Thursday, November 17, 2011


It's cold outside.  Though I know it will get much colder before it warms up again.  Sitting alone at midnight, my mind drifts to a toasty summer's day...

It was one of those mornings that a working parent dreams of fashioning but rarely finds time for.  I was up before the sun and packed breakfast, plenty of water, and a pair of gardening gloves for our hike.

Quietly, so as not to disturb the boys, I woke my 7 year-old daughter and we made for the hills.  Literally, we have hills all around us.  The drive took less than two minutes.

Nahal Amud.  Nahal Meron.  Two river valleys come together at the most perfect spot in all of Israel.  I fell in love with this corner of the world when I was 18 and it influenced our move to the Merom Hagalil region last year.  Hitchhiked up here with a bunch of scruffy yeshiva boys from a small settlement near Jerusalem; my then-future husband among them, and being my reason for joining in.  It was late February and we camped in the open around a fire.  Fun, but cold.

Not at all like this day with my sweet Teneya.  The sun was bright as we hiked to the blackberry patches.  The beautiful branches are deceptive and tore at our clothes and skin.  We didn't care--the berries were too tempting.  I took a thick glove from my bag and gave her the other as we reached for more and more.  Laughing, eating, running from bees.  This is the stuff memories are made of.

It was 7:30 and our stomachs were feeling quite pleased with themselves.  We even picked extra to bring home and share.  I quickly cleaned up, changed clothes, and made it work by 8:30.  Success!

The rain is still splattering on the windows.  The heater kicks in with its gentle humming.  Everyone is asleep except my 5 year-old son's latest pet, a beetle.  Oh wait, it's dead., everyone's asleep.  But the smiles and sweetness of that day are still so vivid that my heart is warm and I don't feel alone.  I wonder if Teneya still thinks about that day too.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How do I judge thee?

Let me count the ways...

One is that you wear funny clothes.  Either they cover too much or they don't cover enough of your body.  Everybody knows that you should judge a book by its cover.  Are you trying to tell us with your hippy clothes that you're high on love?  Why'd you mess up your hair with that awful color?  No one will ever take you seriously now.

Two is that you make a mess of things.  Get your act together.  I don't care if you're a single mother, you should still be superwoman.  I don't care if you're four years-old, you should be able to sit still and be quiet for a few hours.

Three is that you're too busy for me.  I know you have 19 children and run a school, but I'm your friend and it hurts that you're not there for me when I want you to go to a concert with me.

Four is the way that you talk.  You're so shy; you need to trust me and open up.  But when you talk, don't say such stupid things--and so loudly!  If you don't keep quiet, I'll be embarrassed to hang out with you.

Five is the way that you snort when you laugh.  And you farted when we were shopping at Wal-mart and then laughed--while snorting.  What is wrong with you?  Did your mother drop you on your head when you were a baby?

Six is the way that you cling to your political/religious beliefs.  Dude, you are so behind the times.  Haven't you heard?  The Right is wrong and the Left is stupid.  And G-d doesn't exist--or, if he does, he's gonna toast you for eternity.  You just can't win, so give it up.

Seven is the way that your dirty socks are on the floor again.  I never do that.  Well, not more than a couple times--a few, at most.  But I guess I should say thanks since you washed the dishes, folded the laundry, cooked dinner and took out the trash.  Still, those socks...they're just ruining our marriage.

Eight is...well, give me a minute.  Oh, I'm sure I'll think of something.

Doesn't it sound ridiculous when we hear people judging others?
You and I sound just as ridiculous when we do it.

It's almost Rosh HaShana; the beginning of a new year on the Jewish calendar.  Let's wipe the slates clean; forgive and be forgiven.  I'd like to take this chance to say that I'm very sorry for anything I've said or done to hurt anyone this year (including any offense taken at my illustrations above--I promise that there was no particular person in my mind when writing any of it).

This is an exquisite time of year and I hope we'll all make the most of it to mend relationships and free ourselves of overweight baggage.  This coming year is going to be another great adventure--pack lightly!

With love and warm wishes for joyous holidays,

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sliding down a cliff in a skirt

I've always worn short or long pants under my skirts.  As a child, it meant I could climb trees; as a teen, that I could turn cartwheels; as an adult, it means I can sit on the floor with my kids…or slide down a cliff when the need arises.

I was taking a driving test today.  I've had a license for 10 years in America and 8 in Israel, but when making aliyah I wasn't properly informed that there are separate tests and licenses for automatic and manual gear cars.  I tested on an automatic and got a license to ONLY drive an automatic.  But of course, our car is manual.  Driving in Israel can be terrifying.  It was even worse around Tekoa, where I swore those crazy Arab truck drivers must have practiced on a donkey.  You'd have one trying to pass the other, going uphill, around a blind curve.  I was happier not driving.

But now I work full-time, have three kids, and will need a way to buy groceries when my husband makes his next month-long trip to Latin America.  So it's time to update my license.

I showed up at the Misrad Harashui (Israeli equivalent of the DMV) in Tzfat to see what beauracracy lie in store for me.  "You need a vision test," the woman behind the desk informed me.  But there's no "acceptable" place to do it in Tzfat; my choices are Tiberias, Kiryat Shmona or Karmiel.  Got it done in Karmiel.  Next step: call a driving instructor.  Anyone getting any kind of change in their license has to take a couple of lessons first.  I got by with only three.  The young woman testing with me today had done about 35 and was testing for the first time ever.
Last but not least is the test itself.  By this time I've paid 883 shekels; 3 lessons at 100/hour, 133 in fees to the Misrad Harashui, and another 450 for the test itself.  After all the nerve-racking practice driving on the crowded, crooked, double-parked, one-way streets of Tzfat--the test conductor takes us out for a drive in the country.
Forest paths look inviting, but stick to
marked trails if you're on a tight schedule.
And bring lots of water.
"How fast can you drive here?" he asks me.  I'm caught off guard and answer 60, knowing for sure that I wasn't allowed to go over 50 inside the city limits of Tzfat.  Eighty, he tells me with a frown.  Oops.  But there are signs saying to go slow because of all the curves so I just thought I should only go 60 instead, the feeble yet plausible excuse flowed from my lips.  Parallel parking in Dalton's industrial park took three tries.  Oops again.  The next test taker drove us back, killing the engine twice and taking the curves a bit too fast.  I didn't feel so bad anymore.

