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.

IMG_20160805_184109

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.

Banana tree

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.

sunset

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

***

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.

IMG_20160805_184131

Soldiers Remembrance Day (Yom HaZikaron)—Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut)

After Passover, Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, remembering and honoring victims of the Holocaust.  The following week, the nation remembers fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks.  Immediately afterwards, the streets are filled with joy for Independence Day.

It took a while for me to connect to this rhythm of honoring the memory of the dead and celebrating the birth of a country.  But I think the bottom line is that Israel loves life while not rejecting or denying the sacrifices made by others.

Maagan Michael 2001

The first time I experienced the 5-minute limbo between Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, I was emotionally confused.  At Maagan Michael, these days are taken very seriously.  The kibbutz was around in some form or another since before the birth of the state, so their cemetery held soldiers from every war.  There were ceremonies.  The cemetery was cleaned and decorated.  People told stories, they honored the fallen, and they remembered.

Maagan Michael’s cemetery

And then as we gathered together to solemnly close the day together, we said a few final words, and then we stopped.  Five quiet minutes passed.  And then fireworks.  Now it was time to be happy.  Hoorah!  Independence Day!  Time to party!  BBQ tomorrow!

Honestly, it felt a little manic-depressive, but the other way around—solemn sadness and then within 5 minutes, joy and elation.  But I get it now.  Life is short and you cannot linger in the sadness forever.  Similarly, people continue to live their lives even in the shadow of terrorist violence, even when we were in the dark days of suicide bombings.

And now, it even makes sense to me:  it is important to remember and honor the soldiers who sacrificed their lives defending the state, and also to remember and honor the innocent civilians who were victims of terror; and the best way to do that is to live, to be joyful, to be courageous, and to celebrate.  But it’s also important to keep those days separate so that the commemoration and memory don’t turn into a celebration.  I think often of Memorial Day in the US.  If you don’t know any soldiers, it’s just a 3-day weekend to kick off summer with a BBQ or buy a mattress because there’s a big sale on.  Not here.

Tradition!

This is a little clip (19 seconds) from The West Wing describing how Israel remembers their soldiers.  I have one tiny little issue with it, though I understand why it was phrased that way.  Leo McGarry says that it happens on May 13, the day before Israeli Independence Day.  Well, in 19 seconds, it’s a little hard to explain that the date changes because Independence Day is celebrated according to the Jewish calendar, so Remembrance Day on the 4th of Iyar, whenever that happens to be on the Gregorian calendar.

And he’s right.  Here are a few snapshots of my television screen this year.  There was soft Israeli music playing in the background, not sad music exactly, but definitely mellow and understated.  As I watched the names change, I realized that every single name represented a family that lost someone.  This year, the number of fallen stands at 23,447.

Major Levy Feigenbaum z”l 1 July 1974

Staff Sargent Avraham “Bomi” Schwartz z”l 23 September 1974

On Yom HaZikaron, there are two national sirens, one at 8:00pm to signify the start of Remembrance Day for one minute, and one at 11:00am the next morning for two minutes.  The same behaviors apply as they do for Yom HaShoah:  everyone stops, people stand, and we do it all together.

For Independence Day, Jerusalem allows parties all night.  I didn’t go – I’ve been there and done that, and it’s usually a wild, drunken scene.  Still, I could hear the partying in the street from home and I had a perfect view of the fireworks.  On offer was a city-sanctioned “rave” downtown, folk dancing at the square by city hall, and many of the bars had some kind of Independence Day party theme.

Seriously, I didn’t even go outside for these.

The next day, the park was filled with youth groups, buses dropped off thousands of tourists in the area, and I happened to see a March of the Living group from Argentina.  (March of the Living groups usually visit concentration camps in Europe and commemorate Yom HaShoah there and then come to Israel for Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut.)

