May 1, 2009

Yom Haatzmaut in Nahal Oz

Wednesday April 29
It was hard to wake up early on Yom Haatzmaut day, but the sweet wafting of Amir’s pancakes always does wonders for the kids. By 9:30 we were on the road, our picnic hamper strapped to the roof of our car. This time, we were not heading to Israel’s Vegas (Eilat), or to Israel’s Sierra Nevada (Upper Galil). We were driving towards Gaza.

I gulped when I looked at my map. Yes, I recovered our lost map, but had I studied our destination before we were on the highway, I would have had some apprehension about this trip. But here we were, on our way to spend a very meaningful Yom Haatzmaut.

Our destination: the army base of Nahal Oz.
Our purpose: to barbecue lunch for the soldiers on the base.

This event was organized by StandTogether. We were happy to do this as we wanted soldiers to know how much we care and how much we value what they do. We wanted the soldiers who, on this special holiday, had to stay at base and had work to protect our country. If it were not for them, we would not be here celebrating.

So we drove past Ashdod, past Ashkelon, past Sderot, closer and closer to Gaza. We passed places that I only recognized from the news. Places where rockets had been falling daily over the years: Netivot, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Sderot. It looked quiet. The fields were brimming with crops. People were cycling along the smooth paved roads. Small moshavim, their red clay roofs set along prim rows, peeked out across the fertile fields. A woman was strolling down the road as if she had not a care in the world.

We stopped at a gas station and I went in to get an espresso. The gas station stood alone surrounded by open fields with Gaza nearby. Thinking of all those gas tanks, I figured that this was not a grat spot to be working. I went inside. Soft Israeli music was playing. There were plush seats. Someone sat with a laptop surfing the net. Bright paintings adorned the walls. A woman in shorts walked in and ordered an ice coffee. I realized that one’s perspective is so relative. Here I am, used to my seemingly more comfortable Raanana reality and feeling a bit fearful of being so close to Gaza. Yet there are many people, including friends of mine, who would never even set foot in Israel due to their own fears. However, for people who live right here, those who order ice coffees, farm these fields, go biking and fill up people’s cars with gas, life is completely normal. I started to relax.

My feeling of ease was short lived. Soon after, I saw a sign that said ‘Gaza’ and 'Karni Crossing.’ Once again, I remembered the news headlines. Most recently, just last week, the crossings were reopened after being closed for Pesach. All looked quiet today.

The road was barred. No entry today. To the right was the Nahal Oz army base. In front of us were a dozen or so mini vans filled with children, picnics and great ruach. We parked in line and waited. It was baking hot and we got out of the car. The group organizer, David, explained that we had to get permission to enter the base. So we waited.

The situation was unreal. Kids got out of the cars and started throwing around Frisbees and baseballs. Parents started to chat. People put on sunscreen. With all these kids and minivans, it looked as if we were waiting to get into an amusement park. Of course my imagination went wild. The situation was really quite unsafe. Here we are, dozens of Orthodox families, ardent supporters of Israel, standing outside cars that were plastered with Israeli flags to salute Yom Haatzmaut. Here we were, all sitting on the Gaza border, squished together like sitting ducks. There was no cover, no shelter. Not even a shady tree in sight. Just the barbed wire fence of the army base.

We were finally given permission to enter the base. The soldiers greeted us with smiles and a happy ‘Chag Sameach.’ We all parked and unloaded the food onto a large basketball court. Walking past a huge concrete wall, I finally felt more secure. Behind that wall was Gaza. We were so close, we could see the windows of their apartment buildings.

The food had all been bought with money donated by a synagogue in Beit Shemesh. Many of the people from this shul were here to help cook and serve the food. The reality was that there were far more volunteers than necessary and there were not enough jobs for everyone. But the sheer number of volunteers made the soldiers feel that much more special.

