Friday, June 10, 2016

The Door's Open

And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba
-Genesis 21;33
One of my Facebook friends is, in fact, a Facebook stalker. S/he never posts or comments. Ever. Yet, I know that s/he is following posts because every once in a while, I receive an email: "Great pictures!" "It sounds like you had fun!" or something like that.

Nonetheless, I was slightly surprised when I received an email a couple of weeks ago: "Did Beer Sheva win some game or something? I saw pictures.".

I answered him/her: "What? you couldn't hear the celebrations in the Old Country? The Beer Sheva Football  (aka soccer) Team won the National Championship."

Now, some of you out there in non-Beer Sheva Land might think that this is not a big deal. But I assure you, this is a VERY big deal. This accomplishment is on par with the Apollo moon landing, the invention of the telephone, and almost as amazing as Adele coming out with a new song.

100,000 people came out to celebrate the win. That's more than 1 out of every 3 Beer Shevaies, if you take into consideration that not a few of those celebrating don't even live in the city.

The last time Beer Sheva won the national championship was in 1976.The stadium didn't have any seats. The fans sat on sand dunes.

       I'm not sure who the dude is, but in the background you can see the fans sitting on sand dunes.

HaPoel Beer Sheva has been playing - off and on- since 1949. Apparently, all 300 families who lived in the city then would come out to see the games.

I am a huge fan of HaPoel Beer Sheva. I've never been to a game, I know the names of not one player, and until they won, didn't even know the colors of the team. Heck, until they won, I didn't even know we had a team. But I'm a huge fan.
That's because I'm a huge fan of Beer Sheva.

It's not just that Beer Sheva is one of the oldest cities in the world. Let’s put aside that Avraham, Itzhak, and Yaakov, our forefathers, all lived in Beer Sheva; that its history spans four millennia.
And it's not because that today, 4000 years after the first tree was planted, Beer Sheva is the cyber capital of the country, and a global cyber powerhouse. It doesn’t affect me personally, though it is a source of pride. An enormous Hi tech park – Gav Yam Negev – has been built, which serves dozens of international companies.

It used to, but it no longer bothers me that Beer Sheva is not an outwardly beautiful city. Certainly, when we arrived here in 1985, there was little to see, except vast views of desert. My most favorite spot in the city was a graveyard. The city is dusty, the colors are faded because of the almost perpetual sunshine, the sidewalks are dotted with dog poop. It's true that in the peripheral neighborhoods the roads are more exotically dotted with camel and donkey poop.

Other cities in Israel boast beautiful beaches, breathtaking views, mountains.

Beer Sheva has the desert (much of which is in my living room), and the largest number of Ottoman-era buildings in the world outside of Turkey, which are, slowly, one at a time, being renovated.

Ottoman Mosque
 Also, Beer sheva claims the largest number of chess masters per capita in the world. 

On top of all that, we have fountains.

I was against the fountains when they first started to pop up on every corner. In a country where water preservation is an integral part of daily life, I thought it morally wrong to decorate with water. However, they began to grow on me. The fountains use gray and recycled water, so it’s not really a waste. In addition, Israel, in the last few years, has begun to desalinate its water, such that we have enough and can even afford to decorate with water. The fountains are now a symbol (to me anyway) of Israel’s amazing technological advances, its triumph against all odds. Also, the fountains are lovely. A bit kitschy perhaps, but lovely.  





And while Beer Sheva is the home of Glida Beer Sheva and the Grand Kanyon, and this is truly very important (the former much more so than the latter, though the latter includes the former), this is not the reason that I am a diehard fan of Beer Sheva.

And never mind that Beer Sheva is where my children were born, and they grew up in its streets and schools and neighborhoods.

I have seen Beer Sheva grow from a town of 60,000 to a metropolis of more than 200,000.
I have watched whole neighborhoods spring up seemingly overnight.
I have seen educational institutions, cultural establishments, community centers, and shopping areas multiply and flourish.
Nonetheless, the innate character of Beer Sheva, despite its phenomenal growth, has remained the same.

There is little sectarian separation here, as you find in other large cities. There are no homogenous neighborhoods.

What there is, is a deep sense of community. There is open-mindedness. There is no 'looking over one's shoulder' to make sure a person fits into the box they should be in. As a religious person, I have very seldom felt any prejudice against my way of life. Nor is there any religious coercion to change the secular way of life.

Compromises are always found because of the good will that is shown on everyone's part.

For more than 60 years, Beer Sheva was always considered a 'safe' part of Israel. With the Cast Lead War, Beer Sheva was suddenly on the front lines. This was followed by Operation Pillar of Defense , and Protective Edge.  Since December 2008, hundreds of missiles have been shot at Beer Sheva, thousands througout the Negev. Yet, throughout all the operations, and wars, and attacks of the last eight years, Beer Sheva has stood strong,

This is Israel. Life isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes, it’s damned hard. We are under constant attack. It’s hard to make a living. The streets are full of sand. It’s hot. אבל אין מה לעשות. There's nothing we can do.  But, here in Beer Sheva, the feeling is we’re all in this together. There’s enough sweating going on, no need to sweat the small stuff.

Hapoel Beer Sheva FC - Much More Than Football
"Our vision of Hapoel Beer Sheva Football club is much more than a football team. It is an organization that unites, represents and acts in Negev community. Football has a very significant force in education, culture and community life."

That's why 100,000 people came out to cheer their team. All kinds of people. 

Beer Sheva is not on many tourist routes. In fact, there is little infrastructure for tourists. We only have one half way decent hotel. Other than the fountains and the Ottoman buildings, really, there is little to see.

While Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, and even Haifa are cities to visit and tour and have fun in, Beer Sheva is the city where you raise your kids. Beer Sheva is the girl (or boy) you marry.

In the meantime, come and visit. Play some chess. Kick around a football. Wade in the fountains. Have some ice cream.

The door's open.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Bitterness, Sweetness, and Redemption

Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist. 
- David Ben-Gurion

I meant to write this yesterday, but never got around to it. That’s ok, today is good too. Just that yesterday was the first day of the Hebrew month of Iyar. 

The word Iyar, which is Babylonian in origin, means to illuminate or to glow or to radiate. An acronym of the Hebrew phrase Ani Adoni Rofecha (אֲנִי יְהוָה, רֹפְאֶךָ I am G-d your healer, Exodus 15:26), Iyar – connecting the month of Nisan when the People of Israel left Egypt to become a nation, and the month of Sivan, when they received the Torah from G-d – is considered to be the month of natural healing, i.e., healing by the light of G-d. It is also known as the month of redemption.

The first Rosh Chodesh Iyar after the Exodus from Egypt found Bnai Yisrael at the waters of Marah. After wandering for a week after crossing the Reed Sea (amidst wonders and miracles), Bnai Yisrael finally came upon water in the vast desert, only to find it undrinkable. Moshe turned to G-d to ask what to do, and G-d told Moshe that, if he threw a branch of a nearby growing tree – which in itself was bitter - into the water, the water would become sweet. 

There are so many questions that can be asked here. Why didn't G-d just go poof and make sweet water? Why didn't G-d just provide sweet water to begin with? And maybe the most puzzling, how is it that something bitter (the branch) added to something else bitter (the water) makes the water sweet. And why did Moshe have to throw the branch into the water. Why didn’t G-d just blow it in Himself?

There are many explanations for these questions, but the one I'm going for is this: Sometimes in order to achieve sweetness, we need a dose of bitterness. And sometimes we have to do it ourselves. In other words, some great things don't come easy. Think birth. 

The prayer for the State of Israel uses the phrase 'the beginning of the flowering of our redemption (ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו). Rav Avraham Itzchak Kook was the one of the first modern Zionists to say that the Jewish return to the Land was the mark of the coming of the redemption. 

The Rambam says that the one difference between the beginning of the Messianic age (the age of redemption) and normal times is the sovereignty of Israel. There will not necessary be great miracles, such as parting seas, or plagues, or walls falling at the sound of the shofar; there will not necessarily be peace, but the fact that Israel is sovereign in its land will be the sign that the beginning of the redemption has come.

Rabbi Akiva believed that Shimon Bar Kochva was the Messiah. Bar Kochva was not known to be a particularly charming fellow. Mitzvot were not necessarily high on his to-do list. He was big and strong, and a great and brave general and warrior. But he never changed water into wine, nor was he a Talmid Chacham. Yet Rabbi Akiva (and other great Rabbis of the day) believed, until the end, that Bar Kochva was the Messiah. What caused him to believe this? The answer is that Bar Kochva liberated Judea from the Roman conquerors for a short period of time. And Rabbi Akiva knew that a sign of the beginning of the redemption is sovereignty of the Jews in the Land of Israel.

On the face of it, the establishment of the 
modern State of Israel was a long, difficult, and man-made process. Thousands died from disease and Arab terrorism. Jews lived and worked in cruel and bitter times. They worked and died to establish the state. 

But there were an awful lot of miracles along the way.

After the Holocaust, then American President Truman wanted the British to allow more Jewish refugees to enter Palestine. The British didn't want that and turned to the UN for an answer. Instead of siding with the British against more Jewish Aliyah, the UN voted on a partition plan. Just the fact that the vote took place was a miracle. But the fact that the vote passed – with East and West both voting for – can only be seen as G-d's hand. What other state on the face of the earth was given independence so that people who didn’t live in it, and had never been there could return to it.

As to the partition plan itself; the original plan left out of the Jewish state the towns of Nahariya, Ramle-Lod, Beersheva and much of the Galillee. It left Jerusalem as an "international city" under the auspices of the UN. It left completely indefensible borders, a state too small for its citizens. Yet, the Jewish leaders accepted the plan, wanting only a state of their own, no matter what the price. 

Let's remember what happened. On the 5th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar in the year 5708 since the creation (May 14, 1948), David Ben-Gurion decreed the establishment of the State of Israel in the Land of Israel. On the 6th day of Iyar, Arab armies invaded Israel, despite the desire of the Jews to live in peace in a truncated state. Despite the Arab superiority in numbers and arms, resources and land, despite the world's ambivalence towards Israel, even though they had voted for the state, despite all the odds, Israel won that war, and succeeded in expanding the borders to include Ramle, and Nahariya, and Beer Sheva, all of the Galilee and at least a small part of Jerusalem. How can we interpret this as anything but a miracle?

More than 6000 people died in that war, may their memory be a blessing. That represents1% of the total Jewish population of the Land at the time. Today, it would be equivalent to 65,000 people. But from that great bitterness, came the sweetness of independence, the chance for Israel to come home to their Land. A miracle happened when a part of Bnei Yisrael returned to a part of Eretz Yisrael and became a sovereign nation.

Let’s skip forward 19 years to June of 1967. For weeks, Arab radio was broadcasting the imminent destruction of the State of Israel. They described how Jewish blood would flow into the sea. Around the world, international media was already writing obituaries for the state. But early one morning in June, within a few hours, the Israeli air force, maybe one tenth the size of the combined Arab air forces managed to wipe out just about all of both the Egyptian and Syrian fighter planes. With ownership of the skies, the Israel armed forces conquered territory undreamed of only a few weeks earlier. And then, if this was not miracle enough, another. Despite begging Jordan to stay out of the fight, King Hussein decided to believe the false reports coming from Cairo, that Tel Aviv was about to fall, and all “Palestine” would soon be in Arab hands. Wanting to get in on the spoils, Hussein attacked.

