Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bruchim Habaim (part 1): Hachnassat Orchim (Article #59) 10/11/2007

Wow. What an overwhelming couple of weeks we have had. I almost regret having the week off from writing as it came during a very busy time and now there is so much to say I don’t know where to begin.

With Aliza’s Bat Mitzva scheduled for the Sunday after Sukkot, both my parents and Goldie’s (as well as Goldie’s brother David and his family) made arrangements to come to Israel for the Chag. At one point (Shabbat Chol Hamoed) we had 19 people sleeping in the house (including Goldie’s niece Sarah who is spending the year here), and to spice things up added a guest (one of the students from my Yeshiva) for a meal.

With a European style oven that is more the size of a toaster than an oven, Goldie was forced to begin preparing for Yom Tov many weeks in advance and freezing everything so that she could have time to enjoy all our family who were joining us. She also had to plan the various chol hamoed activities to keep all the tourists (as well as some of the locals - us) busy.

Two days before the beginning of Sukkot, my father in law and I went to Ramat Beit Shemesh to buy lulavim. Since it was a little last minute, the pickings were a little slim, but the prices were very attractive. I got four “A minus” grade sets of lulavim & etrogim (including the hadassim & aravot) for about $35 each complete set. No – that is not a typo.

Had I planned a little earlier, I could have saved three or four dollars each set by ordering through the Rosh Yeshiva’s son. But I had no idea he was in the business and will have to save him for next year. He told me that the main sellers in Yerushalayim have two prices, one for Americans and a second for Israelis, since the Americans are used to paying more and are ready to pay the price.

We had a confusion of practices in our house for the actual Yom Tov. My father holds 2 days of chag when in Israel, as per the psak (ruling) of his uncle, R’ Moshe Feinstein. Our niece also held 2 days, which made a three day chag for three of our guests. Goldie’s parents and brother (who was in Yerushalayim for the first day of Sukkot), following a personal psak, hold 1 day of chag.

All the chagim are special here. There are all the guests who show up and make the shul a little more crowded. There is the atmosphere of the whole country who are all enjoying (even the non-religious) a little break from the routine. Most of all, there is the connection we have to Israel and just feeling incredibly Jewish without any sense of being an outsider or being odd from the rest of your neighbors.

Sukkot was hot. I mean really hot. I had promised myself to leave off one of the walls and only build another one halfway so that we could have a cross breeze, but didn’t follow through on my plan. So we sat in the heat and roasted for the day meals (although there were really only two holiday meals to sit through – the chol hamoed day meals were either quickly finished or totally skipped in favor of a big dinner when it cooled down).

On Friday, since there wasn’t time to organize a major tiyul (trip) for the entire group (especially since a bunch of them were home keeping Yom Tov), Goldie and I took the three oldest kids to the USA consulate in Yerushalayim to renew their passports.

My cousin and his family were staying in Yerushalayim for Sukkot and we had prearranged that I would get a lunch delivery to him. Unfortunately, the delivery service decided to take the day off, so we spent a bit of time coordinating the order and then my father in law kindly volunteered to bring it over himself.

I had gone through the passport renewal process a couple of weeks earlier so we were prepared for an hour+ long ordeal of waiting in line. However, I now know that a Friday second day of chag that coincided with Ramadan is the best time to go to the consulate. The place was totally empty.

All the American Jews were either keeping chag for a second day or enjoying their vacation and all the Arabs were heading off to prayers. Since the consulate is located on the fringe of an Arab neighborhood near Shaar Shechem (the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem), there were tons of them pouring into and through that area on their way to their prayers in the old city.

It was a little strange to be the minority. We had to park a mile from the consulate because of all the traffic and closed roads and walk among the throngs of Arabs making their way in. I was more concerned about the car getting stolen or broken into (which is very ordinary throughout Yerushalayim) than anything else.

When we got to the consulate I was concerned that it had closed unexpectedly. There was no line at all.

We got through security and were waiting our turn for processing within 5 minutes of arrival, and were totally done in about 20 minutes time. We were literally number two in line and the major delay was our having to go upstairs to pay the courier service for delivery of the passports when they arrive.

I understand that in the USA it takes several months to process passport requests. We get ours in 2 to 3 weeks.

