Monthly Archives: March 2019

It’s a complicated, flawed but democratic country

We’ve been in Israel for almost four weeks and a lot of what I’ve written about in this blog and for occasional Facebook posts has been what we’ve seen, experienced, felt, and enjoyed in Israel. It’s been, for the most part, a wonderful, joyful adventure and we’ve felt fully alive and young at heart. Except for a few sentences, I haven’t written about Israel’s flaws or how Israel is portrayed by others, especially those on the left and on college campuses in America.

The title of this post could easily refer to the US. Although I lived through the Vietnam War, Nixon, and the Bush years, I’ve never been as worried about my country as I am now. Trump has trampled on our constitution; he’s corrupt, racist, vindictive, and amoral. Our government’s treatment of immigrants at the border has been heartbreaking and inhumane. Republicans in Congress have abandoned their principles and scruples and blindly fall in line behind Trump. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

But, I wasn’t referring to the US in the title of this post. Israel is the complicated, flawed but democratic country I want to discuss here. I see Netanyahu as a frightening, albeit highly intelligent, mirror image of Trump. Under his leadership, Israel has pursued policies that I and many others who love Israel see as a stain on the soul of the nation, especially in regard to the Palestinians on the West Bank and the Jewish settlements there. And yet, this is still a democratic country, albeit a seriously flawed one. During our time here, we have seen evidence of a democratic society on a daily basis. In Israel, there is freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. We have watched TV shows that are exposes on the treatment of Israeli Arabs and Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia. We regularly watch a show called The Back of the Nation, where clever and funny pundits skewer Netanyahu and other political figures. The other day, we saw an art exhibit examining Israel’s controversial, disturbing treatment of Israeli prisoners of war released by Egypt after the Yom Kippur war. We witness (and support) the New Israel Fund, an Israeli organization that pursues social justice in every aspect of Israeli society, however controversial and often unpopular their work may be. Israeli government policies are protested in Israel on a regular basis. There are more Arabs studying in Israeli colleges and universities than ever before. In a few weeks, there will be a national election in Israel and although the results may well be disappointing and discouraging, it will be a free and democratic process. These are all signs of a functioning democracy, however flawed and misguided its current leadership may be.

The BDS movement singles out Israel as the worst and only nation on earth worthy of complete boycott, divestment and sanctions. Not China, not Saudi Arabia, not Syria, not Yemen, not Eritrea, not Sudan, not North Korea. Israel, the only Jewish country in the world, is the only target of the BDS movement. Why not call out other often more egregious examples of injustice, repression, discrimination, and violation of human rights in other countries? This sole focus on the only Jewish nation in the world reeks of antisemitism and is extremely troubling for me.

My love of Israel does not blind me to her faults and transgressions, but neither can I be silent about what undergirds the BDS movement. I pray for a more just future in Israel, just as I do for my beloved America. The fact that both nations are democracies gives me hope my prayers will be answered.

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On and off the beaten path in Jerusalem

Earlier this week, Chuck and I decided we needed a Jerusalem fix and took off by train to spend an overnight visit there. Tel Aviv is young, diverse, artsy, vibrant, and ever changing. Jerusalem feels ancient, spiritual, religious, (those two are not the same) and mysterious. It is also an important part of our history as a couple!

We walked through Machaneh Yehuda, the outdoor market in Jerusalem. It used to be open air and much more gritty. Now it’s covered and feels positively upscale! I”m not sure I fully like that change, but we’ve always got Shuk Hacarmel in Tel Aviv if we want a more old world feel. Here are a couple of photos from the market.

One of our favorite galleries in Jerusalem is Neil Folberg’s Visions gallery. Neil is an incredibly talented American-Israeli photographer. We spent a few hours with Neil, and it was inspiring. We own and love a few of his photographs and books, but his latest body of work, called Taking Measure, is simply stunning. Here is a link to a video about these photographs- do watch it- you’ll love it.

Our friends Alvan and Marcia visited us in Tel Aviv and suggested we go to the roof of Notre Dame for a panoramic view of Jerusalem. It’s a historical hotel owned by the Vatican that is across the street from the New Gate of the Old City. I had never even heard of it, but it was worth the elevator trip. As I looked out over the Old City, I was struck by the weight of history that hangs over Jerusalem- so much tragedy, so much conflict, so much beauty, so much majesty, so much meaning. It never fails to touch me deeply.

