Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Pay it Forward

You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you. 
- John Bunyan
Be kind whenever possible. It's always possible
- the Dalai Lama

Today started like any other day. I woke up early, threw some laundry into the machine, drank some coffee, played soduka while drinking coffee, and then got into my car to go to work at the local University. The earlier I get to work, the earlier I can leave, so I like to get there nice and early.

It's about a twelve minute drive. Three minutes in, I noticed that the side mirror on the passenger side of the car was pushed in, and I couldn't see behind me. At the next traffic light, I pulled up the handbrakes, undid my seatbelt, rolled down the passenger window, leaned over, and fixed the mirror. All before the light changed back to green. Yay me! But (there's always a but, isn't there....) before I could get my seatbelt back on, and get the handbrakes down, the light changed to green, and within a nanosecond the hooting began. It's possible that the hooting began even before the light changed.

This is Israel, the land of prophecy, and it's entirely possible that the guy behind me knew in advance that the light was about to change.
But I digress.

Ignoring the hooting, seatbelt secured, I grabbed the handbrakes and pulled.
And pulled.
And pulled.

And the handbrakes wouldn't budge.

I was stuck, the guy behind me furiously hooting away until he eventually wised up and scooted around me.
The light changed back to red, and the handbrakes wouldn't move.
When the light turned back green, handbrakes up, I drove slowly, with much screeching, across the street and managed to pull over. There, out of traffic, I wrestled with the stupid handbrakes for several minutes until I finally got them down.

Swearing, sweating from the exertion (I mean, I wrestled!!!), I drove to work, not arriving particularly early.

I figured that, while at the traffic light,  I had pulled up the handbrakes too fast, and something caught wrong, and it was stuck. So when I parked in the parking lot at work, I  mostly out of habit  pulled up the handbrakes again. I looked at that black piece of T-shaped plastic, and decided not to think it until I finished my six hours of duty. 
Which, of course, came none too quickly and I all but forgot about the early morning's episode.

Until, of course, I started the car, and couldn't get the handbrakes down. At least I wasn't in traffic, and nobody was hooting me.
Still, I had to get home.
I struggled for about fifteen minutes. It was hot, I was out of breath, and I had long run out of swear words.


I took a breath and tried again.


I finally broke down, and called my son, who studies at the University. Maybe he was there and could come and help me.
He wasn't.
But he did offer to come and get me. I said no, I would try a few minutes longer and then take a bus. I really didn't want to leave the car at work, so I struggled, in vain, a while longer.
I felt helpless.

My son called me back.
"Are you still there? I asked my friend to come and help you. He'll be there in a minute".

Indeed, a few minutes later, a tall, blonde young man waved at me.
"I don't know what I can do," said the mechanical engineering student to me. "I don't know anything about cars."

The first hurdle was pushing the seat back because Yaniv is about twice my height. That accomplished, he got in and began fighting with the handbrakes.


I told the kid to forget it, I'd manage. He just looked at me, and said "It's no big deal, I have nothing better to do. Hold on, I'll call my dad. He knows everything."

I just stared. This was getting ridiculous. I hadn't wanted to bother my son, let alone this stranger's dad.

"Hi Dad!! What's up? Everything ok? Listen, there's this lady here who can't get her handbrakes down. Do you know what to do?"

Dad advised him to try and move the car a bit forward (with the brakes on), maybe there was something catching them. Or perhaps rocking the car a bit. Or try... The two chatted a few minutes.

We started the car, and Yaniv tried driving back and forth a few centimeters in the hope of releasing the brakes.


He got out of the car, slipped his sandals off, and lay down on his stomach first in front of the car, and then on the side to see if there was something stuck underneath.


Still barefoot, he got back in the car and tried again.

This is Israel and miracles do indeed happen.

Yaniv released the handbrakes.

Wide grin on his face, he got out of the car, put his sandals back on and told me I don't need to use the handbrakes at all. Beer Sheva is pretty flat.

"Are you here tomorrow? Ice cream on me, " I told him.

"It's a date," he laughed. "But really, it was nothing."
"Nothing for you, a whole weekend of headaches for me".

I got in the car, careful not to touch the handbrakes, and called my son to thank him.
"All's good," I said.

And then, I burst into tears.

