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The Children of Israel Today

Over the last ten days Jews all over the world – in particular in Israel – have experienced an intensely emotional roller coaster. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remembered the six million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Five days later, we shed tears as we remembered and grieved the loss of 23,230 soldiers who gave up their lives so we can live ours in our own Jewish state. Just 24 hours later, we came together again, this time in immense joy, as we celebrated 67 blessed years in our tiny but precious country.

As my husband and I processed our emotions over the last two weeks, it was ultimately our children who provided the most inspiration and hope for the future. As parents, it is our tendency to want to shield our children from danger, whether it be physical or emotional. Only a month after we arrived in Israel, the three boys went missing, and from that point on, there was no protecting or masking our children from the pain that we were suffering as a people. They were all too aware what the siren indicated during Operation Protective Edge, and often talked about the enemy “Hamas.”

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, I read many accounts about different aspects of the Holocaust in order to try to tap into the horror of what happened to our people. The mind cannot do much with the number “six million.” It is beyond our comprehension. It was my girls who ultimately helped me tune into the day, bringing me home memorial candles that they had been given from school. “Here, Ima, tonight we’re going to light a candle for, and remember, Mendel from Poland.” Just like that, thanks to them, I was able to cry real tears and remember Mendel whose life was cruelly extinguished by the Nazis.

My oldest daughter, who is in the school choir, practiced day in, day out, deeply painful songs about IDF soldiers who died protecting us. As she rehearsed songs about soldiers, who from their graves apologized to their loved ones for breaking their promise to return safely home, she talked to me about the meaning of the words and how sad they were. When I heard her sing this song in the Yom Hazikaron ceremony in her school, I was totally moved and overcome by the children. They were not simply performing their parts. Children as young as seven years old were reflecting, remembering and feeling the pain of the loss of the soldiers, a few of whom had been previous students of their school or connected to them in some way.

Just 24 hours later, my children were singing and dancing in our community Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration – singing songs of national Jewish pride. They were not just mouthing the words but were genuinely connected to the awesomeness that is our country.

maya-yh

We want to protect our children from pain. That is a natural and correct parental instinct. However our Children of Israel today are strong, confident, and passionate. They understand the meaning of loss, but also are given a context in which to feel pain and sadness. They understand what it means to give of yourself and believe in a greater good. And they know how to grasp and love each moment, celebrating the tremendous nation that we are – that can only make those we have lost smile down from above.

I have always observed and noticed how much more mature and confident Israeli children are than others in different parts of the world. The reason is that children at a very young age here are intuitively aware of what is happening in Israel. While I would obviously do as much as I can to protect them, it is correct and healthy that they know what it meant to be a Jew in 1939, and what it means to be a Jew in the State of Israel today. When we look at our Children of Israel, they give their parents and elders hope and comfort – as they represent an inspired future in the Jewish homeland. Do I wish my children never had to experience such pain? Absolutely. But the Children of Israel today have taught me, in their simple yet profound understanding of our people, that we can and will thrive – no matter what.

Amongst brothers

At last, I think – or rather hope – I can say that I have finished making amends to the State of Israel for the accident that I was involved in two years’ ago, and although my license is tarnished with fourteen points that will only disappear after two years of a squeaky clean record, I am hopeful that the worst is behind me.

Perhaps my optimism is ill-founded, given the fact that I didn’t expect my license to be suspended for three months, or to have to pay 1000 NIS, or to have to take a 12-hr drivers’ refresher course, which I have only just completed. At the back of my mind, I am half-expecting another accusatory phone call or letter that will prove that the accident is continuing to haunt me forever more… truthfully, nothing in this country surprises me anymore.

The course that I have just completed may not have done much to improve my driving, or increase my knowledge of the mechanics of my car, but sitting amongst 40 Israeli “refreshers” in a cold classroom for four hours a night, three days a week, shed some light on the Israeli psyche, and why it is that Israelis are such awful drivers.

About three-quarters of my fellow classmates were male, and an elderly Russian man and myself were the only non-Israelis in the group. Amongst the class were truck drivers, cab drivers, and teenagers under the age of eighteen who had lost their license before the ink even had a chance to dry on their first license.

The teacher, Arik, from Petach Tikva opened the class by stressing that with more people dying on the road per year than in suicide attacks, the Arabs may as well save their energy and sit back and watch us kill ourselves – the Arabs needn’t do it for us, we do a good job destroying ourselves with our shameful driving. He then showed us slides on the board of accidents that resulted in fatalities as a result of speeding, drunken driving, and no seat belts. The images on the screen were gruesome, but rather than silence or any sign that they were moved in any way by what they had seen, my classmates began to snicker, and make such comments as “I don’t believe that really happened,” “This is from a movie, right?”, “I didn’t see it – the guy next to me is making too much noise, show it again” “Was that car a Ferrari?” Not quite the reaction Arik was hoping for.

