Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Day My Daughter Joined The IDF - Showing Up For Duty

And then I'll get that other pup
The guy who wakes the bugler up
And spend the rest of my life in bed
(Alternate lyrics, second refrain, from “Oh How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning, by Irving Berlin, from the score of “Yip-Yip-Yaphank, 1918)

As word spread about Natania’s fledgling military career, people began asking Barbara and me how we felt about her decision. I would always answer that I was proud of her. Was I scared or worried? Not especially. The I.D.F. does not send women in battle unless they specifically volunteer. Natania was not volunteering for a combat unit and would not be sent to Lebanon or any other potential war zone. Nor was I worried about her safety or well-being in other ways.
Many of the concerns I might have had were sufficiently allayed several months ago over a Shabbat lunch. Our hosts’ daughter was in the process of completing her military career. She was now an officer, and her assignment was working with young soldiers from Russia who were in the process of completing a conversion to Judaism. Here was that rare person who truly enjoyed her job. She told us that, while there are on occasion young women who “get themselves in trouble,” sexual harassment is not common in today’s Israeli army, and that the number of religious women who were enlisting (as opposed to doing sherut leumi) was on the increase. Many people have told us the same thing: that joining the I.D.F. was Natania’s ticket to integration into Israeli society – something that her parents would probably never fully achieve.
Our biggest concern was Natania herself, a young woman who, if anyone fit the description of marching to the beat of her own drummer, it would be her. We laughingly remember her experiences only three and a half years ago. As part of a National Council of Synagogue Youth summer program in Israel, the participants spent five days in “Gadna,” designed to replicate the army experience for American teenagers who otherwise wouldn’t have a clue. Who do you think refused to even handle a weapon and who organized a rebellion? And here she was, enlisting for two whole years. There is a monumental difference between that and going away to college in Ithaca or an ulpan on a kibbutz, both of which Natania had done. Simply put, when you are in the Israeli army, or I imagine any army, they own you. Mommy and daddy can’t bail you out; you can’t leave if you don’t like it. You’re there, and you’re stuck! While I have mentioned some of the positives of the I.D.F., there is a cautionary side to it as well. While you can get a position you want or which is interesting, you can also get stuck in a boring job, making coffee or filing papers for two year. Like everywhere else in Israeli society, you have to create your own “protektzia.” (In America, it’s called by a more polite term, “networking.”) That’s not my daughter’s strength, just as it isn’t mine. Barbara has developed an amazing expertise in this endeavor over the years, and she has trained many others how to use their contacts to reach other people. Like many people who are good at something, she doesn’t understand why her own daughter won’t follow her advice!
The biggest obstacle to thriving in the I.D.F. is surviving basic training. What everyone here who is or who has been in the I.D.F. has told us is that these first few months will be the hardest time of your life; once you get past that, you’ll be fine. It’s not easy turning civilians into soldiers, especially soldiers in a real army which is of necessity always prepared for war. I believe most people understand that the I.D. F. is a real army. And it’s safe to say that the continued survival of this beleaguered little nation is due to G-d’s continuing mercy on us, and on the dedication and heroism of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Israeli men and women who somehow survive boot camp and the seemingly insane demands of the mefakedim and mefakedot (male and female officers) whose only function seems to be to torment new recruits. There is, of course, one underlying principle: to take young men and women who, as their parents and teachers can attest, are not very good at following instructions or working together, and who may not be in the best physical condition, and turn them into a cohesive unit of soldiers who will follow orders rapidly, instinctively, and successfully – perhaps enabling them to stay alive if they were ever in danger.
