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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!!!

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