My honey on the roof of Notre Dame
The domes and spire of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

We also visited the Italian synagogue and museum, which I haven’t seen in 50 years. The synagogue interior is from a 17th century synagogue in Conegliano Veneto, a village in Italy. It’s ornate and quite beautiful and I remember praying there one Shabbat in 1968. It hasn’t changed, thank goodness!

As Chuck and I wandered around Jerusalem, we saw this shop and thought about getting a bucket, but we had reservations for dinner at Eucalyptus. Any time you see a sign completely in English, you know who the intended audience is! Israelis eat lots of schnitzel but American fried chicken is not very common here.

Dinner at Eucalyptus was an experience. The owner, Moshe Basson, is a showman and well known chef who creates modern dishes based on biblical cuisine. The restaurant was very crowded and after eating absolutely delicious appetizers, we waited almost an hour for our main course. When we let the waitress know we were very unhappy about the poor service, out came Moshe to charm us. He apologized for the wait and I reminded him I met him about 15-16 years ago when he did a cooking demonstration at a private party I attended during a terrible period in Jerusalem when terrorists detonated suicide bombs in crowded restaurants and cafes, bringing tourism to an almost complete halt, Moshe was forced to close his restaurant. He claimed to remember the party, he apologized again for the long wait and then proceeded to send four desserts to our table and he invited us to watch him turn out a pot of traditional chicken and rice. He succeeded in turning out the dish and turning us around.

On our meandering around the city, we came across the sign below for the Mandarin Chinese restaurant. Fifty years ago, when the culinary scene in Jerusalem was very limited, this was one of two exotic and special restaurants in the city. (The other one was La Gondola, the only Italian restaurant in Jerusalem.) On my last night in Israel after my year there as a student, on July 21, 1969, my cousins took me there for dinner. In the middle of dinner, the entire restaurant grew silent as we listened to the radio as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and uttered his famous line. It was thrilling then and the memory of it will never leave me.

I love living the good life in Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem will always hold my heart.

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Mother tongue vs. cousin tongue

Fun facade in Neve Tzedek neighborhood

Old and new, side by side in Tel Aviv

We were in a shop in Jaffa with my cousin Zilla, who is a native Hebrew speaker and also quite fluent in English. Chuck and I were speaking Hebrew and she was speaking English and so the shopkeeper spoke to us in Hebrew and then to her in English. She scoffed at him and said (in Hebrew), “Hebrew isn’t exactly their mother tongue.” I laughed and said, “No it’s our cousin tongue!” That’s kind of how I feel, like our Hebrew is a distant cousin to our native tongue of English.

Chuck and I are in sync in so many ways and our love of the Hebrew language is just one example. Remember we met in Jerusalem 50 years ago and for a few years, we thought we would make aliyah and live in Israel when he finished his medical training. So, back in NYC, we tried speaking Hebrew to each other, we listened to Hebrew radio news, we subscribed to an Israeli newspaper. Obviously we never moved to Israel, and likewise, we’ve never achieved full fluency in Hebrew, much as we love speaking Hebrew.

What does that mean? We can do everyday business fluently in Hebrew. Reserve a table at a restaurant on the phone, converse with cab drivers, talk about the weather and how we met in Israel 50 years ago, rave about our grandchildren, ask for directions and understand them, etc. What we crave is being able to discuss complicated issues, politics, societal ills, etc. with the kind of vocabulary and fluency we pride ourselves on in English. So, when cab drivers, waiters, and museum guides hear our Hebrew and say, “You live here, right?” we respond with grins saying, “no, we live in NJ. ” That always elicits the same response. “How is it you speak Hebrew so well? Where did you learn it?” We swell with pride, however short lived.

