Monday, May 30, 2005

Almost June

Lag B'omer passed successfully -- Hagai's bonfire lasted until 6:30a.m., at which point he sat outside talking to his friends for another 2 hours, came in the house, told me how "interesting" it was that he wasn't AT ALL tired, and then proceeded to conk out on the couch. Yochi went off with her friends, who made cheese sandwiches and watched movies all night. Ariella did something in Tel Aviv with her friends. And Margalit and I made a bonfire in our yard and roasted hot dogs and hosted some neighbors and their kids. It took me 3 days to recover from the exhaustion, but that stage of the spring has on to Shavouth.

Just saw that the local Tzfat Women's Writers group, which has been meeting weekly for ages, has now started an on-line writing course for religious women. They have a website and most of their staff are my neighbors. There's a lot of talent in Tzfat, which I always notice anew whenever someone does something creative, like put on a play, or organize a choir, or now this...the writing group. Being Tzfat, most of these things are done in gender-separated frameworks (OK, ALL of these things are done in gender-separated frameworks), so I don't know if there is similar talent among the guys -- they also don't tend to organize themselves like the women do, so they don't have the evenings out to see the plays and choirs, and they don't have groups like the writers group which supports each other as they develop their writing skills. But among the!

The Women's Writing Group has been meeting for more years than I can remember -- every Wednesday afternoon for longer than I've been in Tzfat. Some of the women have published work, some are trying, and some are simply having fun, but it's a mutually supportive group which I hope to join someday, probably when I retire. I have my fantasies about harboring untapped talent, though I am aware that I'd need to do something about my spelling first!

Oh well, I guess that this blog is my writing group

Friday, May 27, 2005

Lag B'Omer 2005

Lag B'Omer passed quietly...I didn't hear any fire engines nearby, so I slept relatively peacefully, assured that Hagai and his friends weren't burning down the neighborhood with their bonfire on the road below the house. Hagai returned about 7:00 a.m. and stayed up to talk to his friends till 8:30, when he plopped down on the couch, told me how "wierd" it was that he didn't feel tired, and then, within about 3 minutes, nodded off.

This Shabbat, there are hundreds of people in Tzfat who came up for Lag B'Omer on Friday, and decided to stay over for Shabbat. One of them, the Hornsteipler (or something like that) Rebbe, is here. He used to be known as the "Denver Rebbe" because he led a community there for awhile before moving back east. He's a member of the well-known Twersky family, who run several Hassidic dynasties. One of the brothers, Abraham Twersky, is also well-known as a psychiatrist who works with alcohol and drug recovery, and has written a number of well known books.

Anyway, the "Denver" Rebbe was last hear about 4 years ago, when he prayed with his followers and friends, and during a Third Meal on Shabbat, discovered that a young couple in the group who were in Tzfat for their honeymoon had not had a proper Jewish wedding. They had had a service which didn't meet many halachic guidelines for a marriage, and the Rebbe decided to remedy the situation -- on the spot.

"How would you like to have a traditional Jewish wedding?" he asked the couple, and as soon as they replied in the affirmative, he began to plan. The minute havdallah was chanted, one of his lady followers whisked the kalla (bride) off to the mikve, while the men huddled to write the ketuba.

In the meantime, a group of American teenagers, who were scheduled to come to an evening of singing in the yard where the Rebbe was holding court were drafted to help. Ponytailed, multiple-piercings and tatooed youngsters were invited in to witness the signing of the ketuba (where the Rebbe explained to them, step-by-step, what they were doing)and assigned to hold the chuppa corners, assist in setting out the food, and given dabuka drums to bang as the bride walked up the asile.

Again, throughout the chuppa, the Rebbe explained to the assembled entourage exactly what was happening and what he was doing, step by step, and got them to help at various steps throughout the ceremony. Afterwards, the wild dancing and singing went on for hours, and it was a night that few will forget.

Which is why I will try to go to the shul where the Rebbe is davening, even though it's a place that I seldom go to. His love of all, and ability to include everyone in his joy of his Jewish practice is something that I want to be a part of!

Monday, May 23, 2005

May 2005

I was walking down the street the other day on my way to the garbage dumpster, carrying a few bags of garbage. As I walked up the road, the garbage truck drove by me. Suddenly, it stopped right next to me, and the driver waited for me to toss in my garbage bags. It took me a second to realize what was happening, but I did toss them in, and then he gave me a salute in his rear-view mirror and drove on. ONe of those "only in Tzfat" stories...

Today, a couple came into the Visitors Center, asking if I knew of any rentals. They had a young boy with them, and they told me that they were looking for two units near each other. Pre-Lag B'Omer, it's hard to find much in Tzfat, since this area of the country is THE place to be for Lag B'Omer, so I asked them why they needed two units. Turns out that they're divorced, and the boy is their son. But they are friends, and when the father decided to come to Israel to study a bit, his ex-wife didn't want to let him take their son away from her, but the father didn't want to leave his son. So...they both decided to take a Sabbatical at the same time, in each other's company, separately. Nice people, with a healthy way of looking at life. From Oregon, of course.

My backyard presently looks like a fireman's nightmare. Between Hagai and his friends and Margalit and her friends, I have enough wood in the yard to keep a bonfire burning for months. Hagai and his buddies have been collecting since Pesach, and they will go on the road below our house to do their fire...far enough away to be independent, but close enough to be near a bathroom or any forgotten kitchen utensils, just in case. Margalit wants to do hers down the street too, but I'm hoping to convince her that our backyard will be a better place, just because I personally need to go to sleep at some point, and don't want to leave her out on her own with a fire and her friends all night. I still have a couple of days to work it out with her.

Over Shabbat, our downstairs neighbors, who own the house but rent it out, were here. While here, they found a watch which someone had dropped, and lacking time to deal with it themselves, they asked me to put up notices about it. This system of announcing lost items it time-honored...the Torah speaks of the mitzva of returning lost property to its owner. So there are always notes stuck up on walls throughout the city (probably in every town and city throughout Israel) announcing "Shabat Avida" ("return of lost item"), and then a little information about what was lost, with the phone number of the finder. The person who lost the item is expected to identify it somehow, and will then get it back. Almost always works. Kind of like an old-fashioned listserve.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

spring 2005

March 7th

A couple of weeks ago, about 30 locals met at a Tzfat hotel for the yearly lunchon of the English library volunteers. Each year, the librarys founder, coordinator, director, manager, volunteer coordinator, and head-purchaser, an 85-year-young lady named Edyth, invites all the people who volunteer during the year at the library to join her for a scrumptous lunchon at Tzfats only 5-star hotel. Edyths son, who lives in Florida, picks up the tab for the event, and the event is anticipated by many throughout the year.

This year was my first experience in joining the affair. Id been invited before, but always was unable to attend. This year, I left work early to give myself a treat.

As I have described in a previous blog, the local library is an institution not quite like anything else you may have probably ever seen. Edyth started the library when she arrived in Tzfat from Florida some 30 years ago, and until about 5 years ago, it functioned in her small apartment. She opened her home to the public several times a week, at set hours, and hundreds of people would traipse through her bedroom (humor and fiction), living room (suspense and mysteries) kitchen (cookbooks) and dining area (magazines and science fiction). Even in the bathroom, one could find the Readers Digests and Prevention magazines, and we all dreaded the holiday season, when Edyth would insist on closing up her home for a few weeks so that she could have it for her own use.

After the lunch, the annual “stockholders” meeting was held – a “what’s the state of the library” meeting obligated by the Library’s status as a non-profit organization. After the report was read (more people than ever using the library; many local english-teachers referring their students to the library for reading material; doubles are now sent out to over 20 kibbutz libraries and a couple of town libraries; over 200 children attend the bi-weekly stamp club which the Library runs), Edyth went around the room, introducing everyone and telling what they do.

Of the over 30 people present, the volunteer work that goes into making the library function is overwhelming. Several people check in and out books during opening hours. Others constantly review the shelves, culling doubles and sending them off to other libraries in other parts of the country. Some put cards and pockets on magazines (me). Some make phone calls to people who have overdue books at home. The library lends out videos and audio-tapes – those are catalogued. A couple of the less construction-challenged volunteers make new bookshelves, change light bulbs, fix broken water lines, etc. Edyth herself spends dozens of hours weekly on e-mail, begging, pleading, and soliciting donations for the library – books, stamps, videos, and, of course, money. (It helps that she used to work for the Miami Federation!)

The chairman of the board summed up the amazing project by telling us that the non-profit group was audited this year by Israel’s Authority for Non-Profits, and the auditors absolutely refused to believe that a project like the library could function without a single paid professional. They were stunned to discover that everything runs by volunteerism, and were so suspicious of this that they insisted that the board all sign affidavits swearing that this was true.

(Anyone who wishes to send any donation to the library, books, stamps, videos, childrens’ books, or money – please be in touch!)

As to other things going on in our lives…our eldest son, Avishai, is in his freshman year of…the army. In Israel, 18-year-olds are not found pledging fraternities or struggling over SATs. They are starting their 3-year army service (20 months for girls). We do read the papers which report on 12th graders who are refusing to serve because of their opposition to Israeli government policies, and also of soldiers who are discussing their refusal to participate in implementing a Gaza withdrawel…refusals on the left and the right. However, none of that is noticable from where we sit. All of the boys in Avishai’s class, and some of the girls (some girls do National Service instead of Army service) have volunteered for combat units, and most are training for tryouts into the elite units. And although the “disengagement” disturbs many of these kids, none are talking of refusing orders. So I am, as are many people, concerned over media reports of refusal by rightists AND leftists, but wonder how much these reports really describe what’s happening.

Avishai went into the army in November, and just completed his 3-month basic training – he now has 4 months of advanced basic training, and will then join his unit.
Avishai has joined the Golani infantry unit, which is considered an “elite” unit, and he enjoys the comraderie and physical challenge of his experience. His group consists of 13 young men whose origins include Russia, Ethopia, America, and Israelis of every ethic origin that Israel has to offer. His stories of some of the training exercises…long treks with heavy backpacks, night manuvers with no sleep for 48 hours, long hours of guard duty…have the rest of us wide-eyed, but he usually ends each story with a “oh, hafif (“it was nothing”). Afterward, we barbqued……”

My life, of course, has also undergone quite a change – I now anticipate weekly whether he’ll be home for Shabbat, and if so, what delicicies he might like to eat. We try to move around the house quietly when he’s sleeping, since he averages about 5 hours of sleep nightly during the week (not including “white nights” when they don’t sleep at all) and try to understand the new language that he and his friends throw around.

