Monday, December 31, 2012

Win or Lose, it's how they don't play the game

Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.
Gore Vidal

About 10 days ago, my daughter spent a day in Jerusalem with some cousins from abroad. She told me that she embarrassed herself in front of them. When an ambulance passed, with sirens blaring, close to where they were walking, my daughter, like all good southern Israelis, visibly jumped. Her cousins didn’t know what was wrong with her. “It’s only an ambulance,” they said, “why are you so afraid?”

Jumping at sudden noises is a southern reality. I know very few people here who don’t jump when a motorcycle whizzes by, or when brakes screech in the distance, or when strange music is heard on the radio.
A month after Pillar of Defense, there are still an awful lot of kids having trouble sleeping at night, wetting their beds, or missing school. There are still adults who, upon entering any building, first check out the whereabouts of the safe room; people who don’t like to leave the safety of their houses; people whose anxiety has become a part of their fabric.

For most of the country, the missiles are but a faint memory. “But nothing happened in the end, Iron Dome shot down all the missiles,” is the usual statement. This means, of course, that civilian fatalities were very low, few people were physically hurt, and the army, after all, didn’t enter Gaza. Thank heaven for all that.

But it’s far from true that ‘nothing happened.’ 1500 missiles were shot into Israel in eight days. That’s something, even for Israel. [An average of 100 missiles a day were shot into Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War (considered a botched war on the part of Israel, and that eventually brought down the government), while an average of almost 200 missiles a day were launched during the week of Pillar of Defense.]

Nowhere does this laissez faire attitude seem to be truer than in the political arena. Israeli elections are only a few weeks away, but unless I’m missing something, there doesn’t seem to be much talk about a solution, or at least a treatment for the South. As a matter of fact, there doesn’t seem to be much talking about solutions for anything at all.

Politicians are seen drinking beer with students, putting a note into the Kotel, or buying tomatoes in the local shuk, but there doesn't seem to be much actual talking to voters.  There’s a lot of conjecturing in the press – did he say this? Did he really mean that? – and a lot of mud-slinging amongst the politicians themselves – this one will bring us to war, and that one will bring the economy to its knees – but there doesn’t seem to be much discussion.

The Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) along with the Jerusalem Post have arranged various panel discussions featuring English speaking representatives in various cities around the country. The purpose of the evenings was to present the platforms of the leading parties (reps from about 9 or 10 parties were invited) in English, so that new immigrants, who often have a difficult time following the spit-fire Hebrew on the news, can make an intelligent choice when they vote. The cities included Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Netanya, Beer Sheva, and Haifa.
Just some of the parties who are running for election
Here in Beer Sheva, we found a place to have the talks – a beautiful old building from the British Mandate, which today is the Artist’s House, hosting hundreds of works of art created by Negev artists.
However, a week ago, we discovered that the event had to be canceled, both here in the south, and in Haifa in the north.
Apparently, Beer Sheva and Haifa were ‘too far’ to travel to. (Tel Aviv is 55 minutes by train from Beer Sheva. However, Tel Aviv to Beer Sheva is apparently several days on a camel, at least in the mind of our politicians….)

Reps from only two parties were prepared to attempt the journey south and north. HaBayit HaYehudi and Yesh Atid seem to recognize that Israel is more than the center. Avishay Braverman, a Labor MP and ex-Beer Shevaite (he was the President of Ben-Gurion University), also volunteered to come down to speak with us, when he was approached personally. But it wasn't enough for the event to take place.

Politicians, it appears, are prepared to do just about everything to get elected, except speak to the voters. I suppose they are afraid to face people here, seeing how nobody has any answers for any of the issues facing the south; higher unemployment, inferior medical care, lower education standards, and of course security issues.
And so we have been, as we have for so many years, swept under the rug.

That rug is getting awfully lumpy.

