The Best Things in Life are Free

We knew it was going to be 18 months to 2 years before we’d be moving into the house we are building, due to permits bureaucracy and construction process in Israel being so slow.  With that in mind, and the realization that most of our American furniture was either too large for the smaller room sizes in Israel; that the furniture we had was worn out after 40 years of heavy family use; and that much of our furniture was collected over the years from yard sales and dumpster diving and the shipping costs were too high to justify moving what was essentially junk:  we knew we’d be buying our furniture in Israel.  We also didn’t know what type of apartment we’d be renting while waiting for the house to be built.  So the only furniture we ended up bringing was an antique armoire I wasn’t successful in selling beforehand;  a well-worn futon couch for last-minute guests; a circa 1955 dresser that we had been given many years ago for free; and the one piece of furniture I really wanted to bring all along:  a hand-made pine dining room table we had gotten at a farmer’s yard sale in Maine for $75.  The table was beautifully made but the farmer’s Labrador retriever puppy had chewed the corners, leaving lots of teeth marks; plus their kids hadn’t been careful about putting hot things or cups of liquid on the wood, so it was pretty scratched, stained and banged up.  I figured that only added to its charm and the price was right.  Unfortunately, however, when we stacked hundreds of pounds of boxes on the sturdy table top when we shipped our stuff to Israel, the soft pine wood could only take so much weight, and the cartons of books left deep gouges from the impressions of the boxes on the tabletop.  Our table no longer looked so charming by the time it was delivered to us in Israel.

Meanwhile I hadn’t brought my bedroom set or mattress from America.  We bought a $40 blow-up air mattress on sale from Target a week before our flight, and slipped it easily into our suitcase.  We figured we’d buy a real mattress the first week after we arrived, and the air mattress would tide us over until then. It has:  it’s so comfortable my husband is in no rush to replace it, 3 1/2 months later. We are still sleeping on it.

But one day while browsing on a Facebook group that is dedicated to the sale of second-hand furniture in the Karmiel region, I noticed a picture of a bed being given away that looked to be in good condition.  I contacted the owner who explained the bed was 17 years old but in great shape.  They were moving that week to a new house and wanted to get a new bed.  So without telling my husband, I hopped into the car and drove to Karmiel to take a look.

It was a very sturdy platform bed, and with its built-in lift mechanism, there was a huge amount of storage that one could easily access under the mattress.  It looked like the frame’s side and head rails would come apart easily enough with a screwdriver, so I told the owner we’d take it.  My one worry was the mattress support, which was a single piece of mason board.  There was no way it would fit in our car.

When I got home I told my husband that we needed to go into Karmiel the next day, because – surprise! –  we were now the owners of a real bed and that we needed to take it apart before we could bring it home (thankfully my long-suffering husband is an awfully good sport).  But I knew I’d need to get a mover for that mason board, so I posted on one of the gazillion WhatsApp groups in our village to see if anyone could recommend a mover.

I instantly got a reply:  someone knew someone who was a carpenter in Karmiel; surely he’d have a truck.  I contacted the fellow and he was a bit reluctant, since he’s a carpenter by trade and not a mover, but yes, he had a large van and for a pretty sum he was willing to deliver the mason board.  The carpenter was an oleh chadash (new immigrant to Israel) who made aliyah with his wife and kids eighteen months ago.  He was a third-generation carpenter and woodworker from North Carolina. and his specialty was custom kitchen cabinets.   Hmm, I thought.  It would certainly pay to get an estimate for a kitchen for my new house while he’s around.

That’s when I remembered my beat-up table.  I asked him if he had a belt sander, and if so, would be interested in sanding down the table top when he delivers the bed?  So for another pretty sum we arranged that he’d do just that.

When my husband and I got to the owner’s house the next day, we tried to take apart the bed, but it wasn’t as simple as I originally thought.  It turned out the base was one big piece that you couldn’t unscrew, so we took the headboard and side rails and left the rest, telling the owner that the carpenter would be there the next day, assisted by my husband, to move the rest of the bed out of her house.

