Thursday, August 26, 2010

Call me Shmulik (8/26/2010)

I have been called “Shmu” since at least the age of 10. Well, either Shmu or Big Shmu, depending on who you were. When I was a little kid, my family used to call me Mully (that leads to another story—but not today). Both nicknames are incredibly American versions of my name.

Israelis who I am friendlier with tend to call me Shmulik, the Hebrew variant. It is a cultural thing. Similarly, here, only chareidim or true Anglos say “Good Shabbos”; everyone else says “Shabbat Shalom.” So, I accepted it as just another quirk of how we interact with them.

This past week, I felt a bit more like a Shmulik and a bit less of a Shmu.

After four years here, we passed another milestone this past week. For the first time, we had an entire family of Hebrew-speakers for a meal. Menachem and Oshrit Alfasi were not simply guests whom we invited on a whim. We had wanted to invite them for quite some time but were too uncomfortable with our communication skills. However, over the past few months, the kids (especially Chaya) had been pushing us to make the plunge.

The Alfasis live a block away from us and we daven together in Rabbi Rosner’s shul. Their second son is Moshe’s age and they have loved playing together for the past couple of years. Menachem is a rav in the army, stationed in the Chevron area. He only comes home a couple of nights a week, which we cannot relate to. They are a terrific family and we have gotten friendlier as time goes by, which led to the invitation for a meal.

In the end, while there were definitely a couple of awkward moments because Goldie and I were struggling to express ourselves, a good time was had by all. For a first start, they were a great choice—people we already know and like. Hopefully they will be the first of many. Our new location offers more potential invites among the neighbors and we are excited to continue our growth (in fitting in with native Hebrew speakers).

A couple of weeks ago, I related a story about our first time in Ikea. Goldie and I were trying to find a specific street and a restaurant there and stopped to ask a bus driver for directions. Although the bus driver did not know the answer, a man at the stop shouted out, “I know the street. Give me a ride and I will take you there!” And we did.

Well, earlier this week I had to go copy some keys for the shul. While I had gotten a ride to the hardware store, I had to make the mile-and-a-half return trip on foot; Goldie and the kids had the car in Modi’in for the day. On the way home, a car pulled over and the driver asked me if I knew where a certain road was.

My response? “Sure do. And if you give me a ride, I will take you halfway there and you will be on the right road for the rest of the way!”

There is no way I would have been so aggressive about getting a ride from a stranger before we came here. It is simply another thing I have learned from being here and a clear adjustment that my subconscious has made in helping me fit in.

Yet, there are still the maddening difficulties that crop up from time to time. One of the hardest things is to figure out the car. Of course, that means that the car ends up constantly needing attention.

Our car battery had been dying over Shabbat the past couple of weeks, so I took the car in to the dealer. After inspection, he showed me some meter and talked about loads and signals and monitors, finishing by adding that the meter clearly shows that the alarm is causing the problem. With the warranty due to expire in a matter of days, I rushed to get the car serviced by the alarm company.

They did their own tests. Their tests showed nothing wrong with the alarm, but that the battery was the problem. So I went back to the dealer and got a replacement battery (I paid a 5% premium at the dealer, but I wanted his warranty in case there was a problem). The dealer was astounded and asked me why I did not explain what I was told.

I actually had explained it, but here is the issue: when dealing with technicians of any sort, my weak Hebrew vocabulary inevitably leads me to be unclear in what I am saying. The technicians don’t understand me and I don’t understand them. I often feel stupid and embarrassed and I am not as successful in getting what I need because of the inability to express myself.

So I have a new (warrantied) battery and I am waiting for the inevitable. When the battery dies again and I go back to the alarm company, I hope that this will be enough proof to them that it is indeed the alarm that is malfunctioning. Unless, of course, it turns out that they were right and it is the dealer whom I need to trust a bit less. In either case, it is frustrating and annoying.

Hopefully, the growing pains will continue to be fewer and fewer as time goes on. While we may never be able to deal with repairs and technical stuff as well as we would like, our social circle and sphere of comfort continues to increase, which definitely has to be a good thing.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

New Beginnings (8/19/2010)

Kudos to Motti Eichler. As I mentioned, we moved to a new home last week. Although the move was less than a three-minute drive, there is a huge difference regarding the location within the city. Motti, who made aliyah with his family two years ago, was concerned that I might miss the old neighborhood. So, he hand-printed a special “Tznius Dress Only” sign and taped it directly across the street from our house.

My first reaction was shock. Then, when I realized that it was just a joke, I had a nice laugh from it. I know it may sound funny, but one of the things we are looking for in this move is the chance to see Bet Shemesh from a different point of view.

Two days later, our dry cleaner came by to drop off some things we had given him before our move. I am not sure how she connected with him, but for almost our entire time here, Goldie has given any dry cleaning we have to a very nice French oleh who does pick up and drop off service each week. Each year on Rosh Hashanah, he gives us a special gift and we have come to really like him.

