Sunday, April 14, 2013

65 Reasons

We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown and when strawberries bloom in Israel.

 Reams and reams are written in the days before Israel Independence Day about how wonderful it is to live in Israel. Indeed, Israelis have just been ranked the seventh happiest people in the world. This, despite the wars, the growing isolation and anti-Zionism in the world, the terrorist and missile attacks. I’ve decided to add to the list from my own perspective as an immigrant ex-Winnipeger, a veteran resident of 28 years in Beer Sheva, and an observant Jew, in no particular order, my 65 facts (one for each year of modern State of Israel’s existence) that still make my heart flutter and why I thank G-d every day that I live in Israel:

  1. Everyone has two birthdays, a Gregorian and a Jewish one.

  1. In some years, there is as much as a month between the two birthdays. We call this period the birthday 'Chol Hamoed' (a term used for the intermediary days of Passover and Sukkot), and reserve the right to celebrate anytime.

  1. There is only one possible three-day holiday. In Israel, only the first and last days of Pesach and Sukkot are chagim (holidays) and not the first and last two days, as is the case everywhere else in the world. The only holiday that is two days is Rosh Hashana, so when it falls on Thursday and Friday, we add Shabbat and have a three-day holiday. We never have to worry about Sukkot or Pesach. Which means that

  1. We have only one seder. If there is no other reason to live in Israel, this is it. We have one seder on Pesach and finished.

  1. Bread is VERY hard to find during Pesach

  1. Jewish holidays are national holidays. We don't have to ask for extra time off work, or to postpone exams for Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur or Pesach, or for Shabbat for that matter. The country shuts down automatically.

  1. It is understood that you will take off from work on the day your child is drafted into the army.

  1. Israel is such a small country that it is possible to visit many different places in a short period of time.

  1. It's even possible to literally walk the country’s length and breadth.

  1. Not only is it possible to walk Israel's length and breadth, it's considered a mitzvah to do so. During vacation times, attractions, holy and historic sites, walking trails, and nature reserves are clogged with people touring, visiting, picnicking and enjoying.

  1. Falafel is available everywhere, all the time. And it's cheap.

  1. Ice cream is available everywhere, most of the time. It's still an Israeli trait not to eat ice cream in the winter. This quaint trait, however, is changing.

  1. Pita and laffa (Iraqi bread) are considered staple foods and are available in any supermarket.

  1. Most supermarkets are kosher and are closed on Shabbat. Those few shops that provide non-kosher food (usually meats and shellfish) have signs on them proclaiming they are not kosher.

  1. The sunsets are not only beautiful, but mark, not the end of another day, but the beginning of a new one.

  1. Snow days are almost national holidays. It's a given that if snow falls anywhere in the country, people are going to take the day and go visit it.

  1. Snow days are very rare. Even after living here for so many years, I really don't miss the snow.

  1. From May to October, you can plan any event outdoors and not worry about it being rained out.

  1. The Hoopoe is Israel's national bird – not the mosquito.

  1. The Hoopoe, (doochifat in Hebrew) like all things Israeli, comes with its own story. It is said to have carried King Solomon's invitation to the Queen of Sheba to visit Jerusalem. The rest, as they say, is history.

  1. Neot Kedumim, a park located not far from Jerusalem, is dedicated to educating Israelis about the natural flora of Israel. All plants and trees mentioned in the Bible have been planted there, often in the same arrangements as recorded. This gives one an idea of what was meant when in Sefer VaYikra (Leviticus) it is said that the Kohen is to take the 'cedar of Lebanon and the hyssop'…

  1. The Jerusalem zoo is home to all the animals mentioned in the Bible (along with many that aren't).

  1. The shoemaker to whom I take my shoes to fix is one of the liberators of Beer Sheva who fought in the War of Independence in 1948-49.

  1. Heroes are everywhere and dress up as ordinary people.

  1. After the liberation of Beer Sheva in 1949, the first park that was built was called Allenby Park, named after Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, who liberated the city from the Turks during the First World War in 1917.