The next day my husband met the carpenter in Karmiel.  No one was home, but the landlady let us in to the apartment with her extra key and so they loaded the truck.  The bed was delivered and the carpenter spent two full hours outside our apartment on a very hot day sanding down the table top.  It looked like a new table when he was done and I was thrilled.  I wanted to put oil on it to make the wood more resistant to stains, but wasn’t sure where to buy it, so I asked the carpenter.  He suggested a store in Kiryat Bialik, a suburb of Haifa.  He wasn’t sure of the name, but he knew the name of another store that was nearby.

Re-assembling the bed would have to wait.

The next day I plugged the name of the store into Waze, but Waze didn’t recognize it.  I found an alternate spelling and it took me to a mall.  There was no such store in the mall, so I called the carpenter.  He told me the store was near a supermarket, so I found the supermarket, but not the store I needed for the oil.  I called the carpenter back and he tried to explain how to get to the store.  I finally found the store it was supposedly near, and that store owner directed me to another store and then the second store directed me to a third store.  Eureka!  It was a wholesale factory that produced finishes for wood products.

The secretary couldn’t believe I wanted shemen pishtan (linseed oil).  So she called a young man from the warehouse to the reception area.  He was sure I wanted a water-based polyurethane.  But when I repeated that I wanted linseed oil, he called his father, who came from the back of the warehouse.  The father thought I wanted an oil-based polyurethane.  When I repeated that I wanted linseed oil, he called his father from the warehouse.  The grandfather proudly explained that he was the founder of their varnish “empire,”  and it now supported and was staffed by 3 generations of his family.  He felt it curious that I wanted such an “old-fashioned” finish for my table, and wanted to know where I was from.  America!!!  He couldn’t believe it!  He was so proud that someone would come all the way from America to his varnish factory in the decrepit industrial zone of Kiryat Bialik just to buy his products!  He was beaming; he was kvelling.  His grandchildren were amazed.  Now, he insisted, I had to sit and tell him why I wanted linseed oil for my table, and tell him why I wanted to make aliyah; am I married? Do I have children? Why did I want to live in Moreshet? But no, he repeated, I didn’t want linseed oil, I wanted something called “dek” which is a blend of linseed oil and pine resin which would create a hard finish on  the surface of my table. He insisted on calling the carpenter because surely I was mistaken and the carpenter would convince me to get dek , if not the polyurethane.  The carpenter told him to give me linseed oil.  He glanced my way.

No, I insisted, I didn’t want dek, I wanted linseed oil.  The factory owner thought we Americans were a strange and confused lot.

“Fine!” he sighed dramatically, and told his secretary to ring it up.  “How much?” I asked.  He told me a price but his secretary quickly interrupted.  “Give her a 20 shekel discount,” she insisted.  “How often do you get customers from America?!?!

Light-headed from the combination of my newfound celebrity status and the fumes from the varnish factory, I made my way home. I got a call from the original owner of the bed.

“You forgot the mason board!” she said.  “It’s sitting here in my living room waiting for you to take it away!”  The well-meaning lady had moved the mason board from the bedroom, away from the bed, into the living room; and my husband hadn’t thought to look for it when they moved the bed out of the owner’s bedroom.

The carpenter and his truck were long gone, his pocket newly cushioned by a check written by my husband for services rendered.  I sighed.  I needed that mason board, but I had no interest in paying twice to get it moved.  With a friend, I  made my way to Karmiel and put the mason board on the roof of the car, tying it down with some rope I happened to have in the car.  I felt like a Girl Scout, prepared and capable! And of course I said a little prayer, so it wouldn’t fly off the roof of the car while driving on the twisty mountain highway that would take me home.

How ironic, I thought.  The very reason we originally hired the carpenter was to move only the mason board to our house.  In the process, we got a bed, our table was refinished, I had an adventure in an industrial zone in the middle of nowhere.  The mover-who-is-really-a-carpenter  is now giving me estimates for kitchen cabinets for our new house, and ironically, in the end, I moved the mason board on my own, anyway!