He usually leaves our clean clothing hanging by the front door on drop off day, coming into the house once a month to collect whatever money we owe him for that month. This week, he made sure to personally deliver our clothes to us, for two reasons.

The first reason was obvious; he wanted to make sure he was going to the right house. The second reason became clear once I opened the door to let him in. He came streaming through the house, handing me the hangers with our things on them almost as an afterthought. He excitedly explained that “we” (I assume he meant French Jews) have a minhag that is a segulah for wealth and happiness in a new home and asked permission to do it for our house.

We agreed. He said, “We throw coins into six corners of the house and they are the symbol” and proceeded to run from room to room and fling half-shekel coins helter skelter into the corners. He then turned and hurried out of the house to resume his deliveries with our thanks accompanying him.

No matter how long we live here, I think the cholent pot that is Israel will ensure that we continue to have similar experiences. We continually expand our circle of friends and acquaintances and with that expansion comes a variety of cultural and ethnic variations. From our first Ethiopian bar mitzvah, to a Frenchman madly flinging coins at the corners of our living room, our lives are enriched by the people we meet and interact with.

Israel is just incredibly full of unique encounters. In truth, there are unique encounters to be had almost anywhere in the world. What sets Israel apart is that in Israel, these encounters are with people from our own blood. Our paths may have diverged from each other’s as much as 2,000 years ago. We have developed different customs and traditions. But, the blood of a Jew is the blood of a Jew and we are always enthused to participate or encounter someone else’s traditions.

And there is no end to them. Each time we turn around, we find something new and unusual that makes us pause and wonder at how different things are in our new life.

Goldie’s parents were here for a couple of weeks and we spent a Shabbat with them in Yerushalayim. The hotel we stayed at was not going to provide us with seudah shlishit so I went shopping Friday afternoon for all our needs. I had bought everything except for bread and was walking by a schoolyard that had a farmer’s market in it and decided to browse the market.

I happened upon a booth selling fresh bread and was piqued by the many healthful varieties of whole wheat bread they had. I noticed their teudat kashrut. Astonishingly, this street cart vendor had kosher certification for his cart and, after inspection, I realized that I could buy the bread. He was surprised that I was surprised; to him it was obvious that he would make sure his certification would extend beyond the bakery to his cart.

That evening, we (the men along with Chaya) went to the Kotel for davening. I had not been to the Kotel for a Friday night in 30 plus years. We joined a group from Teaneck to daven, but the entire time I was struck by the crowd in the davening area. The minyanim were so diversely scattered, not geographically, but culturally.

There were several large groups seemingly competing with each other in order to sing and dance the loudest for kabbalat Shabbat. Despite the fact that these groups might have friction during the rest of the week, that they might be so politically opposed to each other that one would think they would never get along, they manage to unite at least each week in a common cause. Each, in their own way, publicly and lovingly express their joy at welcoming Shabbat.

The next morning, Chaim and I did something else that I had not done in over 30 years—minyan hunting. When I was a student in yeshiva here, I used to wake up on Shabbat morning, leave my apartment, and follow the first person I would see in the street. Half the time I ended up in his shul and the other half I would be following him home. I davened in a lot of different shuls that way and also benefited from a bunch of random “do you have a place to eat?” meal invitations from some very nice people.

Chaim and I woke up early for the minyan we had planned to attend and decided to go hunting for another. We followed one guy, but he took us to his house, and then after following another guy we ended up in the beis medrash of Yeshivas Medrash Shmuel, with which some of you may be familiar. We even enjoyed an aufrauf there for the son of either one of the roshei yeshiva or the son of one of the rabbeim, I am not sure which.

On the subject of smachot, we participated in two special bat mitzvah celebrations this week as well. The first was Leora Gottlieb, the daughter of fellow 2006 olim Marc and Miriam Gottlieb (formerly of Cedarhurst). Marc and Miriam live in Neve Daniel, and it was a treat to see them and celebrate with them (especially the part where I overstuffed myself on Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream).

It was terrific. It was very nice to see other families who came at the same time as we had and are having an absolutely terrific time with happy kids and a supreme satisfaction with their choice. I know a few families who, despite all their planning, ended up moving back for various reasons, and it is encouraging to see others who are fulfilled and happy here.

The second bat mitzvah was Tali Levi, who lived two doors away from us in Woodmere. Tali was born a few weeks before we moved in to our house. With Batya’s arrival seven months after we moved in, they got to be friends and played together until we moved. Her parents, Gabe and Anat Levi, are close friends who supported our aliyah from day one and have really done their best to maintain the bond.

I have said it before, but Gabe was incredibly helpful when Goldie was sick, helping us get the right diagnosis and getting our tests and results “express” treatment. Anat’s personal kindness on the day of Goldie’s surgery will never be forgotten.

It is always a special joy to celebrate with people whom you have such strong connections with. We loved the bar mitzvah weekend for David last year and the bat mitzvah was no less terrific for us. Maybe even more so, because all the kids came to the bat mitzvah. We enjoyed being with them (especially when Ezra Levi came to our house for a sleepover with Mordechai—another pair of boyhood neighbor/friends) and sharing their simcha here in Israel. Anat’s remark that they plan on having all their family smachot in Israel if possible, means that they will be back many more times.