Random Kindness from strangers and family does that to me.
It's how the world will be saved.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Lamrot HaKol - Despite it all

and here you are living despite it all
-Rupi Kaur

 למרות הכל נשארנו פה, למרות כל מה שהם עשו כדי שניפול 
-נתן גושן
(Despite it all, we stayed here, depite all they did to make us fall
- Natan Goshen)

When I was young and in school back in the Old Country, about a week after Chanuka and until Tu B’Shvat, the teachers would hang a small JNF poster in the classroom. It was a bit bigger than a piece of A4 paper, and it had a picture of a tree with spaces on the branches to put stickers of leaves.

A sticker of a leaf cost five cents. There were 20 spots for leaves, so a whole tree cost one dollar (!!!). But 7-year-olds didn’t have dollars, so we would bring our nickels in whenever we had one. Sometimes, we had ten cents to spend, so we could buy two leaves. What excitment!! It was quite a ceremony giving the teacher the money, receiving the sticker and sticking it on the poster. Sometimes, but rarely, a parent would send in a whole dollar to buy a whole tree. Cheers of joy could be heard up and down the halls of the school!! There was a mini-contest between the classes to see which class would buy the most trees.
It was in this way that we learned, very effectively, about the Zionist enterprise, and understood the importance of buying lands and planting trees to hold down the ground. We learned the history of the Land, how it had been undeveloped for so many years, and how the Nation of Israel was coming back to repair the damage done by centuries of neglect. We were so proud that, even in this small way, with our nickels and dimes, we could contribute to the building of the Land, even from so far away.

 We kids joked that one day, when we went to visit Israel, we would go to visit our trees.

Yesterday, my department at work went on a trip to the hills surrounding Jerusalem. For personal reasons (aka laziness), I did not go on the walk down to the Sorek River with the group. Instead, I stayed, with a few others, near the top of a mountain, next to a comforting source of coffee. However, I did take a walk around the area (making sure I first had a good supply of coffee). The view was lovely, and I sat, half in shade, for quite a while staring out at the mountains and valleys. The air was very hot, but it was very quiet, just me and the butterflies. 

And the view from that spot was exactly what I needed. 

It had been a long time since I have visited any of my trees.

Despite the fact that when I came back from my walk into nature and beauty, all my co-workers who had stayed at the coffee shop were on their phones,

And despite the fact that the coffee shop didn’t serve lemon meringue pie,

And despite the fact that when we met up with the rest of the group, they too were all on their phones,

And despite the cinnamon (!!) in the kebbabs we ate at the restaurant where we had lunch,

And despite the endless, oppressive heat, 

And despite the air conditioning  not working,

And despite the occasional rockets, and the awful brown envelopes I keep receiving at home, and the flies and mosquitoes who have set up permanent residence in my bedroom, 

And despite all the tensions, and the bad publicity, and the heartbreak,

Despite it all, למרות הכל*

I was reminded how much I love this country, 

The end.

*Sometimes, Hebrew sounds better than English. למרות הכל (Lamrot HaKol) means despite, or in spite of, but has a more melancholy connotation than the English. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Kapara Aleinu!

Kapara Aleichem!
-Netta Barzilai - upon winning the Eurovision Song Contest
Kapara Aleich!
-Binyamin Netanyahu to Netta Barzilai

According to Jewish law, Judaism is a matriarchal religion/nationality/ethnicity/whatevertheheckitis. If the mother is Jewish, the child is Jewish; if the mother is not Jewish, her children are not Jewish. Observance, belief, and emotion play no part in passing down being Jewish.

That said, the customs of Judaism are passed down through the father. It doesn't matter how much better the mother's customs are, the kids do what their father and his father before him have done.

Let me explain.

Judaism and Jews have been around for a long time. Jews have lived, and Judaism has been practiced, in just about every country and a great many cities around the world. Jews have moved from place to place also; when they were thrown out of one place, they went to another.

Over the centuries and millennia, while Jewish Law (aka Halacha) has remained the same, many interpretations and customs surrounding those laws have evolved in different ways in different places at different times.
In some areas, customs have taken on the seriousness of actual law, and followers are required to keep the custom in the same manner as keeping the Law itself. How one keeps these serious customs is patriarchal-it goes by how the father and his father and his father kept the customs. (Examples are eating kitniyot on Pesach, and the wording of prayers.)