Abu Musa

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Yesterday my husband had the day off, so we decided to take a short drive to Rosh HaNikra.  This is a well-known tourist destination on Israel’s northernmost point on the Mediterranean, right on the Lebanese border.

At the  Israeli-Lebanese border checkpost, currently passable only by UN personnel, is a sign in Hebrew, Arabic and English: “Go in peace.”  Considering it leads to an enemy frontier controlled by Hizbollah, it’s a lot to hope for, but significant in that the sign is found on the Israeli side of the fence.

The towering limestone cliffs lead to a  grotto at sea line, accessible only by cable car.  We skipped this in favor of a walk that  goes along the coastline from Rosh HaNikra to Achziv Beach, arguably the most beautiful beach in Israel.  There are many areas of shoals and tidal pools; the  warm seawater is a clear and vivid turquoise; and the beach has a variety of areas for camping, sunning and swimming (though the latter is only in designated areas manned by lifeguards) as well as some crumbling antiquities to explore.  On a clear day you can see down the entire northern coast all the way to Haifa Bay. The area is surrounded by kibbutzim and their banana groves.

We were greeted at the entrance by an Israeli soldier who was guarding the area, and Abu Musa, a chatty Arab gentleman who helps control access of the many cars and tourist buses into the parking lot.

“I love the Israeli soldiers and they love me. They even erected a little shelter for me where they know they can come for coffee, tea or cold water whenever they want. I want their mothers to know I take care of their boys and they are in good hands. I have a good life. I don’t earn much, but look!  The sun, the sky, the sea, the view, the tourists and the soldiers I love to help — that’s what life is really all about. What more could I possibly ask for?”

I asked if I could take his picture.
“Of course,” he replied, “but only if you include the soldier.”

What’s App, Doc?

Six years ago, when I visited Israel, I wrote several blogposts on the sea changes that Israel had undergone in the many years since my previous visit.   One such post, “Young and Not Restless,” which you can read here, lamented the silencing of Israeli youth on buses and trains with the advent of social media:  everyone is plugged in and no one talks to anyone anymore.

But I was partly wrong:  Israelis are as chatty as ever – – they just communicate differently.

It’s called WhatsApp.

In case you are, like, a dinosaur or Rip van Winkle or something, WhatsApp is an application that sends instant messages via your computer or cellphone.  You can also send photos, and if your typing is slow, you can transmit voice messages.

WhatsApp is an invaluable tool for anyone living in Israel who has family abroad.  It means you can connect without charge.  It’s also great for someone on the cusp of aliyah.

We are building a home in Israel, and I needed to interview and choose an architect in Israel from my then-home base in the US.  When one architect suggested I contacted his references in Israel, I did – –  all twenty-five of them!!! – – using WhatsApp.  From rural Maine I spoke to twenty-five Israelis in Israel over a course of one week, asking them if they were happy with the architect, as well as detailed questions about construction, materials, etc.  Leave it to Israelis.  Not only did they answer my questions, they proudly gave me extensive and instant video tours of their homes via WhatsApp and some invited me to their homes for coffee when I’d get to Israel. In the process I made some valuable contacts  (yes, we hired that architect).  And it was all free (albeit time-consuming, but that’s not the fault of WhatsApp).

In the yishuv (village) where we live, there are 290 families.   When I innocently asked – – via a WhatsApp group, of course – –  how many WhatsApp groups there are in Moreshet, I found the staggeringly-high number of WhatsApp groups may exceed the number of people within the local population.  They include people who formed specific neighborhood groups; people who formed groups based on residents of a single street (especially useful for borrowing sugar); each and every grade in the local school has their own WhatsApp group to keep parents informed of school activities and conferences; there’s a Women of Moreshet group; Men of Moreshet group; the Teens of Moreshet group;  a Senior Citizens of Moreshet group; a Weekly Torah Portion women’s class group; the 8 a.m minyan group; the 1:30 Mincha  group; the Social Workers group; the Armed Fighters group; the Emergency Response Team Leaders group; the Ambulance Drivers group; the Soccer group; the Baseball players group; the Basketball players groups (separate groups for men and women); the Fifth Phase Construction group (that’s for the 45 families building new homes, of which I am a part); a group for changing the building restrictions codes within the Fifth Phase (that one has only 4 members); an English Speakers of Moreshet group; a babysitters group; a Mommy Camp group;  Friday and holiday trips groups; Torah classes groups; Bnei Akiva youth movement groups according to grade/age; a Piano Lessons group; a Bikur Cholim group which organizes meals and visits for people who are unwell; the Health Nuts group; the Looking for a Ride group; the Yemenite Jews of Moreshet group; and the Office of Moreshet group.  This is only a partial list.

