Sunday, June 29, 2014
It's the end of June and the beginning of summer. And while the sun is out full force, and not a cloud in the sky, I'm feeling anything but sunny. I'm sitting at my table, reading the newspaper and hoping for some positive news about the missing boys, some good news for a change. Not only is there no good news about the boys, but it seems like wherever you are in the world, if you are a Jew, things are heading towards a downward spiral.
If you are a Jew in Germany, you are now required by law to wait at least 48 hours between the death and the burial of your loved one. Our simple and benevolent law mandates a quick burial - within a day - and the purpose of the law is to bring respect to the departed. And that simple kindness, or chessed, is being denied to all Jews in Germany.
If you are a Jew in England, you are now reading about the worst desecration of a Jewish cemetery that England has seen in years. All at the hands of two thirteen year old Neo-Nazis. Besides Nazi slogans and swastikas spray-painted onto gravestones, these twisted young boys toppled more than 40 headstones causing damage estimated in more than 100,000 British pounds. A non-Jewish witness, who called the local police, testified that he heard them laughing as they toppled down headstone after headstone. Many of these headstones dated back to 1900 and had just gone through a major overhaul to better preserve them.
If you are a Jew in Norway and have just given birth to a boy, you can now breathe easier knowing that your son will be allowed to be circumcised. The law now stipulates that the procedure must be performed under the presence of a licensed physician. This is after a campaign to ban ritual circumsicion altogether because activists in Scandinavia say it "violates children's rights to physical integrity and is comparable to female genital mutilation". So breathe easy, Jews of Norway. You no longer have to pack your bags and leave. At least, not until the next law that comes under question. And by the way, don't bother thinking of moving to Denmark. Ritual slaughter is illegal there and while Denmark's Jews rely on imported meat instead of doing their own ritual slaughter, you should still think twice before making that move. "Animal rights come before religion," quoted the Agriculture and Food minister.
If you are a Jew in the Ukraine, besides facing the very serious possibility of being caught in the middle of a war between Ukraine and Russia, grave robbers raided a mass grave of Jews that were executed en masse during the Holocaust. These robbers are seeking gold teeth and valuables that the victims may have had with them when the German soldiers shot them into trenches that they themselves and the locals dug in 1941.
If you are a Jew in Israel, not only are you still anxiously awaiting the return of the kidnapped boys, but you are worried for the community of Sderot that is enduring an enslaught of rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip, destroying local businesses, factories, homes, and terrifying the residents that live there. Not to mention the day to day struggle Israel endures as it defends its position as the only democratic country in the Middle East and fights terrorism 24/7 in order to keep its borders and its people safe while at the same time managing to excel in the high-tech field, medical research and the sciences.
It seems that as Jews, no matter where we are in the world, the odds are stacked against us. But for those of you who do not live in Israel, there is a fundamental difference. Despite the bombardment of rockets or the terrorism that surrounds us, we, in Israel, can do something about it. We don't have to wait for a foreign government to give us "permission" to live our lives as Jews. We don't need permission to circumcise our boys, or to bury our dead. Our cemeteries are places that are respected, where people can visit their loved ones who've passed on in peace and tranquility. We can slaughter our meat according to Jewish law. We don't have to fear of being caught in the middle of a war between neighboring countries and wait for the inevitable blame that will rain upon the Jewish community. And when those who are out there seek to destroy us - by bombs, rockets or threat of attack - we get our talented and well-trained army ready for the fight of their lives. Living in our own country with our own government doesn't come without its ups and downs, but one thing is for sure. We will always be able to live as Jews here. Our government, while not necessarily doing things the way we want them to, will always protect us and provide us with a place we can call our own. We will never be thrown out, persecuted, desecrated or disrespected for being Jews.
And that is the big difference between being a Jew in Galut and being a Jew in Israel.
Sunday, June 22, 2014
So just a few weeks after my childhood home went on the real estate market, it sold. I was rather taken aback as I had (wrongly) assumed it would take much longer. I had visions of all sorts of people traipsing through my house. Couples checking out our laundry room (this is where the wife whispers to the husband that it desperately needed updating. It does.) or opening the cabinets in the kitchen (here, the wife's eyes light up because the kitchen is truly beautiful...) and then stepping out the back door and taking in the backyard with its simple landscaping, hammock hooks and awesome pool and sauna (now it's the husband's turn to grin as he imagines dozing off on the hammock on the long weekends). But I thought that it would take months, not weeks.