But in front of my eyes, my son is no longer a boy, and I pray that these next years will treat him well. Already, the soldiers are aware of the moral decisions that they must make, sometimes necessitating a life-or-death decision within a split second. I don’t hear Avishai or his friends ever slurring the Arabs as a people…after all, he has Bedouin and Druze soldiers in his own unit! He and his friends often speak of their beliefs that Arab families want a quiet and peaceful life as much as Jewish families. They are frustrated at what many see as a no-win situation – if the soldiers do what they need to do to protect their country, they risk being called “racists” and “occupiers”, but if they don’t, Israel will not survive. They take seriously their commitment to defend the country and its citizens, and are more aware than most 18-year-olds in most countries that many lives depend on what they do.

And finally, Purim came and went again this year. At this point, only Margalit, the youngest, really gets dressed up – Hagai and Margalit (aged 12 and 15 respectively) spray their hair in atrocious colors and put on some hats and other accessories, but Margalit, aged 8, still enjoys doing the whole thing….long billowy dress, hat, make-up, jewelry, etc. And I enjoy taking her to school on Purim morning…not just because of her own excitement, and not just to protect the dress for another possible year of use.

I like to drive Margalit to her school on the morning when the kids all come to school dressed up, and I like to gaze around while I’m driving. Every car seems to be full of queens, witches, spidermen and spiderwomen, “punks”, pandas, and other assorted creatures. The kids streaming into the schools are all bopping each other over the heads (AND the teachers) with little plastic hammers, and even the coolest 12th grader still looks kind of kid-like with a funny hat and some strange-looking clothes. The new Ethopian immigrants, some of whom have arrived within the past few weeks, stream out of their Absorption Centers with the kids in tow, all of whom are outfitted in nice new costumes, thanks to a dozen tzdekka organizations in town who insure that these kids are every bit as dressed up as their vetran Israeli schoolmates. Purim is not celebrated in Ethopia among the Jews there – the story of Purim came after the Beta Israel’s ancestors left Israel for the Land of the Queen of Sheba, close to 2500 years ago. But volunteers explain the new tradition to the newcomers in Amharic, and after the first half-hour of mayhem, one would never know that this was, for some, their first Purim in their new home.

And with Purim’s finale, spring seems to have arrived here, pre-Pesach preperations are in progression, and our friendly woodpecker has returned from his winter vacation somewhere in the South (I assume) to remind us that it’s time to get on.


early summer 2004

Tsfat Blog—Summer ‏2004

Every tourist that comes to the Middle East knows that you should never buy anything without bargining for it. For most people, this comes in the form of a bit of haggling at the open-air markets in places like Jerusalem’s Old City, where souviniers are sold in stalls. However, even after 20 years, I am always amazed at how much a part of our everyday life bargining really is here, and what an art it is.

Avocados. Avocados are a staple of our Pesach diet, and, bless the growers’ hearts, they come on the market every year at Pesach-time. Avocados can also be rather expensive, and I try to make sure that we have a good supply at a reasonable price. So when I went to the shuk (open-air market) before Pesach, I went towards the end of the day, when the prices tend to go down, and found someone with not-too-soft avocados still available. “How much” I asked. “Eight shekels per kilo” he answered. “Oy, even the supermarket sells them for less” I told him. “OK, take them for seven” he offered. “Hm-m-m-m” I replied. “Yallah, six shekels, if you buy two kilos” the guy said. “How about five?” I asked. At that point, he turned to the next customer, and I realized that I had gone over the limit, so I filled up a bag with 2 kilos, and the seller threw in a few extra, and we were both happy.

Another example is my hot water heater. Even after 20 years in this country, I had assumed that there are some places where bargining is simply not going to get you anywhere, and a shop (with a cash register, receipt booklet, and supposedly, an obligation to the tax authority) is such a place. Big mistake. I took our hot water heater in to the shop where I had bought it for a repair, and told the owner that I had bought it there and I honestly didn’t remember whether it was just over or under a year – the guarentee had been lost somewhere long ago. After playing around with it for a few days, the owner informed me that the heater would need a new heating element, and since we didn’t know whether it was still under guarentee or not (he couldn’t have cared less about the guarentee certificate – my word was good enough for him), he would charge me 70 or 80 shekels for the element, and the work would be thrown in for free.

When I came to pick up the hot water heater, the owner told me that it would cost 130 shekels. And I, with 20 years of experience in this half-way third world country, knew what was expected of me. “Oh, no! I only budgeted for 80 shekels!” I said. “What am I going to do?” Had I argued, I would have gotten no where. But I turned it into HIS problem, and sure enough, he came through magnificently. “Well, seeing that it’s right before Pesach, I’ll talk to the company” he said. “Here, pay me 80 shekels now, and if there’s a problem, I’ll split the difference with you.” To which I agreed readily, because both he and I knew that I would never hear from him again about any further cost, and we both knew that, in the future, if I ever need an appliance, I will go to him, because he did me a “favor”. And do you know what? I certainly will.

Now, go try that at Sears.

Maccabi Tel Aviv is the basketball team that represents Israel when competing in EuroLeague games. Last week, in a “get into the EuroLeague quarter-finals or not” game with the Lithuanian team, Maccabi was 3 points down with 2 ½ SECONDS left to play…the stands were emptying out, and our neighbors who had come up to watch the game had headed home…when Maccabi’s shortest player scored a tie-breaker 3-pointer. (We yelled for the neighbors to come back). As you can imagine, the entire country held its breath for the “extra inning” fifth quarter, and Maccabi went on to win the game.

As Israel celebrated, all the coach and the players could talk about, in interviews, was how it all came from “upstairs”. “We prayed and asked for divine help” Pini Gershon, the decidedly non-religious-looking coach of Maccabi told the television interviewers, “and He heard us”. Every question about strategy, player talent, and teamwork was replied to in these terms – according to Gershon, Maccabi’s win was part of this Pesach’s Divine Plan, and everyone should be putting on tefillin the next morning! “And they will” my son Avishai told us. “You won’t believe how many guys will be stopping on the main street tomorrow where the Chabadniks stand with their tefillin stands to put them on and say their morning prayers”.

The first game of the EuroLeague Quarter Finals is scheduled for April 29th, and, if Avishai is right, the religious rituals of the country (the male population, anyway) will take a leap upward for awhile. The Likud, in the meantime, rescheduled its vote on affirming Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, which had been scheduled for that night – Likud officials were concerned that there wouldn’t be anyone around to vote that night. (I guess it’s kind of like scheduling the Democratic Convention during the Superbowl).

Tsfat has always been known as the City of Kabbalah – the first Rabbi to begin teaching Kabbalah, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, lived in this area during the Roman Times, and during the Middle Ages, the mystics who developed the study and writings of Kabbalah lived in Tsfat. This designation, actually, marks Tsfat as one of Israel’s 4 holiest cities – the others being Jerusalem, Tiberias (where the Mishna was written) and Hebron (where the Cave of the Patriarchs is located). But little has done more to spread the name of “City of Kabbalah” than the recent upsurge in interest in Kabbalah among the famous, and that is scheduled to increase after Lag B’Omer – the yearly pilgrimage to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s grave in nearby Meron – when Madonna and Company are scheduled to arrive in Tsfat. Local rumor has it that Ms. Kabbalah herself is planning to stay in our local hotel (about 2 minutes from my house) and will continue her exploration of Kabbalah in its birthploace. Should be an interesting time for Tsfat’s Tourist Center! (where I work).

The Library

One of the reasons that Yoni and I choose to live in Tsfat 18 years ago was the library.

At the time, we had lived in Israel for 2 years on a kibbutz, and had decided that it was time to move into a larger community. We agreed on the basic guidelines of where we wanted to live…we wanted to stay in the North of Israel, in a smallish community where there would be enough of an economic base for Yoni to open a carpentry shop. We needed a place which offered government-subsidized housing to help us get started, and a place where there would be some sort of English-speaking community.

So, on our free afternoons from the kibbutz, we visited a couple of towns. When we planned our visit to Tsfat, we called the local representative of the AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) to ask if she could meet with us. “No problem” she assured us. “The library is open”.

Turns out that Edyth, who was (and probably still is) the local representative of the AACI, also hosted the local English library in her 1-bedroom apartment. Books were double-and triple stacked on bookshelves throughout her apartment. Romance novels were in her bedroom, humor books were laid out in cartons on her bed (the cartons got shoved under her bed when the library closed), mysteries were in the living room, cook-books in the kitchen, and magazines on the couch. During our first visit to Tsfat, we were able to meet many residents due to the fact that we came on library day, and it certainly influenced our decision to settle there.

In the years since, I rarely begin a Friday morning (the Israeli equivalent of “Sunday”) without a stop at the library. A few years ago, the library moved into a small apartment under Edyth’s, but Edyth, now 82 years old, still manages the library with an eagle eye. All of the books are donated, and various kind donors donate magazine subscriptions and the money to pay the rent and utilities. The work of checking in and out books, shelving, registering, etc., is done by volunteers, while Edyth sits at the front desk, keeping everything in order.

“Let’s check your page” she tells visitors as they arrive, and then proceeds to take anyone with overdue books or magazines to task. (Though it must be said that, after a tongue lashing for a late return, she rarely insists on a fine) “Have you paid for your Rosh Hashana greeting in the Western Settler’s bulletin” she queries everyone – she’s the one who collects the roughly $3 yearly fee for the service. Edyth is also the person who collects money for the community Noam Fund, which distributes weekly food packages to the needy. When the library closes, Edyth heads upstairs to her apartment for e-mail correspondence, searching for donors to keep the library afloat. “I’m over 80” she lamented once. “What is everyone going to do when I kick off?”

