Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li

It’s Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the Hebrew month that precedes the High Holidays (Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah).  It is a month that we dedicate to introspection, to cheshbon hanefesh, where we look deeply into our souls and self-evaluate.  What did I do right? What could I have done better?  What do I regret, and what will I do to ensure I won’t repeat the things I’ve done wrong?  Whom have I hurt, and from whom must I beg forgiveness?  Can I find it in myself to forgive those who’ve done me wrong?  Can I maximize my potential?

It is said that  Elul – the letters aleph, lamed, vav, lamed – is an acronym for Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li:  I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me.  That the key to avoiding sin is love, because if we can love someone sincerely, whether in a neighborly way or in a more intimate way with our spouse and children, or through our awe and worship of G-d, that very love will help us choose to do the right thing, the loving thing, when we might be tempted to do otherwise.  

Everyone in Israel has a story.  It’s usually a Big Story.  Perhaps it’s because Israelis wear their hearts on their sleeves, and Israelis come from so many different lands and have been through many wars and tragedies and they feel like we’re all one big connected family; but there is an intimacy here that I never found in the US.  In completely mundane places it has been my privilege to meet people in Israel from all walks of life; every strata of society; different religions and cultures.  And for whatever reason they’ve shared their amazing Big Stories with me.

The story I am about to tell was, for me, devastating and shocking in its sadness, yet the person who told it to me felt differently.  She was a genuinely happy person.  I know I could not have made the choices she did, but she did so with complete sincerity and without regret.  She was selfless to a degree that I cannot imagine attaining, but it was a lesson in humility and grace that was profound.  

This past Shabbat, the culmination of what was a blisteringly hot and humid week in Israel,  our fan overheated (the irony is not lost on me) and the motor burned out .  Since our rental apartment doesn’t have air conditioning in the bedroom, it was essential that I replace it with a new fan the very next morning.

Fortunately most appliance stores had fans on “end of season” sales (even though this crazy heat’s “end of season” won’t be for another 6 weeks!).  While I was in the store two elderly women were also shopping for a fan, and we got into a conversation about various models and prices.  I thought they were friends or sisters, so I was surprised to see the younger one refer to the older lady as “Ima” – mother.  It turned out the mother was 83 years old, and although she moved slowly and deliberately, she was dressed to kill from head to toe, and sported chic French designer eyeglasses.

The fan would require assembly, and it came in a very large box.  After they paid, the ladies asked for a bag.

“Oh, we don’t have bags large enough for that,” the cashier replied.  They asked for a rope to make a handle so they could carry it comfortably, but there was no rope either.

“Perhaps you would be nice enough to have someone from the store carry it to the ladies’ car?” I interrupted.

“Oh, we don’t have a car,” the ladies said in unison.

How were they going to get this big box home, I wondered aloud.

“We will take the bus,” they answered.

“Ladies!” I replied.  “You simply cannot take the bus!  It’s 94 F degrees outside (34C), and very humid.  This is not healthy for you!”

They shrugged.

“Where do you live?” I asked.  They mentioned a suburb about 4 miles away.  “I will take you,” I said.  I just couldn’t bear picturing them struggling with the box on a bus in the heat.

The cashier shouted loudly, “Blessings upon your head!  May you have health, happiness, a long life!  May your children be a source of nachat! May you make a good living!  May HaShem bless you with only good, just as you are doing good for these ladies!”

Oh my!

The ladies then proceeded to bless me similarly as we made our way to my car.  By now I was blushing.

As soon as we started driving, the younger of the two ladies, Lorette (“that’s my real name, but I prefer that you call me by my Hebrew name, Efrat”) started telling me her life story.

“Mother and I made aliyah from Morocco in 1967.  At the time of the Six Day War, it was very difficult to be living in Morocco if you were a Jew, and we saw there was no future.  At home we spoke mostly French and some Hebrew, and we knew Moroccan Arabic.  We also learned English in school.

“My mother was a child bride, as was typical of that era.  She gave birth to me when she was 16,” she continued.

“Life has been good for us in Israel.  I was married for 15 years to the love of my life.  He is from Uzbekistan.  He was so good to me.  We were so happy.  But I couldn’t give him children, and even though he didn’t complain, I could not bear his sorrow.  So I suggested we get a divorce, so he could have children with someone else.  I only wanted him to be happy, and he deserved to have a family.

“He went on to marry someone else, and in fact he has two daughters today.  We are still in contact, and he invites me to his family events, which I attend with great happiness, since I am not forgotten.

“When we went to the rabbinical court for the get (religious divorce), the rabbis on the Beit Din (rabbinical court) urged me to collect the 100,000 shekel promised to me in my ketuba (marriage contract).  But I said no!  My husband had been so good to me all the years we were married, he really took care of me, but I knew he didn’t have the money, and I didn’t want him to be in so much debt, especially as he was starting a new life.  I had an apartment and a job, and I would manage.  So I walked away with nothing.

“Do not feel sorry for me.  I’ve had a happy life, and my husband has a lovely family.  I have so much to be grateful for!  But there is one thing I would like:  I am looking for a good man to marry.  Do you know of anyone for me?”

I was stunned by Lorette/Efrat’s story.  It took me many seconds to recover to be able to answer her.

“What are you looking for?” I replied meekly.

“An Ashkenazi man in his sixties.  Moroccan men are too macho, and want to take over!  Just… a good man.  Someone with a warm heart, who will enjoy spending time together.  Someone who believes in God.”  Lorette explained that in the past few years, she has had plenty of time to think about her life.  “I have no regrets, except that I wasn’t religious when I was young,” she said.  “Lately I’ve been going to the synagogue every Shabbat, and a young man who is a ba’al tshuva (newly religiously observant) sends me a video of the Torah reading every Monday and Thursday morning, along with an explanation.  She accessed her Facebook account and held her smart phone in front of me, showing me a Torah reading in a Sephardi shul. “I have so much to learn, and I’m sorry religious observance was never a priority for me in the past.”  She then began talking about her deep belief in God, and that we can’t always see the bigger picture.  Her faith and raison d’etre were rock-solid.

We arrived at the ladies’ apartment.  I wondered who would put the fan together for them but they assured me that they are assembly whizzes.  Lorette/Efrat took my phone number and promised to be in touch.  We exchanged blessings for the coming year, and I drove away, thinking deeply about our “random” encounter on Rosh Chodesh Elul for many hours thereafter.

 

 

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The Rashbi Mystique

A Curious Note

A few days after my article, “The Last Jew of Peki’in” was published on aish.com,  I received an intriguing email.