It is, however, difficult to internalize this principle when you are doing pushups in the mud early in the morning or making and remaking your bed at 10:30 at night, when all you want to do is get into it. We have heard some wonderful stories about army life that, in retrospect, are very funny. One involved a real soldier who came back from the trenches covered in mud. He had four minutes to take a shower; when he didn’t quite finish in time, he was ordered to take another shower, this time in three minutes! My favorite story, one which combines military life and the linguistic landmine of learning Hebrew, was told to us a few weeks ago over a Friday night dinner. This then raw recruit, when faced for the first time with a female commanding officer, instead of addressing her, “ken (yes), mefakedit, blurted out, “ken, mefagerit” (yes, crazy lady.) Oh well, what’s a few hundred more pushups………
So with the above as background information, you can imagine our darling daughter in her first two weeks of training on a base near Carmiel, all the way in the north – where it gets cold, and when it rains, it rains. The first day, she was in a unit of nine Russian girls and her. Somebody figured out that this was not a good idea, and now she is in a unit of ….five Russians (plus one other American, a Swiss, a Uruguayan, and an Ethiopian. I feel sorry for the Ethiopian; everyone else speaks either Russian or some degree of English. Amharic is not big as a second language.) However, her most constant companion is her M-16, which goes with her everywhere (to which you may be thinking, it doesn’t go with her to………..; and the answer is, yes, it does go with her even there). Lest you get unduly concerned, the only time these raw recruits are given ammunition is when they are on the firing range, and then, under very careful supervision; the I.D.F. has a decided bias against nine-toed soldiers.

Needless to say, we eagerly awaited the arrival of our fledgling soldier for her first Shabbat back home. Barbara wanted to take a picture of her in her army uniform, but Natania was adamant about getting out of her khakis and taking a shower. I had to take myself off kitchen duty and become the laundry squad while my daughter, weary from a stressful week, collapsed on the couch. We never did get that photo op; the next time Natania put on her uniform was 5AM Sunday morning when she was getting ready to leave and head back to the base. I think that’s when it really hit us – more than the week before when we had first seen her off – that our baby was now in the army.

There are different reasons for which we can be proud of our children. One is for exceptional accomplishment: your child is class valedictorian. Or they did their best; at least they graduated. But there is another reason, perhaps more subtle. My daughter is doing what hundreds of thousands of very ordinary Israelis have already done and will keep doing– for her own reasons, no doubt, but that’s OK. Whether or not she gets her wish to train patrol dogs, or they stick her somewhere else, she has at least shown up for duty in the first Jewish army in almost 2000 years. This is something which my Uncle George and his generation and the many generations before them could scarcely have imagined and never had the opportunity; and it something which many Jewish youths today unfortunately will never have the privilege and the honor.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Day My Daughter Joined The IDF Part 1

Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning
[Original 1918 version:]

[1st VERSE:]
The other day I chanced to meet a soldier friend of mine
He'd been in camp for sev'ral weeks and he was looking fine
His muscles had developed and his cheeks were rosy red
I asked him how he liked the life and this is what he said:

Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning
Oh! How I'd love to remain in bed

For the hardest blow of all
Is to hear the bugler call
You've got to get up
You've got to get up
You've got to get up this morning

Someday I'm going to murder the bugler
Someday they're going to find him dead

I'll amputate his reveille
And step upon it heavily
And spend the rest of my life in bed
(from the score of the musical Yip-Yip-Yaphank by Irving Berlin)

One of the troubling paradoxes of life: by the time you are old enough or wise enough to ask a question, there may be no one left to give the answer. I’m not one of those enthusiasts with a passion for genealogy who creates elaborate family trees (my motto being, “Let distant cousins lie”). But I have always been interested in the circumstances of how my grandparents’ made it to America and what life was like for them back in the 1880’s. When I was younger, I thought I had a clear picture; but the older I got, the less sense some of the information seemed to make, and the fewer people there were around to set the record straight. In fact, at this point in time, there is nobody left who has any first hand or even second hand information.
Part of the difficulty was the glacial speed at which my family reproduced itself. My father was born in 1900; my mother in 1903. My father’s mother, Fannie (after whom Frank and I were named and whom Natania and I resemble) died in 1933, eight years before my brother and I were born. A few months after our birth, my father’s father died. About four years after that, my mother’s father died. The only grandparent with whom I had any relationship was my mother’s mother, known to the family as Tante Masha (one of the sweetest people to ever grace this planet), who died at the ripe old age of 95 in 1962.