In an effort to advance our fluency, we have the most talented Hebrew tutor I can imagine. Lior worked with us when we were here six years ago, and to our delight, she is once again our tutor, and this time, our friend Cindy has joined our lessons and added to the fun. Lior is masterful at getting us to converse on a high level, with lots of scaffolding from her. We’ve talked about LGBTQ rights and issues in Israel, racism here and at home, the Me Too movement, social media, family relationships, political correctness and so much more. Frankly, we don’t have the vocabulary we need for these discussions, but Lior’s rule is NO ENGLISH. Instead we have to do our best to describe, in Hebrew, what we are trying to say and she feeds us the words we need and writes them down for us. (You should have seen me acting out “sexual attraction” when Cindy didn’t understand the Hebrew phrase!) When we get frustrated, she reminds us to slow down, there’s no rush, keep trying. She’s amazing. And, I must say, Chuck is the star pupil in our group. He has a natural facility with languages and he is dogged about advancing his fluency. He watches TV with Google Translate by his side, he reads the Hebrew newspapers, and accesses lots of videos and podcasts in Hebrew. He’s my non-native Hebrew speaker hero!

At age 70, I accept the fact that Hebrew will always be a distant cousin to my English language skills. Being here, trying to speak Hebrew, gives me profound respect and empathy for immigrants here and at home who struggle everyday to achieve fluency in the language of their new home countries in order to survive and not as privileged tourists. And for now, I will continue to LOVE speaking Hebrew whenever I can!

We’re off to Haifa to my cousin Zilla’s for Shabbat. Wishing you all Shabbat shalom!

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What it feels like to be Jews in Israel

How do I explain what it feels like being in a Jewish country? I am an American through and through, but I am an American Jew, which means I’ve lived my life as a minority in a majority Christian country. Thankfully, although antisemitism is a persistent reality and increasingly so right now, I have rarely experienced it personally. Nonetheless, I am almost always aware that my holidays, religious practices, and family background are not the norm in America. I remember how hard it was to explain to my young children with Christmas envy why we couldn’t have a Christmas tree and why Santa would not be coming to our house. I remember when I was a doctoral student and missed two consecutive weekly sessions of a seminal course because of Passover and the professor said he had had lots of Jewish students and none of them had to miss classes for Passover. I write all this to help explain how amazing it feels to be a Jew in the majority in Israel.

On Fridays, everyone says goodbye with Shabbat shalom wishing sabbath peace to all. It never fails to touch me. As a family, we’ve never gone out on Friday nights, which sometimes wasn’t easy for us or our kids. Friday night Shabbat dinner has always been sacrosanct for our family. In Israel, that’s the norm. Just about everyone, religious or not, spends Friday evening with family. Tomorrow, we go to Haifa and my cousin’s children and grandchildren will be there for dinner and they are secular Jews. Shabbat dinner with family is simply part of the fabric of life here.

Today is Purim, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the triumph of the Jews over antisemitism perpetrated by Haman in Shushan Persia. It’s all in the scroll of Esther (Megillat Esther), but as we joke, it can summed up as a classic Jewish holiday- they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat. Purim is a joyous holiday- a bit like Halloween on steroids in terms of costumes and gifts of food and celebration. Chuck and I went to a crowded, joyful synagogue last night to hear the megillah read and today we walked all over the city, soaking up the Purim scene in Tel Aviv. Everyone is out celebrating and parading in costume. Here are some pictures to give you a sense of what it’s been like.

Of course living here for six weeks means we can mostly ignore the horrible politics, the ever present threat of war, and the high cost of living here. That allows us to bask in the wonderful feeling of being at home, as Jews in the land of Israel. I’ll take it. Happy Purim to you all!

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Feeling at home, day by day

This is our beautiful, historic building and after a little over two weeks, it feels like home. In these two weeks, we’ve come to know our neighborhood including the ins and outs of Carmel Market (Shuk Hacarmel), we’ve been to five museums, visited with multiple relatives and friends in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, wandered many streets and alleys, watched (and mostly understood) a number of TV shows (including the Israeli version of Got Talent), spent a fascinating day at Weizmann Institute with our friends Cindy and Jay, ate amazing fresh hummus and felafel on the street, biked hundreds of miles (one of us that is…), found a place in the shuk to get my hair blown out for 40 shekels or $11, had company for a delicious Shabbat dinner of kosher takeout food, walked over 45 miles(both of us), and I could go on and on. My point is our life here is full in every sense of the word and yet we never feel rushed, tense, or pressured. I know it’s not real life, but it’s so lovely! I can only wish such an experience for you all.