  1. Every year, there is a ceremony in Beer Sheva on October 31 marking ANZAC day. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Armed Corps. October 31 is the day in 1917 that Allenby and his troops made up of Australians and New Zealanders liberated Beer Sheva.

  1. A few years ago, Allenby Park was re-dedicated and a new statue of Allenby was unveiled. Not only did the British ambassador come for the ceremony, so did Edmund Allenby’s grandson and family.

  1. Israeli universities have a second sitting for all exams. This practice was adopted for those students who had army reserve duty during the first exam period.

  1. During the Lebanon War in 1982, a third exam sitting was implemented, for those students who missed both the first and second sittings due to the war. ‘Moed gimmel’, as it’s called, is still available for those who need it.

  1. When my son was in the army, I sent out an email on the Beer Sheva email list requesting information on where to find some equipment he requested I buy. Not only did I receive dozens of replies with the information, I also received offers to borrow the equipment, or even just to take it for free.

  1. Many of those emails also included words along the line of “I am including your son in my daily prayers for the welfare of our soldiers”.

  1. Some of those people who added my son to their prayers needed to first ask me his name, as they were complete strangers. But that didn’t matter because

  1. Soldiers, no matter their age, are everybody’s children.

  1. A lecturer in one of the colleges was fired when he did not admit a student in army uniform to his class. It was a unanimous decision.

  1. Various presidents, prime ministers, and members of Knesset speak (or spoke) Hebrew with a foreign accent.

  1. When people comment on my accent, I mention the above to them. It always makes them smile.

  1. When there was a chance that the Israeli national basketball team might qualify to play in the European championship a few years ago, a national debate ensued as to whether they should play or not. The final game of the championship was scheduled for the evening of Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism). It seemed inappropriate to play a championship game on that night.

  1. The Europeans agreed that if Israel did qualify to play in the final game, they would move the game to the afternoon hours, so it would finish before sunset and not conflict with Remembrance Day. The Israeli team did qualify, and the game was moved to the afternoon.

  1. The Israeli team agreed that if they won the championship, there would be no celebrating that night. (They lost anyway…)

  1. In previous years, Israel has not participated in the Eurovision Song Contest because it was held on Yom HaZikaron.

  1. Verses from the Bible or the commentators have become idioms in everyday Hebrew. Rashi’s “What’s the sabbatical year to Mt. Sinai?” roughly translates to “what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?”

  1. In Hebrew, anything outside of Israel is called “outside the Land. As in “she went outside the Land for a vacation.” Because, for us, there is only one Land.

  1. Part of the state education curriculum is trips to various areas of the country.

  1. Most schools have a siddur (prayer book) party at the end of Grade one, celebrating the children’s ability to read from the siddur.

  1. Most schools also have a chumash (Bible) party at the end of Grade 2, celebrating the children’s ability to learn Torah.

  1. My children’s schools took the kids to Jerusalem for their chumash party. What better place to celebrate learning Torah?

  1. Streets in Israel are often named after Jewish and Israeli figures.

  1. In Beer Sheva, each neighborhood has a theme for its street names. In one neighborhood, all the streets are named for animals found in Israel, another for pre-state historical figures, while in my neighborhood all the streets are named for places in Israel.

  1. The main street in my neighborhood is Jerusalem Street.

  1. There is one older neighborhood where each street is named for one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

  1. When that neighborhood grew and more names were needed, the new street was given the name Osnat. Osnat was the wife of Joseph, son of Jacob.

  1. If a street is named after a person, the street sign often comes with little explanations of who the person was. Explanations such as “medieval Jewish commentator,” “Supreme court judge,” and “Chief Rabbi of the IDF” make walking down the street an educational experience.

  1. When there is a pigua (terrorist attack) or a grad missile attack, the phone lines crash within five minutes. This is because everyone across the country is phoning everyone to make sure everyone is ok.