But in other areas, the customs are rather happy-go-lucky, and one can pick and choose whatever one wants to do!!

I have been aware of many of the differences in customs stemming from different  Old Counties. While Eastern Europeans Jews eat more boiled vegetables and lots of potatoes, North African Jews eat foods fried in honey.
The Ashkenazi Torah scroll is covered in cloth, and read by lying it on a table, while the Sephardic Torah Scroll is housed in a large box-like container made of wood or metal, and read by standing it up on a table. The words, however, are identical.

Ashkenazi Torah scroll

Sephardic Torah Scrolls.

Even our speech is different. Non-European Jews never say 'shmata' or 'gevalt' (though I have heard them say 'oy'), and I, personally, have never used the expression "kapara" (made famous by our Israeli Eurovision winner this week).

There were some customs that I knew were customs - and not laws - but had assumed that they were across the board customs, not limited to a particular ancestry.
For example, I thought everyone used salt water at the Passover Seder, but, no. Apparently, some communities use lemon juice or vinegar.

All this came to light when a close family member married someone whose family was originally from a very very different Old Country than my own family. (Spoiler - it was my son.)

The first time I was taken aback was when my then daughter-in-law-to-be came for Shabbat for the first time. "Why do you light so many candles?" she asked, looking at my seven lit candles.
Now, I'm not stupid or naive, and I knew that lighting a candle for each child was a relatively newly made-up custom, but I thought people did it because it was cute and cool, not because we came from a certain place.  But apparently, I was wrong.

I was completely unable to hide my surprise when I was asked "I suppose you're going to want the bride to walk around the groom seven times," by the bride's mother.
I'm sorry, what? Doesn't everybody do this? But again, no, not everybody.
(For the record, I answered that the couple could decide to do whatever they want, it wasn't up to me. [and they decided she would circle seven times.])

And I was utterly dumbfounded, flabbergasted, and flummoxed when my new daughter-in-law's mother actually lit the Sabbath candles completely differently than I did. I first light the candles, then say the blessing with my eyes covered. She first said the blessing with her eyes opened, then lit the candles. I had to bite my lips to prevent myself from exclaiming "BUT THAT'S WRONG!

It wasn't wrong. It was just different.

So many of us are separated by differences in opinions, in language, in food, in sense of humour, in appearance, in education, in ambitions, in age, in beliefs, in customs, in driving skills. It's so easy to separate, so hard to unite, most especially when they take up two parking spots in a crowded lot.

The Holy State of Israel is made up of a great many different kinds of people.

We recently attended a wedding of a member of our new extended family (my son's in-laws). We sat at a table with the other in-laws, i.e., the parents-in-law of the bride's married sisters. 

Did you know that Hebrew is the only language that has a word for the relationship between the parents of the bride and the parents of the groom ? Mechutanim (or machatunim in Yiddish - same word, different accent) comes from the same root as chatuna (wedding), chatan (groom) and le'hitchaten (to wed), and are the parents of the spouse(s) of your child(ren). It's a very serious relationship - a lifetime commitment. Because there is no such thing as too much family.

Jews, at the end of the day, no matter where they come from, no matter what language they speak, and no matter what foods they eat on Rosh HaShana or Passover, or whether or not they eat chicken soup on Friday night (did you know there are Jews who do not!! Imagine!) are one family, with a shared history and a shared destiny.

We sat at this table with people we had only met a few short weeks before, at our son's wedding. We had no common background, no common friends, our food preferences were very very different. What we did have in common - as we hugged and kissed in true Israeli fashion, one kiss on each cheek, and then a third for good luck - was that we were all mechutanim.

And all our future grandchildren are going to be first cousins.

Kapara Aleihem.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

New Starts and Fresh Beginnings

You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can't get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you're doing, but what you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover will be yourself.
-Alan Alda

A few short years ago, I graduated from high school. I don’t remember the exact date, but the graduation ceremony was somewhere in the two weeks between Passover and Israel's Independence Day (Yom HaAzmaut). I went to a Jewish High School, back in the Old Country, where we learned Bible, Jewish Law, Jewish History, a smattering of Hebrew, and a great deal of Zionism. We graduated in the early spring (there was probably still snow on the ground) so that my class could travel to Israel and spend five months working on a Kibbutz and travel the country.

