Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Privilege of Living in Israel

On Thursday, I bought a copy of The Garden of Riches by Rabbi Shalom Arush, a book about the spiritual foundations of money.  On the way from the bookstore to the bus, I read the first line of the Author's Foreward:

"A person's trust in the Creator in all matters pertaining to income and livelihood 
is the truest test of faith."

Backtrack several years, to the time when we used to come to Israel for a few weeks at a time.  Back then, we seemed to often find ourselves walking on Ben Yehuda, the pedestrian mall in the center of Jerusalem that attracts hordes of tourists and, as a result, many charity collectors.  Most of the charity collectors are men and most of them are Hebrew speakers.

Which made meeting Esther a little unusual.  Esther was born in America.  She was on the streets collecting charity for her family and for the families of other single mothers.  She probably approached us because she heard us speaking English.

After talking to her for a brief time, we identified a mutual acquaintance from Baltimore.  We gave her more money than we normally would on the street and went on our way.  Over the years, I've seen Esther near Ben Yehuda a handful of other times, but not in the last year or so.

Then about two weeks ago, she stopped me and, though it wasn't clear she remembered me, I remembered her.  I gave her a small donation and she heaped upon me many brachot and  words of spiritual encouragement.  Here she was, collecting charity on the streets to feed her children and she was telling me how wonderful Hashem is.  I walked away inspired.

I went home and took a larger bill from our charity account, put it in my backpack and made a mental note to give it to Esther the next time I saw her.  I walk that way almost every day, so I looked for her whenever I was in the vicinity, but days and days passed and I didn't spot her.  I told myself that, when the time was right, Hashem would put me in her path.

So comes last Thursday and I have my nose in a book all about how our sustenance comes to us from Hashem.  He uses messengers, but we are meant to understand that our livelihood is a gift from Hashem, which is basically the message Esther gives to people who meet her on the streets of Jerusalem.  I read this first line, close the book so I don't bump into anyone on the busy street and, as we say in Israel - pitom!  Suddenly, Esther appears in my line of vision.  It seemed so right that she should appear, after more than a week of looking for her every day, exactly a moment after I read about how, "A person's trust in the Creator in all matters pertaining to income and livelihood is the truest test of faith."

I smile a huge smile at the timing of The Big Guy.  What a gift of pedagogy He has.

Later that afternoon, I got on a bus home and, sticking out of the driver's rearview mirror, I saw this flag:

The flag says "Hashem is the King."

Sometimes, living in Israel is like having a private conversation with Hashem.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Flawed Aliyah

Is there a wrong way to make aliyah? 

Let's say one makes aliyah and lives in Israel but never takes ulpan and never learns the language.  Is that a flawed aliyah?

Let's say one makes aliyah with a family but continues to work in America, sends the kids back to America for the summers, lives in a big house and generally retains lots of aspects of an American lifestyle.  Is that a flawed aliyah?

Let's say one makes aliyah and behaves in his or her religious life, exactly as s/he did in America.  Same amount of prayer, same amount of learning, same amount of chesed, etc.  Is that a flawed aliyah?

I've had this conversation a lot lately.  It seems that a number of olim who have been here awhile harbor strong feelings on this subject.  In general, people seem to feel that the way they made aliyah is the right way to make aliyah and anything different (read: less than) is flawed.

We're coming up on four months here, so I'm hardly the world's biggest expert, but I'm not prepared to judge anyone else's aliyah as wrong or not good enough or not done right.  You made aliyah?  You left another life in another county?  You live in Israel?  You've strengthened the Jewish Homeland by coming and participating in the grandest Jewish experiment in 2000 years? 

KOL HAKAVOD!

So you've been here 5 years and you still can't speak Hebrew well enough to order a pizza?  Or you're still flying back and forth to America twice a month for work?  Or you don't really daven more here than you did back in the Old Country?

But you're here!  And, if you came with a family, you brought other people with you.

Something like two-thirds of American Jews have never even been to Israel and we're nipping at fellow Jews who made aliyah but "didn't do it right"?!

I just don't understand that attitude.

