live to be really old. I ask myself if I am crazy to be living here. And then I get out of bed (because fighting to sleep doesn't bring sleep) and read the world news, and hear about another random school shooting or mall shooting in the US, or the terrifying siege of a French synagogue, wherein the trapped congregants were praying for the safety of the Jews in Israel; or I read about the entire Middle East on fire around us -- and I realize that crazy is the new normal everywhere in the world. Might as well be in the Holy Land, where I at least know that every step we take and every sacrifice we make is for our own land and for our own people.

Someone tells the poignant story of getting off a bus with a bunch of Tel Avivians and tourists when a siren sounds. They look at each other, and realize that there is no bomb shelter in sight. So they make a group decision to huddle together and try to protect each other with their bodies. An elderly lady cannot get down on the ground, so a couple of people forget about their own safety and stand with her to cover her with their arms. The girl telling the story relates that she is brought to crying and terror by the elderly lady's screams. She begins to cry, lying on the ground. A girl in pants and a short top takes her head in her lap, and recites Tehillim over her, forgetting about protecting herself. What a remarkable people is this nation Yisrael!

Lucy Aharish of i24 News asks a 16-year-old girl in Ashkelon, who has lived under rocket attacks for eight years, what she would say to her 16-year-old girl counterpart in Gaza: "I would tell her to stay strong, to stay safe, and maybe one day we can live side by side in peace."

Please share with me the quote of one young person on the other side that is as full of humanity. Please. I need to hear it.

Bottom line: life is not easy anywhere just now. Proof we need Mashiach, RIGHT NOW. But there is nowhere I'd rather be, no people I'd rather be with, than in this land of Israel, with this people Yisrael.

The Nation Israel Lives

Have an easy and productive fast. May this be the last of the sad fast days. May it finally be enough.