December 20, 2013

A Vilde Chaya Storm

Last week I wrote about ‘the storm.’ I wrote this last post on a Friday afternoon sitting in Ra’anana where hailstones were the most dramatic weather activity we saw. The radio and TV turned off as Shabbat came in and we battened down the hatches in preparation for a very rainy and dreary Shabbat. 
Hail Catching: a unique, highly competitive Ra'anana sport.

We snuggled in blankets, read and relaxed. It was actually very restful. The sun even made a brief appearance on Saturday afternoon, giving us enough time to take a long walk.
Ra'anana's version of 'the storm.'

Little did we know that many parts of the country experienced weather of epic proportions that became THE WINTER STORM of the century. Like hurricanes and tornadoes, it was even given the name Alexa, although many native Israelis thought ‘vilde chaya,’ ‘gevalt’ and ‘oy’ would be more appropriate names.
The Golan after 'the storm.'

Snow fell, making many major highways impassable. Thousands of people were stranded on roads, including families with small children who sat for hours in the freezing cold. Many abandoned their cars and had to be saved by the army.

The heavy wet snow then caused tree branches to fall on power lines across the country, plunging thousands of family into cold and darkness over Shabbat.

In Safed, where they received almost two feet of snow, roof caved in from the weight of the snow. Trees fell on cars and on homes. Electricity was out, causing thousands of residents to sit in the cold and dark.

A friend of mine who lives in Tsfat looked out to Meiron. The normally verdant green mountain was cloaked in white. It was beautiful yet eerie as she did not see one light twinkling from the town of Meiron and the surrounding moshavim; everyone sat for days shivering without power. The road to Tsfat was impassable until Monday. And schools in Jerusalem remained closed for a few days after the storm as tow trucks removed countless abandoned cars from highways.

On the plus side, emergency vehicles were ready to help. Families with electricity took in those who were cold and hungry. For a country without proper snowplows and for citizens who do not own shovels or snow tires or snow boots or toboggans, we coped quite well. 

As Jerusalem blogger Mitch Ginsburg aptly wrote, eight inches of snow is, according to a “Middle-East-dog-year calibration, equivalent to, say, 34 inches in Toronto, 21 in NYC and two in Cairo." 
Israelis learn to love snow.

I am sitting writing this blog in Toronto in a warm, centrally heated home, looking out at snow, snow and more snow.  Homes are so well heated here, you could live indoors in a bathing suit and be toasty. In Israel, our poorly heated home is often colder inside than out, forcing me to wear a jacket indoors all day long.

Being in Toronto now, I can see that this city is 100% committed to bad weather.  There is a storm watch channel constantly updating commuters. Everyone has thick boots with treads, Arctic-grade jackets and state-of-the-art snow tires.  So hot, sunny Israel with its date palms and orange groves gets top marks for dabbling in the challenging world of the winter storm.
Wintry Toronto.

December 13, 2013

The Storm

As early as Sunday, Israelis started talking about ‘the storm.’ I happened to be hiking last Sunday and as I walked along the sea, I saw distinct signs that the weather was changing. The normally docile Mediterranean was black, waves were surging, frothing churning. Dark, ominous clouds gathered and the rain soon started to pelt down.

We were undeterred, although we were the only hikers out on the trail and finished the hike unscathed save for one small downpour and an incredible Oz-style rainbow.

The rain continued to fall and Israelis chattered on about ‘the storm.’ I read that the army was on call and emergency vehicles were on alert.

This is ‘the storm?’ I asked myself on Wednesday, the day they predicted would feel the brunt of its fury.  For a Canadian, this could be a nasty spring day in May. And if you are Russian, a light coating of snow is bikini weather.

My husband wore shirtsleeves to a meeting and received stares of disbelief. Every Israeli was wrapped in multiple layers of fleece and wool. They all wore boots and a wool hat and scarf became standard indoor apparel.

However, the temperatures suddenly fell across the country and in the higher altitudes, the rain turned to snow. Lots of snow.

While we in the center of Israel were pummeled by intermittent heavy showers, Safed, Hermon, the Shomron, Jerusalem, and even parts of the desert, were cloaked in snow.  Schools closed, roads were shut down and access to Jerusalem was closed.
With Shabbat approaching, Jerusalem is under a sort of weather siege and emergency crews are trying to restore order. As there are no snowplows, bulldozers clear the roads. And as many people cannot get out of their homes, emergency vehicles drive around delivering challah. Ambulance drivers giving out challah? Only in Israel.Check out the twitter pic here.