Friday, October 22, 2010

When Separate Is Hurtful

While I often object to the inequitable implementation of separate seating in many synagogue settings, let me state unequivocally that I understand, and respect, the necessity for separate seating during tefilla. 

So, before moving on, I want to be crystal clear that I am not opposed to the concept of separate seating during prayer.

I'm not even addressing myself here to the issue of the implementation of separate seating during tefilla.  Today, I'm focusing on separate seating at non-tefilla events.

Frankly, I'm not a fan. And it seems that the type and number of communal events at which separate seating for men and women is being implemented is growing at a furious rate. 

Not too long ago, back in Baltimore, I attended a talk given by a very prominent rabbinic speaker in the Orthodox world.  The talk was about Derech Eretz, about the necessity in Jewish life to treat one another with kindness and consideration, which made my strong feelings over a breach in Derech Eretz at the event itself kind of ironic.

This program featured separate seating.  And here's how the seating was set up.  The men sat in the main sanctuary, in very comfortable chairs with tabletop shenders. Women had two seating choices.

We could either sit behind the mechitza or on folding chairs which were set up behind the men's section.

So even though I, as a woman, arrived early and paid the same admission fee to hear the speaker as everyone else, the very best seat I could get was either behind a mechitza or so far away from the speaker that he was difficult to actually see.

What really grabbed my attention that night was that my nephew came to the talk 45 minutes late and had access to a much more comfortable seat than I did, with a full view of the speaker at his podium.

I was so angry the whole evening that I could barely concentrate on the speaker's message.  How can I open my heart to hear a message of Derech Eretz when I am seething at the lack of it that is being exhibited toward me?

I'm guessing that the men who set up these events don't mean to be unkind.  They're just not women, so they never have to sit in the disadvantaged seats and they simply don't realize the lack of Derech Eretz.

At the same time, we women are guilty of being too docile and accepting inferior treatment.  We routinely enter a separate seating event, scope out the division and placidly take our disadvantaged places without opening our mouths.

Last night, I went with my husband and a woman friend to hear a concert/kumzitz in a very modest, one-room synagogue in another community.  I knew in advance that it was going to be separate seating.  As was the case back in Baltimore, we arrived early.  In fact, we were the first ones there.

And again, the separate seating set-up was, there's no other way to describe it, disrespectful.

The men had a large, open area with three seating options, including seats directly facing the performer.  The women's seats were crowded together to the performer's left, caged in behind a double row of tables that had been pushed aside, ironically, to make room for more seats for men.

I almost walked out.

And during the concert itself, when some lights were dimmed to enhance the ambiance, the lights were only dimmed in the men's section.  In "the back of the bus" where the women were crowded, the regular lights were not dimmed.  Our ambiance was not enhanced.

How many times do I have to shudder at the thought of "mehadrin" buses where women are, quite literally, forced to the back of the bus, regardless of the discomfort some women have riding in the back, especially when pregnant?

How many Jewish concerts do I have to attend where men fill all available empty spaces with joyous dancing but no one thinks in advance to partition a section of space so women can dance comfortably behind a mechitza?

How many lectures, concerts and other non-prayer events in the Orthodox community do I need to attend while seething at the lack of thoughtfulness?

In the secular world, one pays more for a premium seat at a concert, lecture or play.  I am tired of attending events where I am required to pay the same admission fee as those who automatically get the premium seats.  I'm weary of having my need to see the event and my ability to hear it compromised.  I'm tired of being cordoned off as if I have a communicable disease.  And I'm tired of having women not speak up.

In the famous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, an American court determined that, in the matter of educating different races in different facilities, separate is inherently unequal.

While that may be true in the case of educational facilities, it need not be true for non-tefilla events in the Orthodox world.  Guided by a little Derech Eretz, we can do better.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A New Stage In My Klita

When I was a young teenager and full of teenage angst, I wrote a lot of poems.  Looking back, they were not universally maudlin.  Some of them were actually quite good.  Some were even published.

What I remember about those years was how I would get an itch to write a new poem and I could not rest until I took pen to paper, to write and rewrite.  I eventually discovered the joys of electronic revision, but not until I was out of my teen years, after home computers became more common.

