Tuesday, June 30, 2015

More Dos and Don'ts for Gap Year in Israel Part 1b: still visiting people's homes

As you can see, there wasn't supposed to be anything between Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on how to be an excellent gap year kid in Israel. However, the mail has been overwhelming and I now realize that there are a few more points that I have to make to wrap up Part 1 properly. Well, I don't have to make additional points -- I could let sleeping dogs lie -- but I won't.

Before I continue I would ask all of those people who feel compelled to send hate mail -- directly or indirectly -- to just take an entire bottle of valium before you go off the deep end. Then lick any remaining residue off the inside of the pill bottle and your fingers. I hope that will suffice because although you refuse to see it, I am doing you a great service. And if you continue reading and then think to yourselves: "Hmmmm, my kids already know all that stuff," then guess what? YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY NOT THE PEOPLE TO WHOM THIS MESSAGE IS DIRECTED.

Okay, so here are the final seven tips which many of my friends here, who totally got what I was saying in the previous post, wrote to tell me that I missed:

1. Have a shower before you arrive -- particularly if you are travelling in a pack. What the North American kids don't realize (not sure about the Europeans) is that hot water does not just arrive in the tap by holy decree here. It takes a lot of time to heat up enough water to get our own families clean for Shabbat and sometimes, particularly in the winter, some sacrificial members of our own peeps are sent to the Country Club to shower because we can't make hot water fast enough.

2. Unless the world unexpectedly schemes against you, make your Shabbat plans before the end of Tuesday. You have no idea how much simpler it is to host you when we have the necessary time to prepare. And we are so much happier to see you if we are not running around like chickens with our heads cut off because you called at the last minute. That said, if you have to call us last minute, we will do our best -- but that does not include bringing your five "essential" travelling companions. They are just going to have to manage their own last-minute crises. We are not Mother Theresa clones.

3. Don't get your mothers to call us to organize YOUR Shabbat plans. Once again, if you are old enough to spend a year abroad then you should be old enough to make your own plans. As one of my friends not so gently put it: "Man up." Pick up the phone, use your words, and try out your big-boy/girl legs. We don't bite and it is an emancipating moment for you.

4. If you want to visit for the chaggim -- Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur in particular -- you need to let us know wayyyyyyy in advance. Our shuls are packed to the rafters for the holidays and seats must be reserved and paid for well in advance. Yes, we pay for our High Holiday seats. In all fairness most kids probably don't know that, but their parents do!!!! Offer upfront to pay for your seat -- it's surely a better deal than it is out of Israel. And since your prayers aren't travelling long distance they arrive much quicker at their destination. In other words, it's money well spent.

5. Point 10 in my previous post mentioned bringing a dvar Torah since you are supposedly in Israel for Torah-learning purposes this year. However, someone wrote to me and took it a step further: Be prepared to make conversation at the table with the host family. It makes us feel like we aren't just the riff raff serving you; you might enjoy it. And if you are really chatty, we will enjoy it as well.

6. If you are going to bring a present -- and it's a nice idea -- don't pick up a stale, pre-packaged cake at the bus station on your way. Let's not kid ourselves -- no one is going to eat it and it is going to end up in the garbage while children in Syrian refugee camps continue to starve. You don't have to spend much because we know it adds up over the year, but as a rule of thumb, gifts should be thoughtful (or parents should do the thinking in advance and send some hostess gifts along with their kids). Or ... buy the stale cake and just send it directly to a Syrian refuge.

7. This one is very close to my own heart. If we agree to host you on a Shabbat that our child is home on leave from the army we are basically offering to share a rare and special time with you. Many people simply stop inviting guests during their children's army service. But if you find a host family who is still happy to have you while their soldier is home, do not dismiss what is being offered to you and make the most of the opportunity.

And with that, I am wrapping up Part 1 of the Gap Year Shabbat Visitor's Tip Sheet. For those whom I have further offended, I am sorry. Well, I'm a little sorry. This is, in fact, some very practical advice and you would be wise to accept it in the manner in which it was meant -- as a service to those of you who couldn't possibly understand what it is like to be on our end.