When I arrive at 9:00a.m. on Friday mornings (I try not to be late, because it gets crowded soon afterward) I usually spent a half hour signing in new magazines (partly an altruistic gesture on my part to volunteer, partly an attempt to get the new magazines first!) and then start my book search. The newest releases (Edyth reminds anyone who is traveling to pick up a few new books on their journey) sit behind Edyth’s desk – she won’t let anyone who has a bad record of returning books take too many of those. The rest of the library doesn’t go according to the Dewey system, since there isn’t room, but there is a science fiction section, a romantic novel section, a “high-brow” section, sections for animals, psychology, health, Jewish issues, Israel, short stories, and others. There are audio-tapes, large print books, video tapes, and a large children’s section, which is open, free of charge, to the city’s children.

Twice monthly, after the library closes on Fridays, Edyth runs a stamp club for dozens of Tsfat’s schoolchildren. Together with another volunteer, they help the children learn about stamp-collecting, trading, and organizing, and Edyth hands out free stamps to the children, which she receives from donors from around the world. My children are not collectors now, but numerous schoolchildren in Tsfat have learned their geography, not in the classroom, but in Edyth’s living room.

Rosh Hashana

Rosh HaShana Blog 2003

Once again, Jewish schizophrenia becomes evident as, in the fall, we spend a whole month preparing for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (spiritually through special prayers during the month before Rosh Hashana, but let’s not forget other preparations…), spend a day of fasting and reflecting on Yom Kippur…and then, bang! We’re rushing around in a frenzy of excitement as we get ready for Succot.

Not that the last month hasn’t been interesting. Israelis begin preparing for “the holidays” many weeks before they actually appear by putting off everything that they possibly can until “after the holidays”. Do you want to order something? “After the holidays” the store clerks will tell you. Want to get some papers from a government office? “Acharei HaChagim” they’ll put you off. Want to meet with your child’s teacher? Finish some bank business? Open a charge account? The country literally stops for 4 weeks while everyone deals with recepies, shopping, family, and, well, the holidays!

During the weeks preceeding Rosh Hashana, many school and tour groups have begun to head up to Tsfat to walk through the lanes of the Old City in the middle of the night, visit the old synagogues, and join in the special dawn “awakening” prayers. From my house across the parking lot from the Old City, I can hear the groups as they decend from their busses and mill around the area, but luckily, no one comes over to our side of town. However, in the Old Jewish Quarter, the hours between 12:00a.m. and 6:00a.m. are crowded with tourists, mostly secular, who come to drink in the religious atmosphere of Tsfat during this month of reflection and repentance.

Every year, the boys from Hagai’s school meet at the old Sepharadi Abuhav synagogue on one of those mornings to join in the special prayers, and this year, I accompanied Hagai and his sleep-over friend when they met their class one morning at 4:30a.m. I couldn’t have been more shocked at the throngs of people milling about…school kids from Tel Aviv, tourists from Ashdod, and smatterings of the local hippies who populate Tsfat any time that something out-of-the-ordinary is going on.

Ariella and Yochi’s school also takes the girls to such evenings of “uplifting”, but they head OUT of Tsfat for their evenings…Ariella’s class spent one night in Peki’in, an ancient Jewish city near the Lebanese border which has had uninterrupted Jewish settlement since the time of the Second Temple.

During Rosh Hashana, the city’s male-female balance tips decidedly in favor of the females…hundreds of men go to Uman, a city in Russia where Rabbi Nachman of Breslav is buried. This is a relatively new custom…before the fall of the former Soviet Union, the site was off limits to Jews. But now, it has become a pilgrimage site for Breslaver Hassadim and wannabes on Rosh Hashana…thousands of men (I’ve never heard of any women going) take advantage of cheap plane tickets to spend a few days praying at the site of Rabbi Nachman’s grave, as well as other gravesites of rabbis in the area.

This year, our mayor went with them -- he’s not at all religious, but it’s election year, so….

Yom Kippur was, of course, hot and dry. The days preceeding Yom Kippur were coolish, and it is again cooling off. But on Yom Kippur, it was, as the weather forcaster said, “unusually hot and dry”. There was always someone at home during the day…my fasters don’t like to wander around while they’re starving. But we still carefully followed the advice of our police chief, who warned Tsfat residents in the local paper a few days before the holiday “lock your doors. ALL the criminals won’t be in shul praying on Yom Kippur!) In the morning on Yom Kippur, I generally take care of a friend’s little girl who is wheelchair-bound, so that her father can go to shul…it’s too much for the mother to take care of the disabled child, as well as two other younger children. But by the evening, the breeze was beginning to blow, and I was able to sit outside and listen to dozens of shofars which were blowing from throughout the city.

As soon as Yom Kippur ends, the hammering starts as people begin their succa building. Talk about schizophrenia…that’s it! From the awareness of Yom Kippur of the precariousness of our lives to, literally within hours, the utter abandonment and joy of building and decorating ones succa (not to mention the planning of the most important part of the whole thing…the food – Hagai said that Succot was his favorite holiday because we always order pizza one night, and Yoni always makes his famous chili for one meal), it’s hard not to stop and meditate a little about the craziness of our Jewish calendar.

And maybe I will meditate a little…after the holidays.

Summer 2004

I have just returned to Tsfat after a week in Jerusalem…I was at a Jewish Genelogy conference, sponsored by the International Society of Jewish Genelogy (or something like that). This organization’s conferences are usually held in various cities in North America, but this year, for the second time in 10 years, they came to Jerusalem. Seven-hundred genelogy buffs arrived to hear lectures about Jews throughout the world – most of the conference attendees were English-speakers, including a lot of Anglos living in Israel, but there were others from throughout the world.

During the week-long conference, a number of local organizations opened their archives to researchers who wanted to look for materials. Yad VaShem, JNF, the Diaspora Museum, the Central Archives of the Jewish People, the National Jewish Library…these were just a few of the resources available to us to utilize in-between lectures, with a bus making constant circles around Jerusalem taking us where we wanted to go to.

One lecture dealt with the most extensive collection of records of Jewish data from Eastern Bloc countries…the Morman Church’s Family History Center. For years, the Mormans have made it their business to collect and archive records from these countries, and they have all these records on microfilm in Salt Lake City. Any individual who visits a local Morman Church’s library and requests these microfilms may access them locally. These records have been a boon to genelogists worldwide, and especially to Jewish genelogists, for whom other records were often destroyed.

The question is, of course, WHY do the Mormans take this project upon themselves? Turns out that, according to the Morman religion, in order to live after death with the heavenly Lord, one must be baptized by a Morman baptisism, and since one is continuing one’s life after one’s death (up above, though), it’s still possible to be baptized. AND, it is possible to be baptized by proxy. So the Mormans collect these names in order to baptize the dead. They have, in recent years, baptized hundreds of thousands of Jews who have died, including many Holocaust survivors, and although they agreed in 1995 to stop the practice, they are, in fact, continuing at full speed.

One of Jewish genelogists’ biggest concerns right now is that, within half a year, Yad Vashem’s list of Holocaust victims will be available on-line, and that will be the next target of Morman interest.

A second session dealt with the search for the “Ten Lost Tribes”.

About 2500 years ago, the Land of Israel was divided into two areas. The North was conquered by the Assyrians, who exiled the 10 Jewish Tribes which lived there, while the South resisted the invasion. (The subsequent invasions, that of the Babylonians, who destroyed the First Temple, and that of the Romans, who destroyed the Second Temple , also produced exiles, but generally, the exiles from those periods remained connected to “mainstream” Judaism).

There is a legend in Jewish theology which states that the Messiah will come when the tribes are reunited, so there are some people who have decided to “push the envelope”. One of these people traveled throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, searching for groups of people who have traits, legends, customs, traditions, or other hints which indicate that they may be descended from the Ten Lost Tribes.

The movie which we were shown was quite interesting, and while some of the groups of people really do seem to have traditions which indicate descendancy from the Ten Tribes (Aramaic writings, songs which tell of an Exodus and the parting of a sea, not eating pig-meat, etc), some of the conclusions drawn were a bit far-fetched. But, when the Messiah appears, we will see….

Other than that, I didn’t “find” much. I did see the Yizkor (memorial) books from Prosnitz, where my mother’s maternal family is from, and saw Rudas listed as having been killed during the Holocaust – I can only assume that they are somehow related, but don’t know how.

I also saw the Yizkor book for Bobroisk, where the Lifshitz clan is from. That book didn’t list many names, but the two volumes described life in Bobroisk pre-WWII. There was an article describing the Zionist movement in Bobroisk, and it described a meeting which took place in Bobroisk in the early 1900s where young Zionists who were planning their aliyah met with a fellow Bobroisk-native, Knatzelson, who is well-known in Zionist history. The article named the participants of this meeting, and it included Batya Lifshitz-Shein, who was Jacob Lifshitz’s sister. Batya subsequently made aliyah and married Eliezer Shein, also from Bobroisk, and they lived at Kibbutz Ein Harod. Eliezer died young, and the Batko family (whose name many of our cousins recognize) served as the adoptive family of Nechemia, Batya and Eliezer’s son who died in 1946 in a Palmach raid.

In an article which I saw at the Palmach Museum about Nechemia, it was also mentioned that he had an aunt in Israel whom he used to visit, Batya (and Jacob’s) sister, Yehudit, at Kibbutz Kinneret. I contacted the Archives of Kibbutz Kinneret, and was told that Yehudit was one of their best-known founders, having come to Palestine in 1913. She married someone named Koritsky, and they never had children – Yehudit’s husband died young as well, and Yehudit’s only pregnancy ended in a miscarriage due to her ill health (probably from maleria), which plagued her throughout her life. She died young, in the 1930s.

Neither of these sisters, nor Nechemia, have ever had anyone named after them – a fact which was brought home to me at the conference, where it was noted several times that Jewish genelogy is made easier by the custom of naming children after deceased ancestors. For instance, in the Bobroisk Yizkor book, a “Jacob Lifshitz” was noted as one of the compilers of the book – he evidently survived the Holocaust and subsequently made his home in Israel. Chances are that he is somehow related to us, and he and “our” Jacob Lifshitz were probably named for the same ancestor. (In another line of inquiry, the JNF was offering the chance to get information about some of their early doners…the Bobroisk-Yizkor-book’s Jacob Lifshitz was one of them, so I’m waiting for the JNF to contact me with the information about him, which I formally requested. Israel and Ida Sendler were also some of JNF’s earliest doners, in the 1920s. )

Other than that, our summer vacation is pretty much like summer vacations in America – the ever-present question of “how to keep ‘em busy”?

