June 21, 2018

A Golden Thread

The beauty of living in Israel is that there is always more to uncover and discover. 

The country has a varied geography, stunning topography and is a cultural mosaic. Israel has a rich history that we can trace back millennia and some of this history can be experienced before our very eyes.

There are Jews here who can trace their ancestry a few generations back. Many others have family trees that take them to Eastern Europe or North Africa. And in Tzfat, there are families who can trace their roots as far back as the Spanish Inquisition.

Margalit Zinati. Photo from Times of Israel
Yesterday, I encountered a golden thread in the chain of the Jewish people. I met a special woman whose family originates here, right where the Jewish people began. It was from Israel that the Jews were expelled and began their long story of wandering. Yet her family remained.

Margalit Zinati’s family left the smouldering Second Temple that was destroyed by the Roman legions under Titus. It was the year 70 when several Cohanim, priests of the temple, fled Jerusalem and headed north away from persecution. Many Jews remained in the debris of the fallen city, others were slaughtered or captured and enslaved.

Margalit’s family brought two stones from the mighty Temple, a massive and impressive building constructed by Herod the Great. They wandered from Jerusalem into the mountains of the Upper Galilee. When they reached a stream on a mountaintop near a secluded valley, they stopped. Here they settled, founding the agricultural village that we know today as Peki’in.

The village was Jewish. The priests built a synagogue, placing the two stones they brought from the Temple inside and learned how to farm the rocky land.

They lived this way for centuries. Arab villages dotted the hills around them. Druze, who were persecuted in Egypt, eventually settled in the area and over time, Arabs who converted to Christianity also became neighbours. Thus, four religions lived in peaceful coexistence tucked away in the Galilee mountains. 

Peaceful coexistence. Photo by Haaretz

The story takes a sharp, dark turn between 1936 and 1939 during the Arab revolt. Arabs across the country rebelled against Jewish immigration to Israel and British plans to partition Palestine to make way for a Jewish national home. They attacked Jews, killed many and forced the families of Peki’in to flee.

In 1940, after the riots were quelled, the only family to return home to Peki’in was the Zinati family. And as the Jewish population dwindled, the Druze presence grew.

Margalit distinctly remembers her father repeating how important it was to preserve one’s home. And so she kept her father’s promise and stayed on. Since she did not want to leave her village, she never married.  

Today, Margalit is the only Jew left. She is 85 years old and she is a legend.

She speaks Arabic and Hebrew and dresses like an Arab woman. She is possibly the only Mustarab alive in Israel. (Mustarabim are Jews who live with Arabs.) They used to live in Tsfat, Jerusalem and in villages in the Galilee. Today, there are none.

Her house has become a museum called Beit Zinati. Her fame has reached far and wide and people come here to meet her, pilgrims searching for a connection. Although there is no minyan in the shul she looks after, families often do bar mitzvahs there, praying in a synagogue that was founded by our ancient Cohanim.

And so we visited this wonderful woman. She is tiny and is a powerhouse. She recited Psalms (Tehillim) and gave us a blessing for health, for a long life and for peace. She has seen war, hatred and strife and is now living in peace with accepting neighbours who respect her traditions. 

Main square in Peki'in

People move to Israel from all over the world bringing their varied customs and languages with them.  When we had the privilege of sitting with Margalit, we were surprised to see her speaking Arabic. 

She told us her father would wear tzitzit together with his keffiyeh (Arab headdress). As modern olim, we do not associate this with Jewish clothing. Yet here, sitting in front of us, was a descendant of the very first Jews in Israel and yes, this is how they dressed.

Margalit gave up a lot in order to preserve a Jewish presence and now she continues to give by blessing her visitors. Instead, we should be blessing her.

These lines of Tehillim evoke her dedication and her light:

“Then I will preserve your Torah constantly, forever and ever. And I will walk along a broad path, for Your precepts I have sought. And I will speak of your testimonies before kings and will not be ashamed. And I will delight myself with your commandments that I have loved. Tehillim, Chapter 119, 44-46.

