November 27, 2012

Coming Home For Shabbat

With renewed violence from Gaza, last week was filled with emotions for everyone in Israel. I too was glued to the internet, TV and Twitter and when Radio Galgalatz intercepted programming every few minutes to warn of incoming rockets, we were all gripped with fear, even if we did not have to run for shelter.

When the ceasefire was announced, I felt relief, doubt and confusion. And with this lull, my soldier son was granted his first leave to come home for Shabbat. Although we had not seen him in four days, it felt like it had been months.  I simply wanted him to relax and sleep. I wanted to do his laundry, to make him his favorite food and to hug him.

From our hurried conversations during the week, I knew basic training was no picnic. I could hear the shock in his voice, knew of his aching muscles, and his frustration. Deep inside, I panicked. What had I done by bringing him from Canada to Israel? Instead of being woken up and commanded to run outside, stand in formation in a cold, dark night, change into uniform, go back to bed only to get out, up, out, dressed and undressed again and again and again, he could have been lounging in a Starbucks somewhere, studying for university mid-terms.

I thought about him every hour of the day and anxiously awaited those brief phone calls before he went to sleep. But when he called on Thursday evening, I detected a change in his voice. He sounded confident, proud and stronger. Yes, he had a good day and yes, we would see him tomorrow.

When we excitedly ran to meet him at the bus stop, I saw a soldier sitting on a bench, elbows resting wearily on knees. “My son,” I gasped, barely recognizing him. As he stood up in those black boots, he seemed taller than when I had last seen him, some four days ago. He gave us a big grin and a warm hug.

In Israel, a soldier commands respect and is part of something greater, as if he treads on a special red carpet. In synagogue on Saturday, he was given an aliyah and a special blessing. Our rabbi honored him with words of strength and the community congratulated him on his new role. 

This will be a hard, long road.  Every parent knows this all too well. But to see our children shine, flourish and give of themselves to be part of something greater is a privilege. Early Sunday morning, when he leaped out of bed, eagerly put on his uniform, and tucked his woolen beret into his shoulder lapel with a flourish, I felt confident that being in Israel really is the best thing for him.

November 19, 2012

My Son Was Drafted Into The Army Today

My son was drafted into the army today. From the moment he opened the white envelope with the army insignia, and pulled out his draft letter, we knew this day would come.

And so we counted down months, weeks, then days. Time flew, the classic image of days flipping on a calendar, pages flying about like swirling, autumnal leaves. Then five days ago, a new war broke out. And time stopped. 

We all held our breath. What now? What next?  For Israelis who do not live in the immediate vicinity of missiles, a regular routine may prevail, but life is not the same. It is hard to focus, to plan, to celebrate.

And as I watched my son pack his bag last night, I felt like I was finally an Israeli.
I have never sent off a son to the army and I have never experienced a war with a son in uniform (though we have been through two wars in the past seven years).

When we first made aliyah, my son was 12. And when he entered grade seven on his first day of school in Israel, he did not know a word of Hebrew and he did not know a soul.  Back then, as fresh olim, our energies went into adjusting to our new life and culture. We had to learn how to stand in line and how to keep our spot; we had to figure out how to read bills and then how to pay them by phone with a menu that barked out Hebrew, Russian and Arabic commands at breakneck speed.  We also learned how to talk with wild gesticulations to teachers who did not speak a word of English and how to drive on roads where cars recklessly cut us off.

We did not master these skills, rather we adapted. And at 7:30 this morning, we were faced with our latest challenge of living in Israel. This was not the first day of school; we were giving our son away for three long years. We will always be his mom and dad, but starting today, the army is his new keeper.

Today they will clothe him in a khaki uniform and cut his hair to their specifications. The clinic will give him vaccinations, the canteen will feed him, and at night, they will assign him a locker and a steel bunk in a barrack.

And tomorrow morning they will tell him when to get up and how much time he has to dress and to pray and to eat. He will listen to each and every order and he will obey. He has given up his free will, and for a 19 year old, this is a tall order. But like most Israeli boys, he will be challenged and he will be transformed. As they say here, you give the army a boy and they return him to you a man.

We stood around this morning as the courtyard filled with other young men, all carrying duffle bags, all shifting nervously. And then names were called over the loud speaker. I heard my son’s name. It was the moment. Time stood still as we embraced. And then he turned from us and boarded a bus. Other boys’ names were called and families gathered to say farewell. I saw tears in mothers' eyes, grandmothers dabbing their cheeks and girlfriends choked up.

The bus doors closed and it drove off with our boys. They are going into the unknown and as parents, we too face the same blank space. But this is a place that every Israeli has been before and still must venture. If it were not for our boys, we would have no land and the Jewish people would have no future. 

November 16, 2012

We Will Never Forget

November 11 was Remembrance Day in Canada. It is also known as Armistice Day and in the US, it is called Veterans' Day. At eleven am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, the hostilities of World War I ended.

This is a time when people stop for a minute of silence and remember soldiers who died in the line of duty. When I was growing up in Toronto, veterans would stand on the street corners selling poppy pins. Everyone wore on their lapels and shirts. We would have a special assembly at school and learn about the world wars. This was a solemn day that everyone respected, young and old.

