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July 29, 2019

Planting Peace

In the early morning of July 16 (13 Tammuz), my daughter Aviva gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. 

I was extremely privileged to be there during the birth, assisting and supporting my daughter as she slowly and painfully progressed with her labor.

She spent the last hour in a pool set up in the middle of their bedroom. The midwife sat calmly, watchful, Buddha-like in the darkness.  Shaarya, Aviva’s husband, assisted at the side of the pool. Playful fairy lights graced the wall behind them, their soft reflection flickering across warm, glistening water.

Although the labor pains swelled in intensity, this one room set in a tiny yishuv in the Shomron was calm and serene. Soft music played and as Aviva swayed, she and Shaarya sang. In this moment of transition from one world to another, time ceased to be; or maybe eternity unfurled, unfolded, opening to potential, overflowing with abundance.  



Their voices united, sweetened by love, intention and presence quivered like a ring of water, rippling, spreading to the ancient olive trees in the ink black valley below. And, as she cried out, the notes soared up rock-clad mountains to meet the full moon rising. 

She entered another realm where time stood still, ever watchful. The muezzin from a neighboring village called out for the faithful. And still she swayed. Gripped. Fully present, giving mind over to body so it could work its miracle.

And then her baby crowned and gently slipped into the pool of water. She scooped him into her arms, kissed his forehead and held him close to her.

Eyes opened wide to this new reality, this brand-new world, the baby opened his lips and took his first breath. Tired from his long voyage, he sighed and nestled into his mother’s neck. She too was exhausted, yet filled with bliss, she became energized by this miracle she was now holding in her arms.

‘Mazal tov!’ When we spoke these words aloud, the gates of eternity gently closed, shutting out the majesty of that present moment we had all experienced, returning us to our dusty world of future hopes and physical wants.

In a flash, this tiny, vulnerable baby changed our reality, transforming Aviva and Shaarya into an Ima and Abba, and making us grandparents. This baby’s arrival marks the completion of a ‘bridge’ we started to build as we set down roots when we moved to Israel; he is the first Israeli-born member of our family since we made aliyah.

When we hold him, we return to that stillness and become absorbed in the miracle of a new life, his total dependence, his need for comfort and our desire to give him abundant love.  

He had his brit mila on Tuesday. Carrying him on a pillow, his Abba and Ima sang to him as they walked towards the sandek, his saba. And there he was welcomed into our age-old covenant and received his name. Neta Shalom.

Neta Shalom. Planting Peace. His name came to his parents at the start of the pregnancy and it never left. He was named two days after the 17th of Tammuz during the Three Weeks when the Jewish people mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as other calamities that befell our nation.

It is said that we lost the two Temples and faced exile because of corruption, disunity and hatred. Acceptance and love will enable us to plant peace. 



And as we gaze at this next generation cuddled in our arms, we wonder who he will be and what his life will hold. We are sobered by the thought that when he is an adult, we will be gone, yet are comforted by knowledge that he will be there, continuing on our path, just on the other side of the bridge we helped to build.

 

June 28, 2019

Butter Makes it Better


Yesterday, I sent my younger daughter to a grocery store in Tzfat to buy a few provisions.  Butter has been on my shopping list since March so I asked her, nonchalantly, to check for it...just in case. 



She came back with butter. Woo hoo! Real butter - I was so excited, I took a photo of it and sent it to my family members.



Ok. Since when does one get so excited over a package of butter that it must be documented and proof sent via What’s App? Are we in times of rationing? Are we living in 2019, in a first-world country without basic provisions?



Turns out, yes.



I had never gone grocery shopping with ‘butter’ on my list only to return home without. But as of March, this is the situation in Israel.



Before Pesach, I innocently went to the store in search of this staple. The shelf was bare. I pulled aside the yogurts, peeked deep behind the margarine and removed the sour creams. No butter.



Not really butter....
I asked a clerk who was stocking the dairy shelves. He pointed out where butter has always been and scratched his head in confusion. Hands in prayer position, I tried to ‘butter him up,’ beseeching him to just peek into the storage area; surely there was a large pallet of butter just waiting to be placed on this empty, lonely shelf.  



He came back empty handed, more distressed than ever, and suggested an alternative that looked way too much like margarine. I read the ingredients and when I saw canola oil listed on the container, I dropped it with butterfingers and came home empty handed.  



The next day, when I visited my daughter who lives in the Shomron, I asked her about butter.  She lives near a large Rami Levi grocery store where, surely, they would have butter. She then looked at me with knowing eyes and leaned over as if she were initiating her immigrant mother into a well-known fact of Israeli life.