A lumpy rug? or taking cover from Grad missiles. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Turkey and Beans; thanks for what we have

“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations.”
Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

Operation Pillar of Defense did more than force southern Israel to cancel only school. It also forced the Southern Branch of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) – for which I volunteer – to cancel its annual Thanksgiving Dinner. For the past couple of years, AACI has joined up with Beer Sova – a local soup kitchen serving hundreds of Beer Sheva’s needy – to cook up a Thanksgiving meal that just about any American can be proud of. Being Canadian, it’s all lost on me, but it’s good fun, and the money raised is split between the two organizations.

This year, however, Thanksgiving landed right at the end of the week of bombs, and we had to postpone the dinner.

It was important to us to postpone and not to cancel because Beer Sova served meals to record amounts of people during the week of the war. They served the elderly who couldn't leave their homes. They served people who lost income because of lost business, or closed businesses. They served children and mothers, Arabs and Jews. All who needed were given hot, nutritious meals, no questions asked.
AACI members were also disappointed at the postponement, and hoped we would have the dinner later. It seems people miss a taste of the old country, especially when it comes to turkey with all the trimmings.

After the war, we settled on a new date, which was last night. Several volunteers came to the kitchen of Beer Sova to prepare a three-course meal of soup, turkey and dessert.

Situated in an old run-down building in the town center, Beer Sova’s kitchen hosts industrial size ovens, stoves, and fridges. You can bathe a pony in one of their pots. (It’s even possible that someone had.) Clean and well-kept, the kitchen’s appearance  clearly shows the hard work that goes on there regularly, almost entirely by volunteers, to feed and serve between 70-100 people daily in their dining room, and several 100 or so by home delivery. It also clearly shows how much they need donations to continue their holy work.

I got to the kitchen to help with the cooking a bit late. I used, as I always do, my daughter as an excuse for being late, but really, I just hate cooking. The kitchen was already a beehive of activity. I stood a minute and watched five wonderful women rush around the rooms looking, for all the world, like five whirlwinds that the Tasmanian devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoon makes (but without the grouchiness). ZOOM chop. ZOOM chop chop chop. ZOOM splash. MORE SALT! I NEED SOME SUGAR! ZOOM. 

Tasmanian Devil
Within four hours these women (and one man who expertly checked and washed five lettuces [lettuci?] – but didn't go rushing around) boiled up a witch's cauldron of pumpkin soup, stuffed and cooked 6 turkeys, broiled 10 kilo of potatoes, made two gargantuan sweet potato pies, mixed up three humongous pots of three different salads, boiled up some cranberry sauce and apple compote, and baked four sets of brownies. I, meanwhile, stirred some beans. Expertly, I might add. I even added a bit of garlic. 

Just over 40 people met later at the dining room of Beer Sova, which is separate from the kitchen. It was really a lovely dinner, complete with music and wine. Seeing as how I was an expert in bean stirring, I also decided I would give a short speech thanking people.
Here’s a copy – with illustrations, something those at the dinner didn’t get.

“Welcome everyone to our AACI/Beer Sova Thanksgiving dinner.

Beer Sova was established in 1999 by a group volunteers, to supply hot, nutritious, healthy meals for the needy in Beer Sheva and the surrounding area, and it was the first and remains the only kitchen preparing freshly cooked meals daily.

AACI encourages Aliyah of Americans and Canadians and assists its members to be absorbed into Israeli society and participate in the life of the Country.
AACI accepts everyone regardless of their religion or political opinions.
AACI is an a-political, a-religious organization.

But I’m not.

Last year at the AACI Thanksgiving dinner, someone told me that the Canadian Thanksgiving was actually established before the American Thanksgiving. I didn't even know that there was a Canadian Thanksgiving, so I looked it up.

Indeed, Martin Frobisher established Thanksgiving in 1578 after returning safely home to Newfoundland after failing to find the Northwestern Passage through Canada to the Pacific Ocean
Sir Martin Frobisher

The American Thanksgiving celebrates  having survived a winter and near-starvation, but were able to produce a bountiful harvest and, therefore, show thanks with a big meal with lots of food – 43 years after Martin Frobisher gave thanks – in 1621. The Canadian Thanksgiving is one of homecoming and no food is actually involved; which is why the Canadian Thanksgiving has been more or less forgotten. 

