February 27, 2017

If Ra'anana Were Rivendell...

 I’ve heard it said that Israel is a dangerous place. People from abroad have visions of a war-torn country, of simmering conflict, of injustice. They imagine a barrage of gunfire, thunderous tanks and shattering explosions.

Well, this is not exactly a precise description of Ra’anana. At least, not in terms of large weapons. In Ra’anana, we have another danger to contend with – and these new weapons are deadly. The assaulters are scary, negligent, belligerent and out of control. Civilians are scared to go out and the government will not protect us.
This new weapon is the electric bike. They have been sold here for the past few years and now every teen and pre-teen is driving one. Recklessly. As these kids do not have a driver’s license, they have no idea about traffic laws, yet they behave as a car and as a pedestrian, weaving across intersections onto sidewalks then back into the roads.

The typical electric bike rider travels without a helmet (or with their helmet dangling coolly on the handlebars), with a friend tucked in the front or hanging off the back. They neglect every law, whipping down one-way streets the wrong way, cutting through traffic circles, driving without any lights at night and talking on cell phones and smoking. They can get up to hefty speeds, enough to injure and kill pedestrians.  In 2015, four people died and 480 were hurt in biking accidents in Tel Aviv alone.

These bikes are in every city and town across the country and have become such a menace, the Knesset passed a bill outlawing these bikes to children under 16 years old. They also mandated that these cyclists must wear helmets and have lights at night.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when this bill was passed, hoping the scourge would be controlled. As of May 1, 2016, there would a 250 NIS fine given to those who broke the law. But when we saw young kids continuing to ride through the streets of Ra’anana, brazenly breaking the law, we asked the city what was going on.

The mayor’s office said they had no authority to stop them and that it was the police department’s problem. The police department said no, it was up to the city. So we became stuck in a dangerous, bureaucratic mess.

However, even if the police were to take this on, the task would be impossible: our city of 85,000 residents has been assigned by the state a piddling 7 police officers. They are already over worked with crime and traffic accidents.

I get so worked up about this issue, I thought I would appease my anger by attending a meeting of the Ra’anana Concerned Residents (RCR)  to understand what is being done.

I sat down in a room filled with animated people, mostly Brits and South Africans with a smattering of Israelis and Americans. The meeting started with the chairman first pointing out that they were happy to have the deputy mayor present.

“And where is the mayor?” some heckler called out.

The chairman threw up his hands then announced that although they invited the police, no police representative was here tonight.

 “Boo,” the crowd screamed. Bad police! (With seven police staff in a city of 85,000, I calculated the police were too busy to show up.)

There was a small presentation updating us on what was not being done and then they gave the microphone to the deputy mayor who proceeded to talk about posters and education and parents.

This was not the right approach, according to this crowd.

“Boo.” Bad mayor’s office. The audience was getting worked up and one elderly South African woman stood up and begged for a translation into English. Someone grabbed the mike and began to explain, but then someone else cried out, “That’s now what the deputy mayor said. That's your interpretation.”

“We don’t want to hear you talk. We want to know what the mayor’s office is saying.”

The evening deteriorated from here on. People grabbed the microphone and used the floor to complain, tell their own horror stories about encounters with bikes and propose their own solutions. These included self-policing, chaining up the bikes, closing the bike stores and insisting on driving tests and licenses for the bikes. (An amazing tax grab that any Israeli politician should relish.)

One adorably proper British woman explained how in England, the schools test children right in the schoolyard and only after they pass their bicycle test are they allowed to ride to school.

No electric bikes in Rivendell.
How sweet. And how impossible. This is not an English shire nor is it Tolkein’s Rivendell. This is the Middle East where there is no logic or law – should I let this Brit in on this?

The evening felt more like a therapy session than a constructive meeting.

There was so much frustration among the citizens, it is a shock the deputy mayor was not assaulted – and most of the people at this meeting were caring, law-abiding South African senior citizens. If they had good aim with their canes, they would have thrown them.

