Trying Harder

I'm a member of many Facebook groups for olim (immigrants) and English Speakers in Israel. One of the things I learn everyday from these groups is how very lucky Adam and I have been in these past 11 months.

We found a home, a community, friends and jobs before we were even here 6 months.


Our children have adjusted to the language, culture, schools, food and friends quicker than I ever could have hoped. I marvel at how carefree, independent, and happy they are on a daily basis. I mean my almost 5 year old walks himself to school!

We have gained so much as a family, as a couple and as individuals from this move. Our lives have taken on a different rhythm. Although we both love the company we work for, we work to live now- we don't live to work. Quality time together and with the kids is no longer just for Shabbat. It's hard to explain, but life here in the South of Israel, especially in our little village of Retamim, is just a little bit slower.

All of that being said, there are moments when the weight of what we have sacrificed can feel suffocating. I know that's not what you all want to hear. What I can tell you is that these moments have been few and far between, but know they are there.

I think about the relationships that have changed and the people that I miss and my heart breaks. I know we all do our best and technology is a wonderful thing, but it can never take the place of real live interaction.

We say we'll call, but days go by then weeks and nothing. I'm probably the most guilty of this, the time difference is hard. Talking on the phone or computer with 3 kids under 5 is HARD.

Sometimes to bring myself to call is just plain hard. It brings into focus all that we are missing there and all the things people are missing here. In the moment its just easier to keep going and skip the call.

When I do finally call, or answer the phone when it rings, I am happy that I did. I'm always happy to hear the familiar voice and/or see the familiar face of the people we love.

So I'd like to say this as we are beginning a new year: I'll try harder.

Hearing as a Jew

Note: Yes, I know it has been far too long since I have blogged. There are reasons for that and I will get into them another time. For now, know that I have about 15 posts stewing in my head or on paper in various stages of completion. Some day I will get them all out.
The Kotel, Motzei Shabbos right before Rosh Hashanah

The Second of Tishrei has just come to a close here in Eretz Yisrael, and Rosh Hashanah is past. This year, during the 10 Days of Awe, I actually feel that awe.

A friend of mine asked me today: "How was it?" "What?" I responded. "The last several days. How have they compared?" I thought about it, and I told him that I felt like I was actually inside the liturgy.

The tunnel right next to the Kotel
What I am about to say I hope no one in the States takes as a slight. I really do not mean it badly. But, and I do not think anyone would deny me this fact, there is a problem with the American Jewish culture. We see it in the statistics from a few years ago, in the assimilation, and in the rising numbers of younger generations becoming disenfranchised and disconnected from Judaism. After all, part of our motivation for Aliyah was to give our children a Jewish life, with Jewish peers, and a Jewish education. To avoid the disconnection, we wanted to bring them to where they could see, live, and experience Judaism everyday. Part of that experience has really come full force upon me in the last few days.

Right after Shabbos, I went with a friend to Jerusalem. We went to the Kotel just after midnight to join many others in saying Selichot. It was an experience for sure.
But, let me backup just one more step even further to earlier in that same day. I was called up for the 4th aliyah on Shabbos. The parshah of the week was Vayelech. Here is a translation of the text I was called up for:

Then, Moses commanded them, saying, "At the end of [every] seven years, at an appointed time, in the Festival of Succoth, [after] the year of release, When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your God, in the place He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears. Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and your stranger in your cities, in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the Lord, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah. And their children, who did not know, will hear and learn to fear the Lord, your God, all the days that you live on the land, to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess.

The view of the Kotel I saw as
I entered the plaza just after midnight
This last line really stuck with me. It was directly related to what I was attempting to achieve. To "live on the land," to "possess" it, and to teach my children. But as I dwelled on this line longer, another word popped out at me: "hear." And what were the children to be hearing? The Torah.

I was thinking about this as I went with my friend to the Kotel that night. What better example can there be of Jews possessing "the land" than seeing them congregate in Jerusalem. That night, the streets were packed. Stores and restaurants were open. It could just have easily been 7pm as it was 12am. There was an energy in the city that I felt. And when we finally made it to the Western Wall Plaza, all I could think about was the miracle that this was even possible. That I was in Israel. That Israel existed. That the Jews--a people in exile for 2000 years--existed. I was standing among people that all had a story to tell about how they got there in that moment.

I prayed for a lot that night, and of course my children were a large focus of my attention. And it is the focus on children that helps Judaism survive. More than anything else, we learn that children must come first. To paraphrase a piece of commentary I read today (I will come back with a more exact cite later):

A man looking forward to next year will plant crops.
A man looking forward to the next 10 years will plant trees.
A man looking forward to the next 100 years will educate children.

How true is that!