Unfazed, Arik, in his mickey-mouse tie, black shirt, and blue jeans, proceeded to show the class recent newspaper headlines with awful stories of entire families being killed on the road as a result of reckless driving, and, again, a total disregard for what appeared in black and white in front of their eyes. “Why are you showing this to us? We would never get into accidents like those!” “I have a football game I CANNOT miss tonight, so I have to leave class at 8.30″… Oh, and the absolute best comment was: “Is that article from Yediot (one of the main Israeli national newspapers)? I make a point of never believing a word they say”… which evolved into a 30-minute argument in the class about the relative merits of each Israeli national newspaper. All the while, cellphones were going off, husbands were instructing wives when they should come to pick them up, mothers were warning their children that if their homework wasn’t finished by the time they got home, there would be hell to pay….

My first reaction was to laugh at the indifference that was so characteristic of Israelis, but it then occurred to me that each one of us in the group was guilty of some type of traffic violation, and with such arrogance and a blatant refusal to acknowledge any responsibility or culpability, is it any wonder that there is such carnage on the road? And that is nothing to laugh about.

Religion came up a lot in conversation. Arik was saying that it is all very well and good to place your trust in G-d, if you are that way inclined (he is irreligious), but G-d wants us to help ourselves. This was in response to a comment from a black-hatted fellow who quoted “Da Lifnei Ata Omed,” “Know in front of Whom you stand,” in reference to G-d, to prove that we have to be humble in G-d’s presence, and we cannot control events or road accidents, but Arik replied that that is not enough. You need to know from where you are coming, and to where you are going – which can be applied both on a literal level – know which lane you are driving in, and which lane you want to turn into – and also on a deeper level – make sure that your feet are firmly planted on the ground, and that you do not get lost in spirituality or godliness to such an extent that you ignore the ABC’s of life that demand common sense and basic safety measures. He told the story of how he was teaching a drivers’ course in Kfar Chabad (a Chabad Lubavitch village in Israel), and only one woman showed up to the class. He told the woman that if their rabbi had told them to go to the class, there would have been a full class, but as it was, without the rabbi’s say-so, people are unable to think for themselves. I started to feel slightly uncomfortable with the change in direction of the conversation. I didn’t really get the sense that Arik was anti-religious, but that he had had some bad experiences in teaching religious groups – but still…

So ended the first lesson. The second and third lessons were hardly any better. With every statement or piece of information that Arik delivered, there were always those people who didn’t waste a second in disputing what he was saying. Judging by some of the reactions of the class members, you would think their driving was flawless. “I NEVER drive when I am tired or in an emotional state.” “I NEVER take medication, period, let alone drive after taking pills.” “I ALWAYS stop to think before I begin to overtake.” Arik took all the comments in good humor, and he made a lot of jokes himself, but on a personal level, the experience struck me as being so surreal and bizarre. Here I was, in Israel, taking a drivers’ refreshers course, in which adults acted like teenagers and asked the teacher if the class was nearly over; religious guys saying that it is all in the hands of G-d anyway, and if the Almighty wants an accident to happen, it will happen anyway – regardless of one’s driving; cellphones going off the whole time with Ayal Golan ringtones…. As I said, bizarre.The last half hour of the second class ended with a heated argument. A few of the guys at the back of the classroom were talking very loudly, and the people sitting near them complained that they couldn’t hear Arik speak. One truck driver piped up and said, “There is a reason why we are sitting at the back of the class… if you want to hear Arik, go sit near the front, or better yet, go take some private lessons with him…” which proceeded into an argument amongst all the classmates. And what was I doing while all this was going on? Writing dinner menus for the rest of the week, and preparing shopping lists! World War III may have been erupting in front of my eyes in the classroom, but so help me, my family would still eat that week!

The grand finale, the final class on Thursday night, culminated with a 30-minute exam, which sent me into a panic. You could only get four questions wrong out of 20, and according to Arik, if you fail the test, you have to take it again, and again, and the third time you take the test, you have to pay a fine, and considering that my notebook was filled with doodling and shopping lists, rather than techniques for safe overtaking, I wasn’t optimistic.

It turned out that my fears were groundless. I was surprised and confused when I saw people talk to each other and ask each other questions DURING the “exam,” and even ask Arik for help. The Russian guy had brought along a relative to help him translate the exam, and all in all, there was very little decorum. The multiple choice questions were confusing, and there were a lot of semantics in the way that the questions were phrased. I assessed the situation, and thought that it is either sink or swim. I could do the exam myself, and hope for the best, or I could turn to my classmates for help. At first I felt guilty at the prospect of “cheating,” but given the fact that everyone in the class, with the exception of me, were helping each other out, I felt that after nine years of living in this country, it was high time that I became Israeli.

No sooner had I looked up from the exam with what must have been desperation in my eyes, there were two guys sitting in the row in front of me who offered to help me with some of the questions. With not the slightest attempt at discretion, one of them sat down next to me, went through the answers I had already filled out, told me that they were mostly wrong (no surprises there!), and basically redid my entire exam. He could have been giving me the wrong answers, for all I knew, but I decided that he was a safer bet than relying upon my own knowledge, or lack thereof, so I decided to place my trust in his hands, and lo and behold, I got 95% in the test. He said he didn’t want to see me having to come back to do the test again, and that I shouldn’t feel bad.

