Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Six Years Israeli

I've been in Israel for 6 years, but on this day, 5 years ago, I became an official Israeli. (I've been corrected that the
Aliyah flight actually landed yesterday, but 09/09/09 is just easier to remember.) It's a day I think about constantly - more of a landmark than my birthday is. Every year on this day, I take a look back at my life. It starts in 2009. Before that, I was me, but not the version of me that you may know. I was searching for myself, trying to find my place. My world was full of boxes, and I tried to twist myself into them, but was perpetually finding myself outside.

I was 17 when I first came here. I was lost and confused and unsure of who I wanted to be. I started that year attempting to "frum out" in seminary, and ended it doing an ulpan program on a kibbutz - where most participants were secular. At the end of the year, I still didn't know who I was, but I knew what I was not. I was not ever going to do the seminary "frum out", and I was not going to be the kibbutz secular. I still didn't have a box. However, for the first time, that didn't scare me. It didn't make me feel alone or like I didn't fit in. Because I had learned that in Israel, while the boxes do exist, they have glass walls and tunnels for visiting. There were so many possibilities - so many things that I could be - and I wanted to be them.

Israel made me happy. Israel made me feel safe. Israel made me feel like I could just be me, and that was good enough. I didn't want to leave. And with no plans, no money, and no idea what I was doing - I made aliyah.

The past 6 years have been so full, so dynamic, so alive. When I look back at the 17 year old version of myself, I know that the best thing I've done for her is let her make that rash, irrational decision to stay here. She wouldn't have turned into me, if she'd gone back to America. The confidence and self-assurance I have in myself, in my religious beliefs, in my life, were only - and still are - brought about through the challenges and rewards of living here.

I've climbed mountains, jumped off cliffs. I've camped out at Gan Sacher and the Tel Aviv beach, and eaten chummus so full of sand it crunches in your teeth. I've been up North and down South, and spend too much time in the Center. I've herded sheep and ridden camels and discovered how much I love ice coffee. I've gone to the Kotel at 2 am in the pouring rain and stayed there all night until the sun came up. I've organized Shabbatonim and tiyulim, and somehow found the courage to speak in front of people and share my love of this country. And then, I got married here, had my wedding here, got an apartment here, started real life here - and I know that my experiences until now are a blip on the timeline of my future in Israel.

I really want to say thank you. Thank you to the beautiful, frustrating, invigorating, and challenging Land of Israel, for creating and shaping me into the person I didn't know I wanted to be. Thank you to all of those who have been my support group along the way - my family, my friends, and now my husband. Thank you to God, who saw me from the beginning until this moment, and is probably laughing because He sees how much more I still have to do.

Every year, on this day, I look back on my life. So far, so good.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

So what's it like, beginning a marriage in a war zone?

Our wedding was exactly two weeks ago, as of this Sunday.

First week of marriage - sheva brachot in the bomb shelter.
We move into our apartment - quickly meet the neighbors while hanging out in the rocket-safe stairwell.
Turn our computers back on - slowly realize we might just be in the middle of a war.

So what's it like, beginning a marriage in a war zone?

I've never felt so lucky.

It goes like this. We laugh and we decorate and we set up our kitchen and build our bookcases, and when the siren comes we drop everything and run to the shelter. We drive back and forth from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and play "Where Will We Run If We Hear The Siren". We laugh as it rings out at the most inopportune times - like at 8am, or when one of us is in the shower, or when I cannot find a mitpachat (hair covering) for the life of me.

I can't imagine a better way to start off our lives together. Very quickly, we have learned how the other reacts in a tense, dramatic situation. Very quickly, we have learned how to comfort and distract each other. Very quickly, we have learned that our ideals are matched up perfectly, that the thought of being anywhere else right now isn't even comprehensible.

This is where I want to live forever. It's where I want to raise my children. We have chosen Israel, for all of its beauty and all of its pain.

A family member commented that once you make aliyah, you are no longer a spectator of Jewish History - you become a player, right in the field. I love that idea. I wish we didn't have to be afraid, wish that peace would come sooner, wish that I would never again have to hear the pulse-quickening sound of the siren. But if this has to happen, I do not wish to be anywhere else. I want to be here, with my people, with my nation, fighting back.

