March 31, 2015

Spiritual cleansing

I crank up our little gas oven to kasher it. I soak the knobs in soapy water, clean out the fridge and wash down the counters. Now ready for the final phase of kashering, I pour boiling water across all of the counters and tabletops. Carefully wiping up the steaming water with a clean towel, I feel as if I am washing away the old and ushering in a fresh new phase. It’s a great feeling.
(from my novel Let My RV Go!)

During these pre-Pesach days, an infinitesimal percentage of the planet’s population hunkers down to scrub and clean and cook. 

If you live outside of Israel, you may take it seriously, but the rest of your country folk continue on with their regular lives.

But here in Israel, an entire nation is busy spring cleaning, shopping, cooking and celebrating. All together.

In Israel, it does not matter whether you are religious or not. Everyone in the country cleans.

Last week, all the students at my daughter’s school cleaned the buildings; they scrubbed the walls, the desks, emptied lockers and swept halls. 

My two kids in the army, together with their entire units, took time off to clean their army bases; they scrubbed every surface on the base, then waited nervously for the highers in command to inspect their important army work.  
Sign outside army base: No chametz until April 12

When you live in Israel you can’t miss Passover because Passover is everywhere.

My phone beeps and buzzes with text messages advertising discounts at supermarkets like this: 

ניקול להזכירך, לכבוד החג נשלח אליך בדואר שובר הנחה 20 ש"ח בקנייה מעל 250 ש"ח למימוש בסניפי שופרסל עד ה12.4.15. מימוש אישי חד פעמי פרטים בסניף. ניתן לממש גם באפליקציית שופרסל: לפרטים נוספים . חג שמח ממועדון 

Billboards wish us all a chag sameach as they announce the newest line of perfumes. This is standard holiday marketing, the kind you would find in North America before Christmas.

Yet Passover in Israel has its own unique twist. Here are some small observations as I did my errands yesterday.

I took a bag of glass bottles for return. I always take them to the same supermarket and always see the same security guard at the door. He looked in my bag.

“Bottles?” he asked. I felt as if I were smuggling some dangerous weapon.

“Yes, I relied, confused.

“No more bottles until after Pesach,” he said, waving his metal detector in the air, as if this were one of the 10 commandments.

 “But, that’s bizarre,” I protested, wondering about the logic of grocery store refusing to take bottle returns for a month just because of a Jewish holiday.

I returned to my car, bottles in hand, knowing that Pesach was serious business in strange ways.

I then went to the car wash.  It was five days before the Pesach seder and it seemed as if everyone in Ra’anana was at the car wash at this very moment. The line of cars went right down the street. Why did I not think of doing this last week?

Running a car wash is a great pre-Passover business. The car wash even had a sign outside announcing an extra special Passover deep cleaning.

Later, when I returned to pick up my car, I did not see the cashier, but I did see an unattended basket filled with car keys. As a reticent, polite Canadian, I did not feel it was my place to sort through the keys when no one was in the office, so I went out to look for her. A worker saw me and thrust the basket in front of me.

“You new here?” He asked, astonished that I did not help myself to any car on the lot.

“No,” I said, sorting through the keys.

I picked out one that looked like it could be mine.

“Try it,” he said, as if he were inviting me to pick any car and drive it home.

Here was a perfect combination of mayhem and trust. Where else on the planet would this happen?

As I drove home in my super shiny, scrubbed and vacuumed car, I saw a moving trucks sitting outside a few homes. Ah ha! The best time ever to move into a newly built or renovated home is before Pesach. The logic? When you have a brand new kitchen, there is no need to kasher it for Pesach.

I then became stuck behind an overladen pick-up truck. It was weighed down with junk: metal bars, fence pieces, old appliances. I even thought I spied a doghouse wedged in there.

I recognized this truck as I had often seen it wend its way up and down streets, a prerecorded message screaming out to people to throw away their junk. Well, 'tis the season to get rid of stuff. This truck is so piled high, looks like it won’t make it down the block.

Last stop was the health food store. As I checked out, the cashier told me that my huge order made me eligible to buy a box of organic matzah for only 9 ILS. 

"Why not?" I replied, tossing yet another box of organic whole wheat matzah into my shopping bag. 

So Pesach is in the air: it's at the car wash, on the billboards and out there in cyberspace. It's in the matzah at the health food store.

As I wrote in my novel Let My RV Go:

All foods that have been leavened are puffed up, akin to our egos. We rid ourselves of selfishness and bad drives, opening the way for a more direct spiritual connection. So when we clean these leavened foods from our homes, we are, in essence, cleansing our souls.

Wishing you a chag kasher v'sameach and a real spiritual cleansing.