Here you can watch a video of Margalit.


May 21, 2018

Milk and Honey

The sun dips behind the trees casting shadows across a green lawn. Students mill about, some sitting on the grass chatting, others studying, heads crouched over laptops.  

A Jewish student stands with her prayer book, facing south towards Jerusalem. She sways as she mouths the words. Beside her, a Muslim student unfurls her prayer mat – south towards Mecca. She bows, kneels and recites her prayers. Side by side, they focus, both taking time out from a busy day to talk to God.

Is this a kind of Shangri-la? Some pie in the sky reverie? No. This is a regular day at Ariel University.   Ariel, however, is unlike any other Israeli university.  It is in the Shomron, also known as Samaria, and to some as the West Bank.

Despite its controversial location and resulting boycotting, it is a success story. Ariel University is now Israel’s eighth university, having received full university status in 2012. It has a student population of 15,000 including Jewish, Arab, Druze and Circassian students. Ariel is proud to have the highest number of Ethiopian students in the country.  The school also has a unique track that integrates highly functioning autistic spectrum students into university studies.

The university is now building Israel’s sixth medical school, the Sheldon and Miriam Adelson School of Medicine.  At the medical school’s ground-breaking ceremony last summer, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett said, “There is a beautiful aspect of coexistence here, since there is activity at Ariel University that serves both the Arab public and the Jewish public.”

We were fortunate to visit Ariel University just last week. It was my first time being at an Israeli university ceremony and we were proud to be there to see our son-in-law receive an award of excellence in his studies.

Having attended university in Canada, I had my own preconceived notions of a university ceremony: solemn, sober, formal.   Yet here I was, sitting in an auditorium crowded with parents and friends of the students.

Decorum? Middle-eastern style: informal and relaxed.

Professors gave speeches about innovations in their programs including speech therapy, nutritional sciences, medical management and physiotherapy. People streamed in and out as like a bus station. Babies babbled.

Photo credit: Arutz Sheva
I could have been at an Israeli high school.  Or an IDF army ceremony - except the award winners had traded in army boots for Naot sandals. One family came wearing t-shirts printed with their daughter’s name – the last time I saw this was at army function.

Right in front of us sat an Arab family. A mom with a head scarf, her husband and son who I assumed would be soon getting an award.

A student spoke and someone from the nursing school sang. (A singing nurse may come in handy on the hospital floor.)

And then the awards! The professors read out the names and the students filed onto stage. They received a certificate and then a huge hug. When it came to the nursing school, the hugs looked like those you see at an airport arrival lounge. Such joy and love from professor to student.

There was shuffling in the row ahead of us and to my surprise, it was the Arab mother who stood up to get an award! My daughter whispered, explaining that Arab students usually favor medical sciences and most of them are women. They work extremely hard and are academically very successful. I clapped, having great respect for this mature female student.

On this beautiful afternoon in a university town called Ariel, many of my assumptions were gently flipped upside down, popping my mind open.

Losing labels and preconceived ideas opens worlds and makes room for a place that is supportive and has a shared vision – like prayers recited in silken sunshine. Our modern land yielding milk and honey.

April 30, 2018

Garden of Children

In the mornings when I walk my dog, I pass a gan. Gan is a preschool in Hebrew, yet it also means garden. In this ‘garden’ of children, I usually hear the energetic sounds of toddlers creating, learning, sharing, and of happy shouts in the playground.

Yet this day, the school yard was transformed. The small children were standing quietly and still. Upright. Focused. They were dressed in blue and white, the boys wearing white shirts and blue shorts, the girls with white tops, blue skirts and a white crown of flowers in their hair.

One ganenet (the preschool teacher) held an Israeli flag. Another teacher led the children in song. The children stood proudly. They knew the words to the songs, poems celebrating the founding of this land and the building of this country. Such small children are part of such a big vision.

