Monday, May 31, 2010

Yalla, bye

My very special year in Israel is coming to a close; this June blog will be my last from what my friend and tour guide Zvi Levran calls "The Over-Promised Land". It is almost impossible—no, make that it is impossible—to describe how transformative being in Israel has been: to live here and not be a tourist; to make new friends; to join a synagogue and become part of that community; to try experience Israeli life as fully as possible; to become fluent again in Hebrew; to not just see but to be. The year has been all that we hoped for and more. Now as I prepare to come back to Toronto, I am thinking about the best and the worst of life here, and have compiled for this last blog my list of hits and misses. These musings are in no special order of importance.

What will I miss most about Israel?
  • Real humus, and people pronouncing it correctly (versus middle Americans who call it hum-us instead of hoo-moose)
  • Living on Jewish calendar time
  • Not having to explain what Shmini Atzeret is
  • Throwing Biblical and Talmudic expressions into every-day Hebrew
  • Making reference to what portion of the week it is and people being interested
  • Being an hour away from the Mediteranean (and 2 hours away from Greece and Turkey, 4 hours from Paris and London)
  • Fruit trees in public spaces
  • Never having to try and “pass” for not being Jewish
  • Never having to say your sorry for being Jewish (though sometimes what Jews do here will embarrass and distress you, see below)
  • Eating locally and in season all year long without having to eat only potatoes and turnips from November to March
  • Intense Shabbat dinner-table conversations about politics, people, passion, power
  • Intense bus conversations with total strangers about war, women, weather, work
  • Intense feelings and intense experiences
  • A shul on every corner (and most of them quite good)
  • Being invited by almost total strangers for Shabbat dinner or Pesach Seder
  • The parade of monks, nuns, and other assorted religious types in in the Old City in their various robes, cloaks, and hoods
  • Being able to study any day of the week with any number of “celebrity” Torah teachers
  • The Friday night walk home from shul
  • The joie de vivre of most Israelis, and of Tel Aviv
  • Interesting caves and springs where you least expect them
  • The feeling that you are part of something large and historic and important
  • Feeling like everyone is family
  • Beggars who use Bible quotes to get at you
  • The ability to speak your mind freely and not be considered impolite
What will I miss least?
  • Feeling like everyone is family
  • Beggars who use Bible quotes to get at you
  • The ability to speak your mind freely and not be considered impolite
  • Constant pushing, shoving, yelling —and the excuses people make for incredibly bad, rude behaviour under the rubric of “well, thats Israel...”
  • The scandalous behaviour of the government
  • The infighting, power struggles, and near-enmity between almost all sectors of Israel
  • The car-honking that follows as soon as the light turns green and you haven’t had a nano-second yet to put your foot on the gas
  • The incompetence, attitude, and inability of most public servants to see past their own buracracies.
  •  The frustration of not being smiled at, served, or even acknowledged in a store or restaurant
  • The opposite: being hounded, harrassed and hassled by overly aggressive salespeople and shopkeepers
  • Being yelled at while trying to daven at the Kotel and not being able to wear my tallit there freely
  • No seasons and no leaves changing colours
  • Overly salted food
  • Bus drivers who see you running for the bus and then pull away
  • Bad singers and even worse musicians playing downtown on the pedestrian mall
  • Constant comments and questions about my being a Rabbi
  • Large groups of religious Christian tourists blissfully unaware of the modern Jewish connection to the “holy land” they are touring
  • Those same groups laughing and taking pictures of how funny they look in paper yarmulkes at Jewish holy sites
  • Large groups of (“what? There’s no Starbucks here?”) Jewish tourists who act as if they “own” the hotel, the restaurant, the site; in fact, the whole country
  • Taxi drivers who overcharge and then yell at you for being difficult
  • The Jerusalem light-rail that may never be
  • Fundamentalists on either (or any) side
  • The conflict and all its complications

Yikes, looks like its about even...

So what am I taking with me from this year? (You mean besides a jar of cherry tomato jam, some real stone-ground tehina from the Old City and some new jewelry?) The feeling of understanding so much better what being a part of Jewish history is; what it means to struggle, and to triumph, and to be a victim and a victor; the danger of being a triumphalist or a victim or a victor; what it means to long for peace and what it means to work for peace and what it means to compromise for peace; how to dream bigger, and how to live smaller; how to reach higher and stand more firmly planted; in short—what the “real” in Israel means.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it monthly. As they say in Israel- “yalla, bye.”

