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.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Calves and Spies and Summertime

Hate the sin, love the sinner
Mahatma Gandhi

Summer in Israel is almost schizophrenic. On one hand, the kids are on vacation, it’s hot, the pools are full, it’s time to plan a family vacation, and left right and center people seem to be getting engaged and married.

On the other hand, smack dab in the middle of all the fun and pool and heat, it’s the three weeks; the time between 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, where festivities are banned, weddings, movies, haircuts are forbidden, and even bathing is limited. These three weeks really put a damper on summer fun. I propose getting rid of this mournful time, and replacing it with a time of joy.

I have a plan.

But first, let’s have a look at the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, the days that begin and end the three-week period of mourning.

Five events occurred in Tammuz, causing it to be a month of sorrow:
  1. The breaking of the tablets of the law by Moshe Rabbenu in the desert, after the sin of the Golden Calf. 
  2. The walls of Jerusalem were breached during the times of both the First and Second Temple. 
  3. The Tamid sacrifices were discontinued. 
  4. The Torah was burned, for the first time, by the Roman General Apostamus. (the only record we actually have of this is in the Talmud; the identity of the Apostamus has been debated for years. Whatever the case, his burning of the Torah opened the door to the desecration of thousands of Jewish Holy books over the cednturies.
  5. Placing a statue of a god in the Holy Temple by this same Apostamus. 
The Five events that occurred on the 9th of  Av are:
  1. The sin of the spies, which occurred after the exodus from Egypt. 
  2. The destruction of the First Temple. 
  3. The destruction of the Second Temple. 
  4. The plowing over of Jerusalem, and the subsequent prohibition of Jews from living there. 
  5. The fall of Beitar, marking the end of Jewish Sovereignty in the Land for 2000 years. 

Seemingly,  the Tammuz events led directly to the events of Av, except for the first one. The Sin of the Golden Calf, and the consequent breaking of the tablets didn’t lead to the Sin of the Spies. On the contrary; the Sin of the Golden Calf should have prevented the Sin of the Spies. Had we learned from our first sin, our history could have been very different.

It was not the entire nation that was guilty of the Sin of the Golden Calf. Firstly, the women did not participate. Secondly, neither did the Leviim. Finally, our sages tell us that it was the 'mixed multitude', which came out of Egypt with the Israelites, who were responsible for the creation of the Calf. The majority of the nation actually stood aside, not knowing exactly what to do. Even the leaders - Aaron, Miriam, Nachshon, Yehoshua and Calev -  did not even bother to speak out against it. Nobody did. Therein lay the sin. ‘
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,’ said Edmund Burke

When Moshe Rabbenu descended from the Mountain and realized what was going on, his anger was such that he threw down the tablets with such fury that the stones shattered into pieces. His rage was so great that he wanted G-d to destroy the whole nation. "Yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin--; and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written. (Exodus 32:32) It was G-d who refused to kill them all.

3000 people were put to death by the Leviim and several 1000s more died in the epidemic which followed. Ultimately Bnei Yisrael were forgiven for their sin on the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, which is why our sages describe the day as a joyful and festive holiday.

The Sin of the Spies, on the other hand, involved each and every male of the nation (again, the women did not participate and were therefore granted the privilege of entering the Land), not just the mixed multitude, and including the Leviim.
However, unlike the Golden Calf episode, where everyone kept silent,  two people spoke up to the people to try to convince them of their mistake; Calev and Yehoshua. But the people didn’t listen.

Despite all the miracles that had happened in Egypt, despite all the wonders the Children of Israel had witnessed in the desert, they still lacked the belief and trust in G-d to enter the Land. Even though G‑d had forgiven them for their great sin of the Golden Calf, they still were not sure enough to fight for the Land which He had promised them, and fulfill the mitzvot there.

The first step of Israel's redemption was coming out of Egypt; the second step was receiving the Torah. The third and final step was to bring us into the Land. 

Yet, instead of learning from the Sin of the Golden Calf how precious we are to G-d, instead of understanding that G-d means what He says and says what He means (to paraphrase Rav Suess), we again turned our backs on His words.
At the Sin of the Spies, it was G-d who wanted to destroy the nation on the spot and make a new nation from Moshe. This time however, it was Moshe who refused, telling G-d that would be a desecration of His Name. The nations of the world, said Moshe, would claim that G-d wasn’t omnipotent after all, and that He couldn’t conquer the Land, and, therefore, He destroyed His people in the desert.

