Monday, March 27, 2017

Sweet Sixteen

The best substitute for experience is being 16
- Raymond Duncan

Our family is not big on birthdays. We always have cake, adorned with gummy candies, but we don't always get around to buying presents. The worst hit has traditionally been my youngest child. As the fifth kid after three boys, she's learned to live with her brothers' hand-me-downs, used toys, old parents, and lots of teasing. When she turned 16 a few weeks ago, her father and I did take her to the local mall and bought her some junk food to eat. 

What I did do for her, however, is write her a letter, which is something I did not do for any of the others. 
Her school arranged a four-day 'identity' trip for her class, where they discussed what it meant to be a Jew and an Israeli; the responsibilities this entails, the history that has formed us, the destiny that we share. 
At the end of the trip, the girls received their Identity Cards (teudat zehut), with much pomp and circumstance on the grounds of the Knesset building. All Israelis receive the card at the age of 16, but not all with such fanfare. In addition to the cards, the girls also received letters written by their mothers. 
The following was mine:

Your teacher asked all the parents to write a letter to you for this tiyul, as you are ‘coming of age’, being 16 and way old and all. I wanted to do something like this anyway, but, unless pushed, I don’t, because, you know, I’m way lazy.

First, let me say that I can’t believe you’re 16 already. When I was your age, I was stam a jobnik…

Here, there were two more points that I'm leaving out as they were personal, and, if published, my life would be in danger.

But enough mush.

I’m now going to dispense some advice. Listen carefully: 
  1. Forgive yourself. You’re going to make mistakes. People do. It happens. Learn and move on. 
  2. Forgive others. They make mistakes too. Unless they keep making the same mistake over and over. Then it’s time for you to move on and away. 
  3. Set goals. First Big Goals (e.g., I’m going to be rich and famous). Then set smaller goals to get yourself to the big goals. (e.g., I’m going to do my math homework and clean my room). 
  4. Set one Goal every day. It doesn’t have to be big, just something so that, at the end of the day, you feel that you’ve accomplished something (e.g., ‘today I’m going to make sure that there are no dirty clothes under the bed’, or ‘today, I’m going to wash all the spoons that are in my room’). 
  5. Be grateful for at least one thing every day; the pita in your chocolate sandwich wasn’t stale, or there was leftover chicken soup, or you got a seat on the bus. Life is richer when you recognize your blessings. 
  6. Dance like nobody is watching. Send text messages, whattsups, and emails as if they are going to be read in the Knesset and quoted in the press. (Ok, so I read that in a meme – it’s true anyway.) 
  7. Every once in a while – not every day, or even every month – go outside and watch the sun rise or the sun set. It will give you energy when you need it. 
  8. Drink lots of water. Then drink more. This will keep your blood pressure down, your skin young, and you will always know where the bathroom is. 
  9. Be kind. You don’t have to like everyone, heck you don’t have to like anyone, but you do have to be kind. Kindness breeds kindness. Be kind to your friends, and your teachers, and to the bus driver, and the clerk in the shop, and the hairy guy making falafel. If you are kind, others will be kind back to you and pay it forward. It’s a double bonus. 
  10. There are days when you’re going to feel bad, sad, or depressed. That’s life. When that happens, make yourself a nicecupoftea, or chocolate milk or a cookie, stand in front of the mirror, and wink at yourself. A big wink. It’ll make you smile. 
  11. Don’t do anything that you have to hide from those closest to you. My dad told me this a very long time ago, when I tried to sneak about 20 chocolate bars into my bedroom. If you have to sneak, it’s not the right thing to do. 
  12. Use sun cream and wear a hat. You know why. 
  13. Learn to say no. It’s ok, really. Say it kindly, but, when you need to, say no. 
  14. Listen hard and speak softly
  15. Have fun. Have fun at everything you do. Always look for the fun part. It’s there someplace, even in the most boring, dull, annoying places. Life is way too short not to be having fun every day. 
  16. Remember, always, that you are a creation of God. God does not create imperfect things. You are perfect as you are, no matter what you think. Your hair, your height, your inability in math, these things are not you. Don’t try to be something you are not, because God created you to be what you are. There is only one you in the world. Be the best you you can be. 

And there you have it – 16 points for 16 years.

