Archive for February, 2011

Old City and Rachel’s Tomb

After davening at the kotel, I went to the Old City in Jerusalem because I was anxious to see the newly rebuilt Churva Synagogue.  The Churva was destroyed by Jordanian forces during the War of Independence in 1948.  When the City was reclaimed in 1967, rather than rebuilding it, the Israeli government constructed a symbolic and impressive arc in place of the roof, and it became a monument memorializing its destruction.

A few years ago, however, the Churva synagogue was completely rebuilt, and I was anxious to see what it looked like inside.  Unfortunately, the last tour ended 5 minutes before I got there, and the guard at its entrance refused me admission.  I assured him I didn’t want a tour, I just wanted a quick peek inside and a chance for a snapshot, but he was unmoved.  Since this was my last visit to this section of Jerusalem before my return, I was especially disappointed.  Dejected,  I sat on a low stone wall as the sky grew dark, figuring out what I should do next.

I called my friend, a well-known author who lives in the Old City.  She was nice enough to drop everything and invited me to her home.

First, she showed me an etching by a British artist by the name of Roberts, who had drawn a picture of her house in 1850.  The original windows and basic shape of the house was unchanged.  However, where (in the etching) there had been an arched passageway to another courtyard, was now walled in.

After my friend moved into this house, she decided to scrape away at the wall to see if the arched passageway was really there as it had been portrayed in the etching.  Much to her delight, she found the lines of the original passageway.  She kept scraping.  Deeply carved into the doorpost was a rectangular cavity – for a mezuzah.  Clearly this home had been owned by Jews in antiquity, not Arabs!

After a few years of living there, they decided to remove an interior wall to open up the living room space a bit.  Inside this wall they found some shards, such as a cup handle and other miscellany.  Some of the relics were identified by archeologists as being from the  time of the Second Temple — but even more amazingly, one shard was from the First Temple period.  They also found the ornately carved top of a Roman column stuck and buried inside a plastered wall – someone had simply built a wall around it.  It now serves as a plant stand in their little garden.

Rachel’s Tomb now resembles a fortress

it no longer resembles the iconic domed building so familiar throughout the ages

The next day I took a bus to Rachel’s Tomb.  The bus leaves hourly for the ride into Bethlehem.  Because there had been several incidents of Arab attacks on Jewish worshippers on their way to the tomb, Israel enclosed the tomb and immediate area with high, thick, cement walls – – it now looks like a forbidding fortress.  Alas, the original domed stone structure housing the tomb, so well-known from artistic depiction, is no longer even visible.  But it does feel safe.

these elderly Yerushalmi ladies board the bus six days a week to pray at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem

On my bus there were two native Jerusalemite women in their nineties who were barely able to walk, yet they come to Rachel’s tomb on the bus on a daily basis.  They carry booklets of verses of Psalms, and hand them out to other women on the bus.  By the time the bus reaches Bethlehem, the entire book of Psalms has been read by nearly everyone riding the bus.

she hands out tehillim booklets, so that everyone can finish the entire Book of Psalms before arriving at Rachel’s Tomb

Besides the merit of praying at Rachel’s tomb, I was anxious to see the parochet (ark cover) that was placed there nearly ten years ago.   The parochet is made from the wedding dress of a young bride named Naava Appelbaum.

Naava and her father, the beloved Dr. David Appelbaum, were having coffee and an intimate father-daughter chat at a local cafe on the eve of Naava’s wedding day. Dr. Appelbaum, the emergency room director of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital and founder of Terem emergency clinic, had just returned from a lecture he had delivered in the U.S.  the previous day, and wanted to spend some quality time with his daughter before the wedding.

On the eve of what should have been the happiest day of her life, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the cafe, taking the lives of the bride and her father.

Her wedding dress hung at the doorway of her room, never to be worn.  A parochet was made from Naava’s wedding dress, and donated to the ark at Rachel’s tomb.

Can one imagine the intense feelings one must have when gazing upon that parochet in Rachel’s Tomb?