Even if you are a member of a fraction of the available groups, it means your phone or computer is pinging all day with announcements of upcoming meetings and events as well as requests to borrow something missng from a recipe-in-the-making; offers for used items for free; requests for orders for fish, juice, whole wheat flour, yeast cakes, flowers and felafel, by people who sell these things as home-based side businesses in Moreshet; and requests for answers to sometimes-bizarre and random questions (my own included).

People who I’ve never seen in my life greet me as if I were a long-lost best friend back from the battlefield, because they “know” me from WhatsApp (apparently I’m easily identifiable thanks to my Standard Poodle, whom I walk several times daily).  This can lead to some embarrassing moments on my part since I’m new here, and  if someone speaks to me face-to-face out of context, I can only fake my way through a live conversation while trying to figure out who the heck they are.

What I want to know is, what happens if you are invited to a group and decide not to join?  Are you considered a frum freak or a snob?  Are there twelve-step Whats App Anonymous groups for those who want to delete themselves from their dependence on various WhatsApp social circles?  Is it possible to Just Say No to WhatsApp and still be part of the gang?

Meanwhile I’m trying to get a T’ai Chi class started in Moreshet.  I’m forming a group for anyone interested . . . via WhatsApp.

 

 

 

 

Remembering Shaul

When I was a teenager in high school and living in Israel, I dated an Israeli guy.  Back in those days, “dated” was a rather innocuous term, because we were rarely alone together.  When you went out on a “date” it meant that you were with a gang of friends, coupled and single, or with one’s own family.  So many of my “dates” were with my boyfriend’s parents, and just as often with his big brother Shaul and his girlfriend.  So that’s how I got to know Shaul.

Shaul was a Captain in the IDF, and for any kid in high school at that time, that in itself was a reason to look up to him.  Shaul was in Intelligence, and mostly he couldn’t tell us specifically what he did, which added to the mystique and awe.  But what I did know was this:  Shaul was extremely kind, super bright, always with a smile; he showed extreme consideration to all those who crossed his path, honored his parents, and loved his girlfriend.  He was tall and strong and handsome, and he had dreamy blue eyes.  He had another few months to serve in the IDF, and then he planned on making his engagement to Tami official.  He was the ben b’chor, the firstborn son, the big brother that everyone looked up to.  He was the long-awaited gift of redemption for his mother, a Holocaust survivor who had suffered so much loss.

But then came the Yom Kippur War, and days later Shaul was dead along with several other fellow soldiers, shot down from the sky in a plane crash over Sinai.  Miraculously two young men survived the crash, but Shaul, 23, was not one of them.

In the chaos of war and mass casualties, and in accordance with Jewish Law where burial is immediate,  there was no time to bring his body to Haifa where his parents lived, so he was buried in a temporary military cemetery in the Negev.  His family attended that funeral, and then, a year later, his remains were moved to their permanent resting place in the military cemetery in Haifa.

The family would have to experience the trauma of burying their son, twice.  This time his almost-fiancee did not attend his second funeral.  She was so devastated that she left Israel entirely, and settled in Canada.  She would not marry for many years.  She was too afraid to let herself love again, and she was determined it would not be to an Israeli who would need to go to war.

Shaul’s mom was completely embittered.  She railed against God.  “After what I went through?  It wasn’t enough that I had to see my family murdered?  Why did God give me a child, only to take him away so cruelly?  How can there even be a God? Is this why I came to Israel after the War?”

Shaul’s father, utterly broken, retreated into silence.  His response was the opposite of his wife’s:  he started attending a daily minyan so that he would not miss the opportunity of saying kaddish for his son.

