Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Turning the Corner (Article #37) 1/18/2007

Last week was a great week for our family.

We had always had the Channuka season marked on our mental calendars as a time where the hard work should begin to pay off. Based on what we had heard from other olim, Channuka time is when the “strangeness” of our new surroundings would begin to wear off and when the kids should begin to get into the flow of things with their friends and in school.

Although we could definitely see progress being made each month (I can’t say each week because there were some really rough weeks in there) we had looked to Channuka as the benchmark time where we would really be able to see significant developments. In the tough weeks this actually gave us a bit of strength because we knew we were shooting for a specific goal and that there would be light at the end of the tunnel of difficulties we were dealing with.

We actually did see results. For most of us. Chaim’s schooling was on track, Chaya was coming home happy and excited from the open welcome her class gave her, Aliza was trying as hard as she could to get out of Ulpan and go to the “normal” class and even Batya, after a slow start, was really coming into her own in Hebrew and making the grade in school (Moshe at almost 2 is too young to have many adjustment issues and speaks an excellent Heblish).

Socially we knew they were doing well, with good friends and a strong support network of kids who had great empathy for their struggles and great compassion in going out of their way to make them feel welcome. Having met with most of the kids teachers in the weeks before Channuka, we knew that they were doing well and that immediately after Channuka we would start to turn on the heat as far as academics.

Our biggest emotional worries with the kids once we saw how well they were doing socially, were making sure they weren’t suffering educationally because of the transition and getting Mordechai comfortable enough in school for him to begin speaking in Hebrew.

So it was a really great thrill when Goldie dropped Mordechai off in his Gan on Sunday and got an awesome report. His teachers told her that the change in him (since Channuka) was overwhelming; he has begun to speak in Hebrew and really participate actively in all the class activities. He interacts with all the other children, not just the English speakers. Most importantly to him, he has found his role in the classroom and is finally confident (once again) in his ability to do well in school.

It is all about confidence. He mixes Hebrew words in his sentences all the time now and we can feel how much more comfortable he is with the language issue. Sure, he makes a ton of mistakes with his grammar, mixing up his tenses, genders and mangling the words. But he is trying and is not afraid of making mistakes, a fear which is (in my opinion) the biggest hurdle you face when learning to speak a foreign language.

To us, this is a huge victory. The child who has had the hardest short term adjustment to the language and culture is finally beginning to get it. We had suffered along with him for so long that it was a tremendous lift for the whole family to see him break through the barrier.

Suddenly, he no longer wants Goldie to stay with him in the mornings for school drop off. In fact, since the gan is at the end of our block, he actually prefers to walk there (and home at the end of the day) by himself. We (still being American in attitude) have decided to allow him to walk by himself a couple of times a week and see how we handle it.

We attended parent teacher conferences for Chaim and were not surprised to hear that Chaim was doing well. As we saw with Mordechai, it is truly amazing the difference that confidence and comfort make in a child’s attitude and accomplishments.

Chaim, who had struggled mightily with a poor program, irresponsible educational administration and oversight and had a miserable first couple of months here, has also made a significant turnaround. Now that we have found the right educational program for him with GMAX, he has risen to the occasion and really applied himself to accomplishing his goal of finishing High School early and getting into college.

The folks at GMAX are working with him very closely and we can see how much his teachers care about their students personally as well as academically. Yes, they all tell him frequently that he should consider staying here and I am sure that their voices are more powerful to him than our own. Yet, they respect him and understand that he has the right to choose for himself.

The other kids are reporting successes as well. They have made tremendous growth in their language skills and have not let the transition to Hebrew slow them down in their work on core subjects like math and social studies.

Goldie and I spent a night shopping in Machane Yehuda for groceries. I know I have said it before, but we are drawn to Machane Yehuda. The produce there is HUGE and always incredibly fresh. The prices are unbelievable. And each time we go we make a discovery of a new store or booth that we hadn’t visited before. This week our surprise was finding the cheese store.

Hard cheeses are different here. The flavors are different and even the texture is different. I have not been able to adjust to the Israeli cheeses. Finding a store with a good hashgocho (Kashrut certification) that also had a large selection of products was a welcome surprise. The proprietor was thrilled to show us the various products he had and we went home excited that we had found a new place to buy our old favorites. The only thing he didn’t have (that we could see) was plain old American cheese, which we still have to bring in from America or pay $30+ for a brick.

The same night we went to Machane Yehuda we started to look for a van. I would say minivan, but with six kids there are very few options for us here and none of them are mini – either in size or in price. Interestingly, all the larger vans here are converted commercial vans so most of them come standard with diesel engines. The gas will be cheaper (about forty cents a liter) and the diesel engines supposedly run longer with less maintenance.

Car buying is radically different here. There is a published price and you pay it. No haggling, no trying to get things thrown in, nothing. This is unusual since almost every other vendor expects you to bargain with him about price. OK, except for the supermarket and gas station.