  1. It is not unusual for thousands of people to attend a funeral of a terror victim or a soldier killed in battle.

  1. It is also not unusual for thousands of people to visit the families of a terror victim or a soldier during the shiva period.

  1. It is also not unusual for thousands of people to pray for the quick recovery of wounded soldiers or terror victims or send presents or even come visit.

  1. Then, when a family of a killed or wounded soldier or terror victim celebrates a wedding or a birth or a bar mitzvah, thousands of people follow their simcha and rejoice with them. This is because

  1. Kol hayehudim eravim zeh lazeh. All Jews are responsible for each other, in sorrow and in joy.

  1.  Strangers passing you on the street will greet you with Erev Tov, or Shabbat Shalom, or Chag Sameach.

  1. Flowers are everywhere. All year round.

  1. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where I work, is a world leader in research in water use, de-desertification, and agriculture.

  1. One of the smaller BGU campuses in the city is dotted with experimental fruits, thorn-free sabra plants, and one-of-a-kind trees.

  1. When asked, our very secular neighbor happily joins us to make a tenth in a minyan.

  1. We know when mincha (afternoon prayers) is on Shabbat at the neighborhood synagogue by watching for groups of men walking down the street.

  1. My children are all sabras.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A month to heal and blossom

He said, "If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you."
Exodus 15:26

Today is Rosh Chodesh (beginning of the month of) Iyar. The Hebrew work Iyar ((אייר is an acronym for the Hebrew phraseאני ה'  רופאך(I am the Lord who heals you). It is believed that the month of Iyar is propitious month for healing. Iyar is also known as the month of shining or blossoming (זיו).
At the time of the exodus from Egypt about 3350 year ago, which we just celebrated through the Holiday of Passover, the first Rosh Chodesh Iyar fell on Shabbat and found Bnai Yisrael at the waters of Marah. After wandering for a week after passing through the waters of Yam Suf where their Egyptian pursuers died, Bnai Yisrael finally came upon water in the vast desert, only to find it undrinkable. Moshe Rabbenu turned to G-d to find out what to do, and G-d told Moshe that if he threw a branch of a nearby growing tree – which in itself was bitter – into the water, the water would become sweet. (Exodus 15:22-26)
There are many questions that can be asked about this episode. Why didn't G-d just go poof and make the water sweet? Why didn't G-d just provide sweet water to start with? And maybe the most puzzling, how is it that something bitter (the branch) added to something else bitter (the water) makes the water sweet. And why did Moshe have to throw the branch into the water. Why didn’t G-d just blow it in Himself?
There are many explanations for these questions, but the one I'm going for, for now is this: Sometimes in order to achieve sweetness, we need a dose of bitterness. And sometimes we have to do it ourselves. In other words, some great things don't come easy. Think birth.
Since the disengagement/desertion/expulsion from the settlements in Gaza and the Northern Shomron in the summer of 2005, there has been some debate within the religious-Zionist communities whether or not Israel Independence Day (Yom HaAzmaut) should be celebrated, and even whether the State of Israel is indeed the beginning of the redemption as described by Rav Kook. These days, these debates have an added urgency in light of the fact that seemingly more and more Jews, while seemingly advocating a ‘two-state solution’, have as their goal the further destruction of more Jewish communities in Yehuda and Shomron, and the 'disengagement' of more and more Jews in Israel from their roots. How can we celebrate the birth of a state that sometimes seems to celebrate the destruction of Jewish enterprise and Zionism?
The Rambam says that the one difference between the beginning of the Messianic age (the age of redemption) and normal times is the sovereignty of Israel. There will not necessarily be great miracles such as seas parting, or food falling from the sky, there will not necessarily even be peace, but the fact that Israel is sovereign in its Land will be the sign that the beginning of the redemption has come.
Rabbi Akiva believed that Bar Kochva was the Messiah. Bar Kochva was not known to be a particularly charming fellow. Mitzvot were not always high on his to-do list. He was big and strong, and a great and brave general and warrior. But he never changed water into blood, nor was he a Talmid Chacham – a great scholar. Yet, Rabbi Akiva (and other great Rabbis of the day) believed – until Bar-Kochva’s death – that he was Mashiach. What caused them to believe this? The answer is that Bar Kochva liberated Judea from its Roman conquerors for a short period of time. And Rabbi Akiva knew that a sign of the beginning of the redemption is sovereignty of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael.