March 22, 2015

It's a roller coaster ride

It has been another challenging week here in Israel. Life in Israel is similar to being on a roller coaster. There are ups and downs, curves and moments of terror, then incredible highs before a steep plummet.

The day before election, this country was perched at the top of a deep abyss. We voted and we held our breath. When I went to bed the night of the election, I had no idea which direction the roller coaster was flying and prepared myself to possibly be facing an entirely new direction by morning.

As it turns out, Israelis voted to continue on the same path. So after the election, here we sit, strapped into our seats, still holding our breath lest the roller coaster rails be stripped from under our own dangling feet. 
Dog with wings...the Oketz (canine unit)

On my last posting, I mentioned that when the going gets tough, I go hiking. This Friday morning, just three day after the election, my catharsis was through running.  You see, springtime here in Israel (February and March) is marathon season, with almost every city holding its own run.

My younger son ran the 20 km run in Tel  Aviv three weeks ago along with 35,000 people. And just last week, it was the 5th annual Jerusalem marathon, where 25,00 runners took to the streets, many pushing handicapped children in wheelchairs, while others fundraised for important causes.

Five out of six of our family members put on their runners to participate in the 26th annual Ra’anana run (Meirutz Ra’anana). Ra’anana is a small, family-oriented town, so our runs are always cute and sweet and down to earth.

We arrived to the fanfare of blaring music as everyone sidled up to the starting line. Many soldiers were wearing their unit’s sport shirts. They were fit and raring to go.

Sean Carmeli's picture on the back of a shirt.
My older son was also there with 80 soldiers from his unit, but they were not privileged enough to have their own shirts. In fact, the unit could for some unknown reason only officially sign up three soldiers. So they communally decided to send out their best runners (one of them an Ethiopian soldier), then the rest of the unit ran for the sheer 'fun' of it.

The mayor, standing in his running garb, took the microphone and welcomed the cheering crowd.  Squished in my bright pink shirt amongst a sea of pink, green and yellow shirts, I felt like I was a Munchkin in Oz as the Wizard roared over the crowd.

However, the mayor’s message was sobering. He explained that this 10-km run was dedicated to the memory of Sean Carmeli, a soldier who was killed in the war in Gaza this past summer. Sean was from South Padre Island, Texas, and as he was a lone solider, here to volunteer in the IDF, he spent his weekends living with a Ra’anana family. Sean’s mother was at the race and as I looked around, I saw many people wore shirts with his picture on the back.   
We were soon off and running. I ran with my soldier son and my daughter, then simply ran with the huge crowd. I knew the course well as I had spent many hours pounding the same pavement alone. And here I was with thousands of other runners of all ages. 

I saw a sweet Arab girl with huge green eyes proudly wearing her Meirutz Ra’anana shirt. There were religious women running with kirpas and skirts and women in skimpy tops. Young boys ran elbow to elbow with their dads. The soldiers flew past us all. 

Everyone was chatty and supportive. People stood on street corners cheering us on. Some set up their own stands on the sidewalk and gave out water to thirsty runners. We ran down Ahuza, the main street, past people chatting in cafes, and others buying challot at the bakeries.

We ran and we ran, and when the going got tough, I thought of Sean Carmeli, of his dedication to Israel and the ultimate sacrifice he made so we could all be here running freely. This gave me the strength to continue.

The race ended to the fanfare of blaring music. Of course, the local gymnasts and dancers were performing on the park’s stage.  Every time Ra’anana has a celebration, the young jazz dancers and the hip hop dancers are out there showing us their talents. A bit cheesy. Entirely Ra’anana. 

Three-km family run.
As we left the park, we passed the 3-km race and stopped to watch. This was a true family run.  Parents ran with strollers and strutting dogs and toddlers. Toddlers pulled parents. Parents pulled toddlers. Everyone was laughing and dancing as they crossed the finish line. 

I could feel the thrill of the young kids as they neared the end, so excited by their accomplishment.  It was so impressive that fitness is on the agenda of so many people in this small, sweet town and how this event has become a community affair.
Tiny kids running to the finish line.

We went home tired but satisfied. And what about the Ethiopian my son’s unit chose to represent them? He came in 8th place, completing the 10-km race in 35 minutes.

Muscles sore and medals in hand, we are now back on the roller coaster. Every so often, just like this Friday morning, we appreciate the adrenalin of pushing ourselves to the top. And then we hold on tight….

This video shows the mayor opening the race in memory of Sean Carmeli.