“I don’t understand how he can go to shul,” Shaul’s mom would rage.  “There sits the rabbi’s son, who didn’t even go into the army!  How can he look my husband in the eye?  It’s easy for the rabbi to say “amen” to the kaddish – – he will never have to worry about the possibility of losing a son in battle.”

My boyfriend’s life would also take a very different turn.  He hated the tension in his home, he missed the love and laughter of his brother.  So he mostly wasn’t home at all. He kept his grief inside.  He shut everyone out.  (We broke up shortly thereafter.)  And when he got notice that he had been accepted for the most prestigious division in the entire military – – the pilot’s training course – –  he was torn between resentment and understanding when his mother refused to sign her permission to allow him to do combat duty, thereby crushing his long-held dream of being a pilot in the IDF.  He developed debilitating ulcers at the age of 19.

Shaul’s father continued to go to work, but he moved like an automaton, retreating to silence and rarely expressing any emotion other than sadness.

Perhaps the deprivation from the war years finally caught up with his mother, but the impact of her son’s death was profound.  Despite the fact that her two remaining sons would eventually marry and give her grandchildren, she could no longer relax and just enjoy them.  No one could measure up to her Shaul.  She died a few years later of a broken heart.

Last night I attended a Memorial Day service commemorating the service and lives lost of Israeli soldiers fallen in battle and terrorist attacks.  The scroll of the dead is long, and fittingly at the service they spoke movingly about the lives of only a few specific soldiers, so that this huge list of heroes wouldn’t be simply numbers, which is incomprehensible, but real people who were sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, cousins, friends and classmates.  While every fallen soldier is unique, their story is not:  we keep burying our best, generation after generation.  That is the price we pay for living in Israel, and the price we pay as Jews.  Mostly, the stories are positive.  Israelis, despite their countless tragedies, always are moving forward, looking to a brighter future, building and growing and celebrating life.  We continue having children and naming those children in remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives, so that the dead live on and that the living choose a life with senses of purpose and responsibility to those who preceded them.

And we continue to hope for a peaceful future!

Most Israelis are able to hide their pain, and go on to live lives filled with love and strength of spirit and even joy. Israelis so appreciate life and their families; they cherish Jewish holidays, whether they observe them religiously or not.  They recognize miracles, and grasp every opportunity for adventure, humor, innovation, devotion, and meaning with incredible intensity.

Perhaps my former boyfriend’s family was less successful at reconstructing their lives than most.  But there is a toll, a very deep toll, and knowing that it continues is truly unfathomable.

May Shaul ben Yitzchak’s sacrifice not be in vain.

May God watch over our soldiers and all of klal Yisrael.

May our children be safe.

And may the Final Redemption come speedily, in our day.

Yom HaZikaron l’Shoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

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My friend is a classic Israeli.  Sabra; patriotic; a Jewish mother par excellence.  Fluctuating between agnostic and atheist and proudly secular; religion is irrelevant to her daily life.  Close to her extended family.  Raised in the Scouts youth movement, did her mandatory military duty with enthusiasm. Until recently a chain smoker.  Widely traveled, happy to get away from the craziness that is part of daily life in Israel, but always happier to come back to the only place that feels truly like home. Worked for a government agency and now gracefully retired with a cushy pension. A good person.  Loves to volunteer and will be the first to help anyone in need.

She invited me to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot.

This is a big deal.  The kibbutz was founded by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Located in the Western Galilee between Akko and Nahariya, it houses two museums dedicated to the Holocaust, one of which is expressly for children.  The kibbutz conducts educational programs about the Holocaust to schoolchildren, youth groups, young soldiers in the Israeli army and tourists throughout the year.  It also houses archives – – the kibbutz was the first in the entire world to start an archival collection of Holocaust information shortly after the War.

Every year Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot hosts a huge ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It is held in a massive amphitheatre whose backdrop is along an ancient Roman aqueduct, lit dramatically against the night.  Many thousands of people from all over Israel attend the annual ceremony, and it was no different last night.  The overwhelming number of attendees were very much like my friend:  completely secular and deeply connected to the State of Israel.