Part of the difficulty was that the stories I heard about both sides of my family seemed remarkably similar, and I’m sure I have mixed up some of the detail of their lives. Both of my grandfathers, I was told, arrived here in 1885 to escape being drafted into the Czarist army. One of them, I’m not sure which, sent a brother who had tuberculosis (and would obviously be rejected) in his place, and then fled in the dead of night. My paternal grandfather, who was from Minsk came into this world as something like Elkanah Kashdan, but by the time he arrived in The Lower East Side he was Henry Cohen. (My father changed his and most of his siblings’ names back to ‘Casden’ in 1920 when he began law school.) Whoever he was, he – and this might be a romanticized version – slept on the carpenter’s bench in his shop and saved his money to bring his wife and their only child at the time, my aunt Mae, to America.
My maternal grandfather came into this world and left it as Samuel Jacobson, the first cousin and later the husband of Tante Mashe. But here’s what doesn’t make any sense. They were definitely and unequivocally German speaking Jews – not a syllable of Yiddish, and yet they were supposed to be from Riga, in Latvia. During the 1930’s, many of their cousins made it over here – from Germany. So what were they doing in Latvia, where the Jews spoke Yiddish? I’ll never know. Of course, if they actually were in Riga, which was then under Russian rule, it would make sense that Samuel Jacobson was also fleeing the Czar’s army.
One thing I thought I could rely on was when they actually arrived in American: 1885, which meant that they were here before Ellis Island became the immigration center for the New York Harbor. Recently, all the records for Castle Garden (which was the Ellis Island before Ellis Island, and which is still a tourist site in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan) became available in searchable form on The Web. And guess what? I couldn’t find any record of any of them arriving at anytime!
So I’m not positive when they came here, where they came from, or even what their names were! All I’m left with is that at least one or maybe both of my grandfathers fled the Old World (and I’m certainly glad they did) in the dead of night to avoid long years of service in a hostile army. Military service was rarely on the radar for the Casden or Jacobson families. Except for my Uncle George who served in WW I (I have a photograph from 1918 of him in his military uniform with the family dog, a little fox terrier named Teddy), I have no knowledge of any one else related to me serving in the American Armed Forces (although conceivably uncles and cousins might have). My father was too young for WW I and too old for WW II. Neither my brother nor I served during the Vietnam War, and we’ll leave it at that.
As many of you know, I’m a big picture guy; I try to see the world as a large globe rather than a trillion blades of grass, a zillion grains of sand, and a kazillion drops of water. One of the grand themes that ran through my head as we were planning our aliyah was this delicious bit of irony: that my grandparents came to America to flee Czarist conscription, and here we were returning Home to a Jewish state with a Jewish army. At that point, though, this was still an abstract idea. However, when we arrived here, this issue, as well as many others, became a lot more tangible.
We arrived here in Maale Adumim the end of July; if we had waited another six weeks, Natania would have been 20, and pretty much exempt from any military obligation. As it is, the I.D.F. wouldn’t have bothered her for at least a year because all new olim have that grace period. And if she then asked to be exempted to do sherut leumi (alternative national service as a religious woman), they wouldn’t have needed her for that service either because she would have been too old.
So Natania’s decision to request induction into the Israeli army was completely voluntary on her part. She marched herself into the I.D.F. office on Rashi St. in Jerusalem and asked to sign up. They called her back several times for various tests, the funniest one being the eye test. It seems they needed to make sure she didn’t have or need a seeing eye dog (too expensive to train or feed.) Natania inherited my great eyesight (joke), but she still managed to pass. After weeks of waiting, Natania finally got her induction notice: she was to report for duty on Feb. 10. Well, it was still October, and February seemed a long way off. So our little household maintained its same routine: we all got up at the crack of dawn to go to ulpan, trudging up the hill to catch the same bus, and generally returning together in the afternoon. Natania helped me with the shopping and cooking and assisted Barbara with housecleaning, while maintaining her positions as chief tech support person for all computer and gadget related activities and as chief household critic. (Barbara does all the fixing and worrying and handles all matters involving telephones.) And one by one, the weeks went by, as they always do, until it was time to start worrying about packing: “Natania, are you sure you have everything you need?”