Walking back, I decided to take another short cut, like the one I took when walking up to C'naan from the Old City.  But this time it wasn't such a great idea.  This path led much higher up than I needed to be, although it was going in the right direction.  After nearly 15 minutes of walking in the sun, I was out of water and faced with two choices: give up, walk back, go a different route and miss my bus--or slide down the cliff.
Pretty, but prickly.

I peered over the edge.  Not too bad...maybe...hopefully.  I scraped up my left arm pretty nicely, but the traction kept me from landing too fast and hard when I hit the thorn bushes at the bottom.  I brushed myself off, straightened my skirt, picked thorns out of my pants...yeah, not too bad.  Two steps forward and I stopped short.  Don't fall into the gutter, I said aloud.  Two steps back now and I took a running jump.  Then I took off running.  I caught my bus.  I also just received news that I passed the test.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Today, on Tisha b'Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av), we are not only mourning the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem but also the anniversary of the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492.

I've made mention of my husband's activities in El Salvador but haven't yet found time to expound on them here, even though I've received quite a few requests to do so.  But really, why hear it second-hand when he's already written so much about his personal experiences here?

The community in Armenia is a remnant of the Benei Anusim.

"Banana-what?" I often hear when giving the long version of the reply to "what does your husband do?"  Also known as Crypto-Jews and alternatively spelled B'nai Anousim, they are descendants of Jews forced to convert and hide their identity.  The Inquisition followed them to the New World and remained officially in force until the early 19th century.

The generations of Benai Anusim alive today no longer have the fear of the Inquisition forcing them into hiding and they are coming out to search for and reconnect to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael, our nation and land.  The internet is helping make that possible.  I always smile when I look in my stats and see El Salvador listed as a country that my blog is being viewed from.  Most of the community doesn't know any English at all.  But they are so eager to connect to Jews everywhere, and there have been far greater barriers than just language in their past.

It's with great joy that I'm seeing off my husband next month as he goes to lead High Holiday services (I'll miss him too...really).  This community of 300 members built a synagogue over 35 years ago but has no sefer Torah (Torah scroll) and the men take turns laying their one communal set of tefilin (phylacteries) each morning.  On this, his third, trip to Armenia, he will take a donated sefer Torah and five more sets of tefilin, as well as continue strengthening educational programs for children and adults.  There's a short Kulanu blog about it here.  It only took a couple of minutes to create my own personalized page through the link on Kulanu's blog to raise awareness and support.

I hope that all of you have a meaningful Tisha b'Av and may we merit--not just to see, but--to be part of bringing about the unification of all of our people.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer salads, part II

Last week I told you about some scrumptiously crunchable salads.
Well, there a few more in this picture which are just as simple and delicious.

Tomato Salad

Tomatoes are in season; they are ripe and fragrant now, but in this heat they'll spoil quickly.  Here's a good way to use a bunch at once and if you have leftovers it's the beginnings of a pasta or pizza sauce:

6 ripe tomatoes
2-3 cloves garlic, pressed
Few leaves of basil, thyme or oregano, chopped finely
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. coarse salt
1 T. olive oil

Tri-color Pepper Salad

5 bell peppers: 1 red, 2 orange, 2 yellow

Seed and dice peppers.  If you have a toddler tripping over your feet, give him a strip of pepper to chew on and he'll take a 5 minute break from pulling down your skirt while you chop.  Dress with the usual: olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic powder.

Red bell peppers are called gamba in Moroccan and the name spread rapidly through Israel.  In Hebrew though, gam means "also" and ba means "coming."  So there's a well-known joke that when someone asks you "Aht(ah) gam ba (Are you also coming)?" the answer is "Lo, ani pilpel (No, I'm a pepper)."

Green Salad

It turns out different every time, depending on which green vegetables I have on hand.  For the salad pictured above I used:

3 small cucumbers, diced
1/2 bundle of celery, stalks and leaves, chopped
1 kohlrabi, peeled and diced
1 avocado, peeled and cubed

Dress with the usual: olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic powder.

Serve a few salads as a colorful first course for a Shabbat or holiday meal, along with with challah/pita and hummus (I feel another recipe blog coming).  Alternatively, add your favorite super-protein option: cheese, scrambled or boiled eggs, a pan-fried fillet of fish, or maybe nuts if you're a raw-food vegan for a very filling and well-rounded meal.

B'te'avon!  Enjoy!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Summer salads, part I

Summer is the season for salads.  They're actually great all year round, but in the summer you can really make a meal out of them.  One of my favorites is beet-walnut salad, which I learned from a Moroccan friend who grew up in Haifa.  This has become my signature salad and I can't even count how many times I've given out the recipe to Shabbat guests who realized for the first time that beets can taste good...really good.  In a country without much air conditioning, it's nice not to heat up the house by turning on the oven more than necessary. A variety of chilled salads--partly cooked or just fresh--can be rounded out by whole-wheat bread and g'vina levana (creamy white cheese).  Make large quantities ahead of time and you'll have salads on hand for breakfast, snack, lunch and dinner.