Over the years I've discovered that a house - even a fantastic and beautifully designed one - loses all it's fantastic-ness if the neighborhood enveloping said house sucks. There's a reason they always say, location, location, location. And I guess that's why I've always loved my childhood home. The neighborhood certainly did not suck - in fact, it was wonderful. I loved the location (although not so much when I had to trudge through five feet of snow for more than twenty minutes just to get to the bus stop...), the park two minutes away and more than anything else, the neighbors. We moved into the neighborhood when I was five years old and my sister and I were given a beautiful room to share that had a view of the entrance of Rockford Park. It also had a view of the house across the road where my best friend lived. Being completely and utterly obsessed with Anne of Green Gables at the time, we had developed a method of communication that involved yanking our window blinds up and down and leaving them open at varied heights. (This is what we kids did back when there were no cell phones. Don't knock it, it worked just fine...)
They say that it takes a village to raise a child, and it was certainly true on Fisherville Road. Having long, thick, red hair that reached just above my tush until the age of twelve, I remember my mother sending me across the road some Friday afternoons with my soaking wet hair wrapped up turban-style in a towel. I'd sit on the floor in their family room while my best friend's mom would French braid it for me, and it would stay braided like that until the next time I washed it. Until my dad put the pool into our backyard when I was sixteen, we had no fence between us and the neighbors. Our parents were good friends and there were nine kids between our two families, all around the same age, so they had decided to benefit from a double-size backyard instead of dividing the two. Their backyard was slightly higher than ours, so the gentle slope was great for snow sledding and running through sprinklers. When my mom came outside and brought snacks, she brought nine, just like when their mom came out with Popsicles, there were nine as well. And if anyone stepped out of line, you got reprimanded - whether it was your mom doing the reprimanding or your friend's mom. Somewhere around fifth grade, my best friend from across the street moved to a different neighborhood in the city. I was devastated - who would move into that house that had been like a second home to me? Luckily, another nice family from our shul moved in and we had new, instant friends once again.
Saturday afternoons, especially during the summer, we'd head to the park across the road. Huge with several jungle gym configurations, a couple of tennis courts and tons and tons of grass, we'd haul the enormous and heavy metal garbage tins towards the swings, lay them on their sides, climb up on them while fitting the bottom of the swing snug on our bottoms and hurl ourselves into the air. We'd do this for hours while our little brothers would climb the "space shuttle" and then argue, cry and fight about who got to be the astronaut piloting it. And when Monday morning rolled around and we were unceremoniously woken up at the ungodly hour of 6:15 so we could get to school on time, we'd leave the house at around 7:10 and pick everyone up along the way (think Pied Piper...) so that by the time we reached the bus stop (twenty minutes later...) we were a good solid group of eight or nine kids. We'd sit in our plaid Eitz Chaim uniforms at the back of the 7C bus heading south towards school and we'd giggle and laugh until we reached our stop.
Ironically, almost all of my old neighbors are living here in Israel, and even more ironically, my old next door neighbor lives in my neighborhood, about three minutes away. So while we're not sharing a backyard anymore, our kids are growing up as neighbors. It's odd and weirdly wonderful to have that shared past with someone that you can - in turn - pass onto your kids. That doesn't happen often.