With so much love,


Sunday, December 4, 2016

May you be comforted

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one
-Khalil Gibran
God is our refuge and our strength.
-Psalms 46:1

This blog post is about the practice of sitting shiva. There is no disrespect intended, and in no way do I want to make light of the practice. Sitting shiva is never easy. At best, it's a long, tiring week. At worst, well, it is the worst.
Many psychologists agree that the practice of sitting shiva is healthy and gives the mourners time to internalize the loss without having to deal with day-to-day life - work, shopping, laundry, etc. There are multitudes of books, and hundreds of website about the laws and customs of sitting shiva, and what to say when you visit a shiva house. Apparently, there's even a movie.

However, in my own recent experience of sitting shiva, I found that many people don't actually know how to act when visiting a shiva house. It was disconcerting, to say the least. Most of the people who came to visit me when I sat shiva for my mother were polite, respectful, and helpful. All of the visitors were welcome, However, there were a few who could, perhaps, benefit from a few hints.

Here are a few do's and don't's when visiting a shiva house - in no particular order.

1. Do make sure you've come to the right house.
It is not necessary to know the mourner or even the deceased when you visit a shiva. Here, in Israel, it is perfectly acceptable, and highly regarded to visit a shiva of a soldier or victim of terror whom you do not know. It's also proper and righteous to visit a shiva of someone who had little family in the country - a Holocaust survivor, or a new immigrant, for example. However, it's important to make sure that your facts are right. Three visitors came to my house. I didn't know who they were, but that was ok. In these days of social media, there are many people I know only through email or Facebook. But these three people entered the house, took a look at me, and realized they were in the wrong place. It turned out that they thought someone with a name similar to mine was sitting shiva. (She wasn't.) They were highly embarrassed (though very respectful and said all the right things) and my daughter and I had a very hard time keeping a straight face.

2. Don't pick a fight with another visitor.
What can I say? Just don't. Not even with your spouse. I don't care how right you are. Just shut up.

3. Don't talk over the head of the mourner. 
Two mutual friends came to visit at the same time. They sat on either side of me. I happen to like them both very much. They started a discussion on a particular subject, which was interesting, to me, for about 30 seconds. They, however, found it fascinating for about 20 minutes, speaking to each other over my head. I couldn't speak to other visitors because it would mean I would have to speak loudly over their heads, and I was sitting way low down in a low chair, and that would have been very unseemly. If you need to speak to another visitor - take it outside.

4. Don't sit with other visitors and show off pictures of your kids to each other. 
I don't care how cute they are. Not the time or place.

5. Don't start any sentence with the words: 'you should', 'you shouldn't', or 'why didn't you',  'why did you'. 
Even something as innocuous as 'you should eat breakfast' shouldn't be said.  If you think the mourner should eat breakfast, MAKE him breakfast, and bring it over.

6. Be careful what you say. 
Don't use phrases such as: 'you might as well die', or 'he just killed me when he did that'. It was funny when it happened in my house, but other people might not find it quite so amusing.

7. Don't talk 'stam'
I don't think there is an English word for stam. It means 'unimportant, without reason, without aim'. No matter how fascinating you are, I can't imagine any mourner wanting to hear all about your vacation in Italy, or your new diet and exercise program, or the new tricks your grandkids are doing - no matter how cute. What should you talk about? Jewish law states that you shouldn't speak to the mourner until spoken to. In other words; words are not important. If you don't know what to say, don't say anything at all. You don't have to. Just your presence is comforting.  Remember, a shiva is not all about you.

8. Don't stay too long, and don't come too late.
If you are a local, 15 minutes is enough time to stay. Really. You can stay longer if the mourner is alone, or if you can see you are helping. But really, 15 minutes is enough. If you are not local, but have traveled an hour or more to visit, you are permitted to stay, say, half an hour. But don't expect to be fed, or be given a lot of attention. You can, however, use the bathroom. If you feel that 'you've come all that way' and therefore deserve extra attention or credit, don't come.
Also, don't come at 9:00 PM and stay an hour. Sitting shiva is exhausting, and the family just wants to go to bed.

After all these don'ts, what should visitors do?
Here are some ideas:

9. Talk about the deceased
If you knew him/her. If you didn't, ask about him/her, or say something about him/her anyway. You don't have to ask how the person died. Ask how they lived.
One visitor told me what a special person my mother must have been because her grandchildren are so wonderful. I am in awe of that sentence, and still cry.

10. Bring food. 
It doesn't have to be a full course meal, or even a main course. It doesn't have to be home made. It can be a bag of apples, or a salad, or some peanuts. When my daughter brought me an ice coffee from Cofix (5 NIS), I almost wept with gratitude.  If you can't bring food (and I personally hate cooking), grab a broom and sweep the kitchen. Offer to take little ones out to play. Wash the cups. In my house, it's known that nobody is allowed in the kitchen but me. Ignore me.