There were no plans of entering Jerusalem. The army had no provisions for entering Hebron, or Beit Lechem, or Gush Etzion. But pushed into an unwanted war, Israeli soldiers entered and liberated these holy places. Tears running down their faces, these kids – few religious, almost none had ever seen the Kotel, or knew of the sacredness of Hebron – ran, unheeding of the bullets that were flying around them. Some spark, some genetic memory made them go on, to liberate those places which had never left their hearts. 

Hundreds were killed. But the Holy places of Hebron, of Schem, of Beit Lechem and others were in our hands. From great bitterness to miraculous sweetness. And we celebrate the 28th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar as Jerusalem Day. 

The miracles continue. During the Yom Kippur war soldiers deployed on the Golan reported that Syrian troops were advancing and, being seriously outnumbered, they had no way of stopping them. The Israelis were afraid that the Syrians would overrun them, and conquer Tiberius and, from there, all the Galilee. And suddenly to the astonishment of the soldiers, the Syrian tanks stopped. After a while they turned around and retreated. This part is documented. What isn’t widely known is that, later, when Syrian soldiers were interviewed and asked why they retreated, some of these battle scarred men answered, “I would like to see you cross the Syrian Mountain line if you saw an entire line of white angels standing on the mountain line.” 

Over the years, more and more and more miracles have been reported; bullets just missing, empty houses bombed, the Hand of G-d seen everywhere. 

After the greatest desecration of G-d's name – the destruction of European Jewry – came the greatest Sanctification of His name – the establishment of the State of Israel in a part of the Land of Israel;  Jewish sovereignty after 2000 years of exile, humiliation, persecution, forced conversion, and mass murder. 

This week, I attended  memorial ceremonies on both Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, and The Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva.
Above me, flew the flag of Israel and the flag of the university, both at half mast. My eyes teared and overflowed at the thought of the worlds that has been lost. But looking again at the flags, I realized what a miracle it all was. Here I was, sitting in a University, whose student body totals more than three times the entire 1948 population of Beer Sheva (none of whom was Jewish), a city that was not even supposed to be a part of the state.

Heartrending, unbearable bitterness.

Miraculous sweetness.

May we all be healed by the light of G-d in this month of redemption. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ah, Passover

And thus shall ye eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste--it is the LORD'S Passover. -Exodus 12:11

Passover, aka Pesach, aka Peisack, aka the Festival of Freedom, aka the Festival of Matzah, aka (according to some of my kids) the Festival of OMG Whatarewegoingtoeatthere’snothingtoeatinthishouseIhatePesach! is this week.

During the year, Judaism has, to put it mildly, a complex set of dietary laws. No meat and milk can be eaten together; certain meats and fish are verboten; no taste or smell allowed…. (just kidding – kosher food is very often more delicious than I can describe, just not in my house. That fact has nothing to do with the complex set of dietary laws. But I digress).

The Pesach laws are a tad more complex, because Jews, for the seven days of Pesach (eight outside the Land of Israel hahahahahahaha Old Country) are not allowed to eat anything ‘leavened’ or, in the vernacular, chametz. This is all very complicated so, suffice to say, we can’t eat anything made with any sort of flour, except matzah. (Flour, per se, is not chametz, but because it becomes chametz when wet, we don’t eat it, except, as I said, in Matzah.) Instead, we make flour out of crushed up matzah. Yummy.

Plus – and this is a whole other story – Ashkenazi Jews are not allowed to eat legumes (known as kitniyot) during the holiday. This includes, but is not limited to: corn, peas, beans, humous, sesame, mustard, or anything with nutrients or flavour.

We are also not allowed to eat anything from a packet or container that had been opened during the year, even if there is no chametz in it. Therefore, we are required to purchase, for the holiday, new packages of salt, coffee, tea, paprika, soup mix, mayonnaise, oil, ketchup, sugar, chocolate chips, etc. etc.

In addition, we can’t use utensils that might once have come in contact with chametz. Therefore, we clean out the house, making sure to get rid of the chametz, and switch our dishes to Pesach dishes. This includes everything: plates, cups, glasses, pots, pans, baking pans, salt and pepper shakers, sugar bowl, mixing bowls, food processor, mixer, juicer, spatulas, tongs, wooden spoons, whisk, meat grinder, grater, shears, can opener, cork screw (very important), measuring cups and spoons, salad spinner, colander (not really essential as you’re not eating pasta - aka chametz), pizza cutter (ditto – but hold on), ice cube trays, hotdog dicer, electric griddle, funnel, mandoline, (not the ukulele type thing), pastry bag, roasters, wok, poached egg holders, milk container, smoothy maker, coffee grinder, and cutting boards.

The only think you don’t need is a bread knife.

This all translates into what is known in my house as “why don’t we just buy a small island instead”, aka, “which kid are we going to sell this year to pay for all this.”

There is a great deal of cooking done for the holiday. Though, over the years, more and more pre-made kosher for Passover food is available in the supermarkets, it is about 2000 times more expensive than the same sort of food that is not kosher for Passover, and 5000 times more expensive than what I can make out of raw ingredients. Also, the pre-packaged cakes and cookies tend to taste of what they are made – dust.

And so I cook, and bake, and stew, and braise, and stir, and fry, and boil, broil, and roast. I chop, and dice, and slice, and whisk, and sift, and mix, and mince.