As new olim we are entitled to an import tax break on the purchase of a new car bought in our first five years here. The break? Instead of having to pay 120%+ import taxes on the value of the car, we have to pay 70%+. What a bargain!

Financing a car is another difference. In America the car companies constantly run financing specials, zero or low interest rate loans to “qualified buyers”. As far as we can tell, there is no such thing here. We have to check with our bank for their rates, but the car dealer finance rates here are nine percent. Again, no bargaining, no deals, just a flat percentage rate.

When you consider that a car can run anywhere from $25,000 to $60,000 for a NON LUXURY car, a quick calculation shows how expensive getting a new car here really is. This leads to one of the good things about cars here.

After the initial drop in value the car experiences as you drive it off the lot, cars here retain their value for a long time. A twenty year old van can cost over $10,000, depending on its condition. Since new cars are so expensive, the resale market here is very strong and many people purchase their cars from rent a car or car leasing companies.

Since we have been driving a five seat car for several months now, we are eager to finally get a new car (which, because of the taxes, will probably be the last new car we ever own) and have the opportunity to travel together as a family again.

We had a rare quiet Shabbat. Our kids have been passing different bugs back and forth and Goldie was tired out with having to keep up with all of us as well as her own schedule, so we decided to have no guests and just stay home for the meals in order to relax a bit.

The Shabbat weather here was awesome. In between lunch and mincha we all went out to our backyard and either sat in the sun or ran around on the (new) grass with the little kids.

After Mincha, Mordechai had invited one of his friends, Shmuel Schvartz, a Hebrew only speaker to come over and play. Shmuel’s family davens in our shul and Shmuel is quite comfortable with me in my capacity as candyman in shul, so he was happy to come. Mordechai’s best friend in Israel (Chaim Rock) also came over with his brother and sister, so we had a mini gan running in our living room for the afternoon.

It was nice to see all the kids happily interacting, even if none of the English speakers really wanted to invest the effort in speaking Hebrew without parental prompting. The ease and comfort they are acquiring in speaking Hebrew and dealing with Hebrew only speakers is something that Goldie and I will probably never attain and can only be grateful that we could provide it for our kids.

I can’t believe that I can finally say this, but they are now all (Thank G-d) doing well and really progressing forward as American Israelis. We will always be different. However, since this country was built on and continues to rely on significant amounts of emigration from foreign lands, so many others here will also be different so we should fit right in.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Six Months? Really? (Article #36) 1/11/2007

As I sat down to write this week’s Aliyah Chronicles, I was stumped for the first time. As I was telling a friend recently, we have finally settled into a mini routine; the kids go to school and their activities, Goldie does her ulpan and I go to work. We have a schedule and an expectation of how our week will go.

Of course, we are still olim. With that, we have the basic understanding that we have no clue what is going on at any given time and are hoping that we get things close to right a majority of the time. Homework is still done with dictionaries in hand. There are school strikes we don’t expect. The bank calls us regularly because we haven’t diverted our small positive balance to some investment fund of theirs (they are actually horrified that we keep a positive balance and don’t use their generous and expensive overdraft).

Yet, it seems a bit quieter during the average run of the mill weeks. School. Ulpan. Work. Shopping. Cooking. Homework. Emails. Phone calls. All the average everyday trappings of middle class life. We have begun to anticipate some of the speed bumps and feel more prepared for them.

The Hebrew issues get smaller each week as well. The kids are all admitting that their Hebrew is much better. Even Mordechai has begun (with a lot of grammar mistakes) to speak in Hebrew to the Hebrew only kids in his Gan.

The past week was more of the same. It started with a family melave malka with two of our cousins who visited from Chicago to learn for the week in Kollel in Yerushalayim. We took the opportunity to get my brother and sister and some of our kids together at our house and visit. I always say it is a real treat to get to visit with family and friends and this was no exception.

Aliza had another entrance exam last week, this time at Ulpanat Sha’alavim (Middle/High School for Girls). She had an interview as well, and was complemented on her Hebrew.

Chaya met with her Principal, head teacher and us to discuss expanding her curriculum obligations now that her “getting to fit in” period has ended and we have begun to map a course for her to get her High School Diploma.

The other kids had their assorted activities, programs and of course illnesses (we seem to get sick a ton here) throughout the week. One flu, a couple viruses, a lot of coughing and a strep throat will sure make the week crawl by when you are a parent. Thank G-d for no copays and a $3-6 prescription fee.

Actually, I was discussing the astounding amount of illnesses with my sister in law who mentioned to me that many olim get sick often during their first year here. She explained the theory that olim have tolerances and resistance to the viruses that are common in the USA but not the Israeli viruses. When an oleh suddenly comes to Israel and is exposed to a whole new set of viruses, off to bed he goes.

I actually see that in the Yeshiva as well. There are some guys who are literally sick for weeks, getting one bug after or another. So there seems to actually be a little sense to that theory.

