Thursday, December 18, 2014

Exit 255

Shalom, chaverim! Or perhaps I should say, "Hiya, everybody!"

It's been a long time since I posted and when I logged onto my Blogger account today I didn't even want to look at my last post, since I'd actually have to see exactly how long it's been. Anyway, this post has been a long time coming, I know. It wasn't until now that I was really ready to speak about it.

Elul and I have left Israel. Our family and many friends know this, of course, but not all of our friends or acquaintances. If I haven't reached out to you personally, please don't think it's because I don't care or don't think about you. It has been a very difficult time for me and for Elul and it's only recently that I've been even willing to talk about it much to anyone.

We left for a number of reasons, but the main issue was that Elul has a medical condition that needed treatment, and, even though he should have been able to access that treatment in Israel, he wasn't getting it. I'd love to tell you the specifics of all this, but it is Elul's business and not mine, so I will respect his privacy. Anyway, he tried to get the treatment he needed for over seven months, all the while becoming less able to work, and suffering more and more on a daily basis. Nothing was working and he was getting a vicious runaround from the powers that be, and his condition was visibly deteriorating. This was taking a great toll on him personally, on us as a couple, and on us financially. Life in Israel as middle aged olim chadashim is precarious enough--even if you have two able-bodied workers. When disability gets thrown into the mix, it can really upset the apple cart.

Other problems were related to finance--specifically, our financial plans for the future. Elul will be 62 in July, and when we came to Israel, the gauzy, hazy plan was for both of us to continue to work, but to collect and invest Elul's Social Security payments until he--and then we--retired. Since we were low earners (by both Israeli and American standards), there would be no issue of us exceeding the annual earnings limit and having the payment docked. We enjoy working and are not in any hurry to completely retire, so the thought of Elul working for another ten or fifteen years didn't bother him at all.

However, I happened to come across a notice for a seminar being held by a representative of the Social Security Administration down in Haifa, put on by the wonderful organization AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, which I strongly recommend North American olim join). I attended, and to my utter shock, it turned out that the rules for Americans living overseas regarding Social Security are quite different to Americans living within the U.S. In a nutshell, if you live overseas and are collecting Social Security, you are only allowed to work 45 hours a month, no matter what country you live in, no matter what hourly wage you are paid, no matter what currency--strong or weak--you are paid in. Period.

That little bombshell of information had major implications for our future. This was not the first marriage for either of us, and neither of us brought much to the marriage in the way of capital or investments--just a lot of lessons learned from the School of Hard Knocks and plenty of Stupid Tax "paid in full" receipts. We were, and are, determined to do what we can to prepare for our future. I've seen poverty among the elderly population in both Israel and America, and it's no walk in the park that either of us ever want to take.

A second very important financial problem also confronted us. Except for a brief period between 2003 and 2011, I've been living overseas in various countries since 1990. During all those years, I lived close enough and was able to always save enough to go visit my family on a regular basis--usually once a year. Now my family members are getting older and, very conveniently, they've all ended up on the same coast of America in Washington state and California. My grandmother was slowly edging towards the end of life in her 95th year, and I was extremely concerned that I would not be able to see her before she died and attend her funeral. I already knew that getting from Tel Aviv out to Seattle on a last-minute ticket just might not be possible for us financially. This was unacceptable. We just weren't earning enough to pay our bills and be able to go visit our families. Elul's mother and sister live in Florida, his sons live in North Carolina, and my family lives completely across the country. It wasn't working, and it really wasn't ever going to work. It took us awhile for this to really sink in.

So, as the Israelis say, "ma la'asot?" i.e. "Whaddya gonna do?" Well, after the umpteenth time that the tenants in our apartment building put the kibosh on doing the "Tama Shloshim Ve Shmoneh," aka the earthquake/bomb-proofing/elevator-installing renovation process that was supposed to have started nearly three years ago when we moved in, we'd had it. We seriously started thinking about moving back to America, at least for the time being. The stairs were getting too much for us, and it came to the crunch time: if we were going to move, was it to move apartments within Nahariya, move to another city in Israel that was closer to a university (like Haifa), or just move back to America?

