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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Being a tourist in my OWN country!

Haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been busy.  With what???  Showing off this new homeland that I love so much to my sister, who’s visiting from Canada.

If you had only fourteen days in Israel (twelve when you subtract Shabbat), what would you see and do???  That’s the question my sister had to answer when she arrived at Ben Gurion two weeks ago today.

It’s hard to believe that almost a year ago (well, ten months), we were strangers here on a pilot trip.  My sister has been visiting for the last couple of weeks, which has given me a chance to do a bit of touristy stuff that I’ve really never had a chance to do – except this time, to do it as a real Israeli, kind of.

(Kind of because I gave my Canadian passport to the Arab-run hostel we stayed at in the Old City of Jerusalem… I think they’re Christian, but I was still nervous about what they’d do if an Israeli tried to check in.  More about the hostel later.)

So where did we go?

First of all, I actually wasn’t quite finished Ulpan (Hebrew-language boot camp) yet… my sister arrived a week before my final exam, so not exactly ideal timing, as it was the most intensive week of the entire course.  But I’m nothing if not resilient, and you can’t negotiate with holiday-season airfares.

Thursday:  Tel Aviv / Yaffo

abelish (2) My sister arrived on a Thursday morning, and didn’t want to just head north right away without experiencing a bit of the “merkaz” (central part of the country) vibe. 

I suggested that for the same train fare, we could spend some time in Tel Aviv and Yaffo (Jaffa) instead.  Well, she suggested Yaffo, which was a great call (apparently, she’d read up a little on the plane!). 

In Yaffo’s Old Port, we walked in the footsteps of Napoleon (kind of) and viewed a fascinating historical presentation / tour of an underground marketplace called Jaffa Tales.

Then, we headed to the shuk (market), not far away in the new city of Tel Aviv.  I don’t love the shuk in Tel Aviv; it’s bustling enough, but not much there is kosher.  Having said that, however, there’s a lovely bakery inside that makes the most luscious cheddar-cheese buns.  They’re not cheap, but I bought some to eat on the train back.

After that, plus a quick falafel break (my sister says this disproves my claim that there’s no kosher food around, but I really don’t count falafel stands), we hopped on a bus back to the train station.

This was the day of the big snow in Yerushalayim but Tel Aviv seemed completely unaffected and the day was lovely; brilliantly sunny and definitely warm enough for someone who’d just arrived from Toronto.  It was also Elisheva’s 18th birthday, so – after waiting 5 hours for a bus out of Yerushalayim – she joined us up north for an impromptu (read:  made by Ted/Akiva) birthday supper.

Friday:  Teveria

Okay, I admit – I didn’t want to travel anywhere on a winter Friday when Shabbos came in just past 4:00 pm.  So I sent my sister and Elisheva out to Teveria, thinking they’d have a grand old time seeing the Kinneret and whatever historical stuff is out there.  But no… it was a freezing, rainy, miserable day by any standard, even a Canadian one.  Everything there was closed and, oh, did I mention it was a fast day?  (the 10th of Tevet)  They came back frigid and miserable, but we had a nice cozy Shabbos together later on.

Sunday:  Haifa

My sister wasn’t really all that interested in seeing Haifa, but the weather – though chilly – had cleared up and I didn’t want to shlep around when there are some lovely things to see nearby.  I’m really glad we did.

abigail haifa (5)The day was full of firsts, even for a “veteran” (4 months) Haifan (well, Krayot person) like me.  After a quick Metronit ride into town, we rode the funky-weird Carmelit subway line (world’s shortest subway, only 6 stops!) up the mountain to the Bahai Gardens.

From the bottom of the Bahai Gardens (the free tour walks you down the stairs and lets you out near the middle of the gabigail haifa (16)arden, so it’s an easy walk the rest of the way down), we found a very unhelpful Tourist Centre in the German Colony (no kosher food, as I predicted – even falafel) where I noticed in a brochure that there’s a cable car ride up the mountain. 

The unhelpful, borderline-rude woman behind the counter directed us to take the Metronit to a certain stop for the cable car… at which point we found out that it was nowhere nearby.  We were also aiming to visit the Cave of Eliyahu (Elijah), which was also nowhere nearby.  So we walked… and walked… and walked…

abigail haifa (27)Finally, we reached the cable car, which looks a bit like a baseball hanging from a string and is run by several incomprehensible but friendly Arabs who mainly sit around eating lunch and pressing the button to make the cable car run.

abigail haifa (32)The ride was slightly scary, but we made it to the top, which opens onto a disappointingly dull monastery (Stella Maris).  There was no information or description of the site whatsoever, although a priestly type in a long robe offered us a choice of ancient mimeographed brochures in our choice of German or Italian.

After that dullness, we rode back down and noticed we were spitting distance away from Eliyahu’s Cave, so we stomped off there, despite Elisheva’s warnings that it was weird and tacky and boring.

It was all that and MORE!  The cave itself was decorated in the type of Rabbinic art-kitsch that one can find in many living rooms – pictures of rabbis and holy sites.  There are some historical things up on the walls as well, which do provide a little interesting background, but it’s not exactly a tourist site.

Just as we were giving up and getting ready to leave, a bearded man in a long robe (his was white) came in carrying a shofar.  He asked in Hebrew who we were and where we were from and if we had any special requests, and then offered a really lovely and long bracha, after which he blew the shofar (also long) rather dramatically. 

In terms of showmanship, I felt that the Jewish site had won hands-down.  So there, monastery.

Another quick Metronit ride (one transfer) brought us home, and I was glad to be so close to home at the end of the day.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday:  Eilat / Petra

In an effort to help me not fail the ulpan exam, my sister took off that night by herself via Egged overnight bus for Eilat and Petra, where she stayed until another overnight bus on Thursday night.

Shabbat:  Home

To celebrate my birthday, completing ulpan and sister’s visit, and to commemorate my father’s fifth yahrzeit, we had a small but nice kiddush here for some of the people we know who live within walking distance.  It was lovely.

Sunday:  Caesarea, Akko, Rosh HaNikra, Yerushalayim

I accidentally or on purpose told my sister I didn’t want to leave for Yerushalayim until Monday, so she booked herself a tour of the north on Sunday.  I was just in Akko during Chanukah and wasn’t at all interested in going again, so she left by herself early Sunday morning on a train to meet her tour bus in Caesarea. 

ABIsendpics (5) I stayed home and wrapped up some stuff here, then headed straight to Yerushalayim, where I met up with Elisheva and checked into the most bare-bones hostel you can imagine.

Let me first say:  I am NOT a fussy traveller.  I have stayed in hostels before in all sorts of places.  Thus, I am no stranger to bare-bones accommodation.  Yet I can easily, comfortably state that this hostel was the biggest dump I have ever stayed in.  It was pretty terrible, but over the course of 3 nights (and the sleeping wasn’t too bad), we sort of got used to it.  (Or is that what they call Stockholm Syndrome?)