11. Remember the others
Just because a person is not officially sitting shiva, does not mean he or she is not mourning. Grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws, close friends can all be mourning just as much as the official mourners. Speak to them also.

12. Come.
If you can, come to the shiva. Stay 10 minutes. Nobody likes to come to a shiva. Nobody is good at it, or knows what to say. But the presence of friends and acquaintances and family is comforting beyond all description. If you can't come - and there are a many acceptable reasons not to come - send some sort of message either by phone (but sometimes that is intrusive as the mourner is busy with other 'guests') or by text message via whatsapp, email, SMS, facebook, or a million other ways. The idea is to reach out.

13. Reach out after the shiva, also.
Sometimes, you just can't make it - a week isn't a long time. Or you might not have heard. Call after. Send an SMS. Let the mourner know you are thinking of them.

These suggestions are  based on events I noticed when I sat shiva. Some of the points might not even bother other people.

I sincerely wish that nobody would ever have to use these suggestions.

Here's the thing, and it's important all the time, not just at a shiva:

Be kind. Be thoughtful. Act as you would want others to behave.
And enjoy your life, and cause others to enjoy theirs.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

My Mother's Legacy

Death is a night that lies between two days.
-Maurice Lamm – the Jewish Way in Death and Mourning

My mother's shloshim (30 days after death) and my father's yartzheit (anniversary of death) are only a few days apart.
The Hebrew name of my mother, Chaya, means life. It is the name of the first woman who G-d created from the side of the first man - Adam.

My mother, may her memory be blessed, passed away right before Shabbat Breishit, the Shabbat where Jews begin to read the Torah anew. This first portion, of course, features the creation of Chaya (Eve) and Adam.
While she actually died on the Friday, in the Old Country, because of the time difference, it was already Shabbat here in the Holy Land, and I only learned of my mother's death after Shabbat was out. So, while my siblings were dealing with the pain of her passing, and the details of arranging her funeral, I had one more day of thinking that my mother was still in the world.
However, as soon as Shabbat was out, and I learned my mother was gone, I immediately began to sit shiva, something my siblings began only the next day, after the funeral.

The whole experience was weird. I felt cut off and alone, so far from my family - despite the fact that MY family - my children, and husband and dozens of friends - surrounded me immediately in love and support.

My father passed away more than two decades ago. Then, I sat shiva in my mother's house, with her and my siblings, and various siblings of my father. The house was full; none of us was ever alone for a minute. Yet, one of my clearest memories of the week is of one family member saying to me, “It must be so hard for you to be here alone without your husband and kids.” Even though there was a constant flow of people, it was hard - I did feel alone; my other siblings had someone to run to the store for them, if necessary; someone to bring them coffee, someone to talk to at the end of the day. I had a baby with me; I had to wash his clothes, feed him, and find someone to buy him diapers.

Sitting by myself here in my own house, with my kids and husband, and sitting there with the others both had good points and bad points. Actually, both had only bad points - just different bad points.

I did kriya for my father at his funeral, watched by the many people who had come to pay their respects. I wore that shirt for the week, taking it off, finally, in a bathroom in the airport in Zurich, on my way back home to Israel. The Rabbi had told me to take advantage of my pre-paid, pre-booked ticket back home as my kids were waiting for me, even though I had two more days of shiva. I changed my shirt, carefully packing it away into my hand luggage. When I got back home, I washed it, folded it and put it away. I still have it, though I can't and wouldn't ever wear it.

When my mother died, I did kriya in my house, in front of my kids. When I got up from shiva for my mother, it was almost Shabbat. I took a shower, put on Shabbat clothes and threw the clothes that I had been wearing all week, including the torn shirt, into the laundry hamper. But after I had washed it, I immediately threw the shirt out. I couldn't look at it. It was too raw.

On the other hand, the phone number of the hospital, where my mother spent her last days, is still on the fridge, held in place by a magnet in the shape of a bird. I can't bring myself to throw the piece of paper away.

I have many memories of my mother, but two stand out as shaping me into the person I am today.

The first occurred just after my grandmother - my mother's mother - died. I was 9 years old. It was a Saturday afternoon. Saturday had not yet become Shabbat for me. I was sitting in my room at my desk, when my mother came in. She asked me what I was doing. "My homework," I answered, though it was - I thought - obvious. My mother said to me very quietly "You shouldn't do homework on Shabbos", and she left the room, closing the door behind her. I put my pencil down and left my homework to do the next day.