With such a boring week, I didn’t think there would be much to write about. Yeah, we still have repair issues outstanding in the house here. We are still dealing with our home there. We have to find new school programs for three kids this fall. Yet, these are all old problems and old issues that we will work out over time.

Then I realized that a significant moment had passed us by and we hadn’t even realized it at the time.

On Shabbat, we (should have) celebrated our six month anniversary as citizens of the State of Israel. July 6 – January 6. Amazing.

It is hard to imagine that we have been here six months already. We were so excited when we first got off the plane. Every day was a new adventure and the summer was like a terrific summer vacation except for our housing problems and all our belongings getting sent to Greece (remember that?).

We moved into a new neighborhood and had to learn so much about living here. Where should we shop? Which Hashgachot are acceptable? How do we pay our bills? There were so many different issues to handle.

School started and we were suddenly faced with six kids all essentially going through first grade at the same time (or at least having to learn, like first graders, how the school system worked for them). Hebrew became a sudden crisis and we struggled to understand what we needed to do to make the kids successful.

We hit the Yamim Noraim, IN ISRAEL, our holy land and had such amazing experiences exploring the land and being Jewish in a land where we aren’t a frowned upon minority. Succot built near the mall food court. Succot in all the attractions and tiyulim. Kosher food everywhere.

One day Yamim Tovim! Enough said.

Then we started the real struggle. Longer school days. Ulpan began. The honeymoon ended and we all had to start dealing with fitting in and becoming a part of the society and the country.

Underneath it all? Contentment. The kids were so quickly adapted to their new social lives and friends that we were astounded. Kids are so resilient. They made friends and acclimated to their environments in ways their parents probably never will.

We had an ideal for ourselves and we began to see that it was achievable. People told us in advance that the beginning would be difficult. We thought we were prepared, but there really was no way to prepare for how hard things would get. Yet, we could see (somewhere off in the future) a time where things would be easier.

With each success our confidence grew and we began to get more and more comfortable with ourselves and where we were in life. Not every note home was a crisis. We didn’t have angry, crying kids wandering through the house, wishing they were somewhere else.

We each traveled to America, visiting friends and family and focusing on work. We were able to restock our supplies (although we have run out of printer ink and they don’t sell the cartridges we need here) and remind ourselves just why we were ready to move.

We’ve lived through a war. Imagine that. Within two weeks of our arrival we were bombing our neighbors. This wasn’t like bombing Canada. This was like bombing Connecticut (or Wisconsin for the Midwestern readers). I was in Haifa on Tisha B’av and the sirens went off twice – an extremely terrifying experience, especially when two weeks later a rocket landed on a road where I had driven.

There were the Charedi riots and the gay parade psychos. We had terrorist threats and murderers promising to kill us at every opportunity. We’ve had strikes to contend with and boycotts and name calling back and forth between the religious and the non religious.

There is so much to integrate in making a new life that at times we were quite literally exhausted at the end of each day. Yet, each morning we’d get up and go back at it because we knew that there was a goal in sight and milestones along the way where things would be easier and the joy we have felt in being here since day one will be all the more gratifying.

Six months was one of those milestones. We had been so looking forward to this point that when we finally reached it, we were so absorbed with our daily living that we totally missed it. There are other things we missed as well.

We missed our good friends’ Shalom Zachor last Friday night. David and Shira Wiseman had their third child and second boy, and we would have been right in the middle of the festivities had we been there. Instead, we had to content ourselves by ordering a tray for the Shalom Zachor.

We missed our neighbor Nechama Kamenetzky’s Bas Mitzva as well. Sure we keep in touch, but the sharing of our every day joys and especially our simchot makes our friendships all the more dear and when we miss things it hurts.

Our girls certainly make sure to call to wish Happy Birthday to their friends and they skype videoconference as well, but it isn’t the same as being there with friends they have known for the significant portion of their lives.

We’ve missed a lot of things these six months. Simchas, shivas, those significant events that we share with those close to us that makes our bonds even stronger – and we aren’t there to share them. These are the events we used to take for granted, and now in our (gasp) middle age, have to recreate for ourselves and reconnect with a totally new group of people.

Yomim Tovim in a new place. Parent/teacher conferences in a new place with hardly anyone to shmooze with since we don’t know anyone. Grandparents far away. Anything and everything familiar to us, just gone. Teachers. Neighbors. Pizza stores. Supermarkets. Newspapers. Even the mailman (who can’t seem to leave the mail in the same place every day).

We have a cousin’s wedding this summer to attend to, and we might miss it if we can’t figure out a way to make a summer trip to the USA a reality. We haven’t missed a cousin’s simcha in years and we are beside ourselves in distress over the potentially missed event.

We have really felt welcomed by the community in Sheinfeld, yet we go to shul and are mostly casual acquaintances with the rest of the members. We live in the homeland for the Jewish people and we came here to be “home”, but it still isn’t “home”; the people still aren’t the friends and family who we have shared so much with in building our lives and our family.