March 13, 2015

Jews wandering the desert

"It's us or them," says Netanyahu.
Election fever is at a pitch here in Israel. Enormous photos of candidates’ faces stare us down from billboards at every intersection. 
The highway is lined with their messages, some threatening doom and gloom, others insulting competing candidates.
For me, the polls predict a grim, terrifying future. Since Israel geographically sits in the world’s most dangerous hotspot, her future is never viewed as bright and cheery. 
But if there were to be a weak government at the helm, I would become gripped by a fear like never before.
Heard Herzog had this photoshopped to look like the 'Marlboro Man.'
Yet this is the life I chose, and despite the potential horror looming ahead, living here is quite amazing. So when the going gets tough, this Israeli goes hiking.
I have seriously hiked the northern part of Israel, following the Israel Trail (Shvil Israel) south from Har Hermon on the Syrian border, all the way to the outskirts of Jerusalem. 
I have hiked trails in the Golan, where flowering oleander borders lush streams, and dipped in cool, snow-fed falls.
Our most recent hikes have been completely different. We changed direction and have headed south to the desert. 
Late February is the optimal time to hike the desert. The rains are petering off (although the desert receives little rainfall, it can be hit by occasional and very dangerous flash floods, water run off from the rains further north) and the temperatures are cooler.
We drove down to Eilat to join a group called Nifgashim B’Shvil Israel (Israel trail Encounters). This organization, formed as a living memorial of a fallen soldier called Avi, walks the country from south to north every year. 
Sergeant Avi Ofner z”l was among 73 soldiers tragically killed in a helicopter accident in 1997. In his memory, his mother Raya and her husband organize these annual hikes so Israelis from diverse backgrounds can meet, dialogue, bond and learn from each other.
We did not know what to expect and arrived at the departure point late and unprepared (like usual). We assumed the group would be running behind like every other group in Israel. Not this one; it was run like a tight ship. That much I could tell already.
With the sparkling Red Sea on one side, and the reddish craggy Eilat mountains on the other, a large group of people stood in a circle, respectfully quiet. 
We heard poems, read out the names of the fallen soldiers to whom this day’s hike was dedicated, heard a song on a guitar. We were told the rules of the trail and each received a plastic baggy with instructions on how to keep the environment clean as we walked.
Looking around, I noticed the crowd was either in their mid 20s (just out of the army) or retired (late 60s). They stood calmly were all perfectly outfitted with back packs, hiking poles, hats and boots.  They were fit looking, all outdoorsy types. 
Meanwhile, my husband had his head buried in the truck of our car, ripping open our duffle bugs, frantically searching for boots and hiking socks, trying to assemble our lunches, filling our shluckers with water. My daughter had no hat. I could not find my poles. Suncreen? Who knows where it could be. BandAids? Dunno. Ouch. Our lunch was well, forget it.
The group said Tefillat HaDerech the wayfarers’ prayer, and started to walk single file up into the mountains. I had my husband’s hiking poles and was pushed along, urged to keep with the group. Amir did not know I had the poles and dug deeper into the trunk. I shuffled along, trying to call him. 
Here we are at the foot of the trail and we are already behind and creating a nuisance. Finally Amir emerges. He is flustered, pole less and angry when he sees his poles dangling in my hands.
We take a deep breath, get into the queue of hikers and leave civilization behind, entering the desert world. With each step, we felt calmer, quieter. The path was steep and within an hour of climbing, the port of Eilat was a glistening dot on the horizon.
Finally at the top, I wanted to sit and have a snack, enjoy the view, contemplate where my two feet had taken me. I was with Beth, a friend from Ra’anana, and we could not find our gang, the English-speakings, our security blanket.
People were sitting on the ground in small groups, papers in their hands and were animatedly talking together. A woman saw Beth and I and waved to us, asking us to come sit for ma’agal time (circle time). 
We were asked to introduce ourselves and explain why we were on this hike and what our personal goals were. In Hebrew? Me? Share? The consummate introvert? I stammered a weak unintelligent response, took a rock, buried my head and scratched at the dirt.
An older woman with a bright flower in her hair white curly hair, dressed in tight, hot pink shorts and striped tights, took out a gas burner and simmered a tea. She started talking about reconnecting to the land as she picked dried mint from a ziplock bag. 
She passed a steaming cup around and each participant politely passed it along until the cup reached the flower woman who sent it off. Full circle.
The Hebrew conversation got deeper and I heard the word Maslow, now assuming they were talking about the hierarchy of needs. I would be out of my depths even if this were in English. 

The flower lady said something about us not meeting the needs of our Arab neighbors and an ex-soldier girl became suddenly animated. 
The conversation was hotter than the tea but respectful. We were, after all, sharing. I was relieved when the ma’agal broke up and became a straight line as we hiked further into the wilderness. I guess I can relate to looking at the toes of my boots better than to a group of sharing strangers.

I will continue our hiking tale after the Israel elections. With electoral instability on the way, I may have to take to the trail full time for some solace and firm ground.