On the face of it, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a long, difficult, and man-made process. Thousands died from disease and Arab terrorism. Jews lived and worked in cruel and bitter times. Many Jews feel today that the establishment of the State was due to the hard work of the people. And this is true. We, like Moshe Rabbeinu, are required to do the work. But let's take a look at how the establishment came about, what miracles it took for this to happen.

After the Holocaust, then American President Harry Truman wanted the British to allow more Jewish refugees to come to Palestine. The British didn't want that and turned to the UN for an answer. Instead of siding with the British against more Jewish Aliyah, the UN voted on a partition plan. Just the fact that the vote itself took place was a miracle. But the fact that the vote passed – with East and West both voting for –was openly G-d's hand. And what other State on the face of the earth was given independence so that people who didn’t live in it, and had never been there, could return to it.
Now let's take a look at the partition plan itself. The original plan left out of the Jewish state the towns of Nahariya, Ramle-Lod, Beersheva and much of the Galilee. It left Jerusalem as an "international city" under the auspices of the UN. It left completely indefensible borders, a state too small for its citizens. Yet, the Jewish leaders accepted this plan, wanting only a state of their own, no matter what the price.
UN partition plan
Let's remember what happened. On ו אייר תש"ח, May 15, 1948 – the day after Israel announced its sovereignty, five Arab armies invaded Israel, despite the desire of the Jews to live in peace in a truncated state. And despite the Arab superiority in numbers and arms, resources and land, despite the world's ambivalence towards Israel even though they had voted for the state, despite all those odds, Israel won that war, and succeeded in expanding the borders to include Ramle-Lod, and Nahariya, and Beer Sheva, all of the Galilee and at least a small part of Jerusalem. If the Arabs hadn’t attacked, I wouldn’t be living where I’m living now. How can we interpret this as anything but a miracle?
6000 people died in that war, יהי זכרם ברוך, one tenth of Israel's population at the time, but from that great bitterness came the sweetness of independence, the chance for Israel to come home to their Land. A miracle happened when a part of Bnai Yisrael returned to a part of Eretz Yisrael and became a sovereign nation.
Ceasefire lines after the War of Independence (note - not  borders)
Let’s skip forward 19 years to June of 1967. For weeks before, Arab radio was broadcasting the imminent destruction of the State of Israel. They described how Jewish blood would flow into the sea. Around the world, the international media was already writing obituaries for the Jewish state. But early one morning in June, within one hour, the Israeli air force, maybe one tenth the size of the combined Arab Air Forces, managed to wipe out just about all of both the Egyptian and Syrian fighter planes. With ownership of the skies, the Israeli Defense Forces conquered territory undreamed of only a few weeks earlier. And then, if this was not miracle enough, another. Despite begging Jordan to stay out of the fight, King Hussein decided to believe the false reports coming from Cairo, that Tel Aviv was about to fall, and all “Palestine” would soon be in Arab hands. Wanting to get in on the spoils, Hussein attacked.
There were no plans of entering Jerusalem. The IDF had no provisions for entering Hebron, or Beit Lechem, or Gush Etzion. But pushed into an unwanted war, Israeli soldiers entered and liberated these holy places. Tears running down their faces, these kids – few religious, almost none had ever seen the Kotel, or knew of the sacredness of Hebron – ran, unheeding of the bullets that were flying around them. Some spark, some genetic memory made them go on, to liberate those places which had never left their hearts.
Lines after the Six-Day War