An American Thanksgiving
However, the Jewish Thanksgiving goes back even further than 1578. And it was from them that both the Canadians and Americans got the idea. And, as most things Jewish, it involves food.
A Jewish meal

During the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, a person who survived a potentially dangerous situation – which in those days meant crossing the desert or sea, imprisonment, or illness – brought a Sacrificial Offering of Thanksgiving (korban todah) to the Temple, to show gratitude to G-d for saving him.

This sacrifice was different than others in that it had to be eaten by the person giving it on the same day. There was a great deal of food involved: The animal sacrificed – either a bull, a calf, a ram, a sheep, or a goat (each according to his ability) – 30 loaves of unleavened bread – a kind of matzah – and 10 loaves of regular bread – or challot.

This was a tremendous amount of food that had to be eaten in a very limited time. The person, therefore, would invite lots of people to come with him to eat of the sacrifice. The rabbis say that in this way the miracle of the person’s survival was publicized, his or her gratitude to G-d was made known to all, and G-d’s compassion and mercy was publicly proclaimed.

Today, we don’t have a Temple, or sacrifices. So instead, today, when we survive a potentially dangerous situation, we make a ‘seudat Hodaya’ a Meal of Thanks, where we invite a lot of people, and eat a lot of food.
In addition, say the sages it is right to give tzdaka – charity – in the amount of cost of the animal to be sacrificed – or in the amount of a meal.

And that is what we are doing here tonight – however inadvertently. We are gathered here in a group to give thanks for the things that we have. We have all donated money tonight to two organizations, AACI and Beer Sova.

We have a great deal to be thankful for tonight; our friends and family; a wonderful supportive community, for which I am grateful every day; a beautiful Land in which we have been blessed to make our home and which is populated by more heroes than I can count; the IAF and the IDF, and most of all G-d,  for nudging those missiles just a bit and having most of them land in open areas. 176 missiles over the skies of Beer Sheva and there were no fatalities. This is a great miracle that needs to be acknowledged and publicized over and over again.  

In addition, I would like to thank those that, with the help of G-d, organized this wonderful evening; the volunteers that cooked and set up; the go-between for AACI and Beer Sova, those at Beer Sova, especially those who helped with all the  shopping, and most of all thanks to two superladies who planned and prepared the event from soup to nuts – except that there aren't any nuts, but there’s cake.”

(names have been left out to protect those who only stirred the beans.)

It appeared that everyone had a good time and came out stuffed to the gills. We raised a small amount of money for both organizations – not nearly enough, but it’s a start.

The best part of the evening, however, was that the Canadian bean stirrer won the raffle – a stuffed turkey.

Now I don’t have to cook much for Shabbat. There’s something to be thankful for!!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

And that's Chanuka

בארץ קום והתהלך
בתרמיל ובמקל
וודאי תפגוש בדרך 
שוב את ארץ ישראל. 

Arise and walk throughout the Land
With a knapsack and a walking stick
We will certainly meet on the way
In the Land of Israel
Israeli folk song (not the best translation)

Many years, perhaps it was on Israel’s 50th Independence Day, there was a contest for kids to send in their reasons why Israel was a terrific place to live. My reason was that there is only one seder on Pesach, but I'm not a kid. One child decided that having two birthdays (Secular and Jewish) and hence two birthday cakes was the best reason. But one of my boys came up with one of the most wonderful reasons I ever heard. “Israel,” he said, “is such a small country that you can go to lots of places and see lots of things in one day.”

Indeed, we are commanded to see and know the Land. “Arise, walk through the Land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto thee will I give it”, says G-d to Abraham (Genesis 13;17).

Our family tries to keep this commandment as much as we can. We try and visit different parts of the country whenever an opportunity presents itself, and certainly during the holidays. “Let’s go on a tiyul!”

