Friday, September 28, 2012

Our First High Holidays in Israel

Shalom, chaverim! The High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are now over, and this week moves us into Sukkot, which starts on Monday. The streets are slowly accumulating evidence of people building their sukkahs, which are temporary hut-like structures that are erected for the duration of Sukkot. During this holiday, Jews hang out together in sukkahs, sharing meals, conversation and fellowship, and sometimes sleep in them as well. Traditionally, the sukkah is covered with palm fronds and decorated with natural flora and foliage. I have noticed an increasing number of old ladies doing some guerrilla hedge trimming in the early hours of the morning, then gathering up their booty and quietly slipping away.

Of course, although the sukkah is a kind of representation of the tabernacle, Israelis do modern twists on building their own. Over the past few days, Elul and I have observed our neighbor across the street constructing his sukkah with aluminum poles and "walls" that look suspiciously like very large tablecloths. He's building it in his space reserved for parking his car, which is in a carport-like area on the ground floor of his apartment building. Other people are building them on their balconies, and the few Nahariyans with actual houses are building them in their backyards. Hence, the streets are accumulating evidence of people clearing away their collective outdoor crap, in order to make room for building their sukkahs. It reminds me of the old maxim that the best way to get your house cleaned is to invite people over for a dinner party!

The center of Nahariya is now awash in "etrogim" (etrogs), which are citrus fruits that vaguely resemble a large lemon. A good etrog, besides being unblemished, must have an unbroken nub on the end called a "pittem." The pittem needs to be there in order for the etrog to be suitable for a particular Jewish benediction at Sukkot called "waving the lulav." A lulav, or "the fruit of goodly trees" (Leviticus 23:40 - 43), is a bundled collection of four things: an etrog, a palm frond, three twigs of myrtle, and two twigs of willow.

A boxed set of etrogim.

A vendor's table sells etrogim in fancy presentation boxes, and bundles for the lulav.

I thought I had seen a lot of Judaica before, but this was the first time I'd ever seen a giant silver lulav holder. Wow!

At first, I didn't recognize these etrogim when they were being sold on the street, as I'd only seen them already as part of the lulav itself, by rabbis. But in Israel, each one was nestled in its own little doughnut of protective plastic webbing, making it look like a toy or some strange kind of candy. After a double-take, though, I realized what they were, and gawked at the sight of so many etrogim in one place. The one precious one I saw back at our former Florida synagogue in Delray Beach, for example, was carefully displayed by our rabbi. His goal was that after Sukkot, he would harvest the seeds from the etrog and plant his own etrog tree. I wonder if that tree ever took root?

Suitably protected lulav in weird plastic webbing doughnut. Note the intact pittem.

Mobile lulav vendors take it on the road.

Getting down to business: after energetic and protracted negotiations, an etrog deal is struck.

I had been wondering what Yom Kippur is like in Israel. Well, it's not so much that it's "like" anything in particular, but more that it's special because it's entirely unlike any other day of the year. Like appreciating a painting for the artist's use of shadows, or a piece of music for its beautiful space between the notes, having a complete absence of all car traffic and work for an entire day brought a hush to the country that was both precious and remarkable. All Israeli-based radio and television channels, and many internet websites, ceased operation from the night before Yom Kippur until its end at 6:08 p.m. the next day.  People went out walking and cycling, and children enjoyed having the total freedom to run and play in the streets all day. However, there was also a complete absence of loud noises, cooking smells, or any other sensory evidence of work being done. Many Israelis were dressed in white, but not all.

After sundown, traffic started up again and people began to emerge, waiting for a few businesses to open once again. After a stroll through town, Elul and I broke the fast with a quiet but lovely dinner at the home of our "buddy family," the good people Nefesh B'Nefesh connected us to when we first arrived in Israel.  We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and we noticed once again how incredibly fortunate we've been since we got here. We've been able to make new friends, receive enormous amounts of support and excellent advice from all sorts of people, and have been able to pursue professional goals quickly and relatively easily. There is really a lot of help to be offered new olim in Israel, provided you aren't shy or proud about asking for help, and also aren't afraid to "pay it forward" by helping others whenever you get the opportunity to do so.

Shabbat shalom, chaverim!

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