Wednesday, May 28, 2014

For once can we just call a spade a spade?

I was sitting in front of my computer yesterday, waiting for an email, when all of a sudden I heard the heavy bass of traditional chassidic music shaking my house. I looked at my watch and remembered that at 6:00 pm the local religious elementary school was holding a Hachnasas Sefer Torah ceremony, moving a brand new set of Torah scrolls into a synagogue -- or in this case, their school. Since the scrolls were donated by the mother of a fifth grade teacher, there were kids everywhere. The ceremony included street dancing from a nearby synagogue where the scrolls were completed, to the school. Fortunately for me, my house is located along the route. So, I ran outside to be an active bystander.

There were a few police officers on motorcycles -- one at the front and one at the back -- clearing the way for the happy students, their parents, siblings, their teachers and the odd grandparent. All the kids were waving large Israeli flags and in the middle of the crowd was a van sporting gigantic speakers that were pumping out that addictive music. It's impossible to ignore chassidic music because it just begs you to get up and dance.

As I was standing there waving to the kids I knew, saying a few words to their parents, it dawned on me -- not for the first time, but for the first time in a while -- why I live here. And then it also occurred to me that I can't for the life of me figure out how a real religious Zionist could bear to live outside of Israel.

So now you are wondering who died and left me in charge of making that call? Fair question.

The answer is that if you are asking the question you are obviously feeling uncomfortable with your present circumstances. No one left me in charge. No one needed to. Every parent who walked past me said pretty much the same thing. Maybe a little tamer, but that's not my style.

What it came down to is: it's moments like this that confirm the soundness of our decision to live here, and it's moments like this that justify every misgiving or moment of angst we have experienced since we arrived. Did we make the right choice? Absolutely. Are we always clear about that? Not so much.

I didn't say it was easy. I said it was right.

And what I am saying now is that there is no way you can have the Israel experience outside of Israel. You can  visit. You can visit a lot. You can walk in the depressing Yom Ha'Atzmaut parades in your own city. You can go to the Israel rallies. You can wave your mini-Israeli flags. You can throw around hebrew words and phrases here and there. You can attend the events for every Israeli speaker who visits your city.

But you will never really get "it" until your children go to school here; until the first time you have to buy a "klasser" for your child and you have no idea what it is; until you realize that everyone goes to synagogue in sandals; until you let your young-ish kids walk to and from  neighbourhood friends alone even after the sun sets; until you understand that Mo-ed Alef is just the first kick at the cat; until your sixth grade son is proud to wear his father's army greens on Yom HaZikaron and can't wait until he gets his own; until you hear the morning radio hosts on every channel saying Chag Sameach because it is Yom Yershalayim; until you feel safer when you see an 18-year-old in or out of uniform carrying an M16; and until you dance down the street as part of a Hachnasas Sefer Torah ceremony and your insides are just bursting with pride and happiness because you are doing it in Israel.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hello Pope: Tips for visiting the Holy Land

I have a long personal history with Catholicism. Not in a participatory sense, but rather as a vistor. My maternal grandparents lived four houses away from the local Catholic rectory -- just far enough that by the time I reached the rectory on my Sunday afternoon bike rides from my grandparents' house, I was suitably hungry and often dropped in for afternoon tea. I was six and they were already boiling the kettle, so why not? As I saw it then, it was a win-win: cookies and tea for me and the opportunity to have some quality kid time for a bunch of guys who were chronically childless.

I am pretty sure they knew who I was and that I was Jewish, but cookies and tea superseded any religious barriers that might have arisen between us. No one at home ever told me I couldn't go there and no one at the rectory ever said I couldn't come in. At the time, I can say with all honesty that I was a big fan of the Catholic Church.

Unfortunately, 46 years later, I am no longer a fan of the Catholic Church. Most days I am simply indifferent and that is good enough. But I have to say that Pope Francis is testing my resolve. From the day he was elected Pope and then promptly hopped in a cab to go back to his hotel to pay his bill and pick up his belongings, I have liked him. That's why I want to speak up now before he makes any irrevocable faux pas during his Middle East visit.