At that moment, I felt happy to be living in Israel – because just like siblings in a family – you may not approve of what they say or do, you may find them extremely annoying or immature, but they are your brothers, and they will be there to help you through any situation, no matter what. I may never understand what makes Israelis tick, or behave in the way they do, but they will not leave you standing out in the cold.

Feeling down about living in Israel?

If you wake up one morning, and you are feeling less than chipper about living in this country of ours, after opening up your mail to discover that you are being screwed by Bituach Leumi, and owe them a million shekel, or go to the mechanic, and find out that they are charging you four times the amount they should be paying you for repairing your car, here’s a video I recommend watching for a pick-me-up. It gets me EVERY time.

When I think what Nefesh B’Nefesh has done for the Jewish people, I am rendered speechless. This year, in the summer of 2007, 3,500 people from North America are supposed to be making Aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh. These figures blow my mind. In past years, when faced with annoying bureaucratical procedures related to Aliyah, I would feel a twinge of jealousy. Where were NBN in 1998 when I needed them most? Making Aliyah from England was a somewhat lonely experience – I was the only one on my flight who was making Aliyah, and actually was one of 17 to make Aliyah that entire year from England. Thank G-d, things have changed, and this year is a record-breaking year for Nefesh B’Nefesh.

They are returning Jews to their homeland, but there is more to it than that. Due to the psychological trauma that we endure on a day-to-day basis, as a result of watching our country go from one crisis to another, we are, to put it mildly, low on morale. We don’t have Scharansky anymore in the forefront of politics to give us inspiration; we don’t have ANY leader or prime minister appearing on our TV screens giving us any hope or pride in our country. So what are we left with? What keeps us going from day to day? What is stopping us packing our bags and heading out on the next plane to.. wherever…?

For me, it is watching videos like the one above, where hundreds of Jews are crying their eyes out as they kiss Israeli ground, at the privilege of making Aliyah, returning to their homeland. That to me is a lifeline. It not only reminds me of why I am here, but it reinforces the essence of who we are as a people, and what we can achieve through shared goals and ideals. The fragmentation amongst our people that threatens to tear us into shreds is momentarily forgotten, and we remember what it is to smile at the sight of an Israeli flag, or the sight of an Israeli soldier in Ben Gurion welcoming new olim to their home; people who just moments before were strangers to each other, separated by continents and different existences, are united by the very fact that they are Jews and they are… family. For that feeling, I owe Nefesh B’Nefesh everything.

Pesach – Enforced Slavery?

The holiday of Pesach (Passover) is fast approaching, and this year, the concept of deliverance from slavery will take on a new personal meaning. I have to meet three deadlines in the week before Pesach, so when Seder night comes round, I will not have to work very hard to summon up emotions of relief as I experience my own delivery from bondage.   

I do feel pangs of guilt when I speak to my family abroad. While they have been slaving away, and cleaning their houses from top-to-bottom since January, I have spent more time on the computer than I have taking care of my husband, my girls, and my home. (Luckily for me, my husband is actually far more domesticated than I am and actually enjoys cooking, cleaning, etc. – I know, he was a rare find.)

I thank G-d for giving us the holidays, because we are not just celebrating historical events, but are reliving the highs and lows that accompany each festival on a personal level. Each person, on whatever level, has experienced in their lives their own Exodus, and it is in this way that we can infuse personal meaning into each chag (holiday).

The holidays enable me to stop and smell the roses. Lately I have found that time has been passing by too quickly for my liking; I am not sure why this is, but before I catch my breath, another weekend is upon us. The presence of the Jewish holidays on my calendar force me to stop and think about myself and my connection to G-d.

Over the last seven years of my career, I have edited a number of works about Pesach, two haggadot and various compilations of thoughts on Jewish holidays. One perspective on Pesach which I found to be particularly refreshing was provided by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner in his work, Moadim LeSimcha: Explorations into the Jewish Holidays. (No pressure, but if you order the book off my website from Amazon, I get some sort of [monetary, I think] reward.) I very much enjoyed editing this book, because it was a break away from the typical thoughts you hear about the chagim.

Here is a quote from his book that I identified with so much that I decided to place it on the back cover. I think the women out there who are gearing up for Pesach will particularly get a kick out of this:

It shouldn’t take more than a day to clean the whole house, including the kitchen. Anything more than that is a stringency. If we are not capable of dealing with the extra workload we decide to take on, we deplete our energy and take out our exhaustion on our families. Not only is there increased tension between husband and wife, but we show our children a very negative example by shouting at them things like: I told you not to go into this room anymore. Why did you go in?! Eat on the porch! Eat standing up! Don’t touch! The whole kitchen looks like it was overturned by vandals – the husband and children will tremble in fear, eating in some corner, while the woman of the house glares at them like a drill sergeant. Is this preparation for Pesach? Is this educating children? No, it is a reign of terror with the mother as Pharaoh presiding.

So, not only is excessive Pesach cleaning unnecessary, you run the risk of becoming a Pharaoh yourself! I like this man. A lot.

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