One final word. If any of you non-Israel-based parents out there host as many gap-year kids (or a reasonable facsimile)  as frequently as is the norm here, please let me know. It is possible that I totally misjudged you. According to my calculations (I used a calculator), if you have four gap-kid guests a week, who all eat two meals with you, two weeks a month, 10 months a year, that is a minimum of 160 additional meals a year, excluding the guests you were planning on entertaining for your own selfish reasons! (Could the resident math Phd TL please confirm my logic and calculations.)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dos and Don'ts for Gap Year in Israel -- Part 1: Shabbat visiting

Elul is less than two months away. Generally speaking, that is neither here nor there in my life, but I learned today that the beginning of Elul means throngs of overseas students arriving in  Israel for their gap year. In other words, for some people, just hearing the word "Elul" brings on subtle tremors.

Please note that most of the gap year kids are never going to come into contact with real Israelis (beyond our families) -- nor do they want to. They simply want to spend a year in Israel as some sort of right-of-passage before they go back to their real lives elsewhere.  And because places like Ra'anana are the closest thing they can find to their respective homes abroad -- and where their parents most likely have friends, or friends of friends -- at some point during the year, the gap kids will inevitably surface here. This is a complicated thing for us natives: these kids have no interest in life in Israel per se but they want to get out (mostly from Jerusalem) and pretend to experience the country. Plus they take up a lot of seats in synagogue -- inevitably my seat, in particular.

Now because they don't want to really experience Israel, they travel in packs of .... at least five, which means that if you invite one of them for Shabbat, you are going to get five of them. It's virtually non-negotiable and frankly, from what I hear, getting five Shabbat visitors is getting off easy.

I rarely get these kids at my house because I didn't grow up in the religious world, so I am not connected to most of their parents. However, some of my friends literally spend their year, from September until June, as hotel/taxi service/laundromat/drop-in centers for these kids. And it is in their honour that I have prepared the following list of dos and don'ts for Gap Year Visitors to Israel. (This list is based on the extensive experience of some of the nicest, most giving people I know.)

1. Remember that you are no longer at home. Your parents trusted you enough to send you far from home for 12 months, so don't make them sorry they did. While you are away, you are a reflection of your family and your supposed upbringing. Don't shame your family name.

2. The people you are visiting are real Israelis, who live among other real Israelis. Our children may be native English speakers but do not kid yourselvs, they live and breathe in Hebrew. And while Ra'anana may look like an Anglo enclave, doogree (I am leaving you to figure out what that word means; I just learned it recently), it is very much part of Israel. Seventy percent of people in Ra'anana are native Hebrew speakers. Consider yourselves forewarned.

3. The people who host you are not sitting around all day wondering how they can fill their time, so do not assume that they have been waiting for you, your friends, and your laundry to fill a void in their "empty" lives.

4. Take a minute and think about how you would feel if five hungry teenagers showed up at your door expecting you to feed, entertain and generally rejuvenate them for two days? If you can't figure this out on your own, then ask your parents how they would feel. Take notes. Commit them to heart. Walk the talk.

5. And speaking of showing up at our doors -- ha. On top of hosting students by the half dozen and all that that entails, do not expect your hosts to make your travel arrangements or provide taxi service. Once again, if you are old enough to spend the year abroad then you are old enough to use a phone or a computer and figure out how to get to where you need to go. If you do not know how to contact the bus or train services, let me know and I will forward the contact information. And don't try the passive-aggressive call from the bus station saying: "Okay, I am at the bus station, now what do I do?" We weren't born yesterday.

6. Ask yourselves if the four or more people you want to take along for Shabbat really need to come. Couldn't you survive an entire 25 hours with just one or two friends? Would it really be so bad? We all know the answer to that rhetorical question.

7. No, you cannot bring your boyfriend or girlfriend for Shabbat. Do not put us in that uncomfortable position. Do I really need to explain why? If you don't know why then you are definitely not mature enough to be alone abroad and you should take a taxi to the airport immediately and just go home.

8. Make it a point to be the best possible guest EVER. If you don't know what that means, "someone" has forgotten to raise you properly (no names). However, assuming you were born on a raft and no one ever taught you how to behave, you should realize that your hosts are not there to serve you. Did you earn the money for the meals, do the shopping or prepare the food? The least you can do is help clean up after meals, shake out the tablecloth and tidy up after yourself.

9. We are not operating hotels and we do not offer hotel services. Ask the host what you should do with the bedding after you are done with it, hang your towels neatly on a towel rack so that they can dry out properly, don't sleep until noon and then drag yourself to the table just in time for lunch, and don't assume we have rolls for seudah shlishi after you just had two big meals served to you.

