Monday, December 16, 2013

Snow Adventures: Israeli Style

Israelis are a very creative lot. When a snow storm hits, they don’t just go and pull out their waterproof LLBean pants and their LandsEnd snow shoes. They don’t have those wardrobe pieces because they don’t assume they will ever need them. After all, we do live on the edge of a desert in the Middle East.

But, when over two feet of snow pummel the mountain that we call home, we still have to make our way to minyan (prayer services) and out to check out the snow…and even to sled a bit. So, what do we do? Aside from loving the chance to take a break from normal life, watch my kids frolic in the snow, and relax a bit, I love when these storms hit for the chance to see my neighbors and their ingenuity. Here are a few of the gems we’ve seen over the past five days while we’ve watched two feet of snow hit our area.

The Plastic Bags: Most people don’t own snow boots or appropriate footwear around here for this weather. So, they use grocery store bags and wrap their feet in these over their tennis shoes or other footwear. And then when the bags fall off or tear, they just pull out another bag and wrap it around their foot again. Does it work? Well, kind of, I guess...but not really. But it makes them feel like they are doing something.

The Tablecloth Sledding: Yesterday, as we joined the throngs of kids sledding down the mountain, we noticed some very creative sleds. Few people own sleds here, so they grab whatever they can find to help them down the mountain. Matan’s good friend showed up with a thick plastic tablecloth, and proceeded to gather his friends together for a sledding run. See video below. One kid snatched an oven tray from the house and was sledding down with it. Another kid had a “For Sale” sign that he must have snatched from a house, and went flying down the mountain on this bright yellow sign, advertising the home sale.
Here is Yakir, modeling the For Sale Sign people sled on

The Oven Mitts: I saved this one for last, as it’s truly the best. Yesterday, when Josh showed up to shul at 8 in the morning, our neighbor arrived…wearing oven mitts. He had on one white oven mitt and one that looked like something that one of his girls would have used as a puppet. It was decorated like Raggedy Ann, with the hair, the face and all. Yep, he was using the mitts as gloves, and found it perfectly normal that he would show up to shul this way. Josh caught his eye, assuming that he would make a joke or crack a smile about his attire. But no, he was just staying warm. Josh wanted to take a picture, but he refrained. On the way out of shul, they saw someone zipping the hood of his...wait for it, scuba diving suit!

And this, of course, is only the beginning.

The kids have also enjoyed some creative play. Matan has been building an igloo of sorts in his friend’s backyard (who said that homeschooling doesn’t have its advantages) 

and Yakir (age only 3) has figured out how to scale a mountain and slide down it completely unaided.

The poor dryer has been working overtime, trying to dry the kids’ clothes in between snow runs. And the kids have played every game we own in the house. The kids have been making creative food – pouring juice into ice to make snow cones, making sushi for breakfast and enjoying hot chocolate and pancakes.

Fortunately, we maintained our electricity most of the time and became experts at huddling under blankets when the heat (which didn't really work too well anyway) went off. Fun was had by all, and it was a glorious opportunity to get away from the rat race of life and to just enjoy for a bit. And no snow storm would be complete without the conversation predicting when the next one will be.Yep, they are already discussing it and planning what they will do better next time.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Grabbing the Teaching Moments of Our Lives

There’s nothing as great as a teaching moment…except for a teaching moment that turns even more exceptional in the course of the day.

Yesterday morning, as we were getting ready for school, Eliav came into the kitchen and said, “Look Mommy. I don’t have any hands.”

Yes, virtually every child in the history of the world has played this game, tucking his hands into his sweatshirt and declaring himself handless.

Rather than giggle awkwardly or move on and ignore it, I decided to take the energy to create a teaching moment. So I said, “Eliav, you know it’s not so nice to do that or think it’s funny. There are a lot of people in the world who don’t have hands.”

“You mean like Binyamin who broke his arm,” Eliav replied.

“No, sweetie, I mean like people who either lose a hand or an arm in an accident or might be born without a hand.”

“Born without a hand? Why would that happen?”

And so we spent a few minutes talking about birth defects and how Hashem sometimes makes things turn out differently than you would expect. And the conversation was over.

And then, as so often happens, a few hours later I noticed a video that was going around Facebook that hit on EXACTLY the topic we were discussing. So, I watched the inspirational video and then I gathered the boys around last night and showed it to them.

“Wow,” Eliav said. “That’s so cool.”

And then we talked about differences and challenges and the kids brought up another – absolutely incredible – video that I showed to them recently.

