Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Footloose and Shoe Free

It's easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world
Al Franken

Growing up in the Old Country, I never ever wore slippers. Despite the fact that winter was 9.5 months long, and the average temperature was about minus 102 (Celsius!), and there was 25 meters of snow outside the doors, the house was always toasty warm. I wore socks indoors, without shoes. We all did. When we entered the house, we would take off our boots (and for 2.5 months our shoes/sandals/sneakers), leave them in the coat closet, and remain only in socks, and for a few days a year – in the heat (everything is relative) of summer – we would go barefoot. My parents, who apparently were mature, wore slippers sometimes; but not always. There was also the issue of the wall-to-wall carpeting throughout the house – my mother didn't want our muddy/snowy/generally-dirty shoes making a mess. Socks were cleaner (well, maybe not my socks…).

Here in Israel, things are only slightly different. I still never wear shoes/sandals/sneakers in the house (I even take my off shoes at work. People stare, but who says freedom doesn't have a price?) But here, I don’t wear socks very often either. For the first few years I lived in Israel, I NEVER wore socks. I remember being outside in sandals on a beautiful sunny December day and thinking ‘take that, Old Country!’

An average winter day in Israel

As a pointless aside, my kids wear socks more often than I do. They wear socks for sport classes at school, when they go hiking, in the army, and even (the boys) on Shabbat. Once every three months or so, we play the sock game where the kids not only have to match all the clean socks that had been living in a laundry basket for three months, but they have to claim ownership. Not an easy task when all the socks are of identical pattern and the size. I dump out the socks from the basket onto the floor and nobody is allowed to move until the socks are gone. As the washing machine also claims a few (and obviously not pairs), this game has been known to last weeks. I've had to buy new socks, throw away one, and match the other to a washing-machine-created orphan sock just so the kids can stop playing.

So, while socks are out, slippers are a whole other ball game.
I wear slippers during the 2.5 months of Beer Sheva winter for the following reasons:
  1. Houses in Israel, especially in Beer Sheva, are constructed to withstand the heat. They are usually made of stone, with flat, white roofs so as to remain as cool as possible during the long, hot summer. 
  2. Because of #1, the temperature inside my house is cooler than the temperature outside my house. 
  3. We don’t have wall-to-wall carpeting. That would make the rooms warmer, and our goal is to make the rooms cooler. We won’t talk about the dust issue involved in w2w carpets. 
  4. What we have on the floor are ceramic tiles, and keep the floor, ergo the house, cool(er). 
  5. In the winter, the temperature inside the house – remember, it’s cooler inside the house than outside – can drop to 10 deg. Really. 
  6. The floor tiles, in winter, can freeze your feet off. 
  7. As I still occasionally use them, I dislike having my feet frozen off. 
Hence, the need for slippers.

Socks are for kids, and barefoot is cool (in the hippie sense, not in the ‘my feet are freezing off’ sense). But slippers are for grown-ups. So this leaves me in a quandary; do I grow-up and save my feet or do I remain true to my childlike (some would say immature, but I prefer childlike) self and forgo any trappings of adulthood?
And so, to solve this dilemma, we invented the annual “Ugly Slipper Contest” (we being me and my vastly more mature daughters).

The idea is that you have to find the ugliest slippers possible and wear them.
I always win.
This is because, as I've said, both my daughters are vastly more mature than I am and, after the initial giggles, they don’t really want to wear blue sparkly slippers with feathers.

But I do.
It’s amazing how many really ugly slippers there are out there. (I'm putting this in as a link, because even I can't stand the look of these slippers.)

We started out with Kippi slippers (named after the Israeli Sesame Street character Kippy Ben Kipod, who is a hedgehog [kipod in Hebrew – so his name is Kippi the son of a Hedgehog] and is roughly equivalent to Big Bird. Kippy is a boy, but is played by a girl).