A few highlights of the past few days. We went to Museum Eretz Yisrael (museum of the land of Israel) and saw two touching exhibits. One, called Leaving, Never to Return is the story of the immigration of almost 1,000,000 Jews from Arab and Muslim countries including Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, Algeria, and Turkey. Almost 700,000 came to Israel in waves from 1948-1979. Some of these communities, including the one in Iraq where our beloved daughter-in-law Nova’s family is from, were established over 2,500 years ago, many centuries before the beginning of Islam. Through the centuries, these communities experienced some periods of prosperity, but many periods of extreme persecution and discrimination. Most were forced to emigrate (never to return) leaving behind their homes, businesses, and almost all of their belongings. This is a little known part of the history of Jews in Israel. Mizrahi Jews, as they are called, now make up over half of the population in Israel.

The exhibit includes photos, timelines, ritual objects, oral histories, film, and clothing and home items from each of these communities. It was very moving and personal for us. We know the story of Nova’s family exodus first from Iraq in 1948 and then from Iran in 1979, each time closing the door of their homes and leaving everything behind to start over in a new country. Nova’s beloved grandmother of blessed memory, Mama Dorice, who we were fortunate to know and love, gave birth to children in Iraq, Israel and Iran and she spoke five languages- Arabic, Hebrew, French, Farsi, and English. Most Americans think of all Jews as coming from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazi Jews) but that is only part of the story. Here’s a beautiful silver Torah case from Iraq, very different from the cloth covers Ashkenazi synagogues use.

As I wrote, we are beginning to master Shuk Hacarmel. At first, it was overwhelming, but after many trips through it, it’s become a comfortable and happy place for us. Here are some photos from the shuk this morning, and of the outdoor hummus joint where we were had lunch in the adjacent Yemenite Quarter.

Shlomo and Doron’s hummus place since 1937. Delicious humus with pieces of felafel and salad mixed in!
This man is removing stray corn kernels from the dried chickpeas by hand for Shlomo and Doron’s. The chickpeas come in 25 kilo bags!
Purim is later this week, and the shuk has many packages of Purim gift bags, or Shalach Manot, a commandment for the holiday.
Everything is so fresh in the shuk!
Her fingers must be coated in asbestos!
A group of religious soldiers, with weapons, eating grilled meats in the shuk. They are required to carry their weapons as long as they are in uniform, but guns are not a problem in Israel in everyday life.

I think my next post will be about speaking Hebrew, an ongoing process for Chuck and me that brings us joy, comfort, and frustration on a daily basis!

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And then there’s Jerusalem

The crowd at Koolulam

Before I write about Jerusalem, I have to tell you about the Koolulam concert. There were 12,000 people gathered to sing together in a joyous community! The tickets were only $12 so the crowd was diverse in terms of socioeconomics and religious vs. secular segments of society. Once they had the whole arena up and dancing, vocalizing and shouting, we were ready to sing. An incredibly talented person spent over an hour hopping all over the stage teaching us the song, with the arena divided into two parts. There were song sheets taped to our seats, and color-coded parts. Somehow, we learned our parts, sang in harmony with great enthusiasm, and the sound was thrilling. Then the featured musician, Stephane Legar, a charistmatic African-Israeli hip-hop artist, came out with his dazzling dancers and we had a dress rehearsal and then four takes that were taped, later to be edited into a video they’ll post online. We loved it!

In 1961, I was a twelve year old at Camp Ramah in Connecticut, and I met a wonderful, inspiring, newly-wed couple working at camp. Over the years, Lee and Mira became like my older brother and sister and my role models for an observant Jewish family and a loving, supportive marriage. We have been close all these years, sharing life in NYC and then Jerusalem where they have lived for almost 50 years. We are also dear friends with their wonderful son David, whom I took care of for a summer when he was 3 and I was 16, and his wife Havi, whom I adore. David and Havi’s daughter Shira and her family are also our friends. Chuck and I went to Jerusalem yesterday to see them all and it was wonderful.

We took the fast train from Tel Aviv, which went through a deep tunnel most of the way. Even though it was indeed fast, I was sad we didn’t experience “going up” to Jerusalem, which is both a literal and a figurative experience. Traveling on the road to Jerusalem, you climb and climb and wind through the Judean Hills and then, suddenly, the golden city appears. It takes your breath away. Although there are lots of new buildings going up everywhere, the height of buildings is limited in Jerusalem and all buildings must be covered in Jerusalem stone, which has been used in the city for 3,000 years. In sunlight and at sunset, the stones have a golden glow. Thus the title Jerusalem of Gold. It makes even new buildings fit into the ancient city. It’s almost impossible not to be affected by the beauty and history of this holy city.