I never did homework on Shabbos again. Not ever. I didn't yet keep Shabbat. I went to dancing lessons for several years on Saturday afternoons. I watched MASH on Friday nights. I went out driving with my friends after MASH.
But I never once did homework again on Shabbos.

The second memory took place years later, during the Pesach holiday. I can't recall where I was exactly on my own religious journey, but my mother's actions at the time took me by surprise.

I don't remember, either, why I was there, but my mother was at her friend's house, with a few other women. As mentioned, it was Pesach. One of the women offered everyone a stick a gum. My mother reached to take one, but then noticed it wasn't 'kosher for Passover'. "Oh, no thanks," she said, "I only eat kosher for Pesach things this week". I don't recall exactly what the other women said, but I do remember they were borderline disparaging—something along the lines of 'don't be a fanatic, it's only gum, not bread', but without actually using the word fanatic. My mother stood her ground, and inside, I swelled with pride.

I am quite sure that she had no inkling of the affect either of these memories ever had on me.

I got up from shiva for my mother on Parsha Noach, the second reading of the year. Our sages discuss, at some length, how great a man Noach was. Noach was the only man in his generation who believed in God. He was the only one to do as God commanded him. Despite the need to solve huge logistical problems, years and years of physical labor, at great personal expense, and, most importantly and the hardest trial of all, despite ridicule from his friends, Noach did God’s bidding. Some of our sages say that had he lived in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been considered particularly great in comparison to the greatness of Abraham. But other sages contend exactly the opposite. Had Noach lived in the time of Abraham, and had Abraham to emulate and learn from, had he been surrounded by righteousness instead of evil, Noach would have been even greater than Abraham himself.

Every year, when we read this parsha, I am transfixed by this discussion. It reminds me of how important personal example is to others, what effect, even unknowingly, we have on others, and how important an impact our environment (our neighbors, friends, school, family) has on us. I wonder how I would compare.

I come from a smallish town, with a smallish Jewish community. I went to a Jewish day school, but I was one of the few in my class who came from a kosher house. At home, we ate latkes on Chanuka and hamantashen on Purim. (I still make my mother’s recipe for Hamantashen.) My mother tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me how to make blintzes, and knishes, and gefilte fish. She bottled her own sour pickles. She turned the house over every Passover, and made the seders in our house – every single year. She volunteered in Jewish organizations; she taught us Yiddish sayings (e.g., I need this tzuris like a loch in kop). Both my parents showed us, by personal example, the ways of kindness, and consideration, and thoughtfulness, to others and to each other.  In so many ways, our Jewish identity was instilled in us.

That was my mother’s strength, and this is her legacy. Against all odds, she raised four Jewish children, who went on to give her twenty Jewish grandchildren – nine of whom (so far) live in Israel – and seven great-grandchildren (so far) – ALL of whom live in Israel, the youngest one named after her as a blessing.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Is it only me?

I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up - they have no holidays. 
- Henny Youngman

The Land of Israel is in the middle of the 'Chagim Season'. This month-long period is marked by joy, prayers, family, mosquitoes, noisy neighbors, and exaggerated amounts of time preparing  exaggerated amounts of food.

I find that, every autumn (or what passes for autumn in the Holy Land, i.e., a short period of time when it's less hot for 20 minutes a day), for six weeks, I spend an exorbitant amount of time doing household chores that I am unable to put off, as I normally would, because it's The Chagim. And when I'm not actually doing these chores, I'm thinking about doing them; Extra shopping, laundry, ironing, baking, dusting, wiping, polishing, washing, cleaning, mopping, weeding, grouting. Ok, maybe not polishing. I don't think about polishing.


As I attend to these tasks, making the same depressing mistakes and messes year after year, I wonder if I'm the only one to feel, on the one hand, joyous to be able to celebrate these holidays with my family, and, on the other hand, resentful that I have to celebrate these holidays with my family....

When I know I have a lot to do for Chag or Shabbat - a lot of guests, extra laundry, more shopping - I start early in the week. I make lists, I plan a timetable, I prepare food to put in the freezer. That way, I tell myself, time after time after time, on Erev Shabbat or Chag, I won't have so much to do, and I won't be frazzled or anxious, and everything will be tickety boo for chag. Why is it then, that, even if I get out of bed on the morning of Erev Chag when it's still dark outside, I still find I have 20 gajillion things to do and I still get to Shabbat/Chag frazzled, anxious, exhausted, and in a snarly bad mood. (The question, of course, is am I in a snarly bad mood because I got up at 5:30 AM?)

Am I the only one that this happens to? 

