December 28, 2017

Resetting the start button

In Israel, life could become clamorous with negative headlines and doomsday politics.  We read the news, dismiss most of it as inaccurate and hope one day the world will wake up and understand the truth.

Our personal antidote to this dissonance is to walk the trails of the country we love. We take out a map, put on our hiking boots, pack up our tent and sleeping bags and head into nature, reaffirming our bond with awesome Israel.

 The weather here this December has been exquisite. It has been mostly sunny and the temperature hovers between 21 and 24 Celsius, making it ideal for hiking.  

We left for our camping trip this past Tuesday and since it had rained heavily on Sunday, we had quite the souvenir waiting for us – mud!

We started with an insanely muddy descent down Har Gilboa. Har Gilboa, with its peak at 1,629 feet above sea level, is the place in the Torah where King Saul and his sons Yonatan, Avinadav and Malchishua were slain in battle. 

Today, it is a peaceful mountain covered in meadow flowers with incredible views east to the fertile Jezreel Valley and the mountains of Jordan.

We slip-slid down, carrying pounds of thick mud under our boots. I often opted for the zero gravity move, which meant my backside made more contact with the trail than my feet. With the mud on our shoes and heavy packs on our backs, it was slow and at times treacherous. 

White crocuses were beginning to flower and purple cyclamen peaked out from the rocks. We saw many deer running across the ridges and shy rock rabbits jumping for safety upon spotting us intruders.

When we made it to flat, firm and dry ground, we were relieved. We walked until we found an oasis in the trees, a park set around a pool of thermal waters. We ate a simple meal, set up camp under the stars and rested our tired legs and achy shoulders. Jackals howled, then all was quiet.

 There is something magical about leaving busy lives behind and returning to simplicity. We had nothing but the packs on our backs. No worries and few needs. We ate basic food that tasted good because we were physically exhausted. Our bodies had worked hard in the sunshine and fresh air and now we were to have a well-earned, rejuvenating sleep.

At the end of 2017, society, with its urban lifestyle, instant communication and slick inventions, feels it has made progress. Yet we have lost a connection to the meaningful. We have deviated very far from staring at the deep dark skies and focusing on the howl of jackals; of having weightless minds and sun-kissed cheeks while touching the land in a gentle, respectful way.

 In this teensy country of natural wonders, I can search out such places where I am able to reset my start button. If others in this world could reconnect in this way, maybe there would be less clamor and confusion.

My pack is ready and sitting by the door waiting for a new adventure. Is yours?

November 26, 2017

Dreams Come True

Israel is a multi-cultural Mosaic. These days, you hear many languages on Ahuza, Ra’anana’s main street. And we can spot the countries of origin right away, without even hearing the language spoken.

For instance, French men tend to wear tight pants and chic leather loafers while les femmes grocery shop as if parading along a Christian Dior catwalk. (And yes, they carry a fresh baguette under their arms!)

French aside, we now hear Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (recent immigrants from Brazil), Russian, Ukrainian, Amharic (from Ethiopia), Arabic, German, English and, from time to time, some Hebrew.

But what about Kuki-Chin? This is a Sino-Tibetan language that is spoken by our Bnei Menashe immigrants and is now heard on the streets. The Bnei Menashe, called Kuki, are from West Bengal in northeastern India.

Just last week, two flights of Kuki olim landed in Israel. After watching a video of showing reunions of these families at the airport, tears ran down my face – tears of joy and tears of pride, realizing I’m witnessing the redemption of scattered peoples returning to Israel.

The Kuki story is a miracle unto itself. In 722 BCE,  the Jews were expelled from Israel by the King of Syria. The tribe of Menashe travelled northeast and kept wandering until they found themselves in the Chin Hills not far from where India meets Burma. 

Although this area is mostly Hindu, the Bnei Menashe were able to keep their Jewish customs and traditions for 2,700 years. They did this through prayer, song and stories. Over the years, some were converted to Christianity by missionaries but others clung to their dream of a return to Zion. They often had to practice their religion in secret, but recently have been able to pray openly.

And now, 2,700 years later, the Bnei Menashe are finally coming home. The chief rabbi of Israel acknowledged their Jewish roots and an organization called Shavei Israel is bringing them to Eretz Israel.

In the past 15 years, some 3,000 have come to Israel, many of them settling outside Jerusalem and in the Galilee. In Tsfat in the Galil, I often see them shopping on market day, their babies cozily tucked inside colorful cloths. The young moms are tiny and compact, exuding happiness in the lightness of their step.