And so I made a pilgrimage to Rachel’s Tomb, not only to daven and beseech “Mama Rochel” on behalf of the Jewish people, but to intensely share in the devastation, inspiration, sorrow, and awe  for a young bride whose life was so cruelly cut short.

One of my granddaughters is named after her.

Alas, the parochet was not there!  No one seemed to know what happened to it.  I finally met with a caretaker, who told me it’s being held by the rabbi stationed at the Tomb, “who guards it.”  Apparently the fragile fabric of the wedding dress could not withstand the tens of thousands of women visitors who drowned it with their kisses and tears.  The parochet is in the possession and care of the rabbi in charge of Rachel’s tomb.  Unfortunately the rabbi was not there when I was at the Tomb, so I was unable to request a chance to see it.

On the way back on the bus, I spoke at length with my seatmate, a religious Sephardi woman.  She was davening at Rachel’s Tomb in spiritual preparation for her daughter’s wedding day, which will take place tomorrow.  I wished her a hearty mazel tov and we talked about all the joys and stresses of marrying off our children.  Then she told me that she had recently been beset by misfortune:  her apartment had been burglarized and completely ransacked.  Since I had experienced a burglary a couple of months ago, I could certainly sympathize.  But her experience was a million times worse than mine:  not only was her house left a mess, the thief took every gift that had been given to her daughter, the bride.  Everything that was to be used to set up the young couple’s home was stolen:  pots and pans, linens, a camera, cash, new clothes, jewelry that the groom’s family had bestowed – – they even took cosmetics!  They were not people of means and she had no idea how they would repurchase everything. Ironically, the policeman who took the crime  report was an Arab, and he told her only, “You have to pray.”

The bride’s family asked their rabbi what they should tell the groom’s family.  “Nothing,” he said, “at least not until after the wedding.”  He suggested that the bride’s parents attempt to at least buy new jewelry that looked identical to the original jewelry that had been bought for the bride by the groom’s side, and so the bride’s parents took out loans so they could replace it and restore happiness to their daughter, while sparing the groom’s side unhappiness and embarrassment from the desire but not the means to replace their original gifts  This poor mother was crying out to “Mama Rochel” not in complaint of this extra unexpected financial burden, nor was she bitter or saying “why us?  It isn’t fair!”  She prayed only for her shopping expedition to be successful, and prayed that her daughter should have a happy marriage and a good life.

I was so touched by her situation, I reached into my purse and put some money into her hand.

“Oh no, thank you so much, but I cannot accept this.”  I insisted, but she would not take the money.

“Please,” I said, “it is not tzedaka.  It is simply a present from me to the bride, for her to use in any which way she pleases.”

Flustered, she took the money and showered me with tens of blessings.  If only a few of them come true, then I will be healthy, wealthy, live unto a ripe old age, have nachas from my children and have grandchildren that are leaders for future generations of the Jewish people!  (I only wish I could have  given more!)

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The Perfect Day

Early Friday morning I went to Be’er Sheva’s central bus station, so I could travel to Yerushalayim and daven at the kotel (Western Wall) and return to Be’er Sheva in time for Shabbos.  Fridays are not an ideal day for travel, since soldiers are given weekend furloughs, and people go away to visit their friends and families for Shabbat – so the buses are packed like sardines, and getting a seat is only for winners of reality TV shows with names like “Survivor.”

The scene at the bus station was as expected.  I got there in plenty of time for the bus, and was near the front of the line, but once the bus pulled into the station the hordes descended and soon I was not only nearly crushed, but worse, I was no longer anywhere near the front of the line.

Suddenly, the air was pierced by the deep, youthful voice of a single soldier.

Chevre (comrades)!” he yelled.  “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see there is a lady here?!”  He was talking about Yours Truly (I guess I really do look old)!  Oblivious, the crowd continued to surge.

“Really- – it’s just not right!” the lone soldier bellowed.  “Stop for a minute and let the lady on the bus!  Make room!”  Not leaving anything to chance, he threw several soldiers into the air like a comic-book hero, and did an actual body block, spreading out his arms and legs across the entrance-way, and then gestured calmly with an elegant sweep of his hand.   “After you, ma’am!” and somewhat flustered, I entered the bus and took a seat.

