Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pictures from June

The Final Weeks

Alas we begin the process of concluding our woefully too short sabbatical. We will leave this wonderful place in a few days, after one final shabbat. While Jim and I are desperately depressed and clinging to every last second, the children are excited to go home. Simply put, they miss their friends. I must admit that I am glad it is not the material things that they miss, but rather the all important personal connections. I see that as a sign that Jim and I are doing something right as parents (along with the many things we do wrong).

True to form we have been busy the last few weeks. We took a trip to the northwest to see Haifa, Akko and Rosh Hanikra. (I must confess that it was the worst of all our trips. The kids are just done being tourists. I am not sure how that will play out in London next week. Only time will tell.) Jim took Bennett and Sabrina to Bet Guvrin on an archaeological dig. (Incidentally, the small world thing happened on that experience as it turned out that their guide was someone with whom I went to Camp Ramah!) They also went to see the stalagmite and stalactite caves near Jerusalem. We all went to the Tower of David light show which, although highly recommended, was somewhat disappointing for us. I took the kids for a last spin through the Old City – including the Burnt House and Old Yishuv Courthouse Museum (both of which we enjoyed).

In addition to all the tourist activity, we have spent quite a bit of time saying goodbye to people, places and activities. We have said goodbye to almost all of our sabbatical friends; we said goodbye to the Schwartzes in Ranana; we said goobye to our wonderful tutor/babysitter Simone; Jim said goodbye to his cousins Shai and Margie; we had Sabrina’s goodbye party from first grade; we had Elliot’s gan finale; we had Sabrina’s dance recital; and we had the end of season baseball party where we said goodbye to all of Bennett’s teammates who, of course, are now friends. (Another quick small world experience – one of the player’s fathers is from Wilmington, Delaware and went to Pine Mere Camp with the Ufbergs of Allentown.) Tomorrow we say goodbye to my cousin Deena and the Potters and, on Saturday the Whitefields and the Livingstons (Terrence, Annette, Yesherun, Aliyah, etc). We have not yet planned our goodbye with the Arbels, but I am sure that will be a hard one.
While in the midst of all these goobyes, I had an opportunity to say hello to two cousins I did not know I had. One, Shirley Zuckerman, is my paternal grandmother’s first cousin. Jane Mitnick, my neighbor here who is also originally from my home town of Allentown, made the connection. Shirley and her husband (both in their 80s) made aliya 25 years ago when they followed their two sons here. We had such a great time meeting. I only wish we could have met earlier in our sabbatical.

The other cousin I met, Art, is from my mother’s side. Art was my maternal grandfather’s first cousin. Although we were not able to arrange an in person meeting, we spent a bit of time getting to know each other over the phone. Again, if only I had made the contact earlier.

In preparation for our departure, we made lists of some of the things we have learned, some of the things we have enjoyed and some things we would not do again. The latter two lists are mostly for people who are coming to Israel for a sabbatical or a vacation (although there are some personal memories included as this is the master list). The first list is pure entertainment.

A final “blog entry” is in the works. For now, read, enjoy and stay tuned.

Things I Have Learned
1. Contrary to his expectations, Bennett did not really like being homeschooled. He would much rather be in school with his friends.
2. Sabrina’s opinion of a new place or activity is wholly dependent on whether she makes friends.
3. Elliot is adaptable.
4. Jim and I enjoy spending time together. This will make retirement much easier to take.
5. Even babies sit in the front car seat in Israel.
6. Bennett does not abuse cell phone privileges.
7. Our family can live comfortably in a relatively small 3 bedroom apartment with only one television and no dishwasher – as long as there are 2 bathrooms.
8. To continue the theme, I can live without a television in the bedroom (at least temporarily).
9. Our family can drive long distances in a very small car without killing each other (as long as we remember the DVD player).
10. Elliot is still cute without his curls.
11. Given spare time, Jim’s choice activity is reading the Tanach.
12. Jerusalem is in fact cold in the winter and early spring.
13. Jerusalem is in fact boiling in the summer.
14. Swimming in the Dead Sea is fun only in theory. In reality, it burns.
15. The Dead Sea may be the lowest place on earth, but you still need sunblock.
16. The majority of Israelis with whom we came into contact are VERY right wing.
17. All Rabbi Majeskis are awesome.
18. Life is much more enjoyable when I don’t spend half my day in the car.
19. Bennett is not such a picky eater after all.
20. Even after six months, the kids still miss home.
21. At the end of the day, I’d rather have to do laundry in Jerusalem than D.C. (This one is for you Meir.)
22. I love Kabbalat Shabbat at Yakar and Shira Chadasha.
23. The Allentown Jewish Day School actually succeeded at teaching me Hebrew.
24. Bennett likes to read and can even read novels.
25. At 7 ½, Sabrina still loves “big girls”.
26. Sabrina is the most confident and independent of all our children as demonstrated by the fact that she successfully transitioned into an all Hebrew speaking school without ever really backsliding. (Elliot also made the adjustment, but he did backslide several times.)
27. Little league in Israel is just as contentious (and far less organized) than in the U.S.
28. Jim and Bennett can get along as coach and player.
29. Israeli drivers are the worst and would rather hit you than stop to let you cross the street.
30. Israeli cab drivers do not like to be given directions.
31. Free events in Israel are too crowded to attend.
32. Most women in the German Colony area of Jerusalem wear skirts.
33. Public school in Israel costs money (though not a lot by US standards).
34. A non-kosher steak at a mid-tier steakhouse in the US tastes better than the best kosher steak in Israel.
35. I am more afraid of random crime in D.C. than terrorism in Israel.
36. Israelis litter far more than Americans.
37. Israelis use way too many plastic bags at the grocery store.
38. Crocs are twice as expensive in Israel as in the U.S.
39. Spongebob Squarepants is just as “entertaining” in Hebrew as in English.
40. When TV options are limited the kids will pretty much watch anything (including Spanish language soap operas with Hebrew subtitles).
41. Lost continues to “lose” me.
42. There is no harm in living a life committed to G-d.
43. Youtube must be supervised.
44. When booking a hotel room, one must claim to have only two children.
45. Three months away would still have been too long for my parents.
46. Sleepovers on school nights aren’t so bad (and actually helped ensure getting to school on time the next morning).
47. This sabbatical was a treasure for us all.
48. Fridays are the best days of the week in Israel.
49. When buying something in Israel, you get at least three receipts all of which say “non-cancellable and non-refundable”.
50. Motorcycle drivers do not need to follow any traffic laws and have no regard for their own (or anyone else’s) life.
51. Children only care to see a limited number of ruins (you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all).
52. Jim’s “How to Plan a Sabbatical” book was annoying yet accurate.
53. Given the right circumstances, even adults can form lifelong friendships in a short period of time.
54. It is easier to see a Jewish boys’ choir perform in the U.S. than in Israel.
55. Six months is a long time in the life of a child.
56. We made a mistake by not sending Bennett to full time school.
57. We were right to put Sabrina and Elliot in Hebrew speaking schools.
58. Six months is just not long enough for a sabbatical in Israel.
59. Our travel agent was right to push us to rent a car.
60. When you ask someone in Jerusalem “how are you?”, 7 out of 10 times they will respond “baruch hashem….”
61. Israeli teenagers prefer to walk in the middle of the street rather than on sidewalks.
62. Frommer’s 2009 Israel guide book is NOT reliable.
63. Just because a person is observant, it does not mean he/she is a good person.

