Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Times for Joy

"May the Merciful One restore for us the fallen sukkah of David [i.e. the Holy Temple]."

I have always loved that I live in Israel. I love the sunrises and the sunsets. I love the blue skies, and the starry nights. I love seeing Hebrew on road signs, and I love hearing dogs bark in Hebrew (huv huv). I love being able to say Shabbat Shalom, and Erev Tov (good evening) to random strangers as I walk in the neighborhood. I love that I know the geography of the country and that you can travel one hour and not only is the landscape dramatically different, so is the climate.
I love that at holiday time, the supermarkets are full of special foods for the holidays. I love the fact that the day after the Festival of Succot is over, soofganiyot are available everywhere.
All this time, and it never gets old.

There is so much in the Land that is peculiarly Israeli.
The buses say Happy Holiday!.

People sing the national anthem while traveling on the bus. (confession, I tear up each time I see this video. Corny, eh?)

Stores sell these kind of items:

Milk knives

Shoes for Yom Kippur

We are in the middle of the holiday season, here in the Holy Land. This comes with it's own set of challenges, which you wouldn't find in any other country.

This year, because the holidays fall mid week (week after week after week), no work gets done. It's one thing to have to wait until 'after the chagim' to receive the package you are waiting for, or to fix the the drip in your toilet - annoying enough as that is - it's quite another to find that the supermarkets are out of eggs and cucumbers, and lettuce, and chickens, and apples, and bananas, because there was no one to gather the eggs, or shecht enough chickens, or pick the cucumbers and lettuce, or ship the apples and bananas, because EVERYONE was celebrating the holidays. The problem is exacerbated by EVERYONE eating ALL THE TIME, and the stores run out of food.

Special holiday foods are, in fact, sold in most supermarkets throughout the holiday season. Pomegranates and fresh dates dominate the produce sections.  are Stacked next to apples of all colors are jars of different flavored honey - red, green, yellow and pink (that's the honey). And in the freezer section, one can find cuts of meats not always available year round: lamb chops, veal, and even goat meat. This is in addition, of course, to packaged sheep heads.

Courtesy of Rich Tasgal
 I suppose that grocers put the sheep heads into the freezer to kill people's appetites so they won't buy so much and the supermarkets won't run out of food (see above). Devilishly clever that - a yiddishe kop.

Israel is probably the only country in the world that comes to a complete stop on a religious festival. On Yom Kippur, throughout Israel, there are no cars on the road; no buses, taxis, or trucks. This, of course, allows children to ride their bikes, scooters, skates, wagons, Segways, snowmobiles (admittedly rare), horse-drawn sleds, buggies, mopeds, unicycles, broomsticks, chariots, oxcarts, wheelbarrows, and rickshaws, up and down the otherwise empty streets. And down and up and up and down and up again. When one of these adorable, rambunctious children rams his 4000 NIS electric bike right into the empty stomach of an unalert adult walking to prayers, ambulances can't get through, because the road is blocked with discarded skateboards and bamba wrappers.

Even in the relatively secular neighborhood in which we live, there are sukkot in many of the yards. When we sat outside in our sukkot we could hear other families partaking in the holiday meals also. Up and down the road, families were singing, conversing, playing, laughing, arguing, shouting, screaming, slurping soup, and banging on drums till 4 AM.

The holiday of Sukkot is known as זמן שמחתינו - the time of joy. After the somber days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a time when we sit outside in a modest hut, relying on G-d's graciousness, and delighting in His gifts to us, including the blue skies, the soofganiyot, the lack of eggs, and the neighbors.

Wishing all of Am Yisrael a festive, joyous, warm (but not hot), and wonderful Sukkot!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gone Shopping. I'll Be Back in a Week

