September 25, 2012

Selichot in Jerusalem

Heavy, somber, hushed, introspective. These are the words I would use to describe the prayers that are recited every morning by the Ashkenazim starting before Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur. (The Sephardim say Selichot a few weeks earlier, starting on Rosh Chodesh Elul.) The Selichot prayers ask for forgiveness on a community and national level. 

Rav Ovadia, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, called on everyone to come to the Kotel and pray together. Some 250,000 people flocked from all over Israel to stand together and pray in unison facing the Kotel, the place where every Jew’s prayer is directed. 

250,000 people gathered in the Western Wall Plaza

Sunday night, I was at the spot where all prayers are focused: the Western Wall. I have visited the Western Wall many times over the years. I have leaned against the Kotel’s warm, shiny stones on a summer’s day, squinting into my prayer book as the sun beat atop my shoulders. I have been there at sunrise as the first rays tumble over the ancient wall and I have gazed up at sunset, when the stones are softened, bathed in a golden hue.

And I have been there late at night on a few special occasions; on Yom Yerushlayim, when thousands of people gather to celebrate, waving flags, dancing through the narrow streets to the main square, singing and praying; and on Tisha B’Av where people sit on blankets and cry, reciting the mournful words of Eichah in hushed tones.

I expected a similar mood last night when I arrived for the recitation of selichot. These are the last days of the Aseret Yamim, the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This is known to be the time when Hashem is closest to us, most accessible to us and to our prayers. These are the days when people look inside and evaluate themselves, ask forgiveness from others and prepare to make amends for the new year. These days are spent in reflection and preparation for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

Last night, as I walked towards the Old City Walls, I passed by bus upon bus releasing passengers who were swallowed into the surging crowd.  Outside Jaffa Gate, young boys stood yelling “Caparot.” On their table sat a few exhausted chickens, their feathers ruffled, their eyes sunken from a hard days’ work. How many sins have they absorbed after being thrust into the air and swung around all day long? A table with a large silver samovar offered steaming cinnamon-scented tea on the cool autumn night. The draped lights of Mamilla were twinkling, bright and festive, the stores all open, the cafes filled, the streets bursting with tourists and teens, yeshivah students and young couples.

I entered Jaffa Gate and was gathered into a throng, a pulse, a wave that swept me along with small school children, teachers trying to gather their small ducklings close by. A group of teenagers in jeans and T-shirts sat on the ancient stones of the Old City and strummed their guitars. This is what they sang.

Kabel rinat amcha sagveinu,
tahareinu nora

Accept your people's song, 
elevate and purify us

It was well past midnight and the crowd gathered in intensity. There was laughing as friends walked arm in arm. There was devotion as people hurried towards the Kotel, their prayer books tightly held in their arms. And there was unity. 

We passed the Cardo, the wide avenue built by Hadrian 2,000 years ago after the Romans conquered and destroyed Jerusalem, meticulously overturning each stone and murdering every Jew they could find.  The Cardo was a place where the surviving Jews were strictly forbidden to enter and were beheaded on the spot if found. Today the Cardo is an archeological site sitting in silence as we hurry past.  

We walked by a thick wall that was built in the time of King Hezekaya, each stone painstakingly placed  701 BCE by terrified Jews who were trying to protect themselves against the attacking Assyrian army. Today a playground sits beside these old ruins where children gleefully fly down bright blue and yellow plastic slides.

These enemies are gone and new enemies are back. We all know about the threats from Iran, the rockets aimed at us from Lebanon and the world that sits silently and allows a tyrant to speak openly of our destruction at an international institution for peace.

We stood on a roof top to view the prayers below. The crowd was still growing. Jews young and old were mouthing ancient words, standing in freedom, asking forgiveness for all.

The words sung in the Rova by that group of teenagers still ring sweetly in my ears:

Ana becho'ach, 
g'dulat yemincha,
tatir tz'rura

Kabel rinat amcha sagveinu,
tahareinu nora

We beg thee 
with the strength and greatness of thy right arm-
Untangle our knotted fate.

