February 20, 2014

Day of Love

Last Friday was February 14. When I was in Toronto a few weeks ago, the store windows were filled with hearts. Red was the theme in shop windows and on classroom walls. Greeting cards were a hot commodity.

Back in Israel, Valentine’s Day is not so hot. At least I did not see too much commercialism surrounding this holiday where I live.  But I did see a sweet sign in front of a florist’s shop that read “Day of Love.” Yom H’Ahava. Yes, people were running around with bouquets in their arms, but this actually happens every Friday here; traditionally, husbands and children bring flowers home to their wives and moms for Shabbat.

And then I read this study.

In honor of Valentine's Day, Twitter revealed that in 2013, "I love you" was tweeted in Israel more than in any other country in 2013. According to this social media site, Israelis expressed their love on Twitter more than any other country in the world.

Here are the stats. In 2013, more than 481 million Tweets said “I love you.” It was tweeted in 116 languages and tiny Israel ranked number one.

After Israel’s profusely affectionate tweetings, here are the top nine countries: Sweden, Norway, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Where did the United States, home of the most Valentine’s Day cards fall? The United States ranked 26th.

I thought about this study and soon realized that Israel actually celebrates Valentine’s Day every day. We do not need a ‘holiday’ to express our love because there are reasons to feel this here each day.

Case in point. On Tuesday, we went to a ceremony in Jerusalem to mark the graduation of the new paratroopers. These soldiers had just trekked 180 kilometers over the last twelve days, covering a distance equivalent to walking from Tel Aviv to Rosh Hanikra (which is close to the Lebanese border). They walked day and night. They ate little and slept less. Many carried heavy loads on their backs and shared the burden.

The very last night, they started the last phase of their journey, walking from evening to morning, assisting those in pain and encouraging each other. And when dawn broke, they ran the last three kilometers uphill, completing 50 uninterrupted kilometers in one night.

We were there to support them and celebrate with them the same day. The young soldiers stood proudly on stage in formation, ready to receive their ‘kumta,’ the red beret worn by paratroopers. The outdoor seats were all filled. Parents and siblings perched on stairs and sat on the grass beside baskets filled with food. (How can any upstanding Jewish family celebrate without a feast?)

Banners and Israeli flags flapped in the warm breeze. Wrinkled Ethiopian grandmothers wrapped in colorful long dresses shuffled while Russians in tight jeans perched atop high heels. Yemenite women belted out their sons’ names and a professional army trio sang sweet songs.

There was so much love in the air as each boy received his new kumta from his commander. Tears rolled down cheeks of proud parents and friends of these brave, strong boys who had endured and accomplished so much with dignity.

And there was love in the air recently at another tekes (ceremony) when a young man became an officer in the navy. It was such a special occasion, he decided to bring along a velvet box that held a diamond ring. And here, in front of his army friends, that he asked his girlfriend to marry him. Read about the IDF wedding proposal here.

Yes, love is in the air here everywhere and everyday. Here in Israel we are not afraid to express our love and we often cry tears of joy. We tweet and we hug, we dance, sing and shout in triumph and we jump in victory. We simply love to be who we are b’ahava.

February 11, 2014

Snowy Encounter

“Why did you move to Israel?”

People always ask this question and I’m sure they expect a deep, passionate response.

“Well, it’s a bit superficial,” I answer warily, lowering my eyes in embarrassment. And since I’m not someone to fib or hide truths, I tell it as it is. I take a deep breath, look back at them squarely and announce, “The weather.”


I don’t think people hear this answer too often.

“I came for the weather first,” I explain. “And only after living in Israel did I become a fervent Zionist.”

But let me give some background. I am from Toronto, a place where the temperature was recently minus 30 degrees, a mercury reading so cold that Fahrenheit and Celsius are equal, flash frozen in frigidity. 

It is a place where people are glued to weather forecasts so they can determine whether they should wear a facemask to work; a metropolis where eyes are peeled to the storm watch channel in case they must dash out for milk before ice rain pelts, turning roads into skating rinks.

And I have been told that I live in a dangerous place.

Driving in the depths of a Toronto winter is far scarier than being on Israeli roads even with our overly caffeinated, hot-tempered drivers.

Case in point. I was in Toronto last week and had to drive a fair distance to be at a friend’s home for Shabbat. I started watching the storm channel on Wednesday, two full days before I had to sit behind the wheel. They spoke of a gathering storm and heavy snowfall, filling me with anxiety; the car I was to drive had no snow tires.

Sky and ground: an undifferentiated mass.
Friday arrived in its gray splendor (the kind of day when sky and ground are an undifferentiated mass, matching the snow banks towering outside everyone’s home). Roads were clear according to the latest traffic report so I was set to go, arriving at my destination just as the snow flakes started to swirl.

All day Saturday, more snow fell, piling high along windowsills, cloaking the pines and completely erasing the roads. By the time we watched the Havdalah flame sputter out, my heart was pounding with anxiety. I trudged to the car and with the help of my daughter and my friend Jon, we grumpily scraped and dusted the snow off the car windows. I blasted the heat, sat down and gripped the steering wheel tightly.

 I drove 25 kilometers an hour, bit my lips and obsessively pressed the windshield washer fluid button, hoping it would give me peace and clarity. But it merely smudged things up. I could not see a thing save for the red lights of the car in front of me.  The lines that separate the lanes on the highway were gone. I had nothing to guide me. My nerves were so shot, I drove to the nearest sanctuary, my brother’s house, where I abandoned the car.

I have been living in the Middle East for eight years and I have not been as scared there as I was that night navigating the 401 during a blizzard. 

Winter is a real hazard, yet each morning Canadians set out in their parkas, scarves and toques to drive along icy roads where wind whips snow across lanes and slush globs onto windshields.

