Center of the Universe

In my first year of graduate school, I lived in a house in town rather than on campus. We didn’t have cable and for some reason we couldn’t pick up local stations, but the Canadian stations came in clearly. I started watching the news from Canada and I noticed something that really surprised me: the 30-minute evening news spent 20-25 minutes on world news and 5-10 minutes on local news. (The other thing that surprised my poor puritanical ears was the use of the F-word in primetime, but that’s another story.)

My point is that somehow it took until I was 22 years old to really understand that there was a big wide world out there where things happen. It’s not like I lived a sheltered life. I’d traveled internationally with my family. I knew who the prime minister of Israel was. Many of my mom’s friends were from another country (like we were). It had just never really sunk in that there might actually be something happening outside the US. I mean, isn’t the US the Center of the Universe? (And isn’t its capital the neighborhood of Fremont?)

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But now I live in a different center of universe. Although sometimes when I travel it is made abundantly clear to me that a lot of people couldn’t care less about Jerusalem and some have never even heard of it.

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By Heinrich Bünting – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=698773

Given my recent posts, it may surprise you, dear reader, to know that I did not listen to a single word of the State of the Union speech. Honestly, it hardly made a ripple in the Israeli news. Over here we were dealing with something else entirely and my attention swerved from one center of the universe to another.

This week’s headlines in Israel were about Poland. On the eve of international Holocaust Remembrance Day the Polish Senate passed a law criminalizing any mention of the Polish nation as complicit in or as perpetrators of the Holocaust. It’s not clear to me how they plan on imposing this law internationally and how it will affect the vocabulary allowed to historians (the problematic phrase is “Polish death camps” or statements implying the nation of Poland was complicit) and it’s a backhanded insult to Israel and Jews around the world.

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Israeli 11th and 12th graders go to Poland for their class trip and visit concentration camps, say prayers over the dead, rebury remains, and remember the atrocities that were committed on Polish soil. Outside of Israel, thousands of people participate in the March of the Living trips to honor their lost family members and show that they survived. Will this law mean that if anyone says the phrase “Polish death camps” during the trip, they might be liable for a fine or up to 3 years imprisonment?

There is no doubt that there were Poles who rescued and protected Jews – Yad Vashem has documented proof – but there were plenty who did not. The question for me is: why is there is a need to criminalize any mention of Poland as a perpetrator? You can argue, debate, and present facts and witnesses. Why threaten jail?

Israel is angry about this law. Schools and Jewish groups are reconsidering their Poland trips. Poland is scrambling, but it doesn’t look like they’ll back down on the law.

Here’s a thought: Maybe this diplomatic wrinkle will give Jews the opportunity to reevaluate the purpose of Poland trips. The world and Jews especially should never forget the horrors of the Holocaust and the extinguished souls should be remembered forever. But maybe it’s time to also balance the history of victimhood and survivor guilt that color a large part of Jewish identity with the drive toward a future of strength and unapologetically doing good in the world (start-up nation, center of R&D in technology and medicine, etc.). If Israel is a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, maybe all Jews would be better served with the more universal idea that while we will always remember where we came from, we can and must allow ourselves to fly and reach for the stars.

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Immigration

After the US president’s announcement that he was rescinding the DACA program, I was reminded that Israel has faced very similar issues recently and just a few days ago Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that Israel could not forcibly deport illegal migrants.  Specifically related to DACA is the situation of children born in Israel to foreign workers.  They are not citizens of Israel, but they feel no connection to their parents’ homeland.  Yet some of these kids – under the age of 12 – may face deportation. (I don’t know if the decision of the court affects them.)

Let’s start with some definitions.  There are two ways people gain citizenship in a country:  jus soli and jus sanguinisJus soli is a Latin phrase meaning the “right of soil.” That means that if you are born within the borders of a country, you are a citizen of it.  Jus sanguinis is Latin for “right of blood” meaning that the right of citizenship is passed down from one’s parents.  The US and Israel have a mixture of both.

There is no way that a short little blog post will completely explain immigration issues in a US or Israeli context.  But I wanted to point out that Israel is also facing challenges with immigration and we all could probably learn from each other.

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Israel’s biggest challenge is that it doesn’t actually have an immigration policy per se.  Yes, there is the Law of Return that applies to Jews who wish to come to live in Israel.  But the founders didn’t really imagine that anyone other than Jews would want to live in a postage stamp-sized Jewish country.  For decades this was generally fine.  There were some general rules, but no real policy and anomalies could be handled on a case by case basis.  After 1967, Palestinians started to work in Israel.  Then there was an influx of foreign workers and later non-Jewish refugees from Ethiopia and Sudan found their way to Israel and hoped for a better life. These people were not necessarily looking for citizenship, but a policy would have to address their rights and status.