Moroccan Beet-Walnut Salad

6 small beets, halfway covered in a pot of water and cooked for 20-30 minutes (should not be soft enough to easily pierce with a fork), peeled and diced  (may be cooked, then stored unpeeled in airtight container in fridge for up to one week)

Leaves of 1/2 bunch flat-leaved parsely, washed, removed from stems (my children help with this part!) and coarsely chopped (before chopping, these can be wrapped in paper towels and stored in a plastic bag for at least several days in the fridge)

1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Dressing: 2 T. olive oil, juice of 1 small lemon, 1/2 tsp. coarse salt

Combine all ingredients and serve chilled.  Because there are only three main ingredients in this tasty salad, it does not take kindly to omissions or substitutions.  This is one of those few special salads that tastes just as good or better when served again after a couple of days in the fridge.

Three Quick Cabbage Salads

Classic White Cabbage Salad

1 small head of white cabbage, shredded

Leaves of 1/2 bunch flat-leaved parsely, washed, removed from stems and coarsely chopped

Dressing: 2 T. olive oil, juice of 1 small lemon, 1/2 tsp. coarse salt

Combine all ingredients and serve immediately or chill in the fridge.  Salad will taste nice and "marinated" the second day and cabbage leaves will appear translucent.

Oriental White Cabbage Salad

1 small head of white cabbage, shredded

3 green onions, chopped finely

Dressing: 2 T. olive oil, juice of 1/2 small lemon, 1 tsp. soy sauce, and two pinches of sumac

Reserve 1 green onion and half of sumac.  Combine all other ingredients and sprinkle green onion and sumac over the top.  Looks especially beautiful served on a large plate instead of in a bowl.

Classic Red Cabbage Salad

At this age, they'll eat what they can get their hands on.
Make sure to offer plenty of colorful salads, chopped finely.
1 small head of red cabbage, shredded
4 T. mayonnaise
1 small lemon, juiced
1/4 tsp. salt
Combine all ingredients and let chill for several hours until the mayo has turned light purple.
More to come...
What's your signature salad?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


This week has been full of them.  I had the privilege of accompanying a group of Livnot volunteers to the Ethiopian Absorption Center.  There are actually three such centers in Tzfat, as Yehoshua Sivan explained to us before we set out.

We broke into smaller groups when we arrived.  A few guys found playmates by the entrance and a game of soccer was underway within seconds.  It didn't matter that the players were all new to Israel and couldn't verbally communicate.  Sports are international languages.  I continued with another group deeper into the complex.  Unfamiliar smells wafted through open doors and a slight, middle-aged woman carried a large pot--half her size--from one plain building to another.

We stepped into the after-school gan yeladim (kindergarten) and found 37 curious little faces staring back at ours.  Their teacher, simultaneously warm and stern, was accompanied by a bat sherut (a young woman fulfilling her national service as an alternative to army service).  Each volunteer was given a table of several children and an activity such as a puzzle, card game, or coloring sheets.  I was about to lower myself into the tiny seat at my table when I felt a tug at my skirt.

"Shayna!"  I whirled around surprised.  Who here knows my name?  It was a little girl, a petite four year-old with a sweet, crooked smile.  I hugged her and instantly spotted the other familiar face in the room.  To keep Tzfat's schools from being overwhelmed by the absorption of immigrants, many are taken by bus to surrounding towns each day.  We have two Ethiopian children in Kfar Shammai's gan and, out of three centers and many places to go in this one, I ended up spending the afternoon with them.

Earlier that morning, I had made it to the bus stop a little early and stuck my hand out to see who might give me a lift.  Car after car passed, then finally one stopped.  It was a man from the regional council who I had wanted to write a letter to.  After those five minutes until tzomet Meron (Meron junction), I was able to check that letter off my to-do list.  I got out of the car, crossed the street, then the bus came and took me the rest of the way to Tzfat.

Mid-morning, I took a snack break at work.  A few people were chatting by the kitchen and one pointed to his shoe, showing how the sole had already halfway fallen off.

"This is going to look funny," I said as I went over to my shopping cart, which I had dragged with me to work that day so I could go grocery shopping afterwards.  As many of you know, I have a gemach (second-hand thrift store).  Sometimes I'll find something in it that I think would be useful where I work, mostly backpacks and shoes.  Zippers bust and shoes get holes at the most inconvenient times, especially right before a big hike.
These shoes didn't fit quite so perfectly

I pulled out a pair of shoes from my little cart and they were just the right size.  So many coincidences.

In Hebrew, the word for coincidence is mikreh, spelled: מקרה (mem-kuf-resh-hey).  If you rearrange the letters just a bit, you get: 'רק מה (resh-kuf-mem-hay), which means "only from Hashem (G-d)."

It happened again yesterday.  I needed to speak with two different neighbors but didn't find the time between working a full day and being with my family.  Then guess who took the same bus at the same time when I was heading home?  Both of them!  If we could just rearrange our perspectives a bit, we could see that there is order in all this chaos.  Everything is only from G-d.  We're in good hands.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


It's a word I've been hearing a lot lately.  Torn between Israel and America, between children and career, between the freedom of youth and the responsibilities of adulthood, between being well-rested and staying online another hour or two.  There will always be opposing forces in this world, pulling us in different directions...and is there ever an end to the whims and wants of the heart?

I find myself wishing that there were more than just 24 hours in a day.  Life feels so short, each day flying by faster than the one before.  My dearest friend on our moshav reminisces about when she was my age, some 35 years ago, and everyone moved at a slower pace.  Modernization has its pros and cons.  Maybe we would be more at peace with ourselves if there was time to tackle the piles of to-do lists.

There are times when I feel as complete as the moon in the middle of each lunar month.  At other moments I feel as shredded and scattered as a roll of toilet paper that my 18 month-old gets his hands on.  Torn.  How do we work through these feelings?