Which brings me back to what I was feeling that last couple days in shul: complete connection with the liturgy. For anyone that knows me, my Hebrew is so so. Generally when I daven, I read only the Hebrew. From past experience I know enough about what I am saying that I rarely reference the English page for a translation. But I felt that the people around me this year on Rosh Hashanah were so deeply connected to their prayers, I had to know exactly what each line meant. I davened just about the whole service twice. Once in Hebrew, and then again in English. I was struck.

And then I thought about it. About my own disconnections, and those of English-speaking Jews such as myself. Perhaps, just perhaps, one way to solve the future generation's apathy towards religion is to let them experience what I did this past Rosh Hashanah. And how can we do that? By letting them hear the prayers in Hebrew.

Just like the Torah says: by letting them hear. Not in English. In Hebrew. And, if we want them to hear, they need to know Hebrew. Let's all teach our children not just how to read and write Hebrew. Maybe even conversing in Hebrew is not the key. But maybe letting them hear in Hebrew is the answer.

Let Go and Let G-d

One of the families that lives at Retamim is doing Shlichut* next year in Arizona. They are in the process of packing up all of their belongings, selling things they no longer need, giving things away and saying goodbye (more like see you later -since shlichut is a maximum of 2 years). Much of what they are going through feels eerily similar to my life of 8 or 9 months ago.

I do not envy them.

Last week many of the women gathered for a pool party in the evening to wish Tamar (the woman leaving--not her real name) well and sent her on her way with ברכות (blessings). At this event I was talking to one of the other women about the event that Adam and Gavi had attended that same day: 221 Anglo Olim arriving on the first of 2 summer charter flights with Nefesh B'Nefesh. Gavi had been invited to go and be a part of the big ceremony, so Adam took him. 

I was telling my friend about how amazing an event it was, and how I couldn't fathom how different my life would be now if we had waited to come on a charter flight this August. 

Her response was: "You wouldn't have met Tamar!"

That in and of itself was enough to cause me pause because Tamar was one of my first friends in Israel and I happily consider her one of my closest. But the comment made me think harder about the events and choices that led us here. To this very place. At this very time.

I can tell you: last summer, I was low. I was angry. I was questioning. But now, as I sit at a birthday dinner put together by my friends (real Israeli friends after only 8 months), get up and go to work (a real full time English speaking paying job after only 6 months), or most importantly listen to my beautiful happy children speak the language without effort to their friends, I am confident I know what the trials and tribulations of this past year were for. If we had waited, we may not have even made Aliyah, we certainly wouldn't be at Retamim. I couldn't imagine my life here any other way than it is and I thank Hashem everyday for allowing me this journey. Other olim, even born Israelis, marvel at the success we have found in such a short time here. We have good jobs, a community, a home, and even friends, in only 8 short months.

I believe with all my heart that last spring/ summer we hit our proverbial rock bottom and the only place to go was up. We went up. We made Aliyah.

*Shlichut is a Hebrew word that means sending out or commissioning people. It generally refers to an outreach program that is initiated and participated in by organizations and agencies. These missions are based on strong values and ideologies.

Language Firsts

The funny thing about living in a foreign country whose native language is not your own, eventually you need to learn that language. I would like to share some of this with you, along with the amazing revelations I have had about language development.

I think just about everybody has told me that kids pick up the language fast. I know it, I get it. But seeing it actually unfold before my eyes is nothing short of miraculous to me. My kids are like sponges that have picked up an Israeli cadence and speech tone that I cannot even come close to approximating. How do they do it?

Since being in Israel, I have been engaged in a lot of conversations with my oldest son that go something like this:
Question: "How do you say [insert English word here] in Hebrew?"
Answer: "[insert Hebrew response]"
And with that, I notice the new Hebrew word popping up in conversation and usage left and write. Whenever a new word is learned, the kids try it out at every opportunity as if to wear a proud badge on their chest saying: I learned a new word today.

My middle child (being just shy of 3) will undoubtedly be the most fluent in both languages. I think she already has an ear that far surpasses mine or my wife's in listening and comprehending Hebrew.

Which brings me to my biggest problem. Listening. When someone speaks to me in Hebrew, often times I fully know (or should at least) what they are saying. But the quick-tongue, and my still slow processing time leaves me in the dust every time. While I am still grappling with the beginning of the conversation, the speaker has already moved on to a new topic. And then ... I am lost.

In Ulpan, conversations were generally at a slower pace, making my ability to follow easier. Couple that with my grasp of what was going on, I felt quite comfortable.

Part of our decision to live in the South, and Retamim in particular, was because we wanted to be immersed in the language. We wanted to be forced to learn it and not live in a community where English could be a crutch. Perhaps more for the sake of the kids than ourselves.

That part of the plan has worked out well.

Let's revisit the question and answer from above.
Question: "How do you say [insert English word here] in Hebrew?"
Answer: "[insert Hebrew response]"
The issue here is that in recent weeks, the Questioner has gone from being my son, to being me. I have experienced many new firsts in the months we have been here. Asking my 4 year old son for a definition of a word ... definitely a first.