And now...some personal "faves":
Favorite humus place in Jerusalem: Ben Sira (on Ben Sira Street)- really the real deal; 2nd prize goes to Pinati on 13 King George but don't think to linger there, its just for a quick bowl of warm yummy humus.
Favorite humus place in Tel Aviv: Bahadunus on 175 Dizengof
Favorite Tel Aviv hotel: Alexander Suites near the port or Cinema Hotel in town. Also Park Plaza Orchid on Hayarkon has a gorgeous view from the lobby and a nice breakfast but only stay in their renovated rooms.
Favorite Jerusalem Hotel: Mt. Zion (renovated rooms are better)
Favorite BEST EVER spa: Carmel Forest Spa near Haifa
Favorite bed and breakfasts: Villa Lilya near Rosh Pina; second place goes to Yekev Smadar in Zichron Yaakov
Favorite Emek Refaim sushi: Sushi Bar
Favorite downtown veggie restaurants: Tmol Shilshom or Village Green. For a "fancier" veggie meal go to Te'anim on Emile Botta.
Favorite Machane Yehuda fishmonger: Dagim shel David
Favorite Machane Yehuda breakfast place: Emil (try the shakshuka; see below) or Mizrachi (try Moran's leek-apricot quiche.)
Favorite BEST EVER Challah covers, tallitot, and many other great souvenirs, too many to name,  is Yad Lakashish (Lifeline for the Old), 14 Shivtei Yisrael. Beautiful hand made products done with love by 80-90 year olds. Shopping is a pleasure and a mitzvah.
Favorite shops on Ben Yehuda mall: Vizon (ask for Rami) or Bat Sheva gifts (ask for Oved). Worth going around the corner to Ganz on Rivlin Street; ask for Suri. There are so many places that have lots of chazerai, these have some finer things.
Favorite jewelry stores: Thats a hard one; there are so many. Our fave is Nahalat Benyamin crafts fair on Tuesdays or Fridays in Tel Aviv. Also check out the hand made jewelry at Yad Lakashish (see above.)
Favorite health food store: there aren't that many, but among the better ones is Z'mura on Amatzia (off Emek Refaim) or its sister store with a little cafe on Yad Harutzim (off Rivka.) Anise is more common and overpriced; Teva Net in Machane Yehuda leaves alot to be desired.
Favorite shakshuka: hands-down best is at Moma in Jaffa (Oleh Tzion 7). Second prize goes to the green shakshuka at Emil's.
Favorite croissant and hot chocolate: Cafe Betzalel on Shatz Street, across from Betzalel Academy. The hot chocolate is made with hot milk and truffles, need I say more?
Favorite bakery: Bet-Lehem on Derech Bet Lehem. Say hello to Sigal for us.
Favorite Friday flowers: the guy at the gas station on the corner where Keren Hayesod becomes Emek Refaim. Also sometimes the guy in front of Super Moshava on Emek Refaim. Actually any guy selling flowers on any street corner.
Favorite ice cream: Arlequin in Tel Aviv. Forget ice cream in Jerusalem; Aldo is everywhere and its just ok.
Favorite Old City humus: Abu Shukri, aboslutely. The small one across from Lina (its direct competition) is better than the big one near the Austrian Hostel.
Favorite Old City shopping: Just wander around. Go deep into it to get past the more touristy places, and then forget about ever finding the same place again.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tel Aviv: The City that Doesn't Sleep

Something you don't see every day: An Arab woman in full face covering buying halva from a secular Israeli at a Tel Aviv street fair.