It will get there in many ways, eventually. Some ways it will even surpass the life we had, which was our motivation for making the move. We have come a long way, but we aren’t there yet.

The kids don’t talk about it, neither do we. They are actually pretty happy and it is a rare night when you hear, “I wanna go back to America.” That doesn’t mean that they (and we) don’t know how much easier it would be for us had we stayed and how much more comfortable we would have felt in our old surroundings.

Channuka without their grandparents. No spur of the moment trips to Bubbee for Shabbos. No birthday dinners at a special restaurant. No picking out thirty books at the library to last for a week at home. Things are definitely different and who thought that we would be in this position as we closed in on forty.

Yet, we have attended simchot here; I had a great time at the Shalom Zachors and we appreciate every simcha invitation. We have been invited out with regularity here and we have begun to make new friends.

We have siblings and cousins here who we haven’t been able to see and with whom we finally can build relationships. We have new challenges and new horizons that we couldn’t have dreamt we would be exposed to in a meaningful way.

We have been and will continue to be visited by Bubbees and Zaidees. We have our VOIP phone and our SKYPE and are therefore in contact more than olim have been at any previous time in history. Our kids have friends and they fit in.

I guess what I am trying to say is that we miss you, and that is a price we have to pay for being here. We knew going in that these would be exactly the things we would miss the most, so we aren’t really so surprised. This is exactly how we expected to feel. These were major factors we considered in our decision to make the move. However, all things considered it is a price we were willing to pay and so far the price has been right.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Winter Wonderland (Article #35) 1/4/2007

With Channuka vacation over (except for Chaim), we were all excited to get back to work and school. After Succot, we had issues with the kids going back to school. They had been fresh off their first month of school, didn’t know the language, hadn’t started ulpan and were dreading having to go back into such a confusing maelstrom. It didn’t help that they had been away for two weeks and had an opportunity to let their worries stew in their minds.

This time was totally different. They have acclimated themselves socially to their classes. Their Hebrew (all of them) is vastly improved from where they were and even though they are still weak in Hebrew, they can all see a time where their Hebrew will improve.

They are having fun.

Attitude makes a big difference in life. With a positive outlook and much less fear associated with going to school, they were motivated to go back after vacation and looking forward to seeing their friends and telling them about their vacation.

Back in mid-November, I had gone to renew Chaim’s visa. He had been in the country for three months and his visa was due to expire. I had all of the details in order and went to Misrad Hapnim (the Interior Ministry who handles these things) to get things taken care of. Foolish me.

Apparently, although there is no way to know it in advance, you need to make an appointment by telephone in order to renew a visa. With his visa expiring in a few days, I was worried about him being in the country illegally. I went to the head of the Yerushalayim Misrad Hapnim office to try to get an appointment for that day and her words were, “Who cares? As long as he doesn’t try to leave the country it isn’t a problem.”

I couldn’t believe that the government officials were willing to say that, but hey – who was I to tell them? I left my name for an appointment and within a day I had an appointment scheduled for late December, six weeks later.

On Tuesday I returned to the Misrad Hapnim for my scheduled appointment. I had been warned in advance to bring a long book with me to keep me occupied, that I should be prepared mentally to have a big fight with them about some silly point and not get the visa that morning.

However, the reality was so different from what I was warned to expect. Although there were some other people there whose visa “agent” had not shown up that day, forcing them to wait for any available time with the agents who were there, my agent was there and got me into her office early. She had all of our documentation with her, processed the visa without a single problem and I was out of the office with the visa in less than fifteen minutes. So much for the difficult beaurocracy.

There is a section in the paper’s weekend edition where they profile new olim. About a month ago there was a profile of a Chazzan from Toledo, Ohio who had been the Chazzan in Toledo for many years who had made Aliyah. My grandfather (Rabbi Nechemia Katz A”H) had been the Rav in Toledo and my brother had seen the profile and called the paper to find out more about this man and how to reach him.

In his discussion with the editor of that section, he mentioned that he had a brother who had recently made Aliyah who they might be interested in talking to. One thing led to another and on Wednesday afternoon Goldie joined me in Yerushalayim for an interview with a writer for the Jerusalem Post.

The entire week, the city of Yerushalayim had busied themselves with a panic about the possibility of a snowstorm. We had definitely seen a noticeable cool down in the weather from around Channuka. The nights are much colder and even the days that are warm still require jackets or sweaters, especially around Yerushalayim. Rain has also (finally) begun to appear a bit more normally for this season.

Each day of the week, the forecast had called for a possibility of snow, but by Wednesday they had decided it was a certainty for at least one to two inches that afternoon.

The writer called us asking if we wanted to reschedule since the storm was coming. Confused, I responded that Goldie was already on her way and that we would show up.

As we left Yerushalayim, we found about an inch and a half of accumulated snow on the ground amid a heavy snowfall. Initially we were not much concerned with driving since there was not so much snow on the ground. We quickly learned why people get so nervous.