I have recently begun to feel that itch again, not to write poetry now, but to teach.

Over 20 years ago, when I first started to take Judaism seriously, I was slapped in the face by the many inequities I found, as a woman, in Orthodox Judaism.   As a way of coping, I began to read anything I could find on the general topic of women and Judaism. 

For at least a decade, I bought every new book on the topic, eventually amassing a collection of over 400 books in the field, every one of them about some aspect of women and Judaism.  I intended to leave the majority of them in Baltimore, but Hashem had another plan.  As often as I tried to sell or place the collection before we made aliyah, all roads were dead ends.  So I brought them here.  The collection is too big to fit in our library, so we hung shelves in the guest room and most of the collection lives there now.

Along with collecting books, I began to speak to other women who were also struggling with gender-based issues in Judaism.  My conversations were informal at first, but eventually, I began to write and to teach.  And I continued to teach, mostly about women and Judaism, in formal and informal adult education settings, for the next 20 years.  When I taught my last class the month before we made aliyah, I assumed that part of my life was over.

My recent experience on Simchat Torah reactivated something that lay dormant within me for nine years while I focused on getting my family to Israel.  Recently, the itch and the urge to teach reasserted itself.  There is no question that Hashem is pushing me to begin again.

Just a few months ago, I was afraid to board my first Egged bus without my Hebrew-speaking husband.  Since then, I have grown comfortable riding four buses a day.  Again today, after ulpan, I walked through the shuk, bought fruits and vegetables for my family, hopped on a bus and hopped off before the stop for my second bus home, all without a whisper of anxiety.

In that respect, I have reached a new stage in my klita. 

And now, with new Torah thoughts and new understandings that Hashem has been gracious to open up to me, I am ready to share again with other women.

I didn't know I would miss this.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Little Bus Stories

In America, I had an Israeli flag on my car for a few months and often felt self-conscious about it.  In certain neighborhoods, I worried that my car might be vandalized as a result.

Yesterday, I noticed a Jewish Star hanging from the roof of an Egged bus near the driver and I thought, with pleasure, about how explicitly and unabashedly Jewish this place is. 
Look above the driver's head for the colorful Jewish star.

Today, I saw two more explicitly Jewish messages hovering around the bus driver's seat.  
The white sticker with red letters says "Shana Tova" , which is a traditional Rosh Hashana greeting.  Okay, it's about a month too late, but it's still a nice sentiment.

The ride was bumpy so the image is not clear, but the bumper sticker displayed on the front of this bus reflects a political sentiment unique to Israel.  Roughly translated, it says, "The story of Yehuda and the Shomron is the story of every Jew."

It's an unabashedly Jewish place, and it's also a complex place, full of irony.  This morning, in my davening, I was saying Acheinu and thinking about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held in captivity by Hamas since 2006.  Exactly then, I turned to my right and saw a full Arab bus drive by.  I'm not suggesting that anyone on that bus bears direct responsibility for the capture of Gilad, but it was, minimally, ahem... ironic to have been davening for his release at the exact same moment a busload of Arabs drove by.

On the other hand, I get to see Har HaBayit from the bus window every day on my morning commute. How incredibly fortunate I am that the site of the Third and final Holy Temple is part of my everyday life.  My husband taught me to say the yehi ratzon at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei in which we ask Hashem to rebuild the Holy Temple just as the bus is passing by the site and Har Habayit is in view.  Try doing that from Park Heights Avenue!

Two more quick stories, though neither is really about bus rides.  I recently realized that, as a result of living in Israel, I have to alter the bracha I make after eating grapes.  When you eat grapes that were grown in Israel, you don't just bless Gd for the fruit, you bless Gd for her fruit, for the fruit of Eretz Yisrael.

Finally, a small reminder of Baltimore that I see each day before walking into ulpan:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Separation Anxiety

The cover story of this week's Baltimore Jewish Times is about whether younger Jews still care about Israel.  The story, or as much of it as I was able to read without feeling sick to my stomach, highlights the difference between the way Israel looks to the majority of American Jews and the way it looks to the majority of people who have made, or who are in the process of making, aliyah.