Hi, Galia,

I am Ruth de Jong.  I live with my husband, a Shoa survivor, next to the cave of Rashbi in old Peki’in. We’ve been taking care of the cave every day for years. Margalit Zinati is not the only Jewess in Peki’in. We too live in the village. . .

. . . I invite you to come to our place to hear the miraculous story how we came from Holland to Peki’in.

I immediately made arrangements to meet with Ruth and Abel de Jong to hear what would be one of the most remarkable accounts I’ve ever been privileged to hear.

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A World of Unknowns

Ruth was raised in a Christian home in Holland. She was born in 1944, “the most bitter year of the Second World War,” she says.  Her father was a Christian of German descent, although her paternal grandmother was Jewish.  Her mother was non-religious, although she did give her baby a name that was unusual in Holland, especially during the war years:  “Ruth.”  “My mother was pregnant with me under German occupation,” Ruth says, “and she did a lot of gleaning in the harvest fields during the war, as Germans commandeered  food from the Dutch for their own use.”   The post-war years were not a propitious time to claim Jewish ancestry, and Ruth was raised with no knowledge of Judaism or Jewish ritual.  Although she was very young, Ruth’s mother told her about the Jewish people and their fate in the War.

For some unexplainable reason, Ruth always felt drawn to Judaism and even took Hebrew language classes for 3 years. (Many years later she would convert to Judaism through Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who was living part-time in Israel.)

Ruth’s husband Abel de Jong, now 78, was born in Holland in 1940, the same year  Germany invaded Holland.  He was two years old when the deportations of Jews began.

Abel’s father, a physician, worked as a volunteer – – with a special permit to travel home – – in the modern hospital of the Dutch transit camp, Westerbork.  “After a couple of months, he understood that the trains had a single destination:  Auschwitz. But,” Ruth explains, “he simply had no idea what awaited the Jews upon their arrival there.  He worked very hard to find medicines and food to ensure that sick Jews would be able to survive the journey to Auschwitz, never imagining that most of them would be murdered within 24 hours of their arrival there.”  When it became clear that soon he, too, would be forced to join a transport, he decided the time had come to flee.

Abel’s parents were desperate to find a safe haven but thought their children would have a better chance of survival if they gave Abel and his infant brother Daniel to Dutch Christians.  Meanwhile the parents hoped to escape to neutral Switzerland, from whence they would send for their sons.

Abel was given to a blue-collar childless couple who were religious Dutch Protestants.  They treated him truly like a son.  A few days before, the adoptive family’s patriarch, who lived a short distance away, had been caught harboring 5 Jews in his attic, and he was sent along with the 5 Jews he had hidden to Auschwitz, where he perished.  So it was nothing less than heroic that the son and daughter-in-law of this murdered righteous gentile agreed to take a Jewish infant into their home and under their wing. They changed Abel’s name to a Dutch name, and never discussed his Jewish past, so he did not even realize he was Jewish, although in hindsight, Abel says, “I realized that I never felt fully comfortable by my new identity.  I reclaimed my original Jewish first and last names as an adult.”

Abel’s baby brother Daniel was meanwhile thrust into the arms of another young Dutch Christian family, who wanted nothing to do with him due to the inherent danger in hiding anyone Jewish, especially a baby who was weak and ill.  But Abel and Daniel’s mother made a big scene – – she was wailing hysterically – – and the man agreed to take Daniel temporarily, promising to place him with a different family, who were also childless.

A Failed Rescue

Meanwhile, in March 1943, Abel’s parents began their journey to freedom, traveling through Holland, Belgium, France, and eventually reaching Switzerland.  There, they were caught by Swiss police, arrested as illegal aliens, and sent back over the border straight to German police in Occupied France.  Ironically, had their small children accompanied them on their exodus to Switzerland, they would have been allowed to remain in Switzerland, since at that time the Swiss were willing to grant asylum to refugee families with children.

Once in Occupied France they somehow made it to Brussels, in Belgium.  They paid a female guide to bring them over the Spanish border.  The guide betrayed them, handing them over to the French police, who cooperated with the Nazis.  They were taken to the French transit camp, Drancy, and from there they were transported, separately, to Auschwitz, where Abel’s mother died shortly after arrival.

A Tragic Fate

Arriving at Auschwitz in a cattle car, Dr. de Jong immediately recognized the smell of burning flesh, and realized that Auschwitz was no mere “work camp.” Due to his professional world renown – – according to colleagues of the de Jongs, he had been nominated for a Nobel Prize due to his work with vitamins, diet and nutrition – – he was of great interest to Josef Mengele, who made Dr. de Jong part of the evil Nazi doctor’s Jewish medical staff in Auschwitz.  Abel’s father was himself an identical twin, and he was responsible for examining and cataloging Gypsy and Jewish twins, taking their measurements, weight, and conducted forced experiments with diets.  He survived Auschwitz, but during the camp’s evacuation in January 1945 as Allied forces came closer, he was on a Death March, eventually reaching the satellite camp of KZ Mittelbau-Dora in the heart of Germany.  He was killed there only days before liberation.

Until their final capture, both of Abel’s parents had been secretly able to send letters to their children at their adoptive families’ homes, which were miraculously hidden and preserved by the Dutch adoptive parents, and even more incredible, the parents were somehow able to exchange a few letters between one other, and through the underground these letters somehow made their way to Abel’s adopted family, where Abel saw them for the first time many years after the War after his true identity was made known to him.

Abel’s father’s twin brother was able to escape to England when the war broke out.  There, he was a major figure in the Dutch resistance, and he served as the BBC’s Dutch broadcaster for the underground, where his news reports were transmitted to Holland.  The Germans made it illegal for most Dutch citizens to own a radio, but Abel remembers his adoptive father holding him up to the radio in their home during an illegal broadcast, saying, “Listen to that man on the radio! He is your uncle!”

Life Begins Anew

After the War Abel’s uncle returned to Holland to recover his nephews from their adoptive families.  But Abel could not adjust to his uncle’s family.  He soon began to withdraw emotionally and physically.  The trauma and upheaval were more than the little boy could take; and reluctantly, Abel’s uncle returned him to his adoptive Dutch family.  His brother Daniel also remained with his adoptive Dutch family.  Even though the boys were not far apart in age, they didn’t really relate to one another as brothers, despite their respective adoptive families’ efforts to ensure that they spent time with one another.  This awkwardness would continue between them even in adulthood.  Deep conversations were never successful, and most thoughts and feelings were left unsaid and unexpressed, although they often resorted to practical jokes and humor to communicate with one another.