And now, seventy years later, these poems are still alive, beating in the hearts of this young generation.  Then they sang HaTikvah, the national anthem of Israel.

This mini ceremony was created for the children in anticipation of Yom HaZikaron le Chayalim, Israel’s day of mourning for lost soldiers and victims of terror. This day of sadness is immediately followed by a day celebrating the country’s independence. Sorrow and sweetness. Heaviness and dancing. Such is life here in Israel.

I know of no other country like this place. Perhaps it is a shared Jewish narrative of survival and sorrow combined with an unceasing threat of destruction. This dark undercurrent forges family-like bonds. It encourages people to appreciate life and to live life to its fullest every day.

I looked again at these children and thought about what their futures would look like. One day they would wear army uniforms and many of them would see combat. They will feel joy and sadness, jubilation and mourning like no other people. These highs and lows sculpt this nation’s heart.

I too feel intense emotions living in Israel, but as an immigrant, I am on the outside looking in. I still do not know the words to the songs and poems these children are singing; poems expressing love of the land by Naomi Shemer (who wrote Yerushalayim shel Zahav), Hannah Senesh and Hayim Bialik. 

I stood there listening to the singing with reverence. I did not grow up here and I have no family ties to those who were pioneers and who risked their lives to build Israel. Yet I try to imagine what it is like for these young children brought up in a world where exuberance turns to tragedy in a heartbeat.

And so I cried together with all Israelis on the eve of the Memorial Day Ceremony for lost soldiers and victims of terror. The next day I visited soldiers’ graves, including many 18-year-old boys. 

That same evening, I experienced how low spirals to high, and sadness turns to celebration. In synagogues, we flick the switch from a day of mourning to a celebration of independence with the blow of a shofar.

We hold our breath.  The primal call that blares from the ram’s horn, our religious symbol usually heard during the Jewish New Year, is also the ignitor proclaiming that we're back in our homeland living freely and democratically.

The shofar stops. Fireworks burst across the sky. Sandaled feet stomp the ground in dance. 

The children from my neighborhood’s gan are all staying up late and celebrating. Some are perched on their fathers’ shoulders as their parents dance holding hands in a circle. Others are waving blue and white flags in the park, eating candy floss, wide-eyed as they watch the fireworks.

They are all growing up in a vibrant country. Israel is 70 years young and these sweet children of the garden are already playing an integral part of our history.

 A tree rustles in the wind
In the distance there's a shooting star
My dearest wishes are being wished right now
Please guard all these things for me
And over my beloved ones
Over the quiet the tears and this very song

Al Kol Ele by Naomi Shemer

Photo by

March 20, 2018

Beware the Zombies!

Guess there is no going back. Pesach is in the air and is coming fast to a home near you. I’m staying calm and composed simply by using the denial method. Besides, it is now beach weather here. Why stay indoors cleaning?

One thing I am doing is buying Pesach products. This is because I have a phobia of being near chaotic grocery stores closer to the holiday. In fact, I actually went Pesach food shopping just yesterday.

However, this morning I decided to face the contents of my pantry and see which chametz ingredients are still lurking there. I found a box of lasagna noodles and half a box of cannelloni. As I cannot have them in my cupboard after next week, I have two options: throw them out or make a lasagna.

So back to the grocery store I went, this time in search of ingredients to prepare my chametz dishes. Sounds a big backwards?

When I went to get a shopping cart, I saw that the Shufersal store had implemented a kind of high tech grocery cart vending machine. 

People were standing around looking at it quizzically, not knowing what to do. What was so wrong with the old system of putting a 5-shekel coin in a lock to release a cart?

And why would the store invest in a fancy new lock system, yet not replace their shoddy, dangerous old carts? These shopping carts roll sideways, not forward. Pushing these carts could send a sore back into spasm. 

And trying to maneuver a full shopping cart that goes sideways through a busy parking lot without denting a parked car or hitting a delivery truck is an insurance liability.