Kippi Ben Kipod

Kippi wears ‘na’alei bayit’ (slippers), but of a particularly Israeli kind. In the olden days (up until about 10 years ago) Kippi slippers were available everywhere, and people wore them everywhere; shopping, to take the kids to school, to get your hair done, to work, to weddings…
Na'ali Bayit aka Kippi slippers
We've had blue slippers, and purple slippers, and pink slippers, and even all three colours at once. We've had fluffy slippers, scratchy slippers, and slippers that looked like rabbits. We've had slippers adorned with beads, glitter, feathers, and one pair, I could swear, was decorated with hardened humous.

Once, while visiting Jerusalem, I spotted the ugliest slippers ever. They cost a fortune, but nonetheless, I had to be torn away from the shop by my niece so that I wouldn't pollute Beer Sheva with them. But I so would have won. For years.

The nighttime temperature went down to 15°C a few days ago. This means that winter in on its way. It’s not actually here yet, because the daytime temperature is 31°C. (I heard there was snow already in the Old Country. Take that Old Country!!)

I therefore declare the Ugly Slipper Contest officially opened. The contest is open to one and all and there will be no prejudice regarding race, religion, colour, sex, nationality, or politics. The only requirement is the contestant needs to be immature childlike.
A few Previous Years' Winners - the ones we didn't throw out

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Weather We Like It or Not

Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet. 
Bob Marley

“I’m cold”.
“Excuse me?”
“I’m cold.”
I understood each word individually, but I didn’t understand them together. I asked my sweater-clad daughter to repeat herself one more time, slowly.
"I’m cold”.

I shook my head. Where I come from, the Old Country, cold was when we went indoors and our glasses fogged up. Cold was when we put the extra bread and milk outdoors to freeze when we ran out of room in the fridge. Cold was when we had to plug in the car. Cold was NOT 25 degrees Celsius.

Plugging in your car in the winter
Nonetheless, my daughter was persistent. “I’m cold” she insisted. I continued to scratch my head in perplexity.

Winter in Beer Sheva does not resemble winter in the Old Country, to put it mildly. Of course, summer in Beer Sheva does not resemble summer in the Old Country either, so I suppose it all comes out even.

I’m not really familiar with being cold. Or at least, I’m at the age when I can’t remember being cold. The last I remember was about three years ago when I had to take my then-teen-age son out one evening. It was December, and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. “Put on a sweater,” I told him, “it’s cold outside”. He obligingly put on a thin sweater and together we plunged into the dark. As we were walking, I noticed that he hugged his sweater around himself tighter and tighter.
“I told you it was cold,” I said. “You didn’t believe me.”
“I believed you,” he answered. “I just forgot what cold was”.
It was 15 degrees Celsius, with a wind.
That’s Beer Sheva in deep winter.
Not cold enough to plug in your car.

Last week was Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan (the beginning of the new month of Cheshvan).

The prefix ‘mar’ has been affixed to the name of the month – mar meaning bitter – in reference to the fact that it is the only month of the Jewish year without any official celebrations or holy days. However, our sages say that Cheshvan will be paid back for this slight by having the third Holy Temple inaugurated during this special month (quickly and in our days).

In addition, MarCheshvan has the added significance of being regarded as the start of winter and associated with the first precious drops of rain; a sign – in the Land of Israel – of G-d’s blessings to His People.

Though ‘mar’ is widely held to mean bitter, it has another meaning. Mar also means a drop of water and refers to the first rains that fall in Cheshvan.

The Book of Kings 1 the month refers to Cheshvan as the month of Bool.

וּבַשָּׁנָה הָאַחַת עֶשְׂרֵה בְּיֶרַח בּוּל הוּא הַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁמִינִי כָּלָה הַבַּיִת לְכָל דְּבָרָיו וּלְכָל מִשְׁפָּטָו, וַיִּבְנֵהוּ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים. מלכים א 6:38

And in the eleventh year, in the month Bool, which is the eighth month (counting from Nissan [ed note]), was the house finished throughout all the parts thereof, and according to all the fashion of it. So was he (Solomon) seven years in building it. (Kings 1 6:38)

There are different interpretations for the name of Bool. It might refer to the withering or dying summer grasses (baleh) or come from the word yevul (produce) because Cheshvan is the month for reaping the final crop of the summer and beginning the plowing and planting of the winter crop. Most commentaries, however, maintain that the name Bool comes from the fact that Noah’s flood – mabool – (which we read about this Shabbat) started and ended in Cheshvan. Our sages say that the rains started on the 17th of the month and a year later on the 27th Noah and crew docked on Har Arrarat, and on the morrow brought a sacrifice to G-d. And for the first time in recorded history, a rainbow was seen in the sky.