The answer came wrapped in a most mysterious package: a car auction on eBay. One day, idly surfing the internet, Elul found my ultimate dream car on eBay at a wonderful price--thousands of dollars less than the Citroen C4 hatchback we'd bought in Israel. It needed some major repairs (some which were disclosed by the seller, some, unfortunately, not), but it was still a great deal and would mean living in that blessed state of no car payment. The car was located in Chicago. We decided, quite brashly, to place exactly one bid on the car. If we got it, the plan was that Elul would fly to Chicago (which would be a cheaper ticket than one to Seattle), then pick the car up and drive it to Washington, where he would investigate communities in and around the northern end of Seattle. My stepmother lives there, and my mother, stepfather, stepsister and her partner all live in Bellingham, which is about 90 miles north of Seattle. We were considering places like Everett, Bothell, and Mountlake Terrace.

We got the car. Within an hour, Elul had booked a ticket, and in less than a week he was out the door. Just three days after he picked up the car, he arrived in Bellingham, where my wonderful mother and stepfather put him up for a month while he looked around and scouted out communities. The big surprise was that while the original plan was for Elul to come back to Israel and for us to leave in February, he decided instead to just stay in Bellingham and not return to Israel at all. The minute he found an apartment and it was ready for him to move in, I was to pack up the cats and join him.

Not the actual car, but this is the exact make, model, year, and color of our awesome-ass, no-payment-ever, new-to-us dream car. Our car is parked under a fancy apartment complex carport. Whee!

So I did. I turned down three (!) teaching jobs I'd been offered for the fall, and we arranged with our employers to take our jobs with us to America. That's a huge benefit of working online--you're not tied to a physical place, so you can be extremely mobile if you need to be.

Elul found a great apartment. It's smaller than what we had in Nahariya, but far cheaper, quieter, and has a nice clubhouse with a pool, hot tub, and sauna. Of course, it looks onto a small pond instead of the Mediterranean, but it's warm, safe, quiet, clean, and very well laid out. And, amazingly, it is literally several doors down from my stepsister and her partner, who live in the same complex. (By the way, the title of this post, "Exit 255," is the freeway exit from the I-5 to our apartment.)

Everyone in the family has been so generous and supportive in helping us get set up: gifts in all forms keep coming at us from every direction, for which we are so extremely grateful. Elul now has access to the medical treatment he needs, and is now back to working nearly his full schedule. He is very, very happy to be feeling so good again. And, he didn't know it at first, but "my" dream car, with its badass black leather interior and heated, auto-adjust seats and mirrors, is now his dream car, too. He did an amazing job of pulling a new life for us here from thin air in a very short time--more evidence of my husband's formidable skills in planning and project management.

I got here in early November, with two cats, two computers, two suitcases, and a packet of anti-anxiety meds in tow. Our personal belongings, which I mailed from Israel in 26 large boxes, have just started to arrive. I was able to see my grandmother before she died, and I said what I needed to say to her before she passed away. I was able to attend my stepsister's birthday party for the first time. Last night, I saw a dear friend I hadn't seen since we left Nevada in 2010. I'm now living closer to my mother and stepfather than I have since 1984, and for the first time since I was three years old, I'm actually a resident of the same state I was born in. If you can believe it, we went to a Reform shul last Friday in Bellingham, where we met a man who'd known my brother from high school in Seattle! We're having the family over for brisket, latkes, and candle-lighting this Saturday. In terms of connecting with family and focusing on the fundamentals of life, it's been very good.