Am I the only one who makes about 4 cups of coffee in the space of an hour because the previous one got cold before I had a chance to drink it because I was too busy looking up new recipes on the internet that I have no intention of ever using? Why haven't I learned to just make a cold cup of coffee and save time?

Am I the only one who still has just as much laundry, even though most of the kids have left the house, as I had when they were toddlers? Do I live in a magical laundry wonderland? Does laundry breed and is only my house a good breeding ground? Is it only my dirty socks making whoopee?

Am I the only one who never learns how to calculate amounts? For example, I seldom make schnitzel. That's because it's a potchka to make, and I don't do potchkas. However, when I do prepare schnitzel, I make a lot. First, I dip the meat in flour, then in an egg mixture and then a mixture of bread crumbs and spices. I fry up four kilo of schnitzel at a time. Each time I make it, it doesn't matter how many breadcrumbs I start out with, I won't have enough for the last three pieces of meat, the last two pieces have no egg, but I have a mound of flour left over I can do nothing with. Is it only me?

Sometimes, it's not me, it's other people. I'll look up a recipe because I have a particular ingredient left over in the fridge, say, spinach leaves. I'll make a small salad of the aforesaid leaves and a couple of old tomatoes, and some basil. And everyone eats it up and fights over the last leaf.
The next week, I'll buy more spinach leaves, and make a lot of the same salad. But this time, nobody will touch it, and the leaves die a slow death in the back of the fridge, unloved and unwanted. Do other people's fridges have spurned leaves in the back wasting away? Or is it only my fridge?

spurned love
Speaking of leftovers, am I the only one who cannot, CANNOT, estimate the correct size of a needed container? Either it's way too big and takes up too much room in the fridge, or it's too small and the excess spills all over the counter. Best case scenario is when the container is too small and I make some passing kid eat whatever won't fit it. Which is ok with the kid if it's schnitzel (even naked schnitzel), but not so ok it's it's leftover spinach salad.

Are there other people out there playing tetris in their fridge? I can spend HOURS fitting odd-shaped containers into the fridge, only to have the bag of peppers remain on the counter. I'll start again, finally fitting in the peppers by taking them out of the bag, and arranging them individually into the odd-shaped spaces between the containers. I'm finally able to shut the door of the fridge without squishing the pie and turn around to find I've left the milk out. I make a passing kid drink it. If there's no passing kid, I just keep making cups of coffee I don't drink, and use up the milk that way.

The inside of my fridge
Despite the lists that are the length of  Gone With the Wind, hours deciding what to serve at which meal, days searching for bargains, and weeks copy and pasting menus and recipes, I still forget to buy almonds, cinnamon, and beans. If I'm lucky, I forget to buy dish washing soap, too.

I really hope that I'm not, but I suspect that I am the only one who burns the rice while chopping carrots for the tzimmis, adds pepper to the chocolate cake while stirring the soup, and forgets to put yeast in the challah because is 5:30 IN THE (expletive deleted) MORNING!!

As I prepare for yet the next shopping/cleaning/cooking spree, which I accomplish in my own unique way, I wish all Am Yisrael a truly joyous, blessed, and tasty holiday.
And remember: if you don't like pepper in chocolate cake, adding the left over spinach leaves might work.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Ani l'Dodi v'Dodi Li

Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.
- Oprah Winfrey

The Hebrew month of Elul is almost over and the month of Tishrei is upon us. Like all Hebrew months, the name Elul was taken during the Babylonian exile - more than 2500 years ago - and, according to Wikepedia, means harvest, which is appropriate because Elul falls during the autumn harvest period. Winter is coming (or at least whatever passes for winter here in the HolyLand).

Elul (אלול) is also an acronym for the Hebrew אני לדודי ודודי לי (ani l'dodi v'dodi li) - I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine, from King Solomon's Song of Songs. This alludes to the belief that during the month of Elul, G-d listens to our prayers ever more closely, He is more approachable and more forgiving; according to custom, prayers said during the month of Elul are twelve times more powerful than during the other eleven months of the year.

Elul is designated as the month of soul searching and of repentance, so that on the first day of Tishrei - Rosh HaShana - one is ready to begin anew, determined to improve in specific ways, resolved to be a better person and to become closer - not only to G-d - but to your friends and family, your colleagues, your neighbors, and society in general. It's custom to contact those you know you have hurt over the year and ask forgiveness.

This all sounds good on paper.