We pulled at the locked carts. Nothing. We looked for the 5-shekel lock on the cart. Removed. We then took to staring at the new machine. Silence - a rarity in Israel. This machine had thrown us shopping robots completely off balance. 

Someone approached the machine and clicked on the computer screen. The machine talked back. It told the person to take a cart from Row Number 1. He approached the row and, eureka, a cart was released.

We followed suit, typing in our citizenship number and getting our carts. This high tech system care of our start-up nation enables the store to know who has their cart. I imagine the Shufersal cart police turning up at my house demanding an absconded shopping cart.  

It is a broiling March day as I exit the store. I am sweating as I push my cart sideways through the busy parking lot. As I cannot access my car easily, I consider pulling the shopping bags out and lugging them to my car. I try to do this, but the cart rolls off on a collision course towards another car. Did I mention that these carts also have a tendency to crash into expensive objects?

But even if the cart were to obediently stand still, I realize that I could never leave it  - it has my ID number associated with it.

Looking around, I see confused shoppers who cannot deal with the new machine wandering like zombies, looking for an empty cart like mine to nab. 

I hold onto it tightly and steer it to the high tech machine positioned close to my car. I type in my ID number and hold my breath. Nothing happens. I do it again. Nope. This high tech machine care of the start-up nation will not compute. It does not let me return the cart.

I wrestle the cart all the way back to the store entrance, feeling like I’ve ridden a long slimy snake back to the starting point in Snakes and Ladders. And, at the store entrance, the machine happily directs the cart back to its nesting box.

I’m no engineer or logistics expert, but the problem with this high-tech innovation is now obvious. You can only return it where there is a slot  – and this slot is obviously nowhere near  shoppers’ parked cars. 

I know there are smart minds in this country but maybe we export our clever stuff and leave the half-baked ideas back home in Israel for zombies like me.

Whatever the reason, I’m too tired and sweaty to think about chametz or Pesach or shopping carts. 

It is time to perfect my Pesach denial method and head to the beach.

Chag Sameach!

February 27, 2018

Israelis live and love to travel


I just came back from a month-long adventure in New Zealand. Yes, I saw lots of sheep (there are some 27 million fluffy sheep grazing the rolling green hills and pastures). But, I also ran into many Israeli travelers. We knew we would run into Israelis, but were still surprised at the over representation of this tiny nation.

Since New Zealand is over 16,000 kilometers away from Israel and Israelis comprise 0.11 % of the world's population, meeting so many Israelis was astonishing. (The world’s population is 6.4 billion and Israel’s population is 8.4 million.)

So why, wherever one travels, does one hear Hebrew? Last year, 7.6 million Israelis traveled abroad. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism reported that nearly three quarters of Israelis went abroad at least once in the last two years. One in three Israeli travelers went away three times in two years and half of the travelers went away two times in the last two years.

Post-army travelers are definitely represented in these high numbers. After having completed a long and tough army service, many young Israelis put on a backpack and fly far away to decompress. You can hear Hebrew on a remote mountain peak in the Himalayas, meet Israelis enjoying a falafel in Berlin and tramping along ancient Aztec trails in the Andes.

Some 60% of them fly off to South East Asia, while 30% go to Central and South America. The remaining 10%? They can be found wandering around Australia, New Zealand and Africa.

However, it's not just young Israelis who love to travel. Older Israelis are also exploring the world in huge numbers. When we were away, we saw Israelis of every age hiking, touring and driving the roads of beautiful New Zealand.

On the flight there, I was seated beside a young woman who was about to travel solo for five weeks in New Zealand. Not your average backpacker, Sari is an Orthodox Jew from B’nai Brak. She was fulfilling a dream and was renting a car and driving across the north and south islands, planning to spend her Shabbats at the various Chabads in New Zealand. She had brought a suitcase of kosher food with her.

We also ran into Israelis at the base of the Tongariro Track, walking the trails on the Abel Tasman Track, and sitting in huts on the Kepler Track. We heard Hebrew in Milford Sound and in a tiny place called Akaroa. 

