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Monday, November 30, 2009

From the Outside Looking In

I was recently more determined than usual not to be late for a wedding I was attending. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to miss the chuppah, but I had a special ‘job’, taking care of and explaining everything connected to the wedding ceremony to the kallah’s non-Jewish family.

Most brides are nervous on their wedding day, but a kallah who has only recently joined the Jewish People and made our life, her life, is inevitably going to be extra nervous. Added to that she was worrying about her family. How would they mix with her new orthodox Jewish family and friends. How would they react to all the “strange” things going on around them that they didn’t understand. .
I glanced around the ladies’ side of the hall quickly, assuming I would spot them easily. Amongst the small group of religious women who were already there my eyes searched for any ladies whose manner of dress appeared different..
But I saw none.
I asked the chatan’s sister where the kallah’s parents were.
She pointed out a middle aged lady dressed in long sleeves with her hair fully covered by an attractive beret and two young ladies in their twenties with long dresses.

I sighed with relief. Sarah was right. They really must be taking her decision well and were obviously trying hard to comply with all her requests.

Sarah, the kallah, had said her parents and siblings, all religious Christians, had accepted her decision happily. She had remained in constant contact with them and had been back to visit them in Europe several times since she started on her new path.
But she was still worried that maybe when they came over to Israel and saw her in her new surroundings, things might not be so clear-cut.

“This is all so wonderful”, her mother said, after I introduced myself .”Everyone is so happy and there is such lovely music.”
She’s right, I thought. The chatting, laughing, smiling friends and family as well as the good wishes and mazel tovs which were poured on Sarah and her family, as she sat radiantly in her kallah chair, made a stark contrast to the silent formality of most non-Jewish weddings.
“If you have any questions or don’t understand what’s going on” I said, “I’ll try and explain it to you”
“Oh” one of her sisters said excitedly. “ We know what’s going to happen now and it’s so beautiful”
I wondered what she was going to say.
“Her groom is going to come and check that she’s Rachel and not Leah” she said smiling. “ I think it’s the most wonderful, beautiful thing. You remember your Bible so well and all these years later you want to make sure that the groom is marrying the right bride and is not being cheated. It is so beautiful”.
I’d never heard the “bedecken” ceremony described with such joy and praise as it was with her lilting European accent.
I turned to look at the kallah, so pale and shy; so beautiful and so nervous.
Her chatan was orthodox from birth, so he had his family and long standing friends as a support system, surrounding him.
But Sarah was comparatively alone with her thoughts. She was surrounded by her friends and her new family and the people with whom she had learnt all about her new life. But she had only known most of the people here for a relatively short time.

Sarah’s new family had accepted her into their midst with love, explaining everything carefully and completely trying to never let her feel lacking or out of place.
But having never been in her situation we could only guess at her feelings and probable inner turmoil.

She was led to her chuppah flanked by her mother-in-law on one side and the Rabbanit with whom she had learnt on her other side . The Rabbanit was also holding Sarah’s mother’s hand so she too would feel a part of the ceremony.

“It was so beautiful” her mother said to me after the chuppah was over. “ She will be happy. I know she will have a good life here. I see it here and in the streets. People are happy. I understand that many religious people here don’t have much money, but they have much joy and many children and that is so much better. In our country people have money, they have big houses. They have many big cars and they work all day. But they aren’t happy.”

The dancing started and I linked arms with Sarah’s mother and her sister. Within minutes they had caught on to the simple dance steps and were whizzing round like pros. They were whirling and diving and humming along to the tune while Sarah in contrast stayed shyly in the center of the circle moving her feet slowly a gentle smile on her face.

And then as I looked at them all I understood the difference in their behavior. Sarah’s non-Jewish family were looking at us from the outside. Yes, they saw the beauty of our customs , our families and our way of life . But it was a detached admiration. It had nothing to do with changing their way of life. Tomorrow they would be on their plane home to Europe, their Jewish experience just a happy, interesting memory.

But Sarah was moving slowly , probably thinking about her future, considering her new role as a Jewish wife; thinking about all the new mitzvot she would now be taking on. Her soft smile and the faraway look on her face showed her thoughts were not completely on the dancing going on around her.
She had many other more important things to think about.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Living Within a 15 Second Window

Last week I visited a new project of JNF USA, a fantastic indoor children’s recreation center in Sderot.
This center was built to bring some measure of fun and freedom to children who for almost ten years have lived in terror, with thousands of Kassam rockets fired at them from Gaza . All of the children in this area suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The best way to describe the play area is simply, children’s heaven. It has everything any child or teenager could possibly want to wile away their free time.
There are dolls and teddies, cooking corners and swings, a room for holding birthday parties, a giant bouncing-castle, a mini-mall with its own ‘caspomat’ (ATM machine) cafes, bookstores and supermarkets complete with mini- trolleys.