I remember when I was 20, living in Jerusalem and spending lots of time with Lee and Mira and their kids. They turned 30 that year and I couldn’t even imagine being that old. This year, Lee and Mira are 80. We took them out to dinner last night to celebrate and made them promise to take us out for our 80th birthdays in ten years. May it be so!

It was a cold, windy, rainy day in Jerusalem today, so we headed with Lee and Mira to the the Israel Museum along with everyone else visiting the city!

In addition to all the tourists, there were numerous groups of young soldiers, soaking up the art and the history of the country as part of their army training.

Yes, art and history are part of military training here. Israelis enter the army at age 18, and they become serious soldiers, too often experiencing combat and danger. But the army in Israel is more than that. It brings together all segments of society- rich, poor, those from long established families as well as immigrants from so many different countries, colors, and ethnicities. The army educates, socializes and acculturates these young people to develop and enhance their love of the land of Israel and their identity as Israelis.

One interesting exhibit was called The Wanderer which explored that concept in art through the ages. One theme of the exhibit was the wandering Jew. In my family, we always used that term endearingly to describe relatives who loved to travel. Apparently, the term comes from an antisemitic legend that Jews were condemned by Jesus to wander the earth homeless, tired, and unwanted. The wandering Jew is depicted in many artistic media as an unattrative peddler, as seen in these selections from the exhibit.

Tomorrow is the Jerusalem marathon, so we headed back to Tel Aviv tonight. When we walked into our apartment, it felt like coming home. So nice. We’ll back in Jerusalem at the end of the month and we’re hoping for better weather so we can wander (that word again) around the city and visit our old haunts.

A few minutes ago, we heard warning sirens and loud noises. Two rockets were fired at central Tel Aviv where we live! We’re fine as is everyone else in the city, but now our concern is what Netanyahu will do in retaliation. Life seems so normal here, but this reminds us just how fragile that normality is.

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More of our life in Tel Aviv

It’s difficult to describe how different our lives are here in Israel, but I’m going to try. First, we’re living in a city and we have no car (which is a good thing in Tel Aviv), so we walk almost everywhere. Each day we’ve walked between 4-7 miles and after 10 days, it’s beginning to feel good. I laughed when we walked to our friends’ Cindy and Jay’s apartment over a mile away. I would never walk to someone’s house a mile away in NJ! In addition to the fitness benefits, walking enables us to stop and read signs, admire buildings, look in shops, and absorb our surroundings in a way that isn’t possible while driving. Here are some photos of what’s captured our interest yesterday and today: all the building and renovation everywhere in the city, a doorway in our neighborhood, fishermen in Jaffa with the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv in the background, and a magnificent renovated building called The Pagoda for obvious reasons.

Also, we are here on extended vacation and it’s a complete departure from our daily life at home. Every day brings new experiences and adventures. Yesterday and today we spent time with two different relatives of mine. One, my cousin Zilla, I’ve known for over 50 years. Her grandmother and my grandmother were sisters and our mothers were first cousins of the same age. Even though Zilla’s grandmother went to Palestine and my grandmother came to America, they were close their entire lives and our parents were close friends and now Adam is friends with Zilla’s son Yoav. It’s a connection I treasure. Today we spent five hours with her wandering in Jaffa, which was lovely. Here we are together.

The other relative is a new one for me. Paul contacted me 15 years ago from South Africa, telling me his great grandfather and my grandfather were first cousins. He is a professional genealogist living in Israel now and Chuck and I loved meeting him. He shared amazing information about my great, great-great, and great-great-great grandparents. He gave me the transcript from my grandfather’s interview for citizenship, which included all of his addresses in America. I always knew my father and his family lived in West Orange during his high school years, but I never knew where. I now have his address- a couple of miles from our house in South Orange! After we parted, Paul sent us photos of my great grandparents’ gravestones and Chuck’s great grandparents’ gravestones. It was very moving for us. Here we are with Paul in a fabulous vegan restaurant in Tel Aviv, Anastasia.

Tomorrow promises to be a fascinating day. Among other stops with our friend Sharon, we are going to visit a shop called Kuchinate which is owned by a collective of African asylum seeking women that is a project aimed at empowering these women. They make beautiful crocheted products. Here’s their website if you’re interested. In another post I will write about the difficult plight of African refugees here in Israel, as well as about our visit to the collective.