I am lucky, in that my work is a 5-minute walk from my house, so the kids can stop by with questions, requests (for money, of course), or just to come say “hi”. A neighbor will be doing a ceramics class for younger elementary students, which Margalit is planning on attending, and the other kids are busy with pool, computer, and books. Ariella and Yochi also fill in at the Visitor’s Center, in the hours after I finish, and have been helping out with cooking and cleaning at Livnot. And even 8-year-old Margalit has a job…taking care of a neighbor’s 4-year-old every morning.

Other than Margalit, who just finished first grade doesn’t have the “tuchas” for reading, the other kids are big readers, and we count on the local library to keep us stocked with books. Many of the books are translations from English (the kids enjoyed the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, as well as the Beverley Cleary books, the Judy Blume books, Jules Verne, Arthur Conon Doyle, and Alexander Dumas, as well as, dozens of times, the Harry Potter and Tolkin books), but they have also read all sorts of translations from other languages which Americans generally don’t have access to, or take advantage of.

Avishai is awaiting his army call-up, which is scheduled for November. In the meantime, he will be in the States and work with his father, mostly on Martha’s Vineyard, where Yoni’s mother lives. Avishai is looking forward to his service (can’t say that his mother is), and has his sights set on the Egoz Unit of the Golani Brigade. Hm-m-m-m-m…how can he be going into the army? His bris was just yesterday! No one is thrilled by the thought of army service, but Avishai and his friends are very motivated to serve. They are aware of the controversies surrounding Israeli politics and policies, and discuss them extensively – there’s no consensus among them. But they all feel strongly about the need to protect the State and its citizens, and believe that the army (with a little help from above) is the only answer.

I find it interesting that so many Israelis, even those who are outwardly irreligious, are so connected to Jewish traditions and beliefs. A few weeks ago, two young thirtysomething women came into the Visitor’s Center. Both were dressed in a very “modern” manner – halters, multiple earrings, tight low pants, etc. But they were searching for the gravesite of Yonatan Ben Uziel, a sage at whose grave people pray when searching for a life-partner. “We’re thirty now – enough!” one of the women told me. “It’s time to get married. So we came to Rabbi Uziel’s grave”.

Another incident occurred yesterday – I was contacted by a man from the South of the country who stated plainly that he was “not religious”. But he wanted to verify the times that the Ari Synagogue would be open – he and his wife have not been able to conceive, and the Elijah’s Chair in the Ari Synagogue has a reputation as giving a “segula” (good omen) to any woman who wants to become pregnant. So he and his wife, “not religious”, were prepared to make a 5-hour drive to Tsfat, and a 5-hour drive home, in order that she might sit in The Chair. (If I hear anything, I’ll let you know).

I have been told by a couple of people that these blogs are enjoyed – I also enjoy hearing from the blog readers! So please write!


Spring 2004

Spring 2004 blog

Pesach 2004 has arrived – the house is clean, the chametz is out, and the refrain of “there’s nothing to eat” is in the air. I find that hard to believe, since a whole month’s salary has gone to the Pesach food, the shelves are emptying, and we’re not done yet. So all that food is going SOMEWHERE. But some of our family members don’t find matza terribly enticing, not matter how well it is disguised (ever tried matza granola? Or matza crepes?)

The yearly Israeli debate over “religious coercion” always heats up around Pesach-time. There is a law which forbids the selling of chametz during Pessach, and the government has enforced it during previous years through “Chametz inspectors” – Arab and Druze inspectors who check Jewish-owned stores to see if they are selling chametz, and fine those which are. There are all sorts of mechanisms for getting around this law…one of the most generally accepted is to sell one’s store fictitiously to a non-Jew, and continue with one’s business. But in recent years, the non-religious population has become less and less willing to submit to the demands of the religious, and this year, the anti-religious Interior Minister, who is responsible for Passover enforcement, announced that he would not enforce the law restricting chametz sales.

All of this is theoretical in an area like Tsfat, which is stridently traditional, if not completely religiously exacting. “Secular” has a different meaning in Tel Aviv, say, than in Tsfat . The hebrew word for secular is “hiloni”, from the verb “l’hallel” – to abuse, or defy the religious injunctions. But it doesn’t have the same meaning throughout Israel. In Tel Aviv, for example, a “hiloni” takes on the an active meaning – “hilonim” tend to be actively anti-religious. They demand their rights to observe Shabbat as they see fit (on the beach or in a mall), marry and divorce outside the authority of the rabbinical courts, purchase bread on Passover, etc. So the “Chametz inspectors”, when they are activated, prowl those areas.

A town like Tsfat, however, is a different story. To be a “hiloni” here is passive. Tsfat, like other development towns, was settled primarily by refugees from North Africa after 1948, and those children and grandchildren who didn’t remain religious simply kind of drifted away…they never rebelled, as did so many of the original settlers of places like Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim. So although approximately 1/3rd of the families in Tsfat consider themselves “hiloni” (based on the schools where they send their children – about 1/3rd of Tsfat’s kids learn in ultra-orthodox schools, 1/3rd in religious-zionist schools, and 1/3rd in non-religious schools), they are stridently traditional, and their homes are probably cleaner than mine when Pessach comes. There is no chametz anywhere to be found in the city – unless someone froze their bread before Pessach – and even the most non-Orthodox families have changed their dishes, boiled their silverware, and scoured their oven.

Thus, as of Monday, the day before the Seder (Israelis are only obligated to do one!) going to the supermarket was like walking through a maze…some shelves were full of food, and some were covered over with plastic, with “chametz” written over them.

Still and all, “making Pesach” was 100 times easier than the challenge that our friends’ son, wife, and two little daughters took upon themselves. This family had just spent 3 months in Goa, in Southern India, running a “Shalom House” for Israelis who wanted a bit of Judaism during their trek to the Far East. Goa is known as the drug capital of India, and many young Israelis end up there as they make their post-army excursions to Asia. Eliezer, his wife Carmit, and their 1 and 2 year old daughters spent 3 months in Goa, offering Shabbat hospitality to anybody who “dropped in” – they generally had about 150 drop-ins weekly. For Pesach, in addition to all the equipment that a family with two babies needs anyway, they took with them Pesach utensils and food which would suffice for all comers throughout Pesach – their estimate of 100 guests for the Seder was an underestimate by about 2/3rds, and they still have Shabbat and the end of the holiday to organize for their 300 guests!

As hard as it is for people to imagine, hundreds of people from all branches of Judaism spend their holidays in such situations. Tsfat, among other communities, sends dozens of its young people, singles and families, to organize Seders for Israelis who are trekking through India, Japan, China, Tibet, Vietnam, Thailand, the Himalayas, Columbia, Peru, Brazil, and many other spots where traveling Israelis can be found. Others go to communities in the Former Soviet Union – small towns in the Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, etc, to make sure that every Jew is able to attend a Seder.

These people return with incredible stories of their experiences. Their own “mesirat nefesh” (superhuman efforts) pale in comparison to the efforts that some of the people attending these Seders make to insure that they don’t miss the Seder – Israelis who hike for days to get to a “Seder Center” in time, elderly Russians who have secretly tried to maintain some semblance of a Pessach observance during the decades when it was impossible, and Jews who know barely anything of their heritage, but have somehow kept the spark alive that makes them yearn for a Passover Seder, though they barely know what it means.

The interesting thing about Pessach is that telling and retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt has been a cornerstone of Jewish belief since Judaism’s beginnings. The Torah demands that we pass the story of our ancestors’ flight from Egypt on to our children, and they to their children, and they to their children.

And we see it very clearly – that for so many Jews…Marranos in Spain who lived outwardly as Christians, Jews in Communist countries who were forced to hide all Jewish practices, and Jews who have yet to comfortably affiliate with the Jewish communities where they live…the Pessach Seder is the last tradition to go. Very few Jews who identify as Jews, even as “secular”, “assimilated”, or “non-practicing” forgo a Seder of some kind, with its final declaration “Next Year in Jerusalem”!

Chanukah 2003

Our Succot holiday was pleasant and relaxing, with a family trip to the Golan, a ema-children trip to the Ma’a lot ice-skating rink (while abba was home, making his famous chili for Shabbat), and an atmosphere of general relaxation and renewal. Building a wobbly succa with a roof that can fly off at the first strong wind is meant to remind us of our reliance on God for protection. But the weather this Succot was excellent, and I can’t say that I gave too much thought to my vulnerability.

That is, until Simhat Torah. I had actually anticipated writing about Simhat Torah. Growing up in Detroit, Simhat Torah meant a few walks around the synagogue “main sanctuary” with an apple stuck to the top of my Hebrew School flag, and I suspect that it’s still that way for many people. Here in Tsfat, as well as in all of Israel, Simhat Torah can be a wild, riotous occasion, with lots of singing, dancing, and, in some shuls, a bit of nipping of the spirits. (OK, more than a bit). I like to go to Berav, which follows the Shlomo Carlebach tradition of davening through joyous song and dance, and the “Hakafot” there on Simhat Torah day usually last until well into the afternoon hours.

However, after Shabbat dinner Friday night, just as I was coming back from my post-dinner walk with Margalit, one of Avishai’s friends came rushing up to the house. Avishai, who usually spends Friday nights sitting out with his friends, had been running on the grass near his B’nei Akiva clubhouse, and had slipped and broken his arm. His friends had already found a car, and within a few minutes, we were on our way down to the hospital. “Oy, aiza bassah” (“what a bummer”) Avishai kept moaning while we waited for a doctor to start the process of x-raying his arm and deciding on the treatment. And then…”I hope that this doesn’t downgrade my profile”. In Israel, when a young man goes into the army, he’s giving a profile number – 100% means that he’s in perfect physical shape, and every physical impairment beyond that downsizes that number. At 64%, one is no longer eligible for a combat unit. Almost every Jewish and Moslem young man starts out with a 97%, since circumsized males are already lacking a certain body part. After that, eye-glasses, flat-feet, asthma…all of those lower the profile, and even before Avishai was given pain-killers, his new profile number was formost on his mind. I tried to comfort him by pointing out that, for the next month or so, his math teacher couldn’t get too upset if he didn’t do his homework.