Over the next 38 years, 600,000 men died in the desert because of the Sin of the Spies (which is the same number of Jews who lived in the Land on  May 14, 1948). A whole generation died and a new one had to arise before the Land could be taken.

But Bnei Israel were never forgiven for their sin, for their doubt in G-d’s word, for their rejection of the Land. The Temples were destroyed, the Land was forsaken, and in later history, the first crusade was declared, the expulsion of the Jewish Communities from both England and Spain commenced on this day, the first of the transports from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp started on this day, and in our very modern times, the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1994 occurred on Tisha B’av, and of course, the destruction of Gush Katif began, leading, not only to exile and homelessness of 10,000 people,  but to physical danger to over a quarter of a million people and counting here in the south of the Land.

In the Sin of the Golden Calf we rejected the Torah, but G-d forgave us.
In the Sin of the Spies, we rejected the Land, and for that we are still suffering.

I recently read a parable about a beautiful princess looking for a husband. She would watch the prospective suitor for a few days, unbeknownst to him. Did he speak politely to the servants? Did he act honorably towards the people in the market? Was he honest in his dealings? If all was affirmative, she would go to meet him in her finest clothes and jewels. If his actions did not meet with her approval, she would meet him dressed in rags and looking like an old hag, so that he would not want to marry her and he would reject her. In the parable, the princess is the Land of Israel, the suitor is the People of Israel.

When we rejected the Torah, we were forgiven, because the Torah is everywhere, in all our actions. We can just reach out and take it, and love it and follow it and it is ours. Even in a barren desert.

But the rejection of the Land has caused suffering for 3300 years.

There are many reasons not to live in Israel:

It's hard to fine a job. Learning a new language is very difficult. It’s too hot and dusty. The political situation is terrible. Lousy neighbors. There are no dividers in the supermarkets, and there's no Starbucks.
Conquering and living in the Land requires commitment and sacrifice, perseverance and Love.

What we must understand is that when we reject the Land, it is really the Land that is rejecting us – she has dressed herself in rags, and that is what we see. Why is she rejecting us? Perhaps we are not acting honorably or honestly. Perhaps we are running after false gods. Perhaps we are indulging in Lashon Harah, and almost certainly we are practicing too much Sinat Chinam - baseless hatred -  towards our people. And this time round, the women are as guilty as the men.

But the Land, in the words of Yehoshua bin Nun, is a very very good land.

To those reading this who have not yet made the commitment to live in the Land, what's keeping you? How many miracles does it take to convince you that this is where you need to be?

And to those who are living here, kol hakavod, but it's not the end of the story.

Hence, my plan.

We must behave accordingly. We must act honorably and honestly. We must be upright in our actions, just in all our dealings, and probably most important of all, we must practice Ahavat Chinam - baseless love; to love, not only G-d with all our hearts and all our souls and all our might, but to love our fellow Jews, and to show that love in our daily actions.

And if we can do that, then surely the Temple will soon be rebuilt, and hasten the days of the Mashiach, as the prophet Zechariah says:

כה אמר ה, ה צבאות, צום הרביעי וצום החמישי וצום השביעי וצום העשירי יהיה לבית יהודה לששון ולשמחה, ולמועדים טובים, והאמת והשלום אהבו.

"Thus says the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall become times of joy and gladness, and happy times to the house of Yehuda; therefore love the truth and peace." (Zechariah 8:19)

We have already witnessed uncountable miracles here in our Land. Perhaps if we all work just a little harder, we can be witnesses to the greatest of miracles. Speedily, and in our time.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Hugs and Quiches

Good friends help you to find important things when you have lost them… your smile, your hope, and your courage.
- Doe Zantamata

Several years ago, I invited a woman I had just met to an informal get-together. "It'll be fun", I told her in an email, "you'll meet lots of new people". "No thanks", she answered back, "I don't need to meet more people. I have enough friends."

I still don't understand what she meant. How do you have enough friends? You can never have enough friends.[1]

It’s not always easy to make friends. You need to find someone with common interests, who understands you and whom you understand, and most importantly, someone who wants to be friends. 

(I’ve met more people than I thought possible who ‘have enough friends’, and aren’t particularly friendly. But I usually win them over; what can I say? I’m a charmer…..)

At difficult times, sometimes the ear or the shoulder of a good friend is all you need to get through, to persevere. A good friend is even better than a large serving of chocolate chocolate chip ice cream. Hard to believe, I know. 

almost enough

And so, after a particularly difficult week, I spent a morning at the Kotel, and the afternoon at lunch with friends.