Accept your people's song, 
elevate and purify us.

May we stay strong and united, may our actions and words be kind and may our prayers be intense and meaningful.

September 19, 2012

Of Swimming Pools & Tiger Tails

Shana Tova

May this be a sweet year filled with peace and understanding.

I have recently felt a bit challenged by my own lack of understanding and by the chaotic, brash and pressurized culture I find here in Israel. Like fingernails on a chalkboard, life here can grate my sensitive Canadian side and offend my polite British upbringing. And no, I am not stressed about high alerts on borders, missile threats or our imminent nuclear threat. Israel has been threatened with destruction since its independence; and the Jewish nation is so accustomed to annihilation, we have developed holidays with festive meals to celebrate our survival.

On a most mundane trivial level, I recently went to sign my son up for swimming lessons. In distant lands, one would give a child’s age and ability and be told which swimming class is available. Where I live, it is a half-day affair. I had to bring him in for a pool test. I was told to turn up at the pool at 4:30 pm on a Wednesday.

Come Wednesday, I go to the pool. It is 4:30. I am punctual. We are calm and organized and my son even has his swimming goggles and a towel. I go outside to the pool office and see a crowd of several hundred people swarming across the lawn. There are fathers in suit jackets, dads in army uniform, mothers with newborns and toddlers running through people’s legs. Hundreds of kids are standing around in their bathing suits. They are all waiting for the big test.

And then the speeches begin. The swim director introduces himself and talks about pool protocol, pool hours, swim school hours, and the big test. I look around and realize everyone is clutching a ticket. Oh no. Another scheme to trick one into assuming everything will be organized and will run smoothly. But from my recent banking experience, I know this is not true. This bodes badly.

I scour the pool area for the source of this special admittance ticket and see people mobbed around a table. A woman is handwriting names and phone numbers of all the children who want to be tested. In return, she hands out an embossed ticket with a number. I am number 73. 

I slap my forehead and realize I had better find a lawn chair. Each child will be tested singly and each test will take two minutes. Add a few minutes for mix ups and arguments and I have about 170 minutes ahead of me. My son suggests we go home and come back, but no, I am a glutton for punishment. I am here and I will see this through.

The sun glistens between the palm fronds. They are at number 23. I only know this because my son keeps running to the desk to find out the score.  Calling out numbers to keep the crowd informed would be too advanced.

The sky is amber, then orangey black like a scoop of tiger tail, that licorice-flavored ice cream I used to love as a kid when I could devour large scoops guilt free. I sigh and wonder who will magically make dinner appear at my house. They are at number 46.

People settle into their pool chairs. They chat, make phone calls, hush their babies in strollers. I feel as if I am on a ship’s deck, waiting to land at the next port.  The sky turns inky black. They are at number 68. I clutch my ticket in the darkness.

The pool director then comes out and announces that they will stop testing at number 72. Those with higher numbers will have to come back another day. He says the people with the higher number tickets did not hear his speech. Huh? I heard the speech. I was here on time. What? They are really stopping at 72? What kind of random number is that? I look at my ticket in disbelief.

Of course I have 73.  It is my bad ticket karma flaunting around like a showy peacock. Again.
I feel anger swelling. The sense of justice I wear, stiff as a shirt collar, is alerted. I feel dejected, maddened that my time is treated so cheaply.

But I quickly realize I do not have to grandstand. There are many others who are protesting, shouting, complaining, and some of them even have shiny insignias on their lapels. Besides, they are doing this way better than I could in their eloquent Hebrew. 

In the midst of this chaos, my son weaves past the crowd, slips into the pool and gets tested. Just like that. No one even asked for his ticket.

As I walked into the house later that evening, tired and hungry, my husband looked at me questioningly and was about to open his mouth. Yet when he saw my dazed face and that stunned, hypnotic look in my eyes, he decided he had better keep quiet.

I have now had time to think over this incident as well as my other recent frustrations. This may have been a test for my son, but it was also a test for me. On a logical, rational level, I could have thought of a hundred more efficient ways to organize kids’ swim classes. 

But this is deeper. 