Being here they can experience those special “only in Israel” moments. We had one on Sunday night at Ikea (yes, we went again). We had to return some things and buy other things more appropriate to our needs and decided to have dinner at the in-store restaurant. While we waited in line, one of the security guards approached me and said, “Sir, excuse me. Sir? There will be a Ma’ariv minyan in ten minutes in the beit knesset right over there,” pointing to a side area.

I couldn’t believe it. I mean, how often does store security stop you to invite you to join him for Ma’ariv?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back to Work (8/12/2010)

Yes, I know—it has been a month or so. It is the summer—a time the kids refer to as the chofesh ha’gadol (big vacation) and adults think of as the onesh ha’gadol (big punishment). Each year during the summer, this column goes on an unannounced hiatus. It usually lasts one or two weeks. This year’s break, at a month, is the longest one we have had.

But I am still here, and no—I have not stopped writing. I do thank all the people who e-mailed or, even better, who said something to their relatives or friends here asking if all is well with Shmuel. Your concern over our well-being is gratifying, and it is also great to see that after four and a half years, people still read what I write.

Of course, in normal summers there is not much for me to write about anyway. How many different ways can I talk about the depth of emotion I feel when I go to the Kotel on Tishah B’Av? Do you really want to hear another discourse from me about how incredibly hot it is here in the summer?

I think not. So, I tend to take some time off in the summer and wait until school is starting, when things begin to get interesting. Interestingly, this year that was not the case, but I still did not write.

We have had a tough summer here in Bet Shemesh. There is nothing I can write or contribute to expound on the tragedy that struck the Menora (and Fogel and Klein) family. Their pain and loss is difficult for us to even comprehend. It was a difficult shiva house to visit. [Editor’s note: Shmuel is referring to the plane crash last month in Michigan.]

This was not because we are so close with either Shalom Menora or Sima Menora. I grew up knowing Shalom. He and his sisters were a bit older than us, but we still attended the same schools and knew each other’s families as children. Even when we moved here, we had no more than a “Hi, how are you” relationship with either of them. Yes, Sima guest wrote a column for me that led to her becoming a weekly columnist in the paper. But we aren’t close friends.

Yet the entire community felt at least a portion of their loss. I think it stems from the children. The children are really the central focus of life here and they all know each other.

Our son Chaim is good friends with Yehuda Menora, who was in the army instead of in the USA with his siblings. Their peer group is incredibly supportive of one another. From the minute we heard the news until a couple of days after the shiva, Chaim and a group of friends spent the majority of their time with Yehuda. Just making sure that he was okay and knew they cared about him.

Our Aliza shared a (two-person) desk in school with Racheli Menora, one of the sisters who died. We had to tell Aliza the news on the phone, and she has had a difficult time adjusting. While they too were not exceptionally close, they spent every day together at the same desk. Aliza won’t really talk about it, but she occasionally writes poems about her feelings that we come across and it is easy to see that she is having an issue understanding and coping.

I wish there were something more we could do, especially for the Menora family. All we can really do is tell them that we are here, davening for a complete refuah for Yossi Menora and for them to find some nechamah, somehow. I know that the entire community here would gladly do anything they could to show our support for them. It is not enough, but it is all we have.

Thankfully, some good things have happened in the last month as well. I have had a hard time trying to figure out where to start. After a long search for somewhere to move, Goldie and I decided to put off the long-term decision and take another rental. I am actually writing this from our new living room, having completed the move earlier today.

We like Bet Shemesh and would prefer to stay, and want to see how the different housing opportunities play out before we make a more “permanent” decision. The fact is that none of the homes we looked at for buying really felt like a good fit for us. We ended up moving about three minutes away from our old home.

Same schools. Same shul. We will miss a bunch of our neighbors, but others (who live right across the street from us) we won’t miss as much. In fact, we are hoping that this move, off of the border between our neighborhood and the next, will get us away from some of the neighborhood tensions that we have been involved with since coming to Bet Shemesh.

So we now live in Nofei HaShemesh, the neighborhood where we had intended to be (and would have moved to next year) had they not postponed the second stage of home building. The kids are all excited, and now that most of the process is done, Goldie and I are beginning to relax about it as well.

As with many moves, we had the need for some furniture and furnishings with the move. For the first time ever, Goldie and I headed to Ikea. Having never been there, we were stunned at the size of the store and selection. We really enjoyed shopping there. But the highlight was eating at the Ikea mehadrin food court.

Yes, there were all the foods you would expect in Ikea, from Swedish meatballs to Norwegian salmon—and it is all kosher. Cheap, too. And it was a good thing, because after two hours in the store, we were hungry. I have said it about other things, but this is part of what makes it terrific to live here.