I was in Toronto this November 11. It was a Sunday and, to be truthful, I did not see many people wearing poppies. Tuning into ‘All-Talk Radio’ on that grey, drizzly day,  all I heard was how some Canadians would rather forget about Remembrance Day.  Someone was even campaigning on the streets, selling white poppies. Huh? Is this because she is a pacifist and poppies remind her of blood? The flowers that grow in Flanders Fields are, botanically speaking, red.

One radio commentator said that this was a day to remember fighting for freedom. This is noble, but I guess, after judging some Torontonians’ behaviour that day, not wholly practical. It was Sunday and people looked busy; there was Christmas shopping to be done at the malls. Toronto has become multicultural and multi-tasking. One minute of silence? That’s sixty seconds out of a day and from what I gathered being there last Sunday, for most, this small sacrifice was rather passé, almost antiquated. Some immigrants even decided to take that minute of silence to protest. 

I thought about all of this and found it a bit shocking. Sad. Distressing. In Israel, we mark Holocaust Day with a siren that wails from north to south, Mediterranean to the Jordan River. We step out of our busy lives, car pools,  rush hour, cell phone calls and business deals to stand for three minutes of silence. And on the Day of Remembrance for the Soldiers, we honour it the same way. Radios play solemn music, the TV stations airs programs about the wars we fought. And we remember. We cry. We are united in a national loss and a longing for peace.

In Canada, there are no threats on the borders. Seals doze on the icy northern shores and sailboats bob playfully along the vast Pacific and Atlantic coasts. No rockets are being lobbed onto Vancouver Island and there is no need to line up tanks in Charlottetown. Canadians do not have bomb shelters in their homes and 18-year-old boys are not drafted into the army for three years in the prime of their lives.

And here lies the difference. The wars Canada has fought in have been far away and they have been for freedom. Israel must defend its borders every day. We need not be forced to remember this and we will never take our freedom for granted.

Canada is fortunate not to be in this position, but the sadness is that people become so far removed from the true meaning of peace, they become almost numbed, left only with an urge to do Christmas shopping

As a postscript, while I was writing this on the plane returning from Toronto to Tel Aviv, war broke out in Israel. Again.  While Canadians shop, Israelis are once again in their bomb shelters; and while eighteen-year-old Canadians drink beer in the university pub, our young men are in uniform defending the country against terrorism.  Israelis will never forget.

November 1, 2012

This Is Not A Surf Shop

This is not a surf shop. Nor is it a favela. This is a laundry room. Are you asking why it looks like this? It makes perfect, logical sense if you are an Israeli bureaucrat who sits in the engineering department.

And here is the story.

Once upon a time (some three years ago), a family renovated their home. They redid the whole house until it was gleaming new and a bit elegant too. The family built a third floor, put in new plumbing, remodelled the kitchen and bought fancy windows with real screens so the mosquitoes could no longer swarm them.

But where would they put the laundry room?

‘No problem,’ laughed the architect.

‘Ayn bayya,’ chortled the builder.

And they placed the washer and dryer on a patio outside a bathroom. The builder even put on a piece of corrugated plastic to cover it. He added a clothes line to dry items in the baking sun and a sink to do hand washing.

It was a laundry room al fresco. And it was sunny.

The family was happy. Even the housewife, who spent much of her time doing her laundry outside, was happy.

One day, about three years and many loads of laundry later, the architect said that the family had been living in a house without a permit. He told them that he had added a few extras to the plans while they were building , and he had not told the building department.

Uh oh.

‘No problem,’ he said. ‘A building inspector will come to look and everything will be fine.’
So the building inspector came and he saw the laundry room. And it was not in the plans. Although this area was outside and had no roof (save a plastic sheet) or walls or doors or windows, he said, ‘This is a room and it is not on the plans.’

‘No problem,’ said the architect. Take off the plastic and the inspector will come back.”

So the family asked the builder who said ‘ayn bayya’ to come back. He said ‘ayn bayya’ and came with his fancy tool box and took off the plastic roof. The inspector came by, looked at the open-air laundry room with a large sheet of plastic on the floor, nodded and left.

It was late October and there was a rumbling in the sky. There was thunder and lightning and a big storm raged above. Everyone was excited because it was the first rain in Israel and no one had seen rain in seven months.

The housewife who spent much of her time doing laundry ran outside to check on her al fresco roofless laundry room. The washing machine and the dryer did not like the rain. They broke down. And the laundry piled up.

A man came by to fix it and the housewife spent much of her time looking up at the sky. It was blue, but it could change at any minute. She sniffed for rain. She called the architect.

‘Do not put the roof back on,’ he said.

‘But why? The inspector just  saw the laundry room.’

‘The wall.’

‘What wall? Where? We have no wall.’

‘That’s right and this is the problem,’ said the architect.

The housewife scratched her head. She was standing in dirty laundry up to her waist.

The architect explained. ‘There is a wall in the building plans. The inspector may come back to check it.’

The housewife stomped on her dirty sheets and on her towels and on her socks. ‘But I don’t want a wall and I can’t afford to build one and I just want to do my laundry.’

And then she remembered that way, way back, they once wanted a wall. But since the building department moved so slowly and they had no permit, they installed a bamboo fence. Back then, the inspector did not consider her fence a wall, but now he considers her laundry area a room. And soon enough, he will consider her wall-less bamboo fence a problem, so her building plans will have to be resubmitted.

She dug herself out of her laundry pile, and picked around her garden shed. She found two boogie boards, a beach mat, taped together some garbage bags and made an awning. Then she went out to sniff for rain.