When we all arrived, the army commander asked for our attention. He then brought reality back to this surreal party. He thanked us for coming and said that we were all brave, explaining that we were just 700 metres from Gaza. He said that ‘they’ were watching us and that ‘we’ were watching them. Although it has been quiet here for a month, in case we hear a Tzeva Adom, the siren, we should run for shelter. He pointed out a few high concrete walls that were shelters. But he did not faze us at all. We all chose to be here and were happy to be at this base.

Within minutes, the barbeques were smoking, the burgers and hot dogs were sizzling. Tables were set up along the periphery of the court and soldiers started to walk in. We must have been a sight. A New Orleans style Wash Board Band arrived with their striped vests, shiny tubas and kazoos. They started to play festive music from the deep south US and they marched around the court. Kids were playing ball. We were all speaking English, serving hot dogs and passing around the ketchup. It looked more like a fourth of July parade. But we far from Centerville, Fairfield, or Pleasant Valley with their well-manicured lawns and local high school bands. This was the Middle East and this was the heart of the conflict. Just past the trumpet player was a knoll. Not a grassy knoll. It was a sand dune with sand bags atop. Soldiers sat on that hill with guns, always watching. Someone brought them a bottle of coke. Then the kids ran up there, wanting to see, explore, tumbling back down the hill. They were politely told to leave.

The soldiers came and the soldiers left. Some grabbed a burger and then ran into an armoured vehicle to do a patrol. The truck honked outside and they all ran in as if it were nothing but a bus to go to school. I was more afraid than they were and I so admire them with their nerves of steel.

The soldiers who could relax a while sat chatting. The highlight for them were the twenty something year old American girls who spoke to them admiringly in English. The soldiers were flattered by all of this attention. One rather precocious little girl started to play ball with them. She spoke only English and chased a group of soldiers, shouting after them “Chicken Man.” The soldiers could not speak back to her so they made a face at her, sticking their thumbs to their ears, then grabbed her and ran across the raced across the court with her. She squealed with joy. At one point the men spontaneously grabbed hands and danced a hora together, soldiers, small boys with peyes flying, older men. Standing Together, Omdim B’Y‎achad.

Yom Haatzmaut 2009

Tuesday April 28
Happy 61st Israel! We go from the sadness of a remembrance day for our fallen soldiers to the exuberance of Independence Day. In Ra'anana, people throng to Park Ra’anana in the tens of thousands. Three stages were set up in the park with non-stop entertainment. Vendors were selling flashing, glow-in-the-dark trinkets, and, of course, food. israelis eat at all hours of the day. Young couples were pushing strollers. No one here seems to use babysitters; parents choose to introduce their babies to the fun at a young age. And, of course, the preening teenage girls were there, acting as if it were their own personal coming out party.

We arrived around midnight and everyone we knew was there, with throngs of people just arriving, despite the late hour. The eenagers have some strange tradition of staying up the whole night so for them, the night was very young.

At one stage, a religious band was playing. Respecting the laws of modesty, girls and boys intuitively separated, dancing their own horas, clapping, singing along and stamping in unison. Young toddlers were propped up on their fathers’ shoulders, twirling in circles as the men danced and spun around. I even saw the mayor being swept into the fray and dancing a few horas!

On another stage, young girls performed flamenco dancing, swishing their black skirts with a flick of the wrist and a quick turn of the shoulder. Due to the thick crowds, I did not make it to the last stage but heard that Israeli superstar Idan Reichel was performing there.

I may be biased, but I felt that the real ruach was at the first stage. Here, people young and old, religious and non-religious, listened and moved to the music with heart and soul. This place represented the energy, spirit and achdut (unity) of Israel, whereas the other stages merely portrayed talent.

From Mountains to Sea- Our Last Day In Eilat

April 20 - Hiking Har Shlomo
What is a trip to Eilat without a hike in the mountains? Amir and I had regained our strength, bought a hiking map and some seriously large water bottles. We asked Donna and Alan to join us, and by 5:00 the next morning, we were ready to go.

We drove out in two cars towards the Eilat mountains and dropped our two oldest children in one spot on the Har Shlmo trail. The two cars then continued up the mountain road for miles until we found the other end of this trail. We dropped one car off and headed back in the first car. I am sure Alan and Donna were wondering what they had got themselves into.

