Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Aquarium - a Zionist Experience

Only in this country can a visit to the aquarium become a Zionist experience. We've been here for over four years now, and I still marvel at the way things are done here and the magic of this place.

We went to Eilat this week for Hanukah. Eilat is the "place to be" over Hanukah because the weather is so warm, and we've wanted to go for a number of years. We finally got ourselves together and booked two nights in a hotel. Within the first hour of our trip, Eliav threw up all over himself, his blankie and his brother. Other than that set back, we had a great time! We arrived in the afternoon on Tuesday and took a speedboat ride out to the dolphin park. We were able to see about eight dolphins playing and it was an amazing experience. Afterwards, we came back to our hotel rooms and managed to find a restaurant that would deliver to us - we were exhausted!

I was struck in the hotel by the festive atmosphere. The hotel didn't want people lighting Hanukiot in their rooms, so they had set up a huge table for people to light. Everyone had brought their own Hanukiot from home, and for hours you could hear people singing the brachot and additional songs in the lobby. It was a really cool experience and created an interesting festive atmosphere that I've never seen before.

The next morning, we headed for the aquarium. They had a show at 12:00 where they feed the animals in an above-ground aquarium in the round. The place was packed to overflowing and the woman who worked there was telling us that the scuba diver would arrive soon. He arrived with a microphone on and starting talking to the kids. Then, he declared that his kippah was slipping and that he had to readjust it! Here was a scuba diver - in full scuba diving uniform with a kippah on his head underwater! Once his kippah was secure, he started to light the Hanukiah they have underwater. He used those lights that you can crack so that they light up and he proceeded to light this underwater Hanukiah, to do the brachot for Hanukah and to sing extra Hanukah songs. Josh and I were beside ourselves. Here were hundreds of families watching this scuba diver adjusting his kippah and lighting candles underwater, as if they were the most regular and normal experiences in the world. Only in Israel would the fish-feeding at the aquarium involve these extra perks!

From the aquarium, we took the kids to the beach where they had a great time for the afternoon. The next day, we started to head back home but stopped at many places along the way. We went to a bird sanctuary where they've set up a huge area for birds that migrate twice a year. It was a beautiful location with waterways, small huts, perches and the such for the birds. Of course, while stumbling through, we came across a memorial to five soldiers who died in Gaza four years ago. I was struck, as always, by how this entire country is constantly reminded of the soldiers who have given their lives for us. Even in a bird sanctuary, you are reminded of this fact.

We also went to a crocodile farm where an Israeli couple is breeding Nile crocodiles. They were a fascinating couple who lived in South Africa for years and then brought their trade back to Israel. The kids loved it and got to pet a five month old crocodile.

Now, we are back home and spending a few days relaxing (can you relax with five boys under 9 underfoot?) until school starts on Tuesday.

Wishing everyone a healthy and happy end to Hanukah and hoping that our operations in Gaza go quickly and smoothly - and that our soldiers come back safely and soon.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Great Miracle Happened HERE!

Chanukah is just around the corner and the kids are starting to pour in with Chanukah items, as always. I have to say that the dreidel - that little item that you spin and play a game with - is one of the greatest examples of our Aliyah and of the Zionist dream realized. Come again? Yep, you read correctly. Since I was on Otzma 16 years ago, I have always gotten goose bumps when I see a dreidel here.

Here's why.

The dreidels I played with as a kid and that you see outside of Israel have four letters on them. They spell out the words, "A Great Miracle Happened There." What the dreidel is saying is that somewhere else - somewhere disconnected to our lives - there was a miracle a long time ago. Ok - so we have Chanukah now to appreciate that miracle and to think about that far away place where the miracle happened.

The dreidels in Israel are a living reminder that we LIVE in the place where it happened. We are HERE! The dreidels here say, "A Great Miracle Happened HERE" on them. Rather than having a shin for the word "Sham" or "There" on them, they have a "Peh" for the word "Po" or "Here." What more amazing example can you have of modern day Israel and its connection to our heritage? So, my kids are coming home this week with oodles of dreidels that all proclaim, "This is it kids! This is where the miracle happened. Right here, where you live. This is the place and you're living the history now!"

I think it's pretty amazing to have your breath taken away by something as mundane and cute as a dreidel. But, that's what the miracle of Chanukah, the miracle of our Aliyah, and the miracle of these dreidels do to me. Have fun playing dreidel in your homeland kids. Happy Chanukah!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Amichai's 4th Bday

We had a fun time today at Amichai's 4th bday party at school. As I've mentioned about a number of things, Israel is simply overflowing with routines. Everyone at a wedding knows the same dances, little kids all seem to know the same songs, and everyone knows what happens at a nursery school birthday party. I'd be curious to see if it's really that uniform throughout the whole country, but it certainly is where we live! Since Matan's first birthday party in Israel, every single birthday party has been almost identical. And they take their parties very seriously here!