On Shabbat there was some concern that it might actually rain (it DID drizzle on Erev Chag for about 3 minutes) and with meals of 19 and 20, Goldie was very nervous about fitting everyone in the house. We ended up just having more heat.

On Sunday the real fun began as we finally started to go on tiyulim (trip) with the family. While the Grandparents went on their own trips, the rest of us went to an area just past the resort area of the Dead Sea where we took an ATV tour. We were joined by my Uncle Shimmie from Chicago as well as the Halpern family of Far Rockaway who were in Israel for Sukkot and had reserved to be in the same tour.

Most of the teenagers and almost all the adults had a chance to drive, some of the teenagers were scolded for drag racing and everyone had an awesome time. We got to see a mountain literally made of salt and stone that is pushing up from the ground at a rate of 4 to 5 feet a year. We had a chance to taste the mountain walls, it literally tasted like salt.

We then separated from the group and went to the Dead Sea for a refreshing float. In the end, only Aliza and Mordechai joined me in the water. Everyone else was scared to aggravate a cut or sore. Aliza left after a couple of minutes but Mordechai and I enjoyed a nice soak.

I was again amazed at how soft your skin gets after exposure to the Dead Sea waters. As we left the water, we noticed big chunks of salt at the bottom. We took 7 or 8 of them home with us as souveniers and I am trying to encourage Goldie to chop them up and use it to soak in at home.

As we drove to pick up some drinks, I commented to Goldie how I wished there was a Succah handy for us to eat in when we drove by the Chabad of the Dead Sea’s Succah. Those guys are everywhere!

Of course, there were no kosher pizza stores around, and we learned right then to pack a dinner for the men too – since you never know if there is going to be a Succah around or not.

The next day we headed to Zichron Yaakov to learn about the Chilazon (snail) that is supposed to be the source of Techelet (blue dye used by some to color Tzitzit strings). My brother joined us with his family as well all of Goldie’s relatives and we learned a lot about the chemistry and history of these specific snails.

We then headed to the beach to go snorkeling and see if we could find any of them. Our group only found about 12 of them; they are much more numerous when you go out further into the Mediterranean Sea and at greater depths.

We concluded the tour by actually participating in preparation of the techelet dye, as well as watching the effects of the sun on the dye and the transformation from green to deep blue – which was amazing.

Following the tour, we capitalized on our experience the day before and enjoyed a dinner prepared by Goldie in the Succah on the grounds of the museum we were visiting. It was a nice relaxed meal and certainly made the trip home much more comfortable without 6 kids screaming “I AM STARVING” at the top of their lungs.

Our final tour day was back in Zichron Yaakov for two tours. First, we (us and all the “out of town” relatives) toured the Carmel wine factory there and got to see how they make their wines. We learned about the aging process and how they decide what wines to produce in a given year.

Our tour concluded with a wine tasting session (in the factory Succah of course) where we got to sample a bunch of different sweet and dry wines. We all enjoyed that, even the kids who convinced the guide to let them have small tastes. (They each also got their own bottle of Grape Juice).

After that tour we went down the beach toward Netanya for some beachside horseback riding. My sister joined us for that.

Turns out that the horses are not full size horses and since I am a more than full size guy, I couldn’t ride. So everyone went without me, leaving me with the Bubbies and the Zaides as well as the little kids.

As part of our deal with the stable, the little kids got free pony rides. Since there weren’t too many people around, the handlers put the kids on the pony and then let me lead the pony around the parking lot for a few turns. It was a hidden treat for me to experience the kids’ joy in riding the pony.

Unlike our previous chagim, we did not see too many people that we knew from the USA. A few people here and there - the Halperns at jeeping, the Gottesmans from Chicago at the techelet tour – but for the most part we deliberately avoided places like Ir David or the Kotel tunnel tours and tried to do things that were a little off the beaten track.

We had all experienced most of the major tourist attractions (although I will eventually give in and take my kids to the chol hamoed Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel at some point) and decided to try and find some of the things that most people wouldn’t think of doing. I think we were mostly successful.

