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Monday, April 27, 2015

When Oys mix with Joys

The excitement leading up to Yom Haatzmaut  (Independence Day) celebrations here is palpable.  Flags and banners start appearing all over and naturally the kids have much preparation at school.  In the week before though, we commemorate the Holocaust and remember the victims.  It's true that we have "won" in the sense that we, the next generations, are still here, but of course we also lost.  And we lost big.  And they don't pull any punches in teaching the children about it.   I was raised by the children of survivors, so the Holocaust was always present when I was growing up.  It was something of a family joke that we could depend on our father to mention Auschwitz or the Nazis at every family gathering, including the happy occasions.  He certainly never forgot.  But--and I could be wrong-- I don't think most of my friends had the same experience. 

On the other hand,  kids here start hearing about the Holocaust in Kindergarten through stories, but A learned things in first grade that made her cry.  I'm not arguing that she can conceptualize what happened, but really who can?  It's so horrifically unfathomable.  Growing up here it becomes part of their consciousness from earliest memories.  A week later is Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) for fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terror.  This day purposefully falls the day before Yom Haatzmaut.  I've heard some argue that it's not right to make such a sudden transition from such sadness to such joy, and that it hurts them to see the celebrations right after the commemoration for their loved ones, but I can see how it works to have it that way.  Memorial day is a very somber and hard day.  The whole nation marks it, with ceremonies, stores closing and two one-minute sirens where even cars pull over and the drivers get out, and everyone wherever you are, stops and bows their head.  It's a hard day for the nation.  It would be impossible to grow up here and not be aware of the sacrifice that others have made for our privilege.  A has been taking care of one of her dolls who was "shot" while in the Army and was "saved at the Army hospital" but now requires full time care.  It registers.

On Yom Haatzmaut I took the kids to a free festival about 25 minutes from our house.  Michael had to work so I teamed up with another mom whose husband was working.  But in the car it was just me and the kids, and about 12 minutes into our drive we passed through a check-point over the "infamous" green line.  In the weeks building up to Yom Haatzmaut, flags for your car appear out of nowhere.  So as we passed the checkpoint I started wondering if it was such a good idea to be driving along with an Israeli flag flying on my car.  Like a target.  I mean, we have Israeli license plates so it's not like we're driving through anonymously, but in the moment I started to feel nervous.  The kids are not immune.  It doesn't take them long to figure out that all the guards (in front of their school, entrance to the mall, entrance to parking lots etc.) are to "make sure bad guys with bombs don't come in".  So as I started discussing with them whether perhaps we should take the flag down while driving through this area, I lowered the window and the flag flew away.  I felt like a traitor, and then I noticed that every 10 kilometers or so there were soldiers standing on the hilltops.  Clearly there was a need.  N remarked "One day in a few years that will be me standing on the hill guarding our nation." To which L replied, "No N, we don't want you to die."  So was I wrong to want to take the flag down while driving in my own country?

Well, a couple of days later a close friend called to tell me about her Yom Haatzmaut.  They had been invited to join Israeli cousins on a guided tour near the Kotel (Western Wall).  The bus driver took a "wrong turn" into East Jerusalem, and as he tried to turn around to leave, several young children were positioned in the  road to block the bus and force it to stop, and then a group of men ambushed my friend's bus.  They attacked the bus with metal bars, smashing the windows and sending broken glass flying inside, and throwing rocks. 

I work hard not to divide the world into "us" and "them" for all of the obvious reasons, but how can "we" negotiate with people who purposefully put their small children in harm's way and want their children to witness this type of brutality?  Fortunately, the only physical injuries to the families on the bus were some facial lacerations, but the unseen marks were left.  Their young son kept screaming "why do they want to kill us?"  After a harrowing few minutes soldiers arrived and evacuated them.  If you're thinking that you didn't hear about it on the news because you're reading this from outside of Israel, it wasn't on our news either.  Not sure why.