And still there doesn’t seem to be anything to eat.

There are a lot of people in my house. Some live here, some don’t. Some come to visit or play, some come for no reason. Some come just to eat. Whatever the reason, there is a great deal of consumption going on around me during the holiday.

Therefore, in an effort to cut back on expenses (and enable me to keep a kid or two – hey I gotta have somebody around to wash the floor), I have come up with some inexpensive Passover recipes and dishes.

While my friends and neighbors are dining on salmon and veal and brisket and broiled broccoli and asparagus tips with wine, I am feeding my family matzaroni and cheese. Another staple is matzagna. The kids like quiche m’ziyon (aka quiche mir tuchus, but only when we don’t have company). We’ve had matzarekas, tuna matzarole, and grilled cheese matzwhiches. I’ve not yet tried matpizza, but only because I don’t have a Pesach pizza cutter.

The high point of our whole week, however, is hotdog night.

I know, hotdogs are really really really bad for you. They are made out of feathers and toe nails. But my kids like hotdogs. And, well, they’re cheap. And low maintenance, i.e., it’s not hard to make hotdogs; no chopping, slicing, stirring, or braising involved. Just pop them in a pot of water, and voila, it’s done. You don’t even really need that hotdog dicer.

Many years ago, it was simply a way to make an easy supper amidst all the holiday chopping and dicing and roasting. I’d cut up a few potatoes, toss ‘em in oil, chuck ‘em in the oven, and make chips too. Some years, I’d go all out and also open a can of pickles. All very easy peasy.

One day, however, someone (and it might have been me) discovered fried hotdogs. Fried hotdogs, it turns out, are related to boiled hotdogs in the same manner as fresh figs are related to dried figs, i.e., not at all. Fried hotdogs, dripping with oil, hot and gooey, even MORE unhealthy than boiled ones, are simply delicious, toenails and feathers notwithstanding.

Over the years, hotdog night has become a gala event. I don’t know why. People phone me up and ask me when’s hotdog night, so they can plan their week. People come in from abroad for the event. Perhaps these people are sick of their quail eggs and veal liver with braised tomatoes. Perhaps it is the sight of adults sitting around eating fried hotdogs, dripping with oil, flowing with ketchup (mustard being kitniyot and therefore off limits – see above),  clamped – along with slices of tomatoes, some fried onions, a leaf of lettuce, and a couple of pickles – between two pieces of disintegrating matzah and awash in crumbs. It’s quite a scene – on the one hand totally gross, on the other, impossible to look away.

I still make chips in the oven.

Wishing all of Am Yisrael a happy holiday, filled, not just with crumbs, but also with joy and love and chocolate (chocolate matzawitches being awesome).

Chag Samaech!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Picture This

Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet.
-Vietnamese Proverb

Apparently, yesterday was Siblings’ Day.

(Every day of the calendar is something, by the way. Today is Cheese Fondue Day, and tomorrow is Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day (what's up with cheese days??). Last week was Zoo Lovers' Day and April 7th was, not only Tell a Lie Day, but it was also NO HOUSEWORK DAY!! Which really means little to me, as everyday in my house, is No Housework Day.)

But I digress.

I have a bunch of siblings. My kids have a bunch of siblings. A lot of people have siblings. Some have more and some have fewer, but having siblings is not very rare, except maybe in China.

I live in Israel. My siblings don’t. We have not all been together at the same place and same time for very many years; mostly this is my fault because I don’t like to travel.

My kids’ siblings, though, all live in Israel, baruch HaShem, which is one reason why I left my siblings and came to live in Israel in the first place; though I came before my kids had siblings, I wanted to make sure that their future siblings would be in Israel, unlike mine.

A few weeks ago, my youngest child, G, had an ערב שורשים, (a family tree evening) at her school, where each student was required to find out as much as possible about their families and their place of origin, and their histories.

Having done the same sort of project three years previously, my kid didn’t have much work to do. However, I decided to dig around a bit and was able to uncover the dates of death of my paternal grandparents, something I never knew. I actually discovered quite a lot of information thanks to the work of my cousins and Facebook (Cousins’ Day, by the way, is July 24).

Many family pictures had already been scanned from the previous work, and I barely looked through the pages before we headed out – armed with a large pan of lasagna (my kid told her teacher it was our traditional family food….) – to the school in Yerucham, a half hour drive south of Beer Sheva, to enjoy the evening.

As we entered the school, a wall, hung with various family portraits, was the first exhibit we saw. The kids had taken scanned pictures from the projects, blown them up and hung them in a kind of rogues gallery.
The second portrait in the row was a copy of a picture of my paternal grandmother with one of my older cousins taken in the 1950s.
Baba Rose and oldest Granddaughter
A couple of pictures later were my maternal grandparents in the 40s

Baba Rifka and Zeida Meir

and then my parents wedding picture from 1948.

Mom and Dad
At the end of the row was a picture of me and my siblings taken in 1973, the time of my brother’s Bar Mitzvah.

It took me a long time to stop staring at that wall.

My grandparents – עליהם השלום, may their memories be blessed, all born in Eastern Europe at a time when the State of Israel was barely a dream, and from towns and villages long destroyed – never visited Israel, probably never even considered visiting Israel. Yet, here were their pictures hung on a wall somewhere in the middle of the Israeli desert. 

My own parents were married about six months after the birth of the Modern State of Israel. At that time, the War of Independence was still raging, and Israel's survival was anything but assured, Yet, here was their wedding picture, in the hallway of a school, in a town in Israel, which hadn't even been a plan on paper in September 1948. 