Some of Our Favorite Things During Our Sabbatical (in no particular order)
1. Ulpan Or
2. Meeting and loving our sabbatical friends – the Krieglers, the Voits, the Feldmans, the Goldings, the Potters, and the Bernsteins
3. The Arbels
4. Spinning at the playground on the way home from Ulpan Or
5. Going to the Hazfira playground and marcolet after school especially with Molly and Sammy
6. Going to Brechat Yerushalaim (the pool) and Elliot learning to swim
7. Collecting poogs (little plastic chips with Yugio-like images that come in bags of chips)
8. Kibbutz Ein Gedi – especially mini golf and the mini zoo
9. Hiking Nachal David
10. Masada – Jim and Bennett hiking down
11. The Dead Sea – in theory
12. Going to the Whitefields to see Chris, Aliza, Tan and the dogs
13. Climbing the neighborhood “treehouse”
14. Bonfires at the Arbels
15. Tower of David Museum
16. Yom Haatzmaut celebrations with fireworks
17. The Davidson Center (archeological site by the Jewish Quarter)
18. Safari at Ramat Gan
19. Climbing wall at Teddy Stadium
20. Shabbat with Maya Wergeles
21. Seeing Maya and Yossi the shinshins
22. Afrikef monkey park
23. Swimming in Herzelia and playing on the exercise equipment on the beach
24. Safta Jane
25. Elliot learning Hebrew – “ani rozeh lesachek”
26. The election …. and coalition politics
27. Pardes for Jim
28. Latrun tank museum
29. The Clandestine Immigration museum in Haifa
30. The Isrotel hotel in Tel Aviv
31. Kfar Blum (renovated rooms) and playing running bases on the lush grass
32. The grottoes in Rosh Hanikra
33. Akko and the Turkish Bathhouse
34. Haifa’s cable car and subway
35. Finding out Jim’s and Nanci’s families knew each other in Poland!
36. Meeting cousins – Deena, Shai and Margie
37. Biking in the Hula Valley with Bubbie and Zaide
38. Manara Cliffs – ziplining and bungee jumping
39. Golan jeep tour with Bubbie and Zaide
40. Jerusalem Zoo
41. Ein Yael biblical craft park with the Weisses
42. Visiting with the Davidsons, Frenkel/Fontheims, Nicolsons and Weisses at Pesach
43. Running into Sarah Brooks in the Old City resulting in Bennett spending the afternoon with Aaron
44. Eilat – the seaquarium, Kings Castle (except when Sabrina got rope burns) and a motor boat ride in the Red Sea to see the imported dolphins
45. Petra with the Nicolsons
46. Shabbat dinner with Bill Knapp
47. Bennett giving tours of the Israel Museum
48. Hezekiah’s Tunnel
49. Excavating and finding pottery at Beit Guvrin
50. Bennett checking out arcardes in every major hotel in Eilat while Sabrina went to a cabaret show
51. Gan Zviah – especially meeting Shai
52. Yehuda Halevi – especially the mesibat siddur, Sabrina’s award, Margalit, Elisheva and teaching the class the Cha Cha Slide
53. Jim coaching and Bennett playing little league – especially winning the Jerusalem championship game after which Bennett was awarded the game ball (by the other team’s coach!)
54. Our first shomer Shabbat experience with the Schwartzes in Ra’anana
55. Bennett playing with Shalom in Herzelia on the beach and at the park (best swings/climbing structure/slide in Israel)
56. Ra’anana park (also great swings, climbing structure and much more)
57. Ecological Purim parade in Sde Boker
58. Purim and Shabbat with the Majeskis
59. Shabbat in Jerusalem – every one of them!
60. Nanci’s quest for the perfect Kabbalat Shabbat service
61. Bennett going to Yedidia for Shabbat with friends
62. Tuli B’Buli, Saba Noach and other performances at the Jerusalem Theater
63. Sabrina and Elliot Playing in the lobby of the Jerusalem Theater with Gavi and DeeDee
64. The Train Theater performances
65. Jewish magic show at the Begin Center
66. Elliot Playing power rangers with Shai
67. Chariot races at Caesaria
68. Playground in Ashkelon
69. Climbing the bridge in Ganei Katamon
70. Bennett’s ulpan and the group playdates afterwards
71. Going to the Kotel
72. Being Bedouins
73. The Diaspora Museum
74. Bicycle riding around Lake Hula to see migratory birds
75. Spending lots and lots of time together as a family
76. Bennett, Sabrina and Elliot all sharing a room the entire 6 months (even though we had an empty bedroom)
77. Story time when Shacar and Nitai Arbel babysat
78. Visits from Bubbie and Zaide and Grandpa and Grandma Ruth
79. The Jerusalem Time Elevator
80. Treasure Hunt at the Old Yishuv Court Museum
81. Bible Lands Museum with the kids’ scavenger hunt
82. The Burnt House
83. Watching Spanish language soap operas with Hebrew subtitles
84. Philosophical discussions with Mason, Josh, Michael, and Maer
85. Art class taught by Nessa’s Aunt Yochani
86. Bennett wrestling with Nathaniel and Sam
87. Beit Guvrin
88. The Turkish Bath tour in Akko

Things we would not do again
1. Mini Israel
2. Homeschool Bennett (ok, I know you get the point)
3. Community courses at Pardes
4. Miss so many Friday nights in Jerusalem

Before concluding, I would like to extend deepest sympathies to our dear friends, Dave, Tamar, Eliana and Jakey Nicolson on the loss of their baby, Chaim. When the Nicolsons arrived to visit us in April, Tamar had just learned that she was pregnant. We were all very excited and looking forward to the anticipated arrival. Unfortunately, Chaim was delivered prematurely and too little to survive on his own. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Nicolso

Thursday, June 4, 2009

To make aliya or not to make aliya, that is the question.

When Jim and I set out for our “sabbatical”, we never once contemplated that it would lead to aliya (becoming Israeli citizens). In fact, we never planned on even thinking about it. That was not why we were coming. But, now that we are here, aliya is very much on our minds. Everyone we meet, Israeli and non-Israeli alike, asks us not if but when we are making aliya. Consequently, Jim and I have spent a lot of time talking to each other and our wonderful friends about why aliya both is and is not for us.

We absolutely love our life here. My kids are universally accepted for who they are; they have an incredible amount of independence; we are surrounded by friends all of whom are very accessible; we spend very little time in the car; I am more intellectually stimulated than I have been in years (probably since law school); money is only important in so far as paying the bills for necessities (opulence doesn’t seem to exist – at least not in the circles we have encountered); school is much more relaxed academically (in other words, no homework and no pressure); Jim is around and relaxed (yes I know that is because he is not working, but even if he were working here, I believe the pace would be more relaxed); Kabbalat Shabbat at Yakar or Shira Chadasha (I gave it another try) is wonderful and inspiring; on Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day – the Day of Remembrance) a siren sounds through the entire country and everyone (literally everyone) stops what they are doing and observes a minute of silence to remember those who died so that we could live; we can go to the beach for the day; and, most importantly, being Jewish is easy and fun.

Then there are the things I don’t like: many Israelis are too right wing for my taste (they think Arabs do not deserve equal treatment); Israelis (probably all middle easterners) are lacking in patience (no one knows how to stand in line and wait for his/her turn); the drivers are awful (Elliot and I had a narrow miss the other day); there is no Target or Costco (how are you supposed to get rid of lice if you can’t buy the bulk sized bottle of alcohol?!); I sometimes feel like a pariah because we are the rare breed as a non-observant family in an observant neighborhood (this of course would resolve itself if we were living outside of Jerusalem); aside from the Arbels and the Whitefields, many of our friends are leaving in June; although Elliot and Sabrina are now very settled in, Bennett still misses home terribly; although my Hebrew has improved, I continue to struggle with the language barrier; I cannot figure out the television schedule; and, of course, most of our friends and family are very far away.

Alas, regardless of whether the pro or con list is longer, we will in fact be returning to Washington in July. When we leave here, in addition to a love of the country we will also leave with a much better understanding of why the people are the way they are – that is why most Israelis are right wing and why civility is not as apparent as I would like (or as my wonderful friend Rabbi Tara Feldman says, why most Israelis have post traumatic stress disorder).

It is no secret that many Arabs hate the Jews. It is also no secret that
many Arabs resent Israel’s existence. These same people who absolutely despise Jews and the State of Israel, live within spitting distance of the country. As we saw clearly during our visits to the Golan Heights and Petra last month, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria are right next door, as of course also are Gaza, the West Bank and Egypt. To add to the security anxiety, many of the borders are in the mountains, giving these potentially enemy countries a huge strategic advantage. This means that whether you hear about it in the Disapora or not, Israelis live in constant fear for their lives and country. Bombs dropping in the Gaza and Lebanon border areas unfortunately continues to be a fact of life for many. The outside world is somewhat dismissive of these incidents because frequently people don’t die. But how would you feel if bombs were falling in your backyard? Would you say who cares as long as no one was hurt or would you say how am I supposed to live like this?

To understand the situation better, just imagine that you are living in DC and Al Quaeda is living happily in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. Then imagine that just to make sure you knew they were out there, once a week or so they would shoot bombs on DC or send a suicide bomber over the border. More times than not no one would be killed so the rest of the world wouldn’t understand if you complained that you felt unsafe. Then imagine that once every few years or so you were at war with the neighbors. Would you feel safe? Would you be able to act civilly on a daily basis? I know that some of you think that I am exaggerating to make a point. If only I were. These are the hard cold real facts. It is life here in Israel. You learn to ignore it for the most part and live your life but it permeates the mood here. After all, how could it not?
(By the way, I hope this does not feel preachy. I am not trying to do that. I am just trying to explain what life is like here.)

Regardless of the constant threat, Israelis know how to celebrate the good times and mourn the sad ones. The last two months were examples of that as we had one holiday after another. The holidays included happy celebrations – Purim, Pesach, Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day), Yom Yerushalaim (Jerusalem Day) and Shavuot – and sad commemorations - Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Memorial Day) and Yom Hazicaron (Memorial Day).

I already covered Purim and Pesach in previous entries so I will skip those here. April 21 was Yom Hashoa. – the day we remember the millions of people slaughtered in the Holocaust. Interestingly, my children had never heard much about the Holocaust. (Bennett would have learned about it this year at JPDS had he been there.) Because Yom Hashoa is freely talked about here, Jim and I were obligated to educate the children on the atrocities of World War II. As all of you parents can appreciate, it is not an easy topic to discuss. At ten years old, Bennett listened and internalized, while at seven years old Sabrina was full of questions. Interestingly, she wanted to know what the U.S. did in the war. I told her that the U.S. fought the bad guys to free the people in the concentration camps. Sabrina listened and then asked me why it was ok for the Americans to kill people (which she assumed they did to end the war even though she doesn’t know the half of it) but it was not ok for the Germans. In other words, she was struggling to understand when killing someone is ok and when it is not – wow! Now that is one hard concept to teach a 7 year old. Actually, it is a hard concept to teach a 41 year old as well. I struggled with it during my visit to Yad Vashem. (Both Jim and I went to Yad Vashem this past month.)

