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."


  1. I agree. We have to learn to stop stereotyping. Just because "they" do it doesn't make it right. Good post.

  2. thank you for this.

  3. I found you through circle of moms, and read every post. Your energy and creativity is fabulous! Please write more about how and why you started your gemach.

  4. Lovely story and photos -- thanks for posting!

  5. If only we could all live like this, and not in fear. It's a small planet and we all need each other.
    Shavua tov,
    Tina Aviles

  6. Where is that beautiful path? Tzfat? Joan

  7. Purieli and Teneya are too cool for words. :-)

    I am still struggling with the Arabs-on-my-porch issue; but it gets better day by day, as I go through YouTube videos of Arabs/Muslims for Israel. A few Arabs just need to tell me that they don't "go along with the gang" to bring back my natural tendency to accept each individual for himself. But we live in tough times, in a tough place. I'm still working on it.

  8. Thanks for all the kind words. Times are tough and we all need like-minded people around to encourage us to keep working at it. The path is in Tzfat, on the right side of the central bus station. Some of the figs will be ripe soon. I found a soft, purple one today but some little worms had made their home in it.

  9. Hey Shayna,

    I've read several of your posts, and I'm quite flabbergasted - you're an excellent writer! I never had really recognized this wonderful talent of yours before. I'm really glad that you're taking the time to express your heart and insights on all these interesting topics. I'll do my best to read all the rest of your posts. Keep up the great work!

    Your little brother,


  10. This is great! What a heartwarming and hope giving story of universal human encounters. Thanks for sharing!

    This Good Life