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!


Vivian said...

I read every post an want to reach out and hug you. That home and not home tugged at my heart from my first trip in 1969. Lat trip (two years ago with the cousins) and I finally accepted that I should have stayed in 1973, made my home in Israel. It's great that you and family are taking the time to know, to not be torn when you take the next step

Cynthia Samuels said...

I can't tell you what a pleasure these posts are! You are a fine writer in addition to observant and connected. I've sent the link to several friends who are also enjoying it.
Love to the family.