This very special people has a thirst for learning. They are spiritual and proudly practice their Judaism. They are committed, sincere and are true Zionists. And once they arrive, they become educated, find jobs and join the army.

There are still 7,000 living in West Bengal who wish to make aliyah. They are learning Hebrew and Torah studies in preparation for their dream to come true.

And just last week, families fell into each other’s arms in a beautiful reunion. One woman waiting at the airport was reunited with a niece she had not seen in 23 years and with a mother she had not hugged in 15 years. Now, together, they will live in the land of their dreams.

When I look at these people, I am inspired. While living life day to day, it is easy to become ungrateful, frustrated, disenchanted. Yet when we look at the Jewish redemption and of dreams coming true, it’s our wake-up call to see the bigger picture. It's time for reflection and pride and it's a moment to pull out the Kleenex.

These new olim may be counting their blessings to be here, but we must recognize that they are a blessing for the Jewish people. Israel is a living, colorful, radiant mosaic.

October 23, 2017

Israel the Extrovert

A few weeks ago I read an article about the new ‘Cadenza’project in Jerusalem and realized how perfect Israel is for such an endeavor. 

A concrete encased electric piano is placed on a busy thoroughfare of Ben Yehuda Street. Here, people rush on and off the light rail, head to the office and at night, to bars and nightlife.

Anyone is invited to sit down and play. And as Israelis are not exactly introverted, this has become an attraction. Not only do people play, strangers gather to sing. This is not surprising in a country where people are informal and often (for the good and the bad) treat each other as family members.

After watching a few Cadenza videos I felt it was time to compare outgoing Israelis to the basic introverted qualities as presented by Susan Cain in her book "Quiet." 

Let’s see how Israelis fare:

Introverts prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.
Like migrating birds, Israelis are most often found in thick flocks. Their conversations are animated, their gesticulations fierce. 

They do everything together and in crowds. Even activities that one imagines are for quiet reflection attract numbers. Bird watching, spring flower appreciating, hiking and beach combing attract loud animated hordes.

People describe introverts as ‘soft spoken’ or ‘mellow.’
Not around here. Even the sound of Hebrew negates this statement. Perhaps it’s the raspy  ‘kh’ heard in words like chaver, chametz and Chanukah. This jarring sound is made far down in the throat by the uvula, which is the same place a snore emanates from.  

But if you’re of Yemen origin, you’ll make another sound that’s so unmellow, it has a special linguist tag - ever met a voiced pharyngeal fricative? You’ll hear it in Arabic and in Hebrew when a Temani says the letter ‘ayin’ in Ivrit (the word for the Hebrew language). 

Here in the middle east, simply buying agvaniot (tomatoes) and chasa (lettuce) can involve a fricative, turbulent and raspy discussion. 

Introverts dislike conflict.
This is the Middle East. Need I say more?

Introverts are not big risk takers.
If there is anything that involves high heights, sheer cliffs, murky depths and daring, Israelis are first in line. Extreme sports? Israelis salivate over cliff diving, big wave surfing, zorbing, white water rafting, bungee jumping and parachuting.

Was this desire ingrained in Israelis after serving in the army or is it just part of belonging to an extroverted nation? 

If you ever want a popular beach for swimming, simply look for the DO NOT SWIM sign. There may no lifeguards there, but this is where our extrovert Israelis hang.

The introvert enjoys solitude.
As you can see from the success of the Cadenza, solitude is the last thing on the average Israeli mind. Unlike an introvert, Israelis actually search out others. Be it on Ben Yehuda Street playing to a crowd or trekking in the Himalayas, Israelis like to be part of a scene together. 

Like to barbecue in nature? So do millions of Israelis on Yom Ha’atzmaut as they squish into the same park.

As they desire to be the center of attention, solitude is not on the Israeli mind. Even Israeli kids love performing in front of crowds. It’s the culture.

Craving solitude, I’ve hiked deep into the middle of the desert only to find myself at a campsite swarming with hundreds of electrified school kids, blaring music and microphones.

I’ve biked off road into pastoral fields and verdant valleys only to be overtaken by a flock of dune buggies driven by thrill-seeking city folk who just love group activities.

Welcome to Israel.  This is what makes the place tick with such a fricative high pulse.

September 19, 2017

Starting Up Nation

Start Up Nation. Is that what we’re called? When it comes to ingenious inventions in medicine and high tech, yes. When it comes to basic services, we are, well, just starting up and have a long way to go.

