May 20, 2020

Where Robots Meet Herring

Life has taken us all for a bumpy ride. In Israel, it looks as if the ‘Corona Ride’ is starting to slow down and let us off. We open our doors and walk out a bit dazed, weakened and unstable. We take the first few steps and feel uneasy, insecure, almost incapable of returning to the same pace as we once knew.

But that’s ok – the Israeli weather system has taken care of anyone’s desire to move too fast. We are now in day eight of scorching temperatures that blister in the mid-forties. Just yesterday, three people died from the heat. As everyone cranks up the air conditioning, the electrical grid in Israel hit an all-time high. Children, just returning to school after months of being at home in quarantine, arrive with backpacks and face masks. Yet, because of the heat, they are allowed to take off their masks in school.

Walking down the simmering street in my mask yesterday, I felt as if I could faint, with sweat beading and pooling inside the mask. I quickly did my errands then retreated to the cool safety of home, my hiding place for the last few months.

Despite the fear and anxiety surrounding COVID-19, the mystery villain hiding in droplets emitted by coughs and lurking on door handles, gas pumps and the buttons of bank machines, Israelis are overcoming the unknown in creative ways.

As the world adapts to this new way of being, Israelis do so ‘Sabra style.’ My daughter told me about the camp sites that popped up on lawns in her neighborhood over Pesach. These families, whose tradition is to go camping on the Jordan River or beside Lake Kinneret, promised their kids a Passover camping trip. A promise is a promise so the parents put up tents on their lawns and everyone slept cozily outside their front doorstep.

Only ‘essential’ services were open. These included pharmacies, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, delivery services and smoked herring. Herring? Seems like this is such an important delicacy in Israel, it made the essential services list, with shmaltz and pickled herring delivered to your door. Turns out that herring has selenium, an important mineral that can help protect one from Coronavirus disease progression.

Entrepreneurs did not miss a beat. When weddings were cancelled and postponed, an online registry company, had a plunge in sales. But Bracha Lamm who owns La’Bayit Gifts, decided to think out of the box. Since it was just before Pesach and many families who had always had seders at their parents’ homes were now on their own, Lamm switched to selling Passover items online. She was able to help the suppliers who were stuck with a large inventory of items and connect them with people who did not even own a seder plate.

A pastry chef who specialized in weddings, workshops and festivals saw the same sudden downturn. Suddenly she found herself at home with bored young boys. Inspired by her own children who love baking, she invented a service where she provided a box filled with ingredients and a recipe to families once a week. The next day, she and her boys made a Zoom a class to bake the yummy recipe, sharing her knowledge with kids all over central Israel.

An Israeli robotics company called Robotican took the Coronavirus issue to heart and developed a robot that can enter a patient’s hospital room to check their vitals without the doctor having to make direct contact.

Israel’s Medtronic, a company that produces ventilators, decided to give away their blueprints for free. With a demand in April for hundreds of thousands of machines, the company decided that saving lives was the most important factor in this emergency situation.

On May 4, the Corona ward at Shaarei Tzedek hospital closed as there were no more patients. Nurses, doctors and secretaries celebrated, as seen in this sweet, heart-warming video.


We pray this will soon end across the world. During these hard times, there have been countless stories told of charity, unity and creativity from every country affected. Governments in many nations also rallied to the cause, offering assistance through money and loans.

Mired in political crisis after a third election resulted in a deadlock, Israel did not even have a government during Coronavirus. On May 17, after 508 days of infighting, the 35th Knesset was finally sworn in among affable elbow knocking.

Speaking to family and friends who live in other countries, I sadly realized that Israel was not in the forefront of financial assistance. Far from it. The government offered empty promises to aid its citizens. Seeing the suffering of so many small businesses, I would call this negligence, creating an even bumpier ride for many. Yet perhaps this forced the people to step up to the plate and, in true Israeli style, help themselves. It is the Israeli people who are the true heroes of this harrowing ride.  

April 2, 2020

Wedding Essentials

It’s so refreshing to be sitting in the sunshine.  Being inside for so long, I’m now aware of small details that I don’t always notice: soft fresh air, beaming spring flowers, birds gliding from tree to tree, moving about with no restrictions. All seemingly carefree.

Just waking up feeling healthy and able to embrace a new day is now a palpable blessing.

There have been so many restrictions put in place here in Israel – each day a new proclamation comes out. As of this writing, it is prohibited to leave your home unless you are buying food or items at a pharmacy or heading out to do ‘legitimized’ work. 

You must now go out with a face mask and gloves and stay two meters from people. As my family does not even own masks, I will have to be inventive as soon as I finish writing this.

Just yesterday morning, a ruling came out restricting weddings of more than ten people. Previously, tiny weddings were allowed here. For the seven-week period between Pesach and Shavuot, weddings are not celebrated in accordance with Jewish custom.