I don’t remember all the details of that graduation. I do remember that I was the first in the line of graduates to march into the school synagogue – where the ceremony took place – because I was the shortest one (though I was led to believe it was because I was the cutest and smartest...). I remember who the valedictorian was (today, if I’m not mistaken, he’s a professor in a prestigious Old Country University). I remember the guest speaker, a Rabbi I much admired and respected, and who, several years later, as life would have it, became my cousin’s father-in-law. (By then, I was already living in Israel, and was not privileged to get to know him better.) I even remember the really awful dress that my mother had made for me for the event. It was truly hideous.

The Old Country School with Snow
What I remember most clearly, however, was my apprehension.

Well, it wasn’t quite apprehension. More like disquiet. Worry. Dread. Terror.

Because, not only had I finished high school and my future now lay before me without an iota of an idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up, but, to make matter worse, I had opted out of going on the Israel program with my class. I had decided that if I was going to spend time in Israel, I was going to go by myself, and not with 20 people I had known all my life. A new country and a new experience required a new start, a fresh beginning, and independence.

Therefore, I, at the ripe old age of 17, made my first adult decision of NOT going to Israel with my class, and instead, to go by myself the following autumn.

All through that graduation, and for months after, I wondered and worried whether I had made the right decision. I was leaving the extreme comfort of the life well-known and the road well-traveled (and not doing what was expected of a good Jewish girl), and leaping into an abyss of the completely and utterly unfamiliar, unexplored, unknown.

My parents (may their memories be blessed) were NOT happy with this decision, to put it mildly.

That graduation ceremony was the last time I saw many of my classmates, who had been classmates, friends, and family just about all my life. I honestly didn't know anyone or anything else.

Shortly after graduation, and the departure of the participants of the Israel program, the Jewish community of my hometown organized its annual ‘Yom HaAzmaut March for Israel', something I had participated in every year for many years. That year was a significant anniversary (as it is this year). I made my way to the center of town to take part, as I had done many times before. Israeli flags were flying, Hebrew songs were being sung.  I walked with the rest of the crowd, but without my friends, who were, for the most part, in Israel. There were a few other classmates who had not gone with the class, but I don’t remember seeing them at the March.

I left the March for Israel early, before the end.

And have not been back since.

I remember going home on the bus from that March, tears in my eyes, lonely, afraid, unsure of the future. Was the first decision I had made as an adult a wrong one? Fresh beginnings and independence weren't looking so appealing at that point.

I spent most of that summer alone.

I did come to Israel that autumn after my spring graduation as planned. I traveled alone, though I met an acquaintance on the plane. We parted in Tel Aviv, and I saw her again about 5 years later. She had left Israel after a few months. It hadn’t worked out for her.

Since that Old Country March for Israel, I have been blessed to celebrate every Yom HaAzmaut but one, here, in Israel, marking it in the traditional Israeli way: hanging flags on our car, eating falafel, watching fireworks, hiking, barbecuing, pretending I know an answer from the Bible Contest, and spending the day with family and friends. For me, it seems to have worked out.

Every day is a new beginning, a fresh start.
Every day is a challenge.
Every day is a wonder and a miracle.

And here I am now, these few years, one husband, five children, two grandchildren, four cars, and seven washing machines later.

Still marching for Israel.
(and still not knowing what I want to be when I grow up.)

That first decision as an adult turned out to be the right decision. I was not so lucky in all my subsequent decisions – sometimes yes, and sometimes no – but I have never regreted that first one, even when missiles, or the shekel, were falling.

And certainly not when there are fireworks.

אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, צוּר יִשְׂרָאֵל וְגוֹאֲלוֹ,
בָּרֵךְ אֶת מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, רֵאשִׁית צְמִיחַת גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ.
הָגֵן עָלֶיהָ בְּאֶבְרַת חַסְדֶּךָ, וּפְרֹשׁ עָלֶיהָ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶךָ,
וּשְׁלַח אוֹרְךָ וַאֲמִתְּךָ לְרָאשֶׁיהָ, שָׂרֶיהָ וְיוֹעֲצֶיהָ, וְתַקְּנֵם בְּעֵצָה טוֹבָה מִלְּפָנֶיךָ.
חַזֵּק אֶת יְדֵי מְגִנֵּי אֶרֶץ קָדְשֵׁנוּ, וְהַנְחִילֵם אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְשׁוּעָה
וַעֲטֶרֶת נִצָּחוֹן תְּעַטְּרֵם, וְנָתַתָּ שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץוְשִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם לְיוֹשְׁבֶיהָ.
וְאֶת אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל פְּקָד־נָאבְּכָל אַרְצוֹת פְּזוּרֵיהֶם,
וְתוֹלִיכֵם מְהֵרָה קוֹמְמִיּוּת לְצִיּוֹן עִירֶךָ
 וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם מִשְׁכַּן שְׁמֶךָ,
כַּכָּתוּב בְּתוֹרַת משֶׁה עַבְדֶּךָ:
”אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ.
וֶהֱבִיאֲךָ ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יָרְשׁוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָוִירִשְׁתָּהּ,
וְהֵיטִבְךָ וְהִרְבְּךָ מֵאֲבֹתֶיךָ.“(דברים ל:ד-ה)
וְיַחֵד לְבָבֵנוּ לְאַהֲבָה וּלְיִרְאָה אֶת שְׁמֶךָ, וְלִשְׁמֹר אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי תּוֹרָתֶךָ.
וּשְׁלַח לָנוּ מְהֵרָה בֶּן דָּוִד מְשִׁיחַ צִדְקֶךָ, לִפְדּות מְחַכֵּי קֵץ יְשׁוּעָתֶךָ.
הוֹפַע בַּהֲדַר גְּאוֹן עֻזֶּךָ עַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵּבֵל אַרְצֶךָ, וְיֹאמַר כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נְשָׁמָה בְּאַפּוֹ:
יהוה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֶלֶךְ,”וּ֝מַלְכוּת֗וֹ בַּכֹּ֥ל מָשָֽׁלָה.“(תהלים קג:יט)
אָמֵן סֶלָה.
Our Father who is in heaven, Protector and Redeemer of Israel,
bless the State of Israel, the dawn of our deliverance.
Shield it beneath the wings of Your love;
spread over it Your canopy of peace;
send Your light and Your truth to its leaders, officers, and counselors, and direct them with Your good counsel.
Strengthen the defenders of our Holy Land;
grant them, our God, salvation and crown them with victory.
Establish peace in the land, and everlasting joy for its inhabitants.
Remember our brethren, the whole house of Israel, in all the lands of their dispersion. Speedily bring them to Zion, Your city, to Jerusalem Your dwelling-place, as it is written in the  of Your servant Moses:
“Even if you are dispersed in the uttermost parts of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather and fetch you. The Lord your God will bring you into the land which your ancestors possessed, and you shall possess it; and God will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your ancestors.”
Unite our hearts to love and revere Your name, and to observe all the precepts of Your Torah.
Speedily send us Your righteous Messiah of the House of David, to redeem those waiting for Your salvation.
Shine forth in Your glorious majesty over all the inhabitants of Your world.
Let everything that breathes proclaim: “The Lord God of Israel is King; His majesty rules over all.”
Amen. Selah.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Rawa Ruska

For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
― Elie Wiesel

Over the past half a dozen or so years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the internet researching the history and demise of the town of Rawa Ruska (pronounced Rava Rushka), the birthplace of my mother.

My mother and her parents and brother left Europe and came to Canada long before World War Two, and were, therefore, not subject to its horrors. All my mother was left with were some old dishes, grainy photographs of people whose names she was unsure of (“I think that was Hershel. He died in the War”), and child memories, which later proved to be somewhat inaccurate.

She did not often speak of the town, though I can’t remember a time when I did not know its name. On Passover, she would tell me how her family made all the preparations for the holiday on the day of the seder; that her mother would pluck and cook a chicken only late in the afternoon after the house had been cleaned of chametz; that they would sit down for the meal only after midnight, because it took that long to get ready. Even as a child, I realized that the story couldn’t be right – it just seemed like midnight to my then six-year-old mother. She once told me that theirs was one of the few houses that had a tin roof (I suppose the other roofs were wooden or thatched) and she could remember the thundering of the rain on the tin. She would sometimes, though infrequently, mention a relative – an aunt or uncle or cousin – and then say “They died in the War”. I am embarrassed to say that I was in my teens before I understood that ‘They died in the War’ did not mean these long-dead cousins had been soldiers, or that their house had been bombed, but, rather, that they had been murdered by the Nazis and their helpers; my mother’s family – MY family – were part of the six million.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t familiar with that magic number, six million.