Well, I've been banging on for too long now, and I don't want to bore you. There's lots I can say about this strange re-entry process, Bellingham as a new place to live, and my jumbled feelings of grief, guilt, and ambivalence about leaving Israel and our dear friends and community there, but I won't right now. I wish you all a Chag Chanukkah Sameach--Happy Hanukkah, chaverim!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fight or Flight: Battling One's Internal Environment

Shalom, chaverim!

All is well here in sunny Nahariya. The children are back to school, so the Israeli version of school bells going off--to signal each change of class--are ringing around the town like an overly-loud mobile phone ringtone. By "Israeli version," I mean that here, school bells are actually electronic snippets of nursery tunes and folk songs. "Rock a Bye Baby," "Happy Birthday To You," and even "Jingle Bells" samples are used. When I would hear these tunes blaring at the Druze school I worked in last year, the setting itself gave it an even greater surrealist touch.

The past week has been a series of one domestic battle with our environment after another. Last week, our landlord's refrigerator finally gave up the ghost. Fortunately, we had a small spare fridge (given to us by an American olah who returned to America, screaming, after living a few years here), so we didn't lose too much food.   We've already had to fix the landlord's fridge twice at our own expense, but this time we just gave up and went out fridge shopping.Now we have a nice, shiny, brand-new Whirlpool fridge that is doing a great job. However, our landlord's old, humungous fridge is also sitting in the kitchen, right next to it. This puts a little dent in our available dining area, to put it mildly, so we've put the dining table in the living room.

Our new fridge is the tall, skinny one

Another ongoing battle with this apartment has been with water being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I swear, I have never, ever lived in a dwelling that seems to be losing the fight to the immense power of water, as much as this place is losing. Leaking roofs, blocked drains, leaking pipes within walls that lead to sickening mold and falling plaster, drafty single-pane windows that make the place humid and black-mildewy (not to mention causing us to waste vast amounts of electricity), a temperamental toilet, a washing machine that has a very unaccommodating drain pipe--the list goes on and on. Fortunately, our landlords have been as patient as saints in working to solve all of these problems, and by no means are these problems unusual when you live in an old apartment block anywhere in Israel. Other renters have had terrible luck with the same problems, but with uncaring and incompetent landlords to deal with on top of that.

However, the constant battle against the elements does get us down at times-- at least, I'm starting to take it personally, which is part of the immigrant paranoia that is induced by chronic culture shock. So many physical objects in Israel just break and disintegrate at an alarmingly fast rate. Some of this may be due to the harshness of the salt air and the intensity of the sun. As a small example, I can't even tell you how many times plastic clothespins, less than a year old, have literally crumbled in my hand. Electrical equipment gets corroded, ceases to work, and sometimes start electrical fires. Refrigerators go kaflooey, computers crap out, phones die, plastic and metal cooking utensils snap apart in one's hand, chairs collapse...even a brand new computer desk Elul bought the other day broke--just as he was assembling it. Sadly, the (generally crappy and overpriced) Ace Hardware in town won't take returns of items that have been assembled by customers, even if they are inherently defective.

Okay, enough kvetching! As chance would have it, my bad mood was just interrupted in the most delightful way, in the form of a phone call from our friend Elisa from Temple Sinai in Delray Beach, Florida. She's here in Israel, staying in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and will be attending a wedding in the West Bank (gulp!). She sent us a "suitcase full of love" from Temple Sinai, which I have received with great pleasure and gratitude. We send the back the same, but in shipping container-sized volume.

I really can't express how much we miss and care about our friends and family in America--those who belong to our Temples Sinai of Las Vegas and Delray Beach, and those who don't. We really, really miss you all! The older we get, the louder the clarion call of family, friendship, and congregational life rings in our heads and in our hearts. Since we really don't earn enough to be able to take lots of time off and travel back and forth for visits, however, it's really a conundrum. We feel very torn, and have not figured out a way--yet--to resolve this problem.

However, as the Israelis say, "ha'kol yihiyeh b'seder," which means "everything will be all right." That, along with the Arab maxim, "trust in G-d and tie up your camel," are the two things I always tell myself to keep going and to keep the faith.