I stared and stared and stared at their likenesses, and wondered what they would have thought of their picture on this wall, in this place, so very far - in both time and place - from everything they knew. 

I know what I was thinking. I was thinking of the miracle that after so many generations, after so much persecution, we are finally back home. I was thinking of the honor and privilege and blessing I had been given; that,of all the members and generations or my family, it was I who brought those pictures back home where they belong.

I stared at the picture of my siblings also. The first thing I thought was 'hey!! we weren't as funny-looking as I remember!". Then I thought "we, unlike the previous generations, were all born into a world where the State of Israel existed". (Then I thought "No, we were as funny-looking as I remember.")

The point is that my siblings and I have never experienced not having Israel around. It's hard to imagine such a world. What did everyone hate? Oh. Right. The Jews....

My siblings' kids are slowly leaving the Old Country and making their way home to Israel. Of my mother's (may she be well and healthy till 120!) 29 descendants (four children, twenty grandchildren, and five great-grands), fifteen live in Israel. Not bad for a family who, for a few years anyway, had only one representative here.

One sibling comes to visit her descendants fairly often. Another is visiting here right now visiting his. The third hasn't quite made it in a while, but I'm waiting patiently.

Yesterday was Siblings Day. I propose that by next Siblings Day, we should all get together. In Yerucham.

Oh, and by the way, according to Judaism, all Jews are considered brothes and sisters. I hope the bakery in Yerucham can handle it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Banquets and the Jewish Question

“I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you”.
- Shylock, The Merchant of Venice

For approximately 10 years, Beer Sheva's Rosh Chodesh Women's Club has held monthly meetings on the first (more or less) of every Jewish month.  The evening takes place in the home of one of the participants and comprises a dvar Torah, a 'lecture' by a 'guest speaker', food, shmooze - but, unfortunately, no booze, It's open to all women of all ages, sizes, nationalities, religious pursuasion, educational level, and fashion sense, Every once in a while, I've been honored to be asked to give the dvar Torah. Last night, Rosh Chodesh Adar B, was one such time. 
I haven’t given a dvar Torah at the Rosh Chodesh Club in a long time. This month, I agreed because Adar is such an easy month. There are so many things to talk about – so many themes and subjects. There’s Rosh Chodesh itself, Purim, the megillah, happiness (שמחה), good and evil. No shortage of things to talk about.
Seeing as I had to limit myself in time before people fell asleep (it was after all Thursday night), I decided to speak of a very important issue.
Everyone likes food, so it’s a good subject. So good in fact, that I'm sharing here what I said last night. More or less. I embellished a bit as I spoke, and forgot to say other bits. Also, as I spoke, I couldn't really link to sources; therefore I've left out sources here too. You'll have to trust me. If you were in attendance at last night's Rosh Chodesh party, this may clarify some of my rambling. 
The following is roughly what I said:

Purim is the quintessential definition of:

They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.

But actually, food and drink is prevalent throughout the Megillah. Perhaps most importantly, Purim is the only holiday for which we invented a cookie named after the chief villain. Which is, in fact, a bit creepy. 
Creepy Cookies
Let’s start with the fact that there are a whole bunch of banquets (משתה).

In fact, the megillah begins at a banquet.

And it came to pass in the days of Achashverosh the same Achashverosh who ruled from Hodu to Cush, one hundred and twenty-seven provinces.  In those days, when King Achashverosh sat on his royal throne, which was in Shushan the capital,  In the third year of his reign, he made a feast for all his ministers and servants; the army of Persia and Media, the nobles and all the ministers of the provinces in his service. (Esther 1:1-3)

Actually, the goal of this first banquet was not to eat or to feed, though there was a great deal of food and drink available. The goal was to show off the King’s wealth and through that, his power. 

For many days, one hundred and eighty days, he displayed the glorious wealth of his kingdom and the splendorous beauty of his majesty. (Esther 1:4)

At the end of the first 180 day banquet, Achashverosh made another one, for seven days, to which he invited the people of Shushan, including the Jewish community.

There are many many commentaries who say a million different things about these banquets. Some say there was kosher wine, but non-kosher food, some say both were kosher, some say neither were. Some say the Jews came, but didn’t eat, others that they came and did eat. Some say that the leaders of the community, the Sanhedrin, left the city so that they wouldn’t be forced to go to the banquet. Others say that they came to the banquet. There are only two issues that everyone agrees on: 
1) Mordecai – though a leader of the Jewish community AND an advisor to the king – did not go to the banquet and 2) The Jews should not have gone, regardless of kosher food, kosher wine, the invitation of the king etc.

What was the banquet for? Again, there are several different answers. Some say it was a celebration of the Achashvarus’s marriage to Vashti. There is actually a halacha forbidding a Jew to go to a non-Jewish wedding celebration. Some say, because Achashverus was not born into royalty (his father conquered Babylon and his mother was the daughter of the King of Meade, but that doesn’t count) it was an excuse to show off his wealth and thus show how strong the king was, despite the lack of pedigree. Many say it was to celebrate the end of the 70 years, in which it had been prophesized that the Jews would return to Eretz Yisrael. Just about all agree that the vessels at the banquet were from the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. This, of course, is an intentional slap in the face to any Jew. But, afraid of showing disrespect to Achashverus, and hoping to curry favor, the Jews, except for Mordecai, attended the banquet. It didn’t exactly work to the Jews’ benefit however. As a ‘punishment’ to their attendance at the banquet, Haman gained power and set out to exterminate the Jewish people. But more on that in a minute.

Vashti is killed; four years later, Achashverus marries Esther, and makes another banquet.

Redemption is on its way.