For the older kids there are computers, table-football, a boxing corner, a snack bar, a climbing wall, play-stations, disco hall and a small football pitch

There’s plenty of opportunity and equipment here to release pent-up energy and exhaust everyone – which is just what the children in this area need.

And , the most important factor is that every part of the playground is within a few meters of one of the shelters built along the sides of the recreation area and which are an integral part of it.
Those of us who don’t live in Sderot may have been naive enough to think that since the ‘Cast Lead’ IDF operation in Gaza last winter, it’s been ‘all- quiet-on-the-southern- front’ – but of course it hasn’t. There have been several rocket attacks since the operation ended.

It may be calmer than before, but while Hamas is recharging its batteries in Gaza, the residents of Sderot have to continue to live with the possibility that the Kassam rocket attacks could start up again at any moment.

So when this center was built, the IDF were in on the planning at every stage.
The ‘magic’ number was always 15.
Fifteen seconds is the amount of time between the sirens sounding and the rocket falling.
Fifteen seconds is the time you have to find a safe shelter.

So when the designers wanted to build a colorful, fun merry-go-round in the center of the playground for the little kids to enjoy - the IDF nixed it.
It takes 25 seconds to bring a merry-go-round to a complete stop , and that's way too long – so no merry-go-round.

When the designers wanted to make the floor more user-friendly and have it padded with foam , the IDF nixed it .
It will slow up the kids when they’re running for the shelters.

Every bus stop in Sderot is a bomb shelter so that anyone who is on the streets when the siren goes, is hopefully within 15 seconds of some safe shelter.

Outside playgrounds and sports pitches are sadly deserted, even on a pleasant, quiet sunny afternoon – they’re too risky, too far away from safety.
How many of us can even imagine living life always checking that we're no more than 15 seconds from safety?

This secure indoor recreation center is a happy solution to some of Sderot’s children’s problems.
As one young boy put it; “ It’s great. For the first time in almost ten years my friends from the center of the country are jealous of me.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Shabbat- A Gift to Save our Soul and our Sanity

This week is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holzberg and those who were killed with them in the Mumbai massacre .

I well remember the Shabbat morning, a year ago, when our Rav stood up to give a D’var Torah in our Jerusalem shul, and said “ I want to dedicate my learning today, le’ilui nishmat, in memory of, those murdered in Bait Chabad in Mumbai yesterday”

My heart stopped for a second. I hadn't known until that moment that they were dead.

When I had turned off the radio and computer half an hour before Shabbat , the fate of the Holzbergs and the other Jews under siege with them in Beit Chabad in Mombai, was still unknown. Like most Jews the world over, we feared the worst but hoped and prayed still for a miracle.
The tragic outcome had become known to those in Israel just a few minutes before the onset of Shabbat – when our home was already in ‘Shabbat mode’.

Switching off computers, television, radios, telephomes, cell-phones, BlackBerrys, and PDAs before Shabbat, brings a tremendous sense of calm to a hectic, jangling, jarring and stressful week.
Disconnecting from the world for these 25 hours is our acknowledgment that we’re not in charge. We relinquish our supposed ‘control’ over what is going on outside our home. And it is such a relief

Another Shabbat I shall never forget was in October 1994 when Nachshon Wachsman, who lived in our Jerusalem neighborhood , had been kidnapped and was being held prisoner by Hamas terrorists. His mother Esther had asked that women all over the world light an extra Shabbat candle for her son’s safe return. I vaguely remember cooking for Shabbat through a haze of tears with the radio constantly next to me as I worked.

As I lit the Shabbat candles, including the extra one, I felt the calm settle on our home.

The tragic outcome of the raid, that Friday night , on the house where Nachshon was being held, is well known. But the soldiers and police, who were constant companions to the Wachsman family during their ordeal, continued to talk afterwards about their incredulity at the sight of the Wachsman parents and children sitting around the Shabbat table reciting kiddush, eating their Shabbat meal and singing zemirot, even while the fate of their son was unknown.
This incredible show of emunah and bitachon , total faith in the Almighty, by the Wachsmans has become legendary. The sanctity of their Shabbat continued even under these unbelievably difficult circumstances.