When we walked in, Amichai and the child he was sharing his party with (whose name is Amitai, if that's not confusing enough), were sitting at big chairs. They were, as their teacher said, the kings for the day. They each got a crown and they were seated in the center of the action. Years ago, when Josh and I came to visit in 2001, we went to someone's house for a bbq. We sat down and were immediately yelled at. Duh - didn't we know, everyone else said...we were sitting on the birthday seats. Turned out there was a bday celebration for 8 year old twins, and we were the only ones in the room who didn't see how obvious it was that those seats were birthday seats. Everyone here does very similar things for these events!

Anyway, so there was Amichai looking very excited. They put on music and had the kids dance, sing and do all sorts of hand motions. Josh put the crown on Amichai's head and helped five of Amichai's friends to lift him on his king's chair. They had a cake and the whole thing was very cute and very sweet. I love that we don't have to do birthday parties at home with a big get-up and a lot of money spent. We just have a cute party at school and that's enough for the kid. It's very understated and appropriate.

One sad memory in the joy. When I walked into Amichai's class today, I was immediately struck and had to hold back tears. Josh had the same reaction right after I did, and had to leave the room for a few minutes. We have a picture of Yehuda - in the exact same room with the exact same decorations behind him - celebrating his 4th birthday with his friend, Chanan. It was a very strange experience today to walk into the same room two years later to find Amichai in the same position. That was the last birthday party that Chanan had, and it brought back a lot of memories today. We certainly have to enjoy each day and hug our children as much as possible - you just never know what tomorrow will bring.

Here's to a beautiful birthday party for our guy, Amichai, and to many, many more years of happiness, love and joy. We love you Amichai.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

An Agonizing Goodbye - Done Beautifully

This morning Josh called me at 6:30 am from synagogue to say that a lovely man in the community had died. Even Kotel was a bubbly, sweet 51 year old who had two jobs that spoke worlds about him. He was in charge of guarding the nursery school classes, and was always chipper and sweet to all of the kids and their parents. In addition, he was a professional photographer and took beautiful pictures of all of our simchas. No matter what he was doing, he was making people smile. He left a lovely wife who works in one of the nursery school classes and an 11 year old son. They are devastated, of course, as are so many members of our community.

What struck me tonight was the way that a funeral is held here in Israel. I'm always amazed by how much events here reflect the true values of our society and religion. I've been to three or four funerals here already, unfortunately, and I've been surprised each time by a number of things.

Life in Israel is intense. It's raw and real. It's also incredibly embrassing and compassionate. This strange juxtaposition plays out at weddings and other happy events, and also at funerals. Unlike at funerals that I"ve been to in the States, there is no fluff here. There's no music, no long speeches, no seats in the social hall to sit in - nothing. We congregated outside of the shul and stood, waiting for the body to arrive. There were some seats set up, but most people stood. There were hundreds of people there. The body was then brought in - not in a coffin, but simply wrapped in a tallit. The first time that I saw this, I really did think I was going to pass out from grief. It is unsettling to have so little barrier between the grieving people and the deceased, but it's also so raw and so real. There are very specific ways that a body is cared for and respected after a person dies. One of these ways is that they are wrapped in a tallit and brought in to the funeral as such, on a stretcher. A few people spoke, including our Rabbi and Evan's wife, Ya'ara. And that was it. Then, Evan's friends carried the stretcher through our community for a number of blocks towards the entrance of the yishuv. The entire community walked behind him, escorting him to the car to take him to the cemetery. If you can imagine what that looks like, it's 100s of people walking silently behind the body, escorting him to his burial. It's really unbelievable.

I really see so much of Israel in this practice. There is no fluff - nothing covering the facts and the reality, no matter what it should be. The grief is there before us, just as the simcha is at a wedding. It's incredibly moving and powerful to see an event like this, and to see how the community comes together to physically escort you to your final home.

May Evan's family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. And may we only have good news in the future.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Weeding - a Holy Act

The Shmita year just came to a close, and I'm marvelling at how much life in Israel is connected to the land, the cycles, the weather and more. Shmita is the biblical prohibition against harvesting your land. Every seven years, we are to leave the land alone. This includes everything from the farmers and their large fields to the weeds in our yard. During the year, there are many prohibitions and many ways that people deal with the prohibitions - I'm not delving into those here. What I am delving into is the common, everyday reaction that normal people have to these laws.

When Rosh Hashanah arrived, the shmita year officially ended. The next day, when Josh went to work someone said to him, "You'll never guess what I did last night! I weeded my yard!!" Now, this was said with pure glee. Glee over weeding a yard? She was so excited because she was working the earth - the earth here in Eretz Yisrael. And just the act of working the earth involved keeping some of Hashem's decrees. Can you imagine another religion that could find weeding holy?

I find it fascinating how Judaism manages to bring holiness to the most mundane things. The next day, I was taking my daily walk around the yishuv and someone else was working on her garden. I said, "How are you doing" and she replied, "Amazing! Look what I'm doing!" I called another friend Friday morning at about 8:00 and I said, "I hope I didn't wake you." "Wake me!?" she said, "We've been outside weeding and gardening for almost two hours!" We are either a very strange people, desperate to weed our gardens, or there is something more going on here.