I try. Really I do. I know that, during the year, I have, more often than not, acted less than perfectly (by which I mean downright awful).  I know that in some of the areas I've come up short, and sometimes, I know that I have hurt people and how. I recognize my weaknesses and I can confront my shortcomings.  

But mainly, during Elul, I agonize over how much work there is to do before Rosh HaShana. 
I think about polishing the silver. (hahahhahahahahaha - we'll use glass kiddush cups or  - better - disposable)
I think about cleaning out the fridge/freezer. (hahahahahahaha - what is this, Pesach??)
I wonder how long lettuce stays fresh in the fridge. (long enough to make me feel guilty for not eating more salad)  (hahahahahahahaha salad)
I calculate how many chickens I need to buy, including for the Shabbat before and after the holiday. (20 billion)

In between, I try to soul-search.  

I receive dozens, even hundreds, of articles on 'How to make your Rosh HaShana more meaningful', or 'How to achieve the most out of the month of Elul', or even 'How to confront your sins and stop sinning'. I even read some of them. I say to myself  "Right, young lady!! In order of importance, from least to most: This year, you are going to be more organized with your time so you won't be pressured and cranky and yell at your family for not washing their cereal bowls why do I have to do all the work; you are going to stop being so super-sensitive and take everything anyone says to you the wrong way, and MOST IMPORTANT!!!! You are going to stop being so snarky to people, AND I MEAN THAT!! Also. stop overcooking." 


After I say all that to myself, myself talks back:
"I have been known to apologize to people to whom I've been snarky. The problem, however, is that I'm snarky in my head, and there's a chance the person about whom I'm thinking snarky thoughts doesn't know I'm thinking snarky thoughts (never mind the rolling eyes and pursed lips), and if I apologize they will know I'm snarky!! A dilemma.  Also, some people deserve snarkiness.*
Also, I'm not oversensitive. I've got thick skin. It's just that everyone is mean. 
And also, I'm hyper organized. I'm going to polish that silver right now. As soon as I watch 14 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer." 

And then my mind goes back to chicken parts and shopping lists.

It turns out that I'm pretty darned good at being disorganized, cranky, super-sensitive, and snarky. However,  I'm really not very good at soul-searching and repentence.
Sorry about that.
While I'm not going to promise that I'll never be snarky again, or get upset over someone being snarky to me, and I certainly am not going to promise to polish the silver, I can say I'm working on it. (not the silver polishing. Just forget I ever brought that up.)

Also, I'll try and eat more salad.

This is what I can also do:
I can wish all my family and friends, and all of Am Yisrael, a good and sweet New Year, filled with health and joy, with goodness and happiness, with prosperity and kindness, and with love and hugs and friendship.

*Very few people actually ever deserve snarkiness. Even that person you're thinking of right now.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

We got mail

We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us.
-Winston Churchill

Snail mail in the Holy Land has become a small controversy. In the olden days, before the advent of electronic mail, chat groups, cellular phones, whattsapp etc., mail service, while not as perfect as one would like it to be, was, at least, dependable. Mostly. There were, even then, instances of mail being put in the wrong boxes, being returned because the mailperson couldn't read a foreign language, or not receiving mail at all because the mailman was doing reserve duty in the army.

Today, snail mail barely exists.
Sometimes, we get bills, but these are sent out by courier, not through the postal service. Ditto junk from the bank.
Our mailbox is packed with flyers of all sorts, but these are hand delivered by private companies.
The all-important invitation to the simcha you want people to come to, however, is best sent by email. Chances are good that the correctly addressed envelope will end up on the wrong street/city/country.

Despite this difficult situation, there is one piece of mail that does get delivered efficiently, promptly, and, despite, rain, snow or scorching heat, all too frequently.

The Brown Envelope.

I hate the Brown Envelope.

We recently received a Brown Envelope in the mail.
I was outside talking to a friend about something or other, and found the Brown Envelope in the mailbox.
I held it in my hand.
I suppose my disquiet was shown in my expression, because my friend, who happens not to be a female, said "what's the problem? It's only the army."
This friend, like me, has three sons. He knows all about Brown Envelopes. Unlike me, however, he doesn't hate them. As I stood there looking at the Brown Envelope, he began to regale me with tales of army service, either his or his sons'.

Who remembers the TV show Get Smart? The Chief says "Now listen carefully", and gives long and complicated instructions. "Did you get that?" "Not all of it", says Max. "Which part didn't you get?" "The part after 'Now listen carefully'".

Now listen carefully
That was me listening to my (male) friend.
I don't hear a word of army tales. Anyone's. Ever.