The hostel is in a very Arab part of the old city, and its location (just inside the Jaffa Gate) is the only thing it really has going for it… well, that and the price, which was ₪70 per night (about $20) in an “8-bed” (ie 4 bunk beds) women-only dorm.  As I said, I presented my Canadian ID because I wasn’t sure how much they’d love having an Israeli staying on the premises.  Still, I felt secure and comfortable – especially the second night, when I had a second blanket and they brought another heater into the room in an effort to put down the chill.

After I checked into the hostel, I figured I had about 4 hours to kill (turned out to be more like 6), so I wandered the Old City, which was really kind of great.  I let myself get lost, safe in the knowledge that my trusty GPS would get me out if I was stuck.

ABIsendpics (24)I headed back to the hostel to change into warm evening clothes, and met Elisheva when her classes ended at 7.   Eventually, my sister arrived at the Jaffa Gate from her tour of the north.  We took her straight to the Kosel / Kotel where everybody said a little something and marvelled at its antiquity and sanctity… or at least at the ability to sit down for a minute after a busy day of touring.

Afterwards, we got dinner with Elisheva at a lovely if rather pricey Asian place (formerly Japanika, now called Sushi Bar, on Shlomtzion Hamalka, off Yaffo).

Sleeeeeeeep… I was so tired from all that walking.

Monday:  Yerushalayim

ABIsendpics (28) A full day to be a tourist in Yerushalayim; my dream come true!  Woke to the sound of prayer calls, church bells and Arab schoolchildren, and stumbled out of bunk bed to find the CityTour / Egged “Route 99” tourist bus, which – for a very reasonable ₪60 – tootles around the city on a two-hour route that shows you the most important bits of everything, along with the names of 300 miscellaneous neighbourhoods that nobody in a million years is ever going to remember.

ABIsendpics (32)After the bus tour ended, we had three hours to kill before the FREE (!) walking tour we’d planned for the afternoon, so I took her to Machane Yehuda (the Shuk / Market) for lunch.  My idea of lunch in Machane Yehuda is:  buy cheese, buy pita, buy iced coffee, wash somewhere, find a sunny bench, eat. 

Her idea of lunch was a little more complicated, and shifted halfway through the search to include a salad and pesto.  But eventually, we both had accumulated a variety of delicious things and we made our way back (for various reasons) to a bench outside the Old City to eat them all.

abitrip (6) - Copy  The walking tour was also two hours and it was GREAT.  It is literally FREE but they tell you up front that it’s nice to tip ₪10-15 at the end.  I figured if the tour was any good at all, it would still be worth it ($3-5?!?).  It was wonderful (and they only mention the tip thing twice – once at the beginning and once at the end, though they do plug some of the other tours they offer around the Old City; fair enough, I think). 

We got to see all four “quarters”abitrip (7) - Copy of the Old City and the guide was clearly very, very experienced, pointing out historic sites and sharing fascinating legends about every part of the city.  Way better than just walking around and trying to notice things on your own.

We both tipped him happily at the end of the tour.

Not wanting to call it a day just yet (even though it was almost dark already), we headed back to the hostel to change (days were hot; nights were FREEZING) and then out again to buy tickets for the Sound & Light Show at the David Citadel Museum. 

The show was a little hokey, and probably would have been more enjoyable at a warmer time of year, but still impressive.  They project images on the stone walls of the Citadel (which has nothing to do with David HaMelech, our tour guide explained), showing the history of Yerushalayim from the earliest times… in a slightly whitewashed and somewhat more peaceful, calm manner than I suspect things happened in real life.

After that, we got dinner – tasty, tasty Big Apple Pizza on Ben Yehuda Street, and marched back home to sleep, exhausted.

Tuesday:  Dead Sea & Masada

ABIsendpics (67)This was a packaged tour that I bought online, and it was good.  Just good, not great, but good is sometimes good enough.  Ditto with the guide:  not tons of fun, but he did a good job, and he was guiding and explaining as he drove our little van, which he did expertly and well.  My sister told me afterwards that he was holding a microphone; I didn’t see that at the time or I might have been more alarmed.  I assumed it was mounted on the dashboard.

ABIsendpics (59)This was really my first time seeing and  appreciating the quite-deserty desert that covers most of this country.  We passed the mountains where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and they seemed – well, more mountainy than others I have seen before because they’re so bare – in the Rockies, mostly what you notice are the trees and forests.  None of that to distract you here.

We stopped at the Ahava Factory Outlet, which I assumed would be our only ABIsendpics (80)chance to buy Ahava products.  We both resisted, but it turned out there would be plenty more opportunities… the Ahava Company maintains quite a presence down there around the Yam HaMelach (Salt Sea, its Hebrew name).

Masada has never been high on my list of places to go.  I’m not sure how I feel about Jewish zealot groups hiding out from the Romans and their group suicide makes it a bit controversial that we continue to memorialize them.  ABIsendpics (87)Still – the views were breathtaking and I’m glad I went.  Happy we didn’t have to walk up like the many teenagers who were there with Birthright groups.  ABIsendpics (92)They have a lovely cable car, nothing scary like the one in Haifa.

Here we are, right up at the top!ABIsendpics (95)

The tour also stopped at the Dead Sea (Yam HaMelach), another one of my don’t-mind-if-I-miss-it sites, but it was interesting to feel the water – at first.  My sister brought a bathing suit, but I just took off my shoes and waded in a bit, swishing my hands around as I went. 

So this is interesting:  it turns out my entire skin is made up of a network of fine cracks that exist only for the purpose of letting in the sea’s deadly mixture of salt, sulphur and bromides to inside my skin, where they can inflict the most pain.

They did.  It was painful, almost right away.  I washed it off and it was STILL painful.  Later on that evening, my legs started to burn, and as I write this, two days and two showers later, they are still itchy from the “healing mud.”  Feh. 

Another one to chalk off the bucket list, anyway, and never worry about not having carped the diem.

Wednesday:  Yad VaShem, Home Again

I’ve been thinking of Yad VaShem (Holocaust History Museum) as sort of a flu shot.  It’s not that I WANT a flu shot, but it’s good for me and at some point every fall, I work up the nerve to get one.  Except that every time I’m in Yerushalayim, I have young kids in tow, and even Naomi is too young (kids under 10 are not allowed).

No pictures are allowed inside Yad VaShem, which is a very good thing.  The museum is free, and we declined to rent the ₪20 audio guide – figuring that a decent museum should explain itself to you.  (We may have been influenced in this snobbery by our mother’s background in Museum Studies.)

Despite this, there were about fifteen big groups making their way through the museum while we were there, blocking the exhibits with guides shouting out explanations of all the exhibits.  In the groups that included teenagers, many of the teenagers were wearing the audio guide headsets, listening to those along with their guide (simultaneously?). 