And, of course, I see more to it than that. It's the connection to the land. The act of actually seeing the beauty in the sanctity of not weeding one year - and of weeding the next. We are so tied to the Torah here in Israel, to the cycles of the land and the people. We pray on Sukkot for rain - and when it rains here we don't usually think about the annoyance, the mud or the wetness. We think about the ground that will be nourished and the fulfillment of the prayers that we start to say everyday with Sukkot.

It's amazing to live somewhere that is so tied to the land -and that helps us to see holiness in the most mundane of activities. Happy weeding!

Monday, September 01, 2008

September 1 - School Starts!

There are many ways that living in Israel creates a feeling of unity for its people - whether some of these things are done on purpose or not. September 1st is one of those ways. The entire country starts school on the same day. Now, in most places in the States, school starts after Labor Day and most people do return around the same date. However, they don't all start exactly on the same day and I've found this to be the most interesting thing here.

There is a feeling of excitement on August 31st, as every child knows that school will begin the next day (and every parent is excited to finally have the kids back in a routine!) Yesterday, the yishuv did a huge carnival for the kids. There were huge bouncy toys, popcorn, art projects, clowns and more. Everyone came together to celebrate the end of the summer and to see each other.

Then, this morning, it was school time! It happens to be Rosh Chodesh today as well, so all my boys are dressed in blue and white. They woke up excited this morning, gobbled down their breakfast and were ready to go. When we left the house, we could see the whole neighborhood in motion. Everyone was taking their kids to the first day of school and was kissing them goodbye. This year, Matan started third grade in a new school building and Yehuda went to 1st in a new school. Yehuda will be taking the bus for the first time to Efrat each day. Amichai and Eliav are still on the yishuv and Azriel is home with me! As Josh said this morning, I can finally start my maternity leave now.

While I kissed them goodbye, I actually found myself a bit sad that the summer was ending. I had been so nervous before I had the baby that I would have everyone home and underfoot for all of August. While it was a bit trying at times, it was also nice to have everyone home and to have a more relaxed setting without homework, schedules, etc. Now, it's off to another structured school year with much to do. We say goodbye to the summer with a bit of sadness and hello to the school year with some's also an exciting time as I watch the boys grow and start with new possibilities.

Josh, quite fittingly, also starts a new job today. We are both every excited about it and hope that it will be a fantastic opportunity for him to grow and contribute to Israel and to aliyah.

Here's to a great school year and great new beginnings for everyone!

Nurturing the New Mom

I have found an incredible culture here of people who nurture a new mom. I don't remember this mentality in the States as much, and it's such a beautiful way to see birth and to wish the mother well. A few days after we came home from the hospital, our neighbor showed up at the door. This is a family that has 9 kids and a very full house! They keep to themselves a great deal and aren't people that we've had the chance to spend much time with. So, there the husband was with a huge loaf of amazing, hot homemade bread, and a large jar of homemade plum jam. It was arranged on a platter and was such a sweet and warm gift. We devoured it the next day and really appreciated the sentiment.

Another family came with a "new-mom shake," as the husband called it. It was a milkshake that was delicious and that was full of nutrients to help the new mom. I drank it on the spot and it was such a cute idea that I had to giggle while I was drinking.

Next, my next door neighbor brought an enormous fruit platter over to wish us Mazal Tov. The next day, she showed up with lunch for me! She'd made a nutritious meal that was full of whole grains, vegetables and nuts and she informed me that no one else in the family was allowed to eat it - it was just for the new mom.

We received meals from our friends for 10 days and had Shabbat meals provided for us for three weeks in a row! It was amazing to watch people coming to the house with all of this food and with such joy at seeing the new baby. It really helped to keep me off my feet and to nurture me and the family.

Finally, as the grand finale, an amazing friend invited me to come and stay in Tel Aviv at her house for a night. Her husband took the kids to Europe and she had her house to herself. So, I packed up and arrived on Wednesday morning last week. She met me at the house, showed me where she had my breakfast and lunch and got me situated. I had the entire day to hang out with Azriel, watch terrible shows on t.v., nap and enjoy. In the late afternoon, she came home and took me to a new spa that they have in the neighborhood! She watched Azriel while I had an amazing facial and a pedicure. Then, we went to a mall for dinner and some fresh air. The next morning, she had breakfast and lunch waiting for me and I hung out and relaxed again, before returning to Jerusalem that night. It was the best present and such a sweet offer from her!

Now, after three weeks of nurturing, I feel refreshed and ready to conquer many of the day to day tasks of life with five boys. It's been a great three weeks and I've loved watching the creative ways that friends have chosen to nurture me and to welcome Azriel into our community!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Welcome to Our Family Azriel!!

We had an amazing weekend. It was a bit crazy, but really meaningful and special. On Friday, food started pouring in for our Shalom Zachar and our Shabbat meals. It’s a tradition to have a get together on Friday night after the birth of a baby boy. People come after their meal to eat desserts and to wish the family a Mazal Tov! In some places, it’s really just the men who get together…while in others the women participate too.