Friday night is a slow time in the hospital, and within the hour, the doctor had determined that his bones would need to be reset, which would require general anesthesia…something that they couldn’t do 2 hours after a big chili dinner! So Avishai was given a temporary cast and admitted to the hospital, and I was invited to occupy the bed next to him (“why not?” the nurse asked, when I asked if there was a chair near-by. “Make yourself comfortable”).

Avishai had had a pain-killer in the emergency room, so he couldn’t have another one until 4:00a.m., which was keeping us both awake, but at 3:00a.m., I glanced out into the corridor, and saw two of his friends peering into the rooms. “How did they let you into the hospital at this hour” I asked, astonished, while a delighted Avishai proceeded to tell them about his evening. “No big deal” they told me. “The guard is Assi’s brother’s next-door neighbor, and we told him that we’d come down from Kiryat Shmoneh…”

The next morning, while Yoni and I were sitting outside the operating room, reflecting on having missed Simhat Torah festivities, we slowly became aware of activity in the lobby. Dozens of young men and women, along with the chief Rabbi of Tsfat, had come down to the hospital to dance and sing with the Torah for hospital patients and staff. As we watched, the sounds that we expected to hear in shul were spreading throughout the hospital as local Tsfat residents, rabbis, B’nai Akiva youngsters, and even some patients were circling the bima, dancing and singing with as much spirit as could be found in any synagogue in the city.

The operation, thank God, was successful, and after another night in the hospital (“we CAN’T possibly let him out less than 24 hours after a general anesthesia” a startled doctor told me, when I broached the subject of taking Avishai home Saturday night – I actually think that the doctor was offended that I’d suggested it) Avishai arrived home. And I think that the lesson of Succot was not lost on either Avishai or his friends. I certainly gave it a bit more thought.

Succot 2003

Our Succot holiday was pleasant and relaxing, with a family trip to the Golan, a ema-children trip to the Ma’a lot ice-skating rink (while abba was home, making his famous chili for Shabbat), and an atmosphere of general relaxation and renewal. Building a wobbly succa with a roof that can fly off at the first strong wind is meant to remind us of our reliance on God for protection. But the weather this Succot was excellent, and I can’t say that I gave too much thought to my vulnerability.

That is, until Simhat Torah. I had actually anticipated writing about Simhat Torah. Growing up in Detroit, Simhat Torah meant a few walks around the synagogue “main sanctuary” with an apple stuck to the top of my Hebrew School flag, and I suspect that it’s still that way for many people. Here in Tsfat, as well as in all of Israel, Simhat Torah can be a wild, riotous occasion, with lots of singing, dancing, and, in some shuls, a bit of nipping of the spirits. (OK, more than a bit). I like to go to Berav, which follows the Shlomo Carlebach tradition of davening through joyous song and dance, and the “Hakafot” there on Simhat Torah day usually last until well into the afternoon hours.

However, after Shabbat dinner Friday night, just as I was coming back from my post-dinner walk with Margalit, one of Avishai’s friends came rushing up to the house. Avishai, who usually spends Friday nights sitting out with his friends, had been running on the grass near his B’nei Akiva clubhouse, and had slipped and broken his arm. His friends had already found a car, and within a few minutes, we were on our way down to the hospital. “Oy, aiza bassah” (“what a bummer”) Avishai kept moaning while we waited for a doctor to start the process of x-raying his arm and deciding on the treatment. And then…”I hope that this doesn’t downgrade my profile”. In Israel, when a young man goes into the army, he’s giving a profile number – 100% means that he’s in perfect physical shape, and every physical impairment beyond that downsizes that number. At 64%, one is no longer eligible for a combat unit. Almost every Jewish and Moslem young man starts out with a 97%, since circumsized males are already lacking a certain body part. After that, eye-glasses, flat-feet, asthma…all of those lower the profile, and even before Avishai was given pain-killers, his new profile number was formost on his mind. I tried to comfort him by pointing out that, for the next month or so, his math teacher couldn’t get too upset if he didn’t do his homework.

Friday night is a slow time in the hospital, and within the hour, the doctor had determined that his bones would need to be reset, which would require general anesthesia…something that they couldn’t do 2 hours after a big chili dinner! So Avishai was given a temporary cast and admitted to the hospital, and I was invited to occupy the bed next to him (“why not?” the nurse asked, when I asked if there was a chair near-by. “Make yourself comfortable”).

Avishai had had a pain-killer in the emergency room, so he couldn’t have another one until 4:00a.m., which was keeping us both awake, but at 3:00a.m., I glanced out into the corridor, and saw two of his friends peering into the rooms. “How did they let you into the hospital at this hour” I asked, astonished, while a delighted Avishai proceeded to tell them about his evening. “No big deal” they told me. “The guard is Assi’s brother’s next-door neighbor, and we told him that we’d come down from Kiryat Shmoneh…”

The next morning, while Yoni and I were sitting outside the operating room, reflecting on having missed Simhat Torah festivities, we slowly became aware of activity in the lobby. Dozens of young men and women, along with the chief Rabbi of Tsfat, had come down to the hospital to dance and sing with the Torah for hospital patients and staff. As we watched, the sounds that we expected to hear in shul were spreading throughout the hospital as local Tsfat residents, rabbis, B’nai Akiva youngsters, and even some patients were circling the bima, dancing and singing with as much spirit as could be found in any synagogue in the city.

The operation, thank God, was successful, and after another night in the hospital (“we CAN’T possibly let him out less than 24 hours after a general anesthesia” a startled doctor told me, when I broached the subject of taking Avishai home Saturday night – I actually think that the doctor was offended that I’d suggested it) Avishai arrived home. And I think that the lesson of Succot was not lost on either Avishai or his friends. I certainly gave it a bit more thought.

A "normal Day"

November 29, 2002-

A Week

So, what’s a normal 7-day period like here?

This past Shabbat, Avishai wasn’t with us…he had gone with his school for a “Shabbat Yeshiva” to the Golan. These Shabbats with the school are a regular part of the curriculum of religious high schools, and the kids have several during the year. They generally go to a youth hostel or a boarding school whose students have gone home for Shabbat, and “do” Shabbat together. The teachers come with their families, and the kids enjoy the atmosphere of singing and comraderie in surroundings outside of the school building. (It doesn’t seem that they go for the food, which, I am told, is rarely that good…at least not like their mother’s!). The day preceeding the Shabbat, Thursday, I had taken Avishai to the hospital to have the rods in his arm removed…when he had his arm set, they had inserted the rods to help strengthen the bones during the setting process, but when his cast was removed, the area surrounding the rods became infected, and he had to have them taken out. The procedure involved making a small cut in his wrists, where the ends of the rods were, and having them pulled out, and the doctors preferred to do the procedure under general anesthesia, but Avishai was so worried that he’d have to stay in the hospital overnight, and miss his Shabbat Yeshiva, that he begged them to do it under local anesthesia, and he bore the discomfort so that he would be with his friends.

Saturday, Yoni woke up with a nagging pain in his lower back. Neighbors suggested that I confer with a neighbor’s “gentleman friend” – it turns out that he’s a recognized expert among the Russian immigrant community in Chinese medicine, but because of the language difficulty, no one outside of the Russians know about him. In extremely broken Hebrew, he described the Chinese practice of plastering seeds from red peppers, both on the affected area, as well as on the area of one’s hand which corresponds to the area on the body which is in pain. Some other neighbors who have tried the procedure swear by it, but by the time we tried the seeds, Yoni’s back pain had dissipated, so we didn’t get a chance to see it work. I’m not going to forget it, though.

Sunday night was Margalit’s gan (kindergarden) Chanukah party. There is probably no other Israeli custom which is as widely observed, by such a diverse population, as the annual Chanukah parties in the gans. From the ultra-Orthodox gans to the ultra-secular ones, they all have an evening party, where parents are invited to sing Chanukah songs with the kids, watch the children perform a bit, and eat jelly donuts together (Jelly donuts ARE the Chanukah food in Israel – Sepharadim, Ashkanazim, Yeminites…whoever…Chanukah and jelly donuts go side-by-side for all). Of course, in each of these gans, Chanukah is celebrated a bit differently. In the secular gans, the historical message of the small group of Jewish soldiers overpowering the larger group of Hellenistic soldiers is stressed. In the religious gans, the miracle of the Chanukah menorah, and the success of the Jews in preventing the Hellenists from overpowering the Jewish religion and culture, are emphasized. And, of course, in the Chabad gans, (where Margalit goes now), the Rebbe plays a prominent role. But one way or another, Chanukah succeeds in bringing a measure of unity to the various groups of Jews who, otherwise, have little to say to one another.

At the week’s end, we were once again riveted to the news, as descriptions of the attacks in Kenya and Beit Shean dominated our thoughts. I think that, if I had to point to one Israeli characteristic which stands out, it would have to be the Israeli obsession with the news. Every hour on the hour, people slow down to catch the headlines on the radio news…standing next to shop doors, listening to the bus radio, or raising the volume at work for a few minutes. As the years have gone by, I have become no less obsessed by these broadcasts than my native-born neighbors, and even during work hours, I frequently “check in” to the Jerusalem Post website, to see what’s happened. And just as the news begins, one can feel the listeners holding their breaths for a few moments, letting them out in a sigh, a gasp, or a silent breath of thanks a moment later, depending on what they hear. More than others, I think, Israelis also worry about how to take the news. Do we leave the news on for hours when an attack has taken place, listening to all the details, the discussions, the commentators? Is it unhealthy to have the news on right before bedtime? (In our house, we’ve agreed not to listen to the evening news past 6:00p.m., as I began to believe that it was affecting my sleep, as well as that of our children). Is it better to listen to news of attacks on the radio, and allow our imaginations to stray, or to see the pictures on TV, so that there’s a visual connection, and we can rely less on imagination (the TV pictures tend to show the least injured…not the most horrific scenes). And, of course, how do we relay this information to our children, who, at their various developmental stages, know that there’s been a “piguah”, but understand it differently. (My 6-year-old, margalit, asked me last week if there are attacks in America).

