December 28, 2014

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

I have roughed it. At least I thought I had…until last week.

Over the years, I have backpacked through Southeast Asia and trekked the Himalayas. I have slept in yurts, barns, shacks, tents and palapa huts, in dark forests, under sequoias and in steamy jungles.

I have slept at 16,000 feet in a tent buffeted by a snowstorm, waking to see that the water in my bottle was frozen solid.
I have seen rats dancing on barn beams overhead, beady red eyes dancing in a flashlight beam as I hid in my sleeping bag. 

I have slept in a tent deep in bear country, hoping curious nocturnal bears would not have a hankering for Sensodyne toothpaste and devour me. I have slept on a wooden bench in a Sikh truckers’ tavern, waiting to hitch a ride from a frozen outpost to civilization, surrounded by bottles of alcohol labeled XXX.

I have trekked into the wild, bathing in ice cold rivers, bereft of toilets, beds and chocolate (yes, chocolate) for over three weeks.
And I have surprised a hairy tarantula spider, squashing it unannounced on a toilet seat. (To this day, I do not know who was more in shock: me or the squirming, freshly pancaked arachnid.)

Yet, last week on a trip to the Judean Desert, I was challenged like never before. The night before our hike, we all piled into a Bedouin tent at Metzukei Dragot. We brought sleeping bags and were given a mattress each. Our tent was windproof, waterproof and even had a small heater. The tent was huge and our group of 22 had a canvas wall to separate us from another group. Beside our neighboring campers was yet another partition. In total, about 70 people of all ages were cozying up for the night in three sections.

The bathrooms and showers were conveniently located nearby. Seemed like it had all the makings for satisfying, soft-style adventure. We even brought along our dog who sat up, wildly alert, listening to all the new sounds of the desert.

These were the sounds of the desert:
-The clicking of shesh besh pieces moving around a board till the wee hours of the night. 
-A baby screaming. And stopping. Then screaming and stopping.
-The automatic dryer in the mens’ and womens’ bathrooms. How many hands were there to dry? And why all night long?
-Crunching of feet on gravel so loud, I kept looking up, thinking for sure someone was lost and about to step on me. 
-The shesh besh players who finished their game and went to bed but forgot to whisper. 

Some 70 people were asleep (correction 68 as neither my husband or I could get shut eye), yet one man kept asking his wife where his things were “Yaeli, where is my pillow?” he screamed, flashing a beam in every direction. “Yaeli, where is my toothbrush?” he roared, rustling through bags and nearly catapulting the thin canvas between us and them.

My restless, indoor dog who sleeps on silk carpets looked at us pleadingly as if to say, ‘you expect me to actually sleep here?’

Then silence. Ahhh. I repositioned myself, ready to finally sleep, aware that I needed to be well rested for the next day’s hike. The alarm was set for 5:20 a.m., which was probably four hours away.

If I thought the night sounds of the desert were wild and varied, I was in for a surprise. Within minutes, Yaeli’s husband started to snore, dreaming of shesh besh pieces coated in gingerbread and dancing sugar plum Yaelis pirouetting with his lost shoes and socks.

His snores were so thunderous, the poles in the tent shook. It was a new kind of desert storm; unpredictable, I would hear a snore and with no new exhalation, I would fall into a light sleep, only to be hit with an onslaught. His snoring was also contagious, with a second trombonist from the deep dark recesses of the tent joining the cacophony. 

My husband elbowed me and asked if I could sleep. My dog pawed me, looking at me pleadingly as if to say, ‘You actually expect me to curl up at your feet here?’

Whispering, we grabbed our sleeping bags and the dog. Where was my left shoe? Why was Yaeli asleep? She could find it for me. Yet how could Yaeli ever sleep a single wink with such a champion snorer by her side?

We opened the tent flap and fled to the safety of the car, pulling down the seats in the Mazda 5 to make a flat surface. The dog took the driver’s seat (of course) and curled up in a little ball as we pulled shut the back door. 

Silence. No snoring and no hand dryers. No crunching gravel. And no sleep.  The surface was so hard, every position I tried ached. I even gave myself a black eye trying to pull up my sleeping bag and missing. Now it was TJ the dog’s turn to snore.

As for myself and Amir, we basically lay in pain all night in the absolute silence of the desert. No need for an alarm as we did not sleep a wink. 

Not wanting to look like complainers or poor sports, we slunk back into the tent in the morning as everyone woke. They all looked alert, well rested and ready for adventure. I had a swollen eye, an aching hip, a sore back and a swollen ear drum. My dog looked a bit like a wreck, although he was wagging his tail. 

I bet Yaeli and the snorer were about to start and new round of backgammon as we set foot on the trail. And as for the day's adventure, you can read about the desert hike here.

December 16, 2014

Swords Into Plowshares

Tonight, as darkness cloaked Eretz Israel, we lit the first candle of Chanukah. The wicks, floating in vials of olive oil, flickered as they brought light into the night. This is symbolic of the Jewish people; our mission is to light up a dark world.