IMG_20160512_111151

The spring holiday cycle

So now this year’s journey is complete:  we began as slaves in Egypt and took 40 years of wandering to become a nation; we faced near-annihilation in the Holocaust; we built a state and to protect it and its citizens, soldiers sacrificed their lives and civilians lost their lives in terror attacks; and now we have arrived at Independence Day, when we celebrate the last line in the national anthem, “to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

A Trip Through the Kitchen and Down Memory Lane

I’m not a chef.  I know how to cook a few things, but I wouldn’t say that my skills in the kitchen are particularly stunning.  So why would I go to a cooking workshop?  For the company and the food, of course.

many hands
Many hands doing the work.  Plenty of spices, plenty of oil, plenty of fresh vegetables, plenty of good company.

I used my talents to do what I do best: I took raw material and massaged it into a relaxed, fluffy work of art.


​​The bread is baked on river stones in a very hot oven.  (Thanks to CB for these 3 photos.)

The truth is that throughout the evening of fun cooking adventures and fabulous dinner companions who chop vegetables better than I could ever hope to, I found myself happily remembering other cooking experiences and other dinners that were very Israeli and very special in their own ways.

Israeli food is flavorful.  Each recipe of our excellent dinner involved many “exotic” spices that are not at all exotic in Israel: sumac, turmeric, “spice store blend” – unique to every store and includes things like cardamom, cinnamon, pepper and at least three or four others that I can’t remember – both hot and sweet paprika, coarse cut black pepper, cumin, and who knows what else.  It’s also not measured by the teaspoon.  Spices in Israel flavor food by the rounded tablespoon.  Don’t be shy! Throw that stuff in there!

An ex-boyfriend of mine in Israel once described my cooking as having “delicate flavors” and with a pleading look in his eyes asked if I would mind terribly if he sprinkled half a bottle of chili sauce on it so that he could tolerate eating it.  He was (and I imagine still is) a MUCH better cook than I was.  But I learned.

As my adventuresome spirit in the kitchen expanded, I made a stir fry for this particular boyfriend and asked if he could recognize the spices I put in.  Spoiler alert: I used just about everything on the spice shelf using my nose as a guide.  It wasn’t too bad, if I do say so myself.  So he took a few bites.  Then closed his eyes and listed everything I put in there including stuff that he didn’t know the name of but knew the flavor of.  To this day, I can’t even come close to doing that.

2 pots compressed
​The first two pots.  One the left is the basis for shakshuka – very spicy! – and on the right is the basis for the meatballs with mangold leaves (something resembling Swiss chard).
meatballs compressed

The cooking workshop focused on Moroccan, Tunisian and Kurdish food using fresh, seasonal ingredients from the shuk, so as the cooking progressed, I was transported back to my former neighbors’ home for a Shabbat dinner.  The mother is Moroccan and a superb cook – and she ensured that both her sons and her daughter followed in her cooking footsteps.  She and her whole family are generously hospitable, so I had the pleasure of savoring her food in all seasons.
full stove compressed

My neighbors’ kitchen looked a lot like this on Friday afternoons.  Plenty of food for as many people as could fit at the table.  Everyone was always welcome and there was always enough.  Once I had surprise guests on Friday and I already had an invitation to the neighbors’ house.  I asked if I could bring a few more people and without thinking twice or batting an eyelash she said that they were welcome.  And even then, there was plenty.


The final result:  Full plate, happy (and full) tummy, stimulating conversation with new friends, and a pocket full of memories from years past.

Mourning in the Morning

Mourning in the Morning

Yes.  That’s a play on words. Is it appropriate? Well, in my family it kind of is. We deflect with humor.  That’s not to say that the jokes always work.

At the same time, the statement is also true.  During the day, and even late into the evening, I can distract myself and I don’t have to face the reality that Dad is gone.  But in the morning, in those moments when I’m coming out of a strange dream and I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t, I notice a hollow feeling just under my sternum.  And then I remember that Dad is gone.