So, we had TONS and tons of food, baked goods, drinks, etc. that came from all of our friends – and even from people that we don’t know very well. We had good friends from Tel Aviv come to visit in the afternoon and they couldn’t believe how the door kept opening and people just kept coming in with food and gifts.

After dinner, we had close to 100 people who came through the house. It was really festive and lovely to share such a Simcha with all of our friends. The Rabbi spoke beautifully and Josh did as well.

Saturday morning, it was time for the brit. I was worried about how I was going to get all the way up the mountain to the shul, and I had someone come to the house to push the double stroller and to help me get there. I’ve barely moved since the baby was born – so this was quite a shlep! We had originally thought to do the brit at a small shul closer to our home, but decided to do it at the main shul. The smaller shul would be very crowded, with many of our friends coming who don’t usually go there, and we thought it would be nice to do it in the venue of the Yishuv at large. There was a bar mitzvah this Shabbat of a family that founded the Yishuv. The grandfather, Chaim, is an amazing man and a real role model to us (as is his son and family) and we thought it was fantastic to be able to share these smachot together.

So, I shlepped my way up the hill and arrived at shul. I had our trusted babysitter, Lexi, meet me there and she took over watching Amichai and Eliav – which was great! It was so nice to see so many of our friends and everyone was excited about the brit and excited to see the baby. There are a number of honors that you can give at a brit, and it was really fun to watch as the baby was carried in to the synagogue by one couple, and then passed amongst a number of our friends for the different parts of the brit. The shul was packed – absolutely packed – and we did the brit in the center rather than at the front of the shul, so it was an amazing thing to see. Josh, the mohel and our honored friends were slightly elevated in the middle and then there was a sea of people on every single side, and above in the balcony, watching our child be entered into the covenant. It was really amazing.

We named him Azriel Dor. Azriel means “Gd is my helper” and Dor means generation. We picked Dor in memory of Josh’s grandmother, whose name was Dorothy. We liked the idea of connecting through the generations – and actually having the name both mean that, and be part of his grandmother’s name.

After the brit, the kids were very excited to finally know their brother’s name and we had a lovely kiddush outside of the shul. We came home for lunch, and then had some people over for dessert. Then…it was time to collapse!
Now, we look forward to a relaxing week with Azriel and the rest of the boys. Everyone is home for two more weeks before we gear up for the school year. Next week, we are doing a small kiddush on Shabbat at the shul that we usually go to, and Josh will give a short speech about the baby’s name.

It was a beautiful Shabbat and an amazing way to welcome Azriel into our family, our community, and our people. Welcome Azriel!!!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A New Baby!

There are few things as amazing as having a baby. I’ve been quite cranky for the last few weeks and ready to have the baby already. I always find it nerve-racking not to know when the baby will be coming – and now I always assume it will be late because the last four were born five days after their due dates.

So, Josh and I were caught by surprise when the baby looked like it was on its way on its due date – August 8th, 2008. Nevermind that I had told Josh wishfully that it would be so cool to have the baby on 08-08-08!!! And it looked like we would. We quickly started to form plans for the boys during the day on Friday and headed to the hospital at about 6pm. Josh thanked me for heading to the hospital at a time when there was no traffic on the streets as everyone was getting ready for Shabbat! Our doula was driving behind us and we were ready to go.

We had an “only in Israel” moment when we got to the hospital and went through security. It was almost exactly the moment when Shabbat started and the guard looked at us when the doula said “Laboring woman coming through!” and said “But Shabbat is starting!” We thought that was very funny.

We went to get checked and got our delivery room by 7:30 or so….we were put in room number 8 (and the baby was born on the 8th of the Hebrew month of Av as well)! So, then Josh and Chaya (our doula) decided we should deliver by sometime in the 8:00 range to keep working with the 8 theme. Well…that didn’t happen, but we did deliver at 9:50, a beautiful 8 pound boy. They put him on me right away, all sticky and adorable and we admired him and relaxed. We had an amazing few hours after that. They left us virtually alone until about12:30 and we realized we had brought everything except wine and challah to make Shabbat. Chaya went down the hall to get us provisions, and right there in the delivery room Josh made Kiddush, we sang Shalom Alechem and Josh gave the baby his first bracha (Friday night the father, and sometimes the mother, blesses every child with a blessing). I’ve always found the first bracha very powerful – and we’ve always done it when we are home for the first Shabbat. But, here we were doing it within an hour of the baby’s birth there, enjoying him in a quiet environment. They made me some tea and we relaxed and laughed and enjoyed the baby. He barely cried at all when he came out, and didn’t cry much all night.

Since it was Shabbat, Josh didn’t rush home to the kids the way he usually would. This gave us an incredible gift of a Shabbat together in the hospital with the baby. Hadassah has a great hotel attached to the hospital and he was able to get a room. He slept a bit, went to shul in the morning, had breakfast, lunch and Seudat Shlesheet there and was able to hang out with me the rest of the day. It was quite a treat – since I’m usually alone in the hospital with the baby! The care in the hospital was great and I had a really nice stay.