 Hundreds were killed. Jerusalem was in our hands. From great bitterness to miraculous sweetness. And we celebrate the 28th day of Iyar as Yom Yerushalayim, never again to be divided.
The miracles continue. During the Yom Kippur war in 1973, soldiers deployed on the Golan reported that Syrian troops were advancing and, being seriously outnumbered, they had no way of stopping them. The Israelis were afraid that the Syrians would overrun them, and conquer Teveriah and all the Galil. And suddenly, to the astonishment of the soldiers, the Syrian tanks stopped. After a while they turned around and retreated. The reason? Lt. Col. Yossi Ben-Hanan, one of Israel’s thousands of heroes, suddenly appeared with 15 tanks. The Syrians, exhausted after a two-day battle, believed these tanks to be part of a massive regrouping, retreated. Those 15 tanks were actually patched up, many of the soldiers manning the tanks were wounded. Yet, the bravery of these men, and the ones who fought till there last bullet was spent, prevented the Syrian army, which was closer to victory than they could have imagined, to retreat.  A story I heard, – but is not documented anywhere that I could find – is that later, when Syrian soldiers were interviewed about the incident, some of these battle-scarred men answered, “There was a wall of fire in front of the Israeli tanks and we were scared.”
Three years after the greatest chilul HaShem – the destruction of European Jewry – came the greatest Kiddush HaShem – the establishment of the State of Israel in a part of the Land of Israel. Jewish sovereignty became a reality after 2000 years of exile, humiliation, persecution, forced conversion, mass murder. This week I attended a memorial ceremony on Yom HaShoah at Ben-Gurion University where I work. I have issues with the university and its politics, to put it mildly. Above, flew the flag of Israel and the flag of the University, both at half-mast. My eyes teared and overflowed at the thought of all that was lost. But looking again at the flags, I realized what a miracle it all was. Here I was, sitting in a University, whose student body totals more than three times the entire 1948 population of Beer Sheva, a city that was not even supposed to be a part of the state.
Heartrending, unbearable bitterness.
Miraculous sweetness.
Wishing everyone a month of healing and blossoming, and a month to shine.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Aprés Pesach

Observe the month of Aviv, and keep the Passover unto the LORD thy God; for in the month of Aviv the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night.
Deuteronomy 16:1

 Almost a week after Pesach has finished, I find that I’m still exhausted. I find that I’m still upset at the fact that most of the holiday was spent in the kitchen. I find that I’m sick of my Pesach dishes and ‘making do’ for one week with equipment that is not as good as my regular stuff. I find that I’m still frazzled by trying to figure out what to cook on Pesach for Ashkenazi people who don’t like cooked carrots (aka tsimmes) squash, eggplant, cauliflower or broccoli. I mean, what’s left? (Chocolate, that’s what’s left.) I find that I am especially frustrated that after 42 shopping trips, about 1,000,000 NIS spent on food, 36 straight hours of cooking and baking, my kids would open the fridge, stand there for half an hour, then proclaim that there is ‘nothing to eat.’ (I hid the chocolate.)
A traditional Seder Plate

What I don’t find is my favorite chametz knife, which got put away somewhere at the last minute before the holiday.

No doubt, Pesach is an exhausting, frustrating time. But a week later, I am more prepared to look at it objectively. There are those old clichés: I worked hard, but thank G-d I have the strength to do the work. It was very expensive, but thank G-d we have the money to spend, and jobs to earn more money. Family members can be truly aggravating, annoying, exasperating, and infuriating, but thank G-d we are surrounded by family.
Ok, so it’s still a bit too soon for me to be 100% sincere about that last one.

And yet,

I love Pesach. The weather is beautiful (here in Israel – not in London where it was snowing, and certainly not in Winnipeg where snow isn’t even news), the flowers are blooming, the kids are off school, and the whole country is on holiday. Everyone eats matzah. Bread is not to be seen (unless you really look for it, I suppose, and I did not). 