Shabbat is the Jewish people’s firm anchor in an often stormy week .
It is our strength. The ability to disconnect from the weekday aspects of the world and put it all on hold for those precious 25 hours.

Sometimes we don’t appreciate the ‘everyday’ Shabbat , but the ones we spend in unusual circumstances stand out in our memory,
During the Gulf War of 1991, the first days of the war had been nerve wracking. We were all glued to every possible media for war updates and listening out for the sirens . Worrying about poison gas attacks and getting our family into their gas masks and sealed rooms did nothing to calm the tense atmosphere.
Then suddenly it was Friday and war or no war, soon it would be Shabbat.
Radio announcers were giving challah recipes for those whose ‘macolet’ , local grocery store, wasn’t open or didn’t get a supply. Rabbanim were answering questions about the use of telephones, and radios during Shabbat and showers were taken by all who all week had been too scared to be caught mid-shower when the siren went off. The dining table was set with its white tablecloth, shining candlesticks and best tableware. Preparing for Shabbat brought a much needed sense of purpose and spiritual strength.
As we dusted and wiped, cooked and cleaned, laid the table and dressed in our Shabbat best , we were sending ourselves an important message. Wars and tragedies come and go but Shabbat is ours forever.

Disconnecting from the material world and connecting to the spiritual is a sanity saver.
As the Hebrew writer Ahad HaAm, said, “ More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews”
Never has this seemed truer and more pertinent than today.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Bus Driver in Israel

The other week we went to a wedding in Kiryat Arba, it was a first for us as we’d never been there before.
As we boarded the bus at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, the driver waved aside our proffered money. “ Sit down, sit down, don’t worry you can pay me later. Let’s get everyone on board quickly and be on our way. Come on everyone hurry up. Don’t you all want to get home, What about your families. It’s been a long day. Let’s go” and with that he closed the doors and wove his way out between the other buses.

One man stood by the driver determined to pay him before sitting down. He held out the money for a ticket and the driver looked at him askance. “ Ma Pitom. You’re not going to pay for a single ticket it’s a waste of money. You travel with me every day – buy a kartisiah ( a multiple-use ticket ). It works out much cheaper.”
I didn’t hear the full exchange that followed but the driver seemed to have won the argument, as I saw the man dig into his pocket and pull out some more money.
My husband went to pay and asked the driver to let us know when we got to the Hesder yeshiva where the wedding was taking place.
“ Sure. Relax, have a sleep. We have another hour and don’t worry I’ll wake you when we get there.”

On the outskirts of Jerusalem, an English speaking group got on and asked for tickets to Me’arat HaMachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron. The driver told them a price and added “ That’s a return ticket. It’s cheaper to buy a return than pay twice”
“But we’re not coming back. We only want one-way” they insisted.
“ How can you stay at the Cave. You have to come back”
“ We’re meeting someone and we’ll be getting a ride back”

When the driver was satisfied that they would not be stuck in Hevron, he ‘agreed’ to let them buy a one way ticket.

A little further outside Jerusalem an elderly lady laden with bags of shopping got on.
“Oh Rabbanit – what a pleasure to have you travel with me. How are you? How is ‘kvod HaRav’ our revered Rabbi ? I had your son travel with me the other day- what a pleasure it was.”
The rabbanit answered his questions about the family and was about to move down the bus to find a seat when the driver motioned to the girl sitting in the front seat. “Move your bag. Let the rabbanit sit there. It’s an honor for you to sit next to her”

Suddenly a bottle of water that had fallen on the floor crashed in to the side of the seats.
The driver shouted out “ Rabbotei, please will someone pick up that bottle. Every time it bangs against the side I think we’ve been hit by a stone”.
It was the only reminder that not every journey in this area is as incident-free as this one.

We entered Kiyat Arba and wound our way around the town stopping where the passengers wanted to get off, and not simply at bus stops. As we neared the yeshiva the driver called out to us that it was time to get off. “Who’s getting married?” he asked us.
We told him. “Oh great, I’m so pleased that’s wonderful. Wish them Mazel Tov . Have a great time”
We got off and even after 26 years here we couldn’t help smiling.
Bus drivers like that, you just don’t get outside Israel.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Do as I Write - Not as I Do

I remember the scene quite clearly in my mind. It was a Friday afternoon, and I think we were making Shabbat sheva brachot for one of my daughters. The place was in turmoil, even more so than usual which is saying something.
There were quite a few of us of us at work. Even my sisters from abroad had donned aprons and were in the thick of things.The kitchen looked like I had just received a command from Above to empty every thing I possessed out of the cabinets. And every bowl, dish, pan, container and kitchen gadget was used, unwashed and lying around on the counter ( “so what’s new about that? “did I hear some of my ‘friends’ say!)
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw my son standing by the kitchen door with a newspaper in his hand and read:

“ The best way to keep things under control in the kitchen is to clean up as you go. Use it, wash it and put it away again . Then move onto the next item on the menu.”