First Israeli President Reuvi Rivlin addressed the crowd.  While it was beautifully stated, the speech was pretty much what you’d expect:  Never Forget. Always Remember. Bear Witness.  Share your stories. Pass them on from generation to generation.  Educate the world, so we can actualize Never Again.

Next was former German President Joachim Gauck.  He appeared sincerely touched and affected to have been invited to the ceremony.  Can you imagine?, he said.  A boy (himself) who had Nazi parents, or at the very least parents who were complicit Nazi sympathizers, who is the same age of the Jewish boy (Rivlin) whose parents fled Germany.   Is it not ironic, the President of Germany wondered aloud, that the current President of Israel,  who once undoubtedly hated all Germans for what they did to his family,  invited the object of his disdain to participate in the commemoration of victims of German hatred, cruelty and oppression?

Then came the most moving segment of the evening.  They chose six Holocaust survivors to light memorial beacons representing the six million Jews murdered.  First they gave a short bio about each survivor, and then the survivor was shown in a taped interview, telling their stories of survival and loss.  And the best part:  they were called up to light the beacon, accompanies by those whom they aptly called their Living Revenge:  each survivor was supported (literally; they are so old and frail that many can no longer walk on their own) by a child or grandchild  who stood alongside them to light the beacon with them, representing the past, the present, and the future.

Thirty-five Holocaust survivors die of old age every day.  Soon there will be no one left.   It is up to the survivors to transmit those stories while they still can, because they are too important to be lost forever.   It is up to us, the children and grandchildren, to tell their stories.  How many of these survivors will be at the ceremony next year, or the year after?

And then the head of the Jewish National Fund got up to speak.  Like Rivlin, he spoke the words that we hear again and again:  Always remember.  Never forget.  Never again.  He spoke of the miracle of the State of Israel.  How that in Israel, a land re-birthed and built from the ashes only 69 years ago, we are at the forefront of medical, scientific, educational and agricultural innovation and revolution.  We have built village, towns and cities that thrive.  Israelis not only produce for themselves, they share the products of their toil with other nations.  They are at the forefront of helping other countries during national disasters, and training Third World countries to improve the lives of their citizens.  Israel’s youth groups train future leaders, as does its army.  Its army is one of the best in the world.  Israel’s military strength will ensure that what happened to helpless Jews in WWII will Never. Happen. Again.

Oh, really?

Today, Israel is at its greatest height.

I love and respect the Israeli army.  Those boy and girl soldiers are like my sons and daughters.  They are risking everything every day to ensure that I am protected.  Many have fallen so that I could live here.  We are incredibly grateful for Israel’s military finesse, and recognize that a strong military is both critical and essential.

Nations come and go.  They ascend, and they fall;  they cease to exist.  Who would have believed in the decay of the superpowers of ancient Greece?  Rome?  Mid-20th-century Germany?  Who cannot deny that currently America is in a state of decline?  Do we really believe that we Israelis are invincible and invulnerable?

Why is the Jewish religion so completely irrelevant to Israeli culture that it was not mentioned the entire evening in a ceremony dedicated to Holocaust remembrance?

One of the things I love about Israel is the diversity in its people.  And although I am a person of faith, the truth is that none of us can be sure that our faith would remain intact after going through the horrible things that our families went through in Europe. But if we excise what makes us unique – – the Jewish, religious part that has also defined us and our history – – then we are like any other nation.  If we are like every other nation, then we must accept that like the others, we will rise – – and eventually, G-d forbid, fall.

Our revenge is a Living Revenge:  that despite our broken-ness and destitution, the survivors (and indeed  Jewish people throughout history) have always moved forward.  We are builders.  We are lovers of life.  We have faith – yes, Jewish faith that there is something supernatural happening that we continue to beat the odds, even if we don’t understand it.  We have children who beget more children and give us grandchildren.  And we teach these children who they are, why they are here, what is their legacy, and what their purpose is in a life we regard with holiness.  And we teach them what it means to be Jewish, their importance and responsibility and the myriad challenges in being the continual link in the chain; how to live Jewish-ly, and how this will positively affect and impact their life and the lives of those around them.