A tiyul (pl tiyulim) is a Hebrew word that is very difficult to translate. Loosely, it’s a trip for pleasure, but can be done by foot, bike, or scooter. It can be carefully planned or spontaneous. It can even happen unintentionally. (“We got lost going to the wedding, so we had a little tiyul in the neighborhoods of Givatayim”.) Many places provide maps for tiyulim – with easy to follow directions to places of interest.

We have gone, as a family, on hundreds of tiyulim all over the country, both major ones and minor. Of course, as the kids get older, the amount of children going on tiyulim gets smaller, as they go with friends on their own, often more adventurous, tiyulim. (They still come with us on the expensive tiyulim….) And so, my husband and I found ourselves with just the youngest child going on a tiyul to the ancient city of Jaffa. 
We started our tiyul with a visit to the Etzel Museum, just outside of Jaffa. The Etzel (Ergun TZva Leumi - The National Military Organization - also known as the Irgun) was an underground militia during the British Mandate in Palestine (1931-1948), which fought, not only against Arab fedayeen, but against the British army and its ‘White Paper’, which limited Jewish immigration to Palestine, leaving the Jews of Europe to the fate of the Nazis. The Etzel played a significant role in the War of Liberation (1948-49) and it was an Etzel Brigade that liberated Jaffa, then an Arab stronghold. Situated in a rebuilt building of the era, the museum tells the story of the battle for Jaffa, and some of the Etzel’s ‘disputes’ with the more politically-correct (but not necessary more effective) Haganah.

Etzel Museum, built atop the remains of a 19th century home
The highlight of our visit to the museum was meeting a member of the Etzel. Now 82 years old, Yoska Nachmias told the story of how he had joined the British Army during World War 2, at the age of 14, but remained a member of the Etzel. He described breaking out of the Acre Jail (made famous in the novel Exodus), the events of the ship Altelena, and his reunion – about 60 years later – with one of the volunteers on that ship. For info about the tragedy of the Altelena, that has repercussions lasting until today see here or here
It is always heart-stopping for me to meet a real hero of Israel, and I am blessed to live in a Land where there are so many heroes.

A hero of Israel with the family

After the museum, we walked about 15 minutes, along the beach, into Jaffa. Though today Jaffa is a poor suburb of the city of Tel Aviv, it boasts a history of approximately 4000 years, is mentioned several times in the Bible, and has one of the oldest ports in the world, which is still in use. In the last several years, the city of Tel Aviv has revitalized the port area and the streets surrounding it, making into a beautiful maze of cobblestone alleys, filled with small art galleries, cafes, and parks.

A view of Tel Aviv and the beach from Jaffa

Our first stop was the port. Made famous by the prophet Yonah who set sail from there before being swallowed by a fish, it is now used only for as a marina for private sailing. Still colorful and busy, my daughter was awed thinking that she was standing in the same spot that poor Yonah has once stood attempting to flee from his divine task.

Boats in the port

Leaving the port, we climbed up a steep set of stairs into the heart of the ancient city. We admired the various crafts on display, the rebuilt churches (one was full of bats, which was pretty cool) and mosques, and examined excavations of ancient civilizations. Private homes were marked with signs on their doors “Please be quiet! People live here!” Parks dotted the area, complete with sculptures, ice cream shops, and bathrooms.

An alleyway in the city

Jaffa has been conquered, in its long history, 46 times, the last of which was by the Etzel in 1948. But 250 years previously, it had been conquered by Napoleon’s troops. As we walked down one of the small alleys, a sign told us of the horses that had galloped through after breaking the wall that had surrounded the city. We stood for a minute or two, thinking of the French horses running where we stood, of the terror they must have inflicted, and the beauty and serenity that reign today.

One of Napoleon's troops and his helper 

One of the more famous spots in Jaffa is its flea market. This market is famous for selling everything; furniture, artwork, antiques, even street signs. We got there at about 3:30 in the afternoon, and many of the stalls were already closing up.