"The odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one."
-Erma Bombeck

In my first years in Israel, shopping was not a difficult chore. This was mostly because there was nothing to buy. (Every time I went to visit the Old Country, I returned to the Land with a suitcase full of Head and Shoulders shampoo, Colgate toothpaste, and Zest soap, all completely unattainable in Israel.) Many neighborhood grocery stores were the size of a small bedroom (sometimes they actually were a small bedroom), where most of the merchandise was behind a counter and you had to ask for it. This was challenging on a few levels. First, you had to get the attention of the storekeeper, who was: a) chatting up some girl, b) counting bags of pasta, c) snoozing, or d) willfully ignoring you as part of his job description. Second, you had to know exactly what you wanted before purchasing it. There was no browsing or impulse buying, and no improvising if something looked better because you couldn’t actually see anything. Third – and the hardest part for the language-challenged person such as myself – you had to know how to say what you wanted in Hebrew. You had to go into the store and bravely tell the shopkeeper “I want some cheese, please." And the shopkeeper would answer "What kind of cheese?" It wasn’t enough just to ask for cheese. You had to say white cheese with 9% fat. Or simply 9%. You had to say “I want some 9%, please.” Of course, the shopkeeper, would then reply “9% of what??”

But, as I said, shopping wasn’t difficult because I avoided these grocery stores completely and ate mostly at ice cream parlours. Pointing to the large containers of colourful ice cream is much easier (and tastier) than asking for cheese. To heck with the fat content. 

Things have changed dramatically in the Land since then. Huge shopping centers dot the countryside replacing orange groves and ancient olive trees and, unfortunately, ice cream parlours.

Today, supermarkets are abundant and enormous and they all have the word ‘super’ in their names: 'SuperSol' (named after the original owner Solomon[1]) and ‘Supermarket’ (in case you didn’t know where you were) started the trend, and has since gotten a bit out of hand with the SuperDuper Store, the ‘SuperWonderful Store’ the HyperSuper Store and the SuperDuperHyperAmazing Store. They are all the same – acres and acres of foods, sundries, pharmaceuticals, kitchen ware, office supplies, small electrical appliances, flowers, lawn furniture, 46” HR TVs, lawn mowers, flags, wooden models of wild animals, and baby rose bushes. But no limes.

Normally, I’m not daunted by grocery shopping. It’s a chore I do weekly and I know my way around most supermarkets in the city.

During the ‘Holiday” season, which is now upon us, simple shopping can be somewhat overwhelming.

In the Old Country, there is the concept of 'loss leader'. The theory was that a store would actually take a loss on the price of selected items and thereby entice shoppers to come to the store to buy the more expensive items along with the very cheap ones.

There is no such concept here in the Holy Land. Nobody is going to risk losing a buck. What are we, friars? Instead. stores offer exotic items for sale, hard-to-get 'necessities' not available elsewhere. Produce such as fresh coconuts or pineapples, once completely unavailable, are now found in many supermarkets close to the holidays. Some supermarkets advertise 'American products', such as Heinz, or Hellman's or Del Monte, to pull customers in. Other stores stock up on household items such as sets of dishes, pretty serving platters, or washing machines to entice shoppers to choose their establishment for their holiday shopping. Some supermarkets will sell clothes and shoes to make the store a 'one stop shopping for all your holiday needs'!

However, I don't know how to cut a fresh pineapple, nobody in the family likes coconut, and, despite five kids, I don't need another washing machine.

What I look for is cheap potatoes and chicken.

Alas. That is not to be. Like our prayers, prices soar in proximity to holidays.

Iinstead, I look for the cheapest potatoes and chicken. Also cornflakes. Unfortunately, the store with a deal on chicken has really expensive potatoes. And, obviously, the other way around. The best potatoes are are found in a place with overpriced chicken, which also happen to be teeny weeny chickens. And cornflakes are universally expensive.

In our community, every year on the first day of the holiday of Sukkot, we have a 'sukka hop', where the kids go from sukka to sukka grabbing cookies.

I bring in this lovely custom a bit early, and with a slight twist. I go on a supermarket hop, hopping from supermarket to supermarket grabbing carrots from one, Hellman's mayonnaise from another, and, what the heck, a spare washing machine from the third.

At least I don't have to shop for Yom Kippur.

Wishing good shopping and Gmar Chatima Tova to all of Am Yisrael!