We also worry about how we are internalizing the information. How can we begin to give the proper respect and sympathy to the families, even in our thoughts? For each person killed, and for each person wounded, a world is turned upside down for dozens, if not hundreds, of family, friends, and acquaintances. How can we begin to grieve, even a bit, for these victims, yet how do we prevent our own selves from being swallowed up in this grief? How much can one cry when one hears story after story…the attack that took place while a mother was reading a bedtime book to her children, the attack that took place while a grandmother was pushing her grandchild in a stroller, the attack that took place at a Bat Mitzva, leaving the Bat Mitzva girl to forever feel guilty because of the relatives who were murdered at her simcha? Each time that we read, or hear, one of these personal stories, our eyes well up with tears, but how much can we do that?

Describing our life in Israel involves the Jewish celebration of holidays, the interactions between Jews of various native nationalities, the description of rites and customs unique to this country. And it also involves the search for the answers to these, and many more difficult, questions. Yet in the 2 years of this present situation, I haven’t heard a single person of American extraction talk about “going back”. To the contrary, I personally have met more than a twenty people, just this year, who are planning aliyah, or who have made aliyah. I am also in contact with others who are planning aliyah, and who have asked for help in finding housing, schools for their children, jobs, etc. There are also hundreds more, whom I see daily in my job at the local Tourist Information Center, who make a tremendous effort to come and visit Israel, and show their connection to the country. So while we may grieve for our dead and wounded, while we may show our anger in various ways at those who perpetuate and support the attacks, and while we may struggle to come to terms with the “whys” and “hows” of this situation…ultimately, we are strengthened.

Sephirat HaOmer 2003

Tsfat Blog -- Sephirat HaOmer

On the second night of Pesach, a period of counting begins, as Jews “count the Omer” – a period of 50 days, which leads up to the holiday of Shavouth. (Coinciding with the 50 days which separated the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, Pesach, with their arrival at Mt. Sinai and receiving the 10 commandments, Shavouth.)

I’m not sure whether this semi-mourning period in Jewish tradition (religious Jews don’t shave, listen to music or other entertainment, or hold wedding ceremonies) somehow mystically connects to the same sort of schizophrenic atmosphere present in modern-day Israel during this period, but there is certainly a feeling of uncertainty during this period as to whether we should be sad or glad.

One week after Pesach, Israel marks Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah. Though the Holocaust is always a present shadow in our lives here, a reminder of what Jews had to live through in our wait for a Jewish homeland, the period surrounding Holocaust Memorial Day is much more intense. Television screens movies and interviews, the newspapers devote much of their coverage to the memories of survivors, and the schools cancel classes and try to develop ceremonies which will touch the students. Radio and television broadcast periodic messages for survivors and their families, many of whom experience emotional crises during this time, to turn to support groups which increase their staffing during these weeks. In Yochi and Ariella’s school, the 9th grade, Ariella’s class, was given the assignment of preparing an appropriate Yom HaShoah ceremony. Ariella became very involved in the preparation, and before Pesach, she went to the library and took out a number of books relating to the Holocaust. One of the books that she took out was an account of the Eichman trial, and in reading it, she was startled to find that one of the witnesses was our neighbor – the woman was forced into service as an assistant to Dr. Menegle in Aushwitz, and cared for Mengele’s victims while he experimented on them. The Kenesset spends the days reading names….Kenesset member after Kenesset member takes a turn at the podium, and reads names…name after name after name. Some of then names are anoynomous…taken from records which were found at concentration camps, or from local Jewish communities which were wiped out – some of the Kenesset members read names of their family members who died. Some read the ages of the victims. And some…are unable.

Just as the television programs on the Shoah are winding down, a whole new set of documentaries and films are showing up on our TV screens, as Israel gears up for Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers. Once again, we see the local paper with the lists of local families who have lost sons, brothers, and fathers, and wonder, when we see these families in the street, how they keep going. As with Holocaust Day, there is a siren which sounds at 11:00a.m. on Memorial Day, and everyone in the country stops (cars actually stop in the middle of the road) to give a moment of thought to those who have died. Again, endless lists of names are read on the radio, and just as one thinks that one can’t cry any more….we switch gears, and Independence Day begins!

Sometime around the end of Pesach, the kids start planning for the annual Lag B’Omer festivities, which means…bonfires. Lag B’Omer is a festive day on which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi, the first Rabbi to begin studying and teaching kabbalah during the Roman period, is commemorated. Tens of thousands of people flock to his gravesite on Mt. Meron, about 15 minutes from Tsfat, so Tsfat also becomes a center for Lag B’Omer festivities. It has become traditional for some religious families to give their 3-year-old sons their first haircut on Lag B’Omer, and to light bonfires in memory of Rabbi Shimon’s flight from the Roman rulers as he hid in a cave on Mt. Meron and learned Kabbalah with his son. So for weeks beforehand, one can see neighborhood boys (no offense, but I’ve never seen girls involved in this) lugging branches, boards, sticks, and wooden planks around the city, preparing for their bonfires. There is little that is wooden that seems to be sacred during this time….friends of ours have had wooden boards removed from their walled-in backyards during this time! By the time Lag B’Omer night falls, every parking lot, empty field, and back yard has its bonfires, and most of them are used for roasting various delicacies.

Tsfat is famous for a Lag B’Omer tradition which stretches back 170 years, when the Abu family began to take their Torah Scroll from its place in the family home on the afternoon preceeding Lag B’Omer, and dance it across the wadi to Mt. Meron. These days, they still take the same scroll out of the same home, but now, together with local polititians and dignitaries, they dance it up to the bus station and bus it to Mt. Meron. For those of us who live in the Old City of Tsfat, we can hear the festivities throughout the afternoon, until dark starts to fall, when we start seeing the bonfires which have been lit on Mt. Meron across the wadi.

This year, Avishai will be staying out with his friends all night by their bonfire somewhere in the wadi below Tsfat, Ariella will be traveling to Mt. Meron with her friends (public transportation runs between Tsfat and Meron every 15 minutes throughout the 24-period of Lag B’Omer), Yochi will be with her friends next to the zoo, and even Hagai has deserted our family bonfire in favor of his class. So in our yard, we will be gathering with some friends who still have kids who are too young to light matches, or whose kids have deserted them for other adventures. This doesn’t mean, of course, that my responsibility to their evening entertainment has ended….all of these bonfire require REFRESHMENTS, and my food budget during the week of Lag B’Omer skyrockets to accommodate packages of hamburgers, chips, and drinks. (In Avishai’s case, his group has begun to invite some young ladies to their bonfire as well, and they feel honor-bound to host the young ladies honorably…which means that their parents have to pay for the “date”.

Pesach 2003

Pesach Countdown 2003

March 25th -- It’s raining again, and has been for the past 5 days, on and off. After 5 years of drought, and talk about importing water from Turkey, Israel has had a wet, wet, wet winter, and the cold wet weather is holding on for dear life. Mt. Hermon is meters deep in snow, and the Jordan River, which feeds into Lake Kinneret (which has been dangerously low since last year) is bursting its banks. People from all over Israel are coming up North to see the phenomena, but I was able to put things into perspective when speaking to a guy from California who just finished the Livnot program. “They took you up to see the Jordan River, huh? Isn’t it amazing” I asked. “Uh, yeah, it’s really something” the young man replied. “So, where are you from? What do you do?” I continued. “I live in northern California” he answered “and I lead white river rafting trips.”
Suddenly, our little Jordan River seemed a bit embarrassing. Yet for those of us whose daily prayers for rain are a bit more intense than a Californianers, the Jordan is doing just fine.

Another weather perspective comes with the upcoming Pesach holiday, which is now 3 weeks away. Everyone is complaining that, due to the rain, they “can’t start Pesach”, meaning, in this part of the world, they can’t air out all the bedding, wash and put away the winter coats, open the windows, and basically use the outdoor areas next to their house to wash everything off. This is what people are used to here, and they feel that they can’t clean properly if their house if they can’t open all the windows and all the doors. I’m not sure whether they just assume that Jews who live in colder climates don’t clean for Pesach, but I think that they do!

March 28th -- Pesach is 3 weeks away, and already the stores are cutting down on their chametz stocks, and starting to clear the shelves for the Pesach items. Little by little, the shelves are stocking up with the Passover items, and the managers of the stores seem to be constantly yelling at the clerks to be careful about mixing up the “kosher for Pesach” items with the non-kosher-for Pesach items.

April 1st –at work today, a bunch of us started the yearly trade…floor traders on Wall Street could use a lesson from us. “…yes, I could use a kilo of flour. Do you have any soy sauce? I’ll need about a half a cup…does anyone need margarine?” The next morning, we regrouped, and everyone walked away with fewer of her “oversupply” and some of the co-worker’s extras.

In my house, we’re pretty well on schedule, food-wise, though it has created some interesting food combinations. Noodles with chocolate sauce comes to mind. There are some items that, no matter how close to Pesach it gets, I dare not be left without…vegetarian hot dogs, for one. They are Margalit’s lunch staple, and she’d rather go hungry than have something else. Luckily for me, Hagai, another champion picky eater, will eat fried eggs with anything, crackers, toast, or 3-day-old bread, so I don’t have to worry that the welfare authorities are going to show up on my doorstep.

April 8th – school vacation officially starts. I haven’t fully figured this out, even after 12 years of having children in the school system…Since early in the Hebrew month of Adar (pre-Purim), the kids have rarely stayed in school for a full day. First, the weeks before Purim are simply chaos as day after day is filled with trips, preparations for the Purim shpiel, decorating the school, and every other manner of confusion. Once Purim has finished, the kids and teachers just seem to switch into a pre-Pesach mode, finishing early, spending the days cleaning the school, and even, in the case of Ariella’s class, taking a few hours off to go on a class-shopping trip to the shuk (open-air market). Avishai goes into school only for his matriculation exams/study classes, and every day, when the kids come home from school and I say “what did you do today” they generally mention an “educational movie” that they’ve seen (Sixth Sense?) or a hike that they took.

However, be as it may, they are now all on vacation, and the pre-teen girls of the neighborhood are vying for the 2-8 year olds to come to their day camps.

