Thursday, September 28, 2006

Some Thoughts on These Days Before Yom Kippur

I have been an observant Jew for more than 27 years, and before that I actually attended synagogue three times a year - twice on Rosh HaShana and once on Yom Kippur. That said, I still haven't really "figured out" this period of time - the ten days of Repentance.

I just have some personal observations - and I would love to hear other's thoughts on the subject.

One thing that I have noticed, is that people have different ideas about their relationship to G-d - and they usually correspond to what type of relationship they have had with their parents. Observant Jews are taught that we must both love and fear G-d. Those people who have had wonderful parenting can usually get the love part, and have a harder time with the fear. Those who unfortunately have had bad parenting, have the opposite reaction - fear is easy, love is hard.

Since we have to do both - we all have work to do, especially during this time of year. Another contradiction in observant Judaism is the idea of how we think about ourselves. We are told that we have to imagine having two scraps of paper - one in each pocket. One says, "We are but dust and ashes (compared to the eternity of G-d)". The other says, "G-d created the entire world just for me (we each have a unique place in this world and a job to fulfill)". So, am I supposed to feel guilty now, in order to do better in the coming year? Or should I feel encouraged, knowing that I still have a special role in life? The answer of course is both - but I always have a hard time with this.

Another problem to throw into this mix is the unavoidable comparisons to others. I know I am supposed to be thinking only of my personal journey up the ladder, but I can't help peeking around at others (which is silly, because you can't tell from outward appearances what is really going on in someone's life - G-d is the only one who really knows).

The only thing I can say for sure is that being religious doesn't mean we have all of the answers - which I used to think back when I wasn't observant. Now the only thing I know for sure is that I still have a lot of questions!

Your input is welcome.

For some great posts on this same topic, check out Beyondbt.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Same Old, Same Old

It may be the new Jewish year, but in Israel a lot of things are repeating themselves.

Our elite troops are killing the terrorists before they kill us, by going into places like Nablus and hunting them down there. Thank G-d for our brave soldiers, both the ones working in intelligence and the ones doing the shooting.

While the newspapers and the government are dealing with the rampant corruption scandals, the Kassam rockets are still falling on southern towns. Two fell in Sderot, and it was just by luck that only one woman (an Israeli soldier) was lightly hurt.

Sderot mayor Eli Moyal is understandably both frustrated and cynical. He predicts that the miracles will run out one day, and only then the politicians will show up for the usual blah-blah-blah.

He also says that financial help that was promised to the south has been suddenly cancelled.

In addition, a new survey shows that 63% of Palestinians think they should emulate Hizballah by shooting rockets into Israeli towns and cities. The tools may be a bit different, but the motivation - kill the Jews, is still the same.

But, not to worry folks. We settlers are also involved in the "same old, same old" too. We're having more babies (I can't tell you how many bris's I have attended just this summer alone!), marrying off kids (seven new married couples in our settlement in the past few months) and welcoming new families - who are moving into the caravans vacated by families moving into their permanent homes.

Not to mention the Torah learning, chessed (acts of lovingkindness) projects, and extra prayers layered into our day-to-day life. Baruch Hashem some things don't change.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Will President Bush Visit Israel?

Haaretz has an article stating that President Bush may visit Israel after the elections in November. This is to supposedly support the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Of all of the presidents in the past, Bush is the first one that I have voted for - and I would be pleased to see him come here. I sincerely hope, though, that it won't be another "push the Israelis to give in on something important" in order to have a positive photo-op for everyone.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Feeling Connected

The newspapers were full of "the year in review" articles. I skipped most of them - I don't need to read about what a tough year we have had in Israel. There was one article which I enjoyed very much, though, and made me feel hopeful on this Rosh HaShana.

Makor Rishon had an article about a survey sponsored by the paper and the Gesher ("Bridge") organization (an organization which tries to bridge the gaps between the religious and secular communities in Israel). The survey asked questions about Israelis' observance of certain mitzvot (religious commandments) and some of the answers were surprising.

We are used to getting our information about what happens in Israel from the mainstream media, and we also make assumptions about the day-to-day life of the "average" Israeli from this same source. So many of us have the impression from the secular, elite press that most Israelis want nothing to do with religion. This survey showed that this is not true. Many Israelis may not be what we call religious, but they do have a connection to Judaism, and it shows up in their actions.