Gone 1] The real name is actually ShuferSal – Sal being a basket, but there is a story somewhere about David Ben-Gurion striking a deal with an American to bring a supermarket to Israel.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Shana Tova U'Metuka

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ חָנֵּנוּ וַעֲנֵנוּ כִּי אֵין בָּנוּ מַעֲשִׂים עֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ צְדָקָה וָחֶסֶד וְהוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ
Our Father, our King, be gracious unto us and answer us; for we are unworthy; deal with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.
From the Rosh HaShana Liturgy

On the evening of Rosh Hashana, there is a custom to dip an apple in honey and say the blessing:
יהי רצון מלפניך, א-לוקינו וא‑לוקי אבותינו, שתחדש עלינו שנה טובה ומתוקה
May it be Your will, Lord our G-d and G-d of our ancestors, that you renew for us a good and sweet year .

On the days between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) and the last day of the holiday of Sukkot, it is customary to put a bit of honey on one’s bread, rather than dip it in salt, as we do the rest of the year. This is to symbolize our prayers that we be merited to have a sweet year.

I have several honey pots, collected over the years, which are used specifically for this period.
I take out the pots on the eve of Rosh HaShana, and fill one or two with honey. The day after Sukkot, I scrape out whatever honey remains, and put away our honey pots for the year.

A sweet year

As we approach the New Year, the smell of autumn is in the air. This, despite the fact that there is no autumn in southern Israel. Leaves don't change color, there is no feeling of dampness in the air, and there is no respite from the temperatures, which are just as high as they have been for the past five months. The only small difference is that it gets cooler a bit earlier in the evening, and the maximum temperatures are reached only later in the morning. In other words, instead of being 36 degrees by 7:30 AM, it doesn't get there until about 9:00. But every little bit helps.

This past summer was very hot in Israel; breaking records hot. Walking outside, one's feet melted into the sidewalk. So hot, that I could make tea by just turning on the tap. And it was the cold water tap. So hot, that by the time I got the bread that I bought home, it had turned to toast. So hot, Israeli chickens were laying boiled eggs.

The best part of the summer was that there was no war. It was hot, but not THAT hot. 

While the Holy Days do not usher in the cooler weather (not in Israel anyway), they do usher in a time of holiness.

Let us proclaim the holiness of this day for it is awe-inspiring and fearsome” says the Unetanneh Tokef prayer.

In most neighborhoods, one can hear the sound of the shofar in the early mornings for the entire month before the holiday, as a reminder to stop and face G-d, to renew our commitment to Him, to our Nation and to the Torah. It is far more pleasant to wake up to the unique resonance of the Shofar than, say, the noise of garbage trucks, or the blast of a siren warning of an incoming missile. 

According to custom, prayers said during the month of Elul are twelve times more powerful than the other months. At prayer times, in the morning and afternoon, one can see men scurrying to ad hoc minyanim, interrupting the regular schedule of their days, because it is Elul. Women can be seen on buses, in waiting rooms, and on park benches saying Psalms or listening to divrei Torah. People who are involved in talking to G-d, are often nicer, less aggressive, calmer. 

I've received dozens of calls from various organizations in the last few weeks asking for donations.
They call now, just before the holiday, because before Rosh HaShana is a propitious time to give to those in need. It is also a reminder how much we do have, how much we don't need; how much we should be thankful for. 

תשובה, תפילה, צדקה מעבירים את רוע הגזירה
Repentance, Prayer, and Charity change the evil of the decree.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - past chief Rabbi of the UK - says it like this:

By returning to one's innermost self (teshuvah), by attaching oneself to G-d (tefillah) and by distributing one's possessions with righteousness (tzedakah), one turns the promise of Rosh Hashanah into the abundant fulfillment of Yom Kippur: A year of sweetness and plenty.

On Rosh HaShana, Jews wish each other a ‘good and sweet’ year (שנה טובה ומתוקה). Why both good and sweet? Isn’t good – well – good enough?

We believe that everything G-d does is good. Often, we can’t immediately see the good. There are times when we NEVER see the good. We, as mere mortals, are not able to see the tapestry that is life and history. We can’t know how some events affect world affairs, except perhaps in the here and now. And sometimes, the here and now seems to really suck. So we wish each other a sweet year. We know it will be good, because everything G-d does is for the good. But we want it to be sweet; that we should recognize it immediately as good.

May we merit the courage to accept 'no' as an answer and the wisdom to recognize the good,
May we merit a year of joy and happiness, of comfort and of pride, a year of calm and rest.
And may all of Israel merit a year of sweetness and good.

!!שנה טובה ומתוקה