We came home in the afternoon on Monday to a sea of open arms (quite literally). The kids are all trying to hold the baby 24 hours a day and they are very excited about him. Even Eliav is doing well. He’s been giving the baby kisses and he wants to get to hold him as much as the rest of them. Never mind that I just saw him perched on top of the baby’s crib with a screwdriver in his hand….I’m sure that was an isolated incident : )

We are all doing well and looking forward to the Shalom Zachar Friday night when people will come to our house to celebrate the baby. Then we have a busy Shabbat with the brit during services at the main synagogue and a large Kiddush afterwards that we are sharing with a family having a bar mitzvah. Next Shabbat we are going to sponsor Kiddush at a smaller shul that we usually go to so that we can also have a more intimate event.

What a miracle a baby is – and we look forward to bringing this one into the covenant and into our community this Shabbat!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

What a Country...

After living here for a number of years, you tend to forget about the unique nature of this country and the originality of our interactions. We had a great day with the kids today. We took them to go bowling in Jerusalem and out to lunch. They had a great time bowling. Amichai has never been before and we weren't sure if he would enjoy it. He had a fantastic time! He kept yelling "High Five" after throwing the ball each time. He didn't quite understand what the point was, but he thought it was fun to watch the ball roll (slowly) down the lane and to watch pins fall. It was very cute.

Then, when we finished, we decided to take the kids to a great arts and crafts store to each pick out one project. Insane? Yes, probably. And we both regretted it as soon as we entered the store. But, the kids were very excited. Matan is incredibly artistic and he asked for a small canvas where he could do water colors. I sent him to ask the woman who works there about what paints to buy. She was enamored of Matan and then got excited when she saw his siblings. She thought it was so cute that we had three little boys - and then couldn't believe we actually had four little boys (Eliav was in daycare) and...that there is another little someone on the way. She called over one of the other women who work there to see our cute boys - and then all of a sudden that woman was massaging my hand and saying that she was working to induce labor. She told me about the pressure points in my hands and was showing me all about it. I felt like I was in my living room with an old friend.

They ushered us out with all sorts of good wishes for an easy labor, a healthy baby, etc. and encouraged us to come back soon. The whole experience cracked me up - but it wasn't until we left that I realized how "Israeli" the experience was and how funny and buddy-buddy people tend to be here.

So, now we've told the kids to save their art projects until the baby comes. Suites me fine because it means Josh can deal with the utter chaos of the projects!

Backtracking a bit, yesterday, Josh took the boys to the Kotel (Western Wall) where they all wrote notes and then had lunch in the Old City. They told me about their notes, and they all wrote that mommy should have a baby soon and that the baby should be healthy. I thought it was so amazing that, here they are on their summer vacation, going to the Kotel on a given day and writing notes to Hashem. Pretty powerful place we live!

Hope the next post comes from a tired lady with a new baby! Time will tell....

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Sometimes Things Work Out...

Things are going very well in the Sussman house right now, Thank Gd. I spent a lot of May and June wondering how I was going to juggle the four kids, the heat, the summer, and the coming baby during July and August. August in Israel is a very rough time for working moms because the kids have no camp. None - nothing. It's a time when families tend to travel and when working parents somehow get by with their kids running around. So, my fears were all unfounded because Josh ended up being around all of July and now he's with me for August. He starts a new job September 1 that looks like it will be fantastic for him! And that means that he can enjoy being "Dad" this month - and I can enjoy putting my feet up, napping, having the car around, and having HIM around all month. We worry and sometimes things work out despite our fears and worries...

So, camp ended last week and Josh and the three older boys have really been having a nice time. They went on a hike on Sunday, coming home rosy-cheeked and energized. This was the first time they took Amichai on their hike with them and he was very excited with his own water backpack. Monday we did a lot of cleaning and organizing around the house. And then today we all went to the mall together. The kids got slurpies and had fun looking around the stores. Amichai loves going on the escalator and kept calling it the "alligator". We took them to lunch and then went to see "Kung Fu Panda" the panda karate movie. It was very cute and the kids loved it.

They keep asking what is on tap for the next day and we've explained that we have to take each day as it comes - as we keep hoping the baby will upset our plans! Tomorrow, Josh plans to take them to the Old City and to the Kotel.

We are all really enjoying the time off together and waiting, quite impatiently, for our newest family member to arrive!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Matan, the Karate Kid

Matan finally – and I mean FINALLY – got his yellow belt in karate yesterday. He’s been working on this belt all year and has had trouble when he’s tested for it in the past. The teacher has taught him to try to make his moves more methodical and slower – at the same time that he wants him to show his strength. So, poor Matan seems to have had a difficult time blending those various concepts – and he’s either shown strength or technique when tested, but not both.