And then it was our last pre-induction Shabbat, a special occasion, because we had no idea how often Natania would be able to come home. Tina came in from Tel Aviv (bringing with her two bottles of Single Malt she had picked up for me at the Duty-Free on one of her business trips) , and June and Jeff (“never a dull moment”) Glazer joined us. We were invited out, and we had people in, we talked a lot, we ate a lot, we sampled some of the Scotch, and ultimately Shabbat was over. Tina returned to Tel Aviv, the Glazers to Jerusalem. For our “last meal,” We ordered a pie from Pizza Roni (better than any Jerusalem 2 in America.)
Natania’s induction notice told us to arrive at 7:30 AM. While we have learned to be very, very skeptical about most Israeli starting times, we figured this is the army, so we should get there on time. In fact, on Sunday, Feb. 10, we arrived at the induction center at 7:20AM. First we waited outside in the cold, and then we were ushered inside to wait where it was warm. If this were back in The States, we might have been able to figure out what was going on around us by signs and voices, but here we just sat and watched the activity, trying to figure out by context what was going on. First the “jobniks” (male and female soldiers with office jobs, whose greatest safety risk might be getting paper cuts) arrived for work and began walking around the office with the studied efficiency of postal workers. Then all manner of civilians began arriving. Some of them were there for the same pre-induction examinations that Natania had taken. Some of them were yeshiva “bochers” coming to get their exemptions. You could tell the difference.
I especially noticed one young hassid, with an especially pallid complexion, stooped shoulders, long side locks and knickers, having no clue where to go. Exemption?!! This kid probably couldn’t even lift a rifle! Although I did read recently of one man who was blind and another who was seriously disabled who fought and fought until they were accepted into the I.D.F. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. No will, no way.
I thought back to that previous Friday night. Our large contingent was invited to one of our neighbors for dinner. It was a very large table because all of their children were home including their soldier son, Yoni, who is not only a paratrooper but is now training others to be paratroopers. We sat for a very long time, and soon the Schumaker home became Grand Central Station. Each of the children had their friends over. At one point, about ten of Yoni’s friends, boys he had known since childhood, all of whom were now in the military, came in together. I looked at these young men sitting together on the chairs in the far side of the room and, being the “visionary” that I am, saw these young men as poster children for our future: that of the religious Zionist community, of our beleaguered but potentially magnificent nation, of the Jewish people – and, yes, we all have a glorious future. Here were young men who were religiously knowledgeable and firm in their beliefs. None of them was particularly imposing physically, but they were in good condition and were trained soldiers. I had the sense that each of these young men could be learning from a Gemara held in one hand and could lob a hand grenade to take out an enemy tank with the other hand. OK, I am probably overstating my case, but you get the idea. As far as the hareidi and hassidic men and their exemptions are concerned, while some of them are indifferent or even hostile to our Zionist entity, many others sincerely believe that their learning is the highest form of service to the nation of Israel – and they may be right. Of course, they all understand that if terrorists were, G-d forbid, to attack their yeshiva, the Hand of G-d that would save them, would come wearing the uniform of the I.D. F.