As a young man, Abel was an iron worker, and fascinated by blacksmithing.  In the neighborhood where he now lived in Leiden, there was a blacksmith with wonderful tools.  Abel loved to engage the man in conversation, and learn more about the trade.  It didn’t hurt that this man had a pretty daughter:  Ruth.  What was the likelihood that Ruth and Abel, both raised as non-Jews but secretly Jewish, would find one another on the same street in a Holland that was mostly devoid of its Jews?  Today they’ve been married for more than 50 years and have four sons, one of whom lives in Israel with his wife and five children.

Meanwhile, they built their life together in the Netherlands.  Abel was now working as a city planner and lawyer, and Ruth was a practitioner of alternative medicine, including acupuncture, psychotherapy, and classic homeopathy.  They were very active, and both loved marathon biking trips across Europe.  They began collecting antiques and Judaica, even though they still knew little about Judaism.  Abel was especially drawn to a 200-year-old oil painting of a rabbi with a Hebrew inscription (which he could not read) in an old shop in Leiden, the Dutch city where he had grown up.  He bought the painting and hung it in Ruth’s clinic in Holland.  Little did they know how prominently this painting would figure in their lives in the coming years.

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The Trial Aliyah

Ruth and Abel began to experience a vague disconnect with the Netherlands.  Holland felt less like home, especially for Ruth after she visited Israel in 1964 and became enamored of that country.  Israel was calling.  In the 1980s, the couple decided to go to Israel for a two-year trial period, with the eventual goal of making aliyah.

They brought only their books,  some clothes, Abel’s blacksmith tools, and the antique oil portrait of a rabbinical figure to whom, as the years passed, they felt very connected.  Ruth was pregnant with her fourth child, Boaz.

They lived for a while in Moshav Amirim in the Galil, a vegetarian village.  During her first weeks there, she had a terrible toothache and was advised to go to the new city of Karmiel to see a dentist.  While awaiting her turn, she met a chassidic rebbetzin in the reception area by the name of Pesia Shtern.  She and her husband were Breslov chassidim, and were caretakers of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s burial cave in Meron.  The rebbetzin was excited for Ruth about her upcoming birth, asked Ruth some questions, and wanted to know everything about her.

“When she found out that I was a natural practitioner, she became very excited and told me I must agree to treat the rebbetzin!  So under her guidance I set up a bare-bones acupuncture clinic, and the rebbetzin became my first patient.” Ruth continues, “The ‘office’ had no furniture – – remember, we hadn’t brought our furniture to Israel from Holland.  Abel had welded a frame together to make a bed, and a sheet covering the bed became the examining table.”

There was only one other item in the room:  the portrait of the rabbi with its Hebrew inscription.  When the rebbetzin entered the room, she gasped:  “Where did you get this painting?! It’s the Rashbi! Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai! ” she cried.  “Do you know where you’ve settled?  This is the land of Rashbi!” The very rabbi and tzaddik whose grave the Shterns guarded and maintained!

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the “Rashbi”)

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a Talmudic sage who lived in Israel at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple.   His teacher was the great Rabbi Akiva. The Romans had decreed it illegal to teach Torah, but Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai ignored the decree and was sentenced to death by the Romans for his defiance.  He escaped their clutches after witnessing the tortuous death of martyred Rabbi Akiva, and hid out in various places in the Galilee, finally settling in a cave in Peki’in with his son Rabbi Elazar.  Next to the cave is a spring and a giant carob tree, which sustained him for thirteen years.  It is said that he and his son buried themselves naked up to their necks in sand to preserve their clothes, only putting them on once a week in honor of the Sabbath.  And it was here that many Divine secrets of the universe were revealed to the Rashbi, and where the seeds of the Kabbala began.  He authored the famous book of Kabbala, known as the Zohar.

Rebbetzin Shtern turned to Ruth, and said gravely, “You must be a shaliach (a person on a heaven-sent mission)!”  Indeed, the Rashbi (the acronym for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) would figure greatly in Ruth’s life, in a series of signs and weird and wonderful events that could only be Divine Providence, only a few of which will be told in our story today.

Thanks to the Chassidic rebbetzin’s favorable recommendations, soon Ruth’s renown for healing the sick grew and people from all over Israel and abroad came to her acupuncture clinic for treatment.  Meanwhile Abel was working as a welder in Ziv Hospital in Tzfat (since there were no jobs for lawyers with an expertise in Dutch law), and he decided to pay a visit to Rabbi Shtern in nearby Meron.  Rabbi Shtern found lots of work for Abel, and he even started building mikvaos.

Ruth gave birth at home to her son Boaz.  Rabbi Shtern arranged for a mohel to come to Moshav Amirim for the bris, along with hundreds of Breslover chassidim, all bearing food for a festive meal.  Moshav Amirim is a secular moshav, and its residents didn’t quite know what had hit them!  Suddenly their moshav was filled with dancing, singing Chassidim who had gathered around their secular neighbors – Ruth and Abel!  The bris took place under the painting of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, on the “examining table” that Abel had made.

Life during their two “trial” years in Israel was good, but their eldest son, a teenager, was having serious difficulty adapting to Israeli culture, and really struggling psychologically and socially in high school.  Before their trial period began they had made a pact that if any family member was terribly unhappy, they would return to Holland.  With some regret, but for the sake of their son, they returned to the Netherlands at the end of the 2 1/2 years.

Back in Holland, Ruth was both busy and productive, and authored several books on a variety of topics.  But Israel was still very much in her heart, and she found she could no longer tolerate life as a Jew in Holland.   Her only escape from the ensuing depression she suffered was trips to Israel – – she visited every 3 months and continued her work as a therapist all over Israel.  Her husband remained behind in Holland with the children.  Each time she came to Israel, with her husband’s blessing, she visited different parts of the country, trying to find an apartment or house for them to buy, but nothing felt quite right.

Drawn to Peki’in

In 1999, Abel fell ill in Holland.  Ruth advised him to recuperate in Israel, where they had a non-Jewish German friend who lived in Haifa and managed a conference center on Mt. Carmel.  Abel stayed for a month, and while there he met a female Arab tourist guide from Peki’in, which is a primarily Druze village in the Galil with a long Jewish history.  When she learned that Abel and his wife were looking to buy a house in Israel, she suggested that he visit the village.  But in the 1990s public transportation by bus was extremely limited and Abel did not have a car.  After a few tries, he gave up on trying to visit Peki’in.  Feeling much improved, he returned to Holland.  But shortly after his return, he received a birthday invitation to the German friend’s 50th birthday celebration in Haifa.  Abel elected not to return to Israel to attend the party, due to work commitments, but Ruth had a strange feeling that she needed to be at that party, a feeling she could not logically explain.