My little Puriel encounters this dilemma on his own level and, while he was in the middle of getting dressed, informed me that "two times my tummy asked really nicely for food, but I told him to wait a minute."

Patience.  If you're like me then you probably just cringed.  Nobody seems to like this word, unless they're using it on another person.  Patience means I can't have everything right when I want it.  Patience means I might never get it at all.  Patience means the world might rush by and beat me to it.  There is such power--even beauty--in patience.  But isn't there an easier way to obtain it, than having it constantly tested?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Torah is a piece of cake

Last week we celebrated my little girl's seventh birthday.  She had been planning the event since the day after she turned six.  Teneya was born shortly before Shavuot and we fashioned her name from the special basket that held the first fruits on their way to the Temple.  With her middle name, Havatzelet ("lily"), she carries on the blessed memory of my grandmother, Lillian Margolin.  In parashat Ki Tavo (starting in Deut. 26) it's written: "When you enter the Land...then you shall take of the first of every fruit...and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the L-rd your G-d will choose to make His Name rest there."  Normally the word for basket is sal but here it's called teneh.  Every family would weave their own basket each year and load their first fruits into it for the journey to Jerusalem.

For months already, Teneya knew that she wanted a princess castle cake--pink, of course.  It seems that for children, the frosting is the most important part.  On Shavuot, I had the honor of staying up until 3 am with my wonderful new friend and came to the conclusion that the Torah is like a piece of cake.

Cake has everything you need (see my breakfast-cake post) but can use a little dressing up sometimes.  Same with the Torah, but in this case the frosting is minhagim (customs).  Some are passed down through the generations, others adopted for beauty or functionality.  Frosting makes cake look pretty, but if you pile it too high then no one can see the cake anymore and it's too sweet to keep eating.

Kids don't really mind the extra sugar though.  In fact, they're happy enough to lick it all off and move on to the next treat.  But as we get older, we tend to care just as much, or even more, about what's underneath.

May we all merit to decorate our "cakes" beautifully, with just the right proportions, so that they will be enjoyed by all of our family and friends.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Arabs on my porch

Some years ago, a title like that would have scared the living daylights out of me.  As a young bride, then new mother, I found myself living in an "illegal" settlement--not out of specifically ideological reasons, just because it was dirt cheap and we were dirt poor.  On a small hilltop in the desert, off a dusty, unpaved road full of potholes, some of the caravans (trailers) had large stones cemented around them because during the last intifada they were shot at from the nearby Arab town.

The call came late at night from a woman asking about clothing for sale.  I'm not sure how she heard about my little gemach, but she needed clothes for her two children and wanted to take some to a girl's boarding school as well.

"I'm embarrassed to ask," her words tumbling out uneasily, "but--I'm an Arab--is it ok for me to come and buy clothes from you.  I tried to go to one in Tzfat, but they wouldn't let me in."  Gemach is an acronym, spelled גמ"ח in Hebrew, and means gemilut hasadim: acts of loving-kindness.  I told her everyone is welcome and that only a few weeks ago an Amish family did some shopping here as well.  I've drawn on inspiration from one of the first gemachim that I ever went to.

Six of them came pouring out of the car after the long trip up from Nazereth.  I embraced my newest customer and welcomed her accompanying family into my porch; the large mother-in-law, her other son's wife, two sweet little boys, and of course the brother-in-law who was driving because none of the women knew how.  It was so stereotypical I almost laughed.  They left with five full garbage bags and a new friend.

Hiking towards Nahal Amud on Israel's
Independence Day with the whole family.
Tzfat can be seen across the valley (upper right).
Israel is such a tiny country and there isn't enough room in it for ill feelings.  In my corner of Israel, I am surrounded mostly by Morrocans and Yeminites.  They could look at me as a stranger, an outsider; the lone "white girl" who will occasionally still slip up and address you using words from the wrong gender.  But hospitality is in their blood and I have received the warmest welcome.  Earlier this week I caught a ride to Meron with my son's kindergarten teacher's neighbor from nearby Hazon.  An older, traditional man, he complemented me on my headscarf and asked if my husband lays tefilin.  Kind words passed between us in those five minutes and stayed with me for the rest of the day.  As a Jew, you just won't get these feelings of family, of belonging, anywhere else in the world.

I mostly ride the bus to work, but can sometimes get there faster by tremping to Meron and taking a sherut (taxi that goes to the central bus station for about the same as a bus ticket).  The driver stops along the way and manages to collect a decent fare by filling all four seats before reaching the one-sized-fits-all destination.
Walking under olive and fig trees,
it's easy to forget that you're in the city.
From the bus stop, I discovered a small trail that leads up towards Tzfat's Jerusalem Street.  For a few seconds, you can forget about the traffic and visually loud billboards, disappearing into the wild.  But only a few seconds, and then you're out onto the main street again.  I walk past the community college, a grocery store, and a cafe where the same two men are talking loudly over their newspapers and sipping coffee like they always do.  Suddenly the Bar Yochai alleyway drops off to the right.  Towards the bottom I can hear morning prayers from one of the Old City's synagogues and see cute little haredi children running off to school.  Ducking under the stone arch, floating down a long flight of stone stairs, now I'm rounding the corner where most of Tzfat's art galleries are clustered.  I see familiar faces of beautiful young Israeli women doing their national service and stop for a hug.

"'re cracked, aren't you?"
The streets are filling with tourists this time of year.  I saw a bus with a sign that says San Antonio and went up to talk with its passengers.  Yes, they're from Texas they tell me.  Small country, small world.

Taking work home to finish in the evening, I return mid-afternoon and pick up my dear Purieli from preschool.  My hand is extended and he takes it after a brief examination.