I can remember shouting at him that if he wants to be helpful he could wash some dishes and stop reading.

“ Mum, do you know who wrote this?

“NO and I don’t really care”

“YOU- in last week’s Home and Gardens supplement”

I rest my case.
Those who can do – those who can’t …….. write about what they should be doing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Kristalnacht November 10th

Valley of the Communities - Yad Vashem

Although both my parents and grandparents escaped from Germany during the holocaust, the subject was never mentioned when I was a child growing up.
The only time I remember being aware of this fact was every year on November 10th.
My mother rarely lets this date go by without comment.
It always shocks her that people can arrange a wedding / a party/ any event in fact which involved music, food or enjoyment of any sort on this day.
It was only when I was an adult that I discovered what happened to my mother's family on Kristalnacht

Sunday, November 8, 2009


I have had to be away from home a lot recently and have not had access to a computer .
Now for someone who is a compulsive writer, that’s very difficult especially as some of the best essay and article ideas have sprung into mind whilst away from home.
“What’s wrong with a laptop?” I hear you ask…….(.well I don’t really hear you, I’m not into hearing ‘voices’ just yet …but you know what I mean.)
Well for starters the cost , secondly the weight, thirdly I'm not comfortable writng on a laptop's keyboard and finally I’m scared of losing it / having it stolen / dropping and ruining it .

But I have a wonderful alternative it’s an Alphasmart Neo word processor. It weighs very little, is very sturdy ( believe me I’ve dropped it many times and it’s none the worse for it )and has a normal size keyboard ( although a very small screen), It operates on regular batteries which I’ve never had to replace so far – they seem to run forever ( actually 300 hours I think the advertisement says). When I get back home I can connect it to my PC and download it all onto Word.

I even have my favorite table in the food section at Ben Gurion airport where I can sit, sip a drink for as long as I like undisturbed, gaze out at the planes, and write. And I’m not even disturbed by the desire to check my email because the basic model I have doesn’t connect to the internet.

The new ones are cheap enough but I got mine for a lot less on ebay .
If you’re not a laptop user and want some form of portable ‘computer’ I can really recommend it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hounding my Nephew

It’s a standing joke in our family that my American nephew always provides me with plenty of stories for articles whenever he visits us.
He’s a very nice, kind young man with a good heart to whom ‘interesting’ things tend to happen.
But usually these are of the heartwarming kind such as being picked on by non-religious family at the Kotel to help them make a Bar Mitzvah or giving tzedaka to a beggar who he realized to his horror was dead, calling the emergency services and waiting while the police and MDA arrived etc.

But his visit this time brought him more sinister attention then he has ever encountered.

It all started because after being here for a friend’s wedding and seeing all his local relations, he decided to go for a few days to visit Turkey and then return here, pick up his luggage and go back to the States.
On his return back from Turkey the clerk at passport control asked him, as they often do, how long he was here for .
He replied, “ About five hours” .
As he moved on towards the exit he was approached by a security personnel with a dog who asked him to step inside for questioning.

It didn’t take long to ‘work out’ why the alarm bells went off .
How many people come to Israel for only five hours. We can only guess they suspected him of coming just to drop off drugs or weapons and then leave – and the dog was there to sniff them out.
My poor innocent nephew explained that he had been here for the last two weeks staying with us and attending a friend’s wedding etc. The previous
stamps in his passport could attest to that.
They questioned him, searched him and grilled him some more. And then let him go.

Meanwhile I had booked him an airport transfer to get him back to the airport in time for his return flight to the States. His previous transfer cab had arrived very late and he had been worried that he’d miss his flight so I deliberately ordered this one an hour early.

He arrived back at our house, showered, packed, said his goodbyes and was off.

As his cab entered the area of Ben Gurion Aiport a solder got on, looked all round and his eyes alighted on my nephew.
“ You. What time is your flight?”.
He told him. .
“So why are you here so early?”
Because his ‘helpful’ aunt had ordered him the transfer early – it wasn’t his fault poor kid!
It then became obvious that his photograph must have been circulated – the soldier had known exactly who he was looking for and hadn’t spoken to anyone else in the cab (except the boy next to him to ask if he was traveling with my nephew).