I know that there has been some buzz lately in the Five Towns about our shul and the city of Bet Shemesh. Basically, we filed a permit with the city to have deeded land set aside for a shul within the neighborhood. Yes, the city did take us off the agenda and it caused somewhat of a firestorm here. Rabbi Rosner even wrote a letter to the local (Hebrew) newspapers, bemoaning that politics was going to stop our shul and community from growing as planned. Thankfully, that letter, along with some pressure from other sources (such as the Office of the Ministry of Religious Affairs) made a difference.

We have been fast-tracked to put up a temporary modular building within our neighborhood. As part of the deal, we are told that our application to be deeded the land will be resubmitted as well. While I don’t really believe that we will actually get the land any time in the near future, opening a fully functional shul building is a tremendous next step for our community.

If we can keep the momentum that this project is generating, we hope to reignite interest and development in our neighborhood.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Explorations (7/8/2010)

At the end of our first year of aliyah, Goldie and I started what would become pretty much a weekly “date” of sorts for us. With Sunday being a regular working day, and Friday being the “day off” (but still a day of school for the kids), we started going to local cafés on Friday mornings. Initially, we spent the most time with Dani and Zippy Lieberman (who made aliyah on the same flight as us), but as time passed we started going with other couples or, more often, by ourselves.

Friday-morning coffee or breakfast (with coffee) is a great time to chill out and reflect on the week or discuss plans for the future. It is a good time to sit and enjoy the company of those with you in a relaxed setting, knowing that for at least those couple of hours you have no pressures to be anywhere or do anything.

At times, we would venture out of Bet Shemesh for our Friday date. We would sometimes head to Yerushalayim or Modiin for a pleasant change of pace, or, when the kids had a holiday day, as a special treat for the kids (nothing is more exciting for the little kids than a chol ha’moed Pesach breakfast buffet at a café in Yerushalayim). We even went to S’derot a few times when it was considered a “town under siege,” to support the business owners and community there. Yet, for the most part, we stayed within the confines of our home city.

Over the last couple of months, Goldie and I have begun to feel that we have not explored enough of the country. While most cities and towns in the area are a half-hour’s drive away, we have really kept to Bet Shemesh, Modiin, and Yerushalayim, with occasional forays to Tel Aviv. So we are taking our Friday-morning coffee/breakfasts on the road!

We have been to Ashdod a couple of times. The first time we went there, we were so hopelessly lost and hungry that we stopped at the first indoor mall that had a kosher café and spent a couple hours there. It was clearly an older mall and kind of run down—but we had no idea where we were going. Of course, after we left there, we found the center of town, a real hub of activity and many more café options.

A couple of weeks later, on our second trip there, we decided to drive through the little towns and villages along the way. It was fascinating. We tried to figure out the ethnic background of the residents (most often by the last names on the mailboxes) and if it was a religious community or not. Some of these towns, literally on the road to nowhere, are quite picturesque.

When we got to Ashdod, we decided that we wanted to see the beach and find a waterfront café. Finding the beach was easy—finding a café was less so. I finally asked a taxi driver where to go, and he gave us perfect directions to a series of seaside cafés, one of which turned out to have hashgachah. We enjoyed a terrific Israeli breakfast at Café Hila on the beach in Ashdod—I would recommend it.

We have also been to Rechovot (even though they have a religious community there, it’s not an easy place to find a kosher café on a Friday morning since the main restaurant there closes on Fridays), Mevasseret (we found a couple of terrific cafés there), and assorted places in the Gush.

Last week we tried Ashkelon. With the kids out of school and no camp on Friday, we took them along for the ride. They enjoyed playing on the sand and trying to spot jellyfish (it is major jellyfish season here). Although we could not find a kosher seaside café, we did enjoy the Café Café (a local chain) located in the majestic Ashkelon concert hall. Situated in the entrance hall, the café was wonderfully relaxing and soothing. It was a great morning topped only by Goldie’s discovery of what she is terming “our Israeli Target.”

On the way home from Ashkelon, we decided to stop for some groceries. On the highway, outside the city and any residential areas, we came across a store called “Supersol Big.” Supersol is a major supermarket chain in Israel, with several divisions. They have a boutique chain that has mini-supermarkets (with higher prices) in the high-rent districts of cities or wealthier neighborhoods. They have the standard supermarkets as well as a series of “Supersol Deal” supermarkets (we have one in Bet Shemesh) that are a bit larger than the average supermarket, with a better selection and cheaper prices.

We had never before been in the “big” Supersol. It was amazing. It wasn’t a supermarket. It was . . . Target. The building was huge—especially by Israeli standards. When we first walked in, there was a housewares section, with a clothing section behind it. Amazingly, the clothing section carried the same label as you find in Target in the USA. Goldie was stunned!

They had everything in that store. Electronics, toys, clothing, hardware, food, and more. It really was like being in Target, something that all the American women here kvetch about missing. In fact, when Goldie told a couple of girlfriends about the store, they started planning a special road trip just to go there.

Had we not decided to broaden our horizons, we never would have found the store. So we plan on continuing our exploration as much as we can over the summer and fall.