Just one week after Yom Hashoa, we observed Yom Hazicaron. During both Yom Hazicaron and Yom Hashoa, a siren sounded and the entire country observed a minute of silence. Jim, Bennett and I went out to a busy street so we could feel like part of the community during the silence period. We were heading to Emek Refaim, but made it only as far as Rahel Imeinu. It was far enough because there was plenty of traffic on the street and pedestrians on the sidewalks. When the siren sounded, the pedestrians stopped in their tracks and all cars came to a halt with the drivers literally exiting their cars. It was the one of the most powerful moments I have had thus far. Just like when I took Bennett to the Kotel, I felt tears involuntarily streaming down my face. I was simply overwhelmed by the sadness of the moment. Just as Sabrina struggled with Yom Hashoa, she also struggled with Yom Hazicaron. She finds it sad that Israelis must go to the army and fight in wars because it means certain death for some. Again, a hard concept for a seven year old – and a forty-one year old.

The next day was Yom Haatzmaut – Independence Day. There were Israeli flags flying everywhere, barbeques (we went to the Whitefields, of course) and a city-sponsored celebration at night which included fireworks. We had a great time.
Interestingly, as I was reminded today during a tiyul to the West Bank with my friend Tara and a Bezelem worker (Bezelem is a human rights organization), while Yom Haatzmaut is a day of celebration for Jewish Israelis, it is a day of mourning for Palestinians as it is the day they lost their homeland. Yoav, the Bezelem worker, gave us the reader’s digest version of the Palestinian dilemma mostly created by the building of the border wall. In building the wall, the Israelis have accomplished the goal of reducing terror attacks but they have managed to worsen the lives of the already second class citizens. The West Bank now has a 60% poverty level, as compared to 30% in West Jerusalem (which incidentally is mostly attributable to the enormous population of Haredi/religious Jews). The wall was put up without much regard for land rights or transportation needs. Yoav does believe that the wall was necessary. What he takes issue with is the way it was put up.

During our discussions we talked about the fact that the Israel of today is not the Israel originally envisioned by Theodore Herzl. Herzl wanted Israel to be the example for the world - a country on a moral high ground. Israel was supposed to be a nation united in favor of life, not in fear of death. So I ask, should we be held to a higher moral standard just because we are Jewish?

The most recent holiday was Shavuot. As is tradition, Jim spent the night learning. He came home at 3:30 a.m. As soon as he came home, I left to walk with my friend Aya and her son Sam to the Kotel for shacharit. This is also tradition. While it was not as spiritual as I had expected (Aya had promised lots of singing and dancing), it was very moving to be part of the sea of people walking the streets of Jerusalem in the wee hours of the morning. When we arrived at the Kotel we could hardly believe our eyes – every inch of the Western Wall plaza and all steps leading to and from it were filled. It was a virtual sea of black and white. Estimates put the crowd at at least 100,000 people. My friend Meir, a rabbi, pondered whether this might have been the largest single gathering of Jews for prayer since Har Sinai. Hmmmm……

Since, at the end of the day, we are here as tourists, we have continued to explore the country. During the last month we have spent quite a bit of time in and around Jerusalem. We have gone to the Israel Museum (again), the Herzl Museum, Yad Vashem, the City of David, the Ayalon bullet factory, the Davidson Center (the Southern Wall excavations), the Temple Mount and Hezekiah’s tunnels. Everything was interesting and informative.

The trip the Temple Mount is worth noting. I really wanted to go so I dragged Bennett with me. Interestingly, before Bennett could bring himself to walk up the ramp to the Mount, he insisted that we kiss the Kotel first. Then, while on the Temple Mount Bennett asked me why Judaism isn’t one of the biggest religions since three of the major world religions emanate from Judaism – after all, Jesus was Jewish and Mohamed claimed to be a Jewish prophet. It was an insightful, thoughtful question and one which led to much discussion.

The first of our friends left this week. The end of our journey is approaching fast. We have a lot to do in the next six weeks. As I predicted, we will leave here with very heavy hearts and, as many of you predicted, with hopes that one day we may be lucky enough to return perhaps for good.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Visitors, Passover and Tiyulim