Thanking him as he entered the bus a moment later and passed by my seat, I said a little prayer.  “HaShem, please shower this boy with success in all his endeavors, including a wonderful wife, children, parnassa (good income), and shalom.  And may he always be a source of nachas to his parents!”  Looking around me at the bus filled with 18-year-old soldiers, really just baby-faced boys and girls, I added, “and please, dear G-d, keep all Your precious children safe and free from harm!”

The bus left the station on time and proceeded to Jerusalem.  Any other time I might have complained about the dreary, grey skies and incessant drizzle, but rain in Israel is a genuine bracha (blessing), and I took it as a good sign.  I arrived at Jerusalem’s central bus station and couldn’t believe how beautiful it was – – it is completely new since I was last in Israel.  I boarded the #1 bus to the kotel, surprised to find it empty.  Even the traffic getting to the Wall was light; the threat of rain kept many people away.  Just as I got there the sun came out and I spent 90 minutes davening on behalf of myself and every member of my family, as well as people I knew that were sick, or beset with various challenges, and for the safety of all Jews in Israel and abroad and an end to galus.

The last time I was in Israel, davening at the kotel was something of a challenge, because just as I would get into a deep state of concentration in my prayers, I was frequently interrupted with requests for donations by a slew of people with their hands or tzedaka boxes extended.  Unfortunately, the sheer numbers of people asking for money were in many cases bordering on harassment.  The government now forbids this activity at the kotel and there are only certain areas at the perimeter of the Wall where people may solicit donations.  I’m sorry to say, it was a necessary but very welcome change.

From the kotel I took a bus to Geula, the chareidi (ultra orthodox) neighborhood next to Mea Shearim.  It’s probably the only place I’ve been so far that hasn’t changed one iota in 20 years!  From there  I walked to Machane Yehuda, the Jewish open-air market that is at its busiest on Friday pre-Shabbat.  Hordes of Israelis shop for anything and everything to make their Shabbat meals special, and the sellers hawk their wares with colorful speech and delicious samples.  The reasons Machane Yehuda has always been my favorite place in the world have not changed:  the enormous, beautiful bounty and variety of produce – truly Israel is a “land of milk and honey” and one feels HaShem’s beneficence in a very spiritual way – – and the awe I always feel when seeing thousands of people of every possible color and stripe, speaking dozens of languages – – and realizing that they are all Jews, and despite external differenceswe are am echad – – one people.

Can anyone resist a man in a gold crown, with a T-shirt inscribed “The Halvah King,” doling out samples and helping you decide which of the one hundred twenty (!) kinds of halvah to choose?  Well, I guess “help” is relative . . .

“Try this one, it’s cappucino flavor.”

Yum!

“Now try this.  It’s pecan flavor.”

Delicious!

“Now try this one – – it’s cocoa chocolate chip.”

Heavenly!

“Ok,” I say, “I’ll take the cocoa chocolate chip.”

“No!” the Halvah King tells me, “Take the cappucino.  It’s much tastier!”  and he starts cutting the cappucino flavor.

“You’re right, the cappucino is delicious,” I say, “but I want the cocoa chocolate chip.  I’ll take 350 grams.”

“Trust me lady, you’ll be very happy that I told you to take the cappucino flavor,” the Halvah King says, quickly wrapping up 350 grams of the cappucino.

Sigh.

Some things in Israel never change!

From there I went to Marzipan, a bakery whose specialty is rugelach with an equally daunting number of flavors.  Filled with vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon, halvah, raspberry, apricot, prune — it was a tough choice so I took a variety to bring to my daughter for a Shabbos dessert treat.  I bought myself a few small cheese and spinach borekas fresh out of the oven for lunch for the bus ride back.

Then I scored my biggest bargain of the day:  a plastic carpet beater for only 10 shekels (less than $3)!  I only have a few small area rugs in my house in Maine, and I don’t want to use up our precious solar-powered electricity on a vacuum cleaner.  But go and try to find a carpet beater in America!  No one even knows what they look like.