6,000,000. Six zero zero zero zero zero zero.

All those zeroes. The very magnitude of the number makes it almost meaningless; a number so vast that it is next to impossible to imagine.

As a teenager, I was morbidly interested in the subject. I read Leon Uris’s ‘Exodus’ at age 12, and from there went on to read other, and much better books, dozens and dozens of them. By the time I graduated high school, I had read, not only Uris's Exodus, QBVII, and Mila 18 (which was the only book in my life that scared me so much that I found myself afraid to leave my room late at night and go to the bathroom, in case Nazis would find me),  but also books on the Nuremberg trials, Spandau, by Albert Speer, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, by Giorgio Bassani, The House on Garibaldi Street by Isser Harel, The Diary of Anne Frank, and most of Eli Wiesel’s books. I heard both Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal speak and I received 100% in the Grade 12 Holocaust course I took, a class I could have given.

This was at a time when it was still not cool to talk about the Holocaust except in hushed whispers and euphemisms (‘they died in the War’); when there were many many survivors who would not, or could not, speak of their experiences; when so many facts and details were unknown and  most people did not want to know.

Rawa Ruska is a town in south-east Galicia, sometimes in Poland, and sometimes in the Ukraine. Founded around 1455, Jews were invited to live there shortly after its establishment to help with its economy. The history of Rawa mirrors that of other Galician/Polish/Ukrainian/European towns. Princes/Dukes/Lords rose and fell; the Jewish community was alternately protected and slaughtered. By the early 20th century, Rawa was a busy, relatively prosperous, railway town, and its population was approximately 12,000 people, of whom 5000 were Jewsabout 40 percent.

Again, the experiences of the Jews of Rawa between the years 1941 and 1943 mirror those of Jews across the Baltic and in much of Europe. The Jews of the town were first rounded up and herded into the old market area, which became the ghetto. There, they were starved and worked to death. Those who survived were either taken to be shot in fields surrounding the town, or taken by train to the nearby extermination camp of Belzec and murdered there. 

Until only a few years ago, it was difficult to find any information on what happened at Rawa Rushka. This was partly because there were almost no survivors of the horrors and partly because the rest of the town never spoke of what they saw and/or did.

It is only in recent years that a French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Dubois, took it upon himself to discover the fate of Jewish communities across the former USSR and uncover the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mass graves, where up to a million Jews lie strewn in the ground.  He has located eye witnesses in dozens of towns and villages, who at the time were children, and seem to have waited for the end of their lives to tell what they saw. They told him that the ground around Rawa Ruska moved for three days. 

It takes three days for a mass grave to die. 

Today Rawa Ruska is no longer prosperous. There are about 8000 inhabitants, which means that it never regained its pre-war conditions.

There are no Jews now in Rawa Rushka, almost none in all of Galicia.

The only Jews left in Galicia

Until 2015, there was no memorial, no memory, no indication of the lives once lived and brutally taken. It was only due to the efforts of Father Dubois that a memorial was put up on one of the killing fields. It is made up of Jewish gravestones.

The memorial at Rawa

The ghetto of Rawa Ruska, and the eradication of its Jewish community, was just one of over 40,000 Nazi camps and ghettos across Europe.

40,000. Fourty Thousand. Four zero zero zero zero.

Each of these camps had Nazi guards and commanders. Each one was situated either within or very close to a town or village, where the locals were witnesses to what was happening. 

The sheer numbers defy belief. Indeed, more and more people don't/won't/can't believe it happened. 

The importance of learning the facts and details and understanding the magnitude of the horror is greater now than ever. We are on the cusp of forgetting. 

The generation who lived through World War Two – the perpetrators, the victims, the witnesses, the bystanders – is almost gone. 
If my generation, the second generation, does not pass on the stories, the biographies, the descriptions, the names, the identities, the places, and the histories to the next generation, it will be lost.