I stress that my friend was male, not because I'm a mistandrist, or a philandrist, but because the Brown Envelope is almost always addressed to males and not to females.

I've seen many males react to getting a Brown Envelope. Some of them are slightly annoyed, a few are very annoyed. Many, especially the older ones, are delighted. It's a chance to get out of the house, have a vacation, sleep in their underwear, and not shower for a week. What Fun!!

Mothers, however, are never delighted at the arrival of the Brown Envelope.

Though this particular Brown Envelope was addressed to my middle son, I opened it.

I needed to know when, for how long, and to where he was being called up, I needed to know how many cookies I would need to bake, how many pairs socks of socks he would need to take, and how many shabbatot he would be away. I needed to begin worrying strategies.

Reserve duty (miluim - מילואים) is ubiquitous in the Holy Land. All males who have served in the IDF do miluim until at least 45 - longer if they are officers. (Women officers also do miluim - at least until they become mothers. They are then exempt, but can volunteer if they wish.) Men receive call-up orders about once a year, either for training, or to relieve standing army soldiers for a period of time. This does not include emergency call-up orders in times of war.

The word 'miluim' is often one of the first words an Israeli baby can say. After Dad doesn't appear to take his kid to nursery in the morning, a kid will ask "Where's Abba?" "Abba is in miluim....".

Dad's in the army
Israel reveres its soldiers. Because the IDF is a people's army, one in which almost everyone's children serve, the soldiers are everyone's children. There are numerous organizations that offer all sorts of benefits to reserve soldiers, including discounts to hamburgers places and to movies.

When the Brown Envelope arrives, the reserve soldier puts his life - job, studies, wife, kids, mother - on hold for a day, a week, a month, whatever, and joins his unit. As mentioned above, many men take this service as a means of getting away from the day-to-day pressures and difficulties of living and see it as a semi-vacation.

Don't you need me for another week?
It's the wives and kids and - yes - mothers who pay the price.

When the husband has miluim, he goes off, thumping his chest and making gorilla noises, and the wife is left doing the shopping, making sandwiches, and explaining to the kids why dad had to go to the army even though he's old. Of course, it also means one less kid person in the house to worry about. When he returns, with a bag of laundry, tired, and as hairy and smelly as a gorilla, he's the one who gets to complain how tired he is, how hard his week/month was, and how much he deserves to be served breakfast in bed.

Having one's sons go off to play soldier, however, is a whole different ball game. They make the same gorilla noises as their father, but come back with only one pair of socks to wash because they hadn't bothered to change them for a week. Mothers insist on serving their little hairy smelly babies cookies and breakfast in bed - much to the future distress of their future wives.

Like traffic jams, and snippy bank clerks, reserve duty is an integral part of Israeli lives, something to get through. And like traffic jams, it never ends; once the husband is too old to serve, the sons take on the duty, and before you know it, it's the grandson's turn to receive that Brown Envelope.

I can only hope that by then, the mail service will be better.

He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God, from the border of the Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, and on the sea.
May the Almighty cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy One, Blessed is He, preserve and rescue our fighters from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may He send blessing and success in their every endeavor.
May He lead our enemies under our soldiers’ sway and may He grant them salvation and crown them with victory. And may there be fulfilled for them the verse: For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.
Now let us respond: Amen.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Dozens of Cousins

Don't be frightened. This is the Clan come to welcome you; and I'm the chief, Archie, at your service. 
-Eight Cousins; Louisa May Alcott

From the age of 8 until I was about 15, I read the books of Louisa May Alcott over and over again. While Little Women and Little Men are her more famous works, I identified on a far greater scale with Rose from Eight Cousins than with Meg or Jo.
L.M. Alcott
Rose Campbell lived on ‘Aunt Hill’ with a slew of aunts and – duh – eight cousins. I could relate, because, growing up, I myself had seven aunts (and seven uncles) and 14 first cousins. True, they didn’t all live on the same hill (we didn’t have any hills), or even in the same country, but they were always around; if not actually in the kitchen eating my mother’s gefilte fish and honey cake, they were on the phone—sharing recipes, asking me about my social life (those were short conversations), complaining about their kids/neighbors/work/spouses/the weather.

Unlike most of my friends, I didn’t have grandparents (they had either passed away before I was born, or when I was quite young), but I had way more cousins than any of my classmates – who had, on average, about 4. I knew all my cousins' names and their birth order. I knew which cousin belonged to which aunt, and which aunt belonged to which uncle. I never really thought about it. Family abounded, and, by and large, it functioned.