"Ima," he starts, and I already know that something blog-worthy is about to come out of his mouth.  "'re cracked, aren't you?"  I'm trying to think of how to answer that when he adds, "Teneya says it's because you're a little bit old."  He's skipping now and I join in.  Not so old, I tell myself, hoping that I won't twist an ankle as we rush down the hill.
"It's because she's a little bit old."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Working mother

It's been quite a week.  In a good way, though.  I'm thoroughly enjoying my new job at Livnot U'Lehibanot (my name is on the website here).  All these young, North American Jews just love the combination of hiking and community service, highly subsidized by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach and other generous souls.  Aside from my work at the computer, I get to interact with the participants throughout the registration process and finally meet them when they arrive at our campus in Tzfat.  The campus is a 500 year-old stone building, which has been renovated to have hot water, air conditioning, and other modern comforts.  Thousands of people stop by the visitor's center each year and have a look at the archeological dig in our "backyard" where bucket after bucket of dirt was removed by hand to uncover an ancient building complete with mikveh, functional oven, and a cellar that saved the life of a Jewish family.  Across the street is a busy restaurant, where the man behind the counter wears a turban and "dress" and makes the food you'd expect from someone in that kind of outfit.  I hear the music and chatter of its patrons waft up through my window in the office.

Yours truly in the front yard with palm tree, rose
bush and lemon tree (and a bomb shelter too)
It's late afternoon and I return home to find my 16 month-old clingier than ever.  Staying home with Aba (Hebrew for father) is not this baby's ideal, but he'll adjust.  If only he wasn't teething again...  Teneya shows me her new pearly white growing in where the old one sat until becoming lost tooth #2.  Puriel is exhausted from the long day at school and falls asleep on the couch after I read aloud a couple of short stories by Richard Scarry.

Fragrant lemon blossoms take over
the bottom branches of my tree,
even as we are still harvesting
fruit from the previous season
On Wednesday I use my lunch break to get Teneya an extra bottle of antibiotic for her latest ear infection.  I like that doctors here first use drops to treat an infection, but this one wasn't caught soon enough and she ended up needing oral antibiotics after all.  I load up on fruits and vegetables before returning home.  My rolling shopping cart clatters along the cobblestone alley until I come to a long flight of stairs on my way to the bus station.  A haredi man is coming down the steps with two children, the three of them chattering in Yiddish.  Imagine my surprise when he approaches me and asks (in English, no less!), "Can I help you with that?"  He carries the heavy cart all the way to the top and wishes me well before heading back down to where his children are waiting patiently.

The next day it was cold and rainy.  On my way home, I noticed small white fluff floating down to the ground.  Is it snowing...or small bits of hail again perhaps?  I'm as curious as a cat and had to stop in the middle of the rain to see what it was.  Wisteria.  Beautiful, pure, white wisteria flowers were falling from the trees over my head.  I stayed long enough to bend a branch down and take a long whiff.  Reminded me of dear friends in Austin who have a purple-flowered wisteria tree in their yard.  That's where I first fell in love with this smell.  I wrapped my shawl tighter and hurried to the bus so I wouldn't get any more soaked.

On Friday I enjoyed the day with my family as we took our time to prepare for Shabbat and make up the guest beds.  There was even an hour to spare for me to organize some new things in the gemach, which my husband now looks after most of the week.  The rain poured down hard all morning.  Saturday night our Amish friends came to visit from Jerusalem.  Sunday morning I'm off to work again and our guests are on their way to finishing touring the Galilee.

New vines bursting with baby grapes
The bus is crowded today and I count 12 people standing, including me.  On my right are three young Arab women in beaded headscarves crowded into two seats.  I smile at one and she smiles back.  Outside the fogged windows I see row after row of grapevines.  It looks like a scene from an Italian movie.  On the way home, I count seven cows munching on the wild grasses in the Birya Forest.  Dinner is a large salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, tuna, tehina and humus beans.  Without even changing from my work clothes, I step out into the garden.  My lemon geranium cutting has taken root and needs to be planted out.  Teneya helps me pick fresh dill and parsely for the salad and pull a few weeds.  The kids were out the door after dinner and have come home to tell me about the newborn kittens next door.  I'm pushing baby in his swing on the porch while my husband's music student squeaks away on his recorder.  "Can we have a kitten?" I've been asked more than once today.  But their Aba is allergic, so I tell them they can just go next door and pet the kittens all they like.  It's time to brush teeth, read a story, wash the dishes, fold the laundry, and get ready to start the cycle over again tomorrow.  Sweet dreams everybody!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The yetzer harah isn't all that bad

Ladybug 2010, Teneya Rehberg
It may be a bug, but it's beneficial

The yetzer harah, usually translated as the "evil inclination," has gotten a bad reputation over the years.  It's often equated with, or even used in a sentence in place of, HaSatan (the devil); as in, the yetzer harah made me do it.

Yetzirah is one of Hebrew's words for creation, along with bri'ah.  Bri'ah is like creating something from nothing, while yetzirah is more like something from something.  Yetzer is then the creative force inside of each person—that which enables us to continue the creation process with what G-d has already made—and is generally split in half and labeled as good (tov) and bad (rah).

Tov is a word you'll hear a lot in Hebrew: from boker tov (good morning) to lailah tov (good night), and all through the story of creation in Bereshit (Genesis).  After each day, G-d sits back and says it's all good.  A painter may not know what his work of art will look like in the end, but was G-d actually surprised that His finished product had turned out right?  I think not.  Rather, it was a declaration that each creation was complete and ready to fulfill its purpose in the world.