“Haven’t you heard? There’s no butter. You won’t find it in the major grocery stores, but....”



She opened her fridge and tenderly cradled a bar of butter like it were a diamond tiara. “Butter can still be found in small shops, like the tiny corner store in my settlement.”



My eyes grew wide. Really? 



Seems like this is a country-wide phenomenon and it has been going on for so long that major bakeries have been forced to change their recipes and have gone vegan. The bakeries were so panicked, they even brought in an Israeli pastry chef who was working for the Royal Family to help them reformat their recipes.



She was successful. One bakery, using her recommendations, went vegan after Pesach and will now save 12,000 eggs, 370 litres of milk and 250 kilos of butter a year by baking vegan mocha cakes.



Innovative bakeries are now producing delicious, nutritious, butter-free alternatives that are cheaper to make, saving money and making healthier cakes and cookies.


Vegan solutions aside, where is the real butter? Apparently, there’s a connection with global warming as the hotter the planet gets, the less milk and butter fat cows produce. And with our searing hot summers, the most energy a cow could have would be used to lie under a tree. Yet few cows are lying under trees because now there’s an Israeli cow shortage. (I knew about a water shortage and a housing shortage, but a cow shortage?)
 





Here’s another piece of the butter dilemma; in the last few years, Israelis are becoming more health conscious and are choosing butter over margarine. So all things considered, Israel has been forced to import butter.



To complicate the slippery situation even more, butter, as a basic staple, is subsidized in Israel – even for foreign importers - so it is impossible for suppliers to deliver the product and have it distributed at such low prices. The government refused to allow the price to be raised so we paid the price with no butter at all.



Some blame Tnuva, the largest supplier of dairy products in Israel, who now has a monopoly on butter. Seems like Tnuva wants to butter its bread on both sides - they hoped to increase the price but since they could not, they decided to allocate milk fat for more profitable uses like chocolate milk which is exported abroad. Imagine - Israeli choco is now spotted on grocery shelves in London whereas, in Israel, there is no butter to be found.



I gleefully called my daughter (the one with the butter in her fridge) to celebrate my butter bounty.



“Butter’s back for now,” she replied. “My friend also called to tell me she found butter and bought five bars.  I heard the government allowed Tnuva to increase the price of butter. How much did you pay for it?”



I had no idea the government changed its price policy and didn’t know what we paid for it. I now have butter in my fridge. I know that butter makes it better, but I no longer remember how. 





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May 19, 2019

A Modern Silk Road


We recently spent a beautiful Passover in Tsfat with family. But, like every year, the holiday ended too soon. 

With all the preparation cleaning, buying special Pesach ingredients and changing over all of the dishes, one would expect the holiday should last at least a month. But no. Every year, it's over exactly when I get used to finding the Pesach items in my reordered kitchen. 

My questions remains: how does all this work remind us of our Jewish ancestors leaving Egypt and wandering through the desert?

As I could not bear to take out the pots and pans, cutlery and glasses just a week after I had arranged them in cupboards and drawers, I decided that procrastination was the best course of action. I closed the front gate and left searching for something more exciting than shlepping pot and pans.  



I didn’t have to go far. Tucked down a cobbled alley in the Artists’ Quarter a few minutes’ walk from Villa Tiferet is the Khan of the White Donkey. 

This 700-year-old building was once an inn for weary travelers. Today it’s a beautifully restored conservatory and concert venue and the ideal place for the Pesach weary to sink onto pillows and be lulled by Eastern melodies.



We had arrived for a concert by the Maqamat Academy of Eastern Music, the only conservatory of its kind in the world. Everyone was gathered for a Mimouna celebration. Held the night after Pesach, North African Jews gather together to eat much missed chametz – and for Sephardim, this translates into moflettas, honeyed crepes.


Concert goers were dressed in their North African finery: long, brocaded robes topped with a crimson fez and pointed slippers (mojari), de rigueur for a carpet ride with Aladdin. Some lay back on pillows, while others sat on stools at low glass tables.



As the oud and percussion started, I was transported. The Arabic words to the songs seemed to float, buoyed by the violin and oud, buffeted by the darbuka and tombak drums. 
I closed my eyes and imagined a caravan of camels bearing frankincense, myrrh and silk across shimmering sand, wending through red canyons, my Passover question finally resolved.

Two men in long robes danced out holding high silver platters of freshly made moflettas. The singer paused. He made a blessing in Hebrew and ate a pancake.