Then the situation started to get complex.  What do you do with children of non-Jewish foreign workers – either legal or illegal – who were born in Israel, only speak Hebrew, and have built a life in Israel?  What about children of refugees born in Israel who may or may not have gotten asylum in Israel?  What about the Israeli citizens who live in south Tel Aviv and now live in a de facto refugee center because the majority of Ethiopian and Sudanese refugees live there?

Israel chose compassion first to deal with the situation of human beings in Israel, so many of the children were granted residency status, but still some were left out due to technicalities.  The issue of refugees and asylum seekers was a bit more clear cut.  If asylum or refugee status was granted then they stayed; if not, they were deported (not always to the country they fled from).

And yet, Israel still doesn’t have a formal immigration policy except for the Law of Return.  I imagine that if you want to have a Jewish and democratic state and you don’t have total agreement on who is a Jew and you haven’t decided how to deal with the question of immigration of non-Jews, having a formal policy would be nearly impossible.

So while US immigration policies may be headline news around the world, the US is by no means the only country dealing with huge questions of who can come into their country and how those decisions reflect the values of that country and its people.

The in-between time

How do you go from the depths of despair to the heights of happiness in five minutes?  Is it a form of manic-depressive disorder?  Is there a switch that they install in your brain when you make aliyah?

Back in the early days of living in Israel, my emotions and grief on Soldiers and Victims of Terror Remembrance Day were dialed way past 11.  On my first Remembrance Day during my kibbutz experience, I cried all day – after having cried the whole day on Holocaust Remembrance Day the week before.  In fact, my Hebrew teacher asked me to leave class because my outpouring of unfiltered emotion was just too much for her to bear.  Later in the evening, we were all supposed to gather at the main field of the kibbutz to have a closing ceremony for this sad day.  More tears and choking back sobs.  Honestly, my love for Israel was quite dehydrating.  And then everyone was waiting, murmuring to each other in quiet conversation, but just standing there.

Five minutes passed.

And then the fireworks began and everyone was laughing and cheering and they headed off to the biggest, wildest party of the year for Independence Day.

What the hell!?!?!

Today, the switch is working better.  I get it.  Soldiers who fought to protect us and this land died so that we could live.  We honor them and then we not only should, but we are obligated to live and celebrate life.  And this week, I stood for the sirens and enjoyed the fireworks.

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Fireworks 2017 – it’s really hard to catch fireworks well with a phone camera

But what about those five minutes?  As I was thinking about it this week, it seems to me that we are always in those five minutes.  We just don’t notice because we are not switching between the depths of despair and the heights of happiness.  It’s pretty exhausting to be at either extreme, but day-to-day life in Israel is that in-between time.

When an Israeli athlete wins a medal and you hear HaTikvah, there’s a swell of emotion – and we are in those five minutes.

When the internet company representative works on your internet just before a holiday and says the Shechechiyanu prayer of thanksgiving (in a Russian accent) when it works – we are in those five minutes.

When you take pride in Israelis helping wounded Syrians or building mobile hospitals in Haiti – we are in those five minutes.

When the insurance representative says “Tfu, tfu, tfu, that you should always be healthy” – we are in those five minutes.

When you hear Hebrew in unexpected places around the world, and you feel suddenly at home – we are in those five minutes.

When the veterinarian who made a house call for your cat takes a few minutes to say afternoon prayers in your living room – we are in those five minutes.

There are no substitutes for Remembrance Days and Independence Day and they’re important, but we ought to remember to declare our Zionism and love of Israel in those in-between times.  We don’t need grand gestures and emotional extremes every day; it’s those ordinary everyday minutes that are the most special if we just take a moment to pay attention.

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Spring in the North

On Friday, I missed the Jerusalem Marathon – on of my favorite days of the year – because I was travelling in the north of Israel.  Now I’m back and happy to share with you the glory of spring in the north.

One hill, many blooms

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Atlit Detention Camp, carving in one of the huts – When Jews were trying to enter Israel illegally before Israel was a state, the British arrested them and put them in a detention camp just south of Haifa.  Even though it was a camp, which had scary connotations for many, the people were just so happy to finally be out of Europe and in Israel.  I have to say, my aliyah was a lot easier.

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Haifa from my hotel

Bet She’arim – details from sarcophagi dating from the first to the fourth century CE.  The fourth picture is a detail of the evidence of how they must have shaped the burial caves.

And everywhere you look, flowers!

Baha’i Gardens, Haifa – springtime with the Baha’is in the upper garden (accessible only with a guide!)  From the top to the middle where the shrine is, it’s about 700 steps.

 

Aliyah-versary

On the day I arrived in Israel 15 years ago, February 8, 2002, I planted an almond tree in my aunt’s garden.

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There were some hard days for that tree and it seemed like it died.  But it didn’t.  It was busy digging into the land and strengthening its root system.

It rejuvenated itself, grew again, and began to thrive.


And now this tall, strong tree bears delicious fruit.

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*This story is brought to you by Metaphors-R-Us.