So when I wrote my first post about my home, I didn't really touch on the neighborhood. It didn't strike me until today that part of what made my childhood home a great one was the neighborhood. Today, living in my own home in Israel, I'm lucky in that respect as well. My neighborhood is an awesome one. My friends are like family and I feel I can turn to them for just about anything, be it a cup of sugar or a couple of eggs, some hot water on Shabbat morning when I forgot to plug in my urn, a ride to Modiin when I don't have a car, or their shoulder to lean on precisely at the moment when I needed it most. And when I walk into my house and see my kids playing on the floor with my neighbor's seriously-adorable one year old, I'm reminded of that great song that was the opening of the Mr. Rogers show:
It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
Friday, June 20, 2014
Wherever you might find yourself in this vast and fast-paced world, you'll stumble into a synagogue or a kosher restaurant and you'll turn to the couple sitting at the table adjacent to yours, or the person sitting next to you in synagogue and you'll find yourself playing this game. My parents, who are seasoned travelers, have hundreds of stories of the people they've met along the way, people with which they have found common connections, all by playing Jewish geography. My husband will simply hear a British accent and he'll instantly strike up a conversation with the Brits and start throwing my family name into the mix. Coming from a large British family on my dad's side, I try to remind him that just because they have an accent doesn't mean they know my family. But more often than not, it turns out that they do. It just so happens that we - our nation - happen to be quite spectacular at this game. You'll toss a few names and locations out and - lo and behold - you'll find out that you're either related, went to school with their cousin or was at their brother's wedding. And despite being a nation of 13+ million people worldwide, we are separated by far less than the 'standard' six degrees of separation. Now eat that, Kevin Bacon...
A few years ago, my husband and I wandered into the kosher restaurant in Florence and ended up - by chance - meeting a couple who were good friends of neighbors of ours. In Prague, we sat in a restaurant at a table next to a young married couple. And within minutes, we discovered that the young man was a nephew of a friend of ours. Three summers ago, we ate Friday night dinner on a canal in Venice with Chabad. And I was delighted to discover that the spirited young man who was our server that evening was the grandson of my first grade teacher, a teacher I had absolutely loved. We shared some beautiful memories of her and he was thrilled to hear stories about her that he had never heard before. On that same Shabbat, I ended up sitting next to another fellow traveler at the synagogue that just so happened to be the first cousin of one of my closest friends.
When they say that the Jewish world is a small one, they are seriously not kidding.
When these boys - OUR boys - were kidnapped, you might have said to yourself, I don't really know these boys. As small as the Jewish world is, it's not possible that we have a connection to every Jewish person we see. I mean, despite all our success at Jewish geography, it's not only improbable, but downright impossible. Right?
Over this last heart-wrenching week, I've discovered that one of the kidnapped boys is roommates with the son of a good friend of mine. He and his other roommates are sick with worry and eagerly awaiting his return. One of the other kidnapped boys lives next door to my son's friend.
And that's when it hit me.
This was not my son. And it wasn't yours. But it could have been.
Playing Jewish geography isn't just fun, or a way to kill time while sitting in a strange place far from home. It's much more than that. It signifies this thin - and sometimes invisible - yet steely-strong thread that connects us all to one another by more than just blood. This past week has been a painful one for all of us. We watch the minutes and the hours go by without any news or proof of life and we are sick with worry. But this week has also been a remarkable one. We, as a nation, have pulled together in a united and global show of support in order to bring these boys home. Together, women all over the world have baked challah this week, saying a special prayer specially for these boys. And I can't help but think about the fact that we will be eating this challah tonight while these three families will have to spend yet another painful Shabbat without their boys. We are protesting together. Whether you're standing in Times Square, in the JCC Toronto or in the local school in Chicago, we may be physically separated by thousands of miles, but that's just a stupid thing called distance. In spirit - which is what really counts - we are doing this together. And this Friday night, we are collectively lighting an extra three candles. Take a moment and try to imagine the powerful message that sends. That every single Jewish home will be lit up a little bit brighter with our fervent wish that those flames of hope and prayer will reach heavenward. And whether you're traipsing through Thailand, on a business trip in Hong Kong, on vacation in Wasaga Beach or sitting at home wherever that may be, we are all praying together for the safe return of our boys.
Because we know these boys.
They are your sons' roommates, your friends' neighbors, your nephews' classmates.
And we need to bring them home.
Monday, June 2, 2014
Shavuot, the holiday of the first fruits of the harvest is also celebrated as the day the Jews accepted the Torah. I've always been a fan of our biblical Ruth, and I love the story that's outlined in the Megilla that we read over the holiday. A grieving and homeless widow, she shows incredible strength, conviction and determination when she decides to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, into the unknown. After the death of her husband, she had the option of turning back towards her people, and starting her life anew, but she chooses to stay with Naomi and face immeasurable hardships instead. She makes an impassioned plea to her mother-in-law: 'Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.' These words, in essence, convert her to Judaism and she takes her vow quite seriously.