  • According to the Vatican envoy to Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is Christianity's most important site. That's great. Now don't go back stepping when the Arabs try to convince you that Bethlehem and Nazareth are equally important. Why? Because they are only saying that so that they can use your comments against Israel at some point in the future. You are a pawn in their dirty game.
  • It's very nice that all the different Catholic sub-denominations agreed to meet with you in the CHS, but once again, don't get too excited because they all don't like you either and they too, just want to show a unified face so that later they can tell the world media how Israel is keeping them from actualizing their Catholicism in Palestine (read: Jerusalem) or some other cockamemie thing. 
  • Although it is a big deal that the Lebanese Maronite Bishop Bashara al-Rahi is flying in to party with you -- the first Lebanese patriarch to do so since 1948 -- trust me, he is going home to a likely hail storm of bullets for daring to step foot in Israel to do anything but kill Israelis. And what if, heaven forbid, everything goes really well? What are the Israel-hating Lebanese going to do then? Oh yeah, he's not long for this world.
  • Don't start up with this State of Palestine business. There is no State of Palestine. Leave the rhetoric and dialetic to the politicians. 
  • Inviting a Muslim and a Jew to Rome to pray with you? Are you expecting them to kneel as well? Trust me, you are headed down a rocky road. If they comply then that's not saying much for how either man perceives his own religion and if they don't, my guess is that Catholics worldwide will be offended. This is a no-win situation.
  • And for heaven's sake, will you please get in that damn PopeMobile. You are giving Israel's enemies a potential gift from Heaven. Think about it. If they can shoot you in Israel then they can spin that into a story that Israel hates Catholics or that the security was lax because you aren't important. Do not play into their hands -- they have no civilized limits. Not only are you screwing up traffic even more than the average dignitary, but already the Israeli Christians are saying that Israel is trying to deny their rights by removing their chance to be close to you. It doesn't take much to start a brouhaha here.
Israel may not be experiencing its best period with its Christian minority, but at least they are still alive, unlike in Syria. Islamic extremism is a way bigger problem for them but they are surely not going to miss the opportunity, when the world is watching, to play it up.

So Pope, welcome to Israel. Don't be naive. You are playing with the Mean Boys now -- and there aren't enough cookies on Earth for them to just drop by and enjoy the day.

Friday, May 23, 2014

When the furry nazis abandoned their camp

Those of you who have followed my blog over the years know that I have a totally unpleasant relationship with my next door neighbours which is often manifested through their two dogs. And as you also know, I have nicknamed the dogs to reflect our relationship status and their unfortunate appearance.

Is it my fault that one of them is the exact animalization (I made that word up as the opposite of personification) of Adolf Hitler? No, it is not but that doesn't mean that it isn't fortuitous for me.

During the past few months I decided that I was approaching my relationship with Adolf and Hess completely incorrectly. I realized that rather than trying to intimidate them that I should be trying to kill them (not literally) with kindness. So, I started to feed them dog biscuits and pet them.

Hess was been much more responsive to my overtures than Adolf. No surprise there. Adolf is such a little canine Nazi.

But here's what is most interesting.

The other night I heard my husband outside talking to someone. Or should I say, something. As it turns out Adolf and Hess had discovered a weak spot in the fence between our homes and broke out of what I consider to be their work camp, to freedom at my house!

Since their owners rarely walk them or acknowledge them as anything more than the security riff raff, and since they see Pepper leave for her thrice-daily walks, they apparently held a secret meeting and set their minds to escaping. You think I am making this up but I am confident that I have correctly interpreted their thinking.

Guess what happened next? Upon finding the escaped Nazis in our yard, my husband went to open the gate to let the horrible neighbours know that we had their dogs. Adolf made a run for it, but Hess stayed behind for some additional attention and of course, a  secret dog biscuit.

Next my husband went inside and found all the materials he needed to repair the fence.

Apparently my evil neighbours didn't like the fence patch-up job so they re-did it to their satisfaction and it was crap. The dogs, sensing that their window of opportunity for freedom and a chance for a better life was rapidly  closing, decided to make a second break for it. So when I went to take Pepper for her evening stroll, there they were again .... waiting near my front door ... for me .... the doggy biscuit lady. They both accompanied me on Pepper's walk  and when I returned home I bid them farewell and godspeed. I was prepared to give them both cash for the bus -- anything to upset the balance of life next door.