During the past month, Jim and I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on why we are here in Israel and what we are accomplishing during our stay. The reflection was inspired in part by our local friends, all of whom suddenly feel close enough to us to ask us why we are here. We are not Rabbis or Jewish educators like most of them; nor are we ritually observant (and yes, contrary to all your predictions, that is still true); we do not have aspirations of making aliyah any time soon (also still true, again contrary to all the predictions) – so they ask, why are we here?
Jim and I are Zionists. We believe in and support Israel as a Jewish state and feel emotionally bonded to Israel’s future. It is an adolescent and imperfect country but is rapidly evolving, and we feel committed to being involved in that evolution. We both love being Jewish - the culture, the history, the values, the aspirations and the community. We love that Judaism at core encourages and requires constantly asking the question “why?” We love the freedom to try to find one’s own answers to life’s important questions. We want our children to understand that these things are important to us and to see us making personal choices to live our values. Living in Israel – even if only temporarily – has given us a chance to introduce the kids to Israel and begin their own lifelong connection to Israel and the Jewish people. We also believe that having removed our family from the normal distractions and pressures of the hustle and bustle back in DC has given the children a better sense of us and the choices we value. At least we hope so. That is why we are here.
Assessing what are we are actually accomplishing during our “sabbatical” is a bit more complicated and I’m sure we’ll reflect on that for years to come as we see the children grow into themselves. There are the obvious things like more time together as a family (and I am happy to report that has been a successful experiment), improving our Hebrew (at least marginally) and building an understanding of and connection to Israel. But then there are the less obvious aspects, like the effect of having Judaism completely permeate almost every aspect of our lives. It is true that when living in Israel, or at least in our little discrete corner of Israel, Judaism is all consuming. We spend our free time talking about the Torah or the holidays, analyzing the reasons for various customs, deciphering text, debating about the regional conflicts, and trying to put it all into historical context. We are surrounded by very learned, intelligent, interesting, opinionated people, all of whom indulge us and themselves in these discussions.
So, what are we accomplishing? We are learning. It surrounds us. All three of the kids walk around singing Hebrew songs, talking about holidays, inquiring about the places we visit and news stories they hear discussed, asking questions. Their awareness of their heritage is much keener than ever before. And they have more time to think about it than they have in the past. Bennett in particular has been wrestling with some of the big “why” questions.” The other night while lying awake with Jim, Bennett said he was having trouble reconciling the creation story in Genesis with scientific evidence. If that wasn’t enough, he said he thought the concept of God seemed irreconcilable with “free will,” which he found troubling. I’m sure these are questions he’ll continue wrestling with for quite some time, but we feel fortunate to be able to have the time to have these conversations with him and watch him grow.
I’ve also managed to find some time for my own learning, attending a Wednesday morning shiur (lesson) for women. Several weeks ago I went to a parsha of the week shiur taught by Leah Golomb. I am somewhat unique in the group as all the other attendees are observant women (skirts and head covers) who made aliyah at some point in their lives. During the lesson, Leah spoke about the Diaspora. She began by saying how lucky she felt that she had made the “right” decision (that is to make aliya). She then went on to disparage those Jews who choose to continue to live outside of Israel. I was taken aback and alienated by her attitude. I believe strongly in the State of Israel but that does not mean that I have to live here to be a good Jew. Just as I was recovering from that slap in the face, Leah moved on to a new topic about how kind people can be. She then told us how when she needed to raise money for a surgical procedure, she went straight to the Jews in Westchester, New York and sure enough within two weeks she raised the necessary funds. I could not believe what was happening and I could not believe that I was the only one in the room to even notice. In one breath she dismissed all of the Jews living in the Diaspora as insignificant, but in the next breath she brazenly admitted to her own reliance upon the good will and resources of those same people. When I raised this apparent conflict with my friend, she said that she agreed that Jews are obligated to live in Israel and that she did not see any inconsistency in what Leah had said. I remain perplexed. Perhaps this particular shiur is just not for me. I’m not planning to return.
We have done quite a bit of travelling over the past month. We spent a day with friends in Ra’anana at the fabulous Ra’anana park – a must do for families coming to Israel. We spent the night in Netanya. The beach was nice, but I could do without the town. We then visited Caesaria to see the ruins. We had a great time there and even ran into the Eichenbaums (Deborah, David, Isaac and Emma). Here is that small world thing again!
After that trip, life became focused on two things – Bennett’s 10th birthday and impending visitors from America, including my parents. Our first visit was from Tamar, Eliana and Jakey Nicolson. We had a great day with them here in Jerusalem. In fact the day they were here was the day of Bennett’s birthday party. Bennett invited five boys over for soccer, pizza and cake (homemade I might add), followed by a trip to a Hapoel Yerushalayim basketball game against Maccabee Rishon Letzion. The boys had a great time.
The day after the party my parents arrived. All of us were really excited to see them. This is the longest we have gone without seeing them in 10 years! I wish I were exaggerating but I am not. After a day of jet lag (not even), they settled right into our lives. The first full day they were here, Elliot and Sabrina went to a little neighborhood camp (the kids are wrapping up a three week Passover break) while Bennett took my parents to the Israel Museum for a tour of his favorite thing, the Shrine of the Book. The next day was Bennett’s birthday. I must admit I spent quite a bit of time worrying about that day. Being away from home has been hard on all of the kids and I did not want Bennett to feel disappointed on his big day. After much discussion, we came up with a plan for the day that was acceptable to everyone – present opening, cake (homemade again) for breakfast (thanks to the Soslands for that idea), go-carting, lunch at the Waffle Bar (one of the kids’ favorite restaurants), followed by bowling and then take-out dinner. After dinner, he went through all the emails everyone sent – thank you to all of you, it meant a lot to him! Bennett had such a great day that he never wanted it to end. I must admit I was relieved.
The day after Bennett’s birthday, we packed up shop and all headed north to the Galil. We spent three nights in the guest house at kibbutz Kfar Blum (thanks Amanda Alter for that suggestion) and could not have been happier. We visited the Manara Cliffs for ziplining, alpine sliding and bungee trampolines; we went to Beit Shean to see the incredible ruins; we did a jeep ride in the Golan Heights; we spent an afternoon in Sefad; and we went bike riding around Hula Lake where we saw migrating storks and pelicans. It was a great trip. We all want to go back as there was so much more to do that we couldn’t get to. Hopefully time will allow.
We came home Monday to operation Pesach (Passover). Pesach mania had simply taken over this town. Fortunately for me, since I was not making a seder (the first time in seven years), I got to watch everyone else run around while I just relaxed and enjoyed the beautiful day. We spent the seder with the Whitefields (Maya the shinshin’s family) where, other than the fact that my mother didn’t feel well, we had a wonderful time. Jim has already posted photos from that night. We noticed several things different about the holiday in Israel (besides the fact that we only needed to celebrate one seder). Scattered around our neighborhood the day before Pesach were little bonfires for burning up hametz (food that can’t be eaten during Pesach). People would gather around nibbling and talking while they threw their last bread crumbs into the fire. Pesach is the one holiday in Israel that all Jews seem to celebrate, even if they are not otherwise observant. They greet each other by saying “Pesach kosher v’sameah” (have an “observant” and happy holiday). And by throwing an entire country into the holiday, they’ve discovered ways to cook just about every kind of food without leavening (the kids endorsed the pancakes, waffles and schnitzel – all of which were kosher for Passover). We suspect the difference is that restaurants use corn meal, which Sephardi Jews regard as kosher for Passover but which many Ashkenazi Jews do not. In any case, it was a tasty holiday even though we missed my grandmothers’ delicacies this year.
During the week following the seder, we had visits with the Fontheims (Claude, Orit Frenkel, Jordan, Ari, and Maya), the Davidsons (Alan, Melissa, Amelia and Harry) , the Weisses (Baruch, Laura Blumenfeld, Daniel, Rebecca and Jamin), and the Brooks (David, Sarah, Naomi and Aaron – we did not see Joshua). The kids could not have been happier. They all had their friends and it felt like a big reunion. It was particularly nice for Elliot to be with his cohorts once again. The only problem with seeing them was the inevitable goodbye. Fortunately, everyone handled it fairly well.
On Sunday we said goodbye to my parents and headed to Eilat to spend four days which included a trip to Petra. The Nicolsons were kind enough to invite us to join them on their family trip and we simply could not pass up the opportunity. The trip was amazing. Jim and I particularly enjoyed seeing Petra. While the kids had a good time as well, particularly because they shared it with their friends, Jim and I both felt that the Petra excursion was not an optimal outing for the kids, who clearly preferred Eilat. They immediately noticed how different Eilat is from Jerusalem. In fact, on the first night when we were walking on the promenade by the beach, Bennett turned to me and said, “Why aren’t there any Jews in Eilat?” I looked at him like he was crazy and asked what he meant. He said that he did not see any kippot or tzit tzit so he assumed no one was Jewish. I guess that is what comes from living in Jerusalem and immersing ourselves in somewhat of a dati (religious) life! Needless to say, by the next day we found the kippot and tzit tzit so Bennett felt much more at home. (In re-reading about this exchange with Bennett I suppose I should point out that Bennett, Elliot and Jim are NOT in the habit of wearing kippot or tzit tzit, which made his comment all the more curious in that he has come to believe that most Israeli Jews are observant – which is not the case in general.)
We came home to a visit from Melissa Balaban and her daughter Emma. They are here visiting their daughter/sister, Maya who is on a semester program associated with Camp Ramah. Their husband/father Adam – who is a close friend of Jim’s from his college year in Israel – will be arriving later this week. It is really great to see them and have them here. We are also looking forward to the arrival this week of Jim’s dad, Bob, and step-mom, Ruth. We are all excited to see them.
I am happy to report that since last I wrote, I have made it to several synagogues. My favorite is upstairs at Yakar. The praying is so contagious that I found myself singing louder and louder just to keep up. It is quite an experience. I do like Shirah Chadasha as well, but I prefer the intimacy of Yakar which is significantly smaller. I must say that I have really come to love going to Kabalat Shabbat services. In all these years I have struggled to find something that I wanted to do just for me, and now I find that this is serving that role. I hope to find a venue when I return to DC so I can continue.
We’ve passed the halfway point in our stay in Israel (hard to believe), which has caused me to do some reflection on the experience and my impressions of Israel. It just so happened that at the same time, David Brooks was here and published his own reflections on Israeli society. I felt that he eloquently captured a good deal of what I was feeling and if you haven’t seen this column, I recommend it to you:
Before signing off, I need to address a misunderstanding that several of you had. In my last entry I referred to “silent readers” and several of you took that as a call for communications. It was not. I was merely trying to explain a distinction. I apologize to those of you who took it the wrong way and saw it as a plea for emails. I do appreciate the feedback I’ve received from many of you. But I’m pleased to know that others have taken an interest in following my travails and I really don’t expect responses. I know everyone is very busy.
I hope everyone had happy Passovers and Easters!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Purim Fun With a Dash of Homesickness

Every time I send out a blog entry, I spend the next 24 to 48 hours excitedly checking email to get your responses. There is a core group of you who respond every time – thank you! I really do love to hear from you. The majority of you, however, are what I call “silent readers” - people who read my blog and may even discuss it with others but who do not respond directly to me. My last entry about my search for spirituality seems to have touched a chord in quite a few of you because I heard from a significant number of silent readers. Interestingly, most silent readers responded with almost identical comments. The gist of those comments was that if I stop searching, I will find what I am looking for. Perhaps they are right; perhaps not.

As I explained to my Uncle Ira (my mother’s younger brother who has had a love-hate relationship with religion all his life), in my very humble opinion, it all depends on how one defines spirituality. I am not a firm believer in God so my definition of spirituality is very different from someone’s definition who does believe. I believe in my Judaism – in the culture, the tradition, the community and the hope that there is in fact a God. My spirituality revolves around those concepts.

Then again, maybe what I am searching for isn’t spirituality at all. Maybe it should be called something else. The truth is I know what I am looking for and I know when I find it. I last found it at our friends’ (Adam and Melissa Wergeles) daughter’s (Maya) bat mitzvah. (You might recall Maya is now 15 and here in Israel for several months on a Camp Ramah program.) Adam and Melissa are founding members of a congregation in Southern California called Ikar. Ikar felt to me like an adult version of Camp Ramah. As I found out after the service (during which I cried the entire time), the Rabbi and several congregants are in fact Ramah alumni. I found the service inclusive, interesting, warm, serious, and yes, at least for me, spiritual. I felt a connection – not to God but to my Judaism. I do wonder whether I would get the same feeling I got on that one day if I attended services weekly. Hmm…something to ponder. Interestingly Jim thinks that I am not searching for spirituality but rather that I am searching for the memories of my youth. Like I said before, it is all in how you define spirituality.

As I look back over my experiences of the last two months here in the Holy Land, I suppose it is fair to say that many of them did evoke that feeling even though I was outside of a religious prayer service. For example, the Friday that I went shopping for Shabbat evoked that “I feel connected to being Jewish” feeling, as did every Shabbat meal we have had with friends. Every time I even catch a glimpse of the walls of the Old City, I feel a connection. Every time I hear one of the kids sing a Hebrew song or prayer, I feel a connection. So perhaps all you silent readers are right – I should stop looking because the answer is right in front of me.

Speaking of spirituality, we had the honor of attending Sabrina’s mesibat siddur – the grade wide celebration of the first graders’ receipt of their first siddur (prayer book). The entire grade – all 90 of them – performed several songs in a night time assembly. I remember Bennett’s mesibat siddur at JPDS and how moved I was. I was expecting to feel the same way this time. I didn’t. I had a moment when all the kids came walking in, down the aisle onto the stage, but it was fleeting. It was a lovely program so I am not sure why I was not moved. Jim and I tried to analyze it. I think that part of the problem was I could not understand most of the program. Another problem was that I only knew and cared about 5 of the 90 kids. At JPDS I know and care about them all and I know that the other parents (or most of them) feel the same way. Oh well. She did a wonderful job and was very proud in spite of herself. (I say that because she hated all the rehearsals over the preceding weeks.)