The first time that something is the opposite of tov, that it is bad, is man.  No, this isn't a feminist post.  Man and woman were still one at that time, joined at the hip…or ribcage, or whatever.  Just as G-d (masculine) and His Shechina (Divine Presence, a feminine word) are not separate entities, we were created in the full image of the Almighty.  But we couldn't take it, felt too alone.  So G-d split us into two bodies, with half our souls in each it seems.  Was man actually bad?  I think he just wasn't tov, couldn't fulfill his purpose in this world the way that all the other creations were ready to do.  So if rah is the opposite of tov, what does it really mean?
On Rosh Hashana, when we blow the shofar (ram's horn), there are three sounds that are called out and trumpeted for all to hear.  One of them, teru'ah, shares the same root as the word rah (in Hebrew, the letters resh and ayin: רע).  Following the strong, solid teki'ah, teru'ah is a broken blast, though less choppy than shvarim (lit. splinters).
Broken.  What do people do with broken things?  Usually throw them away, or give them to a thrift store for someone else to fix.  Your yetzer harah is broken, hollow, needy.  But don't think for one moment that you don't need it.
There's a story from the days of Ezra, when the men of the Great Assembly who had returned from exile hunted down and captured the yetzer harah.  They thought they would fix all the world's problems and that everyone would now only do good things.  Then they saw that people stopped building houses, chickens stopped laying eggs, no children were born; b'kitzur (in short), daily life was no good and they released it to roam the world once again.
Your yetzer harah says, "I'm hungry, I'm empty," and your yetzer tov makes sure that you're eating kosher, healthy food.  Your yetzer harah says, "I'm lonely, I need intimacy," and your yetzer tov searches for the other half of your soul and stays true to him/her.  Your yetzer harah drives you to do, touch, taste, feel, create while your yetzer tov is guiding these desires so that the outcome brings you closer to G-d and living in peace with others.
It's not a war between good and evil.  If you starve your yetzer harah though, it may turn into somewhat of a monster—ravenously searching for whatever it can get its hands on.  You have to feed it, to pat it on the back and say "thanks for helping me get to where I am in my life now."  Have you thanked your yetzer harah today?

Questions and apples

So the seder is done, yom tov is over, and now we're entering the blissful time of chol hamo'ed (the intermediary days).  For the first time ever, we had a family-only seder this year.  It was quiet and went by quickly, with a lot of focus on our children and their questions.  They were rewarded with walnuts for each one they asked.  I hope that they will always remain curious and eager to learn more.

Last week I came home with three large bags of apples but, with guests in the house all week, somehow ran out before I could make haroset and had to borrow apples from my neighbor.  Haroset symbolizes the adobe-like mixture that our ancestors used to make bricks while slaves in Egypt.  I chopped the apples into long, thin pieces that looked like straw.  Chopped dates with a bit of date syrup remind me of the dark, clay mud and even finer chopped walnuts are like gravel and sand.  I've mixed concrete before and couldn't make haroset without these key ingredients.  A splash of wine is for the blood and sweat that went into the work and then I leave it in a quiet corner of the counter (not in the refrigerator) all day to wait patiently for the dining room table.

The first of four cups at our seder was poured from a fairly skunky bottle of bootleg made in an amateur botique winery nearby.  It's still good enough for cooking wine, and debatabley better than the cough syrup known as Maneschewitz, but before the next round was poured we opened a new bottle.  Carmel has a new Private Collection line, and the Shiraz (2009) was on sale for Pesach.  This is a very fruity and fragrant, non-mevushal wine with an alchohol content of 13.5%.  Kosher Israeli wines are moving up in the global wine industry, thanks to bottles like these.

Puriel puts the afikomen (half of the middle matzah, which is saved and eaten at the end of our meal) over his shoulder and steps outside.  He comes right back in and we ask, "Who are you?"

"I'm the children of Israel," he answers with a big grin.

"Where are you coming from?" we wonder.

"From Egypt," he says, suddenly serious.

"Where are you going to?" we press for more details.

"To the land of Israel!" he declares proudly.

We are proud to be in the land of Israel.  After so many years of exile, may G-d answer the prayers from last night's seder, sung with hope by our people all around the world: "Next year in Jerusalem!"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Getting lost in Tzfat

Rolling hills surround Tzfat
I got lost in the Old City of Tzfat.  It's pretty easy to do...or so some sympathizing soul told me.  I left the house early that morning to catch the bus.  It was the first day at my new job, and half an hour before my alarm went off I was already wide awake.  Before the bus came, one of my neighbors drove up in his car.

Red clover is delicious
"Do you want a tremp?" he asked.  Tremping is hitchhiking and is especially common where we lived before coming to the north.  In Tekoa it was considered a more reliable form of transportation than the bus, which only came every two hours.

Chamomile can be white or yellow
and often grows around
"little pokey things"
It took two tremps to make it into Tzfat, but when I got out of the car I realized that the bus may have been a better option after all.  The view was gorgeous, but I was at the bottom of a long hill and not exactly sure what would be at the top.  Dragging my wheeled shopping cart behind me to carry home the fruits and vegetables I would buy after work, I slowly made my way toward the top.  I stopped along the way, picking red clover and chamomile, slipping them into my pocket to save for a mid-morning cup of tea.

"Give me a sign!  Oh..."
I finally reach the maze of stone streets and centuries-old buildings, some beautifully renovated, some buried under dust and dirt, which make up the Artists' Quarter.  I would have turned in circles many more times than I did, if not for the signs.  There are definite advantages to working in a place that also has a visitor's center for tourists.
"Come here and give me a big hug,"
said the stones
I become aware that I am walking on a work of art.  Thousands of hands smoothed out ancient alleys and repaved them with stones and proper drainage.  Buildings which were buried in earthquakes and the passage of time are uncovered with buckets and brooms.  I pause to drink in the laughter of children in a park and open-air theater that were also created by energetic, young adults who came to their homeland for hiking and fellowship, wanting to do something nice for the residents during their stay in Israel's other Holy City.  It feels like the theater is opening its arms to me, embracing me.

