Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sunshine after the Sorrow

Shalom, chaverim! Gosh, it seems like in Israel it's just one special occasion after another, each with a different yet intense emotion. There was Pesach a few weeks ago, which was a joyous  national party as well as a religious high point of the year. Last week we experienced the very somber Yom Hashoah, which honored victims of the Holocaust. And this week, we had both Yom Hazikaron and, the day immediately after, Yom Ha'atzmaut.

Yom Hazikaron honors IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers who have been killed in war, in accidents, or in terrorist attacks. The closest U.S. equivalent to this day would be Memorial Day, but it is not a day for picnics or swimming-pool openings; it is much more solemn. There are lots of ceremonies at military cemeteries and public places, and Jewish children in Israeli public schools are usually asked to wear white shirts to school out of respect.

At 8 p.m., all traffic (even trains and buses) and activity stops when air-raid sirens begin to wail throughout the country, as is done on Yom Hashoah. The same thing happens the next day at 11 a.m. Jewish Israelis cease talking and all other activities, stand straight up with hands at the sides in a kind of military stand-at-attention position, and bow their heads to remember the lost. (Arab-Israelis are not expected to do this, of course, but they can if they so choose.) Memorial candles are also lit, and families take time to reminisce about lost loved ones. Since Israel is only 64 years old and has engaged in numerous wars, there is hardly anyone in the country who has not suffered the loss of a family member in their immediate or extended family.

Our neighbor lost his son in an IDF training accident. He procured the tank in which his son was killed, and put it in his front yard as a memorial.
In our case, we were at home the night Yom Hazikaron started, and had just exited a train at 11 a.m. the next day. Hundreds of people were streaming towards the exit, but as soon as the sirens began, it was like playing "Red Light, Green Light" as a child. Everyone just stopped, put their hands at their sides, and stared at the ground as the sirens wailed. When they stopped, everyone just started walking towards the exit again and resumed their normal conversations.

Throughout the day, the television featured poignant interviews with family members of fallen soldiers.  When I was growing up, it was usually only the stiff, posed, official photographs of lost soldiers (i.e. those who had fought in Vietnam) that would be flashed on the television screen, or some grainy home movie footage. Now that home video is so common, however, it made it even sadder to see footage of these lovely young kids just having a great time--training, eating, laughing, dancing, and horsing around.

But it's not all grieving and misery here. Yesterday was Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day.  Over the past few days, stages were erected for ceremonies, announcements of parades and fireworks displays were all around, and groups of young children in blue and white t-shirts practiced their snazzy choreographed moves.

This is the biggest Israeli flag I have ever seen. Seriously.

Trucks and cars have been driving around with flags sticking out of the windows. Houses are decorated, and some cars even have the backs of their side mirrors wrapped with little Israeli flags.

Taxi-driving dude with a flashy nylon snood.

Finally, the event got kicked off two nights ago, the minute Yom Hazikaron was over. By nine in the evening, the main street of Nahariya was filled with families and their dogs. One side of the street was devoted to food, and the other side of the street to the sale of toys. The toys which were the most popular were a variety of giant inflatable tools such as hammers, mallets, clubs and axes, decorated with the Israeli flag. I have yet to understand these mysterious symbols and their connection to Israeli independence, but I will do my best to find out.

Other popular toys were bubble-blowing handguns that lit up and made loud noises, miniature M-16 automatic rifles complete with working laser sites and rotating bullet bandoliers, and giant mylar Smurf and Strawberry Shortcake balloons. As Elul and I were hanging around the town square, waiting for the band to strike up and the speeches to start, we observed two little kids--a brother and sister--dancing a kind of three-person polka with a giant inflatable Godzilla making up the third party.

Once the speeches were over, including one from Nahariya's colorful mayor Jacky Sabag, the fireworks began. I sat that one out, literally, a couple of blocks away, because the noise and the crowds were getting to me, but Elul reported that they were "pretty good and a lot of them." While I was waiting, sitting on the front steps of a dress store, I managed to tear the seat of my pants on a rough edge, and then get asked by two security guards "hakol beseder?", or "everything OK?" I managed, using Hebrish and sign language, to convince them I was just waiting for my husband, so they wished me a good evening and walked on.

When Elul returned, finally, he'd actually procured one such lighting-up, noise-making, bubble-blowing handgun. The next morning, we demonstrated its use to our kittens Pini and Dudu, as shown in the video clip below. (And as usual, if this video is not showing up on an emailed version of this post, please go directly to my blog at As anxious new parents of Israeli kittens, we feel it is necessary to train our "children" in all manners of preparedness. You just never know when your cats may be called upon to use a bubble-blowing handgun in the name of national security.