If we ignore the Jewish part of the equation, then we become like every other nation. Our Israeli army is strong, but it is not invincible.   We need to know who we are, not just as Israelis, but also as Jews.

A Very Special Brit Milah

When I was a child growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, our next door neighbors were also our best friends.  This was in an era before genetic testing, and our neighbors, who had 3 daughters and a son, had two children diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.  When their eldest daughter passed away in the early 1970s, she was 21.  At that time she was the oldest living cystic fibrosis patient on record.  Our neighbor’s only son passed away two years later at age nine, about the same age as me at the time – – and his young age was unfortunately a far more typical scenario for this disease back then.  It was the first time as a child that I had experienced the death of a peer.  It was all very strange and very sad.

In the 1990’s, one of our friends and former neighbors from Israel (we first lived in Israel from 1983 – 1989) gave birth to a baby girl that seemed perfectly healthy at birth.  They didn’t have a car so I had the lucky job of picking them up from the hospital in our car and taking them home.  The baby was adorable!  But within 2 weeks, the infant was admitted to the hospital with suspected pneumonia.  It turned out not to be pneumonia at all – she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

It’s a horrible disease, but it’s not the early death sentence it once was when we mourned our next-door neighbor’s children in the 1970s.

But back to my American friend living in Israel.

Fast forward twenty years.

A few years ago I visited Israel and met up with my friend.  She told me her daughter wanted to get married  – – did I know anyone for her and could I please keep her in mind?  Her daughter occasionally had setbacks but she was managing her illness well, and it rarely prevented her from doing the things she wanted to do.

That daughter not only found her bashert – –  a young man from Bnai Brak whom she married almost 2 years ago;  last week she gave birth to her first child, a baby boy.  She had an uneventful pregnancy and a wonderful birth.  Today was the baby’s brit milah (circumcision) ceremony.

What do you say when you see a young woman that you’ve known from birth beat the odds, and despite her challenges, have the incredible focus, drive, strength, emuna (belief) and bitachon (faith) to actualize her hopes and dreams?

So welcome to the world, little Yonah Binyamin, a second-generation sabra on his mother’s side.  You are an open miracle.

You are made of greatness.

Mazal tov!

 

 

Reunion

When I was 14, my father got sick and died.  It was a sad time and my dad really suffered for the entire year that he was ill.  My family walked on eggs that year trying to avoid unpleasantries and side-stepping the terrible reality of illness and death.  Of course pretending that things are fine when they’re not rarely works.  I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

I couldn’t wait to get out of my house.

A month after his death, when I was in 10th grade, there was a school assembly.  The speaker was a 12th grader who had spent the previous year as a foreign exchange student.  He was sent to Iceland and managed to learn Icelandic fluently, and he spoke about seeing and doing lots of interesting things and eating lots of fish.  Always filled with a sense of adventure, I was all ears (except for the fish part).  When I came home that afternoon, I told my mom, “I know what I want to do next year!  I want to become a foreign exchange student!”

Looking back, it was an incredibly insensitive thing to say to my mom, because it meant she’d be left all alone in her grief.  But my mom felt it would be good for me to get out of our very sad house, and she was receptive to the idea.  There was one condition, though:  I couldn’t go through the foreign exchange program the student in my school had participated in, because the students didn’t have any say as to what country they’d be sent to, and my mother didn’t want me going just anywhere.  “You can do this on one condition,” she said.  “You can go if it’s Israel.”  (I’m in awe of her sacrifice and selflessness. Unfortunately I could not appreciate it then.)

I think that we were both surprised by this utterance.  Other than collecting sheets of dimes every week at Sunday School for the Jewish National Fund, which used these donations for buying trees for planting in Israel, neither my mother nor I had any connection to Israel. The only Hebrew we spoke was the blessing over wine and challah.  We had never been to Israel and had no plans to go.  “At least I know you’ll be well taken care of in Israel,” my mother reasoned.  “It’s the Land of Jewish Mothers.”