More and more men and women entered the induction center. Some of them had backpacks or knapsacks; clearly they were there for their induction. A few came with parents; some were on their own. Finally at 9:30, after waiting and watching for two hours, someone came into the waiting room and made an announcement: it was time to go. That was it: no muss, no fuss; no ceremony; no words of wisdom. We all went outside where a van big enough to hold the dozen or so recruits was parked. We hugged Natania and watched as she climbed into the van, headed for who knows where. Suddenly, Barbara and I were standing by ourselves on a street corner, both of us feeling that part of our life was now missing. We were desperately in need of breakfast, and so we walked back to Mahane Yehuda, to a little café which Barbara and Natania had found several weeks before. There we had some coffee and pastry, and then it was time for Barbara to head off to ulpan, and for me to take the bus back home and to sort out my thoughts, which will be presented, patient readers, in the next installment, coming soon to a computer screen near you.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Tu B'Shvat Seder

(I believe that this is where we left off before the intermission)
…We had responded to an e-mail from Isralite (one of the many excellent outreach programs offered here in The Land): “…Tu B’Shvat offers a unique opportunity for insight into living and personal growth. Throughout the centuries, Mystics have used the tree as a metaphor to understand G-d’s relationship to the spiritual and physical worlds.” Well. I’m all for personal growth, particularly if there is something to eat and real wine involved. And so we headed for the Old City to meet up with our friends, the Glazers, who had just made aliyah a month before, and Phil, another friend from Teaneck, who was here scouting out a school for his son. Off the bus at Yaffa St., down through the Yaffa Gate, through the Old City into the Jewish Quarter, past the Cardo, past the Hurva (a large synagogue that our friends and neighbors, The Jordanians, demolished when they had control of the Old City, and which is being rebuilt), almost to the end of the plaza, just before the descent down the stairs to The Kotel, turn left into a little alleyway, Misgav Ladach, find #25, go up a flight of stairs and there you are at the headquarters of Isralite. Not very grandiose, but certainly very friendly. We had been given two instructions: bring exact change for admission, and come on time. Well, we did both. Of course, they didn’t start on time, but we had plenty of time to chat with our friends and size up the situation. We were in a long, narrow room with arched ceilings, obviously not built in the last ten years. The long table was set up with wine and the fruits and nuts for the seder. The lights were dimmed with lit candles on the table, the kind of ambience you would want to have if you were planning to propose to your future spouse. People started to come in, F.L. I.S. (fashionably late, Israeli style) although I suspect that most of the guests were originally from the Great 48. And when there were many more people present than the room could reasonably accommodate, it was time to begin.
It happens that we had participated in Tu B’Shvat seders in our past, going back to Jackson Heights, NY and Caldwell, NJ., so we knew “the drill”: whatever songs are sung or words of wisdom imparted, there are always four cups of a grape beverage, starting with all white, then a little red mixed with the white, then mostly red, then all red. I still don’t understand why you do that. The fruits and nuts are easier. Wherever you are trying to go in life, there is often something stopping you, an initial resistance, corresponding to products with a hard shell or peel. Even when you go beyond that, there is perhaps a core resistance, corresponding to fruits with pits inside. The third stage corresponds to that stage when you have overcome most of your obstacles, and for this, there are those few fruits where you can eat the entire thing, like figs or persimmons. Finally, you reach such a spiritual level (you wish!) that you’re beyond the physical, so there is no food which corresponds.
But in our previous attempts at Tu B’Shvat seders in The States, there was always something missing, a sense of disconnectedness. There we were celebrating an arboreal new year, and my closest visual cue would be the dead Xmas trees that our gentile neighbors had left out by the curb or in the alley way. We were having fun, but it didn’t mean much. It may have been partly something lacking in us (I will admit that most kabbalistic concepts enter my brain and leave it with the speed of an Israeli taxi driver going from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon), but mostly it was another case of wrong time, wrong place. Try having an American July 4th barbecue in New Zealand, where it would be the dead of winter.
