Monday, April 27, 2020

So Much

Celebration has many different outfits but she always wears the same beautiful dancing shoes.
Mary Anne Radmacher


This year, on the fifth of the month of Iyar, 5780, the year of Corona, Israel is celebrating 72 years of independence and freedom.

Our celebrations will be muted, of course, as public ceremonies have either been cancelled or moved to zoom; national parks are shut down; and even gatherings of family and friends have been banned. There won’t be any fireworks, no mass barbecues on street corners, no traffic jams; no public celebrations of any kind.

But we will still be celebrating. An itsy-bitsy lethal world-ending virus will not stop Israelis from celebrating the miracle that is Israel.

My family has spent many a Yom HaAzmaut eve at City Hall, where the celebrations traditionally begin. Thousands upon thousands gather in the main square to hear young kids play offkey in school bands, get sprayed with silly string, and pay exorbitant prices for gewgaws such as glow-in-the-dark wrist bands, blinking necklaces that play hava nagila, head bands with googly eyes, and large blow-up hammers that squeak. All, of course, are adorned with a blue Magen David, so that one feels wonderfully patriotic paying a month’s salary for a toy that the kid will probably drop and lose in about 10 minutes. But hey.

In addition to its home-grown talent, each city brings in an Israeli ‘superstar’ – some of whom are more super than star – to perform for the masses. While the show is free, these performers receive tens of thousands of shekels per performance and many of them perform in numerous locales. This is possible because Israel is such a small country. It’s also possible because these performers travel by helicopter, parachute down onto the stage (“When I served in the army, I was stam a jobnik”, said no Israeli ever), perform in each place for about 12 minutes, then hightail it off to the next venue.

At 10 PM precisely, the main event begins; Fireworks. To be honest, the show is usually highly impressive; colourful, showy, flashy, and very loud. And it scares the bejabbers out of most dogs.

This year, the superstars, like the rest of us, will be staying home and out of helicopters. There won’t be any fireworks, and the gewgaw sellers are selling online only (with free delivery!) Hopefully, the saved tax money will go to supplying meals to our (in lockdown) elderly .

Israelis do love a good show, and one of the favorite parts of the day is the annual Israel Air Force flyover. Various planes of the IAF fly in formation over the country during the morning hours. The times the flyover will appear in any one community is publicized and people come out of their houses (where they are watching the International Bible Contest and nodding wisely – this year’s contest is being held remotely) and watch the planes in the sky. Fingers point up and people say things like: “There!! That’s the F16.” “No, it’s not, it’s an F15. It has radar-evading capabilities, and an invisibility cloak.” “But that one is an M16. And over there is the Enterprise and BMX. You can tell because it’s smaller.”

This year, there won’t be a national flyover – the IAF supports the government in its attempts to minimize social gatherings (and probably sick of people thinking they are flying bikes) – and instead will have much smaller shows taking place in the air over hospitals.

In any case, the IAF was not established for flyovers. It was established to protect its grandmothers.

The rest of Yom HaAzmaut is spent, by the vast majority of Israelis, in one of two ways: meeting family and friends for a barbecue at a park, or meeting family and friends for a barbecue at a house with a yard. Either way, huge amounts of (often burned) meat is involved.

Both activities have their pros and cons. Meeting in the park allows one to meet with more friends and family; in fact, if you choose the right park you feel like you are actually celebrating with half the population. This is after you’ve met the other half of the population on the roads traveling to your destination. It’s entirely legitimate to borrow salt, canned corn, extra charcoal, or a blow-up hammer from complete strangers, because, we are, after all, one family.

The parks are all closed this year, but not empty!! They have reverted back to their original owners.

Even in normal years, when we are allowed to travel, not everyone leaves the city. Many people will find any shady area or patch of grass for a picnic; under the slide in the local playground, or the strip of grass in the middle of a four-lane highway.

In our neighbourhood, down the street from us, there are a couple of acres of planted trees. The area is colloquially known as ‘the forest’ and is often used by youth groups – especially during the Passover vacation – for sport activities, cookouts, or kumsitzes. By the end of the Passover vacation, the forest is usually littered with broken bottles, empty bamba bags, torn signs welcoming the scouts of the Bet Neighborhood! and other paraphernalia of teen-age kids (I won’t go into detail here).