As Eli Wiesel said: to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

So It's Chanuka

Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe, Who made us holy through Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukah lights.
-Blessing over the Chanuka candles

Put on your yarmulke
Here comes Chanukah
So much funukah
To celebrate Chanukah

-Adam Sandler

Growing up in the wilds of the Old Country, Chanuka was my favorite holiday. Freezing cold outside, toasty warm inside, we kids would watch my father light the chanukiya as close to a window sill, but still remain in the almost windowless kitchen, as he could. My parents weren't going to risk having wax drip on the wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room with the floor to ceiling windows. Ten minutes later we would be eating the latkes my mother made drowned in apple sauce. We had dreidels, and in school, we played games and sang songs and most of the regularly scheduled lessons were cancelled.

Now I live in the wilds of the Negev, and things, while mostly the same, are somewhat different. Toasty warm outside, absolutely freezing inside my house, we all gather around a slew of chanukiyot that the kids light in front of the glass door so as to publicize the miracles that occurred, and watch wax drip on the tiles of the floor, to remain there until - well - probably forever.

The kids are older now, and not all are aways at home, so lighting the chanukiyot no longer takes hours. When they are all at home, by the time the last one finishes lighting her chanukiya, the candles on the first one's chanukiya have already burnt out, leaving the youngest 'the winner' in the nightly 'see who's chanukiya lasts the longest' contest. The older ones won't let that slide, so they give her the handmade in kindergarten, wonky chanukiya made of bottle tops and pipe cleaners to light. She actually has no problem with that, except for the time the house almost burned down. But hey.

I still make latkes - only we call them levivot. And they aren't necessarily made of potatoes. There are 12 billion different recipes available today to please any palate. Livivot with apples, with cilantro and jalapeno peppers, grilled cheese livivot, and one I saw today with chocolate ice cream. (This would never have gone over in the olden days of Israel, when ice cream was completely unavailable in the winter - but I digress). And who needs apple sauce when you have orange marmalade, tahina, and smoked salmon?

So Old Country
The kids still play with dreidels, which we now call sivivonim. They aren't quite the same as the ones I had. First, there is the letter 'pei' on the Israeli sivivon, rather than the 'shin' on the Old Country dreidel, which, no matter how many years have passed or how many sivivonim I have stepped on in my bare feet, gives me a thrill and a flush of pride. But more than that, today's sivivonim certainly aren't made of clay, but rather wire, bulletsHershey Kisses, marshmallows or Lego. And they don't just spin. Oh no; they draw pictures, they play music, they make shapes, they come apart and turn into storage units for even smaller sivivonim, and ultimately, they can be eaten.

Back in the old country, sufganiyot were called 'jambusters' and were available all year, and were not particularly a Chanuka delicacy. I have only recently come to understand that jambusters were unique to my home town, and in the rest of the world, jambusters are called jelly donuts. Jambusters are far more descriptive, if you ask me. In fact, jelly donuts don't even sound that appetizing.
Sufganiyot, however, is a whole other ball game.

No longer limited to simple strawberry jelly (jam), sufganiyot come in all sizes and flavors: mint, lemon pie, olive - the sky's the limit.

And so is the calorie count. But who's counting?

Sufganiyot, along with only one seder at Pesach, is a main reason to leave the Old Country and its jambusters behind, and make Aliyah.

Because the miracles happen here.
The sivivon I just stepped on is right.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Cake Chronicles

Cake is happiness! If you know the way of the cake, you know the way of happiness! If you have a cake in front of you, you should not look any further for joy!
-C. JoyBell C.
Cakes are special. Every birthday, every celebration ends with something sweet, a cake, and people remember. It's all about the memories.
-Buddy Valastro

I recently threw a cake party.
About a year ago I heard of the concept of a cake party and thought it the best idea since, well, sliced cake, but I was unable to have one at the time.

As soon as I was able, however, I sent out invitations to every woman I know, and to many many I don't know, and invited them all to my house to celebrate cake.
I received a slew of replies, and almost all of them said "what a great idea!!!" "sounds like a lot of fun!" But absolutely nobody knew what a cake party was.
The truth was that neither did I, really. So I made it up.