And the king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king made a great feast unto all his princes and his servants, even Esther's feast; and he made a release to the provinces, and gave gifts, according to the bounty of the king. (Esther 2:17-18)

This banquet is notably different from the others we just read about. First, only the king's ministers and officers are invited, not the entire city. According to Chazal, it was Esther who convinced the king that, rather than invite all to a party the common folk could ill afford (clothes, bus fare, babysitting all costs money), he should instead, says Esther, give gifts to the people so they could make their own parties. And he did. He also cancelled all taxes for the year.

The next two banquets are given by Esther, with only two guests – Achashverosh and Haman. Plying them with food and drink – of which Esther did not partake as she was still fasting – she softened them, getting them to let down their defenses so that the King would be more inclined to grant her wishes, and Haman would be put off guard.

Five Banquets and the Jewish question: Are banquets good for the Jews, or are they bad for the Jews?

Chazal say that the Jews' participation in Achashverosh’s 70th anniversary/wedding banquet was what brought about their near-annihilation. On the other hand, Esther’s banquets brought about their redemption. It turns out that banquets are much like the internet; depends what you do with them.

If you use banquets or gifts or food or social status to try and fit in, or get on the right side, it’s not going to work. Trying to blend in never works. Trying to be more Persian than the Persians only resulted, as it always does when one goes against the Laws of G-d, in the opposite of what was hoped.

In between all the banquets, there is another mention of food – actually a lack of food; Esther’s request to the Jews to fast for her before she goes to see the king and ask him to rescind the order to murder her people. To atone for the sin of eating and celebrating with non-Jews, we have to not eat. Fasting, in Judaism, is a way of penance, a way of averting a heavenly decree.

Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish. (Esther 4:16)

Contrary to popular belief, Esther was not asking to fast to save her life. Chazal say that Esther asked for three days of fasting to atone for her three sins. The first was the death of Hatach – who was the prophet Daniel, and was killed by Haman when Haman noticed that he and Mordecai were talking. The second sin was that in going to the King on her own volition, Esther would have to submit to him willingly, whereas until now, she had been an unwilling queen. The third sin was that she was afraid that in going to the King on her own, she might be put in a positionwhere she would have to eat non-kosher food. Esther put the possibility of eating non-kosher food in the same category as being responsible for murder, and marrying a non-Jew.

One of the reasons behind the laws of kashrut (not that we are to try and reason halacha) is to separate Jews from non-Jews. I understand that this is politically incorrect to suggest, but according to Halacha, Jews are simply not to mingle socially with non-Jews.

To quote Shakespeare’s Shylock, “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you”.

Haman had it right when he said: There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws. (Esther 3:8)

Haman said this like it was a bad thing, continuing with: therefore it profit not the king to suffer them, but he was, nonetheless, right. The Jews are meant to be live alone, away from other people.

Here’s the thing to remember, and the point of all this rambling.

In unity, we are invincible.

We see, from the Megilla, that when we, united, don’t eat, i.e., Esther’s fast, we can overturn the harshest of decrees.

If we can do that by fasting, imagine what we can do by eating. Therefore, Esther and Mordecai make sure that all future generations would be bound together by creating the holiday of Purim, where three of the four mitzvoth of the day have to do with food in a day of joy and celebration.

Holy food gives us strength. It unifies. And unity must be our goal. Only in unity can the Jewish nation succeed, in whatever sphere, whether it be militarily, or economically, or spiritually. Fractured, divided, we have no chance. United as a people, even if one eats gefilte fish, and one eats malawach, we are unbeatable. 

Every time we share a Shabbat or holiday meal with others, or invite people to share a simcha, or give so others who don’t may have enough food, we are contributing to the unity, the solidarity, the harmony of the nation, and ultimately, to accelerating redemption, במהרה בימנו.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Car Blanc

I know a lot about cars, man. I can look at any car's headlights and tell you exactly which way it's coming.
- Mitch Hedberg

I have been driving a car since I was 16 years of age (five years ago). I got my license in the dead of an Old Country winter. I was assured that, if I could pass the test under those conditions, I would have no problem driving under any conditions, which has proved to be more or less true.


Beer Sheva’s winter is not a shadow of a shadow of an Old Country winter; though sandstorms are dirtier than snowstorms, you still never have to plug in your car.

I am the main driver in our family. I take the car daily to work, do most of the errands, and chauffeur those who need chauffeuring. The husband uses it occasionally in the evenings and on Fridays, when he fills the car with gas. They used to give out free newspapers with a fill-up so he would wait for Fridays to get the bigger weekend paper for free. They stopped giving the papers out for free, but the custom remains, much to my delight.

You see, I don’t much like driving. “Just close your eyes and drive”, my friend D once advised me, which is more or less what I do. But my dislike for driving is NOTHING compared to my dislike of actually taking care of the car; much like comparing Beer Sheva and Old Country winters.

And so, it was with a certain amount of dread that, this morning, I took the family car in for its annual test.

I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but here in the Holy Land, every motor vehicle is required to be tested for road worthiness once a year. The test includes checking window wipers, lights, brakes, the steering system, and gas emission. (They used to check to make sure you had some sort of receptacle for garbage, but they don’t anymore. That was the only part of the test I aced.)

I can’t imagine what the roads would be like if the cars weren’t tested.

The whole thing takes about 15 minutes, not including registration, payment, the clerk’s conversation with her grandkid, the tester’s cigarette breaks, the other tester’s meeting with his friend from back home whom he hasn’t – apparently – seen in decades, the guy who cuts in because he’s REALLY IMPORTANT, and waiting in the wrong line.