On Yom HaAzmaut, those wanting a green area, but not wanting to venture too far from home, will meander over to the forest and set up shop there. Sweeping aside the teen debris, there would be two dozen different barbecues going on, and about 400 different electronic devices playing 600 different songs, all of which sound the same.

This year, half of Passover was spent under lockdown, and the other half under house arrest. The forest remained empty. After a winter of above average rainfall, it seems to be doing fine.


For the last several years, my family has not fought the traffic jams looking for a small spot of green. We’ve stayed home, in our yard, and invited friends and family to join us. We’ve often started out inviting eight people and ended up having 35 people in our yard eating marshmallows.

This year, it went the other way. I invited people early – shortly after Chanuka, in fact. I expected at least 25 people to come over and party hardy.

Instead, we’ll be four people. We’ll still decorate the garden with flags and lights. We’ll listen and dance to horrible music. We’ll drink beer and eat marshmallows. We’ll watch the smoke from our barbecue, where we will burn steaks and chicken wings, mingle with the smoke from all the barbecues from all the other yards up and down the street, where everyone is celebrating, alone – yet all together.

Everyone might not be eating marshmallows and burnt chicken wings. Some get challahs.

Despite the financial losses and the economic depression that is sure to follow; despite our unstable government (or complete lack thereof); despite the postponed weddings and parties and celebrations of all kinds; despite our deep grief at the tremendous loss of life all around us, we Israelis have so much to be proud of, so much to be grateful for, and so much to celebrate.

Come join us.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Parsley, Coats, Lockdown, and Faith

Don’t pray when it rains if you don’t pray when the sun shines.
— Leroy Satchel Paige

For most of the years I have been married, beginning exactly one year after our wedding, the husband and I have hosted Pesach seder in our home. We have gone to friends a few times over the years, and twice to family, but, overall, we’ve done it ourselves. The smallest seder we made was the first; we were 6 people.

That is, until this year – the year of Corona. Our seder was only four people: me, the husband, and the two kids (who aren’t kids) who still live at home.

While I have cried myself to sleep most nights since we’ve been in lockdown, thinking of the kids not coming for the holiday, and of the grandkids I can’t hold, and all those people who are all alone (including family members), my Pesach has been really easy. I had all the time in the world to clean, so I didn’t exhaust myself; I had no guests that I had to please with their likes and dislikes; I had fewer cookies to bake, fewer kneidlach to boil, fewer dishes to wash, and overall, FAR fewer hours in the kitchen.

All this gave me more time to think about symbols and lessons, and all those things one never has time to think about because one is thinking about how many kneidlach to make and what else to make with matzah if matzaroni and cheese isn’t a hit.

I had meant to say all sorts of things at our compact seder, but the wine went to my head faster than I anticipated and I became even more inarticulate than usual. What follows is a somewhat more thought-out oration than what I had planned to give, but thankfully, for the attendees, did not.

I will begin with a question.

Why do we begin the Seder with eating the Karpas (a small bit of green vegetable, usually either parsley or celery, though some people eat a bite of potato, which really doesn’t make any sense to me because karpas is supposed to be green and if the potato is green then I, for one, certainly don’t want to eat it. But I digress.)?

Generally, the reason given for eating the Karpas is that it symbolizes spring (being green, which potatoes certainly are not) and Pesach is celebrated in the spring. We dip the karpas into salt water/vinegar, which symbolizes the tears of slavery. That’s what I learned in school, anyway.

It turns out that there is another reason for beginning with Karpas.

The one and only time that the word Karpas is mentioned in the Bible (note – not only the Torah, but in the entire Bible) is in Megillat Esther:
חוּר כַּרְפַּס וּתְכֵלֶת, אָחוּז בְּחַבְלֵי-בוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן, עַל-גְּלִילֵי כֶסֶף, וְעַמּוּדֵי שֵׁשׁ; מִטּוֹת זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, עַל רִצְפַת בַּהַט-וָשֵׁשׁ--וְדַר וְסֹחָרֶת
There were hangings of white, fine cotton, and blue, bordered with cords of fine linen and purple, upon silver rods and pillars of marble; the couches were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of green, and white, and shell, and onyx marble. (Esther 1:6)

Karpas (the second word in the Hebrew) was taken to mean fine cotton, or perhaps linen, or even wool. Nobody was quite sure of the exact meaning but it was understood to mean a high-quality cloth material.