Then tomorrow night we are going to a Koolulam concert. This will be a happening. Their Facebook page says it is a “social-musical initiative aimed at strengthening the fabric of society, centering around mass-singing events.” Thousands of people will gather tomorrow night in a stadium to sing together “for equality, accessibility and respect.”. We can’t wait and I promise to tell you all about it, but it will take a few days because we are going to Jerusalem for a few days on Wednesday morning. Here’s a video about a Koolulam concert that will give a test of what we’re in for tomorrow night.

Finally, I leave you tonight with the photo that is on the wall opposite our bed here in Tel Aviv. We giggle each night as we look at the Zionist elders watching over us as Ben Gurion declares the establishment of the state of Israel. What a hoot.

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Friday in Tel Aviv

First of all, you need to know that Friday is the first day of the Israeli weekend. But, it’s not just that. It’s also the day to prepare for Shabbat, the sabbath, and even if you’re not religious, you’re going to have Shabbat dinner with family and/or friends and you need to buy food, flowers, and baked goods. But, there’s more. Schools are open on Friday (essentially half a day) but many adults have Friday off from work. How cool is that?

To say that Tel Aviv bustles on Friday is an incredible understatement and today has been a gorgeous sunny day. And, a great day to shop for your Purim costumes! (Purim is a Jewish holiday where everyone dresses up in costumes and parties. Kind of like a Jewish Halloween,and it’s in less than two weeks). All over the city there are pop-up costume stores. Which one should I get? Can’t wait to celebrate Purim here.

Today we walked over 12,000 steps (my third day here with over 10,000 steps- not exactly the norm for me!) First we walked through the Nahalat Binyamin crafts market, which is held very Tuesday and Friday where there are wonderful arts and crafts of all kinds and entertainment, including street dancers and classical musicians. When we returned this way in the afternoon, it was wall to wall people!

We walked to our old neighborhood to our favorite felafel joint and then to Dizengoff mall to the Friday food fair to buy food for Shabbat. Such a great place! There’s stall after stall of prepared foods- Russian, French, Persian, Moroccan, Iraqi, Japanese, etc. and many of them certified kosher. So much fun but we bought enough food for the Israeli army. Anyone want to come for Shabbat dinner? It’s Iraqi food in honor of our Nova and her wonderful family we acquired as ours by marriage.

Now we’re sitting in the sun on the promenade on Rothschild St. opposite Independence Hall where Israeli statehood was declared in 1948, watching half of Tel Aviv walk and ride by. It’s peaceful, joyful, lovely. I’m so happy to be here even though the political news here makes me crazy. Racist Jewish parties are allowed to run for election, but radical Arab ones aren’t. Bibi tells lies as adeptly as Trump- we watched a funny satirical political show that was just about his lies! Sound familiar?? The only good thing is we’re much less immersed in the horrible political news from home. Pick your poison!

Signs this isn’t your grandmother’s Tel Aviv ( or in other words the Tel Aviv of my youth here in ‘68-69). High rise buildings everywhere next to 2-3 story old buildings, very visible LGBTQ proud presence (although the term queer is not used here), lots of tattoos and upscale tattoo parlors, menacing motorized scooters and bikes on the sidewalks and streets, Asians and Africans speaking Hebrew, every kind of ethnic food restaurant possible. What hasn’t changed? I’ve seen more families with babies on the street today than I see in six months at home. Israelis love babies and young children and they’re welcome everywhere. It’s Friday, and every third person is carrying flowers to take home for Shabbat. And, there are still too many young people smoking!

I leave you with two photos. One to show you spring is beginning here and I promise it’s coming to NJ soon, and one to show you a heartwarming sticker on the fence of a dog park. Love your neighbor as yourself. May it become a reality here and at home. Sending love and Shabbat shalom.

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Reflecting on the Jewish People

I know that’s a lofty title but it’s what’s on my mind after spending over five hours at the Museum of the Jewish People, formerly known as the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.  It’s been completely renovated into a modern, experiential museum and I highly recommend it if you’re going to be in Tel Aviv.