The rabbi leading the seder was a wonderful young man named Mottle Wolfe (probably the only non-Haredi guy in Jerusalem named Mottle). In between singing, strumming the guitar, cueing us when and what to eat and drink, Reb Mottle dropped the following seemingly innocuous question: where is the holiest place in The Land? We were maybe a football field and a half from The Kotel and The Temple Mount, and he was asking…. No, insisted Reb Mottle, the holiest place was……the Machane Yehuda shuk! To which, I let out a barely audible gasp. Reb Mottle’s explanation (with the additional historical fill-in by ours truly) is as follows: The building in which we were sitting, even – as I mentioned before – as old as it was, had been constructed on the ruins of a much older and bloodier structure, a Crusader fortress.
(Do any of you – especially if you had any part of a secular education – remember what you learned about The Crusades? If you don’t, here’s a short excerpt from the Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia article on The First Crusade to refresh your memory;
“The success of the First Crusade was unprecedented. Newly achieved stability in the west left a warrior aristocracy in search of new conquests and patrimony, and the new prosperity of major towns also meant that money was available to equip expeditions….. The Papacy saw the Crusades as a way to assert Catholic influence as a unifying force, with war as a religious mission. This was a new attitude to religion: it brought religious discipline, previously applicable only to monks, to soldiery—the new concept of a religious warrior and the chivalric ethos.”
Kind of takes your breath away. “Religious discipline, chivalric ethos.”
As the eleventh century of the Common Era was coming to a close, there seemed to be two main “industries” prevalent in Europe: building incredible cathedrals and hating infidels. Veteran readers of these posts will remember the four main excuses for European anti-Semitism: 4) ruining their economy. Whatever economy there was in Europe at the time was created by Jews; so that wouldn’t work. 3) Blood libels. The first recorded blood libel in Europe didn’t occur until 1144; so that wouldn’t work. 2) The black plague. The Bubonic plague didn’t arrive in Europe until the fourteenth century so that wouldn’t work. But 1) killing “Their Savior”? Timeless. In 1096 C.E., mobs of men, women, and children began “pilgrimages” to Jerusalem to regain control of the city from the Muslims. Most of them never got there. In fact, why go to all that trouble when there are so many Jews nearby? As part of this “First Crusade,” 10,000 German soldiers proceeded to Jerusalem by marching in the opposite direction, north through the Rhine Valley, decimating entire Jewish communities along the way. In Worms, they herded the entire Jewish community into the synagogue and then burned down the building. You might consider this an eleventh century version of “inter-faith dialogue.” In 1099 C.E., the remnants of this vicious band joined with other Roman Catholics in besieging Jerusalem and massacring every Jew, Muslim, and Eastern Christian they could find. Some of these Crusaders intended to stay and create an agricultural society. The ruined structure under our building on Misgav Ladach #25 was part of that effort.)
Of course, The Crusaders could grow nothing, and their project was an abject failure. Our holy land, which had remained desolate and barren from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple and our expulsion as a nation, would remain unmanageable no matter who conquered it. Only when we Jews began to return and create a viable yishuv would anything grow in the soil. And now The Land is blossoming again with flowers, fruits, and vegetables. And where is the most tangible manifestation of this restored fertility? The enormous market, Mahane Yehuda, of course.
Let me add the following thought. We know that today there are no overt miracles, by which is meant that even the most miraculous events take place within the framework of nature. You can choose to believe, or you can choose not to believe. When you see a tomato that was just grown here (and let’s set aside for now any discussion of how “shmittah” should be dealt with), you can consider it as a product of fertilizer and agronomics. Or when you see an enormous pile of tomatoes – ripe, succulent, full of flavor – in the shuk, and then a worker comes, opens a huge carton, and places even more tomatoes on the pile, you can choose to see “The Hand” of Our Creator at work.
It happened that I was sitting right next to Reb Mottle. When the seder was over, we both stood up, and I told him that he had scared me. He looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked me what I meant. I told him that I had thought that I was the only one who considered Mahane Yeduda to be the holiest place in The Land. He looked at me; I looked at him. We hugged each other.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tu B'Shvat or What?