On the way to the wedding that we went to this week, we dropped Matan at karate and watched him being tested. I actually had to leave the room because I found the testing so nerve racking and rigorous! I was amazed how poised Matan was while being tested by his black-belt teacher while all of the other kids sat on the floor and watched him. It’s really been amazing to watch his progression in karate and to see how Ari (their teacher) is developing their self confidence, their discipline and their techniques. Way to go Matan!

Wedding, Israel Style

I don’t know if we’ve written about Israeli weddings before – I’d be surprised if we hadn’t. There is simply nothing like them in the world. I really think that they are the number one example of the Israeli way of life.

We went to a wedding this week of two people in the yishuv. These are families who have both lived in the yishuv for many years and were marrying their children to each other. The wedding took place in an incredible location overlooking the desert in a place called Mitzpe Yericho. There is an energy and enthusiasm at Israeli weddings that is hard to describe without being there. The weddings are much less formal than those in the States. The guests sing and dance the bride and the groom to the chuppah (along with their parents) and then everyone stands as the ceremony takes place. The musicians play during the wedding at various points, when certain blessings are recited, and everyone claps and dances for joy. When the wedding ends, all of the guests escort the bride and groom from the chuppah, literally dancing in front of them in a semi-circle.

The groom’s family is very musical, and at this particular wedding, the groom’s father actually composed and sang a song to the couple under the chuppah. It was so heart-felt and touching to see him singing to his son and to see the outpouring of love that they all showed. Then, of course, there is dinner and dancing – but the dancing isn’t just regular dancing. It’s incredibly lively and enthusiastic (separate dancing) where the job of the guests is to make as much entertainment for the bride and groom as possible. At one point, the brothers of the bride put the groom on a huge board and raised him over their heads. They brought him to his bride and the two of them danced on this board, supported by guests that were holding them up.

We can’t wait to see our boys get married in this fashion and to watch the enthusiasm and unbridled energy that their brothers will show at their weddings. During the ceremony, the baby was kicking, and I thought it was such great timing. It's so strange to think that this baby, that isn't even born yet, will someday stand under a chuppah while we sing and dance - and give him away. He was making his presence known, as I'm sure he will in many other ways soon enough.

There is really nothing to compare to an Israeli wedding – you’ve got to see it for yourself to understand the difference!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Plenty of Parties...

With the end of the school year upon us we have been spending a lot of time at the requisite end-of-the-year programs for the kids. On Sunday, it was Yehuda's Mesibat Siddur (when the kids receive their first Siddur/prayer book) and last night was Matan's end of the year Siyum (literally 'completion', the Jewish ceremony marking the completion of any unit of Torah study). In the case of the 2nd grade of the Orot Etzion school, they had recently completed Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) and have moved on to Sefer Bamidbar (Numbers).

Yehuda's program was typical...the kids sang some songs and performed choreographed dances, the teacher spoke, the parent's presented the teachers with the end of the year gifts and the program came to a close with Yehuda's Rav giving a short Dvar Torah and calling each kid up individually to receive their Siddur followed by cakes, fruits and other refreshments.

Matan's Siyum took place in the Old City of Jerusalem. The kids had to be at school by 4:30 and then we all departed by bus from Efrat to Jerusalem. The program opened with the boys classes performing various songs and plays (the girls had a separate program running parallel to the boys' program) culminating in all 100 boys chanting the last 5 verses from Sefer Vayikra followed immediately by reading the first 5 verses from Sefer Bamidbar. All of the boys and their fathers then went up to the roof of Yeshivat HaKotel to daven Mincha (afternoon prayers) overlooking the Old City and Har Habayit (the Temple Mount). The school had arranged that each class would then go on a short tour of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City (each class had its own tour guide). All the tours ended in the Kotel/Western Wall Plaza where the fun really began....

The boys in Matan's class spontaneously began to sing on the way down the steps to the Kotel and then broke into spirited song and dance when they got through the security check. Their spirit and joy quickly spread to the parents who joined in the dancing and singing with the boys. Matan's class was soon joined by boys and fathers from the other classes with tourists, Birthright groups and native Israelis congregating around to see what all the excitement was about. Soon this small group of boys and their fathers was surrounded by a large group of curious passers-by who marvelled at the boys while snapping pictures to show their friends and family in America of the 'little Israeli kids dancing at the Kotel'. The boys continued singing and dancing, oblivious to the people surrounding them, for a solid fifteen minutes before singing their way down to the Kotel where they joined together to daven Ma'ariv (evening prayers) before finally heading off for home at 9:45...much past the typical bed time for 2nd grade kids, but they were still riding high on their celebratory adrenalin.


The boys were truly a site to behold. Their joy and spirit filled the Kotel plaza with a true sense of life and celebration, pulling perfect strangers into their little orbit.
We thought to ourselves that we would likely be back in this same spot, with many of the same kids present, in 10-12 years when they are sworn into the IDF as defenders of Israel and the Jewish people. Our hearts were filled with pride and our eyes were filled with tears of joy as we watched our boys begin to take the next small step in their development.