Death is easy, mourning is hard

At the risk of sounding too glib, I feel like death is easy, but it’s mourning that’s hard.  We don’t understand death and we don’t know what happens, but it seems like once we’ve wrapped our minds around death, then mourning is swept under the rug.  You know, life goes on and you just have to pull yourself together.  Do what you gotta do and move on.  If you don’t move on, well, there’s something wrong and you should get some professional help.  After the trauma of death, moving on with life should be easy, shouldn’t it?

I don’t know about other religions, but the Jews have an app for that (I know, terrible).  There are a lot of traditions and rituals for all sorts of things, but the general principles of the one for mourning make a lot of sense.  The relationships that call for these mourning rituals are: mother, father, spouse, brother, sister, son, daughter.  Once the burial occurs, the family goes home and “sits shiva” for 7 days (shiva is based on the root for the word 7).  Everything stops for them – no work, no taking part in their normal lives.  The next milestone is the “shloshim” (30 days after the death).  The family goes to the cemetery for the unveiling of the headstone and has a special ceremony.  Every day for 11 months, the mourners say Kaddish (a prayer said when someone dies, which is not about death at all, but praises God).  And then on the anniversary of the death and every year after, the mourner remembers their loved one and lights a candle that lasts 24 hours.  (There are many, many other rituals and traditions, but this is not meant to be a primer on Jewish mourning.)

The basic principle here is that you are able to mourn and take note of every “first” without the person in your life – the first week, the first month, the first birthday, the first holiday, the first year.  I like the principle, but I have to admit the format doesn’t quite work for me.  Living in Israel and being 10 time zones away from my dad created a distance that is also felt in the mourning process.  I didn’t see dad every day.  I didn’t even talk to him every day or even every week.  We just talked whenever.  So the first 7 days was important to allow myself to wrap my brain around the fact that dad is gone, but I didn’t “sit shiva” in the traditional sense.  My firsts will be the first time I want to call dad and tell him about something that happened, the first Father’s Day that I have no one to call, the first time I can’t call Dad on his birthday, the first time Dad doesn’t call me on mine, the first New Year’s.  These will be the days that I feel the loss more acutely.  As for my everyday life, Dad was distant before, and now he’s just a little bit further away – without any cell service.

IMG_20160309_165720

This is a memorial candle that burns for 7 days – more on this in another post.  This picture was taken on Day 5.  I haven’t let the flame go out (even at night).

Jews also have some guidelines for those who visit the mourners.  It’s common sense, for the most part.  Be quiet.  Let the mourner start the conversation.  Listen.  Share memories of the loved one.  So while I didn’t shut down my life for a week and sit shiva in a traditional sense, I had what might be called a virtual shiva.  My friends called and let me talk about Dad and they took the time to listen.   Some shared their thoughts about how they dealt with death of their own fathers.  Facebook allowed my friends from around the world to share their condolences.  My close family in Israel came over and we shared memories about Dad.  The whole process felt much more genuine to me than having a lot of people stopping by.

Thank you to all of you who sent good wishes.
It made me feel truly loved and supported.
Big virtual hugs all around!

My own process of mourning brought into much clearer focus the aftermath of a terror attack – and we’ve had quite a few this week.  When it isn’t our loved one, we look at the political ramifications, figure out how to defend against it so it doesn’t happen again, celebrate the heroism of defenders, share briefly in the sorrow of the mourners.  After the funeral, the press moves on and so do we.  But someone actually died.  That person’s family is grieving.  They are going to go through all the firsts and that hole that was created in their lives will never be filled again.  It will heal, but there will always be a scar.

The blessing of memory

While baruch dayan emet (Blessed is the true judge) and the Kaddish help to ensure that you don’t lose faith when you’re going through such a hard time, yehi zichro baruch (May his memory be a blessing) helps you to heal the scars in your heart.  I find myself smiling at memories of my dad.  I’m happy to hear about the memories of my dad from others.  I’m slowly filling up that hollow feeling in my chest with good feelings and happy memories of my dad.  I don’t expect that the empty feeling will  go away entirely, but the memories will definitely be a blessing.