In his book A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz writes, “It’s not just that the light of Tel Aviv was different than the light in Jerusalem, more than it is today, even the laws of gravity were completely different. People walked differently in Tel Aviv: they leaped and floated, like Neil Armstrong on the moon...Sea. Light. Sand, scaffolding, kiosks on the avenues, a brand-new white Hebrew city, with simple lines, growing up among the citrus groves and the dunes. Not just a place that you buy a ticket for and travel to on an Egged bus, but a different continent altogether.”
My friend and tour guide Zvi Levran puts it this way— Tel Aviv: sand, sea, and the search for identity.
    Jerusalem, on the one hand, is a poet’s playground. It is mythic and mystic. It isn’t just a place, it is larger than life. It is one big synagogue, one big Jewish think-tank. It is a boiling pot of Christian sects arguing over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre together with secular Jews fighting for a movie theatre open on Shabbat together with female Conservative Yeshiva students proudly wearing kipas on the bus together with Haredim briskly walking to the Kotel together with wide-eyed Korean tourists snapping pictures at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. Jerusalem is exactly what you would picture it to be when you sigh and say “Jerusalem.” You miss Jerusalem even if you’ve never been there. Cynthia Ozick put it best, I think: “...despite its pavements, sewage systems, electric companies, bureaucracies, schools, offices, garbage disposal, all the data that would define a real city, Jerusalem is now, right now, what it has always been: a sustenance, an aspiration, an ascendancy, an idea, a city of the mind.” But Jerusalem can also drive you crazy. In fact, there is something real called The Jerusalem Syndrome in which seekers come here, think they are the Messiah or King David, and end up in the psychiatric ward. The religious tension is palpable and the operative word is “intense.”
    Tel Aviv, on the other hand, is New York with a beach. Walk down Shenkin Street and all you’ll see is English. Unlike Machane Yehuda, the fruit and vegetable open-air market in Jerusalem which takes up several city blocks and has a life of its own, the Carmel Market seems a pale, old-fashioned shuk which doesn’t really fit in anymore; one long row of vendors who don’t really mean it when they hawk at you and a kind of embarrassment that there “still” is an outdoor market at all. Tel Aviv screams: new port, downtown, boutique supermarket, Nahalat Benyamin upscale crafts fair. There’s no Arab shuk, no colourful exotic-looking Christians in hoods and robes. Of course there’s no Kotel, no locus of holiness, and the Chasidim look utterly out of place. It has a vibe, a young, hip, I’m-oh-so-cool-Telavivian kind of vibe, even on Friday nights when the stores are closed and the streets are quiet. Unlike Jerusalem where you hear z’mirot as you walk home on Friday night, in Tel Aviv you hear guitars and radios. Tel Aviv is Paris, and people dress the part. Unlike Jerusalem where the “look” is as many layers and long skirts as you can wear with a big head-scarf, in Tel Aviv the “look” is black on black, skinny girls in tight dresses and guys in “I’m-just-coming-from-the-beach” board shorts.
    We get on a bus in Tel Aviv and the driver is a woman, short butch haircut and lots of tatoos. We pass a store called “Kingdom of Pork.” Openly gay couples hold hands and you have to ask first if the restaurant is kosher. But Tel Aviv can also drive you crazy. What is Jewish here besides for hearing some Hebrew? Who is thinking about Jewish identity here that goes beyond building a city out of sand dunes?
    Jerusalem is Biblical history, where Abraham walked and King David sang. You feel old there, not old in a bad way but part of some ancient story that includes you and makes you feel part of something that goes back a long, long time. Jerusalem is all sweeping vistas, gorgeous golden light at dusk and the Golden Dome and the walls of the Old City which draw you in and make you want to connect. Jerusalem is about Shabbat which feels natural. Jerusalem tells you stories about your past, about a time you didn’t know you were a Jew. 
    Tel Aviv is Zionist history. You meet The Great Names there: Herzl, Jabotinsky, Ahad Haam. You meet them in their top hats and Sunday suits and walking sticks in the cafe, and you have intellectual debates over the normalization of Jewish history “now that we have a State.”  You sit with them in the park on Shenkin and discuss the Jewish character of a Jewish country as Filipino nannies wheel their elderly charges around and you say to yourself “that old man danced in the streets here when Ben Gurion declared the State...that old woman planted the trees here on Rothschild Boulevard.” Tel Aviv makes you breathe and smile and laugh. Tel Aviv makes you want to learn the new Israeli dances. Tel Aviv also tells you stories about your past, about a time you didn’t know you could live free as a Jew.
    I don’t know where I would choose to live, in the City That Doesn’t Sleep or in The City of Light. Which one is “a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there?” What a blessing to have the choice.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pictures from a Jerusalem Pesach Exhibition