Rashi uses this meaning when he describes the ‘Coat of Many Colours’ that Jacob gave to Joseph.

..פסים. לְשׁוֹן כְּלִי מֵילָת, כְּמוֹ כַּרְפַּס וּתְכֵלֶת 
Of (many) colors: denotes a cloak of fine wool. as "fine cotton" and blue...

This gifting of the coat to Joseph is, of course, the first act that sets in motion the chain of events that lead to Bnei Yisrael becoming slaves in Egypt. Therefore, it’s appropriate to begin the seder with a symbol of this act.
Joseph’s brothers, after selling the youth to Midianites/Ishmaelim, dip his coat into the blood of a goat and tell father Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.
This mirrors our dipping the karpas (symbolizing the coat) into salt water/vinegar (symbolizing the blood).

Things can be taken a step further if we continue with the details of the sale:
וַיֵּשְׁבוּ, לֶאֱכָל-לֶחֶם, וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ, וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד; וּגְמַלֵּיהֶם נֹשְׂאִים, נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט--הוֹלְכִים, לְהוֹרִיד מִצְרָיְמָה
And they (the brothers) sat down to eat bread, (after throwing Yosef in a deep pit with the thought of leaving him there to die) and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a company of Yishme'alim came from Gilad with their camels carrying aromatic gum, balm, and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. (Genesis 37:25)

First of all, how is it that after throwing a boy down a pit, can his brothers calmly sit and eat lunch. But never mind that. I know a fair bit about sibling rivalry and the difficulties that arise from it…. What strikes me more is the description of the loads the Ishmaelite caravans are carrying; aromatic gum, and balm, and ladanum.

Now, we know that the Torah never wastes words. It doesn’t believe in descriptions to make more interesting reading. There is a reason that the Torah tells us what the camels that are taking Joseph to Egypt are carrying. They are carrying aromatic gum, balm, and ladanum. (I looked up ladanum in the dictionary – in case anyone was wondering. It’s the juice extracted from certain rose plants and used to make perfume.)

We know that the sale of Joseph to the Yishmaelim is the first part of a divine plan. We know that he goes to Egypt so that he can eventually attain a position in which he is able to save his family from famine. We know that God wants the sons of Jacob to go down to Egypt. God’s plan is for Bnei Yisrael to become slaves, but to leave Egypt as a nation, and receive His Torah and be brought to the Land as a nation.

We know this, but Joseph doesn’t.

Therefore, the Torah tells us that the caravans were full of aromatic gum, balm, and perfume. This is a hint to Joseph that he is not alone in his troubles. The caravans could have been full of chickens, or fertilizer, or old boots. But they were full of perfume, making his dark journey into slavery just a little easier, a little brighter. It’s a message to Joseph – and to us – that G‑d is with us—even when we don’t understand or see the good; there is always some good to be thankful for.

Towards the end of the Seder, just before we begin to eat matzah and maror and charoset and all those other delicacies, we read/sing the Dayenu song. One of the most beloved and well-known songs of the seder, it names 15 stages of redemption; 15 things we should be thankful for.

The first five stanzas describe episodes we experienced in Egypt, the next five are those that happened as we left Egypt and experienced in the desert. The last five acknowledge our connection to God and to Judaism.

Here’s the thing – the song, obviously, and it’s been repeatedly said, does not make sense. How could it be that had God split the sea, but not led us to dry land (i.e., He would split the sea, but we would have drowned anyway), that would have been enough? Or how would it have helped if he ‘drowned our oppressors in the sea but not supplied our needs for forty years’, and we would have died in the desert? How could we say that even if we had died in the desert, it would have been enough?

We know, today, that God brought us out of Egypt, and freed us from slavery in order to give us the Torah and bring us to the Promised Land. Why, however, did He have to go through that whole rigmarole of plagues and splitting of the seas, and slavery etc. Why couldn’t God, being God, simply take us out and bring us to Israel on, say, the wings of eagles? Or the backs of camels? Or on an El Al jet? Why the theatrics?