We started our hike in early dawn, hoping to see the sunrise from the summit. We climbed and climbed, having to use our hands and feet as if we were ibex. It was craggy, it was high and a little scary at times. But we kept to the trail and the scenery was spectacular. The silence was deafening.

At one point, I saw three people hiking across the top with a large Israeli flag billowing in the wind. The sight was so majestic. We later ran into them; three Israelis who had just finished the army and who were determined to walk the length of the country from south to north on the ‘shvil Israel,’ a path that criss crosses the entire country. They had camped overnight and had just started out.

The woman with the flag told us that she takes her flag everywhere with her when she travels and that this flag had even been to Poland with her. We wished them well and continued on. The sun rose milky and soft, revealing overcast skies. Perhaps a sandstorm was brewing in some corner of the desert.

We finally made it back to our cars and headed to the hotel district, where people sat caressing cappuccinos. I wonder how many tourists in Eilat get up at 4:30 and experience the rugged hiking side of this place.

Swimming With Dolphins
From desert mountains to a sparkling sea reef - how many places in the world offer such an array of scenery? We ended the trip with our dolphin swim.

Scuba gear on our backs, we entered the cove where eight dolphins live and play. There as also a coral reef there complete with black urchins, fat sea cucumbers, a large sea turtle and beautiful coral fanning in the sea.

My daughter, who somehow decided she had dolphin phobia (is there a word for this?), overcame her fears, and to her amazement, dolphins gently brushed up against her. They must have sensed her apprehension.

As for me, who has no dolphin phobia, but a general all-encompassing fear of scuba diving, I only saw two dolphins who swam past me quickly. Guess they had better things to do. But it was still a spectacular experience. And yes, I would do it again.

Our Encore In Eilat

April 17
“I want to swim with the dolphins!”

Pesach ended with yet more feasting. And then it was time to turn our kitchen over and return to our chametzy lives, having hopefully changed in some way. I always find it hard to bite into that first piece of bread after spending so much time diligently trying to rid ourselves of each chametz crumb. But we succumb to our puffy bread, our egos, and go back to how things were; those new insights buried by pizza crusts and fast-paced lives.

We also found it very difficult to face returning to that normal routine. School was starting. Work. Bills to be paid. Donna and Alan and family from Toronto just met us in Sfat for dinner and the next morning took off for Eilat. It was as if a fluorescent bulb appeared above Amir’s head, shining brightly. “Ding!” Amir loudly announced, “I want to swim with the dolphins!” Of course he said this in front of the children. They all jumped up and down and shouted back, “So do we!” My daughter, who had a history test coming up that she wanted to miss, was ecstatic.

With all those positive votes, I was the only nay sayer. I am our family's consummate party pooper, the negative mom, the downer who likes to do everything by the book and always says 'no.' I had such a great Pesach, I reasoned that it was time to return to reality. I felt that Eilat should be another trip, something planned in advance. We did not even have a hotel reservation.

Amir philosophized that he wanted to live life as if each day were his last. This is hard to argue against, especially living here in the Middle East. I agreed to go but was too embarrassed to mention this plan to anyone, as I knew this would further confirm that we were complete lunatics.

We had a great Shabbat. We did havdalah, cleaned up and I threw some things in a few suitcases. We did not have bathing suits, sunscreen or flip flops. Tzfat is still in winter mode. I was wearing winter boots and a warm woolen shawl. We threw some pillows in the car and the kids jumped in wearing their pyjamas.

At 11:45 we left Sfat, heading down to highway 4. Soon after, I realized that our map book was in a friend’s car. Here we were, hurtling south on the deepest dark highways, and we had no map. We had no hotel reservations. We had no common sense. I had made us some strong Turkish coffee to keep us awake, but the sheer fear of travelling on these roads in the middle of the night was enough to keep my adrenalin pulsing. After 10 minutes of driving, Amir said he felt tired. I, who does not like to drive at night without street lights, could not take up the wheel. I reacted by simply biting my nails.