Before I sign off for the week, another “only in Israel” story:

We had been having some trouble with our air conditioning units and had our repairman, “Dr. Mazgan” (“mazgan” means “air conditioner”) out to fix the unit. About a week later, the problem recurred and Goldie scheduled a follow-up service call (free; the work was under warranty). He moved her to the head of the line and came within a couple of hours.

In fact, she moved so far to the head of the line that he brought his wife with him! They had been out grocery shopping, and instead of taking her home and then returning to our neighborhood, he decided to quickly stop by and fix our A/C.

To top it off, they had some perishables with them, so they brought them into the house as well and asked Goldie if they could put them in our freezer while he worked. Goldie and “Mrs. Mazgan” had a nice coffee and chat (in Hebrew), while her husband toiled away for half an hour in our attic. In Israel, a service call can sometimes also be a social call!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Sitting Alone in a Room (7/1/2010)

This coming week, we will mark the fourth anniversary of our aliyah. Sometimes it seems like it was just yesterday, and other times I have a hard time remembering how we lived before we came here. You have been with us most of the way, sharing in our trials, small and large, and witnessing our successes and failures (hopefully more of the former than the latter).

We have witnessed two wars together. We have seen the demise of the career of two heads of state (Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni) and the rebirth of another’s. In the same election we have seen the birth of a new reality for our new hometown of Bet Shemesh, as the city council and mayoralty went to chareidi parties for the first time. (Interestingly, in Yerushalayim, the exact opposite happened—the first chareidi government was voted out of office.)

Our family has overcome so much in this time. Of course, no hurdle was greater than Goldie’s illness. With the support of your tefillah and e-mails and messages of support, we were given a tremendous outcome and continue to daven and hope that it continues. It was the defining moment of our first year here and could have destroyed our aliyah; instead, it has become the anchor of our acclimation.

You have been there with us as we struggled to identify, understand, and cope with the myriad of challenges that have faced our children in their adjustments. Each one had issues unique to their situation. Issues much greater than the simple fact that their parents uprooted them from a home they had known and loved to a strange world 6,000 miles away from everything that was familiar. Yes, there was a language gap and educational gaps, but there was so much more.

Chaim and Chaya came in their teen years—years in which all the “experts” said that aliyah would destroy them. Yet somehow they were able to establish great friendships and quickly identify (each in his or her own way) how they could fit in and succeed on their own terms. Four years and two high-school graduations later, Chaim is about to start year two in YU (after learning for two years, full time, here in yeshiva) and Chaya is entering sherut leumi (national service) and beginning to prepare for university.

Aliza became a bat mitzvah in our second year and is entering 10th grade. She was always a social butterfly, with great grades, but sacrificed her academics to make friends. (Until we found out.) She struggled a bit in finding the right school, but is now thriving and, although she hates to hear it, will do quite well in following in her big sister’s footsteps. And, as we expected from the day she was born, she will continue to challenge us every step of the way.

Batya and Mordechai suffered greatly with Hebrew. In many ways, we had expected their adjustments to be the easiest, since they were so young and adaptable. Yet the language was torture for them. Their first seven months were terrible, and when things began to look up and make sense to them—Eema got sick. Yet now, here they are, finishing grades 5 and 3 and so comfortable in their schools and lives that they would be like fish out of water anywhere else.

Moshe, who was just over a year and barely talking when we came, is a year away from 1st grade and as Israeli as a Katz can be. He has grown so much, as have they all. It is incredible to consider just how much they have grown over this time.

Four years. Think about it. 208 weeks. More than half a cycle of daf yomi. Almost 10 percent of my life, 20 percent of my married life.

My oldest nephew was an aspiring combat soldier when we first moved here. We watched with pride, joy, and no small amount of terror when he joined an elite combat unit. Quickly tabbed as a leader, he went through commander’s school and was assigned to a special experimental unit.

He fought in Gaza and I have written about the people who meant so much to him during the war. From Dorothy Shapiro, now a 90-year-old woman who sent him a care package during the war, to my good friend Jason Schwartz who went to deliver the care packages and called me to tell me he was standing with my nephew at the border, it is this support that provides spirit and encouragement to our young soldiers.

My nephew’s service will be over in a few months. Tragically, he lost a close buddy in a Gaza firefight on erev Shabbat HaGadol, just two days before they were to be rotated out of Gaza. My nephew will never be the same and has suffered a loss that few of us can comprehend.

His service—from training to fighting to celebrating to tragedy—all fell within the four years of our aliyah.

I have gone from one job to another, both in non-profit but in vastly different spheres, in the four years we have lived here. I am actually lucky on this—many olim go through several jobs in the first couple of years as they try to identify what works for them. Interestingly, there are more lawyers-turned-gardeners and doctors-turned-vintners here than anywhere else. This is a frustrating land, but also a land of great opportunity.

