Thursday, February 26, 2009
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 (bramsonquest.blogspot.com) 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
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
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 FRoggen@mac.com. 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
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.