I guess we become accustomed to our environments and maybe I have been away from Canada too long, eh?  Yet this snowy encounter gives me such gratitude to be living here in Israel where the one assurance we do have is good weather.

February 4, 2014

Spiritual Eyes

Tragedy has struck Jerusalem. What should have been a routine service visit became a disaster. Where once two little girls sang and danced lies silence and grief. Life turns its back in a chilling moment.

A young family of six had been plagued by moths in one particular room. They called their local fumigator, a veteran of thirty years. He decided to use a slow releasing poison to kill the moths. He set up the poison to do its work, sealed the room and left the house.

Unknown to all, there was a small leak in the seal. The poison, deadly and unscented, escaped without detection. It attacked everyone’s nervous system, creating symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Thinking they had food poisoning, they rushed to the hospital and were simply told to take a pain reliever. 

They then returned to a home where poison seeped; a brew as toxic as that used in the Syrian chemical weapons attack. By morning, a few children were unconscious and one little girl had stopped breathing.

Their two little daughters, Avigael, almost four, and Yael, 18 months, died. At the funeral, the stricken young father called out to G-d. 

“Hashem, you gave us Avigail, who was so good and so pure. She was always asking, ‘Is this a mitzvah?’ She was such a pure spirit, she loved to help. Yaeli just started talking, always saying, ‘Daddy, Mommy.’ She was so pure, so sweet. They were such good friends… Yesterday morning they were talking and happy, at night they were still dancing. Hashem came and took them in an instant, from one second to the next. We didn’t even have time to pray.”

“We have no questions. We don’t know the ways of Heaven, we don’t know why this happened to us. But if the Holy One, blessed is He, brought us this crisis, He will give us the strength to withstand it.”

“Avigail and Yael,” he told his deceased girls, “go before the throne of glory, you’re babies who never sinned, and ask for Divine mercy for your brothers.”

The girls’ older brothers, aged 7 and 5, remain in critical condition in the Schneider Children’s Hospital. As there is no antidote for this poison, the boys have been put under general anesthesia to give their organs a rest. The grieving parents sit at the boys’ bedside day and night, hoping and praying.

Israelis pray for the recovery of Chaim Michael and Rafael Itzhak, whose condition is dire. There was a special prayer at the Kotel and women were asked to light candles five minutes early last Shabbat.

How can one imagine the intensity of the parents’ and grandparents’ despair, having buried two tiny precious girls, hoping, praying, waiting for the recovery of these two young boys.

Yet here is a letter written by a friend and neighbor of the Gross family. I read this letter and felt so humbled by these incredible people. Because, in times of despair, we are inclined to point fingers and lay blame. After the incident, the fumigator was placed under house arrest. Yet the mother of these children pleads that we not speak badly about him.

The letter below and the words from the distraught father’s eulogy over his tiny baby girls show that this young couple lives and judges and speaks on a very high level; it is almost as if they operate in another, very holy sphere. 

If we could all view life, with its darkness, grief and injustice through their spiritual eyes, our world would be a different place.

My Neighbor, Michal Gross
by Rachel Batya Aviner, Jan 27, 2014

My husband and I moved to Jerusalem’s Givat Mordechai neighborhood while my husband was in his year of mourning following his mother’s death. And in accordance with Jewish law, my husband would recited kaddish and lead the community in prayer.

One day a really kind elderly man sought my husband out after davening shortly before Passover and inquired where he would be for the holiday. My husband, assuming the man was asking because my husband was a new immigrant to Israel, explained that he would be with his wife and children for the Chag. This kind man insisted that my husband and I and our children should join his family for a holiday meal–an act of such kindness that we couldn’t refuse it.

During the meal we discovered that the reason the elderly man had invited my husband was not because he was an immigrant but rather because his mother had passed away, and concerned that my husband no longer had a mother to invite him home for Passover, he invited my husband to join his own family so he wouldn’t feel sad on the Chag.

This elderly man and his wife continued to call us periodically to invite us to their home. Over the years, we have met a good number of their children and grandchildren, and truly feel so welcome and taken care of by this wonderful family. It is only very special people who have such einei chesed, eyes of kindness, that seek out others in order to make them feel welcomed and loved.

One of the daughters of this kind family is Michal Gross, the mother of the two beautiful girls who died this past week due to inhalation of a poisonous substance after an exterminator sprayed their apartment for bugs. Michal’s two older sons, ages 5 and 7, are in very critical condition in Petach Tikva right now.

As they say, the apple does not fall far from the tree.

This past Saturday night, the women of our community organized an evening to pray for the immediate and complete recovery of the two Gross boys. The lady running the event had two messages and requests from Michal for us all:

1. We should all try to do a Kiddush Hashem in our own homes, through self-sacrifice for Torah, mitzvot, and good deeds,* for the merit of the refuah of her two boys.

2. We should not speak any lashon hara about the exterminator who had inadvertently poisoned her children; he is well known in our community and a man of learning and Torah. What happened, she explained, was Hashem’s decree and we should not speak lashon hara about this poor man who was just Hashem’s messenger.

Even in a time of such incredible pain and suffering, this family is still able to make a true kiddush Hashem and think of others in need.

Please pray for the sons of Michal and Shimon Gross: Chaim Michael Shlomo ben Michal and Rafael Yitzhak Isaac ben Michal who remain in critical condition as well as for their parents Shimon Ozer ben Tzipporah and Michal bat Rachel who are suffering through so much.
IY”H this incredible, righteous family should know no more suffering.
*How do we make a kiddush Hashem in our homes? Rabbi Dessler teaches that when we make what Hashem wants from us our top priority, even when it conflicts with what we want to do, and even when nobody will ever know about what we have done, that is the greatest possible form of Kiddush Hashem.