Shabbat shalom, chaverim!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Back to Life--Again

Shalom, chaverim!

Well, in the land that is known for reportedly having at least one spectacular case of resurrection, here's a far more modest example of revivification--I'm back!

I've been dithering about what to say here about why I haven't posted for such a long time (December of last year was my last entry...yikes!). To make a long story short, things really started falling apart for me last November, and they haven't really started to pick up and sort themselves out until now.

Mostly, the problems were physical and involved seemingly endless rounds of tests and visits to various doctors all over the country. Neurologists, endocrinologists, heart specialists--you name it, I was there. After going through all the investigations and tweaking a few things here and there, I think I finally have a handle on what my conditions are, what medications I need to treat them, and what lifestyle adaptations I need to make in order to stay healthy, happy, and functioning. There is certainly room for improvement, though--taking up regular exercise that won't trash my knees or my joints is next on the agenda. Middle age has its advantages, but really starting to "feel it" physically isn't one of them. So it's a work in progress.

It's been hard to come to terms with the fact that I may never be able to get back to my "old self," who used to be able to easily juggle multiple jobs, lots of projects, countless moves, and a social life. I can do a lot less now than I used to, and I need to sleep more and rest more frequently. However, living at a slower--and more mindful--pace doesn't have to be all bad. I know this in theory, at least. I've attended two ten-day Vipassana meditation retreats in the past which demanded total silence and abstinence from all reading and writing, so I should be better about being "okay" with slowing down, but it's still a struggle for me.

If you've been following the world news, you'll know that Israel and Hamas just signed a "permanent" (whatever that means in the Middle East) ceasefire after fifty days of hellish, destructive battle and countless deaths and injuries. We were fine, more or less, up here in the North--only a few jerks set off a handful of rockets towards our area from Lebanon and Syria, and it seems the perpetrators were quickly dealt with. Some damage was done, but thank goodness no one was killed.

Still, it was truly a rotten summer. No one really felt like celebrating or going out to have a lot of fun, and no one really felt like going too far away from home.  It just didn't seem right, and it sometimes didn't feel safe, depending on where you were thinking of travelling to. As for Elul and me, we usually just hung around Nahariya, except for during ceasefires. When the ceasefires held, the whole nation breathed a sigh of relief; it was a palpable feeling. When fighting started again, gloom descended along with it.

The propaganda wars on social media, and within the news media (due to the ability to "talk back" to internet news stories by commenting on them) were intense, unrelenting, and often extremely vicious. Some real-life friendships were made stronger, some were destroyed, and some were severely tested. The anti-Israel demonstrations within Israel and outside the country, particularly in Europe, were extremely upsetting and frightening. I've never seen anything like it, and hope to never again. I've lived in England and in France, and seeing these demonstrations on the news made me feel sick, sad, and baffled. How could this be happening now, in 2014, in the same streets I had lived in so long ago?

My teaching career in Israel is taking a few twists and turns. This year, I might not be teaching in any Ministry of Education schools, as I just found out yesterday that the job I had been promised at the Druze school at the end of last year has mysteriously disappeared. At least, no one has any record that the Ministry of Education has awarded me any teaching hours to work there.  However, I did manage to find a job teaching English online for an Israeli company. I've just started with them and they seem like a very nice group of entrepreneurs, so I hope my hours with them will grow.

Elul has been having his own struggles with his health over the past six months, and they are reaching a crisis point. At the moment, he is unable to work his job full time anymore, due to repetitive strain injury and chronic pain from arthritis. This development has placed him firmly into the quagmire that is the Israeli social security system, aka "Bituach Leumi." This Kafka-esque institution has more forms, committees, meetings, and chase-the-tail gyrations than I've ever seen. He is lost in the thicket, so to speak, and there's no real trail of breadcrumbs he can follow to get himself out.