Going back further, why the need to send Joseph down to Egypt at all? The children of Israel were already in Israel! Why the need to bring them into exile, enslave them, and then, with SUCH pomp and majesty, free them, only to have them wander the desert for forty years.

What’s with all that?

This is where dayenu comes in.

In the same way oppression doesn’t come all at once, but is usually very circuitous, redemption doesn’t come in one go either. Each step is essential; each step is critical, and sometimes, some of those steps don’t seem very redemptive.

The Dayenu song is telling us that each step is something to be grateful for, for each step –whether it is up or down – is one step closer to redemption, one step closer to God. Dayenu tells us that there is a plan, even if we can't see it; even if we won't see it in our lifetimes or even for 1000 years. A plan is in motion to bring us to God.

In these days of plague, and quarantine, and lock-down, and curfew, and lonely sederim, we don’t know what the next day will look like, what the next step will be. We are told the world will change, but we don’t know how.

Maybe Netflix, zoom, and whatsapp are our aromatic gum, balm, and ladanum.

Maybe the vaccine against the Coronavirus will be our splitting of the sea.

As we sit in our homes as did our ancestors in Egypt waiting for redemption, all we have is faith.

Dayenu.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

It’s ok

I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.
― J.R.R. Tolkien,
The Return of the King

One morning this week, I found myself in the kitchen breathing heavily.

I was tired. I had been up early after yet another sleepless night.
I found myself blinking back tears.

“You ok?” my daughter asked me.
“Yes of course”, I shook myself. “I’m fine. All is good”.

We both knew that it’s not all good.

“I’m a bit unquiet inside”, I confessed.
It’s the uncertainty of it all. It’s not knowing how it’s going to end, or when it’s going to end, I didn’t say.
It’s not being in control. Even a little bit.

“It’s ok to grieve”, my wise daughter told me.
“I know,” I answered. “But I haven’t really lost anything.”
“Of course you have”, she said.

It’s ok to grieve for the colossal loss of life, even if you don’t know the people personally.

It’s ok to grieve for the lost security.

It’s ok to grieve for the lost routine.

It’s ok to grieve the lost time and the lost income.

It’s ok to grieve the walks I didn’t take, the places I didn’t travel to, the sights I didn’t see, and now can’t.

It’s ok to grieve the hugs not given and the laughter not shared.

It’s ok to grieve the dances not danced, and the songs not sung.

It’s ok to grieve the relationships I let slip away throughout the years.

It’s ok to grieve the parties that won’t be celebrated and the dresses that won’t be worn

It’s ok to grieve the family you won’t be seeing.

It’s ok to grieve all those times I didn’t say “I’m proud of you” or “you make me happy” or “good job!”

Grief comes even when the sun shines, and the house is clean, and the fridge is stocked.

It comes when you find eggs after searching three different stores while wearing a mask, because you need eggs, because it's Pesach next week, and then realizing the kids won’t be around to eat the cookies.

It comes when you clean out your closet and find a dress you only wore once because you were saving it for a special occasion, and the occasion was never special enough—even though they were all so special.

It comes when the day is quiet because there aren’t any buses passing and you know that you are missing all the flowers.

Grief doesn’t disappear. It comes and it goes; it ebbs and it flows.

But the wind blows and the new leaves on the tree are bright green in the sunlight. And the birds sing, and lemon tree has three new flowers.

And my daughter is wise and my kitchen is clean.

“We need to finish this cake before Pesach”, I say to her. “I'll make coffee.”

It’s another day. 
Despite it all, because of it all, we are blessed.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Art in the Time of Corona

Each of us has a unique part to play in the healing of the world.
― Marianne Williamson, The Law of Divine Compensation: Mastering the Metaphysics of Abundance


After a week of being home social distancing, I was becoming a tad bored.

I had begun cleaning areas of the house I had never before entered (the kids’ rooms) but decided I hadn’t become that desperate yet.

I had finished the pile of laundry I had begun last Pesach.

I realized that I had reached the bottom of the collection of ironing when I ironed my son’s Bar Mitzva shirt (he’s 26).

I had watched all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (again), fifteen seasons of Supernatural, and 28 seasons of the Simpsons, and Shabbat had only gone out yesterday.