In the days before vacuum cleaners came to Israel, I remember the pounding clop, clop, clop sound of Israeli balabustas (housewives), who would take their carpets outside and hang them over the porch railing, where with rattan or plastic beaters, shaped like a cloverleaf on a long stick,  they’d beat the living daylights out of the rugs to free them from dust.

Sadly,  it’s nearly the end of an era in Israel as far as carpet beaters are concerned.  They’re actually pretty hard to find in any of  the numerous specialty housewares stores.  After several attempts but no luck, I picked the dustiest and shabbiest housewares store I could find and sure enough, they had a carpet beater.  The proprietor seemed somewhat relieved to get rid of it, actually.  But I was overjoyed (though I did get a few stares on the bus).  Now my rugs in Maine will be clean!

Alas, by now I was a bit short on shekels so I decided to look for a money changer.  Before my trip I had called my American  credit card company to determine what fees were involved in using an ATM in Israel.  Besides a $10 fee to use an ATM, they charge 19% interest from the day you take out money until the day you pay your bill (even if you pay your bill on time!) so I was not planning on using an ATM machine unless I was desperate.

In days of yore, though technically illegal, everyone, including Members of Knesset, went to black-market money changers to convert dollars into shekels or vice versa; not only were there no hidden fees, the rate of exchange was considerably more favorable than you could get at the bank.  In those days, Israeli banks charged exorbitant fees and commissions for currency exchanges.

Today things are different, however.  One can even change money at the post office.  Private money changers are allowed to operate legally, and the black market is basically non-existent.  Right in the middle of the shuk was a little (bullet proof) booth where infinite amounts of cash flowed into and from the hands of the solitary figure inside.  It took only seconds and I was on my way with my replenished shekalim.

Since I had to be back in Be’er Sheva well before the onset of Shabbat, I had to cut my shuk shopping extravaganza short.

When I got back to Jerusalem’s central bus station, there were two different buses leaving for Be’er Sheva.  The “express” bus left at 1:45 and took 90 minutes to reach its destination; the slower, non-direct bus left at 1:30 and took 2 hours.  The express bus line was reminiscent of the craziness I had experienced at the Be’er Sheva bus station earlier that morning; but the line at the non-direct bus was devoid of people.  Since there was only a 15 minute difference in arrival time, I hopped on the non-direct bus which departed immediately after I sat down.

“What?” my daughter said, when I called her from my cell phone.  “That bus winds around and around on little back roads! It feels like it takes forever!  Why on earth didn’t you take the direct bus?”  Indeed, the direct bus travels on a wide expanse of  brand new, modern highway.  But I still had plenty of time before Shabbat, and since my daughter was doing all the cooking and other preparations for Shabbos, I was under no pressure.  I sat back and enjoyed the ride.

And did I ever enjoy it!  From Jerusalem we travelled to Mevassert Tzion, and from there to the edge of Beit Shemesh. From there we travelled towards Yad Binyamin and the edge of Chafetz Chaim.  I was excited because Yad Binyamin had absorbed many of the Israeli pioneers who are now, sadly, refugees, since they were forcefully disengaged and removed from their homes in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip by the very (Israeli) government who had encouraged them to settle Gaza in the first place.  Now Yad Binyamin is going full speed ahead in its development of beautiful housing, a shopping center, and schools, and it was wonderful to witness this rebirth first hand.  It’s become a very desirable place to live for religious Israeli and American olim families and as a result, prices have (unfortunately for me) escalated exponentially.

Soon we passed the outskirts of Yesodot,  Ofakim, and Netivot.  Then we entered the town of Kiryat Gat.  Twenty years ago, Kiryat Gat was a “development town.”  In Israel a “development town” is usually an oxymoron for a town where they encouraged immigrants from Morroco, Ethiopia, and the CIS to settle – – people who were poor and who had few prospects of employment.  The housing in the typical development town was substandard, as were general services.  Boredom and depression usually led to petty crime and substance abuse.  Development towns were places where the only dream was how one might escape elsewhere for a better life and livelihood.