I drove into the test area at precisely 7:42 AM. I figured that if I went early, I would have less of a wait. There is, obviously, no parking lot there (you're supposed to test the car, not park it!) so I left the car next to a mound of mud, took the necessary papers with me and went to register and pay for the test. That done, including the requisite oohing and ahhing over the cute grandkid, I deftly maneuvered the car around the pile of mud (maybe that was part of the test?) and drove slowly to the area of the first platform.

Unfortunately, they had moved the platform. I sat in my car waiting to be noticed but, in reality, was actively ignored. Eventually, some other customer took pity on me and waved me into the correct line. A few minutes later, the tester began barking orders at me. This first part was to check that the lights and wipers all work properly. I’ve done the test many times and know the words in Hebrew. I was fairly confident that I would handle this part easily.

"Visherim"[1]!! he yelled. I obediently switched the window wipers on and off. They worked. "Vinker"[2]! came the next command. I switched on the left-turn signal. "NO! the other one! I'm standing here!" I quickly clicked the windshield wiper. Then I put on the headlights. Then the wipers again, and finally hit the right-turn signal. He waited patiently. Nodding at my right-turn blinker, he crossed to the other side of the car. "Vinker", he hollered. On went the wipers, followed by the right-turn blinker. "I can do this", I said to myself, took a deep breath and switched off the air conditioner I had erroneously switched on, and then, finally hit the correct light. I've always had trouble telling my left hand from my right. 

He went to the back of the car. "Breksim[3]!!!" I stood on the brakes. That one I could handle. "Rrrrreverrrs[4]!" I switched to reverse. The lights, thankfully, were all working.

One more command then came at me from nowhere. "Tzofarr[5]!" And then it happened. My brain completely froze and refused to translate his heavily accented word into anything comprehensible. I blinked. "Tzofarrrrr!" he shouted again. I blinked again. He smiled slightly. "Beep beep", he said more softly. Ah. A slight thaw, and I merrily tooted my horn, and headed off to the next platform.

This next platform was to check the brakes. The testee (me) is required to drive onto two planks suspended over a pit, in which a man stands. This is the part of the test that absolutely gives me the heebie jeebies. I am positive that, one day, I will cause my car to fall off the planks and plummet onto the head of man beneath.

The tester (who stood on solid ground) beckoned me with his hand. "Od, od, od (More, more, more)", he urged, as I crept forward inch by inch. Finally, he signaled enough and I slammed on the brakes. "Nootrul"[6], he shouted at me. I switched from drive to neutral. "Bli (without) breksim!" Terrified the car would plunge into the bottomless pit beneath me, I slowly eased my foot off the breksim, er, brakes, as requested.

A minute later, came the command "hendbreks"[7]! I grabbed the handbrakes, but the stick slipped out of my hand. I grabbed again, still careful not to move too much so the car wouldn't descend into the depths, crushing the man waiting patiently underneath my car. I managed to hold onto the brakes, but it wouldn't engage correctly. Another deep breath, and third time lucky. "Ok", said the tester, beckoning me to creep forward a meter. The man in the pit beneath stood waiting for me. I released the hendbreks slowly, and, careful not to move my body in any direction, eased the car forward.

The tester, observing my pale face, clammy hands, and frozen brain, finally felt sorry for me. He reached in the car and grabbed the steering wheel, jerking it first to the right and then to the left, quite hard. The first thought I had was "the man below is going to die", and the second thought was "he must think I'm an idiot". I was half right. In the meantime the man below was checking something under the car, I suppose the bekeksl[8] or maybe it was the bekeksl kidmi[9].

The final segment of the test was for gas emission. After waiting for the guy to finish talking to his long-lost landsman, my car was hooked up to some machine, which measured stuff. I just had to sit there with my foot on the gas pedal, and, lucky for me, not move.

Test over, and passing with flying colors, I reparked the car next to the mound of mud, and went back to the office to exchange the test papers for a diploma.

The whole thing took 35 minutes; 35 minutes of my life, which I will not get back again.

Finally arriving at work a half an hour late and explaining why, every single other woman - every. single. one. - said, "oh, I make the husband take the test. I never go."

I didn't really understand that. After all, they are all native Hebrew speakers, so the language wasn't a problem for them.

Of course, they never learned to drive in an Old Country winter. Everything comes easy after that.

[1] Visher is a bastardized rendition of the English word ‘washer’, which is what window wipers are for (Visherim is the plural form).
[2] Vinker is a bastardized rendition of the English word ‘blinker’. In Hebrew, the B sound and the V sound are made by the same letter (bet ב) and are interchangeable. The L is left out because it’s almost impossible to say an L after a V. Vinkerim is the plural form.
[3] The plural form of Hebrew nouns is 'im'. So breksim, in fact, is the plural of the plural and means brakeses.
[4] Reverse in English, but only used in the context of vehicle. You would never use the word rrrreverrrz in a sentence such as “the reverse is also true”. There, you would say HaHefech.
[5] I actually knew this word. Tzofar is a bastardized rendition of the Hebrew word shofar (ram’s horn) – the thing we blow on Rosh HaShana.
[6] Nootrul has morphed from being a word used only in the context of gears, to being a verb used in the context of law enforcement and is a verb, i.e., the terrorist has been neutralized – or in Hebrew – me’nootral.
[7] Logically, the Hebrew should be Hendbreksim, but, strangely enough, it's not.
[8] bekeksl - in case the reader hadn't figured it out - is a bastardized rendition of the English word back axle.
[9] Kidmi is the Hebrew word for front. Therefore, bekeksl kidmi means the front back axle.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Points to Ponder

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
-Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

This Shabbat, we will begin to read the book of Exodus (Shmot שמות)—the second book of the Chumash. Shmot begins the story of the Jewish nation, from their slavery in Egypt, to their redemption and their travels through the desert. There have always been discussions, debates, arguments, disputes, altercations, and even – to our dismay – fist fights over the relevance of Biblical stories to our lives today, in the 21st century.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reading of slavery, suffering, obstinance, leadership, and heroism. Below, are a few facts and explanations, which seem to be very relevant to our situation today. I'm just going to relate the points to ponder, and I'll let you make whatever connections you like.