However, all is not lost. We are getting help in the battle from the wonderful Yanina Muskinow of the AACI (Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel), who explained Bituach Leumi very elegantly. "With Bituach Leumi," she said, "you need to understand that it does not operate by laws, but by rules. The whole art is to find out which rules and forms support your intended outcome the most." There is an art to letter-writing that must accompany one's application for various services, and if the letter is not written in a certain way, an application may be denied. The good news is, you can always write another letter and submit the same information (e.g. medical records), and get approved. Zoink!

My pet sitting business, Aliyah Petsitting, has dwindled down to the grand total of one client, for whom I am extremely grateful. This has been entirely because I have failed to market my business, even though I have the advertising material prepared and ready for distribution. Such is the insidious and opportunity-robbing nature of depression and fear. It literally prevents money from coming into one's pocket, as if you were zipping your own wallet closed with your own hand. At least now, though, I am less afraid to answer the telephone if someone calls who doesn't speak English. I may have to muddle through in awful Hebrew, but at least I can give it a fighting chance.

At the end of December, we will have been here for three years. Time seems to pass very quickly in Israel, and there is a certain sense of time distortion that many olim seem to comment on. Perhaps this is due to our aging brains, as research has shown that the older our brains get, the faster time appears to pass. And even though I've been mainly whining about the tough times I've been having, please don't think it's all bad or miserable. We have made good friends, and Nahariya--and Israel--is still beautiful and full of life. We are supporting ourselves and working hard to build our future. We are seeing more of the country, slowly, and we can speak one heck of a lot more Hebrew than we could at the end of our first year. We're still glad we came and don't regret it at all. So, we're hanging in there.

Finally, I want to give a shout out to two great bloggers I am fortunate enough to know in real life. One is Shem Tov Sasson, who, like me, was born in Seattle and raised in Michigan. We met him while we were on our pilot trip to Israel and he was a young man in Ulpan. Now Shem Tov is older, and has been serving in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). He has a terrific blog, full of stories about the interesting places he visits all over Israel. We met up at the recent annual Nefesh B'Nefesh Go North Picnic (which was terrific, as usual), and he encouraged me to start blogging again, despite my embarrassment. If he can blog from a war zone, what's my excuse? I don't have one, period.

Shem Tov's blog is called "Israel's Good Name." Also, his parents own and operate Aliyah Lift Shipping, and handled our lift when we made Aliyah from Florida. We received wonderful service from them, and no, they aren't paying me anything to say this! The picnic was held at Michmanim, an ecological Biblical village far up in the hills of Karmiel. It was a fascinating and beautiful setting for the event, and it was great to catch up with some old friends there.

Pressing concerns: A picnicker examines an ancient olive press at Michnanim, the Ecological Bible Village

My kind of picnic setting--plenty o' rustic
A view from the entrance down to the picnic area

View from the mountaintop down towards Karmiel

The second blogger I want to support is that of a former colleague from our teaching days in Nevada, Alvaro Pico. "Mr. Pico," as we addressed each other back then (I was "Miss Lana"), has been blogging about his weight loss experience for the past month at "It Can Be Done - Dropping the Weight." He's going great guns, is dieting and exercising sensibly and with a great attitude, and is getting real results. Both he and Shem Tov inspired me to sit down again, stop making excuses, and start blogging again.

As for you, kind and patient readers, I want you to know I really appreciate the Facebook comments and emails you've been sending me over the past months, with your good wishes and encouragement to keep going. It's been tough, and I've felt bad that I wasn't able to pull myself together any sooner than this. Still, thank you for caring, even though I wasn't able to respond with any action at all--sometimes not even a thank-you. I heard you and I felt your care and concern, so believe me, your kindness did not go unappreciated. If any of you can spare a thought to send some prayers and good thoughts to me to help me get out of my own darn way, I will be exceptionally grateful. And of course, please pray for peace in the Middle East--everyone around this region needs all the help we can get with that one!

Shabbat shalom, chaverim!