Aharei ha’chagim / After the holidays

Parents all over Israel breathed a collective sigh of relief as they sent their kids to school on Thursday, September 1.

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Another phenomenon that began on approximately the same day was the throwing around of the phrase “aharei ha’chagim” (after the holidays).  The “holidays,” starting this year on October 2, are: Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year; Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; and Sukkot, an 8-day festival that includes building temporary shelters outside.  Jewish holidays are national holidays so in this 3-week period there are a lot of days off, children are home from school, and it’s hard to get anything done.

One of the rhythms of life in Israel is for people to put off new projects until after the holidays, but this national procrastination often starts about a month before the holidays actually begin.  This can sometimes delay projects for up to two months!  The holidays are usually in September, so after the slow-down of August, people are busy trying to catch up at work.  They don’t want to start anything new.  So it’s a pretty common conversation among workers to discuss some new project in September and the agreed-upon start date is “aharei ha’chagim.”

The only comparable scenario that I can think of in the US is if you have an idea for something new on December 20, it’s pretty easy to say that you’ll discuss it after the first of the year because you have to get through Christmas and New Year’s.  It’s a slight exaggeration, but imagine the slow-down if any project you pitched in November was delayed until after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Aharei ha’chagim can also be used sarcastically at other times of the year.  If someone is constantly delaying a project, it would be perfectly appropriate to ask, “Oh, and when will you be getting started on that? Aharei ha’chagim?” I imagine that it could be used by a parent to their teenager, “When did you plan to clean your room? Aharei ha’chagim?”

Aharei ha’chagim is most often used around the holidays in September, but it is also used before the Passover holiday in the spring. Passover is 8 days long and about 2 weeks before people might start delaying projects to aharei ha’chagim.

Stepping back to look at the big picture, I see aharei ha’chagim as part of the intensity of life in Israel, not a lazy delaying tactic.  In Israel, you work hard during the week and during the year and then rest completely and unplug from the world during Shabbat and holidays.  You finish everything you have on your list before the holidays, rest and rejuvenate during the holidays, and then give 100% effort to something new aharei ha’chagim.

Toilet tanks of Memory Lane

This week I got a new toilet tank.  I know.  That doesn’t sound so earth-shattering or life-changing.  And it isn’t.  But this toilet tank triggered a few memories and those are usually worth writing about.  It’s especially well-timed because this is the first post in the second year of my blog (hooray!) and the toilet tank reminded me of how I got to Israel in the first place.

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Back in February 2001, I began kibbutz ulpan on Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael.  Half the day I would study Hebrew and half the day I would work somewhere on the kibbutz.  I began my kibbutz life in the kitchen and I was put in charge of the dairy cart – cottage cheese, soft white cheese (like sour cream), sliced cheese, and whatever other dairy products were available.  Needless to say, I couldn’t even look at dairy products after a while, much less eat them.  This was a great weight loss plan!

Ma’agan Michael is a rich kibbutz with multiple income streams including tropical fish, edible fish, bananas, cactus fruits, and a few other small industries.  But their big moneymaker is Plasson.  They make plastic plumbing parts and ship them all over Israel and internationally.

After my stint in the kitchen and noticeable weight loss, I begged to be outside, so I transferred to the banana fields.  I knew how to drive a manual transmission so I was an asset as a tractor driver.   But when it was too hot, we weren’t allowed to work outside and I spent one, possibly two, days at the Plasson factory.  We were put to work putting plastic rings (washers) of different shapes and sizes into a plastic bag.  We did it BY HAND!!!  Seriously, it was the longest day of my life.  I’m not really cut out for factory work.  But I did my job and I have a memory tucked away of once having worked at Plasson.  So every time I see a Plasson toilet tank, I think of my time on the kibbutz.

The truck and one of the tractors that I drove.

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Tying bunches of bananas.

Looking back now, I can see that the 5 months on the kibbutz was a transitional time for me.  Life was not really moving forward the way I had envisioned.  Taking a time-out on the kibbutz gave me the opportunity to truly see it.  Moreover, I unexpectedly felt very drawn and connected to Israel and my Jewish heritage.  I had been to Israel many times before, but I never felt like this.

I went back to the US that July and had a difficult summer trying to figure out what I was going to do.  And then 9/11 happened.  Watching the chaos and trying to comprehend the tragedies unfolding on my television screen made me realize that life is short and I would not accept a “life of quiet desperation.”

For my 29th birthday the year before, I jumped out of an airplane – freefall for 5,000 feet (1,500 meters), parachute for 5,000 feet.  For my 30th birthday a few weeks after 9/11, I jumped out of a life that no longer made me happy.  Life in Israel was my parachute.

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Some of the best sunsets in the world are at Ma’agan Michael!

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Environmental side note:

In Israel – and probably a lot of other places – we have two flushing options.  The small button is for small flushes and the big button is for when you need a big flush.

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