You have been on our chol ha’moed trips, thrilling to the tours and new adventures. You have gone with us to Eilat and Teveriah (and G-d willing Netanya and Nahariah a bit later this summer) as we toured and experienced various parts of our homeland. We have walked the Kotel tunnels together and the Ir David water tunnel. We have gone to museums and shows, fairs and performances, all here in these very pages.

Think about how much we have lived in these four years. Think of all the people we have met and the places they have taken us.

No, I am not writing this as an introduction to my last article. I am not saying farewell. However, I wanted to give you a sense of how truly long we have been here and how much life we have lived in that time.

Think of how far your own lives have come in the last four years. Think back to how little your children or grandchildren were and how much they have grown. Think back to where your life was and what you were doing. Take a moment to reflect upon how much has happened to you and your family.

Why? Well, there is another four-year anniversary that we just celebrated a few days ago. About two weeks before we made aliyah, Hamas terrorists tunneled across the Gaza border and attacked Israeli soldiers, killing two of them and wounding and capturing Gilad Shalit, who has been in captivity ever since.

We have no idea as to his whereabouts or the conditions in which he is being held. Presumably, he is being held in isolation somewhere, sitting alone in a room and waiting. He has sat and waited for the entire time my family has lived in Israel—and he continues to sit and wait. Think about how long four years is. Think about how much of his life has been stolen by despicable terrorists and murderers.

Where is the Gilad Shalit flotilla, full of liberal activists and celebrities? Why do they not sail with an empty “peace ship” to the docks of Gaza City and demand that he be returned with them to his family and his home for the sake of peace?

I do not know the answers. I do not know what is the right formula to get Gilad home and allow him to rejoin them. I do know this: he has missed so much and we are not doing enough. May Hashem grant that he be returned soon so that his clock can finally restart, while ours continues to turn.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

No Pomp and Circumstance? (6/24/2010)

I had anticipated writing an article this week about the events surrounding the community of Emanuel. I have seen so many opinions and assumptions on this issue, which quite frankly has disgusted me. I was ready to wade right in, with some choice words of my own but I am so tired of the whole thing that I will only make one comment.

Since I believe that both sides are arrogantly manipulating their constituents in order to make a political point and that both sides are guilty of misinformation, I am outraged at the manner in which they have sidetracked my country into a circus. Neither side is “right” and both should be ashamed of themselves. I have no faith that anyone involved is being truthful, and it is a disgrace.

Thankfully, this space primarily serves as a journal of our experiences here in Israel as olim and this was a very special week for us. After four years of high school here, our oldest daughter, Chaya, graduated with outstanding grades.

The graduation ceremony was incredibly different from anything we would have expected in the U.S. We arrived at 8:00 p.m. and went home at midnight. Even though it had been almost 110 degrees earlier in the day, I was quite thankful that it was an outdoor ceremony. Even with A/C, an indoor room full of people on such a hot day would have been impossible to sit in. There were no caps or gowns, no pomp and circumstance, no processions, and very little formality. Although the mayor did attend and say some nice things.

The mayor had something like five graduations that night. He showed up late and subsequently the graduation started an hour after the scheduled time. The mayor spoke. The head of the school system spoke. The head rav of the school spoke. The principal spoke. A city councilman (whose daughter was graduating) spoke. The head of the parents’ council spoke. A student spoke. There was no valedictorian or academic address. Most of the speeches consisted of divrei Torah and personal messages or charges to the girls.

A major part of the graduation was the awarding of diplomas. Each girl was called up, a Mishna quote was given over (hopefully a quote that reflected upon the character of the girl), and then a personal message was read to each girl. She then hugged the principal, the assistant principal, the homeroom teacher, and the guidance counselor. Then she posed for a picture. With 52 girls in the grade this took well over an hour.

We were incredibly proud that Chaya was able to reach this milestone. It was such an accomplishment on her part that the principal made special mention of her at the graduation. Then, in a video about the students, she also said, “Chaya Katz literally did the impossible!”

In the U.S., Chaya was an indifferent student at best. We always felt that she simply did not care about grades and was more interested in being a friend or helping hand. Her grades were good, not great. We hoped that she would pick up a bit as she got to high school and possibly college, but assumed that we were getting the most out of her at the time.

After coming on aliyah, she did not do much to dispel that notion. Not having spoken Hebrew as a language (beyond learning Torah in school), she struggled to understand what was going on in class. Her principal told us not to worry about things for the first year, because Chaya needed to learn the language and develop friendships with her peers before she could successfully pass her classes and earn a bagrut certificate (similar to a Regents diploma) and graduate. She built a program for Chaya (and another new olah) to study independently with tutors and experience some classroom instruction as well.

The first year, true to expectations, was a disaster. At the end of the year we met with the principal to craft a plan for the upcoming year, Grade 10. She told us that in her opinion, Chaya was too linguistically challenged to continue in the school. Although Chaya had made tremendous progress socially, she did not think that Chaya would be able to pass the bagruyot (examinations). Rather than have to face angry parents after a wasted Grade 10, she advised us to find another school that might be able to cater to her needs so that she could graduate.