I realize that I will never see the whole picture. We live in an imperfect, fragmented world filled with challenges. And if I expect justice and perfection, I will never be able to cope. I cannot have set notions about my reality because if something comes along to challenge my rationale, I will falter.

On Rosh Hashana, we read about a ram suddenly appearing in a thicket. This was the ram that Avraham then sacrificed. The ram’s horns, sitting on its head, are like our rationale. It is often entangled in uncertainties. But we take these horns and make them into a shofar. We then cry out. It is a primordial sound, deep and intense. It is a cry to Hashem from our fragmented lives. And it is a connection.

These times are uncertain; they always will be. But we must live on despite uncertainties. Next time I sign up my son for swim lessons, I will pack a dinner, cuddle up in a beach chair bring, and maybe I will bring along my own bathing suit. On second thought, I could convince my son to take up mahjong or baking.

G’mar Chatima Tova 

September 11, 2012

Burnt Quinoa and A Stamp

It is Elul, a month of introspection and change. We search inside and see where improvements can be made. So I decided to dig deep and change myself from the inside out.


I went on a cleanse, in hopes that a shiny, updated inner me would develop into a more organized, energized, lucid, calm and focused outer me. I first tossed out everything with gluten, then all the sugar. Out went all dairy products and everything that came in a package. My fridge looked like it did the day the delivery man wheeled it in on a dolly.

"Hmm," my mother said to me over the phone. "What is there left to eat?" Well, I must admit, my shelves were bare. My kids went into shock and mournfully opened and closed the pantry doors, hoping a bag of potato chips or a Snickers bar would plop into their pleading hands.

I replenished the shelves with adzuki beans, lentils, amaranth and quinoa. I hoarded sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pecans and almonds. I baited my sweet tooth with dates and apricots and figs. To my surprise, I was not hungry at all. But I had not really transformed.

Take, for instance, an incident at the post office.  I sent my daughter out to buy a 20 agurot stamp. I had just purchased a similar stamp and I needed another one. Simple, no?  So she goes to the post office, waits in line and is snarkily told that there is no such thing as a twenty agurot stamp and that she should come back when she knows what she is talking about. 

I was cooking for Shabbat, calmly stirring a pot of quinoa, when she came home. She told me what happened and I went beserk. I was incensed that someone would talk to my daughter like this, especially when my daughter was in the right.

Still holding my spoon, I grabbed my car keys and stomped out, wondering how I would give this woman a piece of my mind with a limited Hebrew vocabulary and no grammatical structure whatsoever. A wise person once said that it is best to get mad in your own language, so I could always resort to English. Luckily I remembered to bring ‘Exhibit A,’ the envelope with the famed twenty agurot stamp.

My daughter jumped in the car, pleading with me not to go into the post office. (I am an embarrassment to my children and they constantly beg me not to open my mouth.) "No," I said, waving my wooden spoon and spraying the car with half-cooked quinoa. "This is injustice."

She convinced me to let her go back in there while I waited in the car.  And out she came. Empty handed. 

Turns out another clerk had screamed at her, telling her she did not know what she was talking about-- and she had forgotten to brandish Exhibit A.  I was about to abandon my car and rush into the post office with Exhibit A, but they had just locked the doors tight. It was 12:30 pm and everyone had to rush home to get ready for Shabbat.  Shabbat? My quinoa!I had left it cooking on the stove.

I came home stampless, my daughter hapless and my meal quinoa less. At least I had amaranth in the pantry.

I know I have some work to do. Lots of work. Think I’ll take up meditation next.

September 3, 2012

I Want to Deposit a Cheque

I want to deposit a cheque. Simple, no? I can usually do this at a “kaspomat’ machine outside the bank. It takes about 30 seconds. Today the machine decides it cannot read my cheque. Hmm. I feel privileged that the bank is actually open. Israeli banks keep such bizarre hours; they are never open to the public for a full day, preferring to work half days with two two-hour afternoon shifts thrown in for good merit.