In Kiryat Gat, an industrial zone employed factory workers in tedious and underpaid jobs, but that was the only option.  Housing and roads were in a terrible state of decay.  Those not lucky enough to find a factory job sat around in vacant, garbage-strewn plazas playing backgammon, smoking and drinking and not doing much else.

The Kiryat Gat of today is a very different place, and clearly people take pride in their town.  It’s clean and beautifully landscaped.  There are American-style shopping malls, modern health clinics, excellent bus service, and a polyglot of people living there.  There are beautiful apartments and villas, with many more under construction.  Passing through Kiryat Gat was a study in accomplishment.  And, I’m happy to report, not exceptional.  It seems everywhere one looks in Israel today, there is building and expansion, and new housing is built with an excellent quality of construction unheard of even five or ten years ago.

From Kiryat Gat we travelled a little further before turning onto the main highway that would take us to Be’er Sheva.  About 5 miles before arriving, we passed the Jewish National Fund’s Ambassador Forest, which has hundreds of acres of tiny saplings growing in its sandy desert soil.  I cannot wait to see the results in twenty years, IY”H!  Also there are signs announcing the construction and expansion of the bullet train line, which will mean shorter commutes to Jerusalem, practically making Be’er Sheva a bedroom community or suburb of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  It’s no joke – many Israelis who would never have set foot in dusty, backward Be’er Sheva are snapping up apartments in luxurious new neighborhoods as an investment.  Be’er Sheva has plans to increase its population by tens of thousands of people in the next ten years, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t succeed.  Already they have all the amenities of other major cities such as a world-class hospital and university, symphony and theatre, shopping plazas (including American luxury stores), etc.  Be’er Sheva is a city of immigrants (most recently from South America, France, Italy, Ethiopia, and Russia), Sephardim, a smattering of American academia, religious and secular – – but somehow everyone here seems to live and let live, and there is no visible tension or dissent.  That is not to say Be’er Sheva is without problems. While there is no random violent crime, Bedouins are blamed for the high burglary rate and drug trafficking.

This time of year the stores are filling up with Purim costumes, and my daughter told me that even the Bedouin children here buy them, as they want to “celebrate” Purim like everyone else!  Many Bedouins send their children to secular Israeli (Jewish) schools.

Alas, if only Be’er Sheva’s desert temperatures were not quite so hot . . .   (Remember, I’m used to Maine winters now.)

I finally arrived at my daughter’s apartment in time for a quick shower before Shabbat.  (Yes, I realize I keep mixing up “Shabbos” and “Shabbat” but the neighborhood where I’m situated is mixed Sephardi-Ashkenazi-relgious-traditional-secular, so it’s hard not to be mixed up!)

In short, it had been the perfect day.  Jerusalem: the kotel and the shuk.  A tour of the countryside and visual evidence of Israel’s success despite the odds.  The promise of Shabbos with my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter.

I’m so grateful to be here.

Young and (Not) Restless: Plugged In

Twelve years ago when I took a bus from one city to another in Israel, the ride was anything but quiet.  By the end of one’s destination, not only did one know the entire life story of  one’s seatmate (and s/he knew yours), there was constant talking, arguing, moving around, joking and jostling.

No more.

What happened to the Israeli bus ride I once knew?

Big changes are afoot amongst young people in Israel today. They seem to be kinder and gentler, with a lot less yelling, less aggressive behavior, and less general rudeness. I also noticed that young, secular Israelis are not nearly as spontaneous and curious as they used to be.  Dare I say it?  They seem almost . . . passive.  This spacey sabra quietness almost feels like it’s against the laws of nature.

Everyone under the age of 40 in Israel, and I do mean everyone, is connected to a IPod, an IPad, a DVD player, netbook or cellphone.

Simply put, they are plugged in.

For longer bus rides, movies, TV episodes and games are downloaded and played on their tiny personal screens. Young Israelis are focused on their music, but not on the guy next to them. They’re simply not interested.  Spared from conversation, there is little for them to get into an argument about. Frankly, they’re kind of spaced out. And since they’re connected only to a world of bytes and bits,  instead of the real one, when you do wake them from their other-worldly state in virtual reality-land with an earnest question, they respond groggily – –  albeit – – (are you sitting down?)  politely.