And so she flew to Israel.  At the party, a Christian Arab man approached her and began speaking to her in German.  It turned out that his sister was the tour guide that Abel had spoken with about Peki’in, and who had invited him to visit.  When Ruth asked about the house, the brother replied that very week, he and his 7 brothers had convened and decided to sell their aging parents’ house!  Ruth became very excited and invited herself to go with him after the party to Peki’in.   She spent the night at the house of his elderly mother.

The very next morning, the man came to his mother’s house to take Ruth on a scenic mountain drive of the area, and show Ruth around the town of Peki’in.  They arrived at the center of Peki’in, where there is a large well fed by a spring.  There was a map of the town affixed to a signpost, and the man pointed out the location of his mother’s home on the map in relation to the well.  Next to his mother’s house on the map was a small star.

“What is the meaning of this star?” Ruth wanted to know.

“Next to the house is a cave under an old carob tree,” the Arab man replied.  “This is where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai hid from the Romans and where the wisdom of Kabbala was revealed to him!”

The Rashbi!

Divine Providence

Ruth felt chills.  The man was asking an exorbitant price for what was essentially a ruin hanging precariously on a mountainside with a gorgeous view, a price that no sane villager would pay but an unsuspecting foreigner might. (Just how precariously it hung would become apparent a few years later.)

“We knew it was too much, but it was still cheaper than anything in Holland,” she confided, “and we had the money.  A house next to the Rashbi! We didn’t understand it, but we knew there was something about this that was bigger than ourselves.”

They purchased the property from the Christian Arab, and slowly began renovations to make it livable.  They still hadn’t returned to Israel permanently, but went back and forth from Holland to check on construction progress.  At some point one of her sons lived in the unfinished house before moving elsewhere in Israel, as he had by then made aliyah.  Only a few years later did she realize how their important their lack of permanence would be in introducing their presence to wary Christian and Druze neighbors, who were suspicious about Jews moving to Peki’in.

The Story of Peki’in

Historically, Peki’in was a Jewish village that existed at the time of the Second Temple.  Six of the surviving twenty-four families of Kohanim (high priests) escaped to Peki’in from Jerusalem at the time of her destruction by the Romans.  Margalit Zinati, from my article “The Last Jew of Peki’in,” is the only remaining surviving descendant of those 2000 year old families who still lives in the village today. Eventually early Christians, Muslims, and Druze  came to live in Peki’in as well.  But the road was a rocky one for the Jews, and they were driven out more than once by angry mobs.

The Druze are a mysterious people.  They believe they are descendants of Yisro, the father-in-law of Moses.  Their religion is secretive, and little is known about it by outsiders.  There is no intermarriage allowed.  Once a Druze marries “out” he is no longer considered a part of his people.  Today there are Druze in northern Israel, Syria and Lebanon.  As part of their creed, they follow the laws of the land.  Hence, many Druze have served – – and died – – in the Israeli military on Israel’s behalf.  They too have been a persecuted people, and as such are suspicious of outsiders.  Because their religion and culture are so insular, they have little tolerance for outsiders who wish to “infiltrate” their living space.  So when Jews started trickling back to Peki’in, it was more than the Druze could accept.

With their renovations complete and their youngest child now an adult, the de Jongs decided the time was right to return permanently to Israel.  Their “second aliyah” was to their newly renovated home in Peki’in.  After the news spread that Jews had bought a home in Peki’in, about 30 Jews settled in the village – – Jews whose goal it was to Judaize Peki’in once again.

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Troubled Times

But the pioneer spirit of reclaiming Jewish history came to naught.  It all came crashing down, only a month after the de Jongs had moved permanently into their renovated home.  Many of the 30 Jewish pioneers did not understand Arab culture and an Eastern mentality, and did not realize the extreme importance the Arabs  attributed to codes of honor, respect, and the repercussions of losing face.  Nor did the Jews understand the fear the Druze had of losing the land they had lived on for centuries.

One night the de Jongs awoke to the sound of gunfire.  Suddenly there was shouting, yelling and cursing which could be heard echoing through the mountainside.  And then there were gangs, then mobs, and then flames.  “The entire village just . . . exploded,” Ruth said.

Mobs At Their Doorstep

Imagine the trauma and fear felt by the de Jongs, especially when their early life history is taken into consideration, as their house was surrounded by angry youth intent on violence.  The de Jongs were defenseless.  They had only large sticks, collected from the woodpile used for their fireplace, to protect themselves.  It was only due to their neighbor, who chased the mobs away and warned them not to touch the de Jong’s property, that they were unharmed.  Their car was burned to the ground. (It was replaced, only to once again be burned completely a few weeks later.)  The thirty other Jews were now too afraid to remain in Peki’in, and left their burning houses.  

“Police came to tell them that they could no longer protect us because of political reasons,” maintains Ruth.  The de Jongs were forced to return to Holland.  Six months later Abel and Ruth returned to Peki’in;  their house was intact.

Thereafter, laws passed by the local council made it illegal for property in Peki’in to be sold to anyone who is non-Druze, and that law still stands today.  Ever since then, the de Jongs have worked very hard to try to interpret the subtleties of cultural differences, and have cultivated amicable relationships with their immediate neighbors, both Christian and Druze.  One elder, Abu Sutki, became very close with Abel, saying he felt as close to him as a beloved brother.

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Eventually things calmed down.  Perhaps because they are elderly and Dutch and it’s just the two of them living in the house, the de Jongs are not perceived as much of a threat.  They maintain a cordial relationship with their Arab neighbors, and are sensitive to cultural and religious differences.  They are resigned to living isolated from other Jews, because they are strongly committed to maintaining the Rashbi’s cave, and feel it is their destiny to do so.

The Earth Gives Way

One morning Ruth and Abel were awakened by a horrible crashing sound.  She opened the door to her outside porch, and was startled to see . . . nothing!  Part of the side of their mountain had suddenly fallen away, and the house continued to groan.  They felt sure that the entire house they had restored so lovingly was in danger of immediate collapse.

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Experts and structural engineers were called in.  Because the house is precariously located, and surrounded by neighbors, there was no easy way for heavy construction equipment to access the house.  A very complex solution to support the structure was recommended, but it meant tearing up years and years worth of landscaping work, trees and bushes and pathways.  Instead, Ruth and Abel decided to tackle the challenge of repairing the structure themselves.  At the age of 67 and 72, together they mixed cement, created wooden forms and framework, and placed lots of iron rebar alongside their mountain.  Within only two months, they had created a 3-story cement retaining wall that is a true wonder!

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Although not officially trained in this capacity, Abel has tremendous talents for structural design and engineering, as well as implementation.  This is only one example of the de Jong’s incredible self-sufficiency, independence and determination to remain in the place they love. They view their upkeep of the Rashbi’s tomb as nothing less than holy work.