Phone token from the last century

Nonetheless, we wandered around the area for over an hour, explaining to the 11-year old daughter what a typewriter (that didn’t even plug in!!) was, describing the role phone tokens had played in our lives (and the use of the hole in them), and trying on jewelry and clothes from 50 years ago.You can find just about anything in the Jaffa flea market!

Anything is possible in the Flea Market

 We emerged from the flea market in the “Clock Square”. Built in the early 1900s by the Ottomans, and redone in 1965, Clock Square is the meeting point for anyone who comes into Jaffa.
Clock Square

On the corner of the square is the Ottoman built Governor’s House – today a restaurant.

It is the Governor’s House/restaurant that personifies what is best about Jaffa. A blend of ancient, old, and modern, the city commemorates its unparalleled history yet exults in its contemporary culture and art. Three religions peacefully co-exist with a tolerance – indeed a celebration – thought not to exist in the Middle East.   

Governor's House/Restaurant

We did not go into the more ‘modern’ areas of the city – those built in the 19th and 20th centuries. We saw the spires of the churches from across the street, but didn’t go to explore. These are mostly poorer areas. I am aware of the strains between the different populations of the area, the accusations made by both sides. Nevertheless, Jaffa seems to be an example of what is possible when intentions are good, when differences are set aside yet identities are acknowledged and respected.

The Gate of Faith
Chanuka is ending, yet the miracles we commemorate never do. Our Land is a daily miracle; may we remain worthy to be blessed to continue building, and celebrating, and living in awe every day.

Now, I need to think of a tiyul for the next holiday – Election Day!!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Chanuka Sameach!!

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness
Chinese Proverb

Chanuka has always been my favorite holiday. As a little girl, I would look forward to getting the chanukiya out from the back of some closet, and waiting very impatiently for my father to come home to light candles. We’d put the chanukiya as close to the kitchen window as we could, as we were taught in school, but my mother always moved it a) so the curtains wouldn't catch on fire and b) she didn't like it in the sink (which was right under the window). We ended up lighting it on the counter next to the radio. That was ok, as you couldn’t see anything out of or into the window anyways; windows in Winnipeg in December are always frosted over, if not actually blocked, by snow.

Unlike Israeli kids, we had to go to school on Chanuka. Some evil teacher would always give us a test during the week, but mostly we sang Chanuka songs and had parties.

When I came to Israel, Chanuka took on a whole new meaning. Not only can one see lit chanukiyot through the windows, one can actually light them outside

A Chanukiya outside a store
Chabad has huge candle lighting ceremonies everywhere, using gigantic larger-than-human chanukiyot and a ladder to light them (or they’re electric and the chanukiya – like cars in Winnipeg – is plugged in). 

Chabad Chanukiya

What a hoot. 
One (me) can also wear sandals during Chanuka. Truly, a holiday of liberation. Dreidels also come in all sizes and shapes here and are called sivivonim (tops). They have the letter pei [to symbolize the word here (i.e., Israel)] rather than the letter sheen [symbolizing the word there (i.e., Israel) as they have anywhere outside the Holy Land]. Seeing that pei still gives me a thrill. Dorky, I know.

Wooden Sivivon

Painted Sivivonim
A Winnipeg Dreidel

The most important part of an Israeli Chanuka, however, is this:

We never had soofganiyot in Canada. We had jambusters. And we could get them all year round. But they never looked that that.

Like all Jewish holidays, Chanuka is about family. When the kids were little, candle lighting time would take hours. The kids each lit their own chanukiya, and we would sing songs (for about 5 minutes – the kids don’t like singing, and they certainly don’t like hearing me sing) and play dreidel games (for about 5 minutes – they’re kinda boring). Thinking about it, the whole thing probably lasted about 10 minutes but seemed like hours. But still, it was fun.

The kids are mostly grown up now, and it’s extremely rare that everyone is home at the same time to light candles, so I now have to find my own fun. Window shopping for different soofganiyot is fun, but it also get boring quickly, so this year I did something very different.