Shabbat Shalom, chaverim, and Happy Birthday to Israel!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Yom HaShoah

Shalom, chaverim. I write this in a more solemn mood than usual, as we've just finished Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, here in Israel. "HaShoah" translates into English as "The Catastrophe," which is how Israelis refer to the Holocaust. It usually occurs on the 27th day of Nissan, one of the months of the Jewish calendar. In 2012, it happened to be on April 19th.

As you can imagine, Yom HaShoah is not a happy occasion. Memorial ceremonies are held everywhere, and it is considered very bad form to play loud music or have parties of any kind. Restaurants, theatres, cinemas and other places of public entertainment are closed. Even the television stations (cable included) stop broadcasting their normal programs, and either show only Holocaust-related programming or broadcast nothing at all. In the U.S., the History Channel routinely airs excellent documentaries on this subject. However, you can also view, for free, extensive video interviews of nearly 52,000 Holocaust survivors through the University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation Institute's YouTube channel.

On Yom HaShoah at 10:00 a.m. Jerusalem time, the entire country comes to a complete stop. Traffic stops, people stop...everything stops. Air raid sirens are set off everywhere for two minutes, during which people stand in silence, remembering both the victims and the heroes of the Holocaust.

Elul and I were in Ulpan at the time the sirens began. It was both sad and eerie; you could feel the effect of more than seven million people concentrating on one thing at one time, and experience the complete hush of an entire nation, except for those sirens. Below is a link to a video that gives you a good idea of both the sound and the mood of this extraordinary moment. And as usual, if you can't see the video link I'm referring to, please go directly to my blog's homepage at

Every year since 1989, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) performs a ceremony called "Everyone Has a Name." In it, in cooperation with Yad Vashem, all the names of Holocaust victims are read aloud. This year's ceremony was marred by an accident which occurred the day before, during rehearsals for a ceremony for Israel's upcoming Independence Day. A large lighting rig collapsed, killing one person and injuring five others. The victim was a young woman, just twenty years old, who was a solider in the Israeli Defense Force.

But, chaverim, what is left of life is still going on, and there is still sweetness in the world. We the living can always reaffirm our commitment to always remember, and to never forget--both the depths of depravity and cruelty of that time, but also the heights of heroism and the greatness of the human spirit. Shabbat shalom.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Post-Pesach Procrastinators' Remorse

Shabbat shalom, chaverim! It's been a disorienting week here in Nahariya, to say the least. Not attending Ulpan every day left our days without much structure or focus, and I'm sad to say that yet again, I have failed to study Hebrew as much as I hoped I would. That's putting it mildly, really. I didn't start my big pile of Pesach homework until a few days ago, and, while I was procrastinating, suffered with the fear that I'd completely forgotten how to read any Hebrew at all.

Fortunately, that wasn't the case. The worst that happened was that I had to check what the difference was between "past tense" and "present tense" in Hebrew, so I conjugated the verbs on a worksheet in the correct tense. We also had a rather intimidating assignment, which was to take a previous year's final exam. At the end of Ulpan, each student who has attended at least 80% of their classes has the option to take the final exam. The exam is in two parts: first, a ten-minute interview with the Ulpan's manager, and the second is a written exam. The written exam has three different reading comprehension essays, each a page long. Each essay is about a person famous in Israel, e.g. David Ben-Gurion, Nathan Sharansky, and, as in this example below, Rabbi Maimonides. I am already sweating, even though the exam is more than two months away.

Sample Ulpan reading comprehension essay. Did you know "Rambam" spelled backwards is "Mabmar"?

Being away from Ulpan has underscored how seductively easy it would be to give up on learning Hebrew altogether. My "progress" is so painfully slow (even though my teacher says I'm doing fine and am about where I should be at this stage) that it seems impossible that I will ever get anywhere, no matter how hard I try. But then, then I look at other olim who have gone through the same thing and now speak Hebrew with ease, and the only difference between them and me is the amount of time they've been here and the number of hours they've spent hacking away at it. Golda Meier never felt completely comfortable in Hebrew, either. So I need to stop whining--sniff--and just get on with it.

In Israel, some signs are easier to read than others.