My sister thought this was ridiculously excessive and I agree – if so much work and thought has been put into the exhibits themselves, what good does it do to stand a bored guide in front of them to shout about it to the viewers?

Because of the clumping of the groups at the entrance to every room and in front of every key exhibit, it was  hard to pass through without getting a little annoyed.  And then, at the very moving exhibit of shoes taken from concentration-camp victims, an Israeli girl was giggling and pointing at them.  Sheesh. 

Still, annoyance fades somewhat as you pass through room after room of exhibits that are so overwhelming and painful and brilliantly-thought-out.  I was very much Holocausted to death (um, to coin an awful phrase) in Hebrew school as a kid, so I feel like I’m sadly inured to a lot of it… but at a few points it got through to me in a very moving way.

My phone started beeping loudly in the Hall of Names, which was embarrassing, as it’s meant to be a quiet place where you hear names intoned of victims of the Shoah (Holocaust).  Whoops – it was Elisheva, texting to arrange lunch.

After Yad VaShem, we made our way via Light Rail Train to the Merkazit (central station) to meet Elisheva.  Everybody got a salad except me – McDonald’s!  Elisheva said a big, passionate goodbye to her aunt, and then in a flurry of confusion, we boarded the 960 bus back to Haifa.

     abitrip - Copy (3)

It’s been an eye-opening couple of weeks, being a tourist here in my own country.  The Hebrew I’ve learned has been very helpful, and although not a “vatik” (old hand) here, things don’t feel as fresh and new and scary as they did when we were here ten months ago on that pilot trip.

Yet I think I’ve enjoyed showing my sister around so much because it’s all new to me as well.  My sister’s really the first relative who’s visited – hopefully, there will be more opportunities to guide future relatives’ “tours,” and perhaps those, too, will be full of firsts (still lots of places I haven’t been!)… but at some point, it may start to feel like a “been there, done that,” kind of thing.

For now, though, it’s all just a heck of a lot of fun.

What did my sister miss???  If you had only twelve days in Israel, what would be on your “can’t miss” list?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Going out for a tiyul… or am I?

image Every once in a while, here in the depths of ulpan (Hebrew boot camp for newcomers), I find a word so utterly baffling that I simply MUST let the world know of its bizarrity.  One of these words is… TIYUL (tee-ool / טִיוּל). 

I thought I had a handle on this word, really, I did!  It means outing, everyone knows that.  It’s not like we haven’t been on tiyulim!  Like our family trips and outings to places like Yerushalayim, Acco and Nahariya. 

So I was tootling along nicely until I came to this line in one of Ted’s readings from ulpan:  “I went for a tiyul in the backyard.”

Huh?  That’s not really an outing, exactly, is it?  And then I remembered that the boardwalk by the beach is called a “tayelet” (טַיֶּלֶת).  Indeed, there’s a whole verb to go with the word tiyul:  le-tayel (לטייל), which you can use to describe all the wonderful places you can take a tiyul to.

It turns out, when I wrote about what a lazy language English is when it comes to going places, that Hebrew has its lazy moments, too… and tiyul is definitely one of them. 

If you say you are going for a tiyul, you had better clarify quick (especially if your paycheque is involved!)… because you could be on your way to Europe, or the backyard, or Acco, or Eilat, or the mall.  Your front porch.  Really, anywhere.

Our shiny new dictionary, an Oxford no less, translates this word as walk, journey, excursion, trip, and outingGoogle Translate adds promenade, tour, hike, tramp, sightseeing, drive, and ramble.  Granted, it lists a few other words for some of these, but doesn’t dismiss the fact that any one of them can legitimately constitute a tiyul.  And Morfix, my favourite online Hebrew dictionary, has the chutzpah to add the word stroll to the list.

You definitely can’t stroll to Europe.

When I mentioned this to my teacher, the ambiguity of the word, she kind of shrugged, and then, actually laughed.  It’s true, and I think Israelis realize it.  They have loved this word to death and is so beloved that it has come to mean absolutely nothing.  You could be going to see the sea, the nearby dog park, or Machu Picchu, and you’d use the same word.

Think I’ll shut this down now.  Getting late; time for a tiyul to the bedroom!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Eyfo HaSherutim? איפה השרותים?

bathroom klalitFeeling like a savvy Israeli doesn’t happen for me very often. 

Today, I took a page out of Batya’s book (okay, blog) when we were out and about in Nahariya.  Strange city, ambling around having a good time with friends from our pilot trip… when Naomi Rivka announced that she needed a bathroom.

(we only took Naomi Rivka – GZ stayed home with Elisheva, yay!)

And I looked up, and like the chorus out of Life of Brian (if you haven’t seen it, you must), there was the local Klalit (they spell it Clalit in English) health clinic.  Using Batya’s rationale, we ARE Clalit members and thus, sort of, “customers” of theirs. 

I also knew that the closest public alternative was the bus-station bathroom, which would almost certainly be sub-par, and also, possibly, be available only for a fee of 1 shekel.  I learned this the hard way in Afula, where you hand over your shekel to an apathetic guy behind a desk who does NOTHING, and then enter the most hideously filthy bathroom which – for ONE shekel! – lacks seats.  It’s like a third-world country, except you’re paying for the privilege.

So… why be a freyer (sucker) if you don’t have to be???  Into the Klalit clinic we went, marched up to the front desk, and asked for the sherutim (literally, services or facilities).  The bathroom wasn’t great (actually required a bit of cleaning before she could use it), but it was free and there was soap, warm water and towels to wash up with afterwards.  (No hand sanitizer!  I have yet to see a health or recreation facility here with hand sanitizer.  Weird, since it’s practically synonymous with these places outside of Israel.)

Anyway, there isn’t much that makes me feel confident these days, but being able to find my kid a bathroom the INSTANT she demands one (it really did just appear there, like a mirage) is one heck of a happiness-booster. 

Oh, yeah, and then we stopped at a sandwich shop and I showed everybody the extensive sandwich menu so they could deliberate before I took a call.  And then… when I turned back a few minutes later, realized I was the only one in the crowd (two were just starting ulpan) who could actually read the menu.  Oops! 

We skipped that joint – too expensive, too complicated – and found a falafel / shawarma place that only had two choices (falafel / shawarma, and half / whole).  Thoroughly yummy!

While wandering around Nahariya, we happened to find delightful store we found in Nahariya called Gan Li / גן לי.  Okay, it’s true, I have a fetish for anything school related, but this is actually the first decent, comprehensive, school-and-art-supplies shop we have seen since we got here.