Snow is so unusual that nobody knows how to drive in the snow. Cars were slipping and sliding all over and every driver either assumed that the more gas you give the engine the better the traction or were so afraid of skidding that they drove two miles an hour and there were a ton of accidents.

It took us fifteen minutes to go the first mile of our trip until the turn off to a back road and then only thirty five minutes or so to make the trip home (normal travel time is about 40 minutes maximum) once we were on the back roads and away from the city traffic. It was also amazing to see how the snow turned to rain as we exited Yerushalayim and made our way to lower elevations in the outskirts.

We had dinner that evening with some local friends (all olim who we knew in America) and Eric Zaiman, a friend from Far Rockaway (who I have personally known since college) who was visiting from the USA for a family simcha. Eric had a hard time getting to Beit Shemesh, since all the city bus lines in Yerushalayim as well as to/from Yerushalayim had been totally shut down due to the snow.

The snow was basically cleared from the streets by the next morning (although I heard that there were no taxis willing to venture into the streets until well into the morning). I will say that the next few days I took tremendous enjoyment in driving to Yerushalayim via Beitar and the Gilo tunnel because the snow stayed on the ground in the mountains around Beitar and they were absolutely beautiful.

On Friday morning Aliza took an entrance exam at Ulpanat Chorev in Yerushalayim, yet another option for us (if she is accepted) in our quest to find a middle/high school for her. Being in Yerushalayim gave her the opportunity to see the snow and even to touch it, a fact which she made sure to point out to her siblings.

I personally fail to see why she was so excited about the snow, I would prefer to say that we finally spent a year of our lives not having seen snow at all.

We were told that the test would take her at least ninety minutes, so I took the opportunity to go to Machane Yehuda and get (among other things) some baked goods from the Marzipan bakery there.

I love Machane Yehuda. The open market style of shopping is so exciting. The sounds, smells and sights can be overwhelming at times, but it is truly a unique experience. I wish that Goldie had more time on Thursdays, I think we would both enjoy shopping in Machane Yehuda for Shabbat each week.

We spent Shabbat with our niece Tova who had just a week and a half left before returning to America at the end of her six month Shana Bet program at Shalavim’s girls program. She was very sad to be leaving. We definitely see her making Aliyah eventually and wish she could have stayed longer, since she was an enormous asset to us (especially when one of us was overseas or Goldie was feeling sick and we needed help).

Next year we hope to have another niece joining us for (at least) the year after she graduates High School and the nieces and nephews will (hopefully) keep on coming for many more years.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Channuka O' Channuka (Article #34) 12/28/2006

In our neighborhood (and in many parts of Israel), the majority of the people light their Channukiyot (Menorahs) outdoors. Thankfully, one of our neighbors warned us to go out and get a special outdoor case to keep out the wind and rain (although this year there was almost none).

I was also warned NOT to use my silver Channukiya since it would get stolen. I was disappointed not to use my personal Channukiya which I received as a gift from a former talmid and his family and it holds tremendous sentimental value for me. When I am an owner and not a renter, I will definitely make sure that I have some sort of case built into the wall of my house where I can secure the Channukiya.

Accordingly, I bought the cheapest Channukiya box I could find in Meah Shearim (spending around fifteen dollars or so), since I am only going to use it for a couple of years. It is essentially a simple metal frame, with a metal roof and floor and glass walls, one of which slides out to provide access to the inside.

Rather than buy enough outdoor boxes for the entire family to light outdoors, we decided to have Chaim and I light outside and the rest of the kids inside at the window.

It was kind of cool going to shul Friday afternoon and seeing all the outdoor channukiyot. Some of them were quite fancy and ornately decorated and as I noticed that I came to a realization. One of the first things I mentioned in the first Aliyah Chronicle was our intense desire to go to the land of the Jews and not have our children exposed to other images and influences.

Here I was standing on the first night of Channuka, December 15th and enjoying the multiplicity of Channuka lights as they are displayed indoors and outdoors. As I passed the preschool buildings I saw dozens of flyers and poster pasted on their fences, detailing the various Channuka events and activities that were available to our selves and the kids for the next week. And I haven’t seen a single x-mas tree or lawn ornament all season.

THIS IS PART OF WHAT WE CAME FOR! This feeling of belonging, of being a part of the mainstream of society and not just another minority fringe group. We haven’t had a single child ask us to “go see the fancy x-mas decorations” or “the pretty displays” because there is no such thing here.

We haven’t seen a single Santa ringing a bell, or had to explain what all those wax figures on the lawn represent. What we have seen is a bunch of Channukiyot, dreidels, latkes and perhaps most predominantly sufganiyot.

We have become so acclimated to living in the Jewish homeland that we didn’t even realize what we weren’t seeing. Having this realization is the greatest feeling. It mitigates all the struggles and confusion and panic and fear that we go through. It is the feeling that makes it all worthwhile.