Our contemporary world is cloaked in a very thick black cloth, where many try to deflect our light into darkness with lies, hatred and acts of terror. Despite these threats, dangers and bloody acts, the enemies still do not understand that our very DNA instructs us to create, invent and give. Despite all. For this is our essence.

One recent tragedy was the massacre of five innocent men in Har Nof, including four rabbis who were slaughtered while in the midst of prayer, draped in tefillin and tallit. These innocent, unarmed civilians and one policeman were murdered in cold blood with butchers' knives and guns.

Their widows and orphans did not cry for revenge or for more spilled blood. They did not riot in the streets or spew hatred. They did not insist on more bloodshed to avenge their deep loss and their spiritual leaders did not call for destruction. 

These widows and orphans cried. They buried their loved ones and beseeched the world to bring in light to elevate the souls of their lost husbands, fathers and grandfathers--to help redeem us from darkness. The community spoke wise words of Torah to counter this evil while the families issued a letter calling for solidarity, love and peace. Here is what they said:

With broken hearts, drenched in tears shed over the spilt blood of holy men – the heads of our families. We call on our brethren wherever they are – let us come together so that we may merit mercy from Heaven, and let’s accept upon ourselves to increase love and comradery, between each individual and each community.
We ask that every person accept upon himself on this Sabbath Eve (Parshat Toldot, November 21-22, 2014), to set aside the day of Shabbat as a day of unconditional love, a day during which we will refrain from words of disagreement and division, from words of gossip and slander.
May this serve to elevate the souls of our husbands and fathers who were slaughtered while sanctifying God’s name. God will look down from the heavens, see our suffering, wipe away our tears and put an end to our tribulations.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Moshiach (Messiah) speedily in our days. Amen.
Signed with a torn heart,
Mrs. Chaya Levin and family
Mrs. Bryna Goldberg and family
Mrs. Yaacova Kupensky and family
Mrs. Bashy Twersky and family
In focusing on a world of unconditional love, peace and truth, these families flooded the world with light.
To elevate our celebration of the Jewish Festival of Lights this year, one creative metal sculptor decided to carve hannukiahs out of rockets. Shrapnel from fallen Kassams that terrorized Israeli civilians, evil shards from rockets that crashed into Israeli children’s bedrooms, caved in kindergartens and terrorized busy roads, were used by artist Yaron Bob to turn instruments of death into vehicles of light.
Etched into the menorahs are the words ‘beat their swords into plowshares.’ These meaningful words are from the Book of Yeshayahu (chapter 2, verse 4):
And he shall judge between the nations and reprove many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Called Rockets into Roses, Israel is once again showing the world light, transforming death and darkness into beauty, meaning, hope and peace.  To complete his mission of hopefulness, this artist is donating a portion of the sales to building portable bomb shelters in the south of Israel.

This mindset is natural to the Jewish people and reminds me of the selfless words of Racheli Fraenkel whose son Naftali was murdered by terrorists last June. She does not speak of bitterness and hatred, rather she focuses on unity and dignity.

The more darkness tries to gain a foothold in Israel, the harder we push back with light. This is our mission and we take it seriously. 
So when we light our menorahs over the next seven days of Chanukah, we should express thanks for the many miracles G-d has sent us and endeavor to bring an abundance of light into a seemingly dim, bleak world. 

Let us pray that nation shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’

Hannukah Sameach

December 9, 2014

Mother Gave Me Paper Whites

Mother always gave me paper whites. 

Each December, she would hand me a gift-wrapped pot with bulbs poking out of rocks. It didn’t look like much. I would be depressed by the onset of winter, a time when horizon and ground melded, the dark, drab sky perfectly morphing into the dark, drab concrete; and when the frozen, drab slush would seep into my permeable, drab boots.

This was when I most needed color and nature. And my mom knew it. I would set my paper whites in front of a window and carefully water them. In no time, little white daffodil-like flowers would bloom, filling my house with a sweet jasmine scent.

The days of paper whites ended when I left to live in Israel nine years ago.  I moved into an apartment with a rooftop just last August. Under the scorching Israeli summer sun, the garden was nothing but parched earth and hardy weeds.

My mom, who passed away in November, is gone. I sat shiva for her in Toronto, flew back to Israel and returned feeling empty—until I went up to my rooftop. There I was greeted by hundreds of paper whites glistening in the sun. 

While I was gone, the fall rains and cool nights awoke them, while the sun encouraged them. And now, as I sit beside them, I take in their sweet scent and remember.

Those potted paper whites craning for a speckle of Toronto light have been replaced by hundreds of plants shimmering outside in full sunshine. Each morning, I watch the sun rise over the Shomron, delineating mountain from sky blue. And then I take out my siddur and pray beside these flowers. 

I remember my mother with each sweet breath because she is so much a part of this. 

Mother always gave me paper whites. And she still does.