I feel a little bit like the neighbour who helped those poor unfortunately girls in Cleveland escape their captor after 10 years of unspeakable abuse. I know it isn't the same ... but I felt I was doing a similar good deed. Unfortunately, and unlike those girls, the dogs families were not out looking for them and the police were not interested, so they ended up back behind bars.

I have a meeting with them soon to figure out the next plan.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

So there is a light at the end of some tunnels

I honestly never thought this day -- or should I say night -- would come. I never would have dreamed that there would come a time when the thought of Lag B'Omer (previously known by me as the only holiday as terrifying as World Heroin Day) did not wreak havoc in my heart.

I am not going to review the craziness that olim parents experience when they come face-to-face with their first Lag B'Omer celebration in Israel -- particularly if they made Aliyah with elementary aged children. Suffice it to say that I still meet other parents on the street who I haven't seen for years and we can effortlessly recall the precise details of our first Lag B'Omer "celebrations" with our children in Israel. I am bonded to some of these people for life simply because we paced near huge bonfires while our young children ran around in utter delight throwing wood they had spent weeks collecting, into a ravenous flame. And I mean ravenous -- I've seen my fair share of 15 foot flames over the past 12 years.

You have no idea how loud you can yell at your kids until you have publicly threatened them that if they move a step closer to the bonfire they will be grounded for life -- presuming they survive. If you were to yell at your kids like that at any other time, I am pretty sure the authorities would have grounds to remove them from your care. However, if you yell like that on Lag B'Omer you will surely be met with applause by every other oleh parent present.

I stress the word "oleh" here because the other thing you soon realize during your first Lag B'Omer is that there is rarely a native born Israeli parent to be seen, even if the participating child is in first grade. The native parents grew up doing exactly what you are yelling at your kids to stop doing -- and without any parental guidance. Yes, it is the continuation of a cycle of active neglect that no sane oleh parent can even begin to understand.

And it was probably the one time I really questioned the sanity of my decision to leave Canada -- where bonfires are rightly illegal -- and come to live in a country of happy pyromaniacs.

Well, tonight, for the first time that I can remember, I am sitting here writing a blog post while the fires rage outside AND I DON'T CARE. Two of my children are home doing other things and one is on Har Meron  with 300,000 other Israelis celebrating the holiday. As I see it, if he is old enough to drive and carry a gun, then he is old enough to stay suitably far away from the bloody bonfire without me yelling at him.

Oh, and by the way, there is no such thing as World Heroin Day -- at least not yet.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Stranger than fiction

There is absolutely no logic in buying a new car in Israel. Most roads are ridiculously narrow -- at least by North American standards (which is where I learned to drive). Bumping into other people's car is a daily experience and not worthy of a second glance. Squeezing through impossibly small spaces is a challenge to be attacked with enthusiasm. A Mazda 6 costs as much as a 5-series Beemer in the US. Israeli driving mentality does not scream: "Hey you should get a new car" but rather, "Go ahead, get a new car. I dare you."

So, to make a long story short, last week we bought a newer car. In fact, it is just a newer model of the car we sold the week before. My husband wanted a bigger, nicer car but I had to nix that plan immediately because .... well, I know me and nothing good could have happened to the car he was dreaming of.

Maybe if we left it in the driveway all day and I took a cab to the grocery store, the health club, the corner market, and to do my weekly errands. Now that I am typing this out, it dawns on me that that might have been his plan. Of course, that would have only worked for a week at most until the car needed gas -- my husband doesn't do gas. In some unspoken perception of our life, he believes that the gas station is one of my responsibilities.

Back to the point. He found a car on Yad Shtayim (a second hand everything web-site). Sounds straightforward. But it wasn't because this is Israel, and straightforward is not a tenable concept here. Israelis are circuitous, which is how we ended up in Tel Aviv transferring the ownership of the car from it's previous owner, back to the leasing company from which he got it, to us. I've barely scratched the surface of this story and it is already complicated.

We naively arrived at the leasing company parking lot thinking that we would wrap this transaction up within an hour (that included 30 minutes for Israeli craziness). You would think that after living here for 12 years we wouldn't be such idiots -- wrong.