Artifacts

Ruth took me on a tour of the house.  Originally, a hundred years ago, the Druze in Peki’in were very poor, and their homes were constructed of mud and straw.  When many surrounding villages were abandoned during Israel’s War of Independence, the Druze of Peki’in retrieved the building blocks from the rubble of the richer neighboring towns.  When the de Jong’s house fell partially away, it was possible to see these layers of mud and straw and then stone blocks.

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She also showed me a niche that was used for pita baking, and another stall which housed goats.  In the old kitchen were utensils of copper and iron; on the wall was an antique Syrian scythe.

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There was also a huge storage closet, called by the Turkish “keet,” where the previous family of 10 children stowed their sleeping pallets every morning, and pulled them out every evening at bedtime.

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There were also the remains of a very old sledge, which had been used to separate grain and chaff; hand-woven baskets; and a round rattan disc that was used for kneading dough into pita and laffa.

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There were some amazing historical photos on the wall.  Once while she was browsing through some antique books while on a trip to Holland, Ruth found a very old travel journal about the Middle East.  She recognized one of the old sepia photos in the book:  it was none other than Margalit Zinati’s father, in old Peki’in! (She bought the book and brought it to Israel.)

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Abel used his blacksmithing talents to fix something for a Druze neighbor, and wouldn’t accept payment; his neighbor gave him an antique copper serving tray in exchange.

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The de Jongs continue to collect unusual artifacts and old pieces of farming equipment and cooking utensils used by indigenous cultures.

The neighbors also enjoy sampling the literal fruits of the de Jongs’ labor:  they grow figs, almonds, mulberries, herbs, and raise chickens who lay organic eggs.

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The Memorial:  Finding Peace

We continued walking along a lush, multilayered landscaped pathway. As we walked down narrow steps hand-built by Abel to the garden below, and finally to the cave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Ruth pointed out a young carob tree, with a small tag inscribed “Daniel.”  This, too, had a story.  Abel’s brother Daniel, who had never married, died a few years ago and was buried in Holland according to his wishes.  The de Jongs wished to create a memorial for him.  They planted the carob tree and placed a sign alongside it, inscribed with words about him.

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The next morning, Ruth came to the spot to water the tree and noticed that the words on the plaque were gone.  She couldn’t understand it, as there had been no rain to wash away the lettering.  So that afternoon, she painted the letters on the sign so they would be more permanent.

The following morning, she again came to water the tree, and once again the letters were gone. She was both puzzled and disturbed.  Deep in thought, she decided that it was Daniel’s way of telling them that he didn’t want the epitaph they had chosen.  She let her eyes wander to the plants next to the tree, where she noticed a paper label on the ground, face down.  She suddenly had a very powerful feeling that if she were to retrieve the label, her brother-in-law’s name would be on that label.  To reach it she had to climb over the low fence, where the tree and label sat.  When she picked up the label and turned it over, there was a picture of an Israeli flag with a Jewish star – – and the name “Daniel” printed on it!  The de Jongs felt this was a Divine message, and encased the label in a simple plastic tag and tied it to the young carob sapling, where it remains today.

Hopes, Dreams and Prayers

Ruth walked with me to the Rashbi cave, bending down here and there to pick up stray litter and to sweep away errant leaves.  At the mouth of the cave there was old wax from memorial candles and similar to the Kotel, a large collection of folded notes from many visitors, filled with prayers of hope and desperation, begging for salvation.  I asked her what she did with the notes when they became too numerous for the narrow rock shelf and crevices in which the notes were placed.

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“I don’t touch them, nor do I read them,” Ruth says.  “What’s interesting is that sometimes when people burn the candles, the intensity of the flames heats the rock shelf, and the papers either burn or dry up and disintegrate on their own.  Then the remnants are carried away by the wind, perhaps to the heavens.

“I think that’s fitting,” she concluded, ” . . . don’t you?”

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Mazal Tov (we take credit cards)

Because there are so many different levels of religious observance, customs, cultures and communities among Jews in Israel, it is always fascinating and fun to go to weddings where things are not quite what you are used to. Expect the unexpected!

Last night we were invited to the wedding of very dear friends of ours. We couldn’t be more different in terms of our backgrounds, yet we’ve remained close for the past 17 years despite living (until recently) on different sides of the world.

We met through our eldest son, seventeen years ago in Baltimore. At that time my son was volunteering through Bikur Cholim, an organization that visits the sick and helps families navigate through medical difficulties. My son met a man and his wife who had flown in from Israel so that the man could receive a kidney transplant. The operation was a success but for medical reasons they weren’t yet able to fly home. They had left 4 small children in Israel under the care of relatives. Pesach was coming in a few days and the prospect of spending Passover without their children was unbearable enough, but it was even more difficult knowing they’d be in a hotel near the hospital, alone. They barely spoke English.

My son called me to ask if we could invite them to stay with us for Pesach, so that they could participate in a Seder and have someone to talk to, since we speak Hebrew. Of course we agreed — the more the merrier, I said.

The father, who was in his 40s, was in a weakened state, but managing fine. He was originally from an island off Tunisia called Djerba, but his family made aliyah to Israel many years ago when he was four years old. His lovely wife is a teacher. Although she was born in Israel, her family originally made aliyah from India; they were part of the Cochin Jewish community. Culturally we couldn’t have been more different, but we hit it off immediately. In between my Pesach cooking and cleaning, I took them on a few drives to show them around Baltimore and we even fit in a shopping trip so they could buy presents for their children. It was the first time in their lives they had been to an Ashkenazi seder, and it was fun to exchange information about how differently we each celebrated Pesach.

We visited Israel a few times in the coming years, and each time we visited our new friends. We kept in touch in the interim through phone calls and emails. Now, seventeen years later, we were invited to their son’s wedding. Not only did the father of the groom survive his kidney transplant — thank G-d, he is thriving. What a miracle that he was able to walk his son down the aisle to his chuppa. Of course we were going!

Now here is where different customs get interesting. In Israel, expenses are very much on everyone’s minds. Most people are of modest means, yet weddings are always sit-down dinners. Families are large, with many extended relatives. Classmates are invited. People tend to have a lot of friends. It’s not an exaggeration to say that 400 – 500 people are the average number of attendees at an Israeli wedding. The wedding business is very lucrative since there are always so many weddings. Since there is lots of competition, the wedding halls go all out in their decor. The wedding hall we were in last night was just outside of Kfar Saba, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Besides the impressive building where the dinner and dancing took place, the outside grounds were landscaped beautifully. There was a giant swimming pool that was the size of a small lake, and an “island” in the middle is where the chuppa was set up. It was dazzling, to say the least.

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So how can the average Israel afford to marry off his children?