For months, we’ve been buying binders in one store, a hole punch in another, a filler paper at another, and pencils and pens somewhere else entirely.  Gan Li even had Akiva’s artist ink, and some decent markers he can use for drawing with.  And some cheap (₪9) no-name highlighters for Naomi Rivka and magnet pens for our fridge (₪5 each).  It’s not that the prices were so fantastic, it’s the fact that everything was all in one place that I found so very exciting!

image Oooh!  Ever a sucker for fun new card games, I bought the game Sleeping Queens (note:  links point to the English Gamewright version; the Hebrew one is licensed by FoxMind), for ₪40-something instead of the ₪60-something in the big chain bookstores.  But that’s a subject for another post…

All in all, a nice day spent with nice new friends in Nahariya.  And it was nice travelling home in comfort instead of sitting cross-legged on the bus all the way back (meandering every which way down the coast and through Acco) wondering where I’d find the nearest bathroom.  I’m Israeli; I already know!!!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Soldiers “R” Us: the warm, fuzzy army

chayelet irena naomi I’ve posted about them before, but okay, I’m STILL fascinated by chayalot – women soldiers, who are really more like girls because they’re just in their late teens and act more like a group of kids on a school trip than the highly-trained group of killers one normally associates with the word “army.”

I remember thinking about this when we were on our pilot trip back in February, and I took this picture of a bunch of them chayalim platformhanging about on a train platform, very much like they were waiting for a teacher to come and read them the schedule for the days’ activities.  Only kind of like Boy Scouts, because they were all wearing uniforms.  And oh, yeah, a lot of them do carry pretty scary-looking weapons.

But other than that, they’re just a bunch of kids… and it seems like one of the big army projects around here is sending kids – girls and boys – to tutor immigrant children and generally help them adapt to life in Israel.  They accomplish this through the medium of Hebrew classes and various lessons in painting and crafts.

Once, when Naomi’s regular teacher (Irena, shown in the big hug above) didn’t show up, I went to the office to find out why and discovered two big army guys, sitting around a table, cutting up used soda bottles.  “We’re making flowers!” they announced.

Surely this is how I would prefer to spend my army service, given the choice.  It’s sort of a messianic vision a la Yeshayahu (Isaiah):  nations will beat their swords into ploughshares, and soldiers will spend their days making pop-bottle flowers?  But perhaps the other army guys make fun of them for getting stuck in what may be regarded as even lower than a desk job.

(That same afternoon, a couple of actual Israeli Scouts (Tzofim) came in to volunteer, just a couple of years younger than the chayalim (far older than any Scouts I’ve seen recently in Canada), and looking not at all ashamed of their slightly goofy-looking Scout uniforms, scarf and all.  Not sure if there is a relationship between scouting and the army, but it seems like good preparation, if they also have to wear uniforms and make pop-bottle flowers with immigrants.)

Today, after a week of preparatory crafts, the chayalim and staff here put together a Chanukah party.  One chayal brought along a recorder and sheet music, the others corralled the children and ensured that the celebratory events went along with, okay, not-quite-military precision.

I assume the soldiers do these things mainly during fairly peaceful periods, and that if need be, they are deployed to somewhere more national security oriented.  I really don’t know at all how the system works, and lack the Hebrew to ask the chayalim and chayalot about it myself. 

How do they pick which ones will “volunteer” to teach the immigrant kids, as opposed to, say, foot patrols in the Golan?  Do they choose soldiers who have been wounded or frightened, or are otherwise unable to perform more rigourous duties?  Or do they rotate through the ranks, so everybody gets a turn?  Do they only pick soldiers who want to work with kids, or does everybody perhaps have to take a turn?

Although all branches of the army are easily identifiable by their distinctive shoulder patches (tag yechida / תג יחידה), which probably carry a lot of useful information for Israelis-in-the-know, I personally have no idea what any of the patches actually mean.  So the red flower logo on Naomi Rivka’s chayelet could mean she is in fact serving with the “Pop-Bottle Flowers” brigade.  I may never know.

But it is a very different thing, growing up with “friends” like these in the army than growing up in Canada, where (for most kids) the army is something distant, cold, and perhaps menacing. 

Kids who grow up in Israeli families probably know lots of friends and relatives who are serving, but for newcomers, adults and kids, the omnipresence of the army and the prospect of serving yourself (or sending your kids to serve, if you’re a parent) can be one of the most daunting and disturbing aspects of life here. 

So whether it’s done explicitly as a PR move or not, this project of sending cute, perky young soldiers to help little kids get used to life in Israel is utterly and completely brilliant.  The message:  Soldiers are young, fun-loving kids, just like you… just regular Israelis, just like you.

Sometimes Blue

Sunny skies, birds chirping… an unseasonal heatwave… and here I am weeping in the stupid ulpan party.  Luckily, Ted was there.  And luckily also, it’s impossible to cry through “gangnam style.”  So I didn’t miss too much.

It’s not that we made a mistake coming here.  Let me rephrase that:  we didn’t make a mistake, coming here.  But we are very, very far away from the place we’ve always called home.  Sometimes, it’s impossible to get away from the feeling that you are way, way away from where you’re supposed to be.

Of course, I do believe that here is where we’re supposed to be.  Most of the time, that helps.

But when the list starts listing itself in my head of the people we’ve left behind… I’m sad.  I miss my mother, my sisters Sara and Abigail, even (a little) my brother, my Aunt Dorothy, Uncle Michael, Marilyn, beloved neighbour Judy, cherished friends (I could pretend I have too many to name, but ha ha ha – I don’t) Shira, Chana Beila, Sara, okay, there are some others, but I don’t connect with people well and I know that.  Friendly neighbours, shul acquaintances, and just all the people you smile at going up and down the street. 

Most particularly, most especially, most painfully, the little person I gave birth to 19 years ago, who hates to dance and sing with me at the best of times, but who nevertheless has been there for every Chanukah anyway, my entire adult life.

Listing them helps.  Quantifying the pain, touching the idea of each person in my mind, actually helps.  Maybe because when it first hits, the sadness of being apart from them feels INFINITE.  Like there are a million, a billion, a googol of them that I’ve left behind.  But still.  Of course, each person left behind is an infinity of ouch, but thinking of them, sending them little eGifts (which I know, usually mean “I don’t give a darn,” but from Israel mean, “I saved postage so I could send you a more valuable gift”), reminds me that even though the pain is real, I can bear it, get through it, and even still feel happier when I think of them and talk to them.

image The party itself was totally goofy:  exactly the kind of thing you do for a couple of years in kindergarten, and then never again.

We rehearsed a song (“Ner Li”), then stood up and sang it to the assembled crowd of all the ulpan students.  Ted was all nervous because he had two lines to say during his class’s performance, but my only solo task was translating the song into English (Also goofy:  “My candle, my candle, my thin candle.  On Chanukah, I will light my candle.  On Chanukah, my candle will glow.  On Chanukah, I will sing songs.”)

ulpanclassAnd then we sat down and enjoyed the rest of the show, which consisted of fully-grown people waving giant candles, dreidels (sevivonim) and generally having a rollicking good time.

Now we have a vacation for a week and a half, and after that, just over a week to prepare for the upcoming EXAM that concludes our Ulpan Alef (Hebrew Boot Camp) study.