It was simple. Everyone had to bring a cake, and a story about cake.

About 40 people showed up.
With cake.
And stories.
Lots of cake

and lots of stories.

My friend S told us the story of how she discovered that her mother, a fan of the New York times and prolific letter writer to said newspaper, had her letter to the the New York Times Cook Book, with a suggestion to improve a recipe, printed. S only discovered this after her mother passed away. The sadness S felt that her mother never knew her letter had been printed resonated in her voice as she told her story, as did her pride and admiration of her mother. She brought the cake her mother had improved on.

My friend M told us how her granddaughter made cake for her (M's) mother (aged 98) every year on her birthday. Since the great-grandmother's birthday was on October 31, a very special cake was prepared, each year.

A case of Let's eat, grandma! or Let's eat grandma!!?
My friend Y told us how her bubbe taught her to bake by using her hands and not a measuring cup. Years later, when she tried to imitate the 'yankee' way of making a cake, it failed miserably. She went back to the fistfuls of this and fistfuls of that method.

My friend R told the story of how she made a cake for her two-year old, who remembered the shape and the colors and the sprinkles months and months later - showing the inherent importance of cake.

My friend SF thought that celebrating cake was so worthwhile that she traveled an hour and a half one way to come to the party. She told us how her daughter had gone to elaborate lengths to make a cake for her grandfather while traveling overseas. All the recipient could say when he received the cake was "the cake the (nursing) home made for me had candles".

O read from a cook book written for the disabled. "Reach for the sugar. Clean the fallen sugar from the counter, shake sugar out of your hair, and measure out a cup," went the instructions. O brought a magical cake from the book, which, by itself, separated  into three layers.

My absolute favorite story was from my friend H, who told that when her mother-in-law came for a rare visit, H felt obliged to make her a cake using her new food processor. Unfortunately, H wasn't very familiar with the different pieces of the machine, and to her dismay, the blue rubber coating on the knife was meant to be removed before making a cake. Tiny bits of blue rubber floated in the batter, which she baked and served nonetheless.
I'm still laughing.
Thankfully,  H did not bring that cake.

Other women told of recipes passed down from mothers and grandmothers; others of recipes that were not passed down and were lost and never duplicated; of special birthday cakes made yearly; of weekly rituals of having cake and coffee with the entire family at 'tea time'.

Almost all the stories centered around family. Most of the cake stories brought up sweet memories; a funny incident, a special time spent with a family member, sharing cake with family.

Seeing as it was my party, I told my story first:

I don’t remember exactly what the occasion was, probably Rosh HaShana. My mother always had a lot of family over for Rosh HaShana; she would make truckloads of food, we had enough to last us for all the rest of the chagim.

One year, she made this very fancy cake. It was, I think, yellow inside, but she decorated it with cream and cookies very precisely placed, and sprinkles and whatnot on top. It really looked gorgeous. She put it in the fridge very carefully, for dessert. To be completely honest, she probably got the idea from a women's magazine. It was a very 1970s type of cake and decoration. But, in my 11 year old opinion, it was, and remains, gorgeous.

The guests came over and they all brought something; flowers, or chocolates. One guest brought a cake, and not just any cake; but the exact same cake, decorated in the exact same manner, as my mother’s. Obviously, they had both read the same magazine.
As opposed to my mother's cake, however, this cake was a mess. The cream covered the cookies, which were all wonky anyway.

I saw the cake, and my mother saw me see the cake, and with a look, she made damn sure I said nothing. Later, I asked her what she was going to do. She answered, “What do you mean?” Without another word, she served the wonky cake, placing it in the center of the table, which, to be fair, was already laden with other goodies. My mother’s gorgeous cake was left in the fridge, and this person’s mangled work of art was put on the table in the place of honor. My mother never uttered a word.

Even as I was telling the story, I realized how apt it was that I had organized the cake party on my father's yarzheit, just a month after my mother's first yarzheit.
Growing up, there was always cake in my house , not just because my siblings and I liked to eat cake (which, believe me, we did), but ‘in case someone dropped by’ there would be what to give them. Because cake, in my parents’ house, represented hospitality, and generosity, and friendship.
Hosting 40 new and old friends with cake was a way of honoring my parents.

And my old and new friends' generosity in giving me cake was lovely too.