No gas stations were open, save for the self-serve kind. That meant no coffee and no map. Luckily, before Beer Sheva, we saw a sign for Eilat. I was elated. But this feeling did not last for long. We left the lights and civilization of BeerSheva behind and drove into the dark, lonely desert.

We had no water, no food, no map (think I already mentioned this). My imagination went wild. Of course I had to pee. But any thoughts of stopping beside the road were quickly dispelled. I imagined scorpions in the sand, yellow eyes of wolves, old Bedouin men hiding behind rocks.

To stir things up and make this trip even more exciting, Amir decided to pull over and turn out the headlights. He got out of the car and asked us all to gaze up at the stars. I craned my neck for a millisecond but could not get into the mood of looking for new galaxies. I was probably hyperventilating. I looked out the window and saw a pair of yellow eyes glaring at me. “Wolf!” I screamed. Everyone looked up and we saw a do like thing looking in at us. Not very menacing, but it was still wildlife.

Amir stretched, looked longingly at his favorite constellation and got back in behind the wheel. The road descended and twisted, turned and contorted. It is a hard enough drive in the day, when you can see for miles. But at night, when one is tired and one has no map (did I mention this?!) and no water, it is a different story. I watched the minutes on the car clock go by. It was 1:18, 2:36, 3:48, then 4:02. I waited for the sun to rise as if the night were some wicked spell. By 4:30, we actually arrived in Eilat.

Thankfully, the road was signposted the whole way. We drove to our favorite hotel and Amir found us a room. It would not be available until 10 am. No problem. I felt safe. I was in a parking back in civilization. I was relieved and thankful for arriving safely. By 6 pm, we went to the pool and lay on beach chairs until the sun’s rays reached us. I was cranky and felt hung over.

We heard the first birds squawking in the palms. We watched the life guards scrub the walls of the pool, and saw the the towel guys set up their kiosk, taking warm fluffy towels off carts. The hotel slowly come to life. We saw the first guests wake and deftly save a row of seats, placing sun screen and draping novels across the chairs. They were wearing sandals and bathing suits. They were on a beach vacation.

I was a refugee from the depths of the desert, still wearing my winter clothes from Sfat. Luckily I had a toothbrush and toothpaste in my purse. I went into the lobby to find the rest room and ran into Donna and Alan. Donna looked as if she had seen a ghost – I probably looked like one. She was shocked and, yes, she probably felt confirmed that we were lunatics.

By nine am, the hotel gave us our room. Amir and I wanted to sleep. The kids wanted to go to the pool. They wanted to buy bathing suits, they wanted candy, they wanted goggles, they wanted flip flops; in short, they wanted to be on vacation. Despite their pleas, I still wanted to sleep.

By noon, Amir and I felt like we could face the world and we had a real vacation-like day: swimming in the pool, a bit of shopping, and dinner out with our friends.

Splitting of the Sea

April 15 - Splitting of the Sea
The downside of chol hamoed: you finally get a taste of sunshine and freedom and then it’s back to the kitchen, cooking for yet another yom tov!

This Pesach, we were a team of many cooks, so we got the job done fast. The Yom Tov that marks the seventh day of Pesach signifies the time when the Jews reached the Sea of Reeds and when it miraculously split, allowing them to cross safely. We are told that this happened around midnight.

After dinner that night, we gathered for a Torah shiur given by Mordechai Zeller in the Sarraya. It started around 9:30 and despite the late starting time, many people were there, eager to learn. We were all tired, but the class was fascinating. Just before midnight, Mordechai asked us all to go outside. The wind was blowing. It was stormy and cold. There had been some lightning earlier on. The weather was very fitting as the Torah tells us that before the splitting of the sea, the wind raged and raged.

We huddled outside in the wind. Mordechai asked us to form two lines, one of men and one of women. We must have been close to fifty people, all miraculously awake in the depths of the night. We linked arms and he told us to imagine that each line was either side of the split sea, a sort of supporting wall. We were to individually pass through this line, thinking about how we want to be transformed. Just as the Jews left Egypt and a life of slavery, we too must leave behind those things that keep us in a sort of personal bondage. The journey through the sea and to the other side, he explained, was a trip across the subconscious, a kind of rebirth.

