October 29, 2012

Day and Night

The plane descended, submerging us into a thick gray cloud. Then, as if that were not enough, we entered a second set of gray clouds, much like double doors in a high-security building.  We were now officially socked in, severed from the bright sunshine above, and locked into a land where shadows barely appear. Welcome to England.

I had prepared myself for this grayness. Living in Israel, where the sun flexes its muscles across a bright blue sky, fingers sketching deep shadows and definition across desert and mountains, I knew this sojourn into grayness was temporary. After months of intense Israeli heat, I felt a week of gray could be, well, an anomaly and I decided to become a ‘weather tourist.’This was liberating in a way as I did not feel distressed by the bad English weather and, as an outsider to this palette of gray, I started to think about how this climate affects the English culture.  

As I stood on the train platform that day, I noticed a sliver of sun did manage to sneak past the high security cloud cover, softly resting upon a pale, wan cheek. Seconds later, it was quickly masked by yet another bank of cloud. How cruel, I thought.

When I davened the next morning, I understood one of my morning blessings in a new light (forgive the pun). Every day in the Birkat Hashahar, we ask to understand the difference between day and night and I had always interpreted this as seeking knowledge to differentiate between good and evil. But, as I sat with my prayer book in hand the next morning and looked outside, I was confused. It was 8 am, but where was the light? It could have been 5 am or 11 am or 7 pm. There really was no huge distinction between day and night. I felt I was stuck in an ‘in between’ place, where it is neither markedly day nor night; a place of confusion and of not really knowing where I am and where I stand.

As the day progressed, and the skies curdled and thickened, I kept this thought in mind. Since the English seem to exist in a state of semi-darkness, perhaps they behave accordingly. In this country, I never really know where I stand with people. Is it because they are afraid to reveal their true emotions? Were they really happy? Bothered? Content? Fulfilled? I could not read this on their faces or discern it from conversation. My sincere queries were often met with British humor, which confused me even more. Were they being serious? Were they joking? Were they irritated? Were they feeling pain?

And then I thought about Israel, the land of hot sunny days and ink black nights; a place where people wear their emotions on their sleeves. No gray. The emotional weather in Israel is visibly happy and filled with hugs, kisses and loud chatter, or sad, heavy with tears and audible weeping. It can be anger with black, smoldering words. If someone wants me to leave, I am dismissed immediately. If they are irritated, they tell me. I am not left guessing. With eight months of sunny skies, where a single cloud is a trespasser, our weather is direct and definitive.  And when the rains do come, thank G-d, they are thunderous and plentiful. Nothing in Israel is insipid.

In Israel, we know the routine and we are not hiding it from anyone.

October 18, 2012

Chaval al ha'zman

Ohhhmm. It has been decided that I need to chill. Mellow. Unwind. “Mom, take a chill pill,” my kids say.

As for my husband, well, he has perfected this part of his life—and he owes this peace of mind to meditation. He eats lunch, davens mincha and then heads off to meditate. Every day. Our Golden Retriever is an ideal contemplation companion; the dog is so silent and mellow, he could pass for a shag rug—even if a cat were nearby. Every afternoon, the two of them retreat to a cool, darkened room and practise tranquility.

I am always too busy to make time to meditate; yet if I made time to meditate, maybe I would not feel too busy.

I decided to research this hypothesis and try meditating. I entered the room that afternoon accompanied as always by a frantic energy. The dog must have sniffed my sizzling electrical current as he gave a forlorn sigh then rolled onto his side. Here I was, determined to silence my chattering mind and arrest my flickering thoughts. 

I lay down and started to breathe deeply, trying to calm each part of my body: my legs, back, arms. Deep breathing in. Slow exhales out. My fingers, my neck, heavy, soft. I was actually feeling drowsy, hushed, still. My head, jaw, mouth. I loosened my jaw and upon breathing in, I sat bolt upright and bellowed, “The dental hygienist. How could I forget?”

The guru husband stayed inert in his deep contemplative state. The guru dog opened one brown eye in disapproval, then buried his nose in his fluffy tail.  I slapped my cheeks to become alert and grabbed my watch. 1:10 pm. I remembered that I had an appointment for 1:00. I stood upright and raced across the room to get my phone, dialed the dentist, was told that I could still make it, brushed and flossed, flew down the stairs and ran out the front door. I was blinded by the blazing sun, blinking in shock at the intense heat.