Friday before Pesach. I attempt to shop at the open fruit and vegetable market of Machane Yehuda. It’s not yet totally crazed but very close. The baker calls out, “Pita: end of season sale!” The deli guy jokes with me that the noodle kugel I buy for Shabbat lunch is already kosher-for-Passover. Pungent piles of fresh purplish garlic line the stalls: some Sephardic families will gently and laughingly whip each other with the long green stalks at the Seder to remind themselves of the Egyptian taskmasters. Dates are on sale everywhere, as most Sephardic charoset recipes are based on them. I snag the last kilo of good Medjols for half price. There are lots of posters advertising “yeshiva bochurs” who will clean and kasher your kitchen for you.
Sunday is Palm Sunday and we hear the church bells ringing. There is a beautiful processional in the Old City, singing hosannas and waving palm branches. We bring our dishes to be kashered in the communal boiling water “hagalat keilim” in our neighborhood. We go out to our favorite Italian restaurant for our last chametz pasta dinner and the owner who made aliyah from Rome 30 years ago sings us the Four Questions in Italian.
The day of Erev Pesach we burn our chametz in a convenient chametz-fire right in front of our apartment building that someone else had started earlier in the day. Kids and families and couples keep coming by to “use” the fire and toss their last bread pieces in. The whole neighborhood smells like a campfire.
The night of the ONE Seder we walk to our family along with scores of other folks dressed in their holiday best converging by foot and car to their relatives, laden down with casserole dishes and flowers. On the way home—at 4 a.m.— we see a small group of punky looking teenagers returning home from their Seder, acting out just a little in their too-tight skirts, smoking and laughing from the four cups of wine they made sure to drink religiously. As they pass, I hear one of them say, “Don’t look at me that way—my grandfather was a Rabbi!”
First day of chol hamoed and people are out in full force. I have never seen so many cars and so many people on the streets of Jerusalem. Here is a typical picture of what I saw on just one street downtown: three Chasidic men in gold caftans, white knickers, white belts and huge shtreimels; a Russian Orthodox priest in a long black robe standing in front of a downtown hotel giving out blessings while people lined up to kiss his ring; secular Israelis eating kosher-for-Passover crepes; and lots and lots of American tourists looking a little shell-shocked by the kosher-for-Passover Ben and Jerry’s.
We attend a picnic on chol hamoed at Liberty Bell Park, along with many other families, and we form a circle to sing spring songs and do a unique and special ceremony called Birkat Ha-ilanot: Blessing of Flowering Fruit Trees. There is an old Kabbalistic custom to go out sometime in the month of Nisan—preferably out of the city but in Jerusalem it’s possible to do it right in any park—find a newly flowering fruit tree, and say a special blessing: You are Blessed, our G-d and G-d of our ancestors; Your world lacks for nothing, and You have created beautiful creations and beautiful trees, so that we may be able to enjoy them. You can only say this on a tree that has started to flower, and though we sat under budding olive trees we could not find any flower. However after the picnic we decided to go to one of the city’s museums and right there, right on the branch of an olive tree planted right in the middle of the sidewalk, we saw our first flower, and chanted the blessing as buses and cars whizzed by. 
Passover is Hag Ha-aviv, the Spring Holiday. Spring has definitely sprung. There is joy and cleanliness in the air, new clothes and new shoes and new expectations, and though we feel a bit heavy eating too much matzah, there is a sort of lightness we cannot fully explain.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Be Happy; It's Adar

Purim in Israel is a hoot. Costumes everywhere, like Halloween on steroids. Everybody dresses up, there are lots of parties, the merchants in Machane Yehuda don wigs and give out free hamentashen (called "Haman's ears" here- oznei Haman.) Two solid weeks before Purim the kids stop having "real" school and it's all about celebrating.

The fun is supposed to start on Rosh Hodesh Adar.

Last year, I wrote in the CJN about my experience with Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Adar in Jerusalem: the rage I experienced coming from the men’s side, the fear from the women’s side, and my own disheartenment while praying with this group of sincere women at Judaism’s holiest site.

One year later, again on Rosh Chodesh Adar, I went to the Wall to pray with them. This time, there were close to 200 women gathered there, as since the arrest of Nofrat Frenkel for the “crime” of wearing a tallit the monthly prayer sessions have grown larger and larger in support of the idea that any Jew should be able to pray at the Kotel as they wish. This time, there was a large contingent of Masorti kids from the Israeli Conservative youth movement flanking us on either side. This time many male supporters came and stood on the men’s side nearest the mechitza, forming a sort of protective barrier between us and the men climbing on chairs to scream and curse at us. (For Adar the screamers brought a bull horn so we could hear them call us “Amalekites” more clearly.) This time we were protected not only by male police, but also by male army officers called in to help when haredi women tried to aggressively break us up by entering the tightly-knit group and physically pushing us out of the plaza. How odd it was to be praying behind a row of bare-headed male soldiers in the women’s section. When the haredi women became vocally abusive, shrieking at us (we are Christian lesbian Reform blasphemers) we kept on singing Hallel. Purim Shpiel meets Mahatma Gandhi.

There is something profound about singing in the face of people yelling at you. I thought of chanting the Megillah which reminds us that change comes from within us. I thought of Queen Esther going against the odds.  I thought of how everyone just wants to be a little of someone else every now and then, and about how we are supposed to get so drunk that we don't know the difference between our enemies and our friends. What a way to start the month of fun and games.