He was then profiled ( questioned) a further eight times between his arrival at the airport and getting on the plane. He was asked everything possible about our family ( where he stayed) our occupations, names and number of children, what our son did in the army, what he last ate at our home, etc . The questions, he said, got very repetitive and boring, (presumably the idea was to check for inconsistencies), but as he had plenty of time to spare he took it all in good stead. Fortunately he’s an easy going boy and he didn’t lose his temper nor let them rattle him.

I can’t decide what to make of all this. On the one hand I should sleep easier knowing that our security officers are on the ball and relentlessly pursue anyone whom they suspect of illegal offences regardless of that fact that every detail of his innocent explanation checks out completely.
The other part of me feels so sorry for my nephew who, because of an innocent three day tourist trip to Turkey was treated like a class one security threat and relentlessly hounded by the authorities . I also wonder about the time and manpower wasted searching for someone whose story was very easy to check out.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Living with a mother who writes

Hundreds of years ago when my children were young and before computers had been invented - if the kids came in the front door and heard the typewriter clicking away - they knew there would be no food ready!!

Then with the arrival of silent computers, they actually had to come in the house and search for me..... and if they found me in front of the screen .......same story - no meal.

It's hard to be the children of a writer.
Vacations were taken at places which would provide good stories.
Photos of sites always look better with some 'action' so they all had to peer into / walk on top of / swing around / swim in whichever place we were visiting before they could go off and enjoy themselves.
They also knew they were likley to see themselves in the photos splattered over the travel pages of the newspaper, but that didn't matter because they never believed that anyone read what I wrote.
Anything they ever said was good fodder for fillers and letters. Once they got the hang of this they would come out with something cute and printable and then put their hand out for their commission.
My first sale to a real magazine was an article about losing ( or not) my weight after cihldbirth, so they've been providing me with material for my articles since they were born
Even now, many years on when they are parents themselves, they know the rules.
Any time they go anywhere unusual with their children they have to take photos and collect all the literature about the place.
And they regularly call me up and tell me stories about what their kids have been doing and saying.
Of course I'm interested because I'm their Bubby - but I'm also always on the look out for a good story.

Rain Rain Don't Go Away

The blessed rain has arrived and in real force.

You know, it took me a long time and needed a lot of work on myself to be able to call rain "blessed".

When you've lived most of your life in bleak, dull, rainy England, one of the things I loved about Israel was the long, sunny summers.

No need to listen to the weather forecast before hanging the laundry outside from May to November.

No need to send the children to school with a sweater ....just in case.
No wondering if 'rain will stop play' whether it's tennis at Wimbledon or football anywhere.
No shlepping an ugly nylon/plastic raincoat in your bag so you don't get caught out.

BUT HERE ..... we desperately need the rain in the winter. And this winter in particular is an especially crucial one with the last few winters varying from very mild to total droughts.

So , after 26 years , at long last.....I've learnt to bless the rain and to pray hard for it...and really mean it.
P.S. shhhh but I still love it when we have a sunny day amongst the rainy ones.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I didn't know that ordinary people get paid to write

That comment has been made to me so many times I've lost count.
Friends look around my house at the 'stuff' all over everwhere, the computer surrounded by
papers and files, at the mess, the toys and the general 'balagan', and add.
" But I thought you had to be a professional to write"

I usually either ignore the comment, or answer with something inane like, "creative people are always messy"

My English literature teacher ,Miss Hare, ( who must have been at least 90 if she was a day) first gave me the idea.
To pass English Lit. A levels ( university level school leaving exams ) in England many years ago, you had to write reams and reams of prose about the many books we had to study. Those still writing when the exam finished got the highest marks - well that's how it seemed to me.
Every time I looked around , after I'd finished answering all the questions the rest of the group were still scribbling away filling page after page.
When I received my papers back, I got a so-so mark. But this annoyed me intensely because I knew it was simply because it wasn't long enough not because something was wrong or was missing.
At the bottom,Miss Hare had written the remark that was to set my life on its course.

Your style would be better suited to journalism than a career in English literature.

Welcome to my blog

One of my professional goals for the last two years has been to set up a blog, but I could never decide on a topic. So I just procrastinated - it's the easiest thing to do.
Then I realised that I don't have to choose one topic.
So I chose the two most important and enjoyable facets of my life- living here in Israel with my family and writing
And today my long-awaited ( well it was by me!) blog was born.