At secular Israeli weddings, as well as religious Sephardi weddings, it is the guests who pay for the wedding.

This is how it works:

When the couple gets engaged, the parents pay a small down payment to reserve a wedding hall, which comes with a caterer. The day of the wedding, the guests do not bring wedding gifts. The only gift that is given is money. We are not talking a small sum. The customary amount is around $100 – – per guest. But giving even more than that is not unusual.

That’s a lot of cash, and there have been cases where the money was stolen at the venue. So now wedding halls provide a safe at the entrance. The wedding hall we went to last night had a safe, and next to the safe was a table with pens, paper and envelopes, so you could put money and a greeting into the envelope before putting it in the safe. But this is not all. To make it even easier for guests, wedding halls have now installed dedicated ATMs. The screen has a photo of the bride and groom, and you simply fill in your name, amount, and a message. After you swipe your credit card, you get a receipt texted to your smart phone, along with a pre-written thank you text signed by the bride and groom.

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In the foreground, 2 men write greetings at the table provided with pens, paper and envelopes. In the middle ground to the left, a man enters the amount of his gift and swipes his credit card at one of the dedicated ATM machines.
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The envelopes containing greetings and cash go straight into the safe next to the table
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A close-up of the screen of the dedicated ATM machine. The caption under the bride and groom photo says “We are happy you’ve come to celebrate with us!” signed with their names

When the guests leave, and the bride and groom go off into the sunset, the wedding is still not over for the parents. Now they must settle the bill with the caterer. The safe is opened. The amount collected is tallied, as are the amounts deposited into the dedicated ATM machine. The parents pay the caterer’s bill with the gift money on the spot. Any money left after the caterer is paid then goes to the bride and groom.

Perhaps it’s not quite romantic, but this system does save families (but not their guests!) a lot of financial grief. The guests are not required to pay, but overwhelmingly they want to. The parents don’t have to go into hock to marry off their children (unless they are part of the Israeli Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox community, in which case the custom is for parents to buy their kids their first house). The newlyweds are not left with a huge amount of money after paying the caterer, but it’s usually enough to justify a shopping trip to IKEA to set up their rental apartment.

The wedding was extremely lively, with dinner, dancing and festivities that lasted well into the night. Even though we didn’t know another soul, we had a great time and met lots of really nice people. A wedding in Israel lasts many hours with lots of food, music, dancing and singing; it’s pure happiness combined with spirituality. I’ve never seen anyone get drunk at an Israeli wedding. People are lively – – there is always a guest who juggles fire at some point, or balances a chair on his nose – – but generally guests behave themselves. They are there to truly bring joy to the bride and groom, and they certainly do succeed. Certainly with the guests’ gifts of money, they succeed in bringing joy to the (much relieved) parents as well!

The Death of Sundays

I confess.  I do miss Trader Joe’s and Costco.  But I’ve learned to live without them quite well, and it’s okay.  But Sundays – – well, that’s another matter.

In America, there is generally a five-day work week, with Saturday and Sunday being the days off.  When you’re a shomer Shabbat Jew, Saturdays are Shabbat, and while they are wonderful, it only leaves Sunday for leisure and catch-up time.

In Israel, there is also generally a five-day work week, but the “weekend” is  Friday and Saturday.  This has serious implications for those of us who keep the Sabbath, especially in winter when the Sabbath arrives at 4 pm on Friday.  You can forget doing many errands on your list since many government offices are closed on Fridays.  Ditto for our bank.  Israel is a small enough country with lots to see so theoretically you can plan a half-day excursion, but you’re always under pressure to allow enough time to return in time for Shabbat.  And it assumes you’ve done all your cooking for the bountiful Sabbath meals well before Friday.

I start my Shabbat preparations on Tuesday.  In the morning I make challah dough.  While it’s rising I go into town for my weekly shopping excursion.  I try not to go more than once a week, since gas is $7 to $8 per gallon and each trip costs me a minimum of $25.  (Consequently many people where I live order their food from town and have it delivered. Even paying a delivery charge is cheaper than driving into town yourself, unless you have multiple errands to run.  But I like to choose things myself.)

I finish the challah and stick it in the freezer.  Then I start cooking things that will hold up well in the fridge, such as grains or hummus.  The next day I cook soup and chicken.  We eat more simply here – – no more cholent or kugels like we ate in the US – – but we do eat a lot of different kinds of vegetable dishes and salads.  Since these are pretty labor intensive and must be eaten fresh, I do save these for the last minute.

Now that Spring is upon us, we’ve been very diligent about our Friday morning excursions.  I love the fact that we are in the Galil, near so many incredible nature sites, and most are anywhere between 15 – 90 minutes away by car (the latter takes us to the upper Galil and the Golan Heights).  After some nice winter rains, the Galil is bursting with rich emerald green grasses and bushes, pink almond blossoms, red poppies and cyclamen.  The rivers, streams and waterfalls are at full throttle – – these will either disappear completely or deplete to a pitiful trickle in summer – – yet the hordes of tourists have not yet descended and we generally have the National Parks mostly to ourselves (we bought an annual pass with a Senior discount).

While every site we’ve visited has been gorgeous, it’s about more than just beauty.  It’s knowing that nearly every square inch has meaning.  It might have been the site of an important village, or an event from the Torah, a momentous battle, a ancient city  or synagogue, a past civilization, the site of a Biblical prophecy or a miracle, the tomb of a holy rabbi, a Crusader fortress or a sheikh’s palace.  We are remembering our history while making history just by our very presence in the Land, and that is thrilling and emotional and spiritually uplifting.  Objectively speaking, Mt. Hermon (on the Syrian border) may not be as majestic as the Rockies or the Alps.  The Negev’s Machtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater) may not be as grandiose as the Grand Canyon.  The waterfalls of Metulla (on the Lebanese border)  are hardly Niagara Falls.  But they belong to us because they were given to us by HaShem, duly recorded in our Torah, and they were acquired with blood, sweat, tears and great sacrifice then and now.  There is a deep connection to our Land that perhaps defies logic, but it is the sense that this is home, and this is ours, and somehow through HaShem’s grace we merited to be part of a generation of reclamation, settlement, presence and blessing.

I guess that’s worth the death of Sundays.

 

Fitting In

Recently a friend called from the States.  “When I spoke with you a few months ago, things were still very new and you were in the honeymoon phase,” she said.  “But tell me – now that you’ve been in Israel for several months – – how are you managing . . . really?”

Other than abhorring the absurd Israeli banking system (I’ll save my complaints for another post in the future), I really couldn’t think of a single negative thing to say.  No horror stories of being pushed, shoved, yelled at, cheated, or robbed; I’ve never felt unsafe.  I began telling my friend about my new day-to-day life in Israel, and the more I spoke, the more excited  and animated I became.