By the time Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah (remember – only one day for both) arrived, we were ready to begin celebrating Aliza’s Bat Mitzva. But that is a story for next week in The Chareidim are here: Bruchim Habaim part 2.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Even the Land Needs a Break (Article #58) 9/25/2007

On Motzei Shabbat Teshuva, I joined with some of our students for one of my all time favorite activities in Israel. We got together with Standing Together and brought pizza and drinks to chayalim (soldiers) at security checkpoints. Nothing makes me feel prouder to be here than in demonstrating support for the young men and women who keep me and my family safe.

I know that the students enjoyed it too. Although they had been to a MAGA”V (Border Police) training base a few weeks earlier, that tiyul (field trip/hike) had been to plant trees on the base and also to learn about MAGA”V. This evening was totally voluntary and on their own time.

So this was an opportunity for them to really connect one on one with the chayalim with no agenda other than to say thanks to them. Of course they enjoyed the pizza and the soda, but it means so much more to them that these young Americans, Canadians and South Africans came out on a chilly night to do something that most foreigners don’t do. Say thanks.

One of the chayalim pulled me aside as we left to thank me for bringing the guys. I responded that it was we who owed him our thanks for standing a post on cold nights. His response? “It is people like this that give me the strength to sit out on those cold nights.”

Can’t beat that, can you?

With the coming of the new year came a new wrinkle to our always confused lives. This year is a Shmitta (sabbatical) year in the land of Israel, where farmers are forbidden from the Torah from raising produce in order to give the land a recharge. Since this only applies in Israel, other than avoiding Jaffa oranges every seven years, we have never really had to deal with the issues involved with keeping Shmitta.

Of course, as with everything else in Israel, there are the inevitable politics involved as well. There are many machinations used to allow for Kosher produce in the Shmitta year which range from simply importing goods from outside the country or buying produce from Arabs, to selling the land to non-Jews and then working their land for them (this procedure is frowned upon by many Poskim).

Further complicating the matter is my desire not to give business to Arab farmers if I can at all avoid it. The general Chareidi public has no problem with this, but the National Religious Public generally do. So I don’t want to buy from the Chareidi endorsed products (which I would normally have no problem with) either.

In order to accommodate people like me, a new organization was formed called Otzar HaAretz. Essentially, they identify products that use halachically approved growth measures (hydroponics, growth above and not in the ground, sale of land to Beit Din with consumers paying only the labor costs {known as Otzar Beit Din} or as a last resort non Jewish grown) to provide produce for the Shmitta year.

They even identify which produce comes from what source, so that the consumer can choose which rulings he wishes to follow.

Additionally, there are stringent requirements on how to dispose of peels, pits, seeds and other waste which incredibly complicate our lives as well (imagine having to save orange peels and seeds all day until you get to your special Shmitta garbage can). Gravies, soups, fruitcake and orange juice are all examples of things that care needs to be taken in their disposal.

Unfortunately, there are so many different rules and so many varying opinions on what is and isn’t acceptable, that it is dizzying to try to keep track of them. I am definitely concerned that we are going to make mistakes just because we didn’t know what the right thing to do was.

Then there are things like flowers for Shabbat/Chaggim or having a garden in your backyard. There was a frenzy of summer planting this year, to make sure things got done on time.

This process doesn’t even end by Rosh Hashana. Produce started on Rosh Hashana because the produce goes by when it is harvested. However, fruits, whose Shmitta status is based upon when the tree begins to flower (after Rosh Hashana) and THEN develop fruit begin to have Shmitta issues around mid winter and we will need to be careful about them until Pesach a year and a half from now.

One thing that makes me feel a little less stupid about Shmitta is that Israelis who have lived here their whole lives are entirely confused as well.

We will be making a Bat Mitzva celebration for our daughter Aliza immediately following Sukkot. Accordingly, various relatives will be visiting us for the Chag. So, even though we are a one day Yom Tov family, we will be making three sets of three day Yom Tovs this year in order to accommodate the foreigners. All while busy explaining the various Shmitta laws to them.

If you will be in Beit Shemesh for Simchat Torah (ours, not that extra day you guys add on), we invite you to come join Goldie and I in Rabbi David’s shul as we host the Kiddush that day in honor of Aliza.

May you all enjoy a wonderful Chag and may we all enjoy the next one together here in Israel.