The army has set up a call center to organize Shabbat meals for those who are stranded. Residents with electricity are inviting those who have cold, dark homes to spend Shabbat with them. People who are secular will dine with religious. The cold will not deter us; it will empower us to create warmth and unity among everyone here.

December 6, 2013

The Sacred Olive

December is the season of olive oil. And in Israel, we feel this on a spiritual and physical level.

Spiritually speaking, we all light our menorahs with olive oil. Wicks are placed in glass that is filled with thick, rich oil. The flames that are fed by the oil blazes create a long-lasting golden, warm light. Here in Israel, we try to place the menorahs on the street outside our homes to fulfill the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah.

December is also the season to replenish our supply of freshly pressed olive oil. The olives here were harvested in October and November. They were picked, sorted, then taken to the press where they were crushed.

Living in the north of Israel where there are an abundance of olive groves, we are able to purchase the most fresh, delicious olive oil there is. Tasting this oil, one cannot help but become a connoisseur; this year’s oil tastes like we are eating real olives with a slight picant side note.

Today we went to the Moshav Safsoufa at the foot of Mount Meiron and purchased a jerry can of oil. This is 17.5 liters of pure delight that will last us till next summer.

It is a privilege to buy directly from Simcha, who personally pressed the oil. I think about the countless bottles of oil stacked on supermarket shelves and consider the impersonal mass manufacturing, labeling, branding, packaging, marketing and transportation involved before the oil even reaches the store.  

And then I look at the cute little jerry can standing before me on a gravel driveway in front of an old stone house nestled in a tiny moshav at the base of a mountain. Such a small purchase makes me feel satisfied and complete.

Simcha, the olive guy, explains that it is made from the suri olive tree, is pressed in a place called Yogev press and is 100% organic. However, this oil surpasses organic. These trees were never watered by farmers, which means they have been untouched by man until the olives are actually picked.

There is a certain purity and simplicity in the fact that before me sits a product that has had little interference by man. And when we take man out of the equation, I always feel a distinct spiritual connection. 

In fact, the olive tree is a very special and miraculous plant. It can live for over 2,000 years and prefers a scorching hot, arid climate and poor soil. It is no mistake that it is considered sacred in many religions and has come to represent peace, purity, power and glory.

Last Wednesday, on the last night of Chanukah, I walked around the old city of Tsfat with my camera and watched the oil lamps glowing in the menorahs, flickering against the ancient stone. 

The flames have sputtered out for now and the spiritual aspect of Chanukah may be over, but I have a renewed appreciation of the jerry can of oil sitting on my kitchen floor.

November 28, 2013

One Bite At A TIme

Headlines about Israel are dire. Again. The country’s very existence is threatened. Again. 

Stress levels were high yesterday evening as Israelis rushed, jostled and elbowed their way as if their very survival depended upon it. 

All for donuts.

Headlines may scream out, attack, threaten, but Israelis shrug their shoulders and deal with priorities. Like getting the tastiest, freshest batch of sufganiyot (donuts) for Chanukah.

Last night was the first night of Chanukah and to feel the real spirit of this holiday, you have to head to the bakery. 

Which is what we did.

Here are the latest sufganiya headlines:

Sufganiot selling like hotcakes in Ra’anana’s Amit Bakery.

The bakery was packed as people elbowed their way to the tables filled with a variety of donuts. As soon as a tray was put down, people grabbed empty cartons, a pair of pincers and set to work filling their boxes. And when the tray sadly sat empty, a smiling baker came out with a fresh tray and the exercise continued again.

At one point, the owner cried out “Sabrinot, Sabrinot,” as if we were in a shuk. The pulse quickened and the pincers clicked. I looked down at the popular tray and saw donuts that defied the definition of donut: cream-filled, cherry bedecked and chocolate streaked. 

Sabrinot, Sabrinot!
The mere sight of them created a donut impulse like never before. We ran back inside and were soon in sufganiya Sabrina heaven.

Roladin presents 12 unique flavors for 2013.

We left Amit and headed to Roladin, the largest chain of bakeries in the country featuring a nadir of gourmet flavors. This year’s flavors include the Rosha Ferulina with crème anglaise, walnut chunks, chocolate coating bedecked with bitter chocolate shavings. The Malabi is chocolate filled and topped with white chocolate coating and coconut shavings, while the Biscotella is cream filled with chunks of Oreo cookies topped with Oreo cookies chunks and finished with a generous helping of whipping cream.