I’ve been a member (is member the right word?) of Facebook, even before my kids joined. I’ve reconnected with many old friends from years long gone by and with family members I’d lost track of. It’s great fun. In the last few weeks, though, I’ve discovered a new use for Facebook, something I hadn’t considered before. I made new friends.

I was recently invited to join a group of women who communicate almost entirely through Facebook. Everyone in the group is friends in real life with only one or two members, but not the others. The women live various cities, towns, and villages mostly in Israel, but some live abroad, vary in age from about 40 to over 60, are of different marital statuses, different levels of religiosity, and different professions. They have two things in common however: they all speak English, and they all – even the ones abroad – love the Land and People of Israel.
I was honored to be made a member of this group – let’s call it the Early Morning Association (EMA – mother in Hebrew), though that’s not the name –  just before Operation Pillar of Defense (POD) took place, and throughout that mini-war I received many messages of support from these ladies, which helped me tremendously.
After the Operation POD, it was decided that we meet in person or, in Facebook language, F2F. The obvious site for the F2F meeting was somewhere in the South of Israel. The town of Netivot was agreed upon, and on Sunday, the first day of Chanuka, 15 women from around the country converged on a small restaurant to meet, most of us for the first time.

Netivot is a small town, about half an hour west of Beer Sheva. Founded in 1956 as a development town, the first residents were mostly refugees from Morocco and Tunisia. These were joined in the 1990s by Ethiopians and Russians. The town is noted for two things: its unemployment rate and relative poverty, which has vastly improved in the last several years, and as the burial site of the famed Moroccan Rabbi and Kabbalist, the Baba Sali. In addition, Netivot sustained heavy damage from Grad rocket attacks before and during Pillar of Defense.

The women of EMA decided that it was important to support the south. They traveled by car, bus, and train (and probably would have taken a camel if necessary) to come to a small town that had taken a beating during POD. They came early to do some shopping for things they could easily have bought at home. We sat chatting and getting to know one another for about two hours, before some of the women had to leave for the long trek home. Others, including me, decided to go visit the grave of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, better known as the Baba Sali. (Baba means father or papa, Sali is short of Yisrael.)

Born in 1890 in Tafilalt, Morocco to a prestigious family of Torah scholars, Rav Abuhatzeira made his way to then-Palestine in 1922. He lived in Jerusalem for one year, before leaving the country. He returned to live in 1949 a year after the establishment of the State of Israel,and died in 1984 at the age of 96. 100,000 people attended his funeral. Considered a Holy Man, his grave has become a site of pilgrimage, with as many as 600,000 people visiting annually. 

Small as Netivot is, I managed to get lost driving two other women to the grave, which is a large mausoleum separated into two for men and women. His wife is buried there too.

I’m not much of a grave person, so I spent my time outside the building saying Tehilim. The other women – none of whom, to the best of my knowledge, were born Moroccan – went inside to pay their respects and hear ‘Baba Sali Stories”. This blog is too short to record them, but some of these stories are simply amazing.

I had hesitated a great deal whether to go to Netivot and meet these women. I had only been a member of EMA for a few weeks, and didn’t want to impose myself on these ladies who seemed to know each other so well albeit only on Facebook. But my friend Bee asked for a lift to Netivot and I am so grateful.

I had been feeling depressed and tense since POD and for personal reasons, and these lovely ladies brightened me up. There was nothing specific, just knowing that there are people out there who cared, who are caring, and interested, and supportive, and listened; people who were happy to meet and see me, just because I was me. It certainly got me out of my rut as it was impossible to feel gloomy with the energy and love that abounded. 

I gave a couple of women a lift back to Beer Sheva to catch a bus to Jerusalem. I was so busy gabbing all the way home that I didn’t notice this.

Sunset between Netivot and Beer Sheva, second evening of Chanuka

Luckily my new Facebook friend caught it.
What a blessing to be living in this most Holy of Lands, surrounded by the most Holy of People.

Chag Urim Sameach everyone.
Happy Chanuka