The least surprising statistic was about strict Sabbath observance - not using electrical appliances on Shabbat. 31.8% do not turn on the electricity on the Sabbath, which roughly corresponds to the number of people who label themselves religious in this country. But this number doubles when people are asked if they say Kiddush on Shabbat (the blessing over the wine said at the meal) to 62.6%. This means that a majority of Israelis have at least one Sabbath meal with their families every week, where they take part in the ritual of Kiddush. I remember when we went to Eilat and spent a Sabbath in the hotel. Friday night there were quite a few tables where chiloni men, putting napkins on their heads (no extra kippot available) would say Kiddush for their families, their kids waiting eagerly for a sip of Abba's wine.

This connection that the average Israeli feels to Judaism is not only in the "family oriented" mitzvot. 70.8% of Israelis say they fast on Yom Kippur. 61.8% say they keep kosher - and the breakdown of this statistic is also very interesting. 92.6% of people who call themselves "traditional" keep kosher, and 25.3% of those who call themselves "secular". I wasn't surprised at the numbers in terms of the masorati (traditional) group - but I was amazed that a quarter of secular Israelis keep kosher.

One of the brightest bits of news in this survey was the fact that in terms of age, more young people keep the mitzvot than the older people (which is the direct opposite of what is happening in America and the Diaspora).

My observant readers will probably understand my positive emotional reaction to this article, but I would guess that my non-observant readers may be either puzzled or a bit uncomfortable. A dominant theme in the western, secular culture is the idea of live and let live, and the need to respect others, even if different from you. I grew up that way, as do most Americans, and I firmly believe that this is the way to go. At the same time, when I became an observant Jew, I absorbed another dominant idea from Judaism that "Kol Yisrael areivim zeh l'zeh" - "Every Jew is responsible for one another". This not only means that we are one big family, and that we have to worry about the physical well being of other Jews, but that we have to worry about the spiritual well being of other Jews also. Being an observant Jew means believing that if all of the Jews keep the Torah, than the Messiah will come - utopia. This is our national Jewish agenda. How do I then believe in live-and-let-live and this agenda at the same time? Aren't they contradictory?

I reconcile these two ideas by what I choose to do, and how I choose to do it - while not ignoring the emotional component.

In terms of my personal actions, I try to provide information to those who are looking for it on observant Judaism (especially here on the blog). I also try hard to be a positive example. Nothing "sells" Judaism more than an observant Jew who is truly a mensch (and nothing infuriates me more than someone who is dressed up like an observant Jew but whose actions are worthy of contempt). But I think that what is more crucial is how I do these things. I try, at least, not to mix up these actions with too much "one-upmanship". The problem with Jews, especially in Israel, is that we all think we know the "right way" - and we are not shy about expressing this. Since we all know the "right way", then it is natural for us to try to convince everyone else to do exactly what we do, in exactly the same way. This of course is mixed up with a lot of negative characteristics like arrogance and insensitivity.

So why don't all Jews follow this line? Why are there so many people out there who make it their life's work to try to convince other Jews to be observant - and many who think that it is their goal in life is to legislate it? Why isn't "live and let live" more dominant than "kol Yisrael areivim zeh l'zeh"?

Here I can't convince you intellectually, I can just share with you the fact that it is an emotional thing. It hurts us when other Jews don't keep the mitzvot.

To illustrate this I will tell you a short anecdote from when I was newly observant. I started keeping the mitzvot when I was a senior in high school, and after I graduated I went to study at Stern College for Women (part of Yeshiva University). When I came home on semester break, I spent Shabbat at home, and caught up with the news of what was happening at my old school with my brother. He was not observant at the time (that came a bit later). He was describing to me some of the renovations that they were doing at my high school, and I was a bit puzzled. Wanting to make it clear for me, he reached out to take a pencil in order to draw me a map. Without thinking, I grabbed his hand, and said "no, you don't have to do that. It is ok, I understand." I did not make an intellectual decision that it would be a bad thing for my brother to write and therefore break the laws of the Sabbath for my benefit - I had a split second emotional reaction. It hurts, so I stopped him from doing it.

A lot of the problems between the religious and non-religious in Israel comes from the fact that our relationship is seen superficially, as a sort of competition. When someone takes off his kippa it is seen as a "win" for one team and a loss for the other, and when someone becomes observant it is the opposite. But the relationship is truly much deeper than that - and those of us who are observant really feel that we are part of the same family.

This is why I was so happy to read this article. I like and respect other Jews the way they are now, and I don't need everyone else to be at exactly the same place I am. But if feels good to know that a lot more Jews are "within shouting distance" than I had thought in the past.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Guess What We Got For a "Shai L'Chag"!

One of the joys of living in Israel is the fact that the calendar is Jewish. You don't need to take special vacation days from work in order to celebrate Rosh HaShana or Yom Kippur (or the other religious holidays either).