“Wow!” she said, “I’ve known you for years and I’ve never heard you like this!  You just sound so happy and positive and alive!”

It’s true.  Every day brings new adventures, new people to meet and interact with, new things to see, smell and touch.  My Hebrew is getting better because I talk all day long.   I am much more outgoing, and I seem to take risks that my former self-conscious self would never have taken (I’m not talking about bungee jumping, but I am talking about speaking up and being friendly to people I’ve never met before in new social situations and gatherings).

I was thinking of why I’m finding life so pleasant in Israel, when so many new immigrants struggle with Israeli culture.  A huge part of it is that I’m able to speak Hebrew, and even though I’m not fluent, Israelis respect the fact that I’m trying hard to converse and expand my vocabulary, which is so necessary to integrate.  Although there are fellow olim where I live that are native English speakers, we do not live in an Anglo “ghetto.”  Instead, we have the opportunity to integrate with Israelis  socially as neighbors, religiously as  synagogue members and Torah class attendees, and professionally as workmates.  We share Sabbath meals  as both hosts and guests.  I belong to Israel-related whatsapp and facebook groups in both Hebrew and English.  I’m not kidding myself:  I will never be considered an “Israeli” by natives.  To them I will always be “the American immigrant.” And that’s okay, because we can still  be friends.  And  I feel so blessed to have made so many new friends!

But it still doesn’t answer the question of why I’m managing so well, not just with fellow American immigrants living in Israel, but with people who are of a  completely different mindset or culture.  I don’t just deal with people in my yishuv who are the same page politically and religiously; I deal with sabras and Arabs and olim from Russia, France, Ethiopia and Brazil who are manual laborers, bank clerks,  store managers, bus drivers, doctors, designers and teachers.   And it’s going great!

I attribute my success and positive attitude to the year I spent in Israel as a high school exchange student, way back in 1972.  In a desperate bid to immerse myself into Israeli student life, my personality became more “Israeli.”

When I returned to the US after that year in Israel, I didn’t really know what to do with myself.  I had become a different person in Israel, and I liked the new me better, but my American encounters were no longer warm and fuzzy.  I no longer fit in.  I was exuberant, impatient and  opinionated;  adventurous; and impulsive. This didn’t go over well in a polite society where people hid their emotions to the point that if they were having a horrendous day, they’d answer “thank G-d” when asked how they were doing.  If you had asked me, you would have heard all about it. and I would not have spared the drama.

Needless to say this disconnect and social impropriety won me few friends.  I soon learned to control myself, and basically I shut down emotionally.  After I moved back to the US and spoke to an Israeli friend who was visiting, she stopped and asked, “What happened to you?  It’s like your soul is dead.”

So imagine my joy when my American caller told me today, “You just sound so happy and alive!”

Thanks to my high school experience in Israel at a very impressionable time in my life, I say what is on my mind, and I rarely hold back.  I interrupt people far too often (although I am working on this).

Today in my village I gave a ride into town to someone I didn’t know.  I introduced myself and he responded, “Oh!  I heard all about you.  You should know, people really like you here!”  and he meant it.  I’m not repeating the story to brag, but rather for you to imagine the validation I felt that things are truly working out for us here.  Despite not having family here, and not really knowing anyone in our town before we arrived, I’m not lonely.  I feel very much a part of something big.

I fit in!

And it feels good.

Government “Help”

As newbies to Israel, job hunting can be a bit of a challenge.  So my husband and I went to a job fair in Haifa sponsored by the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption.  While this particular fair wasn’t so useful (it concentrated mostly on manufacturing jobs), we did meet with a representative from the Ministry who suggested we take advantage of free career counseling, free resume writing/translation, and recruiting with job leads.  My husband made an appointment for the following day in Karmiel.  Shortly after arriving he called.  “They just informed me that I don’t qualify,” he said.   (He was not discouraged.  In Israel, rules are meant to be broken and “no” never means “no.”  This is important to remember when you are feeling disheartened by Israeli bureaucracy, outdated policies and practices.)  In Israel, retirement is mandatory at age 67 for men (it’s 62 for women, but they have just changed the law to 64).  He was told that the only way to extend one’s work life as an employee is to strike out on one’s own and work as a freelancer or consultant.  My husband suggested that I go to Karmiel to meet with the Ministry job office since I’m 60 and still in the running for employment.

There I was greeted by a vivacious young woman who is a job counselor, and her counterpart, a dour, older Russian immigrant who is a psychologist.  The purpose of the psychologist was supposedly to assess the personality of the applicant, and to ensure that he is a viable and realistic candidate for employment.  The psychologist seemed to suffer from narcolepsy, as she practically fell asleep in front of her laptop.  The job counselor took one look at my resume and told me, “You don’t want to be an employee, you need to be a freelancer.”  I told her I was fine with that, but then she added, “We don’t help freelancers. That’s a different government job office.  But to get there, you will need a referral from the Ministry. ”  Because I didn’t fit into her framework, she told me, she also could not offer the free resume translation service.  Perhaps they would help me at the freelance job office.

So I got back into my car and went to the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption.  I spoke to the same lady who recommended that I go to the first employment office.  She called the freelancer job office who said that no, they couldn’t offer to translate my resume because I wasn’t a resident of Karmiel, even though Karmiel is the closest city to where I live and the only place near me that has a government office of this nature.

The Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption lady said she was very sorry, but she couldn’t help me.  Her hands were tied, since the various agencies were funded in a very specific manner and if I was outside the perimeter, the budget would not allow them to make an exception.

I remarked – – while smiling and being totally non-threatening, calm and polite, yet firmly and with conviction – – that it seemed ironic that the entire purpose of the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption was to help new immigrants and returning residents, yet there were stumbling blocks created by the very same office that were counterproductive.  I told her I wasn’t really helpless, that I am a resourceful person and can do pretty well on my own, but that I lacked certain tools because I was new and just needed to know what those tools were so I could access them on my own.  I told her about my job plan and how I had done lots of cold calling and reached out to companies and academic institutions, sparking interest in my services.  I could tell she was impressed and immediately her tone changed.

“I really would love to help you with your resume myself,” she said sincerely, “but I just don’t know any English.”

Aha!  I had my “in.”  I quickly scanned the hall through the open door, making note that there was no one else waiting for assistance.

“That’s so kind of you to offer to help,” I said politely, “because now we can sit and work on my resume together!”

She was trapped.

A very kind friend had offered to translate my resume into Hebrew, but there were some tricky spots that needed a bit of polishing.  So together the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption lady and I sat over the resume, and to her credit, she did help me a lot.  When she finished editing it, she told me about a free online resume service whereby you send them the text, and they produce a finished copy with select fonts and formatting.