“He’s the son of a big rabbi here,” I heard someone whisper.



If only Turks, Arabs and Iranians could be here, what would they think? The musicians were all Jewish, yet had a reverence for Arabic music, playing their instruments with love and respect. In fact, this was not simply Arabic music. It was the music of North African and Spanish Jewry; melodies that were composed centuries ago by Jews who lived in Persia and in Yemen, in Algeria and Grenada. 

These musicians have adapted hauntingly old melodies from the Ottoman Turks, the Maghreb (North Africa), the Persian and Mediterranean and fused them together, creating a beautiful form. They combined Klezmer, a jolt of Gypsy y un poco Flamenco. And just like the Hebrew language rose from the dust, this melee of Jewish Arabic culture has awakened like a genie rising from a bottle and dancing down a modern Silk Road.



The audience swayed. Some tapped their feet, while others drummed on the tables – it was impossible not be stirred by the beat. My camel caravan dissolved, a mirage from another time and place, because here we were, sitting in Israel in the 21st-century admiring and appreciating Arabic music that we share with our Moslem neighbors.   

I had a renewed appreciation of how similar the Jewish and Arabic cultures are. If only we could sit together and share the similarities instead of focusing on the differences, this country would be a different place.



I recently read an uplifting article about Ashraf Jabari, an Arab businessman from Hebron who wants to put aside differences so we can work and live side by side with shared goals.  He and Israeli-Jewish resident Avi Zimmerman are dedicated to bringing Israeli and Palestinian business people together to work.  

 


And just a few days ago, Sheikh Ashraf Jabari hosted Israelis at his home for Iftar, the festive meals that Moslems eat after the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast.




“Breaking the fast together at a joint meal in Hebron clearly symbolizes our ability to bridge all gaps,” Ashraf said at the meal. And he took care to provide his Orthodox guests with kosher food so all could eat together.




Slowly and carefully, we are bridging gaps. And when one hears the music that these two cultures once shared, and still do, the bridge is further fortified. 

I invite you to the end-of-the-year Maqamat concert (video below is from last year's concert). They are playing outdoors at the beautiful Maayan HaRedum in Tsfat on June 12 and 13.  If I were to see a few camels wandering through the narrow alleys of the Artists’ Quarter on these nights, I would no longer be surprised. All I need is a pair of Aladdin slippers...


April 22, 2019

Trading in a role for a mission


It could have been any bus station on a sunny morning. A fresh spring day. A Thursday. 

Guys came in jeans with duffel bags slung over their shoulders. Families arrived: mothers, fathers, little brothers and sisters, girlfriends and grandparents. They joked and chatted and took pictures and ate. Ethiopian families, Anglos and Sephardim all stood together. Busses arrived, then left.



A group of young guys gathered in a circle and started to sing and dance. And then this group picked up their bags and lined up for their bus.



Despite the songs, there was tension in the air and these families milled about nervously. One girl hugged her boyfriend and, in tears, she left. Mothers held onto their sons’ hands, fathers gave blessings. 
 

This was the liskat giyus, the place where young soldiers draft into the IDF. And this sunny Thursday marked the moment when the army takes  responsibilty of the child away from the parent. It is the moment when the young adult gives up civilian freedom for close to three years.

As this was a religious draft, all boys wore kippot and tzitzit dangled from under their shirts. After finishing high school, they had all studied for a year or two at yeshivot before drafting. 

They were learned in Torah and had a deep love for Israel and for the Jewish people. So much so, they sang and danced to mark their draft.


My younger son was one of them.



This is in stark contrast to my last blog post where I wrote about Hareidim protesting the forced army draft, screaming that they would rather die than serve.   


Yet being at Tel Hashomer that Thursday morning renewed my pride because young religious men are happy to serve their country. Many of these soldiers will go into Hesder units with other religious soldiers and others will do a full service.



Ethiopian parents.
There is a place for everyone in the IDF; be they Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Druze or Christian, new immigrants from Ethiopia, India, Russia or the US, or young adults with special needs
 

 The army is a place where these new recruits will be challenged and will grow. It’s not an easy transition going from being a kid with no responsibilities to a soldier, but the army will teach them all important life lessons.


Although they are putting their freedom on hold, they are privileged to be a part of the IDF.



The inscription on the building (pictured below) bears this quote by Shimon Peres:
The essence of life is not what to be but what to do
There is no such thing as a role - there is a mission.
 To Shaya and to all of the boys who went in, I wish them all much success, positive growth and a sense of mission in their army service.