And now, I’m feeling a little bit better – heading into the kitchen in a minute to wash dishes so I can make latkes and something chicken-y for our first night’s supper.  On Friday, when Elisheva comes up, I will make my regular chocolate sourdough sufganiyot, using the culture I brought with me from Canada…  a little taste of home, right here in our “pina ketana” (פינה קטנה / little corner) of the Holy Land.

One thing I’m trying not to do.  All my life, I’ve heard immigrants talking about life “back home.”  I don’t refer to Canada as “home,” even though it has been my home my whole life.  This is a conscious choice and a HARD choice.  It’s nice, easy shorthand… but I’m trying not to do it.  We are home.

Just in case you’re feeling blue, too – for wherever it is you came from, or whoever it is you miss – here’s a little taste of the Gangnam groove (caution – may contain inappropriate images, in which case, just flip the video into the background and just listen to the audio).  (Try it; it really is impossible to be sad while listening to it!)

And just to cancel out the secular bizarrity of that video, let me also throw one in with an Israeli tune that is wildly popular and yet also wildly spiritual, that odd Israeli mindset that even if you’re not religious, Hashem is looking out for you if only you believe He’s there.

Happy Chanukah to all my fellow Israelis who may be feeling at once at home and far from home, and to my fellow Canadians who are missing us this Chanukah.  You are missed like crazy.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Now that you're coming to Israel...

Whatever happens, don't panic, and don't watch the news.  will it reassure you to know that bad stuff, like, colossally, unthinkable, bad things happen here every day?  Yesterday, a sleeping soldier was stabbed to death on a public bus.  nineteen  years old, and, dare I say it again, fast asleep. Rockets fall, families lose their homes, blood spills. But also : babies are born, love blooms, there is no such thing as a stranger, bus drivers make change, and daffodils (narkisim) bloom in the wintertime.  So don't cancel your vacation based on anything you hear in the news. 
Planning a trip anywhere brings that place into intense focus. If you were going to Bulgaria, or if your best friend just moved there, you'd suddenly start noticing it in the headlines, in much the same way that you might find yourself mysteriously surrounded by pregnant women in the months and years after a miscarriage.
There is so much we filter out around us constantly. Our big brains choose what to see and hear, and now that yours knows you're going to israel, it thinks it's doing you a favour by circling with a highlighter all the headlines you've been missing all these years. (Google old headlines, if you don't believe me.)
On top of the regular noticing you start doing once you're on your way somewhere, there's the media's endless fascination with, and speculation about, all things israel. My ulpan teacher said the other day, "If someone sneezes in Yerushalayim, they hear about it in America," but it's not just yerushalayim, it's this whole place. It's not just jews who think this country is fascinating and important; not just Christians, either.  The whole world knows it's true.
So.  to sum up:  It may feel like the world has gone haywire now that you've bought that plane ticket.  Rest assured, the world was already haywire; you just maybe never noticed it before.  That's it, the sum total of my accumulated wisdom so far. We've only been here for 3 months ourselves.
Oh, but, one thing I do know: if your bank card doesn't have the word Visa on it, it might not work. I'm not just talking about "it might not work in some machines, or in some out-of - the-way areas."  it may never work, anywhere. It might, but don't count on it.
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Sent on the go in the Holy Land - please excuse my typos!!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Coming and going

The biggest lie ever taught in Hebrew school:  that the word "lalechet" (ללכת) means "to go."

Okay, to be completely fair, it’s technically correct.  But it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to actually going someplace. 

It's not Hebrew's fault. In fact, just the opposite:  English has spoiled us into laziness, allowing us to abuse the word "go" until it has almost no real meaning of its own at all. We are lazy, and Hebrew aims to correct that tendency. 

In English, we GO up, down, away, to Paris, around (sometimes, going out or - for older folks - going around, even means the same as dating). In the bathroom lineup, we wait impatiently, because we've... got to go, badly. 

Today in Ulpan (or Hebrew-language boot camp), my teacher asked who’d heard of the city Yavne, and mentioned its well-known yeshiva, Kerem b’Yavne. Of course, I stuck up my hand and said, “בן-דודי…" (ben-dodi / “my cousin…”). And then I trailed off, stuck.

In English, I would have said, “my cousin WENT there” (he really did!). But in Hebrew, you don’t just “go” to school – you LEARN there (ללמוד). You don’t just “go” to another city, you TRAVEL there (לנסוע) or FLY there (לטוס) or ARRIVE there (להגיע). 

Now, you may say, “Tzivia, you just proved that English has all those words, too!  English is equally complex!!!” 

{First of all, thank you for calling me Tzivia!  And if you accidentally called me Tzvia, I don’t mind; it turns out, despite my fears that I’d be constantly objecting to the mispronunciation, that I’ve actually gotten TWO names I love for the price of one! (more in another post)}

So, to recap your objection:  “Tzivia, you just proved that English has all those words, too!  English is equally complex!”

Maybe so, but in English, unless you want to sound like you’re giving some kind of graduate lecture, you have to mainly stick with “go.”  Whereas in Hebrew, you sound like a kindergarten baby if you fail to describe the going in more specific terms.

Here, you can’t just ask a bus driver how you “go” to Arlozorov Street… you have to ask “איך מגיעים לארלוזורוב?" (eich magi’im l’arlozorov? / “how do they ARRIVE at Arlozorov?”) (this “do they” construct is similar to the anonymous “how does one” construction in English).

In short, almost nothing just GOES in Hebrew, and finding actual uses for the word “lalechet” is tougher than anyone would expect. Books don’t “go” on the table and clothes do not “go” together. No, you must be specific and שים (seem = put) the books down while finding clothes that מתאימים (mateemeem = suit) with your shoes.  That washing machine that just doesn’t go?  You’d better say it fails to פועל (poel = work).

I could say the same thing about “do,” but I won’t. Suffice to say that if your Hebrew-school teacher taught you that “la’asot” (לעשות) means doing or making, he or she didn’t tell you half the story. You don’t DO homework, you PREPARE or WRITE it. And on Shabbos, you don’t MAKE Kiddush, you… KIDDUSH it (לקדש).

{Yes, it’s a verb; use it, get used to it (two totally separate words in Hebrew, by the way). This is a big part of the fun: like almost all Hebrew words, it morphs freely from noun to verb as easily as English words accumulate unnecessary letters.  And havnt we ol had enuf of that? Just spel it “unesisry” and be dun. }

And now I must go out of this room (לצאת) to go make supper (לבשל) before the kids have to go to sleep (לְהִרָדֵם) (Just kidding! Well, it is correct, but there’s actually a legitimate way to use ללכת here – לָלֶכֶת לִישׁוֹן).  So there you go.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Suddenly

(I wrote this post a few weeks ago, maybe even the beginning of October, but only realized a couple of days ago that I never actually posted it, so it's been sitting, languishing, if you will, here in my playbook. It's still true, despite a couple of fall heatwaves that have pushed temps up into the 30s again. )

Long sleeves are everywhere. Well, 3/4-length sleeves, anyway, where just a couple of weeks ago, you would have seen the same women in tank tops, or less.  For our first two months here (wow,2 months!), that has been my "quick" shorthand way of figuring out who's religious and who isn't. It hasn't been entirely foolproof, however, since many women wear t-shirts way shorter than anybody "frum" would wear in North America, and even pants (sometimes) and still consider themselves religious. 