I arrived at the dentist frantic, nervous, sweaty and breathless. And when I slipped into the dental chair and lay way, way, back, I thought ‘hmmm, this could be the perfect spot to meditate.’ Shielding myself from the bright spot light, I closed my eyes and went a little deeper.

“Open wide,” the hygienist ordered. I popped my mouth open like a baby bird. A steel instrument probed, the suction tube suctioned and then her cell phone rang. Much to my surprise, she answered it. And then she had a long conversation with a friend, leaving my mouth agape while the suction tube suctioned. Was I expecting professionalism? Here in Israel?

“It’s my birthday,” she explained, repositioning the suction tube.

“Mazal Tov,” I winced as she scraped, scratched and probed.

“We are going out to dinner tonight. To celebrate.”

“Shounds shlike fun,” I sloshed back, understanding that this was not a good place to meditate. I almost expected an invitation to her birthday dinner.

She hummed and sang and prodded and flossed. And then she said, “Yesh lach shinayim chaval al ha’zman.” If I were to translate this literally, it would be something like ‘your teeth are a waste of time.’ Now that’s either a back-handed compliment or a shocking insult. But I knew better because here in Israel, everything is backwards: writing, reading, the dates—and compliments. She really said I have super awesome teeth.

I left and my mind buzzed as I rushed along the busy street, thinking about everything I had to do. I realized that I seriously can’t find the time to meditate and concluded that I am not chilled. But I have clean teeth and they are chaval al ha’zman

October 11, 2012

Zman Simchateinu

On Tuesday, I took apart my sukkah. I pulled down my decorations, rolled up the bamboo roof, slid the white cotton fabric off the poles, then washed and neatly folded them.  I swept up the area where our sukkah stood, gathering pieces of tinsel into a neat pile. 

After a week full of singing, dining, and gathering with friends, our stone courtyard looked empty, hollow, quiet. A cool wind rustled fallen leaves, marking the end of a season. It was time to return to a routine; back to school, back to work, back to all those things we put off until “after the chagim.”

Many people in Israel took time off for the chagim. They had quality family time, fun outings, toured the country and simply
enjoyed life. It is no surprise that Sukkot is
also called zman simchateinu, a time of
rejoicing; and it is no surprise that Israel is a happy country.

In fact, this hot, dusty, tiny country that is surrounded by enemies ranks #12 on the
World Map of Happiness. And in the newest OECD (the Organisation for Economic 
Co-operation and Development) Better Life Index Report, Israel ranks #6. This is higher than
Finland, Australia, Canada and Sweden and the wealthy US, which ranked #11.

Here is what the study found:

6. Israel
> Life satisfaction score: 7.4
> Employment rate: 60% (11th lowest)
> Self-reported good health: 81% (7th highest)
> Employees working long hours: 18.92% (3rd highest)
> Disposable income: n/a
> Educational attainment: 82% (tied-12th highest)
> Life expectancy: 81.7 years (6th highest)

Israelis have a life expectancy of 81.7 years — sixth highest among OECD nations. The country also has a low obesity rate of 13.8%, while 81% of those surveyed report their health to be “good” or “very good.” By comparison, Americans’ life expectancy is 78.7 years, and they also have a higher obesity rate of 33.8% among adults. Despite the constant security concerns in the country, the homicide rate in Israel is in line with the OECD’s average of 2.1 murders per 100,000 people. In addition, 70% of Israelis surveyed feel safe walking home at night. Although Israelis work long hours, with 18.92% working at least 50 hours a week, life satisfaction remains high.
How do we understand this? Israelis work longer hours, make less money, have a high unemployment rate and are generally stressed out. They serve three years in the army and are under constant threat from enemy attacks. Israelis are often over-caffeinated, overtired, and overjoyed.
Yet Israelis have time for their families and love the simple things in life, things that do not cost a lot. They love to gather for a barbeque on the beach, take a hike on a mountain trail, chat in an outdoor cafe and bite into a falafel--as long as it is smeared with techina.
Lining up to give tzedakah Erev Yom Kippur.
They also like to give and to reach out a helping hand. The morning before Yom Kippur, a group of Israelis were seen lining up to give charity. Where else in the world does this happen? Perhaps this proves that a good life is not about getting and having; rather it is about giving and caring. And in this area, Israel scores first place. Maybe this is the secret ingredient to joy.
My sukkah is stored away for the year. It is officially after the chagim. I must get back to my routine, but I do this with a heart filled with joy.