April 12th. The Picnic. For the past 20 years, families of the Old City have had a tradition of heading up to Tsfat’s Citidel for a Shabbat HaGadol (the Shabbat before Pesach) picnic. Everyone brings their own food, and spends the afternoon there sitting under the trees (parents) or playing football and Frisbee (the kids and young-at-heart) and finishing their chametz. My kids start asking about the picnic within a few days of Purim’s end, and more than one mother has added the prayer for “good weather for the Shabbat haGadol picnic, PLEASE” to her pre-Pesach morning devotions.

April 13th. Shopping for Pesach. Definitely my worst chore…even though I always do my shopping several days before the holiday, the lines are long, the aisles overcrowded, and tempers short. In addition to trying to remember what I need for Pesach, my pesach shopping is made more difficult by the “kitnyiot” issue – tradition of Ashkanazi Jews not to eat legumes or pulses (or any products thereof) during Pesach. In America, where the majority of the Jewish community is Ashkanazic, all Kosher-For-Passover products are kitnyiot-free, but here in Israel, where the Sepharadim happily eat kitnyiot, Ashkanazi Jews who wish to keep their traditions must check each and every product for, not only the Kosher-For-Pesach label, but for a second “kitnyiot-free” label. (Since soy oil, which is the mainstay of many products, is a by-product of the soy plant, this is complicated). So my shopping takes twice the amount of time that it would otherwise.

April 14th. Usually, during the last few days before Pesach, we take all of our chametz food and dishes out on the porch, and eat there for a few days, but this year, thundershowers are forcast, so while the kitchen is ready for pesach, and, in fact, I am already cooking there, our living room is littered with corn flake crumbs and pieces of pita. The dry dog food is also chametz-dik, and our daushaund has a bad habit of taking a few pieces of dog food into whichever room she’s going to sleep in during the night…I guess that it gives her a feeling of security. The end result, however, is that we still have a lot of cleaning and checking to do…I commiserate with young mothers whose children still walk around the house with cookies and crackers, though they all think that I’m a little nutty when I admit that it’s our dog’s wanderings which cause us extra work.

April 15th. Almost ready. We will be hosting some friends who recently divorced…they wanted to be in a situation where they could attend the seder together, in order to minimize the possible discomfort of their 4 daughters who would otherwise have to choose to be with either their mother or their father for the Seder. Both parents are friends of ours, and their daughters’ ages coincide with our 4 younger kids, who also get along well.

My menu-planning is made more complicated by the fact that the father of this family, as well as the family which will be coming for lunch on the Yom Tov (holiday – Thursday) are vegetarians, so the pesach standard of chicken doesn’t help me this year. I have been pouring through my cookbooks, looking for vegetarian kugels and filling salads. There’s always matza to fall back on.

The variety of traditions within the Jewish world is never clearer than during Pesach. Aside from the issue of kitnyiot, many Ashkanazi (mostly Hassidic) Jews eat “non-Gebroit” food, which means that neither matza nor matza products are mixed with any other food. No kanidilich, no matza brei, not even matza and butter! In addition, although I wrote that Sephardi Jews do eat kitnyiot, I have recently learned that not all Sephardi Jews do so…evidently, those from Northern Morocco DO eat kitnyiot, while those from Southern Morocco don’t (or the other way around), and different Sepharadi Jews follow their rabbis who do or don’t, no matter where they come from. Some Jews will eat no processed food during pesach…this includes dairy products…while others won’t eat any food processed DURING Pesach, meaning that they buy all of their dairy products before Pesach, and make them last throughout the entire 7-day holiday (8 days outside of Israel, except in a year like this, when Shabbat comes at the end, which makes the holiday a 10-dayer). Some Jews will only eat fruits and vegetables which can be peeled, and they peel all their fruits and vegetables before eating them (no tomatos). Some Jews boil any sugar, salt, tea or coffee BEFORE pesach, and only use the concentrates during Pesach…the explanation, which I heard once, is too complicated to even THINK about writing here!

So, with all this in mind…have a happy, healthy, and wonderful Pesach!
Purim Countdown

March 1st – our “mivtzva” (campaign) for Purim Mishloach Manot, is formally launched. Observant Jews traditionally give mishloach manot packages to one another on Purim. It is one of the four obligations of Purim, the others being the obligation to hear the Megilla (Purim story) , the obligation to give tzdekka to the poor, and the obligation to have a Purim Seudah (festive meal). In the religious community, people prepare platters of cakes, cookies, and goodies to give to each other (one is supposed to give two types of food to two people). This year, a group of women has decided to prepare ready-made platters and sell them, with the profits going to a local fund which gives food coupons to needy people. Notices are put up throughout the city, and, since this is the modern age, notices are put up on the Safed website ( and the local e-newsletter. Within hours, we have received a phone call from the States, as well as local orders. A good start.

March 4th – Rosh Chodesh Adar, the first day of the month of the Hebrew month of Adar. This is the day that the kids have been waiting for all year, since, between Rosh Chodesh and Purim (approximately two weeks) there is little actual learning that occurs in the schools.. Every day, there’s another activity…a trip to the sports center in Metulla for the day, a hike on Mt. Hermon to see the snow, sport day,, dance day, breakfast day, etc. The religious high schools have a few nighttime activities, notably the “crowning” of the Rabbi/Rabbitzin of Purim. (The Rabbi is crowned at the boys’ school; the Rebbetzin at the girls’). These evenings include skits, songs, dancing, and a general atmosphere of craziness. During these two weeks, I am unable to keep track of which child is where, and which one will return home at what time…it seems as though the porch light is on constantly.

March 5th – standing in line in the supermarket, the woman ahead of me is buying flashlights and batteries. No one doubts why she’s buying these items, and a discussion ensues…are you preparing? Have you bought anything? Remember last time….? Most people, at least in the area in which I live (sparsely populated) don’t seem to be in a panic about the impending war and Iraq’s intentions…maybe fatalism has struck, or maybe we just don’t think that we’re going to be a target. The most annoying thing about the whole experience seems to be the lack of baking soda available in the stores – baking soda is one of the “anti-gas” items that we were instructed to stockpile, and there seems to be little available in the meantime for anyone who wishes to bake.

March 6th – Bomb blast on a Haifa bus yesterday. This time, one of the boys who was killed was from Tsfat, a friend of Avishai’s, and Avishai goes to his funeral. This is the first time that I personally know a family of a terror victim, and I dream about his family. Avishai and his friends spend most of the evening together.

March 7th – At 11:30a.m., Hagai walks into the house. Why is he home early? Seems that his teacher broke one of the “rules”, and the class ended. Purim is famous as the holiday of “l’hafochu” – everything is turned topsy-turvy. In that vein, the schools traditionally let the kids make “the rules” during these weeks, and every school posts it’s “takkanon” on the bulletin board near the office for all to read and notice. Gum chewing is allowed during classtime. Teachers have to start every class with a joke. Every class period has to have at least 3 breaks for “singing and dancing”. Any teacher who is late to class has to end early. And so on. Hagai’s class drew a chalk line down the middle of the board, and made the “rule” that if a teacher wrote on the “wrong” side of the line, the class would end. Sure enough, the teacher’s chalk touched the wrong side of the line, and 20 boys head home early.

March 8th – Shabbat ends, and we turn on the radio, to hear of another terrorist attack, this time on a home in Kiryat Arba, where terrorists invaded the home of a couple and shot them while they were eating their Shabbat dinner. The woman turns out to have been the beloved teacher of one of the girls doing her national service in Tsfat, and we try to comfort her. Again, too close to home.

March 9th – Margalit comes home with a “It’s a Mitzva to be Happy” paper from her kindergarden…the girls (it’s a girls class) are supposed to dance daily at home for at least two minutes, and if they have their paper signed every day that they did so, they get a prize at the end of the week. I only hope that these kind of things help her forget the images of the blood-stained Kiryat Arba living room that she just saw last night on the news, on the bulletin that interrupted her Walt Disney Robin Hood movie.

March 10th – Hagai comes home early from school. Why is he standing in my office at 11:30a.m., waiting for the keys to the house? It’s Sport Day in his school, and he doesn’t like sports (at least, not when he’s not making up the rules), so they just let him go home. Schools can be…lax…in Israel. Hagai spends the rest of the day on the computer, playing virtual sport.

March 12th – This year, I’ve promised myself that I won’t wait until the last minute to buy the costume accessories for purim, so I head up to town with Margalit, Hagai, and Yochi. The rule in our house is that we don’t buy costumes, but each child has a budget for accessories – a crown for the royalty, black nailpolish for the ghoulishly-dressed, and the all-important colored hair spray for anyone over the age of 10. We walk into the store, which is crowded to bursting with all the other families who decided to shop early. Margalit, who is planning to dress up as a “Flower Queen”, immediately finds a crown and septer, some glittery nail polish, and some lip gloss, and is happy. Yochi finds the color hair spray that will make her into an acceptable “punkistit” for the 7th grade, puts in in my hand, and heads home…she doesn’t want to be seen hanging around with us. Hagai can’t make up his mind, and wavers between a sword that looks like it’s entering his head from one angle and exiting from another, or fangs that squirt blood, or a mask that looks like Boris Karloff. At some point, some smart-aleck kid opens one of the stink-bombs that the store sells as a gag, and the store empties. Hagai grabs some hair spray and the squirting fangs, shoves them in my hands, and runs home. I must remember this system for encouraging quick decisions in the future.

March 14th – Hagai ran off to school with a good deal of excitement today…today is “Yom HaTalmid” – Students’ Day. In the elementary schools, during that crazy week before Purim, the 6th grade takes over the school for one day, filling in the roles of the staff. During that day, the principal is relegated to one of the classrooms, and spends the day sitting at a desk taking orders from the new “teacher”, while one of the other 6th graders takes over the running of the school for the day. It’s not unusual for a parent to call the school on that day and find that the “secretary” can’t spell puberty, much less act like someone who has reached it. The classes are taught by other 6th graders who imitate the mannerisms of the teachers and aides, and the day usually ends with a skit in which the 6th graders parody their daily lives in the school. It’s a lot of fun for the kids…most teachers, too, enjoy seeing how they are viewed by their students.