Here’s a funny thing. Before that lunch, I had never met several of my friends.

But I knew them instantly when I saw an impressive group of ladies walking in the street.

“Hi”! I said to them. “I’m Reesa”.

“Oh!! Reesa!! It’s Reesa, everyone! Oh it’s so lovely to see you!” And one by one they all gave me a hug.

Five, six, seven, eight hugs. Like friends, you can never have too many hugs. 

These friends are a 'virtual' group of friends; a group of women who speak to each other mostly online, on Facebook; who share their days, their anxieties, their pains, their joys, their lives with each other, with no judgement or arguments, but with understanding, empathy, compassion, and appreciation.

You really can't have too many of those kind of friends.

On a certain level, I have little in common with these women; they are intelligent, lovely, attractive, talented. Áll I've got going for me is that I can make lemon meringue pie.

But on a deeper level, I have everything in common with them; hope and fear, pain and joy, weakness and strength.

After my difficult week, my morning at the Kotel cleared my mind. 'Lunching with the ladies' energized me. It gave me strength to face the problems and stresses I had taken a break from.  

There's nothing better in a time of stress than  friends. 
Except, of course, friends with chocolate chocolate chip ice cream. 

I'm allowed to be sappy once in a while

[1] True, not every acquaintance is a friend. Also true, you only NEED one friend, but really? The more the merrier, no?

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Even in its destruction, it is a blessed Land
-Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the Ramban)

I had a lousy week. You know the kind, they happen to everyone; running out of milk right in the middle of your bowl of cereal, being stuck in traffic for 15 minutes causing you to be late for your morning coffee, being a witness to a shouting match with colleagues at work, who then both complain to you, discovering rats in the ceiling....

While, far worse things happen (and do in this Land), stupid things like those take their toll, and I felt I needed and deserved a day off from work. A group of Facebook friends were meeting in Jerusalem, and I decided that I would join them, and spend the day in the city, eating good food, seeing lovely people, meeting up with my daughter, and, most importantly, staying away, for one day, from the rat poop.

One of the things I love about Beer Sheva is that it is only one hour and 15 minutes by bus from Jerusalem, How many cities in the world are an hour and a quarter away from Jerusalem?  Very few, that's how many. And there are buses approximately every half hour. AND the buses have free wifi.

As I mentioned, I had had a lousy week. I was irritated, bad tempered, and had some serious decisions to make. I therefore decided to leave Beer Sheva early, and spend the morning at the Kotel (aka Western Wall) - something I hadn't done in years - before meeting friends for lunch.

I have been to the Kotel many times over the years, but it was always for some occasion; a military swearing-in ceremony for my sons, a siddur party for my daughter, a friend's son's bar mitzvah, a family meeting place, or just a quick stop to daven mincha (we'll meet you back in 10 minutes!). It's been years since I'd been to the Kotel on my own for some quality introspection. It was time to go.

I arrived in Jerusalem at about 9:30 AM. My first hurdle in the Holy City was getting on the train. Israel has recently had a 'transportation revolution' which has caused me, once again, to have no idea at all how to pay for a bus ride. The train ride was simply beyond all understanding. In the end, I think I rode for free. There was an inspector on the train with me (and the other 12,354 passengers), and I prepared myself to flee if I saw him coming near. But I was safe, and I got off at my stop without mishap.

I love visiting Jerusalem. Everywhere you go and everywhere you look modernity harmonizes with antiquity, mundane melds with holiness, cultures mingle seemingly without effort. Jerusalem, according to Wikepedia, has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.

Jerusalem is not only one of the most ancient cities in the world, it's also one of the most modern. And it absolutely reeks with history.

King David Hotel, the YMCA, and a building chrane

Situated in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem - which itself is surrounded by a stone wall rebuilt the Sultan Suleiman in the 1500s - the Kotel plaza is the closest to the Temple Mount (where the two Jewish Temples stood) that Jews are allowed to pray.  It wasn't always the closest. For 19 years -  from the foundation of the reborn State of of Israel in 1948, until the Six Day War in 1967 - Jews were not allowed access to the Old City at all, including the Kotel, by the Jordanian army, which controlled the area.  Under Israeli rule, of course, the Old City and its holy places are open with free access to all [except for the Temple Mount, where Jews, to this day, are not allowed to pray (!)].

But this post isn't supposed to be about politics.
It's supposed to be about me.

It should be said that all roads lead, not to Rome, but to the Kotel. I alighted from my free train ride and headed up the road. There's a very special miracle that occurs only in Jerusalem. No matter in which direction you walk, it's always uphill. Even if you climb up a hill,  turn around and go the other way, the hill tilts- like a teeter totter - and you walk back still going uphill.

I entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate (שער יפו), so named because when the wall was built, that was the gate you had to leave by to go to Jaffa. [There's also a Damascus Gate, which in Hebrew is called the Shchem Gate (שער שכם). Shchem, in English, is Nablus, (which is not really English, but Arabic, but adopted by the English because, I suppose, they can't say a guttural ch) and not Damascus, which in Hebrew is Damesek (דמשק). I suppose if you speak English you have to go to Damascus, but if you speak Hebrew, you have to go to Shchem. I don't know where you have to go if you speak Arabic.
But I digress.]

Jaffa Gate

The Jaffa Gate is where the Citadel of David is situated.

Citadel of David

Upon entering the gate, the road splits into two; one way leading to the Arab shuk and the Moslem Quarter, and the other to the Armenian and Christian Quarters. While the shuk is a great place to wander, full of colors and aromas, I opted for the Armenian quarter.

I promptly got lost.
I love getting lost.
I was in no hurry, had hours before my lunch date, the day was beautiful, the air clear. So I enjoyed myself.

There are very few cars in the Old City; most of the roads are for pedestrians only. The buildings are all stone, many rebuilt since the destruction that took place in that 19-year interval mentioned above.

Rebuilt wall

I meandered through the streets. One can only meander there. One can't stride or march, or traipse, or sprint. Ambling is possible, but bustling is decidedly not. And certainly, there is no strutting or prancing.  There are too many windows to look into, too many signs to read, too much history to process, too many diverse cultures and people to watch, too many gorgeous children to smile at to hurry.

Armenian artwork for sale
An embrasure or arrowslit, to shoot arrows from

Sign outside the Jewish Quarter of the Old City
I meandered.

The Old City is pretty small, so even meandering, it didn't take me more than 10 minutes to arrive at the center of the Jewish Quarter.  I knew I had arrived because of the noise of the crowds, and because towering above the plaza, is the Hurva Synagogue.

I sat there a few minutes, drank some water, and continued on my way to the Kotel.

The Kotel is guarded by lions,

a golden menorah,

and an army of determined defenders

And finally

I descended to the Kotel. (These are the only stairs that actually go down in the whole city. All the other stairs, no matter in which direction you are headed, go up.)

The Kotel plaza is made of white stone - walls, pavement, and stairs, It can be blinding, and hot.  I found myself a chair, planted it in the shade of the Mughrabi Bridge, which leads to the Temple Mount, and sat.

My view of the Kotel from my chair

There were a lot of people there, hundreds probably, coming and going; tourists, teenagers, babies, pensioners. Some were there for what was obviously the first time, others come daily. But it's a very large area, so it was not at all crowded. The atmosphere was still and relaxed, Everyone behaved respectfully, and considerately,  Nobody shouted, or bellowed, or demanded.  A few begged. Some gawked. Many wept. Many more smiled.  Almost everyone prayed.

I sat for a long time. I watched, I listened, I reflected. I dreamt. I meditated. I prayed. Much of the time, my eyes were closed. When I finally looked at my watch, an hour and a half had passed. It was almost time to go.  Before I went, however, I wanted to touch the stones. I had been sitting well back from the Wall on my own; but I needed to get closer.

Right next to the Wall was a another wall made of humans, and an unfortunate amount of elbowing is often required to get near it. I usually don't get there. There are people who have permanent places next to the Wall, others who stand there for hours. It took a few minutes, but, on this occasion I managed to wiggle my way through the human layer, without any pushing, and place my hands on the cool stones. I found myself leaning my head against them, and then my whole body.

The Stones

I stood there, only a few minutes. But it was enough. I stood straight, brushed the tears from my cheeks, and backed away.

There is a custom to back away from the Kotel, so that your back is not toward the Holy Temple Mount.

 One meets a lot of people by doing this. ("Oh so sorry, didn't see you there, I'm walking backwards. Come here often?")

Taking advantage of the cold water tank placed next to the steps, I left the site.  I had made no decisions, drawn no conclusions, made no commitments, yet I felt a great relief, and a knowledge, that, despite being employed in a building that housed dead rats, life can be sweet, even when it doesn't feel good.  Even walking up what seemed like thousands of steps, I felt immeasurably lighter than when I had come.

I meandered back through the streets past Zion Gate,

and David's Tower,

and out of the Old City, and on to my lunch date.

Which will have to wait for another post.