I’ve written about the post office services (Doar) many times. Some of my most frustrating moments as on olah have originated here. In fact, they continue. One day I will write about Ra’anana’s newly improved Doar. The newest place to pick up parcels is a gas station but the address is hidden on the post office card. To add insult to injury, we receive notification before the package arrives just so we have to come back (fill up with the tank with gas while you’re there if you can find the place).
So now it’s time to report on Bezek, Israel’s national phone company.  Over the years, we have been so frustrated with the phone company, we no longer have a land line and just use our cell phone. 

But, the internet is still entwined with Bezek and, as I just found out, our broken alarm line is a Bezek line.

Here are some rules when dealing with Bezek:

When you first call, you’ll hear a reassuring recorded song that says you have reached Bezek, Ahi Tov BaBayit – they are telling you that Bezek is the ‘best in the house’ and that you’ll be looked after like you’re family. Don’t buy into this.

You’ll then be asked to select a language. 1. Hebrew 2. Arabic 3. Russian 4. English. Do not press 4.

The English system takes you deep into selecting various services and when you feel like you’re actually getting somewhere, it stops working and disconnects you. 

If you do get to the end of the complex web of selecting services and then wait half an hour for a real live person, a Hebrew speaker will come on the phone. As soon as you say something in English they tell you they’ll connect you to an English speaker but never ever do.  It would take less time to learn a few words of Arabic or Russian if you want to get service.

They don’t want to talk to you. It’s so complicated to get to a live person, you would rather retreat to a phoneless cave dwelling than deal with this service.  They try to convince you that you should try their self-automated service where the computer will check your line and you can correct the problem on your own. Really? I made the mistake of getting gnarled in this once. Useless.

They then try to convince you that you don’t really want to spend your valuable time waiting for a live person and listening to the Ahi Tov BaBayit song a hundred times over. You would rather be on the beach, right? 

They convince you to leave your number and then someone will get back to you. It may take 12 hours for this to happen or it may not happen. Ever. Or, you may be at the beach and miss the Bezek call. G-d forbid.

Do not call Bezek from your car on a hot day. Sitting in the car waiting for my daughter, I decided to call Bezek. I took a deep breath and did the number acrobatics, pressing 1 and 2  and 3 and 1 and 2 and 2 and 2 and then waiting and waiting. A live person came on the phone and actually spoke a few words of English. I was getting somewhere! 

When I was about to order a technician, my iphone went dead and sent me this message: ‘iphone needs to cool down before you can use it.’ I needed to cool down before I started all over again. Did Bezek call me back to finish the order? Still waiting.

Do not call Bezek when your cell phone charge is low. It takes so long to get Bezek service, I saw my phone drain from 53% to 1%. I was at the point where the woman on the line was verifying my address and giving me a service date. I warned her I was at 1%.  She had my cell number. Click. My phone died.  Did Bezek call me back to finish the order? Still waiting.

When the technician comes, get his name and number. Why, might you ask? Our first technician who came said the line was working fine and this was not a Bezek problem but a smart house problem. He left. Smart house guy said it was not his problem and the alarm guy said it was not his problem and that I need an additional Bezek phone line. In reality, the technician must have been dozing in my electrical cupboard - read on to see why.

Bezek loves to sell you new phone lines. Do not buy them! The woman on the phone said to me, “Come home to Bezek. We treat you right.” She actually said that (she was the one with whom I lost connection when my phone died). Guess she did not want me home so badly.

So the new Bezek guy comes to install the second line and asks where the first phone line is.  I shrug my shoulders. I see a number on a bill that I pay for monthly. I explain that it must be somewhere in the house, probably in the cupboard where the first guy went, the one who said the line was working.

“Which technician was here? What’s his name?” the technician drills me.

“Well you work for Bezek. Can’t you find out?”

He looks at me as if I’m crazy. “No.”

With all the high tech recording of phone calls and computers, you think one Bezek arm would know what the other arm is doing. Nope.

Don’t trust that the technician knows what he is doing. Turns out the original technician futzed around in an electrical cupboard where there was no phone line and then left saying all was ok. The second technician discovered that the real problem was a Bezek internet router that was upstairs. Could he fix it? No. I need an electrician for that!

Watch out – you may get a technician even if you don’t order one – and never at the times specified.

My broken phone line saga has been going on for over a month. Just last night I received a text message from Bezek saying a technician was coming today between 2pm and 4pm. This time I did not order a technician.  The message also said that if I was not home at the time of service, there would be a penalty. 

Begrudgingly  I was back on the phone with Bezek entering a nightmarish web of pressing 1s and 2s and 1 and 3s and then waiting for a live person. What happened to the good ole days of pressing 0 and getting an operator? 

