November 27, 2019

What's Next?

I take a break to sit outside on this brilliant November afternoon.  Feeling the warm sun tickle my face, I  look way up to a cloudless, deep blue sky. Birds perch in treetops and sing. It all feels so tranquil - idyllic for a former Canadian who knows about November sleet and snow all too well.

I take out my phone and scroll through the headlines. “IDF girds for response after attacking Iranian, Assad targets in Syria.”

The Iranian Quds launched four rockets from Syria into the Golan early yesterday morning. In response, Israel bombed Iranian targets in Syria. And so the story goes.

Rockets from Gaza aimed towards Israeli civilians. (AnasAba/AFP)
Last week, Gaza launched over 250 rockets at highly populated cities. Israel retaliated. A cease fire was called. And was broken. And again it is quiet. And so the story goes.

Deliveries in shelter at Ashkelon Hospital (Yedioth Aharonot, Gadi Kiplu)
Living in the north, we did not really feel the effects of this terrible siege;  alarmed parents woke their kids to run into shelters, and entire families lived in in these small safe rooms for days; elderly people ran for cover, many falling in their panic; and women in labour had to deliver their babies in  underground shelters.

Wedding in a bomb shelter (Karin Kleinberg)
Weddings that were planned for months had to be cancelled at the last-minute, the bride and groom scrambling to find a new event hall – or not
One couple from the south had to scramble to find a new wedding hall, relocating the wedding in Tel Aviv. A famous confectioner, Lior Koka, used Instagram to help them plan their wedding again. Lior wrote to her 163,000 Instagram followers at 7pm, “We need help with all the rest.” 
Bride, in the middle of her wedding photo shoot, takes cover (Shirel Ben-Hamu)
People responded right away and within an hour and a half, a professional makeup artist, hairdresser, DJ and photographer all volunteered their services. Restaurants offered catering including desserts - and even a barman.

Despite all odds, life continues and it flourishes. And when the rockets stop, life returns to what I guess is normal - although no day in Israel is ever normal. 

I scroll down the headlines and see the other leading story. “Liberman says he won’t endorse Gantz or Netanyahu, signaling third elections.”

Each politician blames the other for not being able to compromise and make a coalition government. They have argued and accused one another, but politicians’ egos are obviously more important than governing a country.

We went to the polls on April 9 where both Likud and Blue and White won 26% of the votes and won 35 seats each. But they were unable to pull together a government. So Israelis went back to the polls on September 17. Both Likud and Blue and White won 25% of the vote, with Blue and White getting 33 seats and Likud winning 32 seats.

It is now November and there is still no government, so back to the polls it is and so the story goes.

There is an absurdity to all of this and yet there must be some backstory that we do not see. How can any country exist without leadership, with constant terror threats and with rockets being fired at civilians from two of its borders?

Not only does Israel exist, it excels. Despite the existential threats and a government in shambles, scientists and researchers are busy in their labs working on medical innovations. 

Arab Israelis on campus (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
High tech companies are coming up with solutions to keep the roads safer, improve cybersecurity and create non-polluting fuel. Students continue studying, with Arab Israelis, who excel in higher education, now comprising one third of the students at Technion. 

Tourism is booming, with over 2.2 million people visiting Israel to date in 2019, up over 10% from last year.

I put down my phone and stand on my balcony, from where I can see the Golan Heights.  It looks quiet, hazy, serene and I wonder, how can this be? And, what's next?

After living here for 14 years, I can see that despite all odds, life here continues in a beautifully absurd way. 

October 27, 2019

After The Chagim Syndrome

It feels like we have all just completed an ultramarathon – 23 days of holidays.

It all begins on the first of Tishrei with Rosh Hashana, then rolls into Yom Kippur and speeds up like an avalanche coming down a mountain gathering force. 

We barely eat after the fast before we take out our hammers and poles to build sukkahs. And then we sit outside in our booths where we eat, pray, see family and friends. 

And just when we adjust to our outdoor reality, it’s over. Goodbye Sukkah – the ‘avalanche’ is back, grabbing us until we reach the joy and dancing of Simchat Torah. 

We are dizzy, breathless, yet on the 21st of Tishrei, the avalanche is in full force and we hold on for life.