Roladin was abuzz with excitement and the busy staff were wearing festive shirts with the words “I love Chanukah. ” Even the donut boxes were dressed up. Across the box were the words “Life Tastes Better With Roladin.” We are in Hebrew-speaking Israel, but according to Roladin’s take on delicious, life tastes better in English.

Whatever the language or flavor, the focus here is on good times. Here in tenuous, tiny Israel,  we take life one delicious bite at a time. 

Happy Hannukah. 
Chag Sameach

November 20, 2013

Be Healthy, Be Happy, Be You.

They call it the happiest five-kilometer run on the planet. Tel Aviv recently hosted an unofficial version of a Color Run™. Color Runs began in 2012 to help promote health and happiness. There have been 170 events in over 30 countries so far.

Last Friday, thousands of runners came out to Hayarkon Park, including my husband, son and daughter. I declined, as I was turned off at the idea of inhaling paint particles. Turns out it was a great time for a great cause.

What is a color run? Runners wear white shirts and sunglasses. As they run, bystanders throw paint powder, dousing runners from head to toe with paint. By the end of the race, participants resemble human tie-dye.

Apparently, the paint is environmentally friendly paint powder made from cornstarch. It is also a great opportunity for Nirlat, an Israeli paint company, to display their wares.

My daughter, who ran with the organization Yachad, took the body painting aspect to a new level. Before the race began, she found herself in a paint fight and became covered from scalp to calves in globules of paint that later required intense scrubbing to remove. How did she get covered in indelible paint when the race was all about removable, healthy paint powder? Only she will know. 

Turns out, the Tel Aviv race was a little different than the traditional Color Run as bystanders did not throw paint on the runners. Instead, race organizers tossed paint from five different color stations. Perhaps leaving paint tossing to Israeli bystanders was a little too risky for  our enthusiastic, assertive population.  My husband finished the race unscathed. 'Too clean,' he concluded.

The Tel Aviv Color Run had corporate sponsors and was organized to raise awareness for Natal, the Israeli Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often called a ‘transparent wound injury'; victims look fine on the outside but suffer terribly from stress on the inside. Since its beginning, Natal has helped 160,000 people who have suffered from post-trauma, as well as their families.  They offer therapists who work with victims in Arabic, Amharic, Russian, French, English and Spanish.

The event was also held on the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. Some forty years later, many Israelis are still emotionally scarred from this war. Many of the runners were PTSD sufferers and the symbolism of this run was to have these victims become more visible as they become covered in colorful paint. Some 1,000 combat soldiers participated in the run. The run ended with a big event for Natal, lots of loud music and colorful fun.

In Israel, sweetness and sorrow are often tied into one tight, complex knot. Israelis suffer, yet they know how to rejoice and run on with their lives. This event was very symbolic of Life In Israel. 

Here is a promotional video:

November 14, 2013

Two Are Better Than One

What does a box of Cheerios have to do with the wise words of King Solomon?

My daughter picked up the cereal box sitting on the counter and glanced at it. Her eyes lit up. “Those words are from Kohelet!”

I looked at the box and saw a pretty young woman peeking through a Cheerio. I translated the Hebrew words into English. “Because four are better than one.” I looked up at her puzzled.

She explained. The full sentence from Kohlelet (Ecclesiastes Chapter 4, verse 9) reads, ‘Two are better than one, for they have a good return for their labor.’

“Here,” she said, pointing to the box like it was a school blackboard, “it is promoting Multigrain Cheerios. And since they are made with four grains, they changed the sentence to say that ‘four are better than one.’”

I would have never picked up on this and was proud that my daughter, our resident Torah scholar, had identified the wise words of King Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba, written some 3,000 years ago.

From the courts of King Solomon to a kitchen in Ra’anana, Israel is indeed a place where Torah lives, although in strange ways. Apparently, most Israelis are ingrained (excuse the cereal pun) with this knowledge and so it seeps into media, advertising and everyday language.

If two are better than one, is four better than one? Was the ad agency trying to tell us that the multigrain version was better because it was healthier? Ironically, that same box of cereal had a short shelf life in my house. 

A few days later, I read about GMOs in Cheerios and tossed the box in the garbage. Apparently General Mills uses genetically modified ingredients to manufacture the cereal. And because the FDA refuses to label foods that contain harmful GMOs, the public is for the most part unaware. Four is not better than one.