We were all silent as each person took their journey. It was an amazing opportunity, a markedly Tsfat moment, although I found it to be a bit intimidating. If only self-growth could be so easy!

Hiking Nahal Amud

April 14 - Hiking Nahal Amud
One day during chol hamoed we hiked Nachal Amud with the thousands. We usually have these beautiful trails to ourselves but chol hamoed Pesach is prime hiking time for Israelis.

They turn out with their babies wrapped in bundles or peeking out of back packs, teetering toddlers who have just learned to walk, elderly parents and even very pregnant women. They walk in crocs, sandals and high heels. They come with matzoh sandwiches, matzoh pizza and matzoh brie. And all they come with a matzav ruach, a happy spirit. Israelis are simply happy to be out in nature, to be together, to be walking this land in the beautiful spring season.

One of my favorite moments, which made me smile during a rather challenging uphill trek, was hearing a young girl skipping downhill, reciting verses from ‘Echad mi Yodea.’ Only in Israel.

Chol Hamoed and Etti Ankri

April 13 - Etti Ankri On Stage
The first evening of Chol Hamoed, we went to the Yigal Alon Centre for a women’s only concert. I love events for women as I find them very empowering. The centre holds around 700 people and I think they crammed in many more than this.

I had never been in a place with so many religious women before. Some wore hats and some wore head scarves tied in the most creative ways. There was a certain beauty and dignity to these women. By the time the concert started, people were standing in the aisles, sitting on the stairs and even sitting cross-legged on the stage. There is no way any Canadian theatre would have permitted such a thing. But this is Israel and these women travelled far to be here.

Many looked at if they had once come from Gush Katif. They were wearing colourful headdresses, long flowing skirts and sandals and looked like they were around eighteen, all moms, with babies either strapped to their backs or to their fronts. They glowed with youth, beauty and strength.

I remember how paranoid I was when my babies were small and how I would never take them anywhere for fear that they would cry or would want to feed. One woman actually sat on the stage the whole time, clapping to the music while nursing her baby under a shawl. There is a zest for life and an endurance in this country like no other place on earth.

We all said the sephirat ha'omer blessing together and then a woman came on stage with a large tambourine, holding it gently against her pregnant tummy. Her voice was loud. Pure. Strong. She started to sway gracefully. It was mesmerizing. She looked like Miriam who sang after the splitting of the sea. The women went wild. They sang along. They stood up and danced. I was so honored to be a witness to this.

A rebbetzin named Yemima Mizrachi then stood up and gave a Torah shiur that had a touch of stand-up comedy - although I think I missed every punch line due to my inept Hebrew. The women laughed along with her non-stop yet came away with new depths of understanding about the sephirat ha’omer.

And then the main act: Etti Ankri. She was once a double platinum award winning singer and actress who turned religious eight years ago. Now she can only perform in front of women. Her band, a male guitarist and a drummer, were hidden behind a mechitza (screen) so that women could feel free to dance. She came on stage with a headscarf wrapped and tied up and wearing a gold shimmery dress that covered her from head to toe. She looked like some exotic queen.

I think about how women singers in popular culture try to aspire to having thin bodies just to show them off. They then perform wearing as little as possible. The audience becomes more glued to the women’s bodies than to listening to the music. It is almost as if these fans come to idolize and worship only the physical aspect of the performance. I have no idea how a semi-naked woman can enhance music.

Etti Ankri looked dignified, soulful and strong. Her songs were meaningful, deep, emotional. They were about the spiritual world and about striving to be more connected. She also told a few beautiful religious stories. The evening was transformative. I was fascinated by her songs and by her own journey of transformation from the world of rock to this deeper place.

Hallel During Chol Hamoed

April 12 - Chol Hamoed
With the combination of the special Birkat Hachama festival, the spring weather and the incredible choices of tiyulim in the north, there was too much choice of things to do during chol hamoed! We wanted to do everything, yet we only had a few days to fit it all in.