It's as if we're talking about two different places.

The cover story, written by Alan Feiler, opens like this:

Checkpoints and security walls. Razed Bedouin villages and flotilla incidents.
Settlement construction and immigrant deportations.
Seemingly hopeless peace prospects and negotiations mired in recriminations, finger-pointing and minutia.

In his article, Alan Feiler's interviewees make the case that, with so much bad news coming out of Israel, how could any thinking person not view Israel as a failure?  Indeed, the headlines for the first two interviews are "Seems Like A Lost Cause" and "Israel Had Such Potential".  Feiler's article includes interviews with four liberal Jews in Baltimore, so I'm not terribly surprised that their viewpoints are so radically different from mine, but it does seem that, over time, those of us here and those of us there have grown further and further away from each other.

We spent this past Shabbat with a former Baltimore family now living on a yishuv in the Shomron.  To them, it's clear that Jewish life in Israel is far superior to life in America.  And, indeed, we saw ample evidence of the good life there. A close-knit community, a thriving Bnei Akiva chapter celebrating Chodesh Irgun with enormous enthusiasm, a large, comfortable, affordable home and, most importantly, a sense of purpose, a sense of making a difference to the Jewish People by living in Israel.

The Torah that I learn, the subset of Torah to which I am magnetically drawn, speaks of the specialness of this time in history.  We are living in the Ikvei d'moshiach, in the time of the footfalls of Redemption.  My rabbis here constantly exhort Jews to leave the Diaspora before it's too late.  They remind us over and over that the heart of the Jewish people is here in Israel. That Jewish history moves forward from here, not from the Diaspora. That there is no future for the Jewish people outside of Israel.  In summation, that any serious Jew who isn't here or isn't making plans to get here as soon as possible is missing the boat.

Every day, I hear from people who are thrilled to be here and who are trying to get the people they love to move to Israel. I see a steady stream of Jews who are coming, sometimes astonishingly quickly, sometimes after years of pining and planning and preparing.  And I am joyful each time because every aliyah simultaneously strengthens the Jewish people and weakens Jewish life in the Diaspora.

At the same time, there are a whole lot of Jews of all kinds who don't (yet) feel the magnetic pull of Jewish history urging them to come Home, who don't agree that staying in America is short-sighted, who are perfectly comfortable with the Jewish lives they have there.  A lot of the people I love are in this category.

Along with a lot of olim who have been here awhile, it's a bit scary for me to realize how quickly we are growing further and further away from each other.  Our worldviews are so divergent, for many of us who are Israelo-centric, it's getting harder and harder to find common ground with people we love who don't live with Israel in the center of their lives.

I know it's true. And it makes me feel uneasy.  I haven't a clue what to do with the growing sense of discomfort.

I guess you could say I'm experiencing separation anxiety.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Time To Take Our Heads Out of the Sand

Rabbi Schlomo Lewis, a Conservative rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim the Atlanta area, delivered a sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashana 2010. It if you Google it, you will find it has been widely emailed and reposted, for example here and here and here.

While I don't agree with every word of it, I think he captures the essence of the situation we (The West) find ourselves in accurately.   It's a long sermon and I won't reprint it here, but encourage you to click on the links above to see the whole thing in context for yourself.  But to give you a flavor, here are a few  highlights, some of which I took from here:

We are at war with an enemy as savage, as voracious, as heartless as the Nazis but one wouldn’t know it from our behavior. During WWII we didn’t refer to storm troopers as freedom fighters.We didn’t call the Gestapo, militants. We didn’t see the attacks on our Merchant Marine as acts by rogue sailors. We did not justify the Nazis rise to power as our fault. We did not grovel before the Nazis, thumping our hearts and confessing to abusing and mistreating and humiliating the German people.

In WWII we won because we got it. We understood who the enemy was and we knew that the end had to be unconditional and absolute. We did not stumble around worrying about offending the Nazis.