The woman on the phone did not apologize but admitted it was a mistake. But one Bezek arm does not talk to the other. What was I thinking? And guess what?

My cell phone just rang. Guess who? The Bezek technician who I did not order is at my house right now (and I am 200 kms away) and he is mad that I’m not home. He is also there three hours early. It’s a mistake, I explain. I told him I notified the office but he insists that he should be there and that I ordered the service. 

Would you trust a  technician who looked like this?
Can’t wait for the next Bezek bill. The technician who said it was an electrical issue assured me he would cancel the new phone line and the installation charge.  Doubt that ever happened. Bezek will be charging me for one line that does not work and cannot be fixed and one new line that was never installed.

Bezek.  Ahi Tov BaBayit!

May we have a year of not sweating the small stuff, of laughing when life gets ridiculous and of knowing we can head to the beach, a cave or a forest when the going gets tough. If none of the above work, take up Russian.

Shana Tova from the starting up nation

August 23, 2017

How beautiful are your tents

How beautiful are your tents,  Jacob, 

your dwelling places, Israel!

Numbers 24:5

In the Torah, as the Jews encamped in the desert, the prophet Bilaam looked at them from a mountaintop and bestowed this praise.

This very line from the Torah is also said in combination with a verse from the Psalms to form the prayer ‘Ma Tovu,’ which is said every day upon arising:

How great are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
As for me, through Your abundant grace, I enter your house to worship with awe in Your sacred place.

A more recent rendition of these words was used by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai in his ironic, disturbing poem, “How beautiful are thy tents, Jacob"

Even now, when there are neither tents nor Jacob’s
tribes, I say, how beautiful.

Oh, may there come something of redemption,
an old song, a white letter,
a face in the crowd, a door opening
for the eye, multicolored
ice cream for the throat…

Amichai hopes for redemption but cannot find it himself as he sees just a trite physical reality. As his poem continues, the lofty biblical image becomes mundane and uninspired.

Old pontoon bridge.
Yet, as I rode my bike along a riverbank in northern Israel this week, redemptive words of the bible rang in my ears.  We rode along a river where eucalyptus branches swoop over cool water. Beyond, the Golan Heights rise, ancient volcanoes forming perfect turrets on the horizon. As I pedalled, I saw hundreds of tents arranged along the shore. 

Israelis in the know flock here each summer via a dusty road. They set up camp like a home, much like their biblical ancestors did. They sit with friends and family, simply enjoying being in nature. It is a beautiful refuge from steaming urban life and burning concrete. The river flows, bends and turns. Otters swim downstream while herons swoop into the water.

Some campsites were simple;  just a single tent. Others were decked out. We passed one impressive site that had multiple sleeping tents, a generator that pumps cool air from an air conditioner into a ‘cold’ tent, a dining tent and even a kiddie swimming pool.  Tents are set along the water, often beside a tire swing. 

Camping with an air conditioner.
Of course, everyone brings a portable BBQ and as we rode into the sunset, the 'mangalim' were asmokin'. 

The campers bring kayaks and inflatable rafts and spend most of the day in the cool water.

A few tracteronim sped past, ATV vehicles out for a dust-filled 'nature' drive. Inside, all the passengers wore goggles, white shirts and black pants, ideal clothing for roughing it! From one ATV, a Chabad Mashiach flag flew proudly atop. 

Only in Israel. 

Onward we rode until we saw six large busses parked beside the river. Chairs were set up in an outdoor dining room. Nearby, young Orthodox boys, wearing black pants and white shirts, were getting ready to daven the afternoon prayers.

They were a group of 600 boys from Jerusalem who were taken away for a vacation. As we saw them gathering, just a few meters away hidden between rushes and river, stood a solo davener. He 
swayed, standing in a bathing suit, talking praises to G-d.

After cycling onward, we stopped to try out a tire swing. A  car flew past, the occupants shouting “Mincha,” saying they needed two more men to complete a minyan. I am sure the next camp site provided this. 

Only in Israel.

As the sun set behind the mountains, these tent dwellers settled in for the night. Yes, there are tents and there are tribes even today. Our nation comes in all shapes and colors and sizes and they gather in their own ways to respect G-d and the land. They have turned their tents into dwelling places, connecting with each other and living in harmony with the land.

I cycled on, feeling great respect for these salt of the earth people who camp by the waters seeking reconnection. I felt some kind of strength and redemption happening right here in this beautiful simplicity. I wonder what Yehuda Amichai would think if he were here today to see this.