My kids, however, did not grow up in the same way.
While my kids have five uncles and five aunts (kind of – as Facebook says, it’s complicated), and almost two dozen first cousins, for most of their lives, family did not abound. It was hard for them to keep straight who belonged to whom, and how they were related.
It was hard for them to remember where their own first cousins lived, never mind, MY first cousins.

To complicate the situation, my kids' father, while having the requisite four first cousins, has 254,793 second, third, and fourth cousins (give or take). He, himself, doesn’t always know how they are related, but they keep in touch – sometimes.

Family becomes very important where there isn’t much of it, and when only parts of it have survived….

The truth is, my 14 first cousins and I and my siblings were probably never in the same room at the same time. As I said, we didn't all live in the same country, and we lived in at least six different cities. But there always seemed to be someone around; my mother seemed to be always on the phone to some aunt, some cousin was always having a bar mitzvah or getting married or having a baby. There were always family members over for holiday meals, or Sunday barbecues.

My aunts and uncles did get together for weddings. It was lovely when that happened.

This extended-family-less situation complicated a school project my youngest daughter was assigned. Almost all school kids in Israel are required to do a ‘family tree’ project. In the younger grades, the kids are told only to list their own immediate family members with whom they live. But by Grade 9, my daughter’s year, the kids are expected, not only to note nuclear family members, but extended family and to write stories about them; where people were born, how they came to Israel, difficulties they might have faced in their early years here, etc.

"So", my daughter asked me, "What difficulties did you face coming to Israel?"
"Well", I answered, "I was late for check-in, and the clerk at the desk complained that my luggage was too heavy, and I had the middle seat on the plane. I hate the middle seat."
I see", said my daughter. So no deportation camps, or slipping past army guards in the middle of the night?
"Um. No."
"Any malaria, typhus, starvation?"
"Once, when I came back from visiting the Old Country, they didn't have any kosher food for me on the plane. But I had some chocolate, so it wasn't so bad. But there was, I remember, a mosquito on the plane."
"Oof. I have nothing to write. All my friends' grandparents have great stories about attack dogs, and swamps, and living in tents."
"I had a bunch of lousy roommates. And once, it was so muddy on the road, I ruined a nice pair of shoes."
She shook her head.
"I had no family when I came. I was alone."
She looked at me hopefully.

The truth is, when I came to live in Israel, at a young, naive (one may even say stupid) age, it didn't occur to me what leaving the family – my parents, my siblings, my seven aunts and seven uncles, and all my 14 cousins – behind would mean.

It meant I had to find invitations for every Shabbat and every holiday.
It meant spending some Shabbatot and some holidays alone.
It meant not sharing in family simchas - indeed, not even having family simchas.
It meant that there was nobody with whom I could share family memories.

As time passed, of course, my status changed. I married, had kids, created another family.
My situation was easier on me - I was no longer either alone for the holidays, or a guest in someone's house, but it was much the same story for my kids: no grandparents around to spoil them, no aunts or uncles to play ball with them, or ask about their social life, no cousins to complain about the family...They were just about the only ones in their classes without someone around to get them a summer job.

And while we all made friends who became family - and I mean that with all my heart - it took not having family to understand exactly what family is.

But this is Israel, and miracles happen.
First it was one sister-in-law who made aliyah, married and had a family. And suddenly, my kids had an aunt, an uncle, and some cousins to share some things.
Then another of my kids' cousins, and then another, and then another, and another, and another and then two more came to make their lives here. And some of those cousins got married, and had kids, and there was more family.

And while I still don't have any, my kids have almost half their cousins in Israel. And they know their names, and their birth order, and who belongs to whom.
And I'm the aunt.
As one of my kids' cousins wrote to her cousin: "Thank you for growing up all alone in the middle of the desert so that I could have cousins here now".
Over time, my kids have turned into aunts and uncles themselves, so my grandkid has lots and lots of aunts and uncles spoiling him rather rotten. I don't think they've asked about his social life - yet.

And more miracles.
Facebook was invented.
I have been able to reconnect with family members I have not seen in years and years; even when I was still living in the Old Country, I didn't see them, because, as stated, they lived in a different country and not on the same hilltop (hilltop being a metaphor for the flattest city in the world).

As time has passed, my kids' uncles and aunts visit more often, and even some of my cousins have come to visit. Visiting with them, talking about family, it's as if no time has passed.
Because family is family, no matter how far apart.

This week was National Cousins Day.
If you have cousins, that means your cousins have cousins.
Take a moment, and say hi to your cousins.

Yesterday was National Aunt and Uncle Day.
Tell your aunt how awesome she is.