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.