The best part of the night for me was the realization that in two short months, we have made some really wonderful, interesting friends who feel much like family. Like at home, we have met most of our new friends through the children. I have already told you about the Arbels (the Israeli doctors who live in the next building) and, of course, the Whitefields (Maya the shin shin’s parents), all of whom we love dearly. In addition to those families, we have our sabbatical friends (people here on sabbatical as well). We are friendly with the Potters, a family from Vancouver. These are the Canadians that live in our building and who have a nine year old son with whom Bennett is very friendly. Naomi and Michael are both incredibly smart people who we enjoy. In addition to Daniel, the nine year old, they have two older daughters, Shira and Ruth, who Sabrina and Elliot love. All of our other friends are through Sabrina’s school. There are three anglo children in her first grade class whose families are here on sabbatical and we have become friendly with all of them. Mason and Sarah Voit are here from Riverdale, NY, with their two kids Molly, age 6 and in Sabrina’s class, and Sammy, age 3.5 and buddies with Elliot. Mason is a Jewish educator and is here on a fellowship program of sorts (Melton). Sarah is a doctor/administrator who has maintained her full time job in the States by working crazy hours and going back and forth a bit. Meir and Tara Feldman, both Reform rabbis, are here with their two kids Gavi, age 7, and Adina, age 3. When they return to the States this summer they are going to share the job as head rabbi at a synagogue in Great Neck. Meir had a career as a lawyer before becoming a Rabbi (he knows David Seide from those days) and so I find him particularly fascinating. (Don’t worry Dad – I am NOT going back to school!!) Aya and Josh Golding are here from Louisville, KY, where Aya is an employment lawyer and Josh is a philosophy professor. They have FIVE kids, one of whom is friends with Sabrina (Nessa) and one of whom is buddies with Bennett (Nathaniel). It is interesting because we would be friends with all of these people anywhere we lived. In other words, we are not friends merely because we were thrown together. We all genuinely like each other (or at least Jim and I think so…). They are all really great people and have different things to offer. We hope to maintain all the friendships when this ends. (Think camp friends.)

I am also becoming friendly with a woman originally from New Zealand, Annette Livingstone. Annette has SEVEN children and is only 36! I met Annette because Bennett is friendly with one of her children, Yesherun. Annette is playing a critical role in my life – she informs me of all the interesting shiyurs (lessons) for the week and encourages me to attend. We went to a great shiyur last week by Leah Golomb. I really liked it and think I might even go again next time. We spent a day as a family with the Livingstones last week when we went to their house for a Purim meal (Seudat Purim).

Purim is the Jewish holiday which celebrates Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai who together saved the Jews in Persia from Haman and King Ahasveirosh. Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther (the Megillat Esther in hebrew), by dressing in costume, by giving charity and by delivering Mishloach Manot (gift baskets) to people in your life. In the U.S., Purim is fun but the fun is somewhat limited to the one night of the Megillah reading and a carnival or two. Well, in Israel, the entire country turns into one big Purim celebration – akin to Christmas meets Halloween in the U.S. We wore costumes for so long that by the night of the actual holiday, the kids were a bit burned out. We went to parades, festivals, parties, shows and there were many more that we missed. We had two experiences worth noting. One was the Megillah reading. Back in the U.S. we always go to synagogue for the reading. In Israel, many people have private parties during which they read the Megillah. The Arbels had such a party so we went there for the authentic experience. Jim and I enjoyed it – all of the family members (parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles) participated as they simultaneously read and acted out the story of Esther. It was a bit boring for the kids though because it was all in Hebrew and they couldn’t really understand. It is a great alternative to the chaos of synagogue on Purim night though. I am seriously considering hosting such a party next year. If I do we will certainly add English to the mix for the benefit of those of us who don’t understand all the Hebrew.

The other noteworthy experience was a Purim parade in Sde Boker, a town in the Negev (south). The weekend before Purim we went on an overnight to the Negev, ostensibly to sleep with the Bedouins. We started the trip in Mitzpe Ramon, sort of the Grand Canyon of Israel. Since I have a severe, irrational fear of heights (thanks Dad), I stayed behind in the visitor center while everyone else checked out the cliffs. I am told it is very impressive. We then went to an Alpaca Farm which the kids all loved. Elliot even rode an alpaca with Bennett leading the animal! (Debbie – remember when we did that in Smuggler’s Notch?) Look for photos on the blog site which Jim will hopefully post soon ( We then went to what we thought was going to be a Bedouin village, but it turned out to be more like a campsite with Bedouin style tents … and of course camels. There was a Bedouin style meal served in a tent on large family platters, which we ate on rugs and cushions – it felt a bit like the restaurant Marrakesh. Jim and Sabrina made it the entire night in the tent but Bennett, Elliot and I spent the night in one of the guest rooms. (Elliot started the night in the tent and slept there for several hours but when he woke in the night he came to find me. As Jim handed him off to me at 1am he very sweetly asked Jim, “Am I still a Bedouin?”) Although we were a bit disappointed, we nonetheless had fun.

The next day we headed for Sde Boker, the town which is home to Ben Gurion’s grave and kibbutz. Apparently in Sde Boker they have an annual Purim parade and carnival so we were in luck. The parade is put on by a boarding school in town. It is an ecology based high school so all the floats in the parade were hand made by the high school kids from recycled materials. This parade was GREAT!!! We highly recommend it if you ever find you ever find yourselves in Israel on the Shabbat before Purim. The parade exuded ruach (spirit) as all the high school kids were having a blast singing and dancing and displaying their floats. It was very impressive. We will post pictures of this as well.

On our drive home I had a momentary lapse in sanity and agreed to stop in Ashkelon and Ashdod. (I can see you rolling your eyes John and Ranit.) Bennett and Jim had gone on a learning tiyul (trip) last week during which they spent the day visiting areas on the ancient border between the Phillistine and Israelite kingdoms (Beit Shemesh, Lachish and Tel Gat). They read the passages from the books of the Prophets that described the protracted conflicts between these two people and then walked in the footsteps of some of the epic battles – such as the meeting of David and Goliath. During the trip, Bennett learned that the five major Phillistine cities were Gat, Lachish, Gaza, Ashdod and Ashkelon. Having visited the sites of the first two and recognizing that Gaza isn’t possible to visit, Bennett grew eager to visit the remaining sites of ancient Ashdod and Ashkelon. Jim had (wisely) cautioned Bennett that they would need to talk to me about it first and that the odds were not good that I’d go along with it. So Bennett was thrilled when I said we could stop there. Ashkelon was pleasant walking along the ruins of the original Canaanite city (the sign said this is one of the oldest sea ports in the world, Hmm….) and in Ashdod we found a massive playground that the kids enjoyed. I spent most of my time looking at the sky and jumping at every loud noise. I’d like to say it was just paranoia, but the prior week there was a rocket that struck a school in Ashkelon. Fortunately there was no one in the school at the time. In any case, we had no such excitement during our brief visit.

This past weekend we went to Yaffo for the Arbel’s third child’s bat mitzvah party. It was a lot of fun but very different than a bat mitzvah in the U.S. First of all, they did not have a religious service. They are observant and since Hallel would not read from the torah, they decided to abstain from the whole thing. Second, the party was really just that – a party – with limited speeches, and no pomp nor circumstance. Finally, most people came in jeans (which meant we were all significantly overdressed). The festivities took place at a deaf and blind association. Everyone had the opportunity to experience blindness and deafness – there was a hand-signing session and they had a “dark” room for performing various tasks without the aid of sight. Hallel is a very special girl so we were thrilled to share in her celebration.

We spent the night in Tel Aviv at a hotel I will highly recommend for families – the Isrotel. Unfortunately the weather was bad on Saturday so other than a nice walk on the beach, we did not take full advantage of the city. We will certainly go back.

Due to inclement weather, weekend tiyulim (trips) and various illnesses (yes even I have been afflicted but as of the date of this entry I am optimistic that this too shall pass), I have not attended any new religious services.

A few quick words on the family and then I will sign off: We are all anxiously awaiting the arrival of Spring (because yes as Ranit promised the rain has set in) and various visitors. In the meantime, Bennett and Jim are spending some time playing and coaching baseball. Although it is not as organized as CapCity, Bennett is really enjoying it and is making some new friends. Bennett continues to enjoy Ulpan and being homeschooled. Sabrina is generally happy but continues to miss home. Although she enjoys school when she goes, every day is a struggle to get her out the door. Elliot is the same story as Sabrina. Jim refers back to the sabbatical book he read before we came and keeps assuring me that this is all text book. I’m sure it is but that doesn’t make it easier.