March 31, 2019

Never Have I Ever




“I’m at the central bus station,” my daughter replied.  “I’ll be there in about 10 minutes. Can’t wait to see the show.” 

I hung up the phone and ordered a coffee, sitting comfortably in the lobby of the Beit Shmuel theater beside the King David Hotel.

I was relieved that we had arrived early, found parking and was happy to be in Jerusalem for a night out at the theater.  The last time we went out to meet friends, we went to Tel Aviv and we were caught in a demonstration. As we tried to reach the restaurant, each road we wanted to turn onto was methodically barred by police. All traffic converged onto one road and soon came to a standstill. Waze, our usually reliable GPS system, had a nervous breakdown, displaying angry lines across the map. 

Lost without Waze and frustrated, I just wanted to abandon the car and walk. But there was no place to park. I googled the problem and realized that we had arrived in central Tel Aviv just in time for an Ethiopian demonstration against police violence. We finally ditched the car and made it to the restaurant on foot. It was a fancy chef-style bistro where people chatted politely over fancy hors d’oeuvres while not so far away, angry demonstrators protested and screamed.

I finished my coffee and looked at my watch. Twenty minutes had passed. I called my daughter. No reply. The performance was to begin in ten minutes. Where was she? I called again. Finally, she picked up the phone.

“I’m on the light rail. There’s some kind of Hareidi demonstration and we’re not moving.” 


I suggested she get off the light rail and walk but she told me the driver was not allowed to open the doors in between stops.

“The demonstrators are banging on the windows. They’re lying on the pavement in front of the train. Why are they so angry?”

I looked on my news app. Headlines read ‘Ultra-Orthodoxanti-draft protesters block Jerusalem roads.’ I read on. It was reported that they took to the streets after an Orthodox draft dodger was arrested for ignoring his draft notice for five years.

“We will die and not be drafted,” they screamed.

We left my daughter’s ticket with the usher and went into the theater to see ‘In the Heights.’ The salsa music and dancing were upbeat, the rap melodies clever and catchy.  Yet as we were riveted by this performance, not far away, the demonstrators hit and banged the street car and destroyed public property. Everyone who was locked inside the light rail car had places to go, jobs to get to and families to go home to. 

Frustrated secular passengers started to vent their frustration out on the religious passengers who looked around helplessly, explaining, “We’re not like them.”

One young energetic girl tried to make the best of a bad situation. “Let’s play ‘Never have I Ever.’” For once, everyone agreed.

“Never have I ever been stuck in a light rail car like this,” she started.

“Never have I ever been on a plane,” a religious boy in a black velvet kippa chimed in.

He continued, enjoying his moment of fame. “And never have I ever had my own cell phone.” His mother frowned at him. He giggled.

By intermission time, I was sure my daughter would be at the theatre. She was not. She so badly had wanted to come and knew the all the words to this musical by heart. When the second act started, her seat was still empty.

The light rail car ended up reversing a few meters back to the central bus station, to the exact spot where the passengers had boarded some two and a half hours previously.  Everyone was finally let off to find their own way in the now dark streets.

The curtain had come down and the theater was dark.

In Israel, extremism has become a norm. With so many external existential threats, one would think the country should be more united, especially when it comes to the army and self-defense. Sadly, this is not so.

We met our daughter after the show. She took the experience in stride but unfortunately it changed her and, after what she saw, there is no going back.

“I know we are all different,” she explained. “I respect everyone for their beliefs and I never wanted to judge people. But today, I saw anger and hate and I cannot accept this, especially when it comes to religion.”

This could have been her ‘Never have I ever’ statement. Sadly, she will see this anger again. These demonstrators gnarled up a huge city for hours, stole busy people’s precious time and jaded a young, open mind irreparably.

Israel is a young country with growing pains and an identity crisis. We have a lot of maturing ahead of us and a lot to learn.  Like the old Jewish parable about the stiff, upright cedar and the soft, flexible reed, we must all learn to stoop and to bend when the strong winds blow. As it says in the Talmud, 'Be pliable like a reed, not rigid like a cedar.' 

Yet, Never Have I Ever lived in a country that is so young yet has accomplished and contributed so much to the world in so little time. We must keep these miracles close to our hearts, think positively, envision unity and more than ever, learn how to be flexible. 

 










February 26, 2019

Silent Heart and Peaceful Mind

“Meditation is a silent heart, a peaceful mind 
which can make life more lovable, more livable.” 
Anonymous

My mind has been racing for most of my life. Influenced by stresses around me, I soar and dive, thoughts spinning inside my personal roller coaster. And with smartphone WhatsApp beeps, text bings and a pulsating newsfeed, my mind has become splintered and fractured.