Our friends’ son was engaged to be married this June. Given the challenging COVID-19 situation and the inability to predict what will be, he and his fiance did not know if they would be able to have their wedding at that time. They had already rented a hall and the guest list was completed, the bride had excitedly selected her dream wedding dress and the seamstress was sewing it. Family from abroad had planned to fly in to celebrate. It was all ‘b’simcha’ as they say here – as all weddings should be.

However, about a week ago we were informed that the wedding would now be on April 5th. The couple had decided that they did not want to deal with uncertainty and would instead have a small outdoor wedding, with only ten guests, in accordance to the regulations.  We were happy to be invited.

Earlier this week, rumors of additional restrictions were circulating. Soon there would be no more weddings until further notice.

On Tuesday evening at 6:30pm my friend, the mother of the groom, was contemplating having an early night curled up with a book when she got the call.

“Mom,  looks like they'll prohibit all weddings starting tomorrow so we’re planning on getting married tonight. The wedding's at 10pm.”

With three hours to make a beautiful wedding for her son, adrenalin kicked in. As for the bride, she had three precious hours to find a dress, go to the mikvah and do her makeup and hair. They would also need to get the ketuba (the marriage contract) ready, find a chupah and call a photographer.

My creative friend set to work placing candles and flowers, whatever she could grab from home, in the outdoor area. They found a long white cloth to drape down as an aisle and sprinkled flower petals along it. A local violinist came and positioned himself above, plucking his strings as a true fiddler on the roof.

Lone guests appeared from the darkness as if the wind had blown them in. The beaming groom came in and no one could hug him. He stood alone, waiting. His mother arrived and desperately tried to reach one son who lived in another city but there was no answer. He would not know about the wedding until it was over. Another brother was on a video call ready to watch the ceremony.

The guests wore face masks and gloves and did their best to stand apart from each other. We waited with excitement for the bride.

The rabbi arrived with a huge smile on his face and the two witnesses came forward to sign the ketuba.

The fiddler suddenly changed tunes – he had a bird’s eye view from his eyrie and could see the bride approaching along the deserted street.

She entered, accompanied by the groom’s father and walked down the aisle, her long white train swishing behind her. The couple stood under the chupah and the ceremony quickly began. She circled the groom, men were called up to say the sheva brachot, a ring was exchanged, a ketuba read, wine was sipped by the couple and the glass smashed.

“Mazal Tov!” shouted the rabbi. One of the more nervous guests piped up, “Now everyone, please run home. You can have a festive meal in your house to celebrate this marriage. Say the sheva brachot in honor of this beautiful couple. Good night and be well.”

The violinist packed up his instrument. The candles had already been blown out by the wind. The lone guests left one by one, crossing the desolate street, footsteps echoing into emptiness until they were enveloped into the thick, black night.

This lovely young couple had extracted the essence of a wedding and we were their witnesses. They had created the sweetness and beauty of a marriage much like a perfumer designs a scent from flower essences.  

This requires bravery and humility; so many of us are caught up in what a wedding should ‘look like,’ we have forgotten what a wedding essentially is.

They were married by a rabbi under a chupah. They made a pledge to be there for each other. And they carried a signed ketubah to their new home, ready to begin a ‘Bayit Ne’eman b’Israel.’

Due to the circumstances and to their commitment to be married, they forfeited the printed invitations, the party planner, the florist, the caterer, the band, the videographer, the dessert table, the dancing, the center pieces, the specially designed wedding dress, the manicurist, the bride’s maids plus having their best friends and close family members there.

This is one wedding that I will never forget. These times are forcing us to reframe and to realize that we really can exist with less.   

We all need health, love and connection to thrive and when we understand this, we can have more meaning in our lives. When the extraneous is peeled away, we see the shining gem beneath.

Mazal Tov to Yael and Alex!
Thanks for bringing so much light into the darkness.

March 24, 2020

Coronavirus - Developing Fortitude

Israel has been through a lot in its 22 years of existence. Rocket barrages, fears of chemical attack and acts of terror are just a few of the scares. Perhaps these stressors have resulted in creating a ‘callus’ that assists Israelis when dealing with hardship. 

This is the barbed, spiny shell of the ‘sabra’ that protects its sweet fruit inside as well as the high-tech savvy that thrives by daring to think and act out of the box.

Balcony wedding at a Yeshiva
I see this kind of fortitude here right now. The Coronavirus pandemic has moved across the globe with great speed. Everyone’s life has been affected as we adapt to a new reality where the rules change by the day.

Just two weeks ago, we were all squished shoulder to shoulder inside shuls to listen to the Megillah reading. We hugged our friends, gave each other mishloach manot and had festive meals together.

Yellow highlighted words above: Stay Home
Simply being in close proximity to a someone is now viewed with fear. Since joyous Purim, gathering in groups of 100 turned to 50, then to 10 and now we are restricted to staying inside our homes. 