When friends of mine tell me they're waiting to make aliyah until after they get married, or finish college, I never understand. Why not begin your life in the place you want to live it? Where better to find a guy, or have the optimal education, then the place you want to be married and working?

This is the beginning of our lives together. Each day brings a new first. The first time he said Kiddush for me. The first time we had to clean out the sink drain. The first time we made potato kugel. The first time we heard the tzeva adom siren and ran all the way downstairs, not realizing our hallway was safe too.

The firsts are what create the beginning of a lifetime. I am so grateful to be living here, in the land of Am Yisrael, singing Shabbat songs in the stairwell of our apartment building. There's nowhere else I'd want to be.

May our soldiers bring peace to our country, and come home safely.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

#BringBackOurBoys

I sit in my room, attempting to put together a list of music I'd like to be played at my wedding. There are plenty of songs to choose from, but I cannot focus. All I can think about are the three boys, held in captivity, in an unknown location. All I can think about are their parents, the strength of their mothers, the terror they must feel. I refresh my news feed over and over again, I join all the groups, I hashtag where I can. I want to do more. I sign a petition, forward it to everyone I've ever met. I know it won't help, but I need to feel as though there is something I can do.

These boys are everyone I know. It hits closer to home when one is an English speaker, a gingy with braces. I've spoken to his mother on the phone - set up my students at their home for Shabbat.How can I plan my wedding, worry about a seating chart? How can I be setting up my future when theirs is so uncertain? It is an impossible task to divert my attention for more than a few minutes.

I went to a seamstress in Bnei Brak today. On the kitchen table was a picture of her grandson in uniform. I picked it up. "He got called up on Shabbat", she tells me. "He is in Hevron, searching for those poor boys." We spoke about him for a while, and then she told me she was going to Talmon after I left. Her grandson had a Chumash party there this afternoon. She told me they considered cancelling it, but the chief Rabbi made an announcement. He said, "We will celebrate the children learning Chumash today. It is the Chumash of Am Yisrael, and it is important."

It's a short, but simple sentence that I keep repeating to myself as I try to plan my wedding. We cannot stop our lives in the face of terror. I am planning a Jewish wedding, I am building a Jewish home, I am continuing the chain of Am Yisrael. I'm still finding it difficult to concentrate. Every other minute, even as I write this, I'm checking the news to see if any updates have been posted. But I must keep reminding myself - we must go on. Life must go on.

We will continue to pray, to gather together, to unify and to hope. If we stop, they win. If we carry on, they'll learn that they can never defeat us.

Tehillim Names: Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel, Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim, and Ayal ben Iris Tsura
Petition to the US Government: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/demand-release-16-year-old-american-student-naftali-frenkel-kidnappers-palestinian-terrorists/Qy2N4R2H

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Oleh Mission

Is Zionism dead?
The question keeps repeating
In every conversation
It gets our pulses beating
Because we came here for a reason
Made Aliyah to stay
This is the Jewish homeland
No matter what the world might say.
At least that's the ideal
It's what I want to believe
But the fire is burning out
And there's so much left to achieve.
We let daily frustrations
Get in our way
Lose the beauty in the monotony
Of the day to day.
I've heard time and time again,
"I wish I was here in 48
To fight for my country
To help create this state."
This may not be a war
Where heroes will emerge
But Zionism needs a recharge
It's up to us to create the surge.
We are soldiers of the heart,
The warriors of blue and white
We have no guns, no grenades
It's with passion that we will fight.
This mission is important
We're not doing this alone
With us are the souls
Of those who never made it home.
Take a second, just a moment
And feel pride in this land
We have a Jewish country, a freedom
A place we can proudly stand.
It's a mantra, a message
Words that we can live by
As the walls of Tel Aviv
Scream Am Yisrael Chai
A Zionist graffiti
A mix of hope and despair
Remembering the heroes
Who used to live here.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Tefillin and Tattoos

One of the most important lessons we are taught as children is to "judge everyone favorably". We are supposed to remember constantly that we don't know the whole story, that we have no right to pass judgments on anyone else. We say this as we cross the street to avoid the secular teenagers, as we stare at the ultra-Orthodox girls who pass us on the street, as we recognize and pity that girl who used to be religious but isn't anymore. We think we know them, we create stories of what their lives must be like, and all the while we are unbearably self-conscious of what they might be thinking of us.