Anyway, that is all for now. We hope you are all well.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

In Search of Ruach and Health

I don’t know why but last Friday afternoon, Sabrina decided she was ready at that very minute to learn (well, re-learn) how to ride a bike. Jim and Elliot had plans to meet some friends for Kabbalat Shabbat at Shira Chadasha, so the task fell on my hands. As we were outside, I began to notice people trickling out of their apartment buildings, all dressed up, and clearly heading to various Kabbalat Shabbat services. I have never been one for synagogue, but for some inexplicable reason I got an overwhelming urge to go to a Kabbalat Shabbat service right then and there. I suppose the effect of seeing everyone on their way was like sitting on one’s porch and watching all the neighbors head for a big parade (or even Innauguration as in the case of our D.C. friends). Whatever it was, the feeling overcame me and I would not rest until I had gone. I was particularly excited at the prospect of going alone with no children to chase as it meant I could really just enjoy the service. Several of our neighbors were home, so I left Bennett and Sabrina in their care and headed out. I decided to go to a small synagogue around the corner from our house on Hildensheimer Street. This was my neighbor, Danny’s – the Israeli pediatric surgeon - suggestion. Danny is observant but in a very modern way. He does not wear a kippa, but he observes Shabbat and davens (prays) and studies every day. He is a very spiritual guy and he promised me a spiritual experience. I walked into the rather small, neighborhood building and noticed immediately that women were relegated to the back of the room. I must admit that it reminds me of when Blacks had to sit at the back of the bus. In fact, this was even worse because not only do women have to sit at the back, the mehizah (divider) has a curtain wall so it is nearly impossible to see what is happening in the front of the room where the Rabbis, etc. were based. Rather than having a spiritual experience, I found myself feeling like the uninvited guest looking inside the window at a fabulous party. I am sure it never occurred to Danny that my experience as a woman would be any different than his as a man. But it was. Needless to say, I have decided to refrain from attending Orthodox synagogues from now on.
I decided that the next Friday night I would go to Kol Haneshama, a liberal conservative synagogue, as both Mindy and Jeff (Sosland) were confident I would love it. I told Revital and Danny (the Israeli doctor neighbors) of my plans. They tried to talk me out of it and they were confident that I would not enjoy it. I am a bit more liberal than they so I was sure they were wrong and stuck to my guns. Last Friday night came and I excitedly headed out solo to Kol Haneshama. I spent the entire service looking at my watch and wondering what was wrong with me. On paper this synagogue fit the bill – liberal, singing, friendly, etc. – in reality, it felt much like a contrived group therapy session. I spoke to a few of our American friends here and, to my surprise, they all agreed with me. Our reconstructionist Rabbi friend from Woodstock, N.Y., Jonathan, told me that even he noticed a change in the place since his last visit to Israel. The consensus seems to be that the place is lacking in ruach (spirit). It is possible that those who are members of the congregation get a different feel from the place. But for me, an outsider in search of the perfect synagogue, this is not even in the running. Another friend told me about a fairly new congregation, Kedem, which meets close to our house and was started by some Rammahniks (alumni of Camp Ramah) who made aliyah. As you might imagine, my goal for this Friday is to try that.
I was discussing my synagogue woes with my friend Annette, an Olah (someone who made aliyah) from New Zealand. She politely reminded me that synagogue is not supposed to be spiritual. It is merely a gathering place to pray. I know that this is the mentality of many synagogues. (Remember the synagogue in Ra’nana?) I however refuse to give up. I do believe that if there is a right synagogue for me, it is a synagogue that exudes spirituality. Revital (the Israeli gynecological surgeon) assures me that my search is futile. She has been in search of the perfect synagogue for the last twenty years and has yet to find it. I suspect she is right but I still plan to keep trying. I will keep you posted.
One good thing that arose from my experience at the Orthodox synagogue (where I felt like an uninvited guest), was my sudden comfort with reading the prayers in English. When I was younger and a bit more rigid (I acknowledge that I haven’t eased up that much so no comments from the peanut gallery), I felt that praying in English was a waste of time and a ridicule of the process. I could not understand why or how anyone could find meaning in that. I have come to realize that for Israelis it is natural to pray in Hebrew as that is their native tongue so they understand everything they are saying. For me, when I pray in Hebrew I do it because of the comfort I get from the familiarity – the prayers mean nothing though since 99% of the time I haven’t a clue as to what I am saying. I have finally come to the realization that it is not only ok but preferable for a non-Hebrew speaker to pray in his/her native tongue.
Aside from synagogue shopping, the last few weeks were filled with visits from the Shin Shins (the Israeli kids doing a year of service in D.C., one of whom – Maya - lived with us), homesickness and illness. We spent a wonderful day visiting first with Yossi and his family and then with Maya and her family. Yossi lives on a beautiful Moshav outside of Jerusalem. It was quite an adventure to get there as our GPS took us through the West Bank. I am not sure we would have even noticed we were there if it has not been for the prominent cement wall blocking our way. I must admit that we were a bit surprised when we came to the wall. Both Jim and I were aware of its existence but we had never had occasion to see it. Interestingly the wall is very prominent in some places along the border, but in other places there is nothing more than a wire fence. (Apparently Israel has run into issues in fully funding construction.) Nonetheless, it was fun for the kids to see at least the fringes of the area about which they hear so much. Driving from Yossi’s house to Maya’s house was also an adventure. We drove through a beautiful mountainous area of Jerusalem – Sataf. For lack of a better comparison, it is a bit like Great Falls in Washington in that it is the place where everyone goes to hike. All of the almond trees were in full bloom – white and pink flowers - and hoards and hoards of people were out hiking the mountains. The blooming of the almond trees marks the holiday of Tu B’shevat (Jewish arbor day). Seeing a mountain-side of flowering trees was a little like the splendor of cherry blossom season in DC. Israel really is a beautiful country.
I am not sure if it was seeing Maya and Yossi or if it is just the two month itch, but Bennett and Sabrina were terribly homesick the last two weeks. They both miss their friends and, yes, their school. For Bennett, I think we just pushed him too hard to get into a formal school. It became a battle of the wills between us and him. We finally decided (I think wisely) that for a kid like Bennett, as long as he has some structure (which he does) and some friends (which he does), it is ok to home school him. As soon as we made that decision, things got a lot better. We were no longer bribing him or threatening to deprive him of things to get him to go to school.
As for Sabrina, I think she really misses her friends. She was temporarily distracted by her friend Nomi (the reconstructionist Rabbi’s daughter who we met at Ulpan). Nomi left this week and I think it was really hard on Sabrina. She likes her other friends, but she has not yet bonded with them in the way she needs to. I know it will all happen in good time. Sabrina was also a bit under the weather which makes her even more homesick.
When the kids go through these bouts of homesickness, it is very hard to explain to them why we are here and why it is important to stay. As a parent, my gut instinct is to try to fix any fixable problem that my children have. In this case, it would mean taking them home if they get too miserable. But my more rationale side (Jim) tells me that they will get through this and we just need to stay the course. And so we do. Fortunately, the last week has been better. It seems that both Bennett and Sabrina have cycled a bit and are back on board. (Seems that Jim was right.) I truly believe that when July 15 comes, all five of us will be crying as we leave this magical place.
The last few weeks were also riddled with illnesses. The Bramson family has gotten the 1-2 punch! First Sabrina had strep which quickly spread to Elliot. As soon as that passed I got sick. Two days later Elliot got a nasty stomach bug which lasted 7 days! (It was Debbie’s and Mindy’s worst nightmare as he vomited every twenty minutes for ten hours!) As Elliot’s bug was ending, Jim got sick and now Bennett is sick. It is getting really old. Oh – and how could I forget? Bennett hurt his arm playing soccer so we spent a day at Haddassah hospital. Fortunately it does not appear to be broken so baseball season is not in jeopardy. (Yes – thank goodness there is little league in Israel.)
When we were in between illnesses, we were fortunate to spend a great Shabbat with my cousins from my maternal grandmother (Edith), Deena Friedman (not to be confused with Deena Scoblionko) and family. Deena lives just blocks away from where we are living in a spectacular house that I would love to own. Deena has five kids – the youngest of whom became fast friends with Elliot. We were lucky because Deena’s sister’s son, who is spending a year in Israel before college, was also at the lunch. He is a great kid and reminds me a bit of Jim. He is off to Princeton next year where I hope he will connect with more of our family – especially Anna of course.
I finally did a few things for myself these past few weeks. First, as discussed above, I went to two Kabbalat Shabbat services on my own. Second, I actually attended a shiyur (lesson) given by renowned lecturer Aviva Gottlieb-Zornberg. She is very good and I know many people think she is one of the best, but it was not my style. Her lesson deals only with the weekly Torah portion and the related commentary. I am looking for something a bit more spiritual and less structured. On a purely social note, I met Jeff Colman for coffee one morning. It was great to see a friendly familiar face! (This is my reminder to call or email if you are in town!)
Assuming everyone gets and stays healthy, we plan to travel to Beer Sheva next week and sleep in tents with the Bedouins. We are all very excited about it. I will let you know if it comes to pass. In the meantime, keep those notes coming. We love your remarks. Please go to the blog site ( to see photos. I am not sufficiently technologically advanced to include them in the email posting. Sorry.
Stay tuned to find out how my never ending quest for spirituality goes.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

At last some photographs ...

I brought along Jim to handle technical issues. I thought over a decade in the tech sector would have taught him something. Turns out we've had loads of technical issues since we've been here. Everything from computer access, wireless router issues which in turn rendered our Vonage Internet phone inoperable, trouble uploading video and a broken USB cable for our digital camera. But my indefatiguable husband has come through and now we have working computer, router, internet phone (that means you can call us on our 202-342-3858 line) and we have a new reader for our digital camera. (We still have trouble uploading video, but I'll take what I can get.)

So for those interested, and just to prove that we really did come to Israel, here are some shots from our first six weeks:

Sunday, February 15, 2009

It's A Small World After All

                I am sorry it has been so long since I have written.  Things have been a bit hectic here.  Both Sabrina and Elliot had strep.  Normally that is no big deal, but they each got rather sick and needed quite a bit of TLC.  Fortunately, antibiotics are readily available here as well, so within 24 hours of the confirmed diagnosis they were both back in business.  Interestingly, for reasons which are still unclear, it takes 48 hours to get results from a strep test so their recovery, and hence my freedom, was a bit delayed.  It is all water under the bridge now as they are both fully recovered.