In addition, in most places of employment, you receive two gifts a year from your employer - once before Rosh HaShana and once before Passover. These are called "shai l'chag" in Hebrew.

This year Westbankpapa came home from his hi-tech job with....wait for it....gourmet chocolates! These were as delicious to eat as they were to look at. A bottle of chocolate liquer was included. Now I can pretend to be Julia Child while cooking - but instead of drinking red wine I can indulge in some very good brown stuff....I'll let you know if my recipes come out the same, or perhaps even better...

A happy, healthy, and sweet new year to all of my readers

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Returning to Jewish Soul Food

The theme of the Hebrew month of Elul and the high holidays of Rosh HaShana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is returning - both to G-d and to one's better self. Introspection, prayer, and giving of charity help this effort.

In our family, Rosh HaShana marks a more down-to-earth time of returning. It is the time when we go back to our winter menu.

When I became an observant Jew and set up my own home, I especially enjoyed learning how to cook all of the traditional foods for the Sabbath and holidays. My mother would make them only once a year - on Passover, but I wanted to make them more often. I used the Lubavitch cookbook (old version) to make everything from challah (egg bread) to cholent (a meat stew specially made just for the Sabbath).

When we made aliyah we made two changes to this. One, we incorporated Israeli foods into our repertoire, taking advantage of the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. Two, we took into account the different climate. I know that there are some out there who can't give up their Shabbat chicken soup and cholent, even in the dog days of August, and they just blast the air conditioner. Westbankpapa and I can't deal with this. The idea of eating such heavy stuff in the heat makes us ill - so our summer menu is adjusted and we eat more shnitzel and fresh salads.

It turns out that I stop making cholent around Passover, and I stop making chicken soup around Shavuot. I resume my winter menu again at Rosh HaShana.

Yesterday I made challot with my kids. This is a once yearly activity that my boys don't let me skip. I make the round ones, they enjoy making the braids (yes, in a family with only boys, they are taught not only to wash the floor but to make cookies and challa!). They asked me what I would be making for Rosh HaShana and were delighted - to the point of dancing around the kitchen - when I told them that chicken soup and cholent would be on the menu.

Absence does make the heart grow fonder - even when it comes to chicken soup.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Good Role Models

I've been thinking more about my recent post about "repentance experts" and I thought I would try to come up with more examples of righteous people to emulate.

Every few years I read the book "A Tzaddik in Our Time" by Simcah Raz, about Reb Aryeh Levin. I usually do this during Elul, the Jewish month leading up to Rosh Hashana.

The book is highly recommended, especially for those of us living in Israel. Not only does it have many inspiring stories about this truly righteous person, but it has examples of how someone who sincerely loves his fellow Jew can bridge the boundaries between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Reb Aryeh was the rabbi of the prisons where the British kept those in the Palmach and Lehi that they had caught. He took care of them and sneaked in notes from members of their families.

I still remember one small anecdote from the book, which still sticks in my mind. In our materialistic society it is almost incomprehensible - but it shows the greatness of the man. Reb Aryeh lived in extremely modest circumstances. At one time a student wanted to help him by doing some "home improvements". The student wanted to put a soap holder in the shower so that Reb Aryeh wouldn't have to pick up the soap from the shower floor. Reb Aryeh refused, fearing that this "luxury" would spoil him.

I am not saying that living in poverty is the ideal - for most of us, living like that would make it much harder for us to work on our midot (character). But Reb Aryeh shows in this story that his ultimate worry was his personal character - and he shows unbelievable sensitivity to how even the little things can possibly push us off the right track.

Mind boggling really. We sorely need more examples like Reb Aryeh.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Go Over and Enjoy Some Chicken Soup for the Brain

This is how OlahChadasha has titled her turn at Haveil-Havalim, number 87. Lots of good stuff!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Repentance "Experts"

It is that time of year again. This is the week before the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), where Jews are supposed to be involved in introspection. We are meant to think about the year past and what we need to do teshuva about (repentance).

Most of us (at least the adults) have a pretty good idea what character traits need improving - unfortunately some of these don't seem to change much from year to year! But getting down to more specifics is different from year to year, and takes a lot of thought.

Unless, of course, you have access to what I call the "repentance experts". It seems that there are people who think they have specialized access to G-d's accounting books and can tell you exactly what you need to do in order to repent.

After a major disaster the more famous of these experts take to the airwaves with their pronouncements. We all remember some of the "gems of wisdom" put out after the tsunami, after Katrina, and after the disengagement/Sharon's stroke. No religion is immune from these guys. Most people take what they say with not only a grain, but sometimes a kilogram of salt.