Am Yisrael Chai (May the People of Israel Live)!!!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Aliyah b'Regel the Old Fashioned Way (well, almost)

It is Erev Shavuot. Tonight we begin the celebration of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai). Shavuot is one of the Shalosh Regalim (pilgrimage festivals), along with Pesach and Sukkot, when we are commanded to go to Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple) in Jerusalem to bring sacrifices to HaShem. When the 2nd Beit HaMikdash was destroyed 2000 years ago the sacrifical service that had been the central part of Jewish worship since Har Sinai came to an end. While the Temples were still standing as many as 2 million Jews would ascend to Jerusalem to celebrate Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot by bringing sacrifices to the Beit HaMikdash.

Today, we no longer have the Beit HaMikdash and the sacrificial service has been replaced by Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv (the three daily prayer services). However, many rabbinic authorities still believe that it is a positive commandment to ascend Har HaBayait. Unfortunately, the Dome of the Rock stands in place of the Beit HaMikdash today, but Har HaBayit is no less holy. Since the 6 Day War 40+ years ago, Jews have once again been allowed to visit Har HaBayit (although access is limited to small windows of time each day). In order to ascend the Temple Mount one must ritually purify himself (or herself) by immersing in a kosher mikve (ritual bath).

This morning a small group of us from Neve Daniel rose very early, went to shul and immersed in the mikve in preparation to ascend Har HaBayit. We had previously had a class to learn the various (ritual) laws of visiting Har HaBayait. While tourists and non-Jews can go up in large numbers, ironically, the Israeli police limit the number of religious Jews who can visit at any one time. We were lucky enough to be granted entry, but not before being briefed by the Israeli police officer that we were not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount and that if any one of our group (we had joined another group from another yishuv) of 51 were caught praying or 'making any trouble' the entire group would be forcibly removed immediately. Prior to entering Har HaBayit through a gate above the women's section of the Western Wall, we paused to recite Tehillim (Psalms) aloud and then proceeded through the gate escorted by one Israeli police officer and one (unarmed) escort in the employ of the Muslim Wakf (the Muslim religious authority which oversees Muslim holy sites); our escorts joined us to ensure that we would not be tempted to actually pray at Jewish people's holiest site. We followed the prescribed route (there are certain areas of the Temple Mount that only the Cohen Gadol (the High Priest) is allowed to enter so we were careful to follow the religiously accepted route). Our trip around the Temple Mount lasted about an hour with occasional stops to explain certain points or to just stop and think (Gd forbid that we would actually dare to PRAY).

Our trip came to a close as we exited through an enormous gate into the Arab shouk (market) where our group immediately broke into celebratory song and danced in circles singing of our wish to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash (much to the chagrin of the passing Arabs). After 6 or 8 minutes of singing, we came together to hear some parting thoughts from Rav Yitzchak Levy who had been leading the group.

The feeling of participating in this mitzvah (commandment) that our great-grandparents could only have dreamed of longingly was truly awe inspiring. May the 3rd Beit HaMikdash be rebuilt speedily and in our time!

For more information on Beit HaMikdash and Har HaBayit you can visit

Chag Sameach!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Amazing Role Models

In the last few weeks, we have been privileged to be at some amazing events. I find our friends are constantly teaching us about parenting, about friendship and about strength. These few weeks have really been an example of that.

Two years ago, as I've written many times, a four year old boy in the yishuv died in an accident at his house. He was very good friends with our son and there is a beautiful park in the yishuv in his memory. So, they had a baby last month. It has been amazing watching them bring another child into the world after such a tragedy and seeing how they've dealt with it. They had a Simchat Bat last Friday, an event for a girl to celebrate her birth. It was in their backyard on a beautiful day. They had put up a large tarp to create shade and had a beautiful food display. It felt like a breath of fresh air - a chance to celebrate with them in a house that has experienced such a tragedy. The father spoke beautifully about turning pain into joy and about the name they gave the baby which roughly translates to mean "a song of praise to Gd".

We are all given choices in life. Some of us have to deal with larger issues than others - but we all choose how to deal with them. It has been truly amazing to see this family rise from their shiva to create a park and a Shabbat children's program in memory of their son, and then to watch them have enough faith to try again - and to praise Gd with the name they've chosen for their beautiful little girl. May they know only joy from her.

We also just experienced our friends' daughter's bat mitzvah. They had close to 50 family members in from the States for the event and it was amazing to watch them all interact. The bat mitzvah itself was lovely - but it wasn't the thing that struck me, per se. The mother cooked Friday night dinner, Shabbat lunch, a huge kiddush for the entire community, and Seudat Shleesheet for over 50 people. And she did it all with such happiness and gratitude. Many people would be very stressed and overwhelmed with this task - and she was stressed, of course. But, there was so much love in their family all weekend and such an overwhelming appreciation for family. All of these people came from the States - not one person in their family lives here. And while it's expected that the parents will be here for an event of this sort, it's not always assumed that siblings will have the time, money or interest to come. And yet, all 8 siblings (3 on one side and 5 on the other) picked up with their families and came here to be with them for the bat mitzvah. This family also happens to have experienced the tragic loss of a child a number of years ago, and this milestone must have been mixed with a certain amount of sadness and longing for them. And yet, they showed so much joy and strength the entire weekend - it was truly beautiful to see.