Of course, as new Israelis, Goldie made sure that we had sufganiyot for dessert on Friday night. We had never really been into sufganiyot before, but I guess now that we are Israelis, we have to start (in some small way) acting the part. By the next Shabbat we were so sick of sufganiyot that nobody wanted to even look at one, even if it was still Channuka.

On Saturday night we had a repeat of “pancake night” so that Goldie could enjoy it too. She said that it was because it was Channuka and pancakes are fried foods, but we knew the truth.

Although the kids were off from school the entire week, I still had work and Goldie had ulpan, so we didn’t have the opportunity to do anything as a family until the middle of the week. On Sunday our shul ran an event for the kids that was very entertaining and educational.

There is a museum here called Machon HaMikdash. It is dedicated to the preparation of vessels and other items for the rebuilt Beit HaMikdash and the education of the Jewish people to the various duties and items involved in operating the Beit HaMikdash on a daily basis.

They came into the shul and put on a play about the story and meaning of Channuka (in Hebrew and the kids even understood some of it). After the play they broke up (by age) into groups and did various projects. Batya did a tracing of the Beit HaMikdash in gold foil and Mordechai came home with a bag of spices. Initially we were puzzled, until he showed us the accompanying paper which described the various spices involved in making ketoret and we realized that they had made a facsimile of what ketoret could be.

Aliza had not been feeling well all weekend, with a sore throat and general sick feeling. Goldie took her to the doctor who told us that he didn’t think she had strep (no matter how much Goldie insisted that she knows her own child and that she definitely did have strep) and that he wouldn’t give her antibiotics until she tested positive. Remember this for later on.

In order to take the family as a unit on vacation at the end of the week (as well as attend various simchas the next couple of days), on Monday we switched our rental vehicle from a teeny tiny little car to a huge nine passenger van. The van had a diesel engine, since diesel is cheaper to run here and the rental agencies have diesel cars for the larger vehicles. I can say one thing for sure: Diesel engines run very loudly.

On Monday afternoon we got a call from the doctor to tell us that Aliza did indeed have strep throat. He prescribed an antibiotic that she started taking on Monday night. Remember this too.

I worked (?) late Monday night. The Yeshiva hosted a special Mesibat Channuka for all of our students. We were not only celebrating Channuka; we wished farewell to nine of our students who were leaving us after a year of study in the Yeshiva.

These students live in South Africa and Australia, Southern Hemisphere countries where the school year runs from late January through early December. They had arrived at the Yeshiva the previous January and (having completed their year of study) were returning home to continue their studies in university or otherwise move on. A new group of eighteen students will arrive in late January to take their place.

I know that this is something I will have to get used to, but saying goodbye to these fellows was not easy. They were in the Yeshiva when I first came to work there and I have gotten to know them and it is tough to see them leave. Since our Yeshiva runs a Northern Hemisphere program as well, I get to enjoy this feeling not once, but twice a year.

On the positive side, as the Director of Alumni Affairs for the Yeshiva (fancy title, huh), I will be in contact with them for the rest of their lives and have an opportunity to see them continue to grow as they eventually develop families of their own.

Tuesday morning we took everyone except Aliza (who was at play practice) and Moshe (who had gan) to the Kotel for the Bar Mitzva of Doron Levine, the son of our friends Zalman and Gila Levine (Teaneck, NJ). I have known Zalman and Gila since our days at Y.U. (Zalman and I were on the fencing team together). We have kept in touch and have always shared a very nice friendship throughout the years even though we rarely lived in the same geographic area.

The Bar Mitzva was very nice and we all enjoyed the seuda as well. We had a chance to visit with some people who we haven’t seen in a while as well as some new friends who we hadn’t known would be at the simcha. I cannot express what a treat it is to share the simcha of a friend, especially now that we have made Aliya and have so few opportunities to do so.

Since the Yeshiva would be closed for Channuka break starting Wednesday afternoon, we decided to take a mini vacation and get away for a few days. Goldie spent a lot of time and effort in planning a vacation in the weeks before Channuka and decided that we would go to the Dead Sea resort area for a few days.

Our original plan was to leave early Wednesday morning, but my cousins (Divi and Daniel Engel) had a boy the week before and we had the Bris to attend in Yerushalayim before leaving on vacation.

Tuesday night as we were packing Mordechai began to complain of a sore throat and sickness. Worrying that he was developing strep throat, I quickly took him to the overnight clinic and got a prescription of antibiotics for him as well, so that we wouldn’t have to deal with sick kids on vacation.

We arrived late for the Bris on Wednesday morning. The Bris was being held on Shmuel Hanavi, just below the Meah Shearim neighborhood and we had a little “difficulty” in finding parking. Especially when we got lost in the narrow streets with our huge van and I had to back up thirty feet to get out of a dead end street.

Thankfully (for us at least) the Mohel got to the Bris later than we did, so we didn’t really miss anything. In order to get back onto schedule, we left right away and began our trip to the Dead Sea.