Chaya was devastated. She had become attached to her friends and the school and did not want to leave. I cannot imagine how hard it was for her, having moved to a new country and made new friends at age 13. Yet, she was being told that she would have to go through the whole process a second time, with a new group of girls. Girls, who like her, could not make the grade.

We had a simple goal: we needed to make sure that Chaya could go to college if she chose and that our aliyah would not cripple that possibility. Our oldest son, Chaim, had just finished a year-long program and gotten a GED (high school equivalency degree). We liked the program, and knowing that Chaya was having academic difficulties, we had already spoken to the coordinators about enrolling Chaya. Unfortunately, they would not take students below Grade 11, so we knew that we would have to wait a full year before Chaya was eligible to enroll.

So, in the meeting, after Chaya had tearfully expressed her sincere desire to stay in the school, I made a proposal to the principal. Work with us, I asked. I told her about the GED program and that we were prepared to send Chaya to that program for Grade 11, if need be. All we asked was that Chaya be allowed to remain in the school for Grade 10 to see if she could make the grades and pass the tests. I specifically told her that we would have no complaints against the school if Chaya could not keep up and that we had a backup plan if things did not work out.

The principal agreed. She turned to Chaya and told her that if she wanted to truly stay in the school, she would have to buckle down and get incredibly serious about academics. She could not afford to play games with school anymore, she needed to focus on learning and studying. Together, they outlined a series of mandatory classes that Chaya needed to pass in order to graduate; she was exempted from the majority of the electives.

We did not know what to expect. We hoped that Chaya would work hard enough to pass. We were prepared to augment her studies with tutors (as do most parents) and give her whatever assistance we could to prepare her, but knew that it all depended on Chaya’s ability to do what she had never really done before—excel academically.

Chaya blew us all away. I have never seen such an outstanding transformation. She worked incredibly hard and was more focused on school than we had any reason to expect. She studied and studied, and the work paid off. She wasn’t just passing her exams—she was scoring in the 90s on them, regularly.

At the end of Grade 10, we went for a year recap meeting with the principal. At the meeting, remembering the discussion from the year before, I asked her if Chaya would be allowed to stay in the school for Grade 11? She laughed. It wasn’t even in doubt.

She has not only passed, she has excelled. She has certainly earned the diploma that she was awarded, and she did it by wholeheartedly embracing her new school, her new friends, and her new life. She is proof that you can be a teenage olah and still be successful.

We are excited for Chaya, who has been the trailblazer for her younger siblings. She has so much to look forward to and so much to experience along the way. She will be the first of our children to fulfill national service (she will be working in a senior citizen’s residence this upcoming year) and will be the first one of them to go to an Israeli university (we hope).

She has flowered here. She has become such a complete person, despite all the trials and tribulations, including the various family crises which should have made it impossible for her. She can be difficult at times (I think that is the Katz side), but has an intensely beautiful soul.

She could not have done anything without the support of a terrific group of friends at her school, Ulpanat Gila. I thank them for being so open to Chaya, for making her a part of their lives, and for being such terrific friends. Mazal tov to Sarah Fuchs, Leah Fingerer, and Miriam Kinberg (all former Five Towners) as well as Ayelet Gross and Noa Aronson. We hope that your families all enjoy your wonderful success.

I also need to make a special mention of her principal, Mrs. Yael VanDyke. Israeli born, she trained herself to speak American English without a trace of an accent, because she wanted to get it right. She was a true partner with us in making Chaya’s journey so fulfilling. She went through so much with Chaya and with us, and we are grateful to her.

But most importantly, we are proud of our terrific kid. She goes about her business in a very unassuming way, avoiding attention and shying away from accolades. I normally avoid talking about her, but she will be in the U.S. for the next month and I know she will see this paper (when you see her, please feel free to wish her a mazal tov).

So Chaya, I want you to know how proud we are of you. We know how much you have been through these past four years. Each time we thought we were over the hump, another curveball came our way. Yet, you have persevered and risen to the challenge and filled us with wonder at your accomplishments. We look forward to so much more from you and your siblings and hope you are a rebuke to all those in the U.S. who say that teens cannot be success stories. They can, and you are. Way to go, strawberry girl!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Candyman (6/17/2010)

Those of you who don’t follow sports can probably skip the next few paragraphs as you won’t be able to relate. Watching (and attending) sporting events is one of the things I miss here in Israel. Yes, it was very cool when the Israel Baseball League had its only season (we were Bet Shemesh Blue Sox season ticket holders). But, overall, with the exception of football games (which air at night here), I really do not catch that many games.

I have a Slingbox connection to U.S. sports TV (which is how I get to watch my beloved Chicago Bears), but even when I tape other sports games to watch at a later time, the time difference makes it difficult to really enjoy watching. Most games that I tape are night games, and by the time I get home from work the next day, I almost always know the results in advance of watching, which ruins the experience. If the specific game is really important to me to watch, I end up spending the day avoiding all online activity or speaking to anyone who may spill the beans (and even that is less than 50% effective).