I had eaten all the cookies.

It was time to find something to do – something that I could look forward to, something that would brighten my and my family’s day, something fun, something creative.

Obviously, polishing the silver did not fit any of these criteria; I looked further.

While rearranging the bookshelves (during the first week, in one of my euphoric stages), I came across a book called Decorate with Origami. It was printed in 1968, and the pages were coming out, but I thought I would give it a try. Origami is cool, creative, fun.

Unfortunately, the book wasn’t written in English. It was written in Origami, which seems to be related to its more well-known kissing cousin,  Knitting. (With 10 mm/US 15 knitting needles and your Seaglass color yarn (color B), cast on 120 (103, 137, 154, 171) st. Knit in garter stitch for 25 cm/9.75”. Switch to Succulent color yarn (color A). Row 1: Knit across, Row 2: k4, p across, k4)

Origami has its own vocabulary – basic shape, valley fold, counter-crease, dot-dash line.

This is what the page looked like.


I don’t even know what a crayfish is. But I knew it was giving me a headache.

I looked online for something else to do. My facebook page was overflowing with suggestions:

Yoga, pilates, weight lifting, swimming, marathon running, all in your living room!
Learn photography, painting, embroidery, carpentry, plumbing, tank driving, the art of putting 200 marbles in your mouth at one time.

However, these activities did not fit any of the above criteria.

At one point, I thought I had it.

How to make a set of bagpipes out of a garbage bag.

I KNOW, RIGHT!!!!

This was just about perfect.

I had never built a musical instrument before, let alone, bagpipes (I don’t think I’ve even seen bagpipes before), and the instructions were quite simple and straightforward. I had all the necessary materials in the house, which, of course, is essential.

It was only after I saw my son’s horrified face when I asked him if he wanted in on my new project (I was so excited) that I remembered that I was in forced lockdown with three other people.

My body might never be found. 

Of course, there were all sorts of intellectual studies I could pursue – learn a new language (isn’t being inarticulate in two languages enough?); study the history of either women or the Aztecs (I thought maybe the History of  Aztec Women, but nah); become a nuclear physicist in three short lessons. I yawned. 

I’m bored. Not masochistic.

And then, one unexciting afternoon, I found it.

I felt that my entire life had been leading to this point.

After so many years searching, I had finally discovered it.

My calling. 




















Toilet People Art.  

End of Week Two



Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy

When Life Gives You Lemons, you tell life to get a life because lemons are a terrible gift. 
- Patrick Schell

When I was told early last week, that, as of the next day, my place of employment would be, more or less, shut down due to the Coronavirus, I was, on the one hand deeply disturbed, and on the other hand, wildly euphoric. It’s difficult to sustain both of those particular emotions at the same time for any duration in one body.
Therefore, since Wednesday, I have been wildly fluctuating between them.

Euphoria:
I don’t have to go to work!!! I can sleep all day if I want. Maybe I’ll never go back!!

Deeply disturbing:
They might finally realize how easily they can get along without me. I can’t sleep.

Euphoria:
All this time to clean for Pesach!! This is the first Pesach in 35 years that I can prepare without: 1) the added difficulty of small children under foot; and/or 2) having to clean after work when I’m tired; and/or 3) hosting my in-laws.
Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy!!!!!

I armed myself with five different cleaning products with five different aromas, scratchy green thingies to scratch off stubborn stains, shmattahs in a variety of colors and sturdiness and went to it with gusto!
In a very short time, I discovered areas of my house that have never been explored. 
I am cleaning places I didn’t know existed.

Deeply Disturbing:
I hate cleaning. And my hands hurt.

Euphoria:
Time to do all those things I’ve been meaning to do; clean out the bag drawer, learn something new (anything!); delete unneeded emails; write my epic novel; and begin a strict exercise regimen!!!!!!!!!!

Deeply Disturbing:
Yeh, right.

Euphoria:
Quality time with my family!

Deeply disturbing:
Quality time with my family.

There are four of us in the house, more or less full time. We all decided that since we’re in this together! we will do it right. On Friday night, after dinner, we played a board game, something, when the universe is behaving correctly, we do not do. 