It has been at least a decade since our last visit to the Ein Gedi/Masada region. We had forgotten what a unique drive it is to leave Yerushalayim to the east and find ourselves in the desert only fifteen minutes after leaving the city. We had been in the desert regions before (in our trips to Chevron and Pnei Kedem), but this was the first time the kids really saw Bedouin camps and camels.

As always happens, each time the kids remarked on something unique or surprising to them, Goldie cried. This is not a new event for us. She is often overcome with emotion at the beauty of our land and the fact that we are actually living here and not just tourists. And it brings her to tears very easily.

So she cried when we drove through the desert mountains. She cried when we saw the Dead Sea. She cried when we talked about Masada. She cried just about everywhere, even the kids have begun to say things like, “Hey look – there is a pretty mountain, Eema is crying.”

As we passed various Bedouin camps, Goldie really wanted to stop and have the kids go on a camel ride and pose for pictures. She doesn’t know this (although she will when she reads the first draft of this article), but I was really against doing so.

We live in a small country. We are totally surrounded by arabs, the majority of whom want nothing more than to literally wipe us off the face of the earth, especially those who are living within our borders. I don’t want to give them any more of my money than I absolutely have to, if given the choice.

Yes, they work in construction and as assistants to our plumbers, gardeners, etc. I understand that they work as busboys and other similar jobs throughout the country. I don’t have a choice there. In this instance I did have a choice and I chose not to give any more support to the arabs than I absolutely needed to.

As we approached the Dead Sea, we were all amazed by the amazing blue color of the water and the majestic contrast of the mountains to our right and the sea, the lowest point on earth to our left. As we continued down the coast and the sea grew nearer, the entire family was awed by the beauty of the scenery. And Goldie cried.

We decided to see Masada on the way to our hotel. It was on our list of things to do, and there was plenty of sunlight left to tour the mountain. Our kids had not heard the story of Masada and were fascinated to hear it and then see the places we were actually talking about.

We had originally told the kids that we would be climbing the snake path up the side of the mountain and when they saw how tall the mountain was they began to freak out. While I think Chaim would have enjoyed the hike, there was no way we were going to try and make the hike with Batya, Mordechai and Moshe.

With the exception of Moshe (who is too little to understand what he is seeing) I would say that everyone took something away from the Masada tour. They were fascinated to see the different areas where the people lived and to see the locations (from atop the mountain) of the Roman encampments surrounding the mountain. The water cisterns were a big hit, as was any location with a view (and there are plenty of great views on the mountain).

As I was reading the map and pointing out different places to the kids, I read something that I had not known. Apparently, the original fortress/palace on Masada was built in Hasmonean times and there is a strong possibility that it was built by Yonatan Hamaccabi. Realizing this and visiting Masada on the holiday of Channuka added another dimension to our visit.

The only negative was the heat. After almost ninety minutes of touring the mountain, we had run out of water and the kids were complaining and hot. We decided to end our tour, rather than fight them and see the whole thing, so we missed about twenty percent or so of the excavations.

We got to our hotel just as it was getting dark. We hit the pool for an hour or so and then went in for dinner.

Dinner - in fact - all the meals, were a big hit. Other than a Pesach week several years ago, our family has never been in a kosher hotel before. The chance to walk into the main hotel dining room and eat whatever we chose was a unique experience for us. The food was awesome each meal and the kids especially loved that they were able to serve themselves anything they wanted from the buffet.

My sister had mentioned that Israeli hotel breakfasts are lavish, but we were still unprepared for the abundance of choices available at every meal. It is a good thing that Goldie had only ordered breakfast and dinner for us; I don’t think we had any room for lunch.

After that first dinner, Goldie and I put the little kids to sleep and left the bigger kids babysitting so that we could explore the tourist town of Ein Bokek, home to all the Dead Sea resorts. We were able to walk the shopping strip and buy some stuff for the kids and also some Dead Sea skin care products.

We also got a little taste of what we used to have in the US. You see, Chabad of the Dead Sea had a grand Channuka lighting with one of those giant Channukiyot (just like the one in Cedarhurst), followed by music, dancing and an impromptu concert by the local Chabad Rav.

As we stood near the shore, Goldie noticed that there seemed to be lights twinkling across the sea and wondered what they were. She was stunned to realize that they were most likely a similar set of resorts on the Jordanian side of the sea.

We also were surprised to see how close the seashore was to the mountains of the Israeli desert. There was a huge mountain right across the street from our hotel. Further, realizing that the sea has been receding by 3 feet a year we realized that the entire area of the hotels was once totally underwater and the water literally reached the feet of the mountains at some point.

On Thursday morning we went for a dip in the Dead Sea. Batya had woken up not feeling well, but a little bit of advil perked her right up and we were all excited to head to the beach.

The water was unbelievably cold, but since we were paying to be there it made no sense not to go into the water. It definitely took some getting used to the temperature, and some of the kids (Aliza and Moshe) had terrible stinging reactions to the water. Moshe’s reaction was so bad that he cried in Chaim’s lap for fifteen minutes and then fell asleep for a half hour from exhaustion.