Of course, clothing (as I have told Elisheva Chaya, probably too many times) is a mighty shallow way to judge someone or try to discern what sort of relationship she has with Hashem.  we shouldn't dress modestly just to impress other people... But sometimes we do, or assume other people are getting dressed knowing they will be judged by us...

All the cues here are different. Like the seasons:. If I close my eyes, it's definitely still summer.  open them, and everybody else knows it's fall.  As for who's religious and who isn't, those cues are totally mixed up as well... But luckily, as I've always said, I don't have to decide where each person stands in her relationship with hakadosh Baruch hu.

It's up to Hashem to sort us all out, and luckily, He can do anything.  Certainly, with full sun and temperatures still in the 20s, if He can convince women who'd rather be wearing something strapless that fall has arrived and they should put on a sweater , He is capable of great wonders indeed.
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Sent on the go in the Holy Land - please excuse my typos!!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Only in Chutz la’Aretz, you say? Pity!

IMG_00003194 There was a tea commercial a while back – for some Canadian brand (okay, I googled it, and it was apparently Red Rose Tea) – in which a Britishy voice tasted the tea and proclaimed, “Only in Canada, you say?  Pity!”

So you probably already know that there are a bunch of food things you can’t get here – or, if you can get them, they are a) so expensive and b) so inferior that it’s barely worthwhile.

That said, I want to jump in (thus interrupting my own post) to say there are far FEWER of those things than there used to be.  Used to be you couldn’t get decent toilet paper (not a food product, but bear with me), chocolate chips, tinned tuna, vanilla extract (okay, still no vanilla extract) and more.  Those are all easily available now, albeit sometimes at a slight premium.

Still – when it comes to one of our favourite sorta-healthy snacks it is pretty tough to assemble all the necessary ingredients… but not impossible, as the delicious smell from the toaster oven is proving as I type this.

Making nachos the way I like them requires three special ingredients:  nacho (corn) chips, salsa and cheddar cheese.  All of these are hard to come by, to different extents – but again, not totally impossible.

In this case, I found the cheddar at the shuk in Yerushalayim on Friday (yay!).   We served it sliced on Shabbos and Elisheva proclaimed it not wonderful, because she’s been spoiled by the sharp cheddar we got in Toronto.  I find it subtle but tasty.

Ted found the salsa (kind of expensive) in the “ethnic” section of a grocery store not too far away (yay!), and the chips were actually pretty much the normal price (three smaller-than-our-usual bags for ₪10, making it about $3-4 for the equivalent of a regular-sized bag) in a different grocery store (yay!).  They were hard to find, though, in case you want to feel sorry for us.

The one thing that’s still lacking is sour cream.  We have shamenet in the fridge, but it’s not exactly the same thing:  it has a bitter edge that I don’t really love yet.  Tasty enough when mixed into things, but it just isn’t sour cream, so for now, I’ll eat my nachos “naked” (except for the cheese and salsa), thanks.

IMG_00003195B’tayavon!!!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Little Words

So what are we learning in ulpan??? 

Well, mainly, I’m NOT learning what the other people in my class are learning – namely, words.  I know all the words. 

If that sounds like hubris, it’s not; Ulpan Alef is designed to introduce a rudimentary vocabulary, including some 200 verbs and a whole lot of useful nouns and adjectives.  Most of which I know already.

Also, because of the way Hebrew is based around a system of roots which are then drawn out and conjugated in various forms, even if I don’t know a word, I can often figure it out based on the root.

Sure, there are some new words:  I can now announce how disappointed (me’uchzevet) I am or that I prefer (ma’adifa) bananas or life in the big city.  And in many cases, though I knew the words, I wasn’t entirely confident about the vowels or pronunciation and now I am way more confident.

image But the main challenge, as far as I’m concerned, are the LITTLE words.  My teacher calls them prepositions, but I’ve never known what those are in English, either (my sister Abigail would know; she’s book-smart that way).  The little words are the glue that links sentences together – they are the reason I have never been able to speak sensibly, even though I knew a lot of words all along.

Some of the little words come easily:  the two kinds of “eem” (עם  and אם), one of which means “if” and one of which means “with.”  My main problem is the CONNECTING words.  In English, we are very casual about connecting words, in most cases, dropping them altogether.  Not so in Hebrew; most Hebrew verbs automatically come with a connecting word which must be used to connect it to the rest of the sentence.

In English, we say things like “I threw the ball” without worrying about how the throwing transfers itself TO the ball.  It just works – magic!  In other cases, we do use connecting words:  “I waited FOR Naomi.”  But even this doesn’t help, because in most cases, the connecting words don’t translate.

Like the phrase “I’m afraid of dogs.”  First of all, “afraid” isn’t exactly a verb (you could say “I fear dogs,” but nobody does unless they’re being needlessly melodramatic), but anyway, in Hebrew, it becomes a verb, l’fached (לפחד).  But the little connecting word is more like “from” than “of” – “I am afraid from dogs” (אני פוחד מכלבים).  Sure helps you understand why Israelis speak English so clumsily. 

Some translations  are fairly close - “I waited for Naomi” translates to “I waited TO Naomi” (חיכיתי לנעמי), and the little word “l” often does double-duty this way, so it’s kind of predictable.  Others are not close at all.  “I’m mad at Naomi” translates to “I’m mad ON Naomi” (אני כועס על נעמי), which just makes me giggle every time.

And what about those cases where we don’t have a connecting word in English?  Then, you have to remember which of the three or four main connecting words (prepositions, milot yachas - מילות יחס) that verb takes. 

Like “to guard.”  In English, you just say you “guarded the safe,” or “guarded the schoolyard” (okay, in English-speaking countries, maybe it’s not necessary to guard a schoolyard.  Stay with me here anyway.  In Hebrew, you don’t just guard something… you guard ON it (לשמור על בית הספר).  You don’t just play a sport… you play IN it (לשחק בכדורגל).

Of course, as with all things grammatical, there’s a loophole.  If you follow a verb with an infinitive (the “to” form of a verb, like “to eat”), then you don’t need a connecting word.  “I forgot the backpack” needs the word “את” (becoming שכחתי את התיק) but if you say I forgot TO EAT (שכחתי לאכול), you don’t.  However, working around the connecting words is an awkward and only partial solution. 

What it comes down to is that these little words simply don’t translate word for word, and there’s no use trying to make any sense of them whatsoever.  The only way through it, as they say, is to do it, memorizing long lists of verbs, practicing them in sentences, and remembering which connecting word goes with which. 