I was recently in a taxi in Paris, traveling from one airport to another. My driver was an Israeli guy, about 30 years old. He had tattoos up his arm, a piercing in his ear, and hair gelled so spiky it looked like it could cut something. He looked very intimidating, and it took a while for me to feel comfortable talking to him. But once we started, we spoke the whole way, two strangers stuck in an island of standstill traffic.

He wanted to know how old I was, and asked if I'd ever planned to travel the world.
"Probably not", I said. "All I've ever wanted to see was Israel, and now I live there."
He laughed. "Zionism," he said. "Cute."
I asked him why he left Israel for Paris. He thought about it for a while. A girlfriend had brought him here, and then he'd opened a business.
"When was the last time you were home?" I asked.
"My father died a month ago", he said. "I went back for shiva."

We talked a bit about his father and the girlfriend who had long since disappeared, and then the conversation shifted. I took an apple out of my backpack and made a bracha.

"So you are religious?" he asked me.
"Yes", I said.
He smiled. "You might not believe this, but I was once religious too. Shabbat, Yom Tov, Kashrut, I did everything. I wore a Kippah srugah, went to Bnei Akiva every Friday night. I even dated my rabbi's daughter."

I tried to imagine this very obviously secular man as a religious teenage boy. I couldn't.

"What happened?", I asked.

He sighed. "You know. Life happens. I wanted to have fun and get away from all the rules. I still believe in the One above, though. I grew up believing and I always will. If you don't believe, you have nothing."

He paused and looked out the window. "My father learned with me every night when I was a child. Now he's gone, and I've started learning again. Not much, but it's something."

I wasn't sure what to say.

"My Abba was always waiting for me to come home, to be religious again. But it wasn't for me."

"Do you ever miss it?" I asked.

He thought about it for a minute. "Sometimes," he said. "My sisters are married with children now and I hear them sing the songs that I used to know. It makes me remember the life I used to live. But maybe that's just part of being an adult."

Then he raised his arm, the one with the tattoo. "You see this?" he asked me. "I got this tattoo on my left arm, just in case I wanted to put on tefillin again one day. Just in case."

Then he laughed. "Enough of this religious talk, " he said. "What do you think about Bibi?"

The conversation quickly turned to a political debate, but I couldn't get those words out of my head. "Just in case I wanted to put on tefillin again."

The whole way home I thought about what he had said. I thought about his father, about his family, and I had a hundred more questions I wish I had asked him.

But what stuck with me the most was the knowledge that if I hadn't had that conversation with him, if I had just seen him on the street, I would never have guessed that he had a story. That he had a strong belief in G-d. That behind the tattoo was a man who had left himself a door back home.

"Just in case…"

Every person is made up of defining moments. The moment you get a tattoo on your left arm, instead of your right. The moment you don't throw out the siddur you never use, but leave it on your bookshelf. The moment you see someone you don't usually talk to, and throw them a smile.

I decided to work harder on myself, not to judge others. To constantly remember that every person has a back-story, has a journey, and I might never hear about it. That those defining moments are not written on foreheads or Facebook statuses, and they must be learned about through effort and time.

I wonder if he'll ever put on tefillin again. I wonder if he's happy. I wonder if he knows that because of that conversation, I will do my best to never assume I understand someone before taking the time to listen.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

ושבו הורים לגבולם - Welcome Home!!!

"What are you doing for Yom Ha'atzmaut?"
"Going to the airport.. My parents are making aliyah!"

I had this conversation maybe 50 times in the past week, and every time I had the opportunity to say the words my excitement doubled. I couldn't stop smiling. I told everyone I knew, including bus drivers and pizza store guys, unable to contain my happiness.

The thing is, my parents are in Israel a lot. In the past few years, they've been here more then they've been in America. It felt as though they were living here already. I couldn't figure out exactly what it was that I was so excited about. What was changing?

My parents met in college. They were set up by a mutual friend, who got tired of hearing them both speak about Israel all the time and figured they should just talk to each other.

My mom was from Detroit, artsy and creative, interested in photography and guitar.
My dad was from West Virginia, still speaking with his southern twang, focused on studying for his tests and going to classes.