These are the moments that parenthood is made of.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Get On the Bus And Set Yourself Free...

People have been telling me that I should really get away. That we need some time to regroup…to relax…and to decompress after a very stressful month. And we couldn’t have agreed more. Little did I know, however, as we set out on our Chanukah vacation on Tuesday JUST how “away” this place would be or just how off-the-beaten path.

In January of this year as I was trying to find a location for our Pesach camping trip, I stumbled upon a number of really funky and quirky guesthouses around Southern Israel. And one of them looked absolutely irresistible. It didn’t work for us for Pesach for some reason, but I couldn’t let it go, so I booked us almost a year in advance for Chanukah.

On the way down, we decided to stop at Kibbutz Revivim to show the kids where we had met and spent 3 months in ulpan and volunteering while on Project Otzma 20 years ago.  We showed the kids the original kibbutz location of the kibbutz, Mitzpe Revivim; we showed them the tiny kibbutz apartments that we each shared with 2 other roommates; and we wandered around a bit showing them our first 'home' in Israel.  After visiting Revivim, we headed (farther) South to our destination.
The whole fam in front of Josh's cabin at Kibbutz

And as it got closer and closer, we got more excited. See, the Zimmerbus is exactly that – it’s a bus that a family has turned into a guesthouse. Now that we’ve met Eyal and Avigail Hirshfeld, we can tell you a tiny bit of their story. They arrived in Ezuz, Israel a number of years ago and lived in a tiny caravan with their six kids. When they wanted to have guests to come to stay with them in the middle of nowhere, they had nowhere to put them. So, I’m not sure most of us would have thought of this…but they converted an old bus into a guest house.

And a brilliant idea was born. People started telling them how unique and creative an idea it was, and that they should really make a guesthouse business out of it. And so they dragged in two more much larger buses. And today they have three guest houses in these buses. It’s hard to describe just how fantastically they have converted these buses into guestrooms. The bus we stayed in was a double. It had a master bedroom with a large bed, a beautiful comforter, antique looking light fixtures and lovely amenities. Then there was a cozy kitchen equipped with a sink, plenty of counter space and shelving. There was a bathroom with a gorgeous mosaic mirror and a large tub. And then the second half of the bus was for the kids, and included enough space for all six of them and their stuff! Outside of our bus was a large, private sitting area and hang out zone. In the front was a walled-in, private and spacious yard with a large covered dining area and a hammock. The rest of the space was open which allowed for football throwing, ping-pong, board game playing and more. And, in the front of the bus there was a separate area that was still set up as a bus so that the little guys could pretend to drive us around, and could play for hours.
Inside the kid part of the bus

"Driving" the bus

View outside of the bus

Hammock swinging

Game Playing

Now, as you set out to drive to the Zimmerbus, you have to be prepared for what you’re getting into. I had NO idea just how isolated this cool little town of 17 families is. It’s on the Western border of Israel, almost at the border fence between Israel and Egypt about 1/3 of the way down between Gaza and Eilat. To get there, you drive South from Beer Sheva until you start to see…..absolutely and completely nothing but expansive sand for miles and miles and miles. As we were driving there, Yehuda and I started laughing. We couldn’t believe that we could go so far away from civilization with any assumption that we were eventually going to come to something.

But something we did.

Eventually, after driving for miles without seeing anything, we came to Ezuz. Population: 17 families. The Hirshfelds clearly have a flair for decorating and building and have made a gorgeous complex. In addition to the Zimmerbus compound, there are many other interesting people in the village. There is a professional ceramicist who gives classes in her studio and sells her wares, a professional mask-maker who also has guest rooms and a restaurant, a scarf and clothing maker and a goat farm. We visited each of these places and spoke to the locals about their professional work, their passion and their desire to live in Ezuz. And as my family laughed, I evoked the "Stella" in me and set about purchasing something from every maker. How could you visit a place this out of the way and not try to help these artisans with their economy? So, we had goat cheese for breakfast both mornings and I have a gorgeous new coffee mug to enjoy. I wanted a mask, but unless I was going to put a six foot statue in my front lawn, the mask was not to be. Oh well....

At the goat cheese farm..their store is an old train, of course

And what did we do with our time in this totally and completely out-of-the-way location? This may have been the best part of it all. We spent a lot of time hanging out in and around the bus. We explored the village and the area near there. We also went sand dune surfing in a yishuv close to Ezuz, Beer Milkah. They had pristine, amazing sand dunes and we had a blast climbing up and sliding, surfing, jumping and running down.