In this particular board game, which my kids received as a gift from their obviously sadistic grandparents about 20 years ago, players need to accomplish missions in order to win.
My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to sing, like a member of the Royal Family, the song Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.
My kids were quite flummoxed that, not only did I accept my mission, but that I knew the words.
Unfortunately for the other three players, I won. 
Unfortunately for all of us, the game did not self-destruct in five seconds.

End of Week One



Monday, February 10, 2020

Things I've learned from trees

It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses we must plant more trees. 
-George Eliot

Today is Tu b'Shvat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat) - the day the State of Israel and those who support and love her honor trees.

There are reasons we honor trees. They contribute to the environment. They beautify spaces. They shade and cool. They give selflessly.

The Almond Trees are Blooming
Here are some other things we can learn from trees:

1. They stand tall, but bend with the wind.
I'm pretty short. My father, may his memory be a blessing, used to tell me: it doesn't matter how short you are; make people look up to you. 
I try.

2. Trees get rid of the old stuff that they no longer need to have energy and room for the new.
Every year, around this time, I start to clean out my stuff. I have never gotten very far, mostly because I'm way lazy. I claim I have no emotional attachment over the stuff in the house, and I can throw out stuff any time I want. I just choose to keep it. This includes 18 years of back copies of children's magazines, broken crayons, used notebooks, a torn tent, and drawings the kids made in kindergarten. (Well, obviously those I can't throw out.) I'll do it, I promise. I'll start tomorrow.  The new generation - k'nein'a'hora - is growing steadily despite the clutter. 

3. Trees never complain about their neighbors.
On both sides of our house, we have noisy neighbors. Not good noisy. Not joyous, happy, playing outside neighbors. We have neighbors - on both sides! - who scream at each other. The kids yell at the parents, the parents call their kids names. It makes me profoundly grateful for my kids and husband - even when they leave three noodles in a huge container and put it back in the fridge.

4. They don't complain about the position they are in either.
I dislike my job. But my colleagues love me. Mostly because everyone thinks I'm hilarious. But at least I have a job. Things could always be worse. They could implement a mandatory shoe-wearing policy (my Department, not trees - trees don't have to wear shoes, another thing we can learn from them).

5. Trees keep growing, even when they are on their own.
 

While Buffy the Vampire Slayer calls me to watch her antics (yet again), I have been known to learn things. Did you know that vampires don't actually burn up in the daylight. It's just a myth.

6. Change can be beautiful.
These days, my life is changing in ways that terrify me.
I find myself technologically illiterate. I was always the one who knew how to program the VCR, and put the timer on the microwave; now I'm lost in the world of uploads and swipes. While I fell in love with emails and Facebook (oh, mom, you're so 2005!), I cannot master Pinterest, Snapchat, TikTok, and I HATE Instagram.
The kids have grown up, leaving me far behind.
That's also mostly because I am moving more slowly. It takes me a little longer to wash the floor, to bend and hang the laundry, to get up from a chair. I don't stop to listen to the birds sing so much anymore, as I stop to listen to my bones creak and squeak.
On the other hand,
I don't have to get hoards of kids out the door in the morning, allowing me to spend an extra few minutes in bed.
I sleep through the night (sometimes - at least in theory)
I have my own computer and don't have to share.
Nobody bugs me when I watch TV. I can eat the last cookie or piece of shnitzel without anyone telling me that they were saving it for lunch tomorrow.

7. Just by being, the world is a better place.
Always remember. And remind others.

Happy Birthday trees!!! And thanks. 


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

An American by Any Other Name....

So, here you are. Too foreign for home, too foreign for here. Never enough for both.
-Ijeoma Umebinyuo


I was never much of a one for birthdays and birthday celebrations. My own birthday happens to fall in the middle of the Tishrei Holidays, and historically, was usually forgotten in the commotion.

However, and unfortunately for me, this lack of sentiment toward birthdays is not shared by most of my office colleagues. At work, birthdays are a Very Big Deal; so much so that, as of two years ago, an employee can take one of two elective vacation days on his/her birthday.


To complicate matters, my immediate superior, Petunia*, makes a Very Very Big Deal out of her birthday. Her kids send flowers to work, and she takes, not one, but two days off work, and spends the time in a fancy hotel.