Truthfully, Israel meant nothing to me.  For me it was about the adventure.  It could have been Tasmania, Japan or Timbuktu and I would have been equally excited.

And so we parted tearfully a few months later at LAX, and I flew by myself to Israel, where I’d attend a public high school in Haifa, and live with an adoptive Israeli family.

Practically from the first moment, despite my lack of language skills, I was enamored of Israel.  It was like my soul knew it was home.  The kids in my class accepted me as part of the gang.  Our class of 11th graders was very close and we spent every spare moment together as a group, both in school and out.  After several months of sitting like a catatonic dummy in school, I woke up one morning speaking fluent Hebrew.   The family I lived with was great.  I was outspoken and highly opinionated (some things never change!) and not afraid to disagree with their love of Nixon (“the best friend Israel ever had,” according to the head of that household – – and this was during Watergate!), and be frustrated by their anal-retentive obsession with order (they were of good German Jewish stock, and it was a cultural thing; my inherent go-with-the-flow spontaneity and inherent messiness aggravated them to no end).  But somehow we made it work and I became very close with my younger “sister” who was only a year younger than me.

It was the best year of my teenaged life.  I knew that someday, somehow, I would be back in Israel – – permanently.

But life happens.  Although I always dreamed of Israel, I managed to lose touch with my adoptive family.  About five or six years later before correspondence ceased entirely I heard that my younger “sister” was engaged.  I remember her writing that she was upset with her future husband’s last name, that it sounded like “giraffe.”  After that we lost touch completely.

Over the years I tried doing searches on the Internet to locate her, but was not successful.  But now that we’ve been in Israel for a month, I suddenly had an urge to try to reach her.  It’s been 45 years, and her parents were not young even back then, so I assumed they were no longer living.  How to remember my “younger sister’s” married name?

Suddenly, deep from my subconscious, I remembered that snippet about her not liking her married name because it sounded like the Hebrew word for giraffe.  So I wrote out the word in Hebrew, and then started changing some of the letters.  When I came up with names that sounded like they could be Hebrew last names, I started doing searches on Facebook.  And suddenly, there she was!  I recognized her immediately.

But here’s the amazing part.  She no longer lived in Haifa – – she lives in a small village in the Galilee that is only 3 miles from me!  I mean, what are the chances?

She didn’t respond to my Facebook message and the phone number I got online was disconnected.  There was only one way to resolve it:  I would knock on her door.

I drove the 5 minutes to her village, and stopped the first person I saw to ask for directions to her house.  I figured that because it was a small place, everyone knows everyone else, and I was right.  I walked to her house and knocked on the door with a great sense of anticipation.  When she answered the door she looked at me haltingly and inquisitively for a long time.  I did not say anything.  But ultimately she did not recognize me.

When I identified myself, she threw me into a long, hard embrace and wouldn’t let me go.  She introduced me to her husband and showed me pictures of her family.  Her older sister lives a few streets away and so we started walking to her sister’s house, too.
“This is so weird,” she said between hugs.  “After so many years . . . just two days ago I mentioned your name to my sister and we wondered what became of you!”

It was clearly Divine Providence.  We were meant to find one another at this particular time.

“There is something you should know,” she said.  “My sister’s son was killed in combat in the Second Lebanon War 11 years ago.  He was 24.”  I was devastated to hear this.  The family had worked hard to ensure their son, brother, nephew and cousin would never be forgotten. They built a magnificent amphitheatre in his name, where community events, concerts, and even weddings take place.  They have lined a pathway with sculptures and mementos that personify aspects of his short but incredible life.  And the village boys’ basketball team is named for him – –  his father never misses attending a game.

As we sat in the older sister’s home, reliving the past, I was overcome with emotion.  Forty-five years!  We laughed and cried together, and hugged many times.  Although as adults we remain very different people in terms of our lifestyles, religious observance, political affiliations, etc – – the things that unite us override the things that divide us.

As it says in Psalm 133, “Hineh ma tov umana’im – shevet achim gam yachad.”  How good and how pleasant it is for brothers (and sisters) to sit together!