As for my body, it never rests. From the moment I wake up until the time I fall into bed, I rush around at high speed. When I exercise, I run - and when I do errands, I speed walk.  And to cross more items off my check list, I have become adept at multi-tasking. I wash dishes while talking on the phone, walk my dog while sending emails and listen to podcasts while cooking. 

Yet I have come to realize that this roller coaster mind of mine gets me nowhere; it chugs back to the starting point and jerks to a stop, leaving me blinking and bewildered. Not only does it get me nowhere, it creates stress, fear and anxiety. 

When I decided to pull the hand break on my rollercoaster, I signed up for a four-day Jewish silent meditation retreat. It was high time I banish my overstimulated mind and learn how to relax my body.

I had trepidations about going. Maybe I was in denial, but I but did not prepare at all. So when I arrived at the retreat center on a kibbutz in northern Israel, I went into shock.

We were instructed not to speak with one another and not to make any eye contact with each other. No computers or cell phones were allowed. No pens and paper. No books. Questions could be asked by writing notes. We were beseeched to open and close doors with no more than a hush and to avoid scraping chairs on the floor. We had entered a world of silence.

A group of about 50 people squatted on pillows and sat upright in chairs. They were of all ages and from across the religious spectrum. They stared ahead. And as a bell donged, they closed their eyes. Silence.

I sat still. I breathed in slowly, then released my breath. When I did this a second time, my mind flipped out. “Hey, are you serious?” I breathed in and then out. My thoughts did somersaults. “Don’t forget about us,” they giggled. I breathed in and out, ignoring them. “You seriously think you can do this?” they scoffed. While I focused on the breath, they raced around trying to distract me.

With the ding of the Tibetan bowl, the first meditation was over. I was exhausted, torn asunder by the sound and light show of my unremitting thoughts.


We were told it was time to go outside and walk. My leg muscles perked up like an eager puppy poking out the car window.  I can do that.

But no. This was a walking meditation. ‘Focus on your feet kissing the ground,’ we were instructed. Move SLOWLY.  Be in the moment.

The group spread out and the garden soon looked like the scene of a zombie invasion. I moved my leg up and forward. I heard my sole crunch the ground below. I did it again. My muscles twinged and my thoughts ridiculed me. “Are you serious?’ they taunted. I persevered. But I was not even near the Bodhi tree.

By the third day, my thoughts realized they were on vacation and peace settled in. During the walking meditations outside, my gaze softened and my eyes opened to minute magical details in the buds and on shimmering leaves. 

For the first time ever, I did not run for cover when the rains came; instead I stood still under an olive tree listening to the drops, watching them pool on the leaves and be absorbed by the earth.

As a group, we became accustomed to being quiet. We tiptoed around in slippers. We hovered across the dining room like ghosts and sat in silence with our plates of food.  We were alone yet we were alone together.

We were all from different parts of Israel, with divergent stories, distinct backgrounds and varying ways of religious observance. These contrasts are what makes Israel clash, yet here, it was unbelievable; we were unified, respectful, hushed.

So when Shabbat arrived, everyone was invited to observe the Sabbath in their own way. The room was divided into three: the left side had a mechitzah for women who wanted to pray separately, the center was for mixed prayer and the right side for men.  

When we did Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, the group sang in unison and songs soon erupted into dance. There were dance circles for everyone and the dancing was spirited. 

We then ate dinner in silence yet sang nigunim (ancient tunes that are hummed) after the meal. People clapped, banged on the tables, hummed and wailed. As one tune morphed into another, we were transported back in time from Shabbat tables in Polish shtetls and German towns to communities in Iraq and Tunisia.

It was beautiful and refreshing to see such a revival in Jewish spirituality. Come Shabbat morning, each participant had a place to connect: one could pray in an Orthodox minyan, sit and meditate, go to an alternative prayer lab or walk outside.

It was as if everyone had parked their attitudes, rifts, frictions and preconceived notions at the entrance of the kibbutz.  And this resulted in one of the most powerful Shabbats I have ever experienced. When our minds open, our hearts expand.

As Voltaire so beautifully said, “Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in eternal awareness or pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.”

As a nation, Israelis may not have found their Bodhi tree, but come Shabbat we are able to feel finitude merge into infinity. And with our meditation practice, we hope to re-enter life that is more lovable and more livable.