Let me mince no words in saying that from Fort Hood to Bali, from Times Square to London, from Madrid to Mumbai, from 9/11 to Gaza, the murderers, the barbarians are radical Islamists.

Israel is the laboratory – the test market. Every death, every explosion, every grisly encounter is not a random, bloody orgy. It is a calculated, strategic probe into the heart, guts and soul of the West.

In the Six Day War, Israel was the proxy of Western values and strategy while the Arab alliance was the proxy of Eastern, Soviet values and strategy. Today too, it is a confrontation of proxies, but the stakes are greater than East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel in her struggle represents the civilized world, while Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Queda, Iran, Islamic Jihad, represent the world of psychopathic, loathesome evil.
 

As Israel, imperfect as she is, resists the onslaught, many in the Western World have lost their way displaying not admiration, not sympathy, not understanding, for Israel’s galling plight, but downright hostility and contempt. Without moral clarity, we are doomed because Israel’s galling plight ultimately will be ours. Hanna Arendt in her classic Origins of Totalitarianism accurately portrays the first target of tyranny as the Jew. We are the trial balloon. The canary in the coal mine. If the Jew/Israel is permitted to bleed with nary a protest from “good guys” then tyranny snickers and pushes forward with its agenda.
 

There is a message sent and consequences when our president visits Turkey and Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and not Israel.

There is a message sent and consequences when free speech on campus is only for those championing Palestinian rights.

There is a message sent and consequences when the UN blasts Israel relentlessly, effectively ignoring Iran, Sudan, Venezuela, North Korea, China and other noxious states.

Let’s try an analogy. If someone contracted a life-threatening infection and we not only scolded them for using antibiotics but insisted that the bacteria had a right to infect their body and that perhaps, if we gave the invading infection an arm and a few toes, the bacteria would be satisfied and stop spreading. Anyone buy that medical advice? Well, folks, that’s our approach to the radical Islamist bacteria. It is amoral, has no conscience and will spread unless it is eradicated. – There is no negotiating. Appeasement is death.

A few weeks ago on the cover of Time magazine was a horrific picture with a horrific story.  The photo was of an eighteen year old Afghani woman, Bibi Aisha, who fled her abusive husband and his abusive family. Days later the Taliban found her and dragged her to a mountain clearing where she was found guilty of violating Sharia Law.  Her punishment was immediate. She was pinned to the ground by four men while her husband sliced off her ears, and then he cut off her nose. That is the enemy.

Our parents and grandparents saw the swastika and recoiled, understood the threat and destroyed the Nazis. We see the banner of Radical Islam and can do no less.

I applaud Rabbi Lewis for speaking forthrightly about the truth of the world we live in. As an American congregational rabbi (in a Conservative congregation, no less) there were likely practical considerations to what he felt he could say while still remaining on good terms with his congregation.

However, I think he missed an opportunity to explicitly warn American Jews that their future is limited. That it's time to start packing.

Every exile has an endpoint.  The story has many twists, but the ending is always the same.  The litany of countries that graciously hosted us only to eventually kick us out, fills hundreds of Jewish history texts.

It's true that Islam threatens the entire non-Islamic world.  It's true that we are at war.  But at least here in Israel, the enemy is named and understood and we are taking steps to defend ourselves.

Do I wish Israel was even more prepared to act from moral clarity?  Are there misguided leftists here in Israel?  Of course.  But the majority of the population here understands the threat.

Sadly, it's been my experience that the same is not true in America.

Thank you, Rabbi Lewis for reminding us that it's time to take our heads of of the sand.

hat tip: Michele Wolgel

Monday, October 04, 2010

Now That's Progress

When I was an undergraduate at an enormous state university campus with tens of thousands of other students, I used to give tours of the campus to prospective students and their families.  It was a job I really loved.  When I was guiding a group, I felt like I owned the campus.  I knew my way around and it was up to me to help them imagine someday feeling comfortable on campus.

One of the things I always told prospective students is that they should not feel intimidated by the size of the campus, because most students ended up spending the majority of their time in only a handful of buildings.  They quickly mastered their little corner of the campus and the rest of it didn't matter because they had no classes and no social obligations on the rest of the campus.