Point to ponder #1:

The book of Shmot starts with the story of the Children of Israel coming into Egypt and the first recorded case of anti-Semitism.

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said to his people, Behold, the people of the children of Yisrael are more and mightier than we: come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it comes to pass, that when any war should chance, they also join our enemies, and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.” Shmot 1:8

There is nothing at all in the literature to indicate that the Children of Israel were thinking of taking over Egypt, or fighting the Egyptians. This is all pure “the Jews have taken over international financing in order to conquer the world” stuff. Protocols of the elders of Zion, Egyptian style.

Pharoah first instructs Shifra and Puah, the Israelite midwives (commonly belived to be Miriam and Yocheved), to kill all the Hebrew babies. Yet, Pharaoh realizes that this is not suffiicient. At this point, Pharoah's astrologers have seen that the saviour of the slaves will soon be born, but they cannot see if he is to be Hebrew, or Egyptian. They also see something about water, but they are a little fuzzy on this point. And so, Pharaoh, in his great wisdom and mercy, decrees that ALL baby boys, when born, are to be thrown into the river, Hebrew or Egyptian. The fear and hatred of the Jews is great enough to sacrifice their own babies.

Point to ponder #2.

"And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi." Shmot 2:1. We know that this is Amram and Yocheved, but at this point neither is named. Yocheved is named as one of the 70 souls entering Egypt with Yaakov. She was born just as they arrive. Our sages have calculated that at this point in the story, she is 130 years old. When Sarah gives birth to Yitzchak she is 90 years old, and much is made of the miracle of his birth, and how an old women was able to give birth. Yocheved, on the other hand, is not even named. No mention of any miracles, no mention of her appearance, or how she reacted to the news of being pregnant. Why is that? One explanation is that there were so many miracles going on at that time amongst the Israelites that giving birth at 130 was not such a big deal. Many women were giving birth at advanced ages. Women, in awful conditions, were giving birth – according to the Midrash – to six babies at a time. Shifra and Puah were credited not only for not killing newborn babies, but also in resuscitating those who had died from natural causes. From this we learn that it is easy to overlook miracles when there are so many occurring all around. Sometimes we take things for granted, especially when everything is going well. You don’t notice the babies who DON’T die.

The trick, the hard part, is to see the miracles as they occur, and for what they are, G-d's proof of His love for us. Which brings me to:

Point to ponder #3.

G-d, being omnipotent, could have simply taken the Children of Israel out of Egypt with a snap of His fingers. But He didn’t. He first had to impose the ten plagues on the people of Egypt. He began by turning the water to blood. Why was blood the first plague? There are many explanations of this, not the least of which is that the river was considered holy; G-d wanted the Egyptians to understand that He and only He was the true G-d. Along with this explanation, however, it is also suggested that the river was chosen for the plague because of its very lack of change. The river was always there. It could always be depended upon. It was not at the mercy of rainfall. The river was never changing. And the people took it completely for granted. It was only when it changed that they realized how much they depended on it, and how lucky they were to have it. The next plague, frogs, emphasizes this even more. Frogs are totally innocuous. They don’t harm, and they don’t help. They are just kind of there. And nobody ever notices frogs, until they take over. This was one of G-d’s purposes in the plagues; to make people aware of G-d, not only in times of trouble, but to understand that a lack of trouble is also G-d’s work.

Point to Ponder #4

The slavery of the Jews in Egypt was not a personal slavery like those of the blacks in southern America 150 years ago. Individual households did not have slaves to work in their fields. Rather, the slaves were owned by Pharaoh himself, and were used to build cities, and storage facilities.

Nonetheless, the plagues were visited upon the whole population. When the river turned to blood, it wasn’t only Pharaoh and his court who went thirsty. It was the whole populace who suffered. The frogs tormented everyone, down to the last child, and the locusts and hail destroyed not only the king’s cattle and crops but every last person’s field. And of course the killing of the first born affected even the animals. This is to show us that a society that supports evil, or does not fight against evil, even when they don’t directly benefit from it, must be destroyed.

Today, the media would call this Disproportional response.

Point to Ponder #5 

At the Passover Seder (16 weeks from today!!!!!), we drink 4 cups of wine to remember the four affirmations of redemption.

I will bring you out ..... and
I will deliver you out ..... and
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm ..... and
I will take you to me for a people. Exodus 6:6

Most people stop there, but if you continue to read just a bit further G-d goes on to say:

And I will bring you into the Land, which I swore to give to Avraham, Yizchak and to Yaakov, and I will give it to you for a heritage. Exodus 6:8

G-d brought us out, and delivered us, and redeemed us, and took us in order to bring us to the Land. Something we must never forget. The miracles He performed/s for us were/are in order for us, as a people, to live in our Land, and follow His mitzvot.

The Haggada of Pesach was first compiled in Babylon, in exile, and it didn’t seem fitting to remember and celebrate the Land, which had been lost. Later, when so many Jews remained outside the Land, it still did not seem appropriate to add the 5th cup.

We are back in our Land. The exile seems to be coming to an end as Jews stream to Israel from the four corners of the globe. Miracles are taking place at a heart stopping rate.

Maybe it’s time to add the fifth cup?