Maybe I am cutting myself a little short. In the last few months I have noticed that Hebrew has started coming to me much more quickly. When I am engaged in conversation (whether it be in my head or merely myself imagining what I could say in a conversation), the thought process of how to say what I want seems more fluid.

But the real fluidity that amazes me comes from the kids. Their ability to travel back and forth baffles me. I know plenty of people that converse well in both languages, and have for years. None of them seem to code-switch as effortlessly as the children who knew not a  lick of Hebrew just a few short months ago.

This is amazing to me. Simply baffling.

Never Again- A Quick Note on Yom Hashoa


Yesterday was Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day). The entire nation observes this day together. At 10 AM there is a siren and everyone stops what they are doing stands and remembers the 6 million Jews and 5 million others who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their helpers. Hitler hated the Jews and wanted our extermination for no other reason than the fact that we are Jewish. Throughout Israel on Yom HaShoa, there are ceremonies commemorating the horrific event. In our Ulpan it was no different. After the completion of the siren and moment of silence we had a small ceremony.

Six of us lit candles and said a short description of who we were lighting them for:
1. In memory of the mothers that died in the Holocaust. In memory of the young women that tried to guard and to protect their children. That were taken to their deaths and didn't return to their families.
2. In memory of the fathers that were killed in the Holocaust. In memory of the young men that saw their loves--their children and their wife taken to their deaths and they couldn't help.
3. (I lit this one) In memory of the million and a half children and babies that found themselves without father and mother, without bread and clothes, cold and frightened. They died before they started to live.
4. In memory of the young people that just wanted to continue to live but found their deaths at the hands of the Nazis and their helpers.
5. In memory of the elderly and in memory of the sick and disabled that according to the Nazis had no right to live, and therefore they sent to die in cruelty.
6. In memory of the warriors that gave their lives in order to foil the work of the Nazi's. In memory of the heroes that guarded their humanity in the hell of the Holocaust. May their memories be a blessing. 

There were a couple of songs and quotes after, but the candles and descriptions were the most powerful part for me. I found myself getting teary eyed. This surprised me not because I am not emotional about the Holocaust, because I am, but because I was getting teary eyed at something in Hebrew. Amazing that my linguistic ability has progressed to the point where I can understand something on that level. (By the way, I just translated that whole candle ceremony into English).

It occurred to me as I was crying through the ceremony that THIS is why we are here. One of the big reasons we have uprooted our lives and started fresh here in Israel is because we believe in this land.

We believe in a need for a Jewish state and this day of remembrance commemorates the reason why.

We believe that both Jewish people like us, and Jewish people different from us need to take the leap and live here, work here, love here, dream here, and just be here to keep making this Land the home it needs to be for the Jewish people. The State of Israel, the Jewish Homeland, needs to stay strong in order to prevent such an atrocity from happening again.

"It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed."
-Eli Weisel

Never Forget - עם ישראל חי (Am Yisrael Chai)

Pesach Prep and Our First Visitors from the States

Pesach is in two days....TWO!

Image from JoyOfKosher
I am two full days behind in my cleaning, and therefore my cooking is also behind schedule due to an unexpected virus (I'm not sure why I still consider them unexpected). Tomorrow our first visitors arrive to Retamim (Gram and Artie) and Friday we have three additional guests coming for seder and Shabbat. I've been planning, running, buying, and cleaning like crazy and I haven't stopped to think or process any of it. There are several things here exciting, happy, sad, nostalgic...

1. We are hosting seder for the first time. I knew the day would come eventually. I didn't think it would be quite this soon, but making a transatlantic move speeds some changes up. It was never reality enough for me to even think about what it would look like when I hosted seder- except I expected to use all of my grandmother's and great grandmother's kosher for pesach things. I don't have many of them but I managed to sneak a few car glasses and a couple of old pots on the lift. These are some of the things Adam was referring to in Stuff Can be Important too. The pesach items that belong to my grandmother and great grandmother only come out once a year, and because of this have very specific memories attached to them. The green bowl and crazy old ladle may be no more, but I will think of them and making kneidlach with my grandmother when I make my own kneidlach every year.

2. There is only one seder here in the holy land. Besides the amount of work and prep that goes into the meal, I am sort of indifferent to this fact.

3. This year I won't be sitting in Gram's living room with 30 of my near and dear. Sad. I don't remember ever having a Pesach seder as small as the one we are hosting (7 adults and our 3 kids). To me its always been about a large, crazy, loud group of family. We all squeeze into the living room (or for many years around the table) and have ourselves a seder. I have so many fond memories of how those seders evolved over the years. I am certainly fond of what they have been the past several years and I will miss you all dearly this year. Have your second four glasses for me.