I have always been in awe of those who choose to convert to Judaism. I know that we are not a proselytizing people. We have no interest in trying to convince mass amounts of people to convert to our beliefs. And we discourage those who do show interest. It might seem like a double standard, since we are commanded to love those who convert, but in reality it isn't. We discourage and push away, but once someone is committed with their whole being to become a Jew, we help, encourage and take them under our wings.
But sometimes it makes me wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to convert to Judaism.... Besides the hundreds of restrictions, we also do the strangest things. We build temporary huts in the chilly fall season, live and eat in them for a week straight (which if you live in arctic Canada is not always so fun...) while shaking a long palm frond and a weird looking lemon. We eat tasteless cardboard matzah for a week in the spring and remove all flour and bread from our homes. We have our own version of Halloween and on Chanukah we light a new candle every night for eight nights instead of decorating a Christmas tree. And I haven't even gotten started on the restrictions... No pulled pork, no lobster rolls, no sautéed scallops or oysters on the half shell. No cheeseburgers, no chicken Parmesan or meat tacos with sour cream. No sleeping with your spouse for two weeks out of every month, no electricity from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and no wearing wool and linen together. And then there are a bunch of commandments that seem nutty as well. The men have to put this box on their forehead and wrap black leather around their arm while they pray, and wear a circle of fabric on their head and an undershirt with long intricately knotted strings attached to it.
Without knowing the reasons behind all of these things, it seems overwhelming. Even knowing the reasons behind some of them, it's still at times overwhelming. But most of us were born into it - it's all we know. We grew up thinking it was completely normal to eat soup while the rain dripped through the wooden slats of the sukkah as our toes froze off. Or to drive forty miles out of your way while on vacation just to get some food, while every other tourist walked into any of the hundreds of restaurants in the immediate vicinity. But those not born into it who want to convert make a conscious choice to CHOOSE it - all of it. The restrictions, the commandments, and the funny rituals. And then they have to have that awkward conversation with their families explaining why they want to take all of that on for themselves. That can't be easy, either.
I know quite a few people who are converts - a couple of them friends - and every once in a while I ask them questions about it. What made them make this life-changing choice and how difficult was it for their families. The answers are always different and always interesting. But none of it ever really affected me personally until my brother got engaged last winter. He met a lovely girl who was in the process of converting and he fell in love with her. She happened to be learning here in Israel for a three month period while they were still dating and as a result, we got to know her pretty well. How she came to make this choice was rather simple. She had grown up in a very Jewish neighborhood and went to public school with a lot of Jewish kids. Simple exposure led to some soul-searching as she grew older. And that led her to start the conversion process which she was in the middle of when she met my brother.
She's lucky, in that, her parents were - and still are! - very supportive. Her mother, being a vegetarian, makes the kosher aspect of it a little easier, but that's the simple stuff. They are completely respectful of her choice and that's not a small thing. Honestly, she was basically raised with exactly the same family values that I was, just with a different religion. She chose to build onto an existing solid foundation that her parents had given her and added Judaism to the mix. Both sides enthusiastically planned for the summer wedding and it went off without a hitch and we all had a wonderful time dancing the night away.
While it's not easy to step into a large Jewish orthodox family that boasts about its 'yichus' (impressive family lineage) dating back centuries to famous rabbis in Poland, my sister-in-law did so with grace and courage. I must remind those of us who outwardly show acceptance while inwardly breathing a sigh of relief, thinking it all fine and dandy as long as he's/she's not marrying into THEIR family, that the most impressive 'yichus' in all of our history came from Ruth. Ruth was an extraordinary woman - pious, modest, loyal and committed to a life of Torah. While that's impressive enough on its own, she also happens to be the great-grandmother of King David, a larger-than-life figure of our history who was a great king, dedicated to God and a true leader of our people. God would not have chosen her to be the great-grandmother of King David if she was not a worthy woman. You certainly can't have better 'yichus' than that.
We read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot for many reasons. King David died on Shavuot, so reading about his great-grandmother's life and the choices she made - which ultimately led to the coronation of our king - seems appropriate. But we also read it because on that same day, we accepted the Torah. It was our own conversion - not unlike Ruth's - our own declaration that we would follow God's word and His commandments. Of which one of them is: "love the convert, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19)."