Beautiful Birya
On the way home, I see Birya, a cozy yishuv nestled in the forest with larger plots than you'll find in the city.  Many people live here and make the five minute commute into town.  How did I ever live in the desert?  Well, I must admit that it does have its own form of beauty, but my spirit thrives on green.  I start humming a tune from childhood that my mother used to sing; green, green, rocky road...promenade in green...  I don't know if I've ever heard anyone else sing this.  Did she make it up?  What songs will my children remember from me?  Do I sing to them enough?  The forest is a great place to let your mind run free.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

More edible weeds

I had passed it many times before, often nearly stepping on it.  Like rays of sunshine breaking through crowded trees, the little white and yellow flowers peeked out of the brick sidewalk.  Chamomile grows wild all over Israel and is well-known for calming irritated skin and upset tummies.  We picked some today to dry and use in tea during Pesach.  With all of that matzah, someone is bound to get indigestion.

There is so much repetition in life.  Travelling the same path to and from school or work, our surroundings tend to blur.  But today something jumped out of the background.  It was an almond tree, one that I hadn't notice before because only now has it begun to bud and blossom.  Even trees have their unique biological clocks and this one was a late bloomer.  Its branches stretched high into the sky, as if to say, "I may not have been as fast, but I finally did it."  It looks so proud and beautiful.

Wild asparagus grows in our forested park.  The shoots are as lanky and awkward as a teenager.  When asparagus is cultivated, the earth is mounded up around the plants (which are perennials, producing good shoots for twenty years or more) and they are harvested when young and tender.  I snapped off a tip and took a bite.  Bitter!  I wonder how many years of experimentation it took to discover the cultivation methods used now to make it more palatable.

When picking the daisy-like flowers for our tea, I reminded Puriel to leave some on each plant.  Aside from the courtesy of saving some for other people to enjoy, the annual wildflowers need to fade, go to seed, and fall to the ground in order for them to return next year.  We made sure to avoid the tomato weed, because I haven't figured out yet if it's poisonous or not.

We're halfway home and find a variety of wild peas, part of the Papilionaceae family, which derives its name from the butterfly-shaped flowers.  Tendrils are twirled around its next-door neighbor, barley, which is one of the seven species that the land of Israel is praised for.

"It is a land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates; a land of oil-olives and honey-dates." Devarim (Deuteronomy) 8:8

Barley is the first of the winter grains to ripen, marking the beginning of spring and the omer offering which connects the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot.  Its Hebrew name, se'ora is similar to se'ar (hair), referring to its hair-like spikes.  It was the grain of choice until the Second Temple period when it was replaced by wheat.  Wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats are the five grains that can be chametz.

Hemdiya has been helping me use up the last of our chametz.  I think he needs to find a new method.  When cleaning, make sure that toxic detergents aren't as accessible as the spaghetti and Honey Bunches of Oats were.  It's easy to get distracted and accidentally leave things within reach of tiny, curious fingers.

Yesterday I went out with a friend who has a car and did my Pesach shopping.  Matzah pizza is a favorite in this house and I always make coconut chocolate-chip macaroons.  I find myself singing the popular folk song:  Simcha raba, simcha raba, aviv higi'a, Pesach ba!  (Great joy, spring has arrived, Pesach is coming!)  Sing along with the Rechov SumSum (Sesame Street) version here:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Are haredim dangerous?

Came across an interesting article today.  It started off like this:  "University of Haifa report finds Haredim to pass 1 million by 2030; warns if current demographic trends continue, Israel may cease to exist."

I'm having a hard time with this kind of alarmism.  I am not haredi (ultra-orthodox) myself, but the article left a sour taste in my mouth.  I generally dislike being tossed into a box, but would be considered "religious" in Israel and "orthodox" in Western countries where the typical Ashkenazi categorizations are the most recognized.  In the Sephardi world, Jews are mostly mesorti (traditional) or dati (religious), with some hiloni (secular); the divisions of orthodox, conservative and reform are unfamiliar.

The article is based on a report by Prof. Arnon Soffer, who--in the 80's--was responsible for throwing world Jewry into hysteria over the demographic nightmare of an Arab take-over in Israel because of their high birth rate.  Jews across the religious spectrum took his words seriously and determined to do what they could to increase the Jewish population in Israel, both through aliyah and procreation.

I was in Haifa a couple of months ago, fumbling out of a bus with a baby on my hip and a diaper bag over my shoulder, struggling to pull the stroller out from the baggage hold under the bus.  A sweet savta (grandmother) strolling along in jeans and a sweater, listening to the music in her earphones, stopped to help--and to encourage.

"I'm really proud of you religious people," she said, surprising me.  "If it weren't for you we would be living in an Arab state by now.  You should have more children," she suggested, in the way that only a savta can get away with.

"I have three, bli ayin hara," I replied.

"Have another," she continued with a smile.  "I wish more of the young people in our city would settle down with a family instead of the lifestyle they have.  You datim are making up for them, kol hakavod."

The article is dripping with anti-religious sentiment that, in any other format would be considered discrimination.  Try replacing the word haredi with black or Hispanic and read the article.  Absolutely racist, isn't it?  But somehow it's ok for a university professor to heap trash on Jews who weave their religion into every part of their daily lives.