Each morning of chol hamoed, the Beirav shul was doing a special hallel service outdoors in the courtyard of the Sarraya. Chairs were arranged outside in the old courtyard, a place that once the headquarters of the Turks and Brits. Now it was peaceful with flourishing palms, the fronds simmering in the sunshine. A few lofty pine trees towered overhead, the needles shusshing in the cool spring wind.

We all stood silently through the shemonah esrei, heads bowed. Then a violin bow was smoothed, guitars were tuned and a trumpet gleamed in the sun. Hallel became a symphony. We had the honor of hearing a professional violinist, a trumpeter complete with streimel and capote who sounded like a frum mariachi. A few guitarists were hooked up to a sound system, adding richness to the Carlebach tunes. We could not sit still with such glorious song abounding.

We all started to sway, clap and eventually we broke loose into dance. Every moment was so special, so joyous, so rich and so Tzfat. I did not want it to end. It was a brilliant, inspiring start to the day. I only wish everyone could have experienced this beautiful, soulful connection of music and prayer. And, of course, I forgot to bring my camera!

Erev Pesach

Erev Pesach - April 8
My mid morning, our kitchen was full of energetic cooks. We had a team of champion gefilte fish makers chopping up mounds of onions and reviving an ancient family secret in a huge pot. Our daughters were chopping vegetables and baking delicious cakes and squares. Soup was simmering, vegetables were roasting, and dozens of eggs were boiling. The dining room table was set, complete with seder plate and name cards. And our prize table for best questions and answers was on display. This created lots of interest from the children, who became instantly motivated to participate in the upcoming seder.

We all lit candles, welcoming Pesach; this wonderful festival spent in our new home in Sfat, ushered in with the beautiful birchat hachama from this very morning.

The Power of Bircat Hachama

April 8 - The Power of Bircat Hachama
This special blessing is recited once every 28 years, when the sun completes a cycle and returns to the same position as it was on the day of creation. And this year, it fell on erev Pesach. This day is very significant as historically, the sun was in this very position on two other days in Jewish history: Yitziat Mizraim (the day the Jews departed Egypt) and just following the redemption of the Jews in Persia as we are told in the story in Megillat Esther.

As you can imagine, this event was anticipated for close to a year by many. People attended classes on the phenomenon, movies were shown, books were sold. There was a excitement leading up to this day that almost took on a messianic fervour in some circles. In Tfsat, a week-long sun festival was held, starting with this very blessing atop the metsuda, the old fort. The highest point in Sfat was once an old fortress castle. It is in ruins as are many fortresses, but the views are magnificent. On a clear day, I can make out the monastery sitting atop the peak of Har Tavor. The heart-shaped Kinnereth is in view as is the town of Tiberias.

That morning, we set our alarms for 5 am, made a strong Turkish coffee and walked up to the metsuda for 6 am, the start of Shacharit. Buses lined the road, having brought passengers and tourists from all around. I couldn’t imagine what time they had to wake up to see this sunrise – but I could imagine many weary people falling asleep in their soup bowls at the seder that night.

There were chairs set up, a microphone and a mechitza. Aviva and I preferred the hillside with a few rocks for our seats and grass and wildflowers for our feet. We sat quietly and gazed across the mountains, waiting for the sun to peak over. Many others chose to be alone and sat davening, meditating and singing in the early morning light. It was promising to be another clear day. We saw tour a religious your guide speaking to a group of non-religious Israelis, explaining the significance of this moment to them and saying the blessing with them. The group was focused and excited, holding onto his every word.

And then the moment came. I think it was 6:17. We saw a glint come over the mountain top in front of us. We said: "Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe who makes the works of Creation."

This is the same blessing that we use when we see lightning, comets and all other natural wonders. I did not know what to expect at this moment, but I feel that the invested energy of all Jews greeting the sun the world over on this day must raise the level of God consciousness. There was great joy and unity atop our metsuda in Sfat. People hugged. They danced and they sang. Some planted trees as a symbol of the unity of the twelve tribes. We then all made our way home to prepare for the seder. I felt energized and elated but, yes, I still needed another Turkish coffee.