As of today, the rules are even tighter. We now cannot leave our homes unless it is for medical reasons, food purchase or work (for those who are fortunate enough to have a job). And if we were to venture out, we could risk being fined. Even Partner, my phone service provider, has replaced its name with the words 'Stay Home.'

Yet when this all began, Israelis still found a way to celebrate life. Religious weddings were held no matter what. There were weddings in the produce aisle of grocery stores, on sidewalks and on rooftops. Guests attended on Skype, by standing on balconies and by peering from neighboring roofs.

When the ban on gatherings of more than ten people was first announced, synagogues arranged for ten men to sign up for each of the three daily minyans. Gatherings of ten were then organized in neighboring homes. And although this was just a week ago, it seems like distant history.
Street minyan in Ra'anana

Synagogues and yeshivas in Israel are shuttered. Even the Kotel (The Wailing Wall) is closed off. So people must now pray at home alone. Yet this will not stop prayer here. Three daily minyanim are being held remotely. People tune in over the internet and pray along.

This past Shabbat, people in Israel dressed in their fancy Shabbat clothes and opened their laptops to sing and dance the Kabbalat Shabbat service via Zoom. They then lit candles to bring in Shabbat and on Saturday morning, many gathered on their balconies to pray while a designated chazan took the lead. Someone read from the Torah while men stood on their balconies draped in tallitot and shouted ‘amen.’ Others, who live in homes, now stand apart on the street and pray together.

Shut in my house, I see very little of the outside world. These past days have actually felt to me like a prolonged Shabbat, except we are able to use electronics. A plugged-in Shabbat every day offers us time to slow down and recenter.

As for necessities, I needed a new cylinder for my gas stove. Given the situation, I was not even sure if it would come and I pictured myself stooped over a camp fire stirring a pot. Sure enough, the gas guy came  wearing a mask and black gloves, hoisting the tank over his shoulder. No mention of the dreaded COVID-19 we stood far from each other and appreciated the beautiful spring flowers.

No more time can be wasted on consumerism and frivolities because there is very little online shopping in Israel. Much to every Israeli’s dismay, Amazon has announced it is stopping shipping to Israel. There isn’t even a need make social plans, obsess about decorating, or agonize about hosting a huge Passover seder. When we are forced to let go of our materialism, we start to appreciate what we really need; love, health, patience and trust – not toilet paper rolls or fancy Pesach chocolates.  

Spring colors are the trend
The fashion world’s usual obsession with upcoming trends and ‘must haves’ is sweetly replaced by a lineup parading wild flowers. Today’s mighty world travelers are the cranes who soar above us as they migrate from Africa to Russia.  As for events, there may not even be an Olympics this year.

Provided we are healthy, this new reality offers us the opportunity to realize that what we thought were ‘issues’ are unimportant now. When we place our former preconception of what was a ‘complication or a ‘frustration’ on the back burner, we gain new perspective as to what matters most – reaching out to our loved ones and our friends, working on forgiveness, and focusing on caring and learning to live in simplicity.

On a short walk yesterday, I ran into a couple out for a stroll with their kids. We kept our distance. In such a situation, there is no time for chit chat – instead they spoke biblically. “The month of Nisan is coming,” the husband said. “This is the month of the redemption.”

“We were told to hide inside our homes during the plague of the First Born – and look at us now,” his wife added, shrugging her shoulders and hurrying home pushing a baby stroller.

Israelis urged to stay away from Kotel - photo Emmanuel Dunand/AFP
Rabbi David Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Israel has called upon us to fast on Rosh Chodesh Nisan this Wednesday. We are asked to either fast, or if we have health issues, to refrain from speaking. 

Rabbi Lau addressed the nation saying,"At this time, we must engage in soul searching. As believing Jews, we know that the Hand of Providence is behind this and that it comes to tell us something, Our Sages said: 'Man does not lift a finger on earth unless it has been decreed in the heavens'.

"The situation is serious. We feel the flaming sword the world over and at this time, in addition to complete obedience to the guiding lines of the health authorities, we must also try to be more careful in observing the commandments between man and man, as well as those between man and G-d."

Invitation to Zoom morning prayers
There is an explosion of Torah learning here and a thirst to learn more. Classes are being held over Zoom all day and night with more Torah lectures posted on YouTube. These are being circulated incessantly on Whatsapp and Facebook as people try to come to terms with this mysterious situation that has taken hold of the world.

We re-evaluate. We meditate. We learn how to make do with less and how to cope with stress. We finally realize that we are all in this together – no exceptions are given to race, religion, fame or finances. We sit alone in silence and we think. And we pray for the healing of the world. This is our fortitude.