                Aside from the illnesses, Sabrina and Elliot continue to thrive.  They both are happy in school, making new friends and becoming integral parts of their classes.  Sabrina has even been invited to two birthday parties!  (I guess I should admit that she doesn’t even know one of the children, but at least she was invited, right?!)  Sabrina’s closest school friends are the three Anglos here on sabbatical but she is anxious to make some Israeli friends.  As her Hebrew improves, I know it will happen.

Interestingly, Elliot’s closest school friends are also native English speakers.  As time passes, we have discovered that the very Israeli Hebrew speaking gan we chose for Elliot is populated mostly with English speaking children.  We did not realize it at first because I suspect that they did not speak English during school because there was no need since all the children and teachers spoke Hebrew – that is until Elliot showed up.  As the children are starting to accept Elliot and let him into their groups, they are speaking more and more English.   Although this may hamper Elliot’s ability to learn Hebrew, it has made him feel even more comfortable in his new school. 

As I heard the gan kids speak English, it gave me confidence to try English with a few of the parents.  Well, on my first two tries I struck pay-dirt!  I discovered that one of the mom’s is Denise Tannenbaum’s very good friend Tamara (who I had promised to call and had not done so yet) and one of the dad’s is Sabrina’s very good friend Mairav’s uncle – Shari Diamond’s brother!  I simply could not believe it.  The world is so small!!! 

Bennett continues to enjoy Ulpan and even looks forward to it.  He has made quite a few friends in there and frequently plays with them after school on ulpan days.  We are still working to find the right school for him for the other days as mommy school is not going all that well.  (I guess he finally realized I am just not that entertaining.)  We went to look at the American School this week and he really liked it.  It is remarkably similar to JPDS, just much smaller.  I guess I should have listened to Amy (Kritz) all along.  Bennett clearly needs the familiarity of the American School to feel comfortable.  We are considering having him start there next week.

As most of you know, this was a big week here in Israel.  We had elections.  Our Israeli friends were all rather depressed about their choices.  It reminded me of the election between Bush and Kerry.  People voted against candidates as opposed to for them.  As it stands now, it is still unclear who will assume the role of prime minister.   Stay tuned for that report.

The good news for us was that the elections brought Bill Knapp to Jerusalem.  He was advising one of the candidates.  (I will respect his wishes and refrain from outing him in public by disclosing the party for whom he is working.)  We got to see Bill Friday night when I served my first Shabbat meal in Jerusalem.  We were all excited to see Bill as it was our first contact with home in six weeks.  It was rather comical though when Elliot walked in from Kabbalat Shabbat to see Bill sitting in our Jerusalem apartment and very casually said “Oh, hi Bill”.  I guess the distance is lost on a four year old.  Anyway…..We had ten people to dinner – the five of us, Maya’s (our exchange student) parents, Bill, our very good friend’s 15 year old daughter (Maya Wergeles) and a friend of hers.   (Maya Wergeles is in Israel for four months on a Ramah sponsored program.)  I spent two full days preparing for the feast.  I shopped Thursday morning, peeled and chopped Thursday night, shopped some more Friday morning and then did the actual cooking all Friday afternoon.  While I was positively exhausted when it was over, I absolutely loved it!  It was the first time I felt like I was really part of the process here.  There is an energy in the air on Thursdays and Fridays when everyone is hustling and bustling trying to get ready for the big day.  It is hard to describe, but as I walked from the local butcher to the local baker on Friday morning I had a spring in my step.  I was doing the same thing everyone else around me was doing and it felt like we were all preparing for the same party.  (Please don’t be fooled – I do not want to start cooking for ten on a weekly basis.  I just want you to know that as a one-time occurrence, I thoroughly enjoyed it.)

I served my second Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoon.  Our Israeli friends, the Arbels, came over.  Maya (Wergeles) and her friend were still with us so it was quite a big crowd.  We were 13.  For that meal I was smart enough to buy the main course so it was appreciably easier and less stressful.  We sat around and ate casually.  When the meal was over, a bunch of us went for a big walk while others stayed behind.  I am pleased to report that there were almost no electronics for the entire day.  We were all together until dark when the magic of Shabbat left for the week.

Monday was a half day for Tu B’shvat and Tuesday was a day off because of elections, so we decided to go on our first big tiyul (trip).  We left Monday after school for Ein Gedi – a kibbutz in the desert near the Dead Sea.   The trip down was fascinating.  Jerusalem is in the mountains and Ein Gedi is well below sea level.  As we left the city we were very aware of the fact that we were making a steep descent.  Our ears even popped!  As soon as we left Jerusalem the terrain changed considerably.  The green was gone and replaced by hills and hills of brown sand.  We spotted many camels and saw several Bedouin shanty towns.  We asked the kids if they felt they could live like the Bedouins and they all declared no!  I must admit that the thought is a bit appealing to me.  It is rather liberating to be rid of all the excesses of our Washington life.  I never thought we would survive in a 1500 square foot three bedroom apartment with very little furniture and very few “things”; but six weeks into it and we are doing just fine.  It turns out that most of our “things” are rather unnecessary.  The kids don’t seem to miss all the toys and I certainly don’t miss all the rooms – especially since we have been cleaning our own apartment.  The only thing I continue to miss is my full wardrobe.  I am thoroughly sick of wearing the same clothing every third day.  Next time (if there is one), I will ignore Jim and bring as much as I want!

Back to our trip…..Ein Gedi is special because it is an oasis in the desert.  As our friend Jonathan aptly described it, it is like the Garden of Eden. You are driving through miles and miles of brown sand hills when all of a sudden there is a field of lush, green palm trees.  That is Ein Gedi.  The kibbutz itself is beautiful and we enjoyed walking around the premises.  We did a great hike called Wadi David to see some waterfalls.  Jim and I were a bit skeptical about taking our very urban and very lazy children on a hike, but they totally rose to the occasion and had a blast.   While walking on a narrow passage way near the falls, I noticed a kid wearing a Muhlenberg t-shirt.  (Muhlenberg is a college in my home town of Allentown.)  I asked if he is a student there and he said no but that his guide is from Allentown.  So who did I run into in the middle of the Israeli desert on a random Tuesday?  Matt Greenberg – my kindergarten teacher’s son and one of my first friend’s brother!  It really is a small world.

After our hike, we ventured over to the Dead Sea.  The weather was not cooperative so it was a rather unpleasant experience.  The winds were strong and the air temperature was cool.  Nonetheless, Bennett managed to float in the Dead Sea.  Sabrina tried but it was too cold.  Elliot just complained.  Jim and I were shocked at the conditions of the Sea.  Since we were last there in the 1980s, the Sea has receded at least a mile.  It is incredibly depressing.  I suspect that by the time our children are adults, the Dead Sea will no longer exist.  Our understanding is that with global warning and drought conditions, there is not enough water flowing into the Jordan River and hence not enough water flowing into the Dead Sea.  Apparently the country is considering bringing water in from Eilat to replenish the sea.  I need to consult Jeff (Sosland) about this as he wrote an entire book about water rights in Israel.  I am suddenly very interested!

Because of the wind, we did not stick around to cover ourselves in the mud.  The kids were disappointed so we bought a bag of mud at the gift shop and went back to our hotel room where we applied mud to our bodies.  Elliot abstained once again, but he had fun watching as Bennett, Sabrina and I bathed in mud.  (Jim also abstained as he thought we were out of our minds.)

When we woke up on Wednesday the weather was beautiful so we decided to head for Masada.  By the time we got there it was late in the day so we decided to take the cable car up to the top.  (Ok, who am I kidding.  We could have gotten there at 5 a.m. and we still would have taken the cable car!)  The kids enjoyed looking at all the ruins and learning about the history.  Bennett got the most out of it.  He is really starting to understand the last two thousand years worth of the history of Israel and the Jewish people.  It is fun watching him try to make sense of everything.   Bennett felt inspired so he and Jim did the long walk down the mountain, while Sabrina, Elliot and I once again took the cable car.  I have a feeling that at least Bennett and Jim will be back at Masada before we leave.  They really want to do the climb.  We are taking bets as to whether Bennett is up to the challenge.  We will entertain any wagers.

I need to close with a few business matters.  First, our tenant is leaving on March 9 so we are now looking for a new tenant for our home.  Please let us know if you know of anyone in need of a furnished home for four months.  Second, our wonderful nanny/housekeeper is looking to fill Tuesdays and Thursdays from March 1 until our return on July 22.  Please let us know if you need help or know anyone who does.  Finally, as many of you know, Bennett is part of a boys’ choir – the Washington Boys’ Choir led by Yakov Majeski.  The choir is having a concert on Sunday, March 1 at the Rockville JCC.   I am sure the concert will be a fabulous, fun, entertaining event.  (Bennett actually wants to fly home just to participate.)  It will be a great way to spend what will probably be a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon.  Tickets are only $20.  If you are interested, please contact Felice (Roggen) at  You won’t be sorry.