Israelis of all ages were there. I am not sure why they have the travel bug but it seems to be a national characteristic. 

Here’s another interesting statistic: the population density in New Zealand is 18 people per square kilometer, while Israel’s is 391 people per square kilometer. So maybe because Israel is so small and compact, Israelis have a desire to get out and stretch. 

Geopolitically, domestically and economically, stress in Israel is huge. In New Zealand, people need not be concerned with national defense or terror. Their worries are more in the environmental area. Headline news in the New Zealand Daily Times was “Albatross chick dies after attack.” Even this incident wasn’t hate or racially based. The perpetrator was the baby chick’s mother.

Whatever the reasons may be for heading to far-flung New Zealand, Israeli tourism has made an impact. While in remote Milford Sound, we read about a tour that provided guiding in the following languages: English, German, Mandarin and Hebrew. 

Kova Tembel photo by Sam Itzhakov
What about French, Dutch and Spanish? These languages were not represented, but Hebrew was. We also stayed at one place where earthquake evacuation instructions were in English with the Hebrew translation written underneath. 

We soon started to play the ‘Let's Spot the Israeli’ game, trying to pick them out of a crowd before we heard Hebrew.

Israeli ID giveaways
- Kova tembel sun hat

- Shoresh sandals

- Guys with a koo koo (ponytail) or dreadlocks - these are not European hairstyles

- Guys with a rough shaven look and often beards

- Rugged, casual clothes

We also noticed something deep in the Israeli eyes. This I cannot describe with words as it is almost a soulful knowingness. Most of their eyes are a beautiful blue or green set in an olive complexion. (This is not a Dutch, Scandinavian or German look!) Whatever it is, Israelis do look different. Or, have I developed my own Israeli radar?

We saw three young Israelis, all post army, sitting in a hiking hut quietly working on a jigsaw puzzle. One of them pulled out his camera to proudly show the ranger a photo of a kiwi bird he had spotted. A rare find.

Staying at the same hut, two older Israelis preferred to sit outside alone for breakfast. When they saw Amir pull out his tefillin and daven on the beach, a light of camaraderie opened in their faces. They invited him to eat with them and wished us  ‘lehitraot’ as we left.

On one of the last mornings of our trip, as we were doing dishes in a camper park kitchen in Akaroa, an older guy sat alone. He pulled out a finjan, an Arab-style coffee pot and prepared to make his morning ‘botz. (The Israeli word for mud and a strong Turkish-style coffee.)

He asked us in English if we wanted a coffee. “It's strong,” he warned us. And then we knew!

Who else would travel around with a finjan? He even brought his own paper espresso cups from Israel. We looked down at his feet. Shoresh sandals!

He was a retired air force pilot who was taking out time to see the wonders of the world. He too was heading back to Israel soon and as part of his travel experience as a non-religious Israeli, he would be spending Shabbat at a Chabad in Christchurch!

As soon as he realized we were from Israel, he opened up and was fascinated to meet anomalies like us, Israeli immigrants who speak poor Hebrew and are, as olim, still outsiders in Israeli society. So on his adventures abroad, he also learned more about who lives in his own country.

Travel opens minds. When other travelers (including New Zealanders) asked where we were from, they would always then ask us why we would choose to live in Israel. I never asked people why they were living in Germany or Luxembourg or the Netherlands. I once explained to a young German girl that I am there because I am a Zionist.

“A Zionist?” the young German exclaimed.

It was a conversation stopper. She was silent.

Zionist. That beautiful term I used to describe a return to our homeland obviously has a dark meaning for the rest of the world.

But then Amir explained to her, "It did work out so well for the Jews, my family included, who were living in Europe in the Second World War. We too need a safe place and a homeland.”

Silence again. Hopefully that was food for thought for a young liberal German mind.

When we travel, we open our minds and our souls. We make new connections and broaden our knowledge. 

We develop new appreciations and learn about ourselves and others – and when in New Zealand, this also includes albatross and penguins and sheep!