Sand Dune Surfing with the Sussmans

We explored the ruins near Nitzana at Tel Nitzana, the neighboring town to Ezuz.

And, we hiked the Nitzana Hillocks which are amazing formations created by erosion of the area’s chalky rock.  The pictures here were almost as breathtaking as was the fun the kids had. They loved jumping from rock to rock, sliding down the rock formations and getting more dirty than you can possibly imagine.

The entire trip was an absolute blast. I love going somewhere new and showing the kids (and ourselves) another part of our tiny country that we’ve never seen before. We realize that we managed to entertain the kids for three days without a single entrance fee or cost other than the price of food. And we kept everyone entertained and engaged. Now that is virtually impossible to do – and truly priceless. Matan said at the end of the trip, "Mommy. We have to make a Snapfish album just of this trip. We have so many amazing pictures!"

If you’re interested in an amazing experience like few others in Israel, this is the place. Just make sure to have plenty of gas (the nearest gas station is 45 minutes away…yep…learned that the hard way), and plenty of groceries (the nearest large grocery store is an hour away!) and plenty of games for the bus.

I wouldn’t say this location is for everyone. But it sure worked for us.

After all, they've already got our Pesach reservation!

Monday, November 25, 2013

In Good Company

Prior to Stella’s funeral we spoke to a psychologist and good friend about our boys. We wanted to know who should come to the funeral, who should stay home and how to help our boys through this terrible time. We decided that our two oldest boys should come with us to the ceremony which would take place in our yishuv, but that no one would join us at the cemetery. We would send the boys home with a friend (and another psychologist) who would watch over them while we were at the cemetery.

I’ve always thought of my oldest as being stoic and of my second as being sensitive and more emotional.  But a funeral is a great equalizer, transforming everyone into puddles of tears. And so were my boys. And as we left the funeral and got ready to head to the cemetery, Yehuda (my second) was adamant that he was coming with us. No pushing or prodding from either myself or his older brother would budge him. I looked to my friend, the psychologist, for confirmation that this was alright, and was given the go ahead. And so, Matan went home and Yehuda continued on with us to the cemetery.

I watched Yehuda closely at the cemetery and had a few of my friends take responsibility for him when I needed to be with the Frankl children and comfort them. When it was all over and we were back at home, Yehuda had a few comments to make.  He remarked about all of the yishuv members who lingered after paying their respects to Stella in order to pay their respects to other yishuv members who had died. They gathered by the middle aged man who just didn’t wake up one morning, by the 4 year old boy who had an accident, by the 17 year old who went out for a run and was cut down with a heart condition, by the other young mother who died of cancer and more.

And then he said,“I think I saw Chanan’s grave, Mommy.”

I think every parent wishes to shield their children from death and from cemeteries for as long as life will allow. And we’ve done so with our children up until now. But at some point, pain finds us all and we must be a part of this part of life, just as we are of so many others.

And so there I stood, having just buried my best friend, with my 11 year old telling me that he saw his childhood friend’s grave for the first time.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I said to Yehuda. “Just like Chanan was.”


At the end of shiva (the 7 day mourning period), the family returns to the cemetery. So, last Wednesday, the Frankls returned to Stella, accompanied by their closest friends. And we said some prayers, cried and reflected. When we finished with the ceremony at the grave, everyone started to disperse. Matan moved away from the cemetery and Josh lingered at Stella’s grave long after everyone else left. But it was Yehuda that I was watching.

He turned around and headed directly for Chanan’s grave. In the last 7 plus years since Chanan died, we have reflected and talked about him often, but we’ve never felt that it was appropriate to bring Yehuda to the cemetery with us. But now, he was here. And he was drawn to his young friend who left us all far, far too soon.

I went to join Yehuda, and there we stood, Chanan’s father, Yehuda and me. And I hoped that Chanan’s father didn’t mind having Yehuda standing there; that it wasn’t too painful to see the juxtaposition of what might have been with what became reality. And I hoped that Yehuda was strong enough to handle the moment.

And we stood and reflected and prayed, and then walked back to our cars with thoughts of Stella, of Chanan and of so many others from our yishuv floating in our memories.

Stella, you are in good company. And I am sure that you’re already cooking up meals for your new Neve Daniel community and looking over the children who have joined you from this community to your new community in Olam Habah (the world to come). May you find as much friendship and beauty there as you did here, and may you continue to be a shining light of chesed and comfort to those who have passed. You will certainly continue to be one for us, here on Earth.   