March 16th – Tomorrow begins the 3-day Purim vacation…though Purim is really only a one-day holiday, the schools recess for 3 days. So today is the day that the kids go to school dressed in their costumes. As I drove margalit to Gan this morning, dressed as the “Flower Princess”, we passed dozens of kids who were outfitted in an array of costumes which rival anything that Halloween has to offer. Hagai had whitened his face, smeared fake blood over it, stuck in some plastic teeth, and left for his Talmud Torah as a vampire. (I used to worry that the school would disapprove of such non-Jewish themes in my son’s costume choices until I began to hear what the Rabbi’s sons were dressing up as!) Yochi borrowed one of Yoni’s old shirts, braided her hair, put on a jeans skirt, and went as a cowgirl. Later during the morning, the gan-age children (kindergarden) parade through the streets in their costumes, and many adults who have no reason to be outside at 10:00a.m. find themselves with errands to do, coincidently at the time that the gan Purim parades begin.

March 17th – when I made aliyah almost 20 years ago (!) I was told that “it always rains on Purim”. Sure enough, the springlike weather is scheduled to end this afternoon, and thundershowers are forcast for this evening, when we go to the Megilla reading. I am sure that there is some symbolism in this somewhere, since it really HAS rained almost every Purim since I’ve been in Israel, even during drought years. But I haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe one of my Kabbalistic neighbors….

Another interesting coincidence is that, 12 years ago, the Gulf War ended on Purim day. This year, the war with Iraq is threatening to break out again on Purim…we can actually stretch Purim a bit, since Purim in Jerusalem stretches through Wednesday, (Many kids in Israel celebrate Purim with their families, then hop on a bus on Purim afternoon, and celebrate it again in Jerusalem!) Purim has always had some strange connections to evil in our day…there are a number of eerie connections to the Nazis and the Nurmburg trials, and present-day mystics have also made some unsettling connections between Purim and the wars against Saadam Hussain. The outbreak of war on Purim is still unsure, but many people are aware of, and unnerved by, the coincidences.

March 18th
Twelve years ago, preceeding and during the Gulf War, the hotels in Israel were empty. Little did we know then that AFTER the war ended, the Jewish Agency was paying the hotels to KEEP THEIR HOTELS EMPTY…most of us just assumed that tourism hadn’t yet rebounded from the war. Two months after the Gulf War ended, the reason for these empty roms became evident to Israelis – overnight, 14,000 Ethopian Jews were airlifted out of Addis Abbaba as rebel soldiers stood ready to attack the city, and brought to Israel. The hotel rooms were prepared, and the immigrants were whisked, in an orderly manner, to their new (temporary residences). These individuals were almost the last Ethopian Jews left of a community whose history in Ethopia goes back to ancient times.

At that time, the Israeli government decided not to bring the Falash Mura to Israel. The Falash Mura are Ethopians whose ancestors (within the last 150 years) converted to Christianity, due to tremendous pressure by the government and the local churches. The mainstream Ethopian Jewish community has maintained a distance from the Falash Mura, and doesn’t support their absorption in Israel, but in recent years, the Israeli government, along with the religious establishment, has made a policy decision to bring the Falash Mura to Israel and facilitate their integration into Israeli society, including conversion to Judaism. Tsfat hosts hundreds of these immigrants, whose numbers grow weekly, as, planeload by planeload, the community returns to their Jewish brethren.

When my family and I entered the synagogue last night to hear the Megillah, our normally spacious quarters were packed to the rafters with new immigrants who had come to join us in celebrating their first Purim. (Since the story of Purim occurred after the ancestors of the Ethopian Jews had already left the Land of Israel 2500 years ago, they had no Purim tradition in Ethopia). The new Israelis sat mesmerized, mothers with babies on their backs, most adults still wearing the traditional African white robes, while their children danced around, made up as clowns, astronauts, queens, kings, cowboys and princesses. The Megilla reading wasn’t a quiet affair, since the numerous new immigrant children joined the numerous “veterans” in noisemaking, but for all involved, another circle was closing.

We learn from Jewish tradition that in the days of Messiah, all the holidays will be cancelled except for PURIM (Midrash Shachar 9:2). Why a one day, "minor" holiday be part of us forever? The message is very strong. When everything seems hopeless and dark, just like in the time of Esther and Mordechai, when we were destined to be wiped out. There is a possibility for salvation (v'nahafoch Hoo). We need to remember it all happens through the power of UNITY.

February 2003

Tsfat Blog – Feb 2003

So, there’s a lot of good news, and some “kacha” (so-so) news.

Firstly, the good news is that…it’s been raining heavily all winter! The so-so news is…it’s been raining heavily all winter. Obviously, one can’t pray for rain, and then complain about it. But, it does make life a bit awkward sometimes. For one thing, we have two dogs. The short-haired dog rarely leaves the vicinity of the heater in the living room. But the long-haired dog seems to thrive on the cold and wet weather, and can barely be coaxed into the house, even in the worst storms. She sits outside in the middle of the mulch pile, reveling in the rain and wind, and, of course, when she finally comes in, she’s wet, dirty, and has dead leaves stuck to her fur. She seems to know that we wouldn’t dare bath her in the winter.

We are also loosing umbrellas at an amazing rate – at least one a week. With seven people leaving the house each morning, each of whom wants to take an umbrella with them, I’m giving the local shop good business. The storekeeper has stopped trying to talk me into buying quality umbrellas – he seems to finally understand that he’s doing good business by just letting me restock the cheap umbrellas periodically.

And more good and so-so news…the elections! Israeli elections are finally over, and whether you agree or disagree with the Israeli electorate’s choices, one can only be pleased that the circus that accompanies the elections here has finished. Unlike American elections, where the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties are miniscule, the range here is large and unmistakeable. There is an ultra-Orthodox Sepharadic party, and ultra-Orthodox Ashkanazic party, a religious Zionist party, a non-religious Ashkanazic party, an anti-religious party…you get the idea.. People here are passionate about their political choices, and expressions of allegiance are not limited to bumper stickers…for weeks before the elections, one cannot walk along the street or enter a shop without hearing the devotees of the various parties waxing loud and long about the benefits of their particular party.

Now, of course, the elections are over, and each party has won or lost as much as it’s going to for the next (roughly) four years – now the circus moves to the new big-top, as the coalition talks begin. Sharon, as the new Prime Minister, must put together a coalition of at least 61 seats in the Kenesset – 51% of the plenum. So now our evening entertainment is watching the direction of those talks…the Labor party has vowed that it won’t sit with the Likud, the Shinui party has vowed that it won’t sit with Shas, Ya’hadut HaTorah has vowed that it won’t sit with Shinui, etc. But in the end, most of us cynics expect that they’ll all sit with each other…after all, entering the coalition means receiving “goodies” – money for one’s institutions, passage of laws beneficial to one’s supporters…..I think that I prefer the Democrats and the Republicans!

And onward. Working in the Tourist Information Center, I see the drop-off of tourism, but it simply makes us more aware of those who are coming. For instance, next week, a group of 20 is coming to Livnot for a 2-week program. Even the director of Livnot is a bit surprised…after all, Israelis are unpacking their gas masks and clearing out their sealed rooms. But all 20 who registered are still listed as being ticketed and planning their arrivals, and at the end of last week two more people registered to come! Anyone who thinks that it doesn’t boost morale hasn’t seen my office this week…the locals have been peeking in the door all week, asking “is it really true that you’re having a group? They’re really coming?” And when I say “yes”, they walk away, shaking their heads in wonder, but smiling. REALLY smiling.

Even more than the possibilities of war, we are consumed with news of the victims of the economic situation here…people who are living without food or heat. The soup kitchens in Israel are overwhelmed, and the funds which grant financial help to those who can no longer pay their rents or utilities, much less buy food are stretched to the limits. There are more and more beggers on the street…some of them children, who ask for money for their families, many of them immigrants who never “made it” in their new land. We are asked daily for food stuff, blankets, spare heaters…anything which can help these people make it through one more day. Social welfare has been cut across the board, leaving the unemployed, single parent families, the disabled, and most of all, children, in dire straits. To tell you the truth, I don’t dream about the possibilities of war or attack…but I do dream about these people, the numbers of which are growing daily. Local charities are turning away needy people at the same time that government agencies are cutting social services, and there’s nothing Zionistic or patriotic about the misery that these people are suffering.

Finally, as many people know, we have been given the word…prepare for war. . The army gas mask distribution center has been opened here in Tsfat for the past 3 weeks, and brochures are beginning to make their way to the public in Hebrew, English, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, French, and Amharic (Ethopian), with instructions of what civilians are to be doing. Being a “veteran” of the last Gulf War, I know what to do…the problem is that, in our house, our “sealed room” is so crammed with day-to-day living that the only ones who could fit into it would be the dogs (they’re small). Besides, I remember from the “last time” that, if people are awakened in the middle of the night from a missile alert, the first thing that everyone needs is the bathroom, which the sealed room doesn’t have. (“Last time” we didn’t have a special sealed room, so we used the kids’ room, which has a bathroom off the side of it, and our confinements were quite pleasant). Anyway, the Home Front has officially notified us that we are to begin stocking canned food, bottled water, a radio with batteries, etc.

All of this is bringing up the “war stories” that many of us have from “the last time”. Much to my surprise, my older kids, who were 5 and 3 at the time, remember vividly the gas masks, rushing to seal up the room during an alert (and then having to unseal the door, push the dog in, and reseal it) and their father’s absence during his call-up to the army. Avishai, 17, is pretty blasé about the whole idea of preparations, and laughs at us while we wonder which crackers will keep best in our little shelter. All of the kids have had soldiers come into their classes to demonstrate the use of the gas masks – it seems that the only one who isn’t quite sure what to do is me. (I didn’t realize that they had made these school visits – I found out when I was reading Margalit a book about a firehouse dog, and they showed the firefighters putting on their anti-smoke masks, and margalit piped up “I tried on one of those in gan!”) As for the general mood – well, it varies…there’s a bit of fright and panic, but for the most part, people are taking a wait-and-see attitude, which is what we’re doing. (I will buy the tuna and crackers, though).