Pesach In Tzfat

I’m just trying to get back to earth after experiencing an incredible Pesach. The day to day life is so ‘normal’ and strange after our wildly busy but fulfilling Pesach vacation. It all started with the regular pre-Pesach preparations, but this time with a twist. We were spending our first Passover in our home in Tsfat. We really felt Pesach was in the air in a very intense way.

In Tzfat, it feels like spring is in the air. The skies are a fresh deep blue and a breeze is blowing strong, helping with the cleaning in its own way, drying off the drapes, tablecloths, bedding. The grape vines are bursting forth, shooting out a collection of fresh leaves each day, and twisting along banisters, rocky walls and up posts. I was able to harness some new shoots just in time, trying to redirect them in a horizontal line. Last year, our grapes grew straight down – not a bad position if one is lying prone and wants to much on a bunch with the twist of a wrist.

April 1 – Pesach Preparations
As each day passed, bringing the holiday that much closer, the cleaning in the neighboring homes picked up with a frenzy. In the old city, homes are very close together, windows are wide open and soapy water is spilled onto the cobbled sidewalks. There is a pervasive smell of bleach in the alleys. Every visible surface is scrubbed and then covered in either plastic or foil.

Young children were out of school and playing outside, throwing around a ball, scooting on their bikes and dearly chewing pieces of pita from small plastic bags, banished from bringing the chametz inside. The kids are all excited, practicing their Pesach songs with each other. The older ones are busy helping the moms, sweeping out the courtyards, hanging up the laundry, hauling out the boxes of Passover dishes and polishing the silver. One day, I saw four baby strollers scrubbed shining in the sun, drying off on a rooftop. People also use this time to get rid off garbage, old clothing, broken shelves, chairs - even couches. Luckily the new mayor is on top of garbage in Sfat these days. And the trucks come around daily in the early morning hours, picking up everyone’s discarded junk.

The regular Wednesday morning market became a twice a week affair and was so crowded it was almost impossible to pull my granny like shopping cart through. My kids keep telling me how uncool I am bumping over the cobbled streets with my yucky green plaid cart. But I feel like I am part of the scenery – except fort those totally cool Ethiopian women who place all of the bags and bundles atop their heads and then march uphill without missing a beat.

Market vendors were aggressively selling their wares and buyers were scrutinizing every agura they spent. Our list was long and detailed and we basically bought everything in this one outdoor market: vegetables, nuts, silver foil, pans, glass cups, garlic press, scrubbers, needles and thread, Passover afikoman prizes, and a large, very daunting piece of horseradish for the seder plate. We even picked up some clothes for the children – paying 10 shekels for shirts and skirts!

As we returned home with the masses of other shoppers, I noticed that the midrechov, the main street was bustling. Stores were so full, their wares spilled onto the streets. The most conspicuous item was shelf paper. Large rolls of plastic in all colors and designs sat in huge rolls on the sidewalk. A man with a pair of scissors stood by the rolls and took people’s orders. Plastic containers in all shapes and sizes were another big seller. And as Shabbat Hagadol passed and kitchens were koshered, the smells of brisket and chicken soup wafted into the streets. Families all went out to dinner, grabbing pizza and falafel as if it were the last bit of dough they would ever eat.

We too did our part, dividing and conquering till the house was gleaming. Scrubbing floors, wiping windows, boiling water to kasher the counters, cleaning the fridge and ovens and stove top, taking things apart till the point where we didn’t think we could reassemble them. And when we were too exhausted to move, we still did not stop. Now it was time to cook for the Yom Tov in our ‘brand-new’ kitchen. We also had guests arriving and who would be helping in the cooking and festivities. They arrived the day before Pesach, arriving with matzoh, grape juice, more veggies and fish. The momentum was building in this sleepy town. But we still had to reserve our energy – we had to be up erev pesach at 5 am to greet the sun.