Here was my dilemma when I woke up on Monday, Jan. 21, 2008 in Maale Adumim, a little bit east of Yerushalayim (where Martin Luther King Day is not even a blip on the radar screen): that evening was Tu B’Shvat, and the fans across The Pond were no doubt awaiting something scintillating from me, and I had almost nothing to say. How could I write about a holiday which isn’t even a holiday in any real sense of the word? Not that it’s like American Kwanzaa, which somebody actually did make up. Tu B’Shvat is real, but until “recently” (a relative term in Jewish history) it was no big deal.
Originally, Tu B‘shvat, the new year for the trees, was no more than a date that you would have been marked off on the calendar on your refrigerator – except that they probably didn’t have calendars or appointment books back then in the days of the first and second Temples – so you could keep track of what year you could begin eating the olives or date palms growing in your backyard and if what you were bringing for your agricultural tax was from this year’s crop, or last year’s, or next year’s.
So there had to be a day on which the agricultural new year started (not the same as Rosh Hashana), and for fruit trees, the new year began on the fifteenth day of the month of Shvat, which corresponds to sometime in January or February. If you are standing here in The Land, the reason why this date was chosen is obvious: the early-bird almond trees begin to blossom (sort of like the first crocuses in your yard in New Jersey.) But there wasn’t much of a festivity; just like nobody I knew back in The States threw a big bash to celebrate the beginning of a new fiscal year.
However, as we began to resettle our ancestral homeland, Tu B’Shvat began to evolve into something like a Jewish Arbor Day. Trees get planted (in non-Shmittah years), hikes are taken, ecological concerns are raised, and – no surprise – people eat. For several weeks before, there is a run on fresh and dried fruits, nuts, all the bountiful products that are grown in this country – now that we have come back to plant in it and care for it – although we’re not doing too well on caring for it. I remember the usual half-hearted attempts in Zionist circles in America to mark this occasion: a few figs and dates along with a piece of bokser (carob), a dried, hard, black, inedible, nasty, string-like thing that you would chew on and wonder why anybody would eat this of their own volition. May I let you in on a little secret? As far as I can see, nobody here eats that; at least, in all my wanderings and shopping forays, I never saw it being sold. Eating bokser – like having two days of “yuntif” – is your punishment for remaining in Exile.
So what else could I consider writing about as I sat down at the computer that January morning? I should mention that I am taking a “hafsekah” (a break) from ulpan, having climbed a good several miles up the Everest of mastering our ancient mother tongue. Instead, I am at the computer from three to seven hours every day. In addition to the long hours I put in on these entries (everything I send out has been gone over three times: the first version is what I think I’m trying to say; the second draft is what I actually want to say; and the final version is what the text itself needs to say), I have taken on two additional projects. The first is to prepare articles for some commercial websites, for which I would get paid on a commission basis for what was sold from the site. I began by delivering two pretty good articles on Pesach preparation for a website that sells seder plates and other related paraphernalia. However, it’s been almost two weeks, and the guy still hasn’t put the articles up – although he assures me he will. This may have been a total waste of my time, but that’s how it goes!
Much more interesting and rewarding is the second project. Shortly after we arrived here this past summer, we were joined by Mordechai and Orly Friedfertig (who lived for a few years in Teaneck before they moved to Buffalo where he was a pulpit rabbi.) R. Friedfertig began working for Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim, translating work by R. Shlomo Aviner – one of the pre-eminent dati leumi (national religious) rabbis in Israel – and making them available in e-mail format. One Shabbat at Mussar Avicha where we both hang out, I told R. Friedfertig that the material he was distributing was excellent, but it was diminished somewhat by the number of mistakes and typos in the text, as well as by some English which was, in my words, “less than graceful.” No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I was appointed editor for the weekly parsha sheet – at the same salary as I am receiving for writing these posts to you! (Rav Aviner’s material can be obtained either on the “Shabbat Shalom” section from the Orthodox Union website or directly by e-mailing RavAviner-subscribe@yahoogroups.com). Several weeks later, I wondered out loud if any of the 100 or so books that Rav Aviner has written were or would be available in English. Funny I should ask! The yeshiva had received some money to prepare an English language version of Rav Aviner’s commentary on the Haggada. It would definitely need editing………….