We dance, we sing and we don’t know where, after so many holidays, the energy and impulse could possibly come from. But then...boom!  It stops, slamming the brakes so hard, it feels like whiplash.

Sore. Dizzy. Overweight. Dazed. I think I may have a severe case of ‘After the Chagim Syndrome.’ I really should put the pieces of my pre-Tishrei life back together. 

All the items on my to-do list are overdue; packages I purchased online from abroad have simply disappeared -- even the dental crown that was ordered for me has not turned up at the dentist. And I cannot even pick up the phone to pay the parking ticket that nags at me.

One would think that after a month with no routine, I would be motivated to get back into the swing of things. 

Yet. I. Cannot. Move.

I will simply let it run its course as there is surely wisdom behind such a spiritually packed month followed by a blank slate. The intensity and energy of dancing, hours of supplication in prayer, the piercing of the shofar, the festive meals, the rustle of a luvav and a starry sky seen through the slats of my sukkah.

It’s as if I have left a wedding where a band plays loudly. Entering a silent garden, I still hear the ringing in my ears, and am relieved to finally be in serene silence.

And just as the memories of our sweet High Holy Days recede, the evenings become chilly. Rain falls, lightning streaks across the sky. The clocks turn back and we now sit indoors as darkness envelops us.

As I look across the dark, lonely mountains, I imagine Jews living here in the times of The Temple. Just before the cold winds howled, rain pummeled and darkness descended, they had their month of festivities to gain the spiritual strength needed to endure.

It is the light of our celebration that will sustain us and fuel our faith. I will embrace this sudden, jolting change in pace and let it take me to a deep and silent place. 

September 26, 2019

Working the Land

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.
Genesis 8:22

Although we have been living in Israel for 15 years, our relationship to The Land continues to grow deeper and more profound.

We recently moved from our home in central Israel and headed north. We sadly left good friends, a warm community and a vibrant urban scene filled with culture, gastronomy and convenience.  

But we also left behind congested traffic, the irritability and stress of living in a highly populated area, honking horns, parking challenges and sticky, sweaty humidity.

We headed to the Upper Galilee, to mountain vistas where the air is crisp and eagles surf the wind stream. We are blessed with seeing the sunrise peeking above one mountain and later dipping behind another, streaking tangerine across the horizon. Nights are strangely intense – silent save for cricket song against an open black sky speckled with planets and stars.

We have a large, sun-filled yard that begs for a vegetable garden - my dream. As soon as I unpacked the house, out came the trowel and the seeds. We first collected wood pallets and made a composter, then added our kitchen scraps. It felt so good, healthy and wholesome.

That warm feeling lasted a whole two days. One morning, I visited my composter with new food scraps and realized that it too had its own nocturnal visitors. The entire structure was upended as if it had been tossed into the air, spun around then trampled on. We looked at it with our city eyes: Vandals? Emboldened street cats?

None of the above – it was wild boars. The entire moshav, I was told, has a strong fence around the entire perimeter to keep out wild boars. However, the secure fence did not preclude fencing in a few.

With tusks and a huge body mass of up to 200 kilos, wild boar can be dangerous, especially a mama boar with baby boars. Which makes us realize that our urban dog, softened by sleeping indoors on soft carpets, could be a tasty appetizer for one of these pigs.

We abandoned our composter. The seedlings sat dejected in their small containers, our garden project stymied until we found a solution.

The boar fence went up yesterday, care of my husband’s sweat as he first dug a trench, hurling a pick axe into the rocky soil, pounded steel poles deep down, then hung metal fencing.

As the sun popped up this morning, the tiny lettuce, spinach, kale and parsley was gently patted into the soil, watered and swaddled by the fence.

Tilling our soil, sifting rock from coarse earth, timing the planting with the impending winter and understanding when and where sun’s rays will kiss the seedlings – all of these details bring me back into alignment with the land and imbue me with awe.  I feel as if I have returned to my source, a simple and elegant harmony. 

According to the Torah, humankind was formed from earth and ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden and had to tend their land, it has been hard, back-breaking work to yield a crop.

In Israel, it is time to harvest walnuts, grapes, pistachios, apples, honey and pomegranates and it is time to plant winter crops for the next growing cycle.