As a diehard everything Chicago (except the hated White Sox) fan, it was especially exciting that the Chicago Blackhawks reached the finals this year (and were crowned champions). What wasn’t so exciting was the schedule of games. Each game started at around 3:15 a.m. here in Israel. Since we wanted to watch “live” and not take the chance of getting the results before watching, we woke up between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. to watch the games (fast forwarding through commercials and breaks).

By the time Chicago won the series, I think I may have been happier that the games were over than about the fact that Chicago won. It was exhausting to be up every other day so early and a relief that I could go back to a normal sleeping pattern.

Even the Friday night game was a killer. Goldie and I had bought tickets for a comedy show on Motzaei Shabbat and instead of watching the game at 9:00 p.m. with Chaim, I watched it until 2:30 a.m. when we got home.

The show, Comedy for Koby, was outstanding, so I am happy we went. Comedy for Koby is an outstanding program of the Koby Mandell Foundation. Twice a year, a Jewish L.A.-based comedian, Avi Lieberman, brings three comedians for a multi-city tour here in Israel. The show plays to packed houses in Yerushalayim, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Bet Shemesh, Modiin, Raanana, and Efrat. With a private donor underwriting the tour, the shows raise money to send children who are from families with terror victims to a terrific summer camp program.

We had heard about the show, but for some reason, Goldie and I had not gone to one before. Our schedule did not allow us to go to the Bet Shemesh show; instead, we went to the Modiin show with two other couples, Jason and Chani Schwartz (Chani was a guest columnist in this space a few months back) and Dr. Herman and Mia Weiss (olim from West Hempstead). The Weisses had a friend from West Hempstead with them as well, Natasha Swirlowitz.

Everyone had a blast. The comedians were hilarious (we especially liked Bob Zany—great comedy name—who was funny from start to finish), and when Avi Lieberman had a dialogue with my boss (who is also a local Modiin rabbi) and skewered him, my entire week was made.

With the lack of English-speaking entertainment here outside the major cities (and even in the major cities the supply is limited), the Comedy for Koby show was a welcome oasis for us. We eagerly anticipate their next tour.

A couple of days later I went to be menachem avel the family of Izzy Naiman, ob’m. Izzy was the candyman in Rabbi Rosenthal’s shul in Chicago (the shul is now a Lubavitch high school). Each Shabbat, every child in shul would go over to Izzy and had to wish him a Good Shabbos and shake his hand in order to receive the coveted Bazooka gum that he would bring in from Israel on his annual trips.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Israeli Bazooka was generally only available in Chicago for Pesach. Having him import boxes and boxes of the stuff for us was a big treat and something every kid in shul looked forward to each week. Yet, as I look back, it was not the gum that made the biggest impact on me. The thing that stuck with me the most was his insistence that every child offer him a proper Good Shabbos greeting and that the boys shake his hand when doing so. It lent a dignity and formality to his greeting.

He also had a special policy of hosting us for a meal when we would spend a year in Israel. I still have the picture that was taken at the Plaza Hotel’s patio breakfast when Yaakov Lopin (a childhood friend of mine from Chicago who davened in the same shul) and I joined Izzy there for breakfast. Very fond memories. So I was dismayed to see the e-mail notice of his passing and resolved to be menachem avel his family.

Upon arrival at the shiva house, all I had to say was that I was “one of the Bazooka boys” and even though only his wife remembered me, the whole family “knew” who I was, so to speak. They told me how their father used to drive them crazy to make sure they shipped him gum when supplies were running low and how much joy he took in being the candyman in shul and in sharing the lives of all the kids of the community.

I was glad I went because it gave me a chance to share with them what an impact Izzy had on my life. You see, I too am the candyman in shul and have been for quite some time. While my father also was a candyman (albeit in a different shul) and I certainly was motivated by him as well, it is Izzy’s dignity and formality that I pass along in my shul as well.

Each child, boy or girl, greets me with a Shabbat Shalom before they get their lollipop (gum provides too many opportunities to ruin furniture); the boys all shake my hand. I see the joy and anticipation in their eyes when they come to greet me and I know that I learned a special lesson from the candyman. You see, I don’t think he really cared one way or the other about the greeting or the candy, I know that I sure don’t. What is important is the message the kids get.

They are excited to come to shul. They know that shul is a special place. A place of dignity where they are expected to act like adults and are made to feel important. That is the message that I learned from Izzy, a’h, and that is the message I hope to pass on to the next generation. Yehi zichro baruch.

Command Sergeant Major Yehoshua (Shuki) Sofer was shot and killed in an ambush by terrorists this week just south of Chevron. While the world media ignores the fact that another Jew was killed by terrorists in an ambush attack and continues to focus instead on the deaths of several terrorists who were killed by people who only shot in self-defense, we need to honor his memory and continue to support the Israeli Defense Forces whose only goal is the safety and security of our nation and our land.

Shuki Sofer, z’l, was supposed to be married this September. Yehi zichro baruch.