I thanked her profusely and went on my way, stopping to say hi to a friend who works in the same office building.

“She was nice to you?” my friend said, shocked and surprised.  Apparently this woman has quite the reputation of being a short-tempered, burned out bureaucrat.  I never saw that side of her, she even encouraged me to stop in to say hello the next time I’m in town.

I still have to go the the government office that counsels freelancers and provides them with job leads, but that can wait for another day.  Fortunately do to extensive and ceaseless networking I have some promising possibilities within my field.

I have an Israeli friend who is rather anti-religious and barely agnostic.  “The only reason I believe in God,” he tells me, “is that the very existence of Israel is a miracle.  With all the bureaucratic foibles, it’s amazing that anything gets accomplished. How else, if not for God?”

Once we figured out how to navigate the system, my husband found work immediately. (Hint #1: never ever send a resume as a pdf; it will automatically be tossed.  They want CVs sent as a Word document.  Hint #2: in the field of hi-tech, the preferred language for your CV is English, not Hebrew. We wasted countless hours working on bilingual resumes).  Although the naysayers said my husband would never find work at age 69 in Israel, even though he was an experienced and expert programmer and systems engineer, within a week he had 3 interviews and 3 job offers in the private sector.  It turns out that Israel is experiencing a severe shortage of people qualified to work in the hi-tech industry.  While the pay isn’t what it was in the States, the benefits are attractive (including a new leased Kia Niro hybrid car and free gas in a country where gas is nearly $8/gallon) and the work is technically exciting.  My husband is actually happier working in Israel than he was working in America.  Who would’ve believed that now, at age 70, he’s doing his part contributing to the Start-Up Nation!

It took a several months and a long bout of disappointing, infuriating and absurd interviews that were worthy of a soap opera, but I did finally find work as a freelance writer and editor, and at a decent wage, too.  I’m currently working with a college in the North translating scientific research from Hebrew to English and writing popular science articles for their donor newsletters. My triumph wasn’t thanks to any referrals by government employment service agencies.  I simply picked up the phone and cold-called my current gig, and the job came seemingly out of nowhere (thank you, God).

I wish this was worthy of congratulations, but I’m now over my head registering with government offices as an independent contractor. I’ve hired an accountant to help me slog through the paperwork and long lines at government offices, including the tax authority and social security (bituach leumi).  The accountant has already warned me that I will likely be subject to an audit and they’ll want to know everything, including a list of the appliances I own (which make no sense).

It may actually cost me to work, but oh! the stories I can tell…

Truman: Ambassador of Peace

In the month before Passover, I walked the hills of the Galilee.  The entire month of March they are filled with wildflowers, including red poppies called kalaniyot in Hebrew, as well as cyclamen, rakafot.

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Once Pesach arrives, so do Israelis in droves on holiday, plus the beginning of tourist season, and – much to my dismay – the end of rain until November and the beginning of tortuously hot, hazy days in the seemingly never-ending summer that starts in April and ends at the end of October. Most of the streams and riverbeds dry out and lose their mojo.

Just outside the town of Yokneam, where my husband works in the hi-tech park (denizen of many Israeli start-ups and now big-name players who are at the forefront of  internationally acclaimed innovation – – this is just one of dozens of similar hi-tech parks popping up all over the country), is a beautiful nature spot called Nahal HaShofet.  It’s more stroll than hike, with its carefully graded boardwalks that descend along a stream-bed and cave amid the heavy vegetation.  I figured I’d spend a quick couple of hours there before returning to the relentless Spring Cleaning that was part of my Pesach preparations.

I thought I’d beat the Pesach rush.  Little did I know that the week before Pesach, when Israeli Jewish school children start their Spring vacation, all youth groups around Israel use this time to walk the Land on organized overnight backpack and trekking trips.   Throughout the Galilee, especially in Keren Kayemet/JNF forests where camping is permitted and generally free, backpackers’ tents spread like colorful umbrella tops dotted the landscape against the lush green  woodlands of pistachio, olive groves, cypress, carob, Aleppo pine trees and thorny grasses.

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The night before it had rained, and as I approached my destination I stopped at a gully that was covered by rainwater runoff that was at least 6″ – 8″ deep.  I normally would have driven my Hyundai station wagon through without concern, but I was alone and was in no mood to get stranded without help in immediate sight.  So I parked the car at the bottom of this gully and walked the extra kilometer up a steep hillside to reach the starting point of Nahal HaShofet.

What a happy accident! Other than a few scraggly campers, the area was mostly empty and the vistas in wildflower-covered groves were among the most beautiful I have ever seen to date in the Galilee.  I was glued to the spot, soaking it all in, truly grateful to be there just then.  It was magical.

 

As I approached Nachal Shofet, I was alarmed to see at least 30 giant tour buses and an ice cream truck parked at the entrance.  There was Arab music blaring, and the voices of many excited schoolchildren.  Just how many excited children enjoying nature would become apparent as I made my way down Nachal HaShofet.

I had picked an Arab town’s school district’s annual field trip day.  At least 1000 (!) Arab Muslim kids and their teachers were there enjoying themselves.  Which would have been fine, except I had my Standard Poodle Truman with me, and generally, religious Muslims find dogs repugnant at best and are terrified of them at worst.  Every time I would turn a corner along the trail and meet up with yet another class of kids, I’d be greeted by 25 – 50 voices screaming with fear at the top of their very healthy lungs when they would see Truman.  My dog looked at me questioningly like a wizened Yoda.  “Seriously?” he seemed to say, because he is possibly the worlds most passive, quiet, non-aggressive and innocuous Standard Poodle that ever lived. And besides, he was on a leash.

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As I waited silently along the side of the trail for yet the next group of children to pass us so we could continue on ahead, a young boy of about 8 asked me in Arabic if he could touch the dog.  I was surprised by his “courage” but was happy to have Truman oblige.  He immediately received the unspoken admiration of  his still-terrified classmates who were convinced there was little difference between petting a poodle and putting one’s head into the mouth of a lion.  They were even more amazed when Truman did not react (in truth, Truman was feeling rather bored).  And then, another boy found the courage to approach, and another, and another.  Soon I had a line of 100 excited, happy and nervous children waiting to pet Truman, and even more amazing – – their stern, grumpy chador-clad teacher wanted to be part of the action too.  Many of them called out “huruf!” (which means “sheep” in Arabic, and indeed, Truman’s coat resembles that of a lamb). Of course I had to photograph the event for posterity – – with the now-smiling teacher included. So now I call my dog “Truman, Ambassador of Peace.”

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