And since Noah’s time, rain features heavily in Cheshvan. On the 7th of the month an important line is added to our prayers requesting rain – “ותן טל ומטר לברכה” “…and grant dew and rain for a blessing”. If no rain has fallen by the 17th of the month, special prayers and fasting begin.

The saying ‘everyone complains about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it’ is not applicable to Judaism.
Not only do we pray for rain, but every day, we say in the shma prayer: And it will come to pass that if you listen to my commandments…. To love your G-d with all your heart and with all your might and with all your soul – then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early and the late rains, that you many gather in your grains… Beware that your heart is not seduced and you turn astray and will serve the gods of others…. The wrath of G-d will blaze against you. He will restrain the heaven so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce. (Deuteronomy 11-13:21)

What does this mean? It means that if we live our lives in a certain way, then rain will fall and our crops will flourish and we’ll have enough to eat, and we don’t they won’t and we will starve.

According to the Torah, rainfall in Israel and the resulting crops are directly dependent on our living a Torah life.

Of course, there are plenty who scoff at such ideas and give statistics of cyclical rainfall, of geographic patterns, fault lines and yada yada yada. They maintain that weather just is.

However, if we take a closer look at the words in Deuteronomy, and if we understand what living a Torah life means, we might see that our actions very much affect the weather.

To love your G-d with all your heart and with all your might and with all your soul – then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time If we love G-d and believe Him to be the source of life, we will have rain. This meaning is simple enough.

Beware that your heart is not seduced and you turn astray and will serve the gods of others…. What are the gods of others? Well, yes, this could mean Zeus and Apollo, but it could also mean: money, power, self-gratification—anything that prevents you from worshiping G-d as He commands. If earning money is more important than keeping Shabbat, or if enjoying a cheeseburger is more urgent than keeping kosher, then we are worshiping other gods.

And so: He will restrain the heaven so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce. If we waste His gifts (the commandments, i.e., Shabbat, kashrut, etc.) and seek self-gratification over love of G-d, then rain won’t fall and the fields won’t yield their bounty.

However, before you ridicule this theory, you must remember that G-d’s gifts to us are not only the commandments. He has also gifted us with an exquisite Land—a holy Land. But if we live a life of waste and are uncaring of G-d’s gifts to us – the environment, the water, natural resources – the weather will change. We know that in the last half century, less rain has fallen, rivers that flowed for millennia have dried up, our lakes have shrunk, and the temperatures have significantly risen. None of those things ‘just happened.’ The causes of all these are man-made; excess use of carbons, pollutions, over-use of water and other resources.
Israel does not have the worst environmental record in the Western world; we are the only country to have ended the 20th century with more trees than at the beginning (1000s more!). Nonetheless, we have a long way to go.

During the month of Tishrei, we look inward and tried to correct the faults in ourselves. Now, in the month of MarCheshvan, it is a good time to look outward – to the outside world and try to do a literal tikkun olam.

On Rosh HaShana, we learn that each mitzvah we undertake has the potential of swinging the balance of the world towards good or evil. So too, each of our small environmental actions has a great impact. Use less water, walk instead of drive. Recycle. Pick up your trash.
We are told over and over the importance of teaching our children mitzvot and passing on our heritage. We should take the same care in passing on our Land – G-d’s greatest gift to us – in the same condition as we received it, or even better.

Use Cheshvan to show a love of G-d’s gifts to us, and therefore of G-d himself, and maybe Cheshvan will be the month of our redemption b’mhera be’hamenu.

Satellite image of the Land of Israel