10. Tell us when you accept our invitation if you are vegetarian, vegan, legitimately celiac or have other real allergies. We can't guess and telling us when you arrive on Friday afternoon is just plain nasty. However, if you are going to insist on certain kashrut stringencies, stay home. If you don't trust our kashrut you shouldn't be coming.

11. And finally, for heaven's sake (literally and figuratively), bring a dvar Torah. You are in yeshiva or seminary all week so you have no reason not to come prepared to contribute to the spirituality of our Shabbat.

(Note: I would like to thank a very wise and gracious hostess for coming up with this topic and its key points.)

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Jerusalem Festival of Plight

Due to completely unavoidable circumstances, I found myself in the middle of the Jerusalem Festival of Light last night (hmm, that rhymes). My son's swearing-in ceremony for the army was being held near the Kotel and there was no way we were going to miss such an important moment in his life. After a quick conversation with an old friend who lives in the Old City -- the underlying message of which was "haha suckers" -- I knew we needed a well-thought out plan. I just don't' think I fully understood how well thought out that plan needed to be until we were in the thick of things.

For suburban dwellers such as us, getting to the Old City is an event in an of itself. Parking the car in either the most ad hoc, accident prone outdoor parking lots (I use the term "parking lot" casually here since they are more like parking sardine cans) or in the new, more civilized Mamilla underground parking garage next door, is the first mental challenge you will confront. Obviously we chose the Mamilla option because on the surface it just screams "good choice".

Of course, so did everyone else, which means that Mamilla was just one small step above the sardine can parking options outside. And, as I now know, when you have the overwhelming majority of Israeli society trying to exit or enter the parking garage as you are leaving, you can find yourself in a parking grid nightmare as bad as any anywhere. I know you think I am exaggerating but I am not. I actually have many people who can back me up but none of them are speaking to me since I was giving them all the finger as we fought for our rightful place in the underground grid lock. Okay, that part is not true, but it feels truish.

When we first arrived, it seemed like any normal evening in the world's most controversial piece of real-estate. The typical crowds of tourists, residents, students, soldiers and day visitors speaking any number of languages, taking picture, praying, shopping, and generally going about their business in as orderly a fashion as one could expect in an ancient city made of slippery cobblestones and windy laneways that are technically streets.

The one final piece of advice we received from my Old City friend was "get out of here before ten." That might have been the best piece of advice ever but I will never know because we did not take it. Instead, after the beautiful swearing-in ceremony was over, we rushed to spend some time with our soldier son who we don't see that much these days. We took lots of proud family photos of him and his new gun. (That's another story.) Stuck around to mingle with the guys in his unit who we hear so much about and feel like we know. And only then, at approximately 10:40 pm did we decide it as time to head home.

Let me get straight to the point: I have no idea how we managed to walk through the Old City and get back to the parking garage. I have never walked against the current of more people anywhere, ever. Thousands and thousands of people were just arriving -- including babies in strollers and oldsters in wheelchairs. If I hadn't known better I could have sworn that Maschiach (the Messiah) had just arrived at the Kotel and was taking requests.

What is this festival all about/ As far as I can tell all the City officials did was string up a bunch of pretty lights and lanterns all over the place, and then pump in some non-offensive musak. What the heck were these throngs of humanity all coming to see? The Israeli interpretation of Chinese lanterns?

Plus, we already have a Festival of Lights. It's called Chanuka and it runs for eight days every December. And it has an excellent story behind it .... and there are doughnuts. What do we possibly need with a slightly edited Festival of Light? I just googled "Things to do in Jerusalem this week" and there is no lack of activity or the slightest chance of getting bored, even without this absurd festival.

So here's my advice:

  1. If you have a hankering for fancy lights and musak -- and you cannot possibly create this effect at home -- by all means, go.
  2. If you can fly and thus, avoid the sea of humanity, go.
  3. If you have absolutely no laundry to do or meals to cook, go.
  4. If you are feeling lonely and desperate for company, go.
  5. If you are into sadomasochism, go.
  6. If you are an insomniac, go.
  7. If you have no need for personal space, go.
  8. If you are only going to be in Jerusalem once, go.
  9. Otherwise, do yourself a favour, and stay home.