It struck me later that when we read from the Megillah at the end of chapter one about the threat of women not obeying their husbands, and the sarcastic decree which went forth from Ahashverosh commanding each man to be "king in his own castle" after Vashti refused to be degraded, we really read about the way society perceives the power of women as a national and cosmic threat. Instead of seeing the Women of the Wall as a sincere group of ohavei haShem, some Jews see us only as a threat to the system. Would that they could hear the Megillah as a mocking critique of this kind of drunken, irrational fear of women gathering and expressing their humanity, not as a justification for it.

I went to Megillah reading worrying a lot about the Rosh Hodesh gathering, but of course got carried into the Purim spirit soon after. Purim evening was rainy and cold. I love that Israelis never complain at all about the rain; they call it "geshmai bracha" or rains of blessing. Purim day was sunny and everyone was in a good mood in Jerusalem; the bus drivers wore funny hats and lots of kids came in from yeshivas all over the country to revel in Jerusalem's special day (Jerusalem celebrates Purim a day later than everyone else in the world because it is a walled city and the Megillah says walled cities celebrate a day later! But only cities with walls from the time of Joshua.) Everyone seemed to be smiling.

And they don't start stressing about Pesach the day after Purim. Matzah doesn't appear on store shelves with the ominous warning that this is all there will be of the brand of egg matzah that you like. The prices don't skyrocket within days. Most Israelis don't stockpile gross over-processed "ready to bake" Pesach products. So it's life as usual for another few weeks till the ONE--I repeat--ONE Seder! How civilized can you get?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fields of Poppies

 My only association with poppy fields is a poem (by John McCrae) most Canadians know well. “In Flanders Field, the poppies grow...” The poem is quite sad, reminding us of young soldiers whose lives have been cut short by war.

In Israel, a bright red flower called the poppy anemone (in Hebrew, calanit-calaniyot) is a sure sign of spring. Anemone is a name which comes from the Arabic, and is translated as “wounds.” These beautiful red flowers have long been associated with dying hope and lost love, but the first appearance of these red flowers among yellow daisies and the occasional tiny, wild purple iris in Israel is anything but sad. It has the status of a near-holiday, an occasion for picnics, family trips, car-side barbeques and a party atmosphere. Crowds of cars snake their way across highways and roads, often driving for 2 or 3 hours, until they get to a spot where a carpet of flowers await them. Kids frolic, parents take pictures, lovers walk hand-in-hand among the lush multi-coloured blankets of green, red, yellow and purple, and it’s a real Israeli event. It’s like a rock concert, or a huge convention, or a national gathering. People who haven’t seen each other in a few weeks, or a few months, or even in years see each other, jump out of their cars, and cry out, “Itzik!! Wow! You came to see the calaniyot? How the heck are you??”

Last week we went out to see the calaniyot, and I was again struck by the passion of Israelis for the land. Going out to see the calaniyot is a February tradition. These same Israelis who shout into cell-phones, who drive aggressively, who push their way past you onto a bus, who never stand in orderly cues, and who will argue with you over almost anything, suddenly become absolute marshmallows melting at the sight of a red flower in the grass. They get choked up to see more than 2 flowers in a row. They stop the car, laugh out loud like kids, wave their arms saying, “Come see quick, there’s some calaniyot over there!” How tough and how soft they are at the same time. How contradictory and how integrated at the same time.

Many Israelis go out to see the calaniyot on Shabbat afternoon. They bring their in-laws and cousins, set out sandwiches and lemonade, listen to music, and relax among the flowers. Its a kind of secular Shabbat that makes the field seem like a special and unique synagogue. The rest take their kids out of school on a weekday (“Hey, we’re going to see the calaniyot!”) or go off on Friday mornings when the kids don’t have classes. I haven’t met an Israeli yet who doesn’t at one point in February go out to see the calaniyot, and who isn’t thrilled, excited, bouyed to find out that the calaniyot are out.

During the British Mandate, the soldiers were nicknamed calaniyot by Hebrew speakers because of their red berets. I thought of them, of all things, and of Flanders Field, as I looked out over the poppy anemones. So much death and sadness these Israeli fields have seen. So many soldiers and so much war. Many times it is possible to feel the dying hope and lost love in the air of Jerusalem.

And much joy in the sight of a single flower. So much satisfaction in a short visit to the country. So much normal, so much sweet, so much touching in a few hours with the calaniyot.