The meeting disintegrated and I went back to my car grumbling, more frustrated than ever.

As I pulled out onto the road in the pitch dark, I spied an electric bike coming my way. The rider had no helmet and no bike light. He was going the wrong way on the road. I let him pass, trying to calm my road rage, watching him cross a traffic circle the wrong way and cut sharply onto the sidewalk.

I shook my head and gripped the steering wheel. It is a miracle that more riders and pedestrians have not been killed or injured by these bikes.

On an administrative level, this issue is added proof that the very existence of this country is a miracle. For a first-world country, this place often feels like India on steroids.

Here is my solution to the scourge, thanks to Google and the gentle Dutch.

February 21, 2017

More than meets the eye

It was 3:30 in the morning when our alarm went off. We quickly dressed, made a coffee and jumped into the car. It was still pitch black outside, but the roads were clear as we drove north to Tsfat. 

We were quiet, in disbelief, feeling heavy and sad. A friend of ours from Canada had just passed away. He was a devoted husband, a father to a large family and a dynamic community leader.

He was a giver to countless charities and a sustainer of many others in need. And he was just in his early fifties. We were still numb from the shock of the news and knew the world already felt emptier with his passing.

Dawn was breaking as we drove into the ancient cemetery of Tsfat. Scattered over the mountainside, tzaddikim, learned rabbis, and Kabbalists are buried here in graves that date back over 2,000 years. Safed tradition recalls that Hannah and her Seven Sons, murdered by Antiochus during the Maccabean Revolt of our Chanukah story, are buried here.

It is also the place where the most famous Kabbalists are buried, including the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria), Rabbi Yosef Caro, Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz and Rabbi Chaim Vital. People come to Tsfat from all over the world to visit these graves where they pray and ask assistance of these great souls.

Typical of a winter's morning, the mountain was shrouded, enveloped in a thick cloud. I saw three busses parked outside and hundreds of Hassidim crowded into a tiny a room around the body. They were wearing long coats, some black and some striped. They had wide brimmed fur hats and long peyot. They all spoke in Yiddish.

Photo: Times of Israel
The body was rushed out to the freshly dug grave, mourners’ kaddish was recited and it was over.  Six of the man’s sons who had escorted their father’s body now stood in shock by the graveside. The parents of the deceased man and wife had stayed back home.

As the crowd turned to board the bus, someone we knew asked one of the mourners how they knew this great man.


The mourner did not even know the name of the man who had just been buried.  Yet these men came by busloads in the early hours of the morning to pay respects to a man they did not know personally.

And then they all left. The family also boarded a bus, heading back to Ben Gurion airport, probably making this one of the shortest trips to Israel on record.

The cemetery was now quiet. As the clouds cleared and the Old City of Tsfat was slowly revealed,  I stood alone, thinking about why a man would be buried so far from his home and his loved ones. And why he would have a funeral attended by strangers and placed in grave few would visit.

As I stood there, a dog wandered around the graves howling. I looked over and saw a flash of white and then too he was gone. There was something mystical happening here and I could not quite understand it. During this time, a friend of mine was having a vivid dream of this event.  She knew nothing of the death and funeral until much later and told me she woke up exhausted from her unusual dream.

Yes, there is more to this than meets the eye. Beside this newly covered grave is the kever of the Moroccan Kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Ohayon. And nearby is the grave of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, a relative of the famous Kabbalist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

I then understood that this is the place for such a righteous friend. And being buried here in such a way was his ultimate act of modesty. It was quiet, quick and there was no fuss. If this burial had been done in his hometown, it would have been a huge send-off. Perhaps he had another, more uplifted vision for such a moment.

And so our friend was buried in a very ancient cemetery nearby the graves of tzaddikim. Perhaps his understanding of death is that it is not final, but simply a departure from one world to the other.

Standing at the graveside on this hushed morning, I felt as if he had deep knowledge of how to make a swift transition from this world. And humble, spiritual Tsfat was the place for this to happen.

Baruch Dayan Emet

Photo: Ascent Of Safed