February 27, 2020

We are ephemeral

The flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow dies;
All that we wish to stay
Tempts and then flies.
What is this world’s delight?
Lightning that mocks the night,
Brief even as bright.
Percy Shelley
Israel has been blessed by an abundance of rain this winter. There has been so much precipitation, the desert hugging the Dead Sea is blooming like never before.

At minus 423 meters below sea level, this is the lowest place on earth. It is also one of the hottest locations in the country and, due to the proximity to the Dead Sea, one of the most saline spots in the world. Yet, despite these oppressive conditions, there are some 600 species of desert plants in Israel.

It seems illogical that this barren wasteland could be home to such a profusion of colorful blossoms. And yet, during the first few weeks of February, the desert blooms. This week, there is a tapestry of pink, mauve, yellow, white and red blossoms carpeting the rugged land. Botanical survivalists.


These meadows embrace the Dead Sea shore and cloak the mountain slopes, clutching to every rock and crevice, many flowering only when exact conditions are met. These flowers produce seeds with a hard protein coating that lay dormant underground. The seed shell is designed to protect them from being scraped, drying out and eaten by predators.

Although the seeds are water soluble, it takes quite a bit of precipitation for them to germinate. However, rain water is not the only key; the amount of water that falls and the times of precipitation are pivotal for enticing these seeds to awaken from their dormancy. As a result, many will only come to life after a slumber of many years.

 Once they break through the rocky ground, they have a very short time to flower, pollinate and produce seeds before the heat withers them. For this reason, botanists call these desert plants ‘ephemerals.’

With such a short window to live, these desert flowers must adapt to attract pollinators quickly. The anemone and poppy, for example, have bowl-shaped flowers with red petals and a black patch that looks like beetles are sitting inside. This is targeted advertising to beetles, saying that good food is to be found here. And since the flowers close up in the rain to protect their pollen, beetles have a sweet place of refuge inside during a storm. Cozy and dry tucked into the flower, the beetle is coated with pollen.

The best area to view these flowers area is a short drive from Jerusalem, right down Highway 90. There were so many cars and tour buses parked on the side of the road outside Kibbutz Ovnat, it looked as if crowds were heading to a rock concert.
As we strolled along the path to the meadow, I couldn’t decide which was more touching - seeing the flowers themselves or watching the visitors smiling in the presence of such beauty. 

I saw adult men lying flat on the ground to position a camera lens on a single bloom; elderly men and women walking with canes, thrilled to partake in this splendor; and young couples sitting in the field gazing across the flowers to the turquoise waters of the Dead Sea. 

All felt hushed, serene and sacred as people gently stepped across these vibrant patches of color shimmering in the breeze. 

We were awe-struck, or as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described it, in a place of radical amazement. The irony is that we best grasp this when we realize how transitory and fragile life really is. For we are all ephemeral.  

January 22, 2020

In The Clouds

The lower Galilee floats in a sea of cloud
As I open the front door, a cloud drifts inside, flutters and dissolves. Curious, I step out into wafting, billowing clouds. Fog veils the oaks and flutters, revealing mossy, bare branches – nature’s playful version of peek-a-boo.

Light playfully pierces the fog, opening it like a curtain on stage. I suddenly see a swathe of blue smudging the sky, green slopes and a deep valley where clouds saunter, slither, then take a ghostly flight path up to the peak. Again, my sight is obscured, the world masked.  

This is my first winter living in the mountains of northern Israel. Experiencing the heavy rains, damp cold and fog in a place that is usually baking hot, arid and cloudless presents yet another Israeli paradox – and one that is fascinating.

I study the fog, formed only when humidity is 100 percent and water vapor condenses into tiny droplets of water. I notice the fog accumulating in the valley below, and observe how it wafts up mountains, often leaving the tops floating like islands in a sea of cloud. I often feel as if I am in an airplane looking out at a bright blue sky while below, the world is covered in a thick down blanket.

And I watch the clouds slither up the slopes. This is upslope fog, when moist air condenses and cools. Sometimes this fog hovers lazily, loitering. Or the fog can be vigorous, skipping and flitting up the mountain, then disappearing into thin air like an expired breath.

Days of pounding rain create a desire to cocoon under a blanket with a steaming tea in one hand and a book in another. And when the rain eases, I venture out, astounded by how quickly the nurturing rain creates a velvety blanket of green on the path. Leaves sparkle and the tree bark shines. I hear birds chirping and rustling in the leaves. Water droplets gather in the green arms of daffodils, the first blooms to burst from moist, rocky soil into a muffled, masked world.

Nahal Parod
Nearby, a dry river bed swells with rain water that gathers force, plummeting over rocks and surging into pools and then down, creating spectacular waterfalls. To see a once-dry river ‘birth’ as water gathers and surges is yet another miracle care of the Israeli winter. 
A ‘rain forest’ in a country best known for parched desert. Rumbling water swirling over rock that is usually bone dry. This is magnificence. The wonders of Israel never cease.