August 30, 2019

May Hashem be gracious to you

As life takes us on its unending bumpy ride, there are highs and lows, stresses then release, beauty and futility. And just like the relentless pounding of the August sun, in Israel, everything here has intensity.

We celebrated the Pidyon HaBen of our grandson, Neta Shalom. Just two weeks ago, when he was one month old, the family gathered in Efrat for the tradition of redeeming the first-born male child. In the days of the Temple, the first-born male would serve as a priest. In order to redeem him, the baby’s father would offer five silver coins to a Cohen, a patrilineal descendant of the priestly family of Aaron.

Shaarya gave the Cohen the coins and we then gathered closely as the Cohen placed his hands on Neta’s head to give him the Priestly Blessing or the Dukhanen:

May Hashem bless you and guard you
May Hashem make His face shine unto you and be gracious to you
May Hashem lift His face unto you, and give to you peace.

It was a moment brimming with abundance. From great grandfather to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, we all felt the gratitude of having the miracle of Neta here, enriching our lives.

We then gathered in Hanna Sara’s beautiful garden, the setting sun golden, casting warm shadows on our faces. Large clusters of ripe grapes hung from her vine, her apple trees decked out with a bounty of crisp ripe fruit, the pomegranates ruby red. 

Being gathered together in this setting to celebrate the miracle of a healthy baby was like a taste of Gan Eden.

We must savor these moments – because the bumpy ride of life will soon seize us and jerkily tear us away screeching.

Click. I take a sweet photo of Neta with my 85-year-old father.  He sits under the grape vine smiling with pure joy as he holds his first great grandchild.   

Yet four days later, my father lies in a hospital bed hooked up to oxygen, a catheter, a sodium chloride drip and an anti-viral drip. His vitals are displayed on the screen outside the nurse’s station. The machine flashes and beeps, the screen spikes and drops, creating panic in my gut.  

The bumpy ride of life took him down with force. Shaking, his temperature spiking, he lay barely conscious while specialists were called on. Blood tests were taken, x-rays and ultrasounds made and a lumbar puncture was done.

The results came in. West Nile Encephalitis. One mosquito bite. This virus is most active in Israel from mid-August until October and has been found in the Mediterranean coastal area and from the Dead Sea to Eilat. Most dangerous to elderly people, younger people simply feel flu symptoms for a few days and are then fine. 

Last year, 74 cases were reported in Israel, 14 of them serious. Seems like my father beat the odds, contracting it in his own backyard  simply by tending to the flowers he planted and loved. 

My father’s sickness is considered one of those ‘serious’ cases. I sit by his side as he lies in his hospital bed, eyes barely open. A nurse comes by and as he does his rounds, a cell phone rings. Only then do my dad’s eyes open wide.

Always fascinated by language and culture, he asks, ‘What language is he speaking?’ ‘Amharic,’ I answer. ‘He’s from Ethiopia.’

Others nurses and attendants come and go. We hear Hebrew spoken with a Russian accent, see an Arab nurse address a patient in Arabic, and then we speak to a doctor who has perfect English.

Israeli hospitals are a melting pot of cultures so if one wanted to get an insight into our population, this is a good place to start.

Enter a state-of-the-art, spanking clean hospital with no rules. There is security at the main gate, but once inside, visitors can go anywhere anytime. This is the Middle East, after all.

I have seen Bedouins in the hospital, wearing long white tunics topped with a camel wool kufeya.  I actually saw someone in the hospital garden with a long frock and a shepherd’s crook who looked like Kind David. I have no idea if he parked his sheep in the hospital lot. He then walked past a nah nachman guy with long peyot, woolen tzitzit flying in the breeze.

The Arab patients seem to have an entourage of their entire family here at all times. They drag chairs across the floor of the common room so they can eat their meals together. They bring their small children and their teenagers and simply hang around, listening to music as if they were at a picnic in the park.

Israeli families like to pull their chairs into a tight circle in the middle of the hallway as if they are linebackers strategizing in a football huddle. 

If a stretcher or a patient shuffling on a walker needs to go by, take a number.

Some of us Ashkenazi Jews put our phones on silent and sneak into the corridor when we get a call while others keep ring tones high, then yell into the phone, giving the caller and the entire hospital floor an update on their relative’s health.

From simcha to sickness. We hold on tight as life takes its dips and turns, often at a flying speed.

I can still hear the words of the Cohen from the Pidyon HaBen as my father watched, smiling. And today I pray these words will reach my dad in his hospital bed.

‘May Hashem make His face shine unto you and be gracious to you.’

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. 


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.