Celebrating her own birthday as a Very Very Big Deal wasn't enough for her, and a few years ago, she decided that EVERYONE's birthday is a Very Very Big Deal, and she began celebrating our birthdays in a Very Big Way.  She began to buy us presents.
At first, the presents were small; a cup filled with candy, or a key chain. The gifts began to get bigger -  a plant, or a book - and more personal - face cream or a scarf.

However, over time, all these presents became, not only bigger and more expensive, they also became more and more useless and hideous.

Of course, we underlings now have to reciprocate in kind. We are required to buy her equally hideous and useless presents AND write a card to go with it.

It was her birthday this week. My co-worker, Tiffany, went into a tizzy about what to buy her. "She always buys us such LOVELY gifts. We have to get her something extra special."
I thought back on the heart-shaped coasters I never managed to get rid of, or the bird-shaped salt and pepper shakers taking up room in the cupboard and didn't respond.
"Should we get something for the kitchen? or maybe for the office?", Tiffany continued to gush. "Or maybe...."
"Why don't we just get her a necklace? It's the easiest", I suggested.
This caused a sensation.
"OOOOOH. I LOVE that idea", trilled Tiffany. She immediately volunteered, nay, pronounced, that she would be the one to buy her the trinket, as she had the best, even - dare she say - the most impeccable taste. She knew just the kind to buy.
I was fine with that, until she added "Is 100 NIS a person enough? or should we pay more. After all, Petunia is SOO good to us, and she's just perfect, and we LOVE her SO much.

(really, I'm hardly exaggerating here.)

Well, the big day came, and Tiffany, having bought some piece of jewelry, and the rest of the unit, having all forked over the money, were left with the writing of the card. Which had to be, obviously, in rhyme.

I will take a moment and shine a light on a unique aspect of Israeli culture, one that perplexes and startles me every time I experience it, which has been many many many times.

The rhyming card.

Back in the old country (which was not, as it happens, America), we would write birthday cards, or bar mitzvah cards, or wedding cards, or whatever cards like this:
Dear fill in name
Best wishes on your birthday or bar mitzvah or wedding or whatever. 
Love, 
my name

And that would be it.

Not so in the Holy Land.
I used to think that it was enough to write a card like this:
Dear fill in name
Wishing you happiness, health, integrity, and fitness (it works better in Hebrew, which would be osher, v'osher, yosher, v'cosher) on your special day. 
Much love, 
my name. 

Apparently, every time I wrote a card like that, I exposed myself for what I was: a new immigrant! An American! Someone who obviously did NOT learn a thing in Kindergarten.

Greeting cards, of any kind, for any occasion, at any age are required to be in rhyme and at least four stanzas. My four words were simply ridiculous!

I stared at Tiffany when she ordered me to write the greeting. "I bought the gift!!! You write the card!!!"
She had a point.
And so, I was forced to use the American card. (no pun intended)
"I don't know Hebrew",  I told her in Hebrew. "Just write 'Happy birthday'."
It was Tiffany's turn to be perplexed.
"What, no poem? No gushing sentiments about how much we love her and how she's the best boss in the world? Won't she be hurt?"
Honestly, I told her, it's not a party - it's just coffee. Happy birthday is enough.

Tiffany wrote 'To Petunia, Happy Birthday!!!! From your friends at work. '
This wasn't sitting well with her, so she added a half a dozen or so hearts, balloons, smiley faces and other squiggles I couldn't quite make out. (Half a dozen of each).

We stuck the 'card' on the wrapped present, got Petunia, and took her out for coffee.
On the way, the birthday girl mentioned, several times, how cold it was. Tiffany nodded vehemently in agreement.
When we arrived at the cafe, I grabbed a table inside.
"Oh NO! said the birthday girl. "Let's sit outside! It's beautiful out." (despite the fact that less than 28 seconds previously, she had complained of the bitter cold.)

That's the other law of Israeli birthday parties. They have to be outside.

Coffee and pastries ordered and delivered, we handed Petunia her gift.
She plucked off the 'card' and turned it over and over in her hand, looking at both sides. She was perplexed. She shook it, turned it upside down, and seemingly waited for more paper to fall out with a poem on it.
"I told you we needed more", whispered Tiffany.
I shrugged. "What do I know?" I said, "I'm American."

*All names have been changed to protect my coffee supply