Matzah Ball Soup

The best part of Pesach in Israel are the various and varied customs. Each community has its own foods, songs, stories. It is the custom of Jews from Tripoli, I learned, to sit on the floor for the seder. Yemenite Jews go for a little walk with packs on their backs during the Seder to symbolize the exodus. While in our home, everyone dips their finger in the wine and shakes out 10 drops as the 10 plagues are recited, in some Sephardi homes only the father will dip his finger so that others will not be "contaminated." In other communities, the guests are not allowed to even look at the wine.
One of the main differences, and topics of discussion, is how to make charoset. I grew up making charoset – that sweet concoction that symbolizes the bricks the Israelites were forced to make in Egypt, and alleviates the taste of the bitter herbs when shmeered on matzah or lettuce – out of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon. However, Moroccans (and other North African Jews) make it from dates instead of apples; Persians use a variety of spices with over a dozen kinds of fruits and nuts, including dates, pomegranates, bananas, oranges and pistachios. Venetian Jews make charoset from chestnuts, rather than almonds or walnuts and apricots instead of apples. Some Greek Jews mash raisins in vinegar, and add pepper and even bits of brick! Yemenite Jews use chopped dates and figs, chili pepper and coriander. I once had charoset made with bananas – in an Ashkenazi home. And of course, we all know that we can't mix charoset with chopped liver. We'll get charoisis of the liver. (Say it fast, in a Yiddish accent. You'll get it.)

A different sort of Charoset

   I’ll stick with apples and walnuts for now.
(For more customs from different communities see here, but there are a million sites online.)

I think what I love most about Pesach is celebrating Pesach in Israel. Pesach, like all Jewish holidays, is meant to be celebrated in Israel, where the weather is beautiful and the flowers are blooming, and where miracles happen daily. It’s on Pesach, with its plethora of customs, that the miracle of the ingathering is so palpable. Jews from around the world, from Afghanistan, Columbia, Ireland, Yemen, and Zimbabwe, and every country in between, have come to Israel, with their customs and their foods and their way of life, to live and grow old, to build homes and bear children, to work and to contribute, to celebrate and, yes, to mourn.

Tomorrow is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day"), when Jews of Israel and around the world remember and commemorate the more than 6 million of their people who were murdered by the Nazis and their assistants between the years 1938-1945.

In his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said:
The right of the Jewish People to a state in the Land of Israel does not arise from the series of disasters that befell the Jewish People over 2,000 years - persecutions, expulsions, pogroms, blood libels, murders, which reached its climax in the Holocaust, an unprecedented tragedy in the history of nations. There are those who say that without the Holocaust the State would not have been established, but I say that if the State of Israel had been established in time, the Holocaust would not have taken place. The tragedies that arose from the Jewish People's helplessness show very sharply that we need a protective state. The right to establish our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish People.

In other words, we are not here in Israel because we were persecuted, oppressed, abused, enslaved, tyrannized, expelled, forcibly converted, and murdered in all the countries of the world. We are here in Israel because it is our homeland, because here our people were born, and it is here in Israel that we will ensure that Jews, no matter where they are in the world – Yemen, France, Holland, Iran, or in Israel itself – will not be persecuted for who they are again.

“The Holocaust, said Irwin Cotler, former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, “did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words.”

We are hearing those words again today: colonialism, conquest, oppression, apartheid. Blood libels are springing up yet again. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that "the very existence of the Zionist regime is an insult to humanity" and that "the Zionist regime and the Zionists are a cancerous tumor.” And no one censored him. No one even blinked.

We, the ingathered, remember the six million. We remember that they were murdered because of who they were, not what they did. They were murdered because the nations of the world turned a deaf ear and a blind eye. They were murdered because they had no land, and no government, and no flag, and no army.

There are nations in the world that are preparing for another holocaust. Other nations continue to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye.

But this time, we have our own Land, our own government, our own flag and our own army.

May we be blessed to continue gathering in our People, to build up our country in justice and holiness, and to celebrate our holy days in happiness and health.

And would it be too much to ask to be able to find my knife?

Then and now