It turns out the scariest part of the day for me was when we arrived and I had to park the car.  After almost 3 years, I'm completely down with makeshift parking lots.  It's often like going to a country fair and parking in fields.  What I wasn't prepared for was being asked to reverse into a spot that ended in a precipice with a sharp drop.  I don't have specific phobias, but since I respect a good incline and I prefer to drive forward, I refused.   No problem.  The guard told me to just drive to the end and "find something".  Fortunately, two soldiers were able to move a couple of plastic chairs that were in the place of a perfectly good parking spot and all was well.  The kids had a great time.  There were so many activities to do, but the kids did note the prevalence of men in street clothes carrying guns.  When you drive past huge red signs that tell you that it is illegal to enter and that if you do your life will be in danger, it should not come as a surprise that in the areas next door where you can turn in, you might need protection. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Are we there yet?

One of the questions my kids love to ask goes something like "Is Israel big enough that we can drive for 10 hours and still be in Israel?" or some variation on this theme.  I think it's part of how they try to wrap their heads around how big Israel is because we're always telling them that it's a small country.   My answer "It depends on who's driving."  And so it goes.  This year's Passover break was such a great time.   Our Seder was very kid friendly and the kids had so much to contribute.  The younger kids' reenactment of the Jews leaving Egypt, complete with Hanes t-shirts tied around their heads, was quite a hit.

Sunday morning we headed out with friends to the Negev, in the south of Israel.  Our destination, Machtesh Ramon, is a giant crater--like a Grand Canyon of Israel.   It was supposed to be a 2 hour drive to our camping site, but somehow it took us 5 hours to arrive.  You know how it goes-- a few bathroom breaks, a stop at the Kibbutz where Ben Gurion lived, the two-hour estimate didn't include the 3 miles on a non-paved road, which 3 miles themselves ate up half an hour of bumpy, 5mph driving. . . of course, it depends on who's driving.

Yes, we went camping in Israel.  In the bit of research I did to prepare, I discovered that actually what we did is referred to as "glamping."   Glamping is for those who want to pitch a tent, roast some marshmallows and stare in wonder at all that nature has to offer,  but still be able to use a clean toilet, take a hot shower and buy ice cream.  I learned a lot while camping in the Negev.  For one thing, the Negev is really, really hot--until the sun goes down.  Then it progressively gets really, really cold.  I also learned that the sky full of stars is beautiful and the surroundings can give such perspective.  Another lesson was that I really like sleeping in a bed.  The padding and everything under your sleeping bag sounds great in theory, but . . . 

Naturally, about 10 minutes after pitching our tent, N looked up and saw a kid from his school and about 10 minutes later, our downstairs neighbors walked over to say hi.   What a small world!

Interestingly, we met a couple from the Pacific Northwest who were visiting Israel for a month.  They were a bit shocked by some of the cultural differences between Israel and the US.  Israel was a much more intimate affair than what they were used to.  We tried explaining that during the week of Passover much of the country is on vacation, so it wasn't such a fair comparison, but they hadn't realized that tents would go up so close to one another and they missed the rangers going around and telling people to be quiet and people being silent until 10AM.   That would never fly here.  Ever.  What we experienced instead was a bunch of families camping out side by side.  All facets of Israeli life, religious and secular camping out together and everyone had a box of matzah.  A real spirit of nationhood.  At one point, our kids noted a mom leading a big group of kids in a game.  They ran over with their friends, and maybe because they were speaking to each other in English, she switched to English and asked them if they wanted her to explain the game.  The kids in both families replied to her in Hebrew that they knew the game and joined in the fun.  Times like that I can not only see the progress, but also appreciate that my children are growing up Israeli.   After our morning coffee we went to a nearby site for a desert archery class.  The fellow running the course was an Australian immigrant from twenty years ago.  He asked me what I did and I told him I was an ER doc but that I am working in the urgi-care here.  N joked, "she got demoted."  He replied that "Your mother came for love of country."  And in deed I do love Israel, and traveling around and seeing more only deepens the love.

The next day we picnicked at a National Park about 10 minutes from our house, with totally different topography.  Forests and greenery replaced rocks and sand.  But again, it's the whole nation out with frisbees, boom boxes, soccer balls, kites and matzah.  Israelis seem to have the picnic thing down.  I'm talking table cloths and full on meals including spices for the food--and this was Passover!