On the bus this morning, it occurred to me that the same thing is true about Israel.  There are places, people and nuances here that I'll probably never be exposed to, let alone understand.  What kind of life do the Bedouins have here?  What do the Yemenites experience?  How does it feel to be a Thai worker in Israel?  What is life like for people who live in Afula or Hadera?  What do 8th generation Yerushalmis think about the American olim, not to mention the perspective of Israeli Arabs.  All variations of the larger Israel that I'll probably never understand.

But in my little corner of the country, things are starting to feel familiar.  When leaving Ma'ale Adumim, I'm often struck by the rocky terrain.  The scenery is so much different than what I saw driving up and down Resisterstown Road, but it is starting to seem decipherable.
 
But even more, today, when I was waiting for my second bus, I was struck by a feeling of familiarity.  I tried to remember ever being conscious of a deep sense of belonging in any of the 20+ years I lived in Baltimore.  I couldn't remember feeling that.

It's true that there are still so many things that I don't understand.  But every day, I understand a little more.  And today, for the first time, standing and waiting for the number 71 bus, I had a visceral sense of belonging.

Until today, shopping required the help of my Hebrew-speaking husband.  However, on the way home from ulpan this afternoon, I walked myself to Machane Yehuda (the shuk) to buy produce.  Then I took buses from a couple of unfamiliar stops and managed to get myself home, schlepping my bananas, grapes and peppers on the bus, just like a regular Israeli.  For me, the newness of the task, and the pride I felt, was enhanced by the fact that I did it all myself.  (I know, I sound like a 2 year-old exclaiming, "Do it mysef!")

Every day, I understand more of the language that swirls around me.  I figure more things out.   For example, I'm getting better at recognizing the numbers the shopkeepers announce when totaling up my purchases.  I used to be completely clueless, so I would pay with large bills and hope that was enough money.  Now, I can understand the amount their asking for, at least some of the time.

I do ordinary, daily tasks for the second, third and twentieth time. 

I'm finding ways to contribute to my community.

I'm feeling more at home in my homeland.

On the last bus home, I was very aware of feeling privileged.  It's a privilege to live here, to study here, to shop here and even to take buses here. Some days, like today, I can't believe I get to do all these things.

Today, I imagined, for the first time, not always feeling quite so alien here.  Today, some of the awkwardness of being a new immigrant receded.

Now that's progress.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Chag Atzuv: CLARIFICATION

Like all writers, I'm happy when people react to what I wrote.  The many reactions to my last post "Chag Sameach and Chag Atzuv" prove that I hit some kind of nerve.  The extensive responses, both to the post itself, on my Facebook page and personally, have been very rewarding.  However, there is a misimpresion that I would like to clarify.

One should not infer from the fact that I am pained by what goes on in most shuls on Simchas Torah that I am unhappy with my role as a Jewish woman and that I desire to express myself through men's mitzvot.  I have no wish to be a Jewish man.

I knew about the women's tefillah service in my community before Simchas Torah and I elected not to attend.  To me, women gathering together as a tefilla group  in a place separate from their regular prayer community, in an attempt to create for themselves what their synagogue denies them is, at best, a compromise, not a desideratum.

What I object to, what I'm hurt by, what I want addressed, is the propensity of Orthodox men to declare that the Sefer Torah belongs to them, to the exclusion of their wives, daughters, neighbors and mothers.  Any Jewish man, including the biggest atheist in the world, the biggest am ha'aretz, can step into an Orthodox shul and hold and dance with a Sefer Torah on Simchas Torah while the biggest tzadekes is denied that opportunity.

The Sefer Torah does not belong to men. If the halacha forbids women to kiss, touch and hold a Sefer Torah, then show me a source.  In 21 years, I have never seen the prohibition taught as a matter of halacha and I don't believe it exists.

I can't understand how Jewish men, my friends and neighbors among them, can derive joy from Simchas Torah while, at the very same time, so many of their wives, daughters, neighbors and mothers are feeling bored, ignored or in spiritual pain.

I can only assume they have no idea.