I was initially the only person who stayed in the water long enough to adjust to the temperature and float. I had never floated on the Dead Sea before (Goldie had never been to the Dead Sea at all before). Once the kids saw that I was able to float, Mordechai and Chaya joined me for short while and even Goldie took some time in the water.

That afternoon we took the kids to a neighboring hotel to go bowling. Unless you want to go on mountain hikes, there are very few entertainment options within Ein Bokek other than going into the sea. Bowling is one of them.

While we were at the bowling alley, Chaya suddenly became miserably uncomfortable (complaining of a sore throat, stomachache and a fever) and we could see that she was sick. Goldie immediately knew that it was strep throat and called our health plan to find out what we could do for a doctor.

There are no doctors based in the Dead Sea resort area. According to our health plan, the nearest doctor was hours away in Eilat. Since this was obviously out of the question, they suggested that we call a house call doctor service and pay for the visit. Our hotel suggested that we use their on call doctor (for a fee) as well. However, both options required a two to three hour wait before the doctor could get to us in the hotel.

We decided to try to go to a local pharmacy to see if we could convince the pharmacist to sell us antibiotics on the basis of 2 kids already having strep and being on medication. Guess what else is not in Ein Bokek? A pharmacy! The nearest pharmacy is in Arad, a half hour’s drive away.

Realizing that any doctor’s visit would require a trip to Arad to pick up medicine, we called the health plan to find out if they had offices in Arad. They didn’t, but when I asked them about a Terem facility, they told me about one that was due to open for the night in only forty five minutes.

A Terem facility is essentially an emergency room. If it is after hours and there is no health plan overnight clinic available in your neighborhood, you go to the Terem clinic instead. These clinics have special deals with the health plans where they collect some of their fee from the health plan and some of their fee from the patient.

Since we needed to go to Arad anyway (that is where the pharmacy was), we decided to go to the Terem and see a doctor there, shortening our wait time to be seen and hopefully paying less for the visit. We also decided that it would be smarter to bring Batya and Moshe (who had a runny nose and a fever by that time as well) to be checked, once we were going to the doctor.

So we headed down the coast and then into the mountains for an incredibly scary ride to Arad. We were essentially driving around the mountains in absolute darkness. There were very few stretches of straight road. Being in the dark, without being able to see very far along the road and what was coming, I was very happy to see the lights of Arad.

While we were driving, my cellphone rang with a text message. Apparently, our elevated height in the mountains had triggered our cellphone company that we were somewhere close to the borders of the country. The text message read (translated) “Pay attention – You are in the Jordanian coverage area. If you are in Israel, manually select Cellcom” (our Israeli cellphone company).

If that wasn’t surprising enough, about two minutes later the phone rang again with another text message that read (in English), “Welcome to Jordan and thank you for using UMNIAH GSM network. We wish you a pleasant stay in Jordan.”

Welcome to Jordan? Even though I knew I was in the right spot, there was a nagging thought way in the back of my mind that perhaps I had made a wrong turn somewhere.

Going to Arad for medical care was an excellent choice. Not because the medical care was so good – it wasn’t. The doctor took forever in his diagnosis, and the nurse wanted to put the kids on I.V. for dehaydration. The one thing we did get out of him was that all three kids had strep throat and that we were simply passing the bug around.

Since both Aliza and Mordechai were already on medication for having had strep throat and Chaya, Batya and Moshe would be going on medication that night, the doctor put the rest of us on antibiotics as a preventative measure in order to stop us from continuing to pass the infection around from person to person (I can hear all the USA doctors screaming at the paper as they read this). So, right now we are all taking antibiotics so we can finally be rid of this infection.

In the morning as we packed to go home, both Goldie and I (the two people who had spent the most time in the Dead Sea waters) commented how soft our skin felt. Before we had visited the Dead Sea, neither of us really believed that there was any truth to the idea of “healing powers” of the water. However, we are really believers now. Goldie even added later that her arthritic joint pain in her hands and ankles was totally gone for several days after soaking in the sea.

On erev Shabbat we welcomed our Shabbat guests, Rikki Schoenbrun and Elisheva Nelson who are both here for a year of study in Israel. We actually skyped with the Schonbrun household in the USA so Rikki could see her brother Yoni who just had his upsherin (Mazal Tov).

Skype is a software program that allows the user to connect a camera and microphone to their computer and have a live video conference for free via the internet. We just installed our camera within the last couple of months. We have been skyping with some of our old neighbors and await some more family members (Bubbees and Zaidees) to set themselves up for the kids to enjoy as well.

Shabbat also saw the first rains we have had since Parshat Noach. The rain situation has been so bad here that the Rabbanut issued a call for all people living in Israel to add a special tefilla for rain in their Shemona Esrei. Thankfully it rained quite a bit on Shabbat and again on Motzei Shabbat and we hope this is a sign of more rain to come (we really need it).