Speaking of Yakov Majeski (Judaic’s teacher extraordinaire), last week we spent a fabulous evening with his younger brother, Yisroel, and his family.  It was really fun for the kids to meet them and get to know them.  Yisroel is just like Yakov so you can imagine what kind of energy was in the room.  Yonina, Yisroel’s wife, is fabulous and easy to talk to.  They have two adorable children, ages 1 and 2, both of whom my children adored.  Suffice it to say if Yisroel and Yonina ever want to get away for the night, they could leave the kids with us! 

That is all for now.  A rather boring entry I know, but don’t lose faith in me yet.  I promise to do better next time.  Regards to all.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Rashes and ruach (spirit)

When we left off, Sabrina and Elliot were ostensibly settled in school and Bennett was on the verge of starting. We were gearing up for the big day when all of a sudden Bennett broke out in a mysterious rash that began behind his ears (so yes of course I thought lice) but then slowly spread until it reached every corner of his body. If you remember, we have three neighbors who are doctors, so naturally we got three opinions. The Israelis (gynecological surgeon and pediatric surgeon) were concerned but not alarmed. The Canadian (opthamologist) was simply alarmed. We followed their advice and took Bennett to Terem, a walk-in medical clinic. As Jim described it, the doctor there was not all that impressed. He did a cbc and strep test, both of which came back normal, and told us not to worry. Being the neurotic American Jewish mother that I am, I promptly emailed pediatrician extraordinare, Howard Bennett, for some long distance advice. (I will note here that this was not my first email exchange with Howard. As expected, he proved yet again that he is worth more than his weight in gold.) Given my detailed description of the rash (of which I will spare you) and the test results, he agreed that we should just let it be. For all of Bennett’s neurosis, fortunately his health is not one of them so he was rather oblivious to the whole thing.

Rash and all, Bennett actually went to his first day of school! That first day was last Sunday and was a day of Ulpan. The Ulpan is run by the city and brings kids together from several schools. Bennett is in a small class of third and fourth grade boys. He just loves it. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the regular school. He made it through one day and has proclaimed that he will not return. The school is large – 36 kids in his class – and extremely chaotic (which we are told is standard for Israeli schools). And of course everything is in Hebrew so he hasn’t a clue as to what is going on. We will try again this week, but I suspect it will be mommy school for a while until he gets more proficient in Hebrew.

Interestingly, Sabrina is also struggling a bit with school. I suspect the first few days were a honeymoon of sorts, and now it is settling in that she has to spend six days a week listening to people speak a language she doesn’t totally understand. Although she is complaining, she is going to school and comes home happy. She has some wonderful new friends, all here on sabbatical. She is anxious to make some Israeli friends which I know will happen in due time.

Elliot is also balking a bit about school. He complains and cries for me, but then has a great time when he is there. As I have mentioned in previous entries, his teacher is amazing and so I am not too worried. I can already see that the kids are starting to include him. He will be an integral part of the class in no time! Now I just need to build up my strength to leave him there even if he is crying. (Where are Doris, Francis, Candy, Elaine and Devon when I need them?)

Because the kids are struggling a bit, Jim and I both spent quite a bit of time with them this week. We’ve generally succeeded in having 1 or 2 kids in school each day and they’ve kind of rotated that success rate. The highlight for Jim this week was taking Bennett and Sabrina to the Israel Museum and then on a tour of the Western Wall tunnels. The main building at the Israel Museum is under renovation, but the two main attractions – the model of King Herod’s Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Scrolls – are still open. The kids walked around the model of Jerusalem and listened to hand-held audio devices with explanations of the various structures – many of which are still visible today. Bennett was particularly intrigued and wanted to continue listening to the audio clips for each of the most obscure landmarks long after Sabrina had grown tired of this attraction. He was fascinated by the model of the Second Temple, the structures on the Temple Mount and the explanations of who was permitted to enter the various areas (e.g., non-Jews could walk on the Temple Mount but not enter the inner-gate, non-Levite Jews could enter the first inner sanctum but not the second gate, Levites could enter the second gate for sacrifices, Cohen could enter the third gate and the chief Cohen alone could enter the Holy of Holies) and where the events of Jesus’ final days are thought to have played out. He was similarly intrigued with the explanation for why both the Jews and Moslems revere the location where the Holy of Holies once stood and the Dome of the Rock currently stands. Bennett is really developing a curiosity about the three great Abrahamic religions and wrestling with understanding the differences in our beliefs. At age 9 it’s some heavy material, but Bennett has family from each of these three traditions and it’s gratifying as a parent to watch him work through this process.

The kids were only modestly interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes so they moved on quickly.

The museum has added (at least since Jim and I were last here) a room devoted to the Aleppo Codex – a copy of the Tanach (the 24 canonical books of the Jewish Bible) which for the past 1000 years was regarded as the most accurate edition of the Tanach with complete vowels, cantorial markings and scrivener’s notes. Sabrina has been obsessed these days with “mysteries” (big or small) and Jim presented the kids with the “mystery” of the Aleppo Codex. They were mesmerized trying to keep track of the various twists and turns in the life of this medieval book, which passed through at least four cities, was stolen once, was nearly destroyed another time and temporarily disappeared only to surface again with substantial portions now missing. The kids were left wondering what may have become of those missing sections.

Immediately following the Israel Museum, Jim took Bennett and Sabrina to tour the tunnels along the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and under the Moslem Quarter of the Old City. The tour explained clearly why the Kotel is so important to the Jews (i.e., because the western retaining wall for the Temple Mount is the closest of the four retaining walls to the Holy of Holies, which was not centered on the Temple Mount) and took us to a location deep under the city streets, about 150 yards from the Kotel plaza, where a portion of the original Western Wall is closest to the Holy of Holies. Bennett stopped to press his lips to the wall at that spot. I don’t know how he came to do that – he had not seen others doing this. But as I previously wrote, he is clearly touched by this magical place.

Sabrina is less noticeably impressed with Jerusalem but she did enjoy walking along the ancient subterranean pathways under the city. Both Bennett and Sabrina said the tunnels were one of their favorite experiences in Israel so far.

While Jim got to experience the Israel Museum and Western Wall Tunnels, the highlight for me was an afternoon with Bennett at the Tower of David museum where we literally walked through the history of the city of Jerusalem.

This Shabbat we finally made it to Shira Chadashah, a liberal modern orthodox synagogue recommended by several of our friends. Mindy (Sosland) guaranteed that the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night would bring me to tears. Either I am very predictable or she knows me too well, but sure enough twenty minutes into the service my friend Naomi was handing me a tissue. I must admit that when I walked into the service, I was immediately turned off by the mechiza. (For my non-Jewish readers, in orthodox synagogues women and men do not sit together. The women’s section and men’s section are divided by a wall/curtain of sorts called a “mechiza”.) Before we arrived, many of our friends here told us how wonderful Shira Chadashah is in its treatment of women. While many orthodox synagogues put women at the back of the room, in this synagogue they are divided down the middle. Also, while many synagogues erect an opaque barrier between the sections, the barrier at Shira Chadashah is less of a statement. Well, when I walked in and saw the sections were divided by a floor to ceiling curtain, I was immediately turned off. While that might be construed as liberal in an Israeli orthodox synagogue, I am used to a less obvious barrier where the men and women are divided more in form than in substance. While this synagogue is self-described as egalitarian, this mechiza suggested anything other than that to me.

Nonetheless, I took my seat and tried to have an open mind. I was somewhat distracted by Sabrina and her friends who were clearly not well received by a congregation that did not want child disturbances, but I soon found myself engrossed in the singing. As I looked around and saw myself surrounded by women – old and young, glamorous and granola, religious and not – all of whom were there for the single purpose of praying in a forum where they felt acknowledged, I was overcome with emotion and began to shed tears. Sabrina noticed it immediately and asked me why I was crying. I had no real words to describe for her what I was feeling at that moment. I told her I was crying because I was happy. It is true – I was happy. It is so hard for me to understand why I get emotional at these moments because I simply am not a strong believer. Perhaps I am more of a believer than I give myself credit for. Perhaps not. Perhaps prayer is so powerful that in the right venue and atmosphere, it can touch anyone.

I should say that Jim was not touched in exactly the same way. When I left the sanctuary I found him in a large padded room across the hall (where he’d apparently been for most of the service) with the boys and a gaggle of other kids who were going wild racing, wrestling, shrieking and generally doing anything other than praying. The boys had a blast and were about the last ones to leave the building. (And remember this is all BEFORE dinner.)

Because it was clear that ordinary children such as ours (who do not sit quietly for extended periods except in front of a TV) are simply not welcome at the synagogues we’ve attended so far, we decided to sit out Saturday morning services. We met two families from Sabrina’s class (both here on a one year sabbatical) for Shabbat lunch. The host family is from Riverdale, New York. The husband/father, Mason, is a Jewish educator at a conservative synagogue in Riverdale and is here for continuing education. The wife/mother, Sarah, is a doctor/educator who is still working full time so travels back to New York with some regularity. They have two great kids – Molly who is Sabrina’s age (and is a dead ringer for Madeline Moleneaux) and Sammy who is Elliot’s age. The other family is from Louisville, Kentucky where the husband/father, Josh, is a professor of philosophy and the wife/mother, Aya, is an employment lawyer. They have FIVE kids – one matches up with Sabrina and one matches up (roughly) with Bennett. As is expected here, Sarah cooked for an army so we had great food, great conversation and an overall great time. It was another great Shabbat.