Within the chareidi and/or elderly population, electronic devices are not as prevalent. Hence, people still talk to one another. They interact. They shout. Yentas and bubbies still “tsk” at young mothers for not putting socks on their babies’ feet. Bais Yaakov girls and middle-school-aged yeshiva bochrim  push their way up and down the standing-room-only bus to visit back and forth with various acquaintences seated at opposite ends of the bus.

Yet, here in Israel, where chutzpah is worn like a badge of honor, the krechtsing, kvetching and tumult somehow seems more normal  – – for better or worse – –   than the eerily silent, wire-connected young sabras I will now, sadly,  never get to know . . . at least, not on the bus.

Israel!

After a twelve-year absence, I am back in Israel for a two-week visit!  I flew from Philadelphia on USAir.  I could have flown British Air via London but right now I’m not overly thrilled by the idea of giving my money to the British due to their blatant and ever-growing anti-Semitism and hostility towards Israel, and I wanted to avoid stopping in Europe in general for the same reason.

The flight was pleasant and uneventful.

Everything is new and unrecognizable.  Twelve years in Israel is the equivalent of light years anywhere else, as Israel continues to build, grow and innovate on warp speed.

But some things never change.  The main source of interesting info, the heartbeat of the country, is provided free of charge (whether you want it or not) through its taxi drivers, who have an opinion on everything and plenty of interesting tales to tell.

My driver, Ahron, was a religious Sephardi man who had just married off his son earlier in the week.  I asked him how he managed it (there are few questions that are unaskable here), because in many circles in Israel, in addition to paying for the wedding expenses, it’s customary for the parents of the couple to cough up the cash for an apartment for the bride and groom (to buy, not rent), and Ahron had already told me he was a man of modest means.

He snorted.  “That’s for the Ashkenazim!” he said.  The Sephardim are not expected to provide an apartment.  The financing of the wedding is provided by the guests.

There is no such thing as a gift registry.  For that matter, there are no such things as presents.  When the parents book the wedding hall, they pay a token down payment to the caterer.  On the wedding day, as the guests arrive, they (the guests) put their gifts of checks or cash in a big box at the head of the hall.  We’re not talking small sums, either; typical wedding gifts are $100 – 250 cold cash.  At the end of the joyous event, after the guests leave, the box’s contents are totalled.

“At my son’s wedding, we made 130,000 NIS (approximately $32,500) in cash gifts.  The wedding cost 80,000 NIS (around $20K).  That went directly to the caterer, the band, and the hall.  Whatever was left over (in this case $12,500), went to the bride and groom to start their new life.”  Everyone was happy.

The money-box system works for all simchos, including brisim and bar mitzvos.  But my daughter, who lives in Be’er Sheva, a city in Israel’s Negev desert in the south,  recounted one time when the system didn’t quite work out the way one fellow had planned.

“David” was an Israeli Sephardi man who, for whatever reason, preferred to daven (pray) at the American minyan at a local Ashkenazi synagogue.  When he celebrated the bris of his son, he chose to mark the occasion at that synagogue and excitedly invited all his American friends to attend.

Everyone liked David and so everyone came.  Since the American Ashkenazim were unaware of the Sephardi custom, they didn’t know why there was a box placed at the entrance.  Instead, they all came bearing gifts – lots of  toys and cute outfits – for the new baby.

David was devastated!  He had committed a small fortune to the caterer and was depending on the money-box to pay the remaining money owed beyond his token deposit.  Now he had nothing to give, and he was seriously in debt!  He was so hurt, that for months and months he would not speak to anyone.  No one could figure out the sudden change in their congregant’s behavior, and his sullen, black mood.

Isn’t it amazing how, due to a simple and innocent misunderstanding in which both sides meant well, resentment, hurt and anger snowballed out of control?  David suffered silently for months; ironically the congregants were afraid to approach him, figuring that since he hadn’t shared the source of his woes, he wanted his privacy.

Eventually the matter came out into the open; for both sides it was a lesson learned.

And yes,  David still davens with the American minyan at the Ashkenazi shul.