4. Gram and Artie are coming!! This is extremely exciting. I can't wait for our first guests from the States to arrive to Retamim. I am anxious to show them the home we have made here, introduce them to our friends, and show them this extraordinary community. However, there is something a little daunting and nerve racking about our first guests. They will report back to the others, how is Retamim-really? Are they managing in their tiny caravan? How are the kids? Do they have friends? Are they all actually as happy as they say they are? Its a lot to live up to this week. I sort of feel like we have our own spies coming to check out haEretz.

5. THIS year in Jerusalem (ok not Jerusalem but Israel)!!  We are celebrating Pesach in the desert in ISRAEL! I have moments filled with awe on a daily basis when I look at the beautiful landscape of the Negev desert. Watching my children grow here has already been amazing. They are learning new words everyday and watching there friendships develop into REAL relationships is warming to watch. This community is the environment we wanted for our children; a place where they could be free to be kids and we could be more free to watch them grow.

Things change. We grow up, have our own children, move away, and host our own seder. But things also stay the same. I will sit at the table with my grandmother as I have done every year for the past 31 years. I will drink kosher for Pesach coke (which is no different than coke any other time of year here) out of a glass with a blue old fashioned car on it. And I will eat a hard boiled egg with salt water that was cooked in a beat up pot with a copper lid.

חג פסח כשר ושמח (Happy and Kosher Pesach)!

Stuff Can Be Important, too

This week, a screwdriver made me cry, and a wooden sign brought a wave of emotion to my wife.

Like the caption of this blog: From New England to the Negev.
When you pack up your life to move to a new country, you realize that not all your stuff is coming for the journey. When you downsize from 1500 square feet (not including a full basement, attic, and garage) to just shy of 600 square feet, you realize that your life needs to exist independent of the things you have acquired. Life's meaning and purpose are directed away from the material to something else.

But, that does not negate what I have learned this past week. Things can be important too. Things can help bring us meaning. Or, rather, perhaps it is not the thing itself but the memories. More on this later.

If you have not guessed it, this week, our stuff arrived.


Now, I need to premise this with my overall satisfaction with Isaac's Moving and Kef International who teamed up to deliver our stuff to Retamim. They really did great. From providing estimates, packing our house in record time, clearing customs, and delivering to our doorstep, they did remarkable. Everything that was in their control went pretty smoothly.

I have heard many horror stories from people that had one difficulty or another. We did not really experience much of that, except ...

... today is March 5. Our stuff was supposed to arrive around January 5. Hmm. What's in a couple calendar flips?

On our flight, we took pretty minimal items. We had to out of necessity. But, we figured that we could get by with only the basics for six weeks, and then we would have everything else we needed to get through the day. That did not go according to plan.

For example: I brought two pairs of socks on the plane. Yup, just two. Why? Well, for starters, I hate socks. I would much rather wear boat shoes all the time if I could. And, I figured I would. The problem is that I quickly wore out my favorite Bass boat shoes, and needed to revert to sneakers--with only two pairs of socks in the rotation. For three months. Grumble, grumble.

Needless to say, when the stuff did arrive, we were happy.

What was I looking forward to the most? What things did we miss having? These are some questions we were asked a lot.

The first answer that came to our minds were our knives. Our beautiful knives.

We bought some dinky $1 paring knives to pack into our suitcases (yes, the El Al staff wanted to know about them before we got on the plane and specially marked that bag). Again, if it were only 6 weeks, we would have made do with them. But it dragged on ... and on ... and on. It seems as though our items may have missed the boat and ended up on the slow boat from Boston. Then, instead of landing in Ashdod port where it was supposed to port (about an hour and a half away), the ship landed in Haifa port (at least twice as far). More delay.

Now back to my original point. We travel through life constantly acquiring and discarding things. For good or bad, that is the way of the world. Sometimes we attach a lot of meaning to things. A particular car may be the status symbol of promotion at work. A scribbled piece of paper from a two-year old may hang proudly on display on a refrigerator door for months. Souvenirs exist on every street corner. But they are all things that only have meaning because we impart upon them.

Besides the practical use of objects that we are familiar with, and not having to spend money repurchasing everything we own, the stuff we did bring to Israel had special meaning. For Rachel, it was a family heirloom candleabra and her great-grandmother's silver.

For me, there was one object that I brought that I did not even realize had sentimental meaning until I unpacked it.

The screwdriver.

I tucked it away into my toolbox months ago not thinking much about it after that. After all, there are many in my toolbox. Why would one be any more special than the others? When I pulled this particular one out, however, it jolted me pretty hard.

This week, I realize that it is not the actual items that we crave. It is the memories we attach that make things special. It is our associations that we hold dear. Things are tangible memories.

And so it is with a screwdriver.

A screwdriver that belonged to my grandfather.

I love you pop. RIP.