On a happier note, last Friday night's Pesach seder was absolutely beautiful. We spent it with our "buddy" family in Nahariya, along with 21 other guests of all generations. These guests included three very interesting young men from Germany, who were volunteering at the nearby Nes Amim Kibbutz, the only Christian kibbutz in the world. Others present were, like our hosts, former members of local Kibbutz Rosh HaNikra, so cherished stories and jokes were flying through the room at lightning speed. The afikomen was duly hidden, then found by two young sisters. The food was wonderful, and our hosts were so gracious. It was a lovely, happy way to spend our first Passover in Israel.

What we didn't realize, though, is that after all shouting about getting rid of chametz (leaven) dies down, what's left for Pesach in Israel is one giant national dinner party and sing-along. When we came home--after midnight--our neighbors in the next building were still going strong. To give you an idea as to what an authentic Israeli Pesach seder sounds like, I stuck a little recorder out the window of our laundry room. The clip below is about five minutes long, with a slide show of Pesach imagry Elul kindly put together. The recording is not fancy, and you'll hear some street noise, but you can hear people drifting between songs, conversations, jokes, and more songs, one after another. This particular party went on until about 2 a.m.

We are still having lots of fun with our kittens, Pini and Dudu. We are getting a very high rate of laugh mileage by coming up with such howlers as "Hey, Elul! You have a little Dudu on your lap!" and "Selah! You almost stepped on my Pini! Hahahaha!" Elul has been shooting even more footage of those two little scamps, but I won't wear out their welcome by making you watch them today. We are using the remote control as a kind of growth index, and Pini, outstretched, is now slightly longer than the remote. Dudu is looking less like a mutant bat these days, and more like a pretty little kitten with a funny face and the beginnings of  a cute little tummy. Aww!

Have a wonderful week, everyone, and welcome back to life with leaven!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Shalom from Nahariya, chaverim! This week has just flown by, as we've been entirely caught up in a whirlwind romance with our new kittens, Pini and Dudu. They are growing like the U.S. national debt, and I've been reluctant to leave the apartment just because they're so darn fun.

Dudu. Judging by her expression, she is clearly having fun.

Since my former cats were always indoor-outdoor cats who preferred to do their business outdoors, it has taken some effort to adjust to the necessity of constant box cleanings and the problems of "spillage" kittens can create. Changes of diet and environment can make things a little, er, soggy, and let's just say that we've fitted out each room in the apartment with a pack of baby-wipes. We also bought a vacuum cleaner on Wednesday, since the kittens have the uncanny ability to drag every single dustbunny in the apartment right into the middle of the floor.

Speaking of cleaning, Israel has been in a national frenzy since Purim about Pesach. Pesach is the biggest family holiday of the year, and because it's oriented that way, people travel like crazy to be with their families. Another reason I've heard that people may travel over Pesach is so they don't have to stay home and clean house to rid it of all the "chametz," or leaven.

Cleaning your house for Pesach involves not only a giant spring cleaning to rid it of chametz, but also demands that you go through each and every single item you own, and clean it individually. Every book in your library (and Jewish public schools do this too, mind you) has to be opened, dusted, and have the pages flipped to get rid of any little crumbs. There are other intricacies about cleaning for Pesach that I don't understand, involving plastic covers for tabletops and so on, but you get the drift.

Israelis use the Pesach cleaning binge to get rid of their old junk, worn-out clothes and furniture. I'd noticed on our walks recently that there seems to be an unusually large amount of "gifted" items next to buildings' dumpsters. Anglo-style thrift shops or charity shops are not very common in Israel, so instead, people gently place items next to the dumpster to give passersby a chance to take them before the garbage service does. I've seen dishes, pots and pans, clothes, furniture, and even electronic devices like old phones. Last week, I found a perfectly good--if ugly--chair on the sidewalk. I knew it would be perfect for Pini and Dudu as a kitty-gym/scratching post. It was so ugly, though, that Elul only agreed to have it in the apartment if I was willing to carry it the three blocks home and up the three flights of stairs. I broke a sweat, but I persevered. And now our ugly chair takes pride of place in our "guest" room.

Ugly chair, "before."
Not to worry, though. I gave the ugly chair a fabulous and incredibly inventive makeover, draping over it a piece of cloth I bought fifteen years ago and was too lazy to hem so it could become a proper tablecloth.

Ugly chair, "after." I'm waiting to be approached by HGTV to host my own show. I think I'll call it "Crap and Carry."

Well. Erm, the cats seem to like it, anyway! Reduce, reuse, recycle, right?

Happy Passover, everybody! And as usual, if you can't see the pictures or the YouTube video link above, go directly to my blog at . Chag sameach!