But I have met less famous "experts" in my time - some recently. I spoke with someone recently about my problems with my teenager, and she told me that the reason why I was having trouble was because of something I did as a teenager to my parents.(She, of course could not be specific about what). At first I thought she was joking, and then when I saw she was serious I was completely taken aback. This person met me when I was 24 years old - she has absolutely no idea how I treated my parents when I was that age. This did not stop her from assuming that she had all of the answers though.

Unfortunately there are people who hunger for these kind of answers. Feeling shame and guilt is extremely uncomfortable. In order to get away from this feeling, some people will grasp at anything - and letting others tell you a quick way of avoiding these feelings is sometimes very tempting. It doesn't matter to some people that perhaps these quick ways have more to do with the religious "experts" own agenda than anything else.

I am a stubborn person. I am willing to "take orders" from only one - G-d. I am willing to let others guide me in understanding what G-d wants from me, but only to a point.

I find that I like to get my guidance on how to improve myself from using my eyes more than my ears. The people who talk the most about what we should do don't affect me. The people who actually do these things are more impressive. The problem is in paying attention. These people don't usually crow about themselves - so you have to spend some effort is seeing them.

When you have a hard time and need a break, the woman who calls and says "Oh, you poor thing. Tell me all about it (including the juicy details)" sounds like the real friend. But the woman who says, "OK, your kids are going to me after school and are staying the night. What cereal do they like for breakfast?" is really a greater friend, because she is quietly doing what you really need. There are many examples of this if you just take the time to see them.

I wish for everyone a good holiday season, and I hope everyone has access to the good people who teach us how to be better.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Peace Activist Wakes Up, And Others Get Tired of "Peace"

GreetingsfromtheFrenchHill has a very powerful video showing how an Australian peace activist realizes the truth about how the Arab terrorists use children. Who said human sacrifice isn't practiced anymore?

(Anyone who can translate from French to English is asked to help out).

Carl at Israelmatzav has an eye-opening post about some ISM "peace" activists who may be training with AK-47s. Check out the articles, and the pictures.
A Change in Blogging Style

My blogging is going to be a bit different for the forseeable future - at least in part. In addition to my usual commentary on politics and the media in Israel, I am going to blog about what is happening in my personal life - without the details.

This will of course be frustrating for those of you curious sorts - and that means all of you, because who else reads other people's blogs after all? I still think that I can't write about the facts of what happened - although I may write a novel someday - the plot is that interesting. But I can try to sort out some of the thoughts and feelings arising from the events.

"Gam zu l'tova" (loosely translated as "this is also good") is a strong concept in observant Judaism. This means that we believe that everything that G-d does is ultimately good for us - even if it is painful, and even if we can't see the good in it right away. The concepts of faith in G-d and the need for patience are reinforced here - and I believe in them wholeheartedly.

It will take a long time to see all of the good coming from the recent events - but one small thing is already apparent.

Westbankpapa and I are going to see a professional in order to sort out our feelings. We've told our kids about it(and will probably take them for one session). I think this is a very good lesson for them - to know that there is nothing to be ashamed of in seeing a psychologist if you need to talk about things.

I don't know how much the stigma of this still exists in other communities. In my opinion it is practically non-existent in the dati leumi community (national religious), especially in the communities in Judea and Samaria where terrorist attacks have touched almost all of us in both direct and indirect ways. Going to see someone after a trauma is par for the course.

One good thing, (and counting...?)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Different Way to Commemorate September 11th

I have been reading the blogs and noting everyone's take on September 11th. Many bloggers have written tributes to those killed, as part of the 2996 project that I have noted before.

Some bloggers have analyzed the political climate and the mistakes made leading to the terrorist attack.

There is one blogger, though, whose post made me want to give him a standing ovation. Go over to Jeremayakovka and see how he marked September 11th. It will give you a lift.

Yasher Koach to him!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Issues of Trust

Recent events in my family have started me thinking about a number of issues, one of which is the issue of who, and what, do we trust.

Ironically I am writing this post the day after September 11th, from a settlement in the westbank - but what started me thinking along these lines has absolutely nothing at all to do with the war on terror and the Middle East conflict. It only sounds that way.

I grew up being taught that you don't hate people because they are different than you. I grew up believing that just because one person may have hurt you in some way, you don't then assume that everyone in his "group" will also hurt you. I also absorbed the belief that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and that most people are good.