As you walk into the museum, there’s a small scale reproduction of a beautiful wooden synagogue from Zabludow Poland, or as my grandmother called her hometown, Zabludova.  I’ve seen it before, but somehow, this time, I found it very moving. I tried to imagine my grandmother as a child in the late 1800’s, living in this town and going to this synagogue. How could it be that I never asked her about her childhood?  How could it be she never talked to me about her childhood with her parents and twelve siblings, living in Zabludova?  I’ll never know.

Among a number of interesting and compelling exhibits, I found the one on Jewish humor especially thought provoking. It covered Jewish humor through the ages and across the globe, including a hysterical video montage of Russian, Sephardic, Ethiopian, Ashenazi, and Egyptian Israeli stand-up comics. A few reactions. Why is humor so prominent in Jewish life and culture? Being Jewish has never been easy in this world- we’re a distinct and historically oppressed minority. Perhaps making fun of one’s culture, family, and religion provides an escape valve to lighten the burden. For instance, there was a video of an American comedian talking about how grateful he is that Jews don’t have Christmas trees as a religious tradition. Why? Because there’d be a lengthy Talmudic tractate on who can cut the tree down, how to do it humanely, when to do it, etc. Very funny, but also reflective of Jewish Christmas tree envy.

One disturbing aspect of the exhibit was the theme of making fun of Jewish mothers across centuries and cultures. What’s the difference between a rottweiler and a Jewish mother? The rottweiler eventually lets go. Come on! In spite of second class citizenship in much of Jewish life, Jewish mothers have always been a powerful force as the transmitters of culture, values, and traditions in the family. We don’t hear jokes about Jewish fathers, except in relation to overbearing Jewish mothers. What do you think? Despite my discomfort, I have to confess that my sisters and I often say our paternal grandmother had a post-doc in Jewish guilt. Oy.

In a section on the distasteful strand of Jewish princess jokes, this appeared and I loved it. Barbie with tefillin, carrying a Talmud volume. This is for you Nomi!

One more thing I love about being in Israel. We decided we wanted burgers for dinner and all we had to do was walk around the corner from our apartment to a terrific kosher hamburger restaurant. Lovely.

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Making our way in Tel Aviv

Every time I come to Israel (and I think this is the 11th or 12th time, including my one year stay in 1968-69), my heart is full with the comfort and joy of being in the Jewish homeland. It feels like home in a fundamental, emotional way. Nonetheless, I’m not blind to the deeply disturbing politics in Israel. Right now, it’s scary how many parallels there are between Netanyahu and Trump, with two major differences- Netanyahu is actually smart and he’s about to be indicted. (Trump will never be smart but I do hope and pray he’ll eventually be indicted!) It’s going to be interesting being here in the month before the elections.

Our apartment is lovely and in a terrific neighborhood for walking almost everywhere we want to go with every kind of restaurant imaginable. Right around the corner there’s a kosher steak house which will be a treat for us. I’m trying to develop a mental map of the neighborhood, but it will take me days. For Chuck, it’s a matter of minutes, so it’s good we’re almost always together! There’s a supermarket a block away, but I haven’t yet found the other necessities of life- hair and nail salons. Soon, I’m sure.

One of things I love about being in Israel is speaking Hebrew. I wish I could read Hebrew with the same ease I feel when speaking. Today we shopped for food, first in the Carmel Market, where the process is oral and fun, and then in a supermarket where I got a headache trying to figure out what the differences were among various cans of tuna, containers of yogurt, and olive oil. Here’s a visual. In the Carmel Market, you look and choose, as in this display of phyllo pastries. In the supermarket, you have to decipher the Hebrew, which sometimes isn’t even Hebrew. It says cornflakes on that cereal box!

Then there’s the fun of deciphering menus. We always ask for one in Hebrew and one in English and so far, we’re mostly sharing the English version. Dinner last night was at a delicious vegan restaurant, Zakaim, which was full of young Israelis, but we were both so tired we couldn’t begin to decipher the Hebrew menu. Tomorrow we have our first session with our tutor Lior and we’re really looking forward to seeing her again and pushing our Hebrew vocabulary forward.

We have a busy week planned, with a modern dance performance, a day in Rehovot, dinner with Israeli friends from Chuck’s days at MIT Sloan School, and lots of wandering and some museum visits. I won’t complain about temps in the 50’s-60’s- I see there’s more snow back home. So good to be here!

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