I walk into the bank and am greeted by cool air. I look around and something is different. People are lounging in chairs outside the tellers. They look like they are in the cinema waiting for the movie to begin. They are all looking at a screen that is flashing numbers. Where’s the popcorn?

A recorded voice then says “A407, wicket 2. C208, wicket 4. In perfect sych, everyone scrutinizes the paper in their hands, their eyes then reaffixing to the screen above. There are news items flashing from HaAretz newspaper, but the Hebrew is so complicated and the speed so fast, I catch only the first word of each headline.

Oh, numbers in the bank. What an efficient idea! I am thrilled at the progress this country is making and go to the machine. It asks for my bank card and then gives me two options to press. They are both in Hebrew. One says Premium. I can understand that but have no idea whether I am Premium. My card does not say Premium and no one has told me I am Premium. The second option I cannot distinguish. I see three Hebrew letters that make no sense to me. מת"ח . I sound them out and can’t even figure out how to pronounce this word. I ask my son who graduated high school in Hebrew what this is. “I dunno know,” he shrugs and returns to the news items scrolling across the screen.

Why does the bank machine outside give me options in English while this main button on this newfangled machine in this attempt to improve banking does not? I feel as if I am at the slots in Vegas and cautiously press Premium. Out slides a number. I then reinsert my card and press the second option. I must cover all my bases. I actually feel clever about my shrewdness.

The voice chimes new numbers. D428 wicket 14. M 604 wicket 12. What? Other letters? Other wickets? I sprint around the bank clutching my numbers and see that each desk has a board flashing with numbers and letters, however I cannot figure which letter belongs with which desk. None of the numbers or letters flashing on their boards have a vague semblance to those on my piece of paper. I go to the back of the bank and see another large line and another teller. More letters, more numbers.

Ten precious minutes pass. I run upstairs to a teller I know and ask her, hoping she will take my poor flimsy cheque and deposit it. She tells me that מת"ח means foreign currency. My logic is turned inside out. Suppose one were to have a foreign currency account; would that not mean that the word  מת"ח should, perhaps, be also be posted in a foreign language? My helpful teller then tells me that I am “Premium” and that I must wait in the line at back of the bank-on the other side of the movie seats.

I join a line. It is not really a line. Some people are sitting. Some are standing. Some are circling the way an aircraft does before it lands. Other hover like an eagle ready to catch its prey. I see letters and numbers flashing on a screen above this teller while everyone clutches at their number. Someone goes to the wicket and I hear her complain. The teller shrugs and says מה לעסות . (Translation: What can I do? There’s nothing to do. I am helpless. I don’t care, so be quiet) I hate this expression and know something is up.

I wait fifteen minutes. I hear some people grumbling and realize that the new system is not working. My logic recoils in pain. If the newfangled system that is supposed to save us time and aggravation is not working, then why are numbers still spewing out, giving people hope? Why is the recorded voice offering us a false sense of order? Why don’t they put a sign on the machine and then smother that voice? Why are there so many numbers and letters in the first place? I then realize I must hold my place in this line or I will never see the light of day.

I wait thirty minutes. The line gets longer. There is only one teller to look after us all. There are many circlers checking out their line butting possbilities. I spy a hoverer who skips a turn in line and walks right up to the teller. My stomach twists. I see an old man who is sitting down trying to get up. He will butt. I just know it. My turn is coming up next and I hate to be rude to my elders, but he came after me. I start to hover and as soon as the woman in front of me walks away, I am there. Ta da!

A woman interrupts me. “I am next,’ she says, indignant, pointing to herself in front of the watching crowd. “Show me your number,” she demands, the accuser in front of a jury. I guiltily unravel my old, sweaty, crumpled piece of paper and she scrutinizes. I am one number before her. She releases me. 

It is my turn. Officially. The bank transaction takes 30 seconds. The entire endeavour has taken an hour.I am frazzled. And mad. And frustrated. I do not enjoy fighting for a place in line or being challenged by rude people. I am belittled for being confused by Hebrew after having lived here for seven years. I feel intimidated. And depressed. I just want logic and order and kindness and calmness.

 I am tired. And my day has just begun.