Stella at Matan's bar mitzvah; Photo by Kinamon Ron

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Saying Goodbye to My Rockstar

“Do not press me to leave you, to turn back from following you, for where you go, I will go and where you sleep, I will sleep; your people is my people and your Gd is my Gd. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.” The Book of Ruth

For the last 16 years, Stella and I have lived out the modern version of the story of Naomi and Ruth on the international stage from Potomac, Maryland to Neve Daniel, Israel. From our beginning under the starry sky of the sukkah, we have stood by each other and been as one people. Sometimes I was Naomi, leading Stella on the path and guiding her. Other times, she was Naomi to my Ruth, guiding me and showing me the way.

When we met, Stella was Naomi, inviting us into their home that night when Yarden scared us in the Glashofer’s sukkah. She embraced us with that warm smile and delicious food, as only she could, inviting us to a community meal. As we started to think about life in Potomac, Stella and Yarden guided us, invited us for more meals and embraced us with enthusiasm and warmth.

Through the years, as we moved in to the cul de sac in Potomac and started to build our lives, we carried each other through. We gave birth to Matan and Rivka within 9 days of each other, and Stella continued to be Naomi, leading the way and helping me through my first pregnancy, my first experience as a mom.

I love this 6, not 1...but it's so typically us with Stella always watching out for me and quietly in the background.

Then, on the night that we told the two of them, on Rosh Hashanah of 2003, that we were picking up and making Aliyah, I became Naomi to Stella’s Ruth. I put out my hand, and led Stella to the land to which we all dreamed of arriving. And we opened up the possibility that the dream might really come true.

In the summer of 2005, I was once again Naomi, welcoming all of the Frankls with open arms as they descended from the plane to their homeland. ” Where you go, I will go, and where you sleep, I will sleep; your people is my people and your God is my Gd.” And we were reunited yet again.  I remained Naomi for a while, carrying Stella metaphorically through the trials and tribulations of Aliyah and watching her, and her family, flourish. Stella approached every task with zeal, every challenge with enthusiasm. Whether it was learning Hebrew and studying for every exam or it was making friends or finding new chesed projects to enjoy, she was always in the thick of things.

And as Stella got grounding here in Israel, she often became Naomi to my Ruth, teaching me lessons about friendship, modesty, chesed and kindness. As her Hebrew name says, she has always been my rock and my star. She was always the rock - grounded, the one to turn to, the one to rely on..but she was also the star - the one to reach for, the example to try to emulate.

And then Stella got sick. And you would think that I would have become Naomi for good, leading her through the terrible time. But even throughout the sickness, our roles were often reversed. Soon after her diagnosis, she cornered me in her kitchen. “Romi” she began, “Are you ok?” And I wanted to laugh, or cry. “Am I ok?” And that was our Stella. She was often Naomi during her illness, racing up the stairs when we all wanted the elevator, jumping out of bed to make dinner when she could, inviting people who had made chesed meals in order to say thank you; giving brachot to the woman with the cart who came through offering chesed meals at Sharei Tzedek, always having an ear for her problems and a kind word for her deeds. Naomi was constantly setting the example for me, her Ruth.

And now, of course, I have become Naomi for a final time. You did it Stella. You transformed yourself in the course of your lifetime so many times, embracing Judaism, embracing Israel, and leading your family to a life of promise and beauty here in the hills of Gush Etzion. Look at all that you’ve accomplished in your far too short life. Look at the people who are here today to celebrate your journey and your incredible spirit. 

“Where you go, I will go…your people is my people …where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.”

“Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.” Today, we embrace those words once again in our lives as I, Naomi, literally carry my Ruth to her final resting place. Often times the choices that we get to make in our lives are more powerful than the things that are thrust upon us. You chose Judaism and embraced it with a fervor that few could hope to emulate. And you chose me as a sister on the journey through life. I will forever be grateful for that choice. Josh and I promise to keep your family close to our hearts forever as we lead you today on your final journey. And, in Stella fashion, we must thank the community of people here, in Potomac and through Sharei Tzedek and around the world who have held the Frankls and us, embraced us and helped us through. And we must offer a special thanks to the incredible medical team in Neve Daniel who jumped in with such compassion and direction at the end.

My dear Ruth, my Stella. Your people are, indeed, my people. Your Gd is mine. “Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.”

Rest in peace and love, my dear friend.

I love you forever, my rock star, Stella.