We entered the leasing company depot at 10:00 am on a bright and sunny day and the first thing we noticed is that it was dark .... because there was what is kindly -- but incorrectly -- known here as a Hafsakat Hashmal. An electricity break. Sounds voluntary and pleasant doesn't it? Yeah, sure, that's what everyone in this wired world wants in the middle of the work day -- a break from electricity. In fact it was a brown-out and the employees at the depot had no real idea when it would end.

Yes, a depot employee did call the Electric Company but it is also a known fact that Israelis just toss out arbitrary information for the hell of it so you can't base decisions on anything they say. It could be an hour, or it could be four. Read between the lines: Customer service is not a concept that has reached the shores of the Mediterranean yet. It probably never will.

Oh, did I mention that my husband had scheduled his business day to include a noon meeting in Jerusalem which required him to take the rental car we were driving and leave me potentially carless in TA? His thinking made perfect sense -- if he lived in maybe Switzerland or Germany where being timely is the 11th Commandment.

The minutes in the dark were ticking by, and everyone in the Sales-Purchase relationship was trying to think up ways around the problem that did not include someone having to trust a stranger for fear of being taken. There is no worse insult you can throw at an Israel than being a fryer (sucker).

My husband was pacing because he had to get on the road. And the depot employees were all ordering lunch take-out because they couldn't (read: wouldn't) get any work done in the dark. Our little dilemma wasn't even on their radar. (BTW, I did notice that not one of them was in desperate need of a meal.)

Finally my husband just had to leave and I knew he was thinking: "Oh Lord what can she possibly do to screw this up when I am not here." HA, he had no faith!

Minutes after he left my new partner in crime (the seller) and I decided that the only way anyone was going to get on with the day was if we made a conscious decision to be decent human beings and take a chance on each other. Trust is not a default instinct in this part of the world.

After spending almost two hours with him in the dark he didn't seem like such a stranger anymore so ... off we went by foot and then cab to the bank to complete the transaction. By the time we did so and then walked back to the leasing depot we pretty much knew all the pertinent details of each other's lives and were planning our next get together (okay, that last part was not true; I was making a point).

But most important, when we arrived back at the depot the bloody electricity was working and everything was back to Israeli normal. It took approximately 15 minutes to complete the paperwork, get the keys, wave good-bye and head home knowing that I had just had a very Israeli experience with a stranger.

Monday, May 5, 2014

And now for some blasphemy

I know I am going to take heat for writing this, but here goes nothing.

It's not that I don't think that Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur or the other High Holidays are important -- I do. But on Yom HaZicharon I think you see the heart of the Jewish people in a unique way. I think that this is when you really see what matters. I think this is when you see the best of Israelis because people here are focused on the exact same thing. Many of them do not go to synagogue on Shabbat or observe the bulk of the Commandments, but almost everyone of them has played an active role in what will determine the future well-being of the Jewish people.

Okay, maybe not the extreme haredim, but pretty much every other Jew here.

Of course, at least half of the world's Jews can't see it at all. They are not in Israel. They can't possibly feel the stillness in the air that began last night and is still present at noon today.

No one is out saying Chag Sameach because today, no one here really feels happy. There is an pervasive sadness.

I went with my friend Miriam this morning to watch her daughter's school ceremony honouring the brave people -- soldiers and others -- who died so that we could all live here free and generally safe.

It's an elementary school so the oldest students are in sixth grade. And yet, they know from their families', friends' and neighbours' individual experiences the price that Israel has paid to get to today, hours away from the 66th birthday of the State. Some of the sixth grade boys were apparently dressed in their father's old army fatigues. The sight of them makes you profoundly proud and pained at the same time.

Everyone who has a pre-army aged son has the same thoughts rushing through his or her mind today. Will there be peace before my son is conscripted? Will he get through the army safely? And for those of us who chose to live here, there's the other nagging question: Are we sure we did the right thing? If we are being totally honest, not one of us is prepared to pay the ultimate price.

But at the end of today, as the sun sets and Yom Ha'Atzmaut celebrations begin, we are filled with a sense of pride and purpose that one can only experience living here.

So to all those Jews who live outside of Israel, I feel for you. You have no real idea of what Israel means and the sacrifices many brave souls have made so that you can continue to live your oblivious lives safely in other countries, celebrating Shavuot and Pesach, and whatever. You have totally missed the point of what is holy.