Somewhere along the line, as I learned from experiences in the real world, I came to see that you can't assume that most people are good - you have to judge everyone on an individual basis. This is especially true when there is money involved, or there are other things that one person may want from you. This doesn't mean that they are necessarily bad - but that the jury is out.

Now I am being forced to rethink even this assumption - and to realize that not everyone plays by the ground rules that you think are too obvious to even mention. I have had a very rude awakening, and now see that there are those that believe that their way of life/position is so superior, that literally anything goes. The ends justify the means in the minds of these people, from the sweet and comfortable position of arrogance that rationalization has built for them.

Another issue is what do you trust. We are given a lot of information, most of which we ignore but enters our subconscious anyway. Later, when faced with a problem, this information may come out as a gut feeling. We don't know why we feel a specific way, but we do, strongly. This is especially confusing when it contradicts other information that seems to come from a more reliable source. We try very hard to cut away all of the emotions to get to the bare facts - but sometimes there are not enough bare facts to make a decision.

I have learned from experience in the past that when I ignore my gut feelings I get into trouble. But I also know how easy it is to dismiss gut feelings out of laziness, or fear, or the nagging suspicion that I am getting paranoid. After all, how can it be that I see something that many others don't?

I would love to hear from others about what they think.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Tragedy of 9/11 Sent This Man Home

The Jerusalem Post has a very moving story about how one survivor of the attack on the twin towers reacted to the tragedy.

This Jewish man decided that it was time for him to make his way home - to Israel. It took him a few years, but he came to live in Israel through Nefesh b'Nefesh last summer, and he just got married three weeks ago.

Go on over and read the whole thing.
Tribute to John Pocher - One of the 2996 Victims of September 11th

John Pocher, a resident of Middleton New Jersey, was killed in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He worked on the 104th floor at Cantor Fitzgerald.

He was a bond broker who was known as someone with a fine attention to detail - both in his work and in his personal life.

He was a family man who called his mother and grandmother on a regular basis. He loved to travel with his wife of seven years, Laura Grygotis, and he also enjoyed sports.

He left behind his wife, his parents, and his brother and sister. He was 36 at the time of his death.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Hi-Tech Advances Help Protect Both Soldiers and Civilians

The Jerusalem Post has an article today about hi-tech fencing systems installed in settlements in Judea and Samaria. These systems use laser technology to give advance warning to the soldiers and residents who protect the yishuvim of an intruder. This advance warning helps to protect lives.

The article is very interesting. The only problem I have with it is the headline. Whoever chose it doesn't like settlers apparently. The headline "Hundreds of Millions Spent on Virtual Fences for Settlements" is a blatant way of trying to convince the public that we are sucking the government dry. Saving soldier's lives, saving civilians lives, and perhaps providing a deterrant to the terrorists trying to infiltrate settlements - so that the IDF soldiers can concentrate more on going into the Arab villages and killing the terrorists there (before they get on a bus in Tel-Aviv with a bomb belt) - are points not mentioned. An analysis of how this system might save money in other ways is also not provided.

Another lesson in media bias here.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

It Takes a Village

Most people probably roll their eyes at Hillary Clinton's quote that it takes a village to raise a child, because of the source. I used to roll my eyes also - but the events of this past week and a half have proven it true.

I can't describe the details of what we are going through in our family because I think it would do damage - but I can say that it is serious.

When people in our yishuv heard about our problems, many came forth to help. I expected this type of help from my personal friends - because that is what friends are like, after all.

What really surprised me though, was the outpouring of both gestures of support and real, concrete advice and practical help from people that I thought were just acquaintances. It seems that when you live in a village, and you watch what is unfolding in your neighbors lives, and you see their kids growing up, you develop a relationship with them without realizing it. Many, many people who I don't know very well care about my kids - and are willing to give of themselves to help out.

Another reason to love living in the place that I do.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Little Children, Little Problems, Big Children....

I am sure most of the parents out there have heard the expression, "Little children, little problems, big children, big problems". I used to shake my head in denial, when my kids were little. Dealing with tantrums, diapers, getting up at all hours of the night, or trying to judge if a little one's fever and wierd symptoms meant a run-of-the-mill virus or it was the signal to rush to the emergency room - at 2:00 am - all convinced my young mother's mind that it just couldn't be harder than this...

Well, recent experiences have convinced me that whoever penned this phrase was a veteran parent of teenagers. In Israel they call this age "tipesh-esreh" - a play on the Hebrew words "tipesh" for stupid, and the suffix "esreh" after the numbers 11-19. I don't think I will blog about it - my kids read English after all.

Just know that there is a reason that I may not be blogging too much in the near future, and that I am learning just how much I really love my kids.