We have amazing role models in our lives who keep us grounded and help us to keep our focus. That's really one of the most amazing things we've found here in Israel. We hope to have half the strength that we see in some of our friends!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

When Fireworks Make You Cry

I'm a complete sucker when it comes to Yom Ha'Atzmaut here in Israel. I always - and I mean always - cry at these performances. If you were here, you'd understand how out of place crying is - but I just don't seem to be able to help it.

Israel has an amazing tradition for Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha'Atzmaut (Independence Day) of having these events back to back. That means that last night and today was a very solemn day here when we pay our respects to those who have died creating and building this country for us. Many people go to the graves where the soldiers are buried, and there are performances in school, gifts sent to soldiers who come to class, etc.

Then, as the evening comes, Memorial Day turns to Independence Day. What was solemn and reflective turns celebratory and festive. It's an amazing idea and an amazing way to live really. Recognizing those who have given their lives for the country, and moving directly from that to the joy for which they sacrificed.

So, we have a very sweet ceremony in the yishuv for these events. At about 7pm they started and said a number of things about the soldiers who have died and been hurt for the country - and those who have been in terror attacks. Then, they honor about 10 people from the yishuv for various things they've done to help the larger community. Each one is called up and lights a candle.

And then they turn from the solemn feeling to a festive one. The kindergarten kids (including Yehuda this year!) did a cute performance to a song about Israel. Yehuda practiced for days with his group and they did a great job. Then, the 7th grade kids have a flag dance that they do every year and that they see as a great honor. They dance with Israeli flags and I always get choked up - those will be our kids someday and they are dancing about their country and celebrating the freedom to live here as modern Jews in Israel.

Then, to finish off they have a great fireworks display. The event always hits me and represents our aliyah to me. There we are - standing together with our entire community - celebrating something that was such an unimaginable dream just 60 years ago. And our kids are part of it and are growing up here with these passionate beliefs about their country and their people.

When you see fireworks on the 4th of July, it doesn't choke you up, per se. They are pretty and fun - but they don't have much meaning beyond that. When you stand together here and look out at the mountains of our ancestors, and watch fireworks that represent our struggles - your neighbor's struggles - struggles that are so fresh and so recent - it means something entirely different. And that is the meaning of our aliyah. Those fireworks, and the chance to celebrate here in Neve Daniel, is why we moved!

Happy Birthday Israel. Here's to another 60...and 60 after that...and 60 after that...

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Yom HaShoah 2008

This small country of ours truly never stops amazing me. I knew that it was Yom HaShoah today – I sent one of my kids to school in blue and white with a yellow Jewish star that he’s going to put on later for a performance they are doing. And obviously it’s all over the news, the internet, etc.

And yet….and yet…at 10:00 I was standing in my kitchen about to make a snack when the siren rang. That siren. It’s got to be the most piercing thing that I’ve ever heard in my life. I hung up the phone, stopped preparing my food and just stood there. I was thinking about the fact that here I am – in 2008 in my kitchen in ISRAEL. How unreal would that have seemed in the barracks at Auschwitz that I could be in my kitchen 65 years later in Israel? I’m free. I live in a Jewish country – a Jewish country – with a beautiful house, children who are learning about their heritage in school, a job, and a tree in the front yard that is large enough that it’s had almost 10 uninterrupted years to grow and flourish. It’s truly a modern miracle – this state that we are living in.

Josh and I went to Auschwitz years ago. It was, obviously, a very difficult experience. I was able to hold it together in general – except for one thing. When we entered the area, we saw a large group of kids who had come from Israel. They were covered in Israeli flags and were carrying huge flags with them. I was completely and totally overcome and almost had to leave. What a strange reaction, you might think. We didn’t live in Israel yet, but that moment – that image of the kids – screamed out to the Nazis and to the area “Screw You! You didn’t kill us all. We are here and we’re building a country and we are connected to our heritage and you didn’t win.” It was completely overpowering for me – it was like the siren. Perhaps it was one of the many signs that led us, eventually, to move here. So that our children will carry that flag one day and will continue to show the Nazis – the Arabs – anyone who wants to kill us all – that they won’t win and that we will remember the past and fight for the future.

That siren travels right through your body. It’s even more amazing if you are out in a busy area and suddenly everything – everything – comes to a standstill. But, even in my kitchen, all by myself, I feel it move right through me. I feel the entire country – from babies to the elderly – standing still and thinking about their ancestors who suffered so much and fought so bravely so that I could stand in my kitchen in Israel on this day. And I felt the baby moving inside of me – the life that is kicking and growing and getting ready to shine – the Israeli life that is going to continue in spite of what was done to us – and what some people in the world are continuing to try to do to us. It’s amazing. It’s Israel.