After a long morning session working on one of my projects – I don’t rightly remember which one – Natania came into the office and asked me if I would like to take a walk. I was hard at work, but I decided to take her up on her offer: now that I’m not traipsing around Jerusalem every day, I have to remember to stop sitting hunched over my keyboard and get some exercise; more to the point, my daughter will be inducted into the IDF on February 10, and her future hikes will not be led by her doting daddy. Anyway, it was erev Tu B’Shvat, and this would be our chance to meet and greet Nature in Israel.
We decided to walk along the nature trail near our house, one of several such trails in Maale Adumim that wind through the waadis (these are the low areas in the valleys which can turn into short-lived but dangerous rivers during the winter rains; they would be called “gullies” in cowboy country). Our trail is hard to get to: we have to walk up to the top of the hill (where we would get the bus to Jerusalem) and keep going a little ways. Right before the huge power station, we would start going down an unmarked path all the way into the valley. A little way down, there is a small ugly blue-green station that was put there for bird watching (our little Land is right on the flight path of millions of migratory birds.) The most interesting thing about this station is the dedications, all from French Jews, in memory of Monsieur or Madame whomever, someone’s parent or other relative, all of whom were great friends of Israel. Continuing down the winding path, we kept seeing dedication plaques for clumps of trees, again all in memory of “grands amis de Israel.” We were in a miniature J.N.F. forest! There are, in fact, many trees here, although I am told that a fire a few years ago did diminish the number. As we kept going, we passed benches, picnic tables, and a little playground carefully and lovingly placed there, all with the requisite signs of dedication. But there was no one there – except for me and Natania.
We sat and rested for a while by a picnic area, very close to the little playground. I decided then and there that I wanted to meet the J.N.F. representative who convinced all these gullible Frenchies to part with their francs and honor pére or mére by building a playground which few children would ever see! There are many wonderful playgrounds, large and small, in Maale Adumim; why would a parent schlep a child down a precipice to use this one? Whoever the J.N.F. sheliach was, he’s the guy you want heading your sales force for your Frigidaire store in Katzebue, Alaska. There’s a moral to be gleaned from this about how tzedekah money is spent, and you are free to figure it out on your own.
I can’t say that the trail and the valley were strewn with garbage; that would be a very unfair and very great exaggeration. But there was just enough stuff strewn about to be noticeable, and to make you wonder how these things got there: a few overturned shopping carts, an old sneaker, a flattened and weather-beaten soda can, parts of a grill, perhaps a glove, the requisite number of old tires, and some things whose original function have been obliterated by the passage of time. Mind you, while some of the items were either lost or abandoned, they were all carried hundreds of feet down a steep incline to get to their final resting place. But how would one shoe come to be there? Did its owner hop back up the hill on one foot?
With all this, it was a glorious day to be walking, and one could believe that winter here was coming to an end, or at least to the beginning of an end – which is what Tu B’Shvat is supposed to be about. While there were no almond trees a-blooming – this being a desert – we could see the first signs of new, green growth on trees and shrubs that dotted the valley, and at least the people who paid for the trees got their money’s worth. We climbed back up the steep path, and as I gasped for breathe, I reminded myself that, only a year ago or so, we were climbing the NJ Palisades with Danny Chazin, our fearless leader. We arrived back home in time for Barbara and Natania to go to our local veterinarian to pick up “Half-Ear,” a friendly orange street cat for whom we paid to have needed medical attention for an infected ear. We have not seen him around the last week or so, and we fear that he was one of the many cats that did not survive the recent cold spell. It would seem that our amis in France were not the only ones who didn’t get their money’s worth.
Time to rest up (i.e., take a nap) before the next big event: a Kabbalistic Tu B’Shvat seder that evening. And time for an intermission. Part 2 will be coming to a computer screen near you in a few days.