There are some “memory tricks,” for example, many, many directional verbs use the word “el” (אל)– words like run, walk, climb etc.  However, some of the words my teacher sees as clearly “directional” are not really, in English, like “to get used to” (להתרגל) and “to miss” (as in the people you miss back in Canada) – לְהִתגַעגֵעַ.  Those also use the word “el” even though they don’t seem to have a particular direction.

All of these tricks and traps are, I fear, ruining my perfectly good English. 

I’m not imageslipping up just yet, but I’m afraid from the fact that there may well come to me a time when I tell to somebody that I miss to them or that I will watch on their backpack while they go play in the piano.

Ah, just a few humdrum thoughts on these little words I’m mad on cuz they’re currently breaking my brain.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Taking their money…

IMG_00002434Some controversy in the online world today, in which religious Jews in charge of a well-known interfaith organization have appealed to Christians to build churches here, made me think again about these signs.  I photographed them a while ago, when we were new here, but now barely notice them every day as I walk past… 

These both reflect what was probably a minor campaign for this huge organization, the John Hagee Ministries, but still, some very substantial donations raised to help the Jewish Agency build this Merkaz Klitah in 2005, presumably – at the time – to house incoming Ethiopian families. 

IMG_00002435

Hagee himself – a controversial figure in some circles – is known for being very pro-Israel.  Now, when evangelical Christian organizations come out as “pro-Israel”, usually what that means is that they need us all to be here so that the messiah can return, which will preface untold years of suffering and varying degrees of torment (depending on the denomination) for the perfidy of not believing in him all these years.

However, unlike some of these organizations, Hagee’s organization (based in Texas) does not try to negate the significance of our eternal covenant and seems to take a softer-sell approach.  On their website, they list 7 points outlining why Christians must support a Jewish Israel, including the fact that gentiles only deserve blessing if they have done something practical to bless the Jewish people.  For attitudes like this, Hagee has been lauded by organizations like Bnei Brith

Still, I don’t fully trust it, especially when I find writing like this on the same website, about the same Jewish people: “Today, the Jewish people are still Christ’s family and they are still the apple of God’s eye.  No, they don’t see Jesus for who Christians believe He is, but they will in the future when He comes to deliver them.  Until then, we, like Esther, have a duty to speak out and defend them.”  Friends, sure, but perhaps an uneasy kind of friendship, given that they believe we will ultimately be persuaded.

However, this is a complicated issue and I haven’t even scratched the surface.  It’s my understanding that some of the money Nefesh b’Nefesh uses comes from Christian organizations.  Not only that, there are other organizations which exist independently to assist Jews with the aliyah process, and our family personally may or may not have received aid from one or more of them.

It’s hard to shake off the creepy feeling of being nothing more than a pawn in someone else’s eschatology (end-times theology).  And it feels slimy to take their money and run, taking advantage of people we ultimately believe are misguided in their heartfelt donations. 

Let’s be honest:  we think they’re WRONG.  They think we’re WRONG.  Not everything is black and white like that, but in this case, that’s how it comes out:  flip of a coin.

So I guess we just have to go on believing we’re right… at the same time as they believe just as resolutely (putting their considerable financial resources where their mouth is) that they are.  Fortunately, it’s not up to me:  I plan to sit back and let Hashem flip the coin…. but that doesn’t mean we don’t know how it’ll turn out in the end.  :-)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Colon Cleanse? Brand-name blooper

IMG_00003101 Really???  In a country with however-many English speakers, where English is pretty much mandatory for every student over Grade Three, an entire corporation decided that a good name for their detergent line was… Colon!

I wonder if anybody told them it means kishke?  Or if the first thing that comes to mind is not purity and shiny-brightness IMG_00003102of dishes, clothing or anything else.

I didn’t buy these, but not because of the name.  Other brand names of detergent are almost equally weird:  Sod, Hepi, Fairy, Persil (these last two are British brands I’d already heard of).

A few old favourites are here, but generally, North American brands are way more expensive.  I have, however, stuck with our old favourite detergent, פלמוליב (Palmolive), since I have found it for reasonably comparable prices to the unknowns.

And then, of course, what could be better - after a shopping trek through the holy land – than a ride home on a bus driven by a guy who looks just like Tevye the Dairyman, from Fiddler on the Roof???

IMG_00003107 (640x360)tevye

Tradition!!!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Taking it on the chin

IMG_00003100 (575x1024)

This little person had a not-very-happy run-in with a sidewalk today and ended up with a piece of something embedded in his chin (סַנְטֵר/santeir, which I kept saying over and over to myself on the way to the doctor so I wouldn’t accidentally say פְּסַנְתֵר/p’santeir, which is piano).

(Here’s the spiel I rehearsed silently all the way to the clinic:  בני נפל מה”סקוטר” שלו בדרך הבייתה מגן וקיבל מכה על הסנטר.)

I don’t know if our experience was typical, but this incident happened just before 2:00 pm, and we were home, after having been seen by one doctor and at least three nurses, in two different health care locations, via public transit, by about quarter to 4:00.

Needless to say, though I’m sad he got beat up, I’m happy that this was one of those times when everything works.

Within about a minute of the accident, on a sidewalk on a main street, we were surrounded by a) a woman who gave me a whole package of baby wipes to clean him up with, b) a bunch of teenagers, girls and boys, offering water bottles and asking me if I wanted help to get him to the hospital (or an ambulance), c) a couple of cars pulled over asking if we needed a ride. 

I almost accepted the offer of a ride, and perhaps should have, but as it turned out, the buses were working well and we didn’t have long to wait.  Plus, bus transfers are good here for 90 minutes, regardless of how many stops you make, so we were able to get to both locations quickly on the same fare.

In fact, the only actual delay was when we arrived at the local kupat cholim, health clinic, to find that the nurses were still on “yeshiva” (literally, their “sit break” in the middle of the day).  Fortunately, there were only 10 minutes left of that, and the woman with the number before us let us go first (a screaming kid will do that).

One slightly off-putting thing:  arriving at the trauma area of the “mirpa’at” (local urgent-care centre) and being asked, up-front (after presenting GZ’s health card), to pay ₪23 for our visit.  I assume this is a flat rate, as nobody had examined him.  I don’t know if it’s a “child” rate or if it’s standard for everybody. 

So here’s the thing:  I know that is a very, very, VERY low price for the excellent medical attention he received immediately (we were in and out in under half an hour).  In Canadian dollars, it’s less than $8.  Maybe I’m just spoiled:  this is the first time in my entire life that I have ever had to fork over money to receive care.

Then again, maybe I’m also a little scarred by a lifetime of raising children without ever having enough money to do the job exactly right.  I keep wondering what they’d do if I didn’t have enough, if my bank card was declined, if, if, if… if we were in a situation where that ₪23 was a make-or-break.  Seems unlikely (and as a parent, part of me wants to say “If you don’t have ₪23 to spare, don’t have kids!”), but I wonder.