Just yesterday, we woke up before dawn and helped our farmer friend pick Shiraz grapes from his organic vineyard. As the sun rose, some forty people arrived, all volunteers, who collected the bountiful harvest of juicy purple bunches.

With my feet on the ground and my hands in the earth, I am discovering that this is a spiritually sensitive land.  Rabbi Shimon said, “There is no plant without an angel in Heaven tending it and telling it, ‘Grow!’” 

Working the land in Israel is truly a spiritual experience; we can realign with our origins and when we participate in this, we renew creation.
When the pomegranates here are ruby red, Rosh Hashana is nearing. This chag, when I will pray for abundance and for early and late rains in the land, my thoughts this year will be more ‘grounded.’ With tender care, we can all help the earth endure.

Wishing a sweet and abundant new year to all!


August 30, 2019

May Hashem be gracious to you

As life takes us on its unending bumpy ride, there are highs and lows, stresses then release, beauty and futility. And just like the relentless pounding of the August sun, in Israel, everything here has intensity.

We celebrated the Pidyon HaBen of our grandson, Neta Shalom. Just two weeks ago, when he was one month old, the family gathered in Efrat for the tradition of redeeming the first-born male child. In the days of the Temple, the first-born male would serve as a priest. In order to redeem him, the baby’s father would offer five silver coins to a Cohen, a patrilineal descendant of the priestly family of Aaron.

Shaarya gave the Cohen the coins and we then gathered closely as the Cohen placed his hands on Neta’s head to give him the Priestly Blessing or the Dukhanen:

May Hashem bless you and guard you
May Hashem make His face shine unto you and be gracious to you
May Hashem lift His face unto you, and give to you peace.

It was a moment brimming with abundance. From great grandfather to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, we all felt the gratitude of having the miracle of Neta here, enriching our lives.

We then gathered in Hanna Sara’s beautiful garden, the setting sun golden, casting warm shadows on our faces. Large clusters of ripe grapes hung from her vine, her apple trees decked out with a bounty of crisp ripe fruit, the pomegranates ruby red. 

Being gathered together in this setting to celebrate the miracle of a healthy baby was like a taste of Gan Eden.

We must savor these moments – because the bumpy ride of life will soon seize us and jerkily tear us away screeching.

Click. I take a sweet photo of Neta with my 85-year-old father.  He sits under the grape vine smiling with pure joy as he holds his first great grandchild.   

Yet four days later, my father lies in a hospital bed hooked up to oxygen, a catheter, a sodium chloride drip and an anti-viral drip. His vitals are displayed on the screen outside the nurse’s station. The machine flashes and beeps, the screen spikes and drops, creating panic in my gut.  

The bumpy ride of life took him down with force. Shaking, his temperature spiking, he lay barely conscious while specialists were called on. Blood tests were taken, x-rays and ultrasounds made and a lumbar puncture was done.

The results came in. West Nile Encephalitis. One mosquito bite. This virus is most active in Israel from mid-August until October and has been found in the Mediterranean coastal area and from the Dead Sea to Eilat. Most dangerous to elderly people, younger people simply feel flu symptoms for a few days and are then fine. 

Last year, 74 cases were reported in Israel, 14 of them serious. Seems like my father beat the odds, contracting it in his own backyard  simply by tending to the flowers he planted and loved. 

My father’s sickness is considered one of those ‘serious’ cases. I sit by his side as he lies in his hospital bed, eyes barely open. A nurse comes by and as he does his rounds, a cell phone rings. Only then do my dad’s eyes open wide.

Always fascinated by language and culture, he asks, ‘What language is he speaking?’ ‘Amharic,’ I answer. ‘He’s from Ethiopia.’

Others nurses and attendants come and go. We hear Hebrew spoken with a Russian accent, see an Arab nurse address a patient in Arabic, and then we speak to a doctor who has perfect English.

Israeli hospitals are a melting pot of cultures so if one wanted to get an insight into our population, this is a good place to start.

Enter a state-of-the-art, spanking clean hospital with no rules. There is security at the main gate, but once inside, visitors can go anywhere anytime. This is the Middle East, after all.