His report further states that more religious people in Israel "will lead to greater emigration of secular Israelis from the country, further degrading the quality of life in the country."  Does he mean that there won't be as many nightclubs (which in the Tel Aviv area are famous for their 3 a.m. knife-fights as the bars empty)?  Is the Israeli coastline ruined by a few "separate" beaches, where no one is trying to ask for your phone number and your husband isn't trying (possibly unsuccessfully) to keep from staring at the more-than-half-naked women who don't have your postpartum stretch marks?

It's important to remember, as Soffer points out in his report Israel: Demography and Density that only about 8% of the population is haredi.  He uses them as a scare tactic to talk about an eventual religious majority, but the national religious have the same high birth rate and would still greatly outnumber the ultra-orthodox as they do presently.  Even at a million people by 2030, the haredim would still only reach around 10% of the predicted population.  Hardly enough to take over the country with, especially since their numbers are mostly made up of children.

What's really funny is that in the middle of the article you'll find this:

There are two big myths about haredim which I have noticed lead the secular population to rage against them.  They are:

Myth #1:  Haredim don't serve in the military

Here is the website of an infantry group that is exclusively haredi, but not all haredim who serve opt for combat positions.  There are also haredi women who serve in the intelligence units, gathering information and breaking codes.  It is true that many defer their service while learning, but that is an option for any student enrolled in a formal education program.  For example, one of my brothers defered his service for four years while working on his university degree.  There are some haredim who actually want to continue serving but are not called up because they are already married and have children, so the army--by its own rules of compensation based on number of dependents--has to pay them more than the 800 shekels/month (about $220) that it gives to the single 18 year-olds who are serving.

Some Jewish mamas didn't used to like putting these boys in an environment where standard IDF health benefits for their fellow female soldiers include a few free abortions, but are proud of their uniformed sons who serve in special units designed for Torah-observant Jews.  Other initiatives in the religious world include programs in hesder yeshivas (where Torah study and army service is combined in a five-year program), run in cooperation with universities, which incorporate teacher training and allow young men to finish their service with a B.Ed. instead of only war stories.

Myth #2:  Haredim live off of government handouts

Because Israel is somewhat of a socialist country, with public health care and other services offered for its citizens' benefit, there is a child allowance.  According to the National Insurance Institute "The Child Allowance Law was enacted in September 1959 to help parents with the expenses entailed in raising their children."  This is a universal payment extended not only to Jews of all persuasions, but also to Israeli Arabs, Druze and all other citizens.  It is automatically deposited in the bank account of every mother/guardian each month and the same amount is given regardless of your income.  For one child, the allowance 169 shekels (less than $50) and a family with six children receives around 200 shekels/month/child.  Hardly enough to live off of.

Israel also prizes education of all kinds, and awards learning stipends to full-time students.  University students usually receive a higher stipend, especially if they live in what is considered a national priority area.  In the Galilee or Negev, stipends are about 2,500 shekels per month.  When my husband was studying full-time in yeshiva he still worked part-time and I worked some from home, making and selling cloth diapers and organic herbal oils because his stipend was only 1,500 shekels.  Once again, not nearly enough to cover all expenses for a growing family and let the parents sit on their bums.

I'll admit that not all haredim have learned the standard social graces of Western society, but I don't believe that this form of vilification is at all useful or productive.  It was reassuring to see that view echoed in the comments following the article.  I'm content in my colorful cotton skirts over the dark polyester variety and don't mind if my children watch an occasional cartoon at a friend's house.  I'm not here to advocate the haredi lifestyle or canonize them all as saints.  I'd just like to see this quirky and besmirched group--one of our own--cut a little slack in our progressive movements to accept and show tolerance for diverse cultures.  Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b'zeh, all of Israel is responsible one for another (Shavuot 39a).  And when we get involved in smear campaigns against any of our brothers and sisters, we give all of Israel a bad name.

Little pokey things

There is nothing quite like the love of a child.  Last year, I was walking in Jerusalem with four year-old Purieli when he noticed a patch of trees.

"Ima," he calls me mother in Hebrew, "did G-d make the trees?"

"Yes," I answered.

"Oh, I love you little trees!  And did G-d make the flowers?" he asked, pointing around the trunks of the trees where pretty spring flowers were popping up.

"Yes," I answered again.

"Oh, I love you little flowers!  Ima, did G-d make these?" he continues, pointing to some prickly weeds.

"Yes, sweetie-pie," I answered, wondering how many more questions would follow in the next few minutes.

"Oh, I love you little pokey things!  Ima, I love everything that G-d makes."

Anne of Green Gables liked to say that it takes all kinds of people to make up the world, but that there are some types we could all do without.  It seems that G-d didn't agree.

Some people that we know are like the trees: strong, supportive and consistent.  Maybe it's a sibling, a spouse, a parent or a very dear friend.  Even if you don't see them for a while, when you're back together it doesn't feel like much has changed.  Reliable and dependable, we all need people like this in our lives.

Others are the flowers.  These people may not share a significant slice of life with us, but they make it colorful and beautiful.  If we are focusing on the past or future too much, it's easy to miss out on these seasonal relationships.  They help us slow down, take a deep breath, or jump up and dance, and enjoy the moment.

Still there are the people who are prickly and uncomfortable to be around.  Maybe you have some of these in your life...and maybe we've each been one of these in someone else's life.  It's a challenge at times to love everything--and everyone--that G-d makes.  But that challenge has been handed to us and it's actually simple enough that even a child can do it.

Fast forward to five year-old Purieli, walking home from school with me and baby.  He suddenly stopped, his eyes got so big, and he pointed excitedly to the road that had just been paved into the new neighborhood of Kfar Shamai.  "Look Ima," he cried out, pointing to the construction workers, "they made a road!  They are so, so, SO nice...aren't they?"

How does a person get to that level of love and appreciation?  I'm just thrilled to have found such an outstanding teacher.  Maybe one day I'll catch up to him.