On the other hand, maybe paying a little has helped me appreciate what we have here even more.  When it was free, I never thought about the value of the services we received.  But having paid ₪23, I cannot help thinking, “wow…”  This is a country where you can barely buy a lightbulb for ₪23, or a big bag of chips (bear with me here – imagine a REALLY big bag of chips, and a huge colourful lightbulb).

For his part, however much I’d paid, GZ did not initially want to cooperate while the doctor stuck a needle in his face.  He thought they’d have to poke right on the bleeding scrape, but even when I explained that it would not be right there, he squirmed and said no.  The doctor walked out and said if he didn’t co-operate, the stitches would have to be done in a hospital under general anaesthesia (or so I gathered from the sign language of a mask-shaped hand the nurse put over her own mouth for illustration). 

They kept saying to explain to him that it wouldn’t hurt after the initial sting, “like a mosquito,” that his chin would go to sleep.  “Hisbarti!  Hisbarti!” (I explained!) I said in my newly-perfected past-tense Hebrew.  Finally, I told him it would be like the dentist, where he has always co-operated nicely.  I also told him that, very often, when mommies took their children for stitches and there was a mall next door that had a kosher smoothie shop, they often felt like buying their child a smoothie with his own choice of fruit flavours.  That worked.

I have no idea what kind of mosquito stings four times with a long injecting needle like the doctor did.  GZ really did scream blue murder, and then the hard bit was done.  Although GZ now claims he felt everything, he was very calm and in fact asked “what’s he doing now?” several times during the scraping and stitching – suggesting to me that he couldn’t feel a thing.

Four stitches later, the only little-bit dumb part was when we had to go into the Dr’s office to “receive the letter.”  I went and sat and handed over the health card again and he gave us the letter and a few words of instruction, then continued typing.  After I sat there for a few moments, awaiting further direction, the doctor said, “we’re done – you can go.”  So we did.

My smoothie was strawberry-banana.  GZ’s was strawberry-melon; his own creation, and he said it was delicious.  The two small-sized smoothies, it has just occurred to me, cost ₪24, exactly ₪1 more than the doctor visit.  I guess I really have very little to complain about.

And so I must end with a request that Hashem help all our life’s problems here in Israel be solved as easily, smoothly, inexpensively… and sweetly as today’s turned out to be.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Since you were wondering (maybe)… the Israeli mikveh

mikvehI had been led to expect horrors from mikvas (mikvaot) here.  If not horrors, well, something “less than” in terms of what I’m used to.

Um, did I say mikveh?  Sure I did. 

I have always been honest, if discreet, when blogging about this aspect of Jewish life.  It’s certainly important:  one of the three main cornerstones of Jewish life (along with Shabbos and kashrus), in some opinions.  (I learned this, by the way, long, long ago from a Conservative rabbi…)

So I will tell you my guidelines:  I never mention specifics of my life and personal situation, such as, for instance, the actual date and time I or any other specific person went to the mikveh, and I would certainly never say anything about who I’d met there. 

So yes, just like we keep Shabbos and keep kosher, we keep taharas hamishpacha, so there it is.  Fun!

In any event, my fears were unfounded.  The one Israeli mikvah I have been to so far (an unspecified number of times, on unspecified date(s)) is really very, very nice.

mikveh (1) On the “basic” side, true.  Not quite as clean as I have seen outside of Israel, where we have out little phobias about even seeing another person’s hair, floss or toenail clipping… but nice. 

There are a few little touches, like flowers, here and there, but some of that may have been because this was sort of a “bridal suite,” with the bathtub, toilet, shower, all in the same room as the mikveh.  Most of the rooms – here and in other mikvaot I have visited – just have a bath or shower in a small preparation room which opens out into a central mikveh, which only one woman uses at a time.

 mikveh (2)

Speaking of bridal suites, there was actually a party going on on the day I was there taking the pictures… a whole bunch of women in what seems to be the “party room” of the mikveh, celebrating the impending marriage of a woman who just dunked.  What an awesome thing!  I resolved then and there that if one of my sisters ever gets engaged to a Jewish guy, I am scooping her up (with all the proper timing, of course!) and hauling her off to a mikvah for a party.

This shows the water temperature, I think:

 mikveh (3) 

(something they could have used at the mikveh I went to once in midwinter in Western Canada that turned out to be completely unheated and my lungs practically collapsed the minute I dunked)

This is the standard list of preparations, but if anything I am more careful here, because it takes me so long to read the list…

mikveh (4) 

Button to call the mikveh lady when you’re ready.

mikveh (6) 

The ladies working at this particular mikveh seem to have just the right mix of pleasant impartiality with love an enthusiasm for the mitzvah.  Mikveh ladies I’ve known generally check you for things like stray hairs, hangnails, rough foot skin, toe fluff, etc, though I believe the extent of the check should ultimately be up to the woman.  (ie some women want to be checked more meticulously than others are comfortable with). 

mikveh (5)In any event, my favourite part – am I allowed to have a favourite part?  I suppose any mitzvah has its pluses and minuses – is after each dunk (some women do three, some do seven; there are probably other customs), the mikveh lady shouts out “kasher!”  And at the end, it’s her turn to shower you with brachot.  They do this at some other mikvaot I have been to, but in this one… boy, do they pour on the brachot, in true Israeli style.  Of course, I only figured out half the things she was blessing me with, but I’m sure it was all good, and all I had to do was say “amen!” at the end of it, which is better than most situations I encounter here, conversation-wise.  What a fabulous way to start a new month!

So what’s the biggest difference between a mikveh in Israel and a mikveh elsewhere???? 

The biggest difference is in the women themselves.  At any mikveh I’ve ever been to, you’ll see an assortment of women, with varying degrees of religious attire:  tichels, sheitels, formal suits, loose swingy skirts.  All religious women, of course.  Generally, too, everybody waits their turn quietly, discreetly.

Of course?

mikveh (7)Well, not here.  I won’t say everybody uses the mikveh here in Israel, but I will say – if you’ve only ever been to a mikveh outside of Israel, you will be surprised the first time you see a woman in jeans and a tank top heading into or out of the mikveh like it’s just part of her regular monthly… stuff.  Maintenance, like a manicure, pedicure, haircut, and mikveh visit.  And the waiting isn’t necessarily quiet, women chat just like they would at a salon or anywhere else (I’m told) that women gather to do womanly things.

And honestly, this is one of the most stupendous, wonderful things I have encountered here, even if I do have to be a little discreet about who I share this revelation with. 

Just like many, many people here eat kosher food just because their food happens to be kosher, and keep holidays just because those happen to be the national holidays, it seems that many, many women go to the mikveh here just because… well, there’s the mikveh, and it’s time to go, and it’s just what everybody does.

Amazing, just amazing.  Mi k’amcha Yisrael?!?  (who is like Your people, Israel?)

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