I have seen Bedouins in the hospital, wearing long white tunics topped with a camel wool kufeya.  I actually saw someone in the hospital garden with a long frock and a shepherd’s crook who looked like Kind David. I have no idea if he parked his sheep in the hospital lot. He then walked past a nah nachman guy with long peyot, woolen tzitzit flying in the breeze.

The Arab patients seem to have an entourage of their entire family here at all times. They drag chairs across the floor of the common room so they can eat their meals together. They bring their small children and their teenagers and simply hang around, listening to music as if they were at a picnic in the park.

Israeli families like to pull their chairs into a tight circle in the middle of the hallway as if they are linebackers strategizing in a football huddle. 

If a stretcher or a patient shuffling on a walker needs to go by, take a number.

Some of us Ashkenazi Jews put our phones on silent and sneak into the corridor when we get a call while others keep ring tones high, then yell into the phone, giving the caller and the entire hospital floor an update on their relative’s health.

From simcha to sickness. We hold on tight as life takes its dips and turns, often at a flying speed.

I can still hear the words of the Cohen from the Pidyon HaBen as my father watched, smiling. And today I pray these words will reach my dad in his hospital bed.

‘May Hashem make His face shine unto you and be gracious to you.’

July 29, 2019

Planting Peace

In the early morning of July 16 (13 Tammuz), my daughter Aviva gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. 

I was extremely privileged to be there during the birth, assisting and supporting my daughter as she slowly and painfully progressed with her labor.

She spent the last hour in a pool set up in the middle of their bedroom. The midwife sat calmly, watchful, Buddha-like in the darkness.  Shaarya, Aviva’s husband, assisted at the side of the pool. Playful fairy lights graced the wall behind them, their soft reflection flickering across warm, glistening water.

Although the labor pains swelled in intensity, this one room set in a tiny yishuv in the Shomron was calm and serene. Soft music played and as Aviva swayed, she and Shaarya sang. In this moment of transition from one world to another, time ceased to be; or maybe eternity unfurled, unfolded, opening to potential, overflowing with abundance.  

Their voices united, sweetened by love, intention and presence quivered like a ring of water, rippling, spreading to the ancient olive trees in the ink black valley below. And, as she cried out, the notes soared up rock-clad mountains to meet the full moon rising. 

She entered another realm where time stood still, ever watchful. The muezzin from a neighboring village called out for the faithful. And still she swayed. Gripped. Fully present, giving mind over to body so it could work its miracle.

And then her baby crowned and gently slipped into the pool of water. She scooped him into her arms, kissed his forehead and held him close to her.

Eyes opened wide to this new reality, this brand-new world, the baby opened his lips and took his first breath. Tired from his long voyage, he sighed and nestled into his mother’s neck. She too was exhausted, yet filled with bliss, she became energized by this miracle she was now holding in her arms.

‘Mazal tov!’ When we spoke these words aloud, the gates of eternity gently closed, shutting out the majesty of that present moment we had all experienced, returning us to our dusty world of future hopes and physical wants.

In a flash, this tiny, vulnerable baby changed our reality, transforming Aviva and Shaarya into an Ima and Abba, and making us grandparents. This baby’s arrival marks the completion of a ‘bridge’ we started to build as we set down roots when we moved to Israel; he is the first Israeli-born member of our family since we made aliyah.

When we hold him, we return to that stillness and become absorbed in the miracle of a new life, his total dependence, his need for comfort and our desire to give him abundant love.  

He had his brit mila on Tuesday. Carrying him on a pillow, his Abba and Ima sang to him as they walked towards the sandek, his saba. And there he was welcomed into our age-old covenant and received his name. Neta Shalom.

Neta Shalom. Planting Peace. His name came to his parents at the start of the pregnancy and it never left. He was named two days after the 17th of Tammuz during the Three Weeks when the Jewish people mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as other calamities that befell our nation.

It is said that we lost the two Temples and faced exile because of corruption, disunity and hatred. Acceptance and love will enable us to plant peace. 

And as we gaze at this next generation cuddled in our arms, we wonder who he will be and what his life will hold. We are sobered by the thought that when he is an adult, we will be gone, yet are comforted by knowledge that he will be there, continuing on our path, just on the other side of the bridge we helped to build.