However, I recently learned that Nestle, the European branch of General Mills, manufactures GMO-free Multi Cheerios. It is a relief to know that in Israel there is a GMO-free version of this breakfast cereal. Perhaps four is better than one, but I have already opted for the gluten-free, sugar-free, GMO-free variety. My kids say these choices are also taste-free, but we must do our own due diligence, look out for each other and do what is best.

Kohelet’s words apply today as much as they did three millennia ago:

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up

November 4, 2013

Shalom Avichai

Saturday night was Tassim, the annual right of passage for B’nai Akiva youth. It was the culmination of chodesh irgun, Movement Month, and I imagine many parents sigh in relief to see the month over. 

The B’nai Akiva youth group is very popular here in Israel. This religious Zionist youth movement was established in 1929. The Hebrew letters taf and ayin adorn the logo; taf represents Torah and ayin is for avoda or work. The movement wanted to combine Torah values with a work ethic and placed a heavy emphasis on dedicating effort to building the land of Israel. Today, there are B’nai Akiva branches in 23 countries across the world and it has over 125,000 members, mainly modern Orthodox Jews.

Since I did not grow up with B’nai Akiva, I always found chodesh irgun very puzzling. It begins slowly with events a few nights a week at the snif (branch) of B’nai Akiva. The kids in grade nine are specially honored at the end of this month as they receive their shevet (tribe) name. So all religious children across the country who are 14 years old take this extremely seriously even if they had never before attended a B’nai Akiva activity.

This may sound a bit like Fred Flintstone’s unusual initiation by the Grand Poobah into the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes. But b’nai akiva puts Fred’s water buffalo horns aside and replaces them with large Israeli flags.

The whole month, the kids practice a type of parade. They bring broomsticks from home and learn to march in sequence. They also paint the snif, which is a code word for painting each other. Case in point; my son came home last week covered in what must have been the snif’s entire inventory of paint. His hair was so thickly matted with paint, he felt like a bronze sculpture. I followed a trail of paint to the bathroom only to find a pile of gooey splotchy clothes that could have been an abstract art exhibit.

In the final week, the kids then attend a leila lavan or white night, which means they stay up all night. I still do not know what they did all night. The only information I got from my son was that it was ‘fun.’ The religious high schools are supportive of this and for one week, classes start late. The days after leila lavan and Tassim are also school holidays. So basically, the modern orthodox community across the country supports a month-long fest of paintball and broomsticks.

Last Saturday night was the big event. The mayor, the senior B'nai Akiva rabbi of Ra'anana and every B’nai Akiva member and family member was there. The kids were pumped.  They had traded in the broomsticks for real flags and their paint-splotched T-shirts for crisp white B’nai Akiva shirts. They stood in two lines, one for boys and one for girls. The madrichim (counselors) jumped around with microphones and screamed ‘smol, yamin, smol, yamin, smol’ (left, right, left, right, left) over and over again for about two hours while the kids ran around in a frenzy with their flags held high.

And then the moment came; time for a name. Everyone was hushed and then a grand banner appeared up high with the name AVICHAI. There was clapping and cheering and dancing and flag waving. A new tribe was officially born.

I will be honest. I don’t get it. However, I have heard stories about what many so-called worldly 14-year old kids are doing and they would not consider running around holding flags to be ‘fun.’ I am grateful our 14 year olds are expending their energy in a healthy, clean way, socializing in a supervised environment and waving the Israeli flag with great pride.

As I drove my son back, I said to him with great relief, “Well, that’s over.”

“No it’s not. We have to meet at 10:30 for the all-night initiation. We need flashlights, water and a snack. See ‘ya tomorrow.”

Life in Israel for growing kids is on another level.  Just take a look at the thirteen principles of B’nai Akiva.

1. Is loyal to the Torah of G-D, His people, Land and Language
2. Sets aside definite periods for the study of Torah
3. Loves work and hates idleness
4. Sees the future of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael
5. Is kind and courteous to all
6. Acts as a brother to chaverim and is prepared to assist them at all times
7. Obeys his parents, teachers and leaders
8. Is pure in thought and action
9. Is truthful
10. Loves nature
11. Is always cheerful and pleasant
12. Is thrifty
13. Looks after his health

We are living in an enriched society here in Israel and for this I feel thankful. I drove home alone. I may not get the brouhaha (which incidentally is originally from the Hebrew Baruch Haba), but how can a parent complain?