The next day we went to the movies.  During the first year of mourning, it is customary not to go to movies but since we were seeing a children's movie and it was in Hebrew I decided to go.  Movies in Israel represent to me a huge marker of progress.  In our first month in Israel we made the mistake of taking the kids to the movies.  Language did not occur to us.  We've since learned that kid's movies are (almost) always dubbed to Hebrew while adult movies just have subtitles.   Makes sense.  Young kids can't read.  Our kids were so mad during that first movie that they staged a semi-revolt.  Almost 3 years later they don't even ask, and a few weeks ago when Lital went to a movie with friends and I asked her if it had been in Hebrew or English it took her a few minutes to remember.  As for me, I understood most of the film.

Final day we went up North with some friends to a Kibbutz that built mazes out of nature.  It was so much fun.  Again, the environment was totally different, with everything in a varying shade of green. Families were on the lawn playing tennis, jumping rope, playing catch and the mazes were really challenging and fun.   We never quite figured out the last one and when it started to drizzle we took the easy way out. 

And by the way, Ben&Jerry's Charoset flavored ice cream was really good.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Happy Passover!

Quick clarification for an astute reader, L.T. who asked about Sephardic Jews eating kitniyot.  Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazic Jews share the same Jewish legal system and the bulk of ritual observance and practice looks the same.  Essentially the variances you will find between the two are similar to variances in regional cooking and to completely oversimplify for the blog, if the Jewish nation or parts of it takes on stringencies in their practice, these adopted customs can over time take on the significance of law.  So Jews from Ashkenaz about 1000 years ago stopped eating things that either were mixed in with grains or could be mistaken for grain in order to ensure that they didn't accidentally eat chametz (made from grain) on Pesach.  Over time this custom became obligatory.  The Jews from Sepharad (Spain, Northern Africa) never developed those customs.  Perhaps grains in their part of the world were stored differently.  I don't know. 

Speaking of kitniyot,  not one single reader asked what our rats would be eating over Passover.  I know.  I know.  Most people are trying to rid their homes of vermin and we are researching and seeking out Passover friendly options for ours.   And no, the rats aren't obligated to keep Passover but since we can't own or even benefit from Chametz (leavened products) the week of Passover we can't own Chametz containing rat food or care for our animals using Chametz (which is a type of our benefiting from it, since the food sustains our rats ).   And while there are loads of options for dogs, we weren't fortunate enough to find any for rats.   Fortunately, those Ashkenazic ancestors of ours never adopted a custom to treat kitniyot like actual Chametz, where you can't own or benefit from it.   The custom is just for us not to eat kitniyot, but ownership and benefit is a-o-k.  So guess who will be eating kitniyot in our house?  Yes, Oreo and Kitty.  

The week before Passover is school vacation.   It's my sense that teachers have a very strong union here.  A spent her week at a backyard camp.  I think she mostly enjoyed herself, but when I picked her up the first day she gave me an accusing look and asked "Did you know it would be kids in charge of kids?"  Welcome to Israel.  Its very commonplace here for 7th and 8th grade kids to host these little camps during school breaks.  Essentially, for less than half of what you might pay a babysitter, your child joins a small group and gets entertained by teens for the week.  It's the entrepreneurial spirit and really is a win-win for everyone.

I did a little backyard camp of my own in the form of two birthday parties.  Both N and L had birthdays and I planned parties in the park.  In the park, outside. . . what could go wrong?  That's right, it poured.  Fortunately, in the age of Whatsapp we had an easy reschedule for the next day.  I planned a scavenger hunt for Lital's party where they had to find clues and then make a puzzle out of the pieces they found out at each stop.  It was actually a lot of fun and let me tell you, I don't care how many ulpans you've taken.  You haven't experienced Hebrew until you have 20, ten-year old girls shouting out questions at the speed of light. 

Tonight we join friends for Seder and it feels good to be celebrating with the same friends we had Seder with last year.  This is the first time in 4 years we are in the same spot on Seder night.  These wandering Jews are finally finding a home.  We have great plans for the week of Passover, travelling around the country.  Hopefully I can give a little travelblog on the other side.  And yes, we do have a pint of the "Charoset" flavored Ben&Jerry's sitting in our freezer.  I'll let you know how that is too.

My parents shared second night (obligatory only outside of Israel) Seder with two of their closest friends for 40 years.  I know my dad's absence at the table will be felt strongly this year. 

Next year in Jerusalem.