They didn't have much in common at first.

What they did share, immediately, was a passionate love for Israel.

They dated, fell in love, and got married. The plan was five years. Five years in the states, and then they'd pick up and move to Israel, make Aliyah, live out the dream. But life happens. A community happened. I happened. (And six other siblings before me, but they're not important here). My parents became an integral part of their neighborhood, they sent their kids to school, and the five year plan transitioned into a "someday dream". New plans came to the forefront. Graduations, weddings, grandchildren. Life was never boring. And then, slowly, one at a time, we all started making our way over here. In the span of 6 years, six out of seven of their children made Aliyah. The dream had been passed along, a fire that wasn't spoken about too often but consistently burned in our home.

Yesterday, on Yom Ha'atzamut, I waited with my siblings and their children at the airport for my parents to come out. We held Israeli flags and lots of signs, some that made more sense then others. And that feeling when I saw them walking through the sliding doors was like none other.

Because it's not just about some papers that declare your citizenship. It's not the Teudat Oleh that my father was holding so proudly, not the benefits or the free cab ride or any of that. It's the realization of a 40 year old dream. The dream that a young married couple had spun together in a little house in West Virginia, finally being actualized with their children and grandchildren around to see them do it.

I realized why this meant so much to me. Why this was more then just another trip, more then just an official acknowledgment that yeah, my parents visit a lot. Because I believe in dreams. I believe in the power of wanting something so much that you won't let the flame of your wish burn out. And now I have proof. It may take 42 years and 21 grandchildren until you see the fruition of what you've been working for. But I've learned from my parents a lesson that I'll never forget. You don't give up. You keep on working on what you want. And you'll get there.

I feel so grateful that I had the opportunity to watch my parents live out their "someday dream".

Mazal Tov Mom and Dad!
I love you :)


Sunday, April 7, 2013

One Day A Year.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

One day a year, we commemorate those 6 million who were brutally murdered. One day a year, we allow ourselves to look at pictures and videos that will haunt our dreams, hear stories about children who never grew up, let the tragedy of the deaths of millions of Jews enter into our consciousness. We listen to the survivors as they paint pictures of death and destruction, of loss and of tears, of lies and deception. We light a memory candle and tell a story of a girl named Esther who's father was a tailor, who wore pretty dresses and had curls in her hair and got taken in to Auschwitz but never got to leave.

The stories are horrifying. They are terrifying. They are so far from my reality that I cannot grasp their true meaning. I stare into the flames of the bonfire that we have lit to set the mood, and I try as hard as I can to remember those who died, and to wonder why they did. I wonder what we can do to avenge their blood, to be able to stand up and say NEVER AGAIN and believe it to be true.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago, questioning our right to the words "Am Yisrael Chai". I wondered how we are deserving of redemption when we, as a nation, are so far from perfect. In a comment, a friend of mine wrote: "Who says perfection brings the geula? Perhaps it is the fight against imperfection".

This is an idea I can understand. This is how we can avenge the family that we have lost. We are not supposed to be perfect. But every time we struggle with our religion, every time we mess up and choose to try again, it is a slap in Hitler's face. We are living here, here in the beautiful land of Israel. We are in a Jewish country, fighting with imperfection, trying to be the greatest Jews that we can be. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we fall. But the action of getting back up again, of saying no, we won't settle for mediocrity, we are the Jewish nation and we will survive the way we have survived for thousands of years, that is how we can honor those who died.

The horrors of the Holocaust are too much for my mind to wrap itself around. But I can understand the future. I can understand that we are in a constant battle for perfection. That we have an incredible responsibility to take on - the responsibility for hundreds, thousands, millions of lives that were cut short too soon. Children who would have grown up, gotten married, and had children of their own. Brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts - gone. And yet we are still here. Struggling with our imperfections. Trying to become the best people that we can be.

We give ourselves only one day a year to contemplate these things. One day a year where we can force ourselves to take a look at the past and see how we need to change our futures. Don't let it pass you by.

And now I can say, after all of these thoughts, that if we can accomplish our goal of a continued struggle, if we can pass along the message of Jewish pride and responsibility on to our children, if we can continue to grow for those who cannot - Am Yisrael Chai.

The Nation of Israel lives on.