Israel

Kindness Is Foundational and Revelatory: Let Kindness Flutter

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Walking along towering trees


Today is Day 241 that the Israeli hostages are in captivity. Bring them home now!

It’s nice to be nice. It might not seem to be a powerful message, but it’s one worth taking to heart—and action. To me, it’s up there, for self and society, to be among the most important and aspirational.

In a recent daily video, the rabbi of the Palm Beach Synagogue talked about kindness, proclaiming that it’s “the foundation of the world.” The book of Numbers (called Bamidbar in Hebrew, which means in the Wilderness or Desert) he said “is about kindness. God’s kindness to the Jewish people, the Jewish people’s kindness to future generations.” Then, he said that “the foundation of the world is built on kindness. Kindness is the foundation of our lives.”

Kindness is not generally thought of as a religious attribute or character trait of note. It’s basic and it should be easy. It’s not asking you to consider that you may have hurt people (intentionally or inadvertently) and then ask for forgiveness of yourself or anyone else. It’s not asking you to work on your anger-management issues or your patience, so that you don’t make yourself and the people around you uncomfortable. Can you imagine what the world would be like if people were kind to each other, both as individuals and as groups?

What does it mean for kindness to be foundational? It seems worthwhile to contemplate this on an individual basis, helping assess and learn from one’s own actions, always striving to be better—kinder. Why? Think about how we feel when someone is kind to us? My new neighbors brought freshly-baked cookies when they introduced themselves to me. A new acquaintance walked me partly home from an event at the temple that I will soon refer to as “my temple,” to show me a way to go that is not up and down a steep hill. That warm and fuzzy feeling, and desire to return the kindness to those people and others is tangible.

For many years, I was a teacher. I learned that if I didn’t quiet the part of me that was annoyed or frustrated at a student or students, the annoyance continued, and with it the uncomfortable feeling in the room. And lackluster teaching and learning continued. But when I focused on them—not knowing what a child was going through or how they were feeling or why they were acting in the way they were at that moment—I simply tried to be my best person. Remembering, too, that in addition to teaching content, I was there to be an example of how to act even when annoyed (perhaps purposely triggered by astonishingly loud purposeful pen-clicking), I could feel myself calm and my voice find a softer, brusqueless, tone, certainly better for teaching and mentoring.

My interactions with my ex-husband showed me how unkind I could be, and that was hard to acknowledge. Though it also showed me that I never want to relate to any one again when I was guided by anger, hurt, and tit-for-tat self-preservation.

Which brings me to watching the seething anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, Jew-hating, West-hating, Democracy-hating protestors. They show what it means to not have a shred of kindness directing one’s actions. No explanation can excuse or explain someone calling for the death of another person or people. Or for using rape to achieve anything. What is at the core of their interior world? Where has the kindness fled, if it was ever there?

I have read and heard plenty of insightful analyses of what is happening in our world right now and why, but I can’t stop focusing on the brutal visuals. The burning north of Israel that seems invisible to the world because Israelis are suffering. The pictures of the hostages before they were kidnapped, fearing what they look like now (those who are still alive), after 241 days in hell. And then across the world, the mob mentality that seems to suppress individual thinking and compassion (kindness on a higher scale). And the invisible bystanders, whose timidity belies their own thoughts of their goodness, unwittingly enabling the mob to fester and grow.

While there may not be a simple solution to any conflict between different peoples and religions and ways of life and claims to land, it does seem to come back to people not being kind to each other. But perhaps it’s more basic even than that. Can you be kind to yourself when you harbor hatred? What good can you share with the world if you condemn others to a life of fear?

In researching the butterfly effect, I read what Alessandro Filazzola, a community ecologist and data scientist, said about the impact that one’s individual actions can have; “The items I buy, the people I interact with, the things I say, I believe can each have their cascading effects that ripple through society. That is why it is important to try and be a good person, to create a positive influence. One thing I also think about is how these indirect effects are often not as small and removed as I believe many would think.”

This is my cry, my plea to each of us: to see each other as a good person—I am good and you are good—and act accordingly. I want to tamp down the animus I feel toward those who call for my murder because I am a Jew and an Israeli, and even an American. I cannot force anyone to see me assuming goodness, but I can be a butterfly flapping my wings, living my life with kindness as its foundation.  

A group of butterflies can be called a flight, flirtation, flock, flutter, kaleidoscope, rabble, swarm, or wing of butterflies. Pick the imagery that works for you. Then, imagine your goodness joining with others, fluttering in goodness together. This image will help me remember that my actions are not isolated, that they are part of a larger entity, working to create positive change for us all.

 

Bagels
Baking dozens of bagels

Learning and Living Jewish Wisdom: Moving forward on My Life Journey

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Discovering paths near my new home in Oregon

Today is Day 236 that the Israeli hostages are in captivity.

Bring them home!

Life is beautiful, banal, and cruel. We have all experienced moments of each since they broadly cover the human condition. It’s the balance that makes life unfair.

This weekend, I watched the interview with four mothers of the five young Israeli women in the recently-aired video as they were kidnapped and brutalized by H-m-s. Another opportunity for more cracks to the heart because of casual evil, and an overwhelming sense of injustice and helplessness. Empathy for these women and their daughters is too hard to experience because how can I, a mother of daughters who are safe, who are living their undisturbed lives, even purport to comprehend what these mothers—and their daughters—are going through? But they are in me, which feels like a duty I have committed to.

A few hours later, my daughter and her boyfriend came over for dinner. It was early evening on a beautiful spring day in Oregon. We sat in the backyard around a big table, enjoying the food that I cooked over two days, eating and talking about our week, planning for the next week. During pauses we watched the occasional hummingbird feed on the flowering bushes in the back of the garden. Later, I realized that this was the first time that I had anyone over for a meal since before Covid. The last time was brunch with my Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom group. (SOSS is an organization for Jewish and Muslim women to meet as friends, learn from each other, and work toward acceptance and understanding.) I still have hope in connections made around plates of food, though right now that feels like a band-aid when heart surgery is needed.

With all the videos I’ve watched, and articles I’ve read, and essays I’ve written about antisemitism, Jew hatred, and anti-Zionism over the years, after October 7th I decided that I need to do more—to be more. Learning and awareness are important, but I need to figure out how to stop feeling like an observer.

Almost eight months after that apocalyptic event, I’m acting in a new way: focusing less on me as an isolated individual, and more on me within a Jewish journey. In this space, I plan on sharing some of the lessons and ideas that I learn that resonate with me. To learn from a tradition, a people, a religion that has survived and thrived, in often intolerable conditions, is to honor those who came before, and to learn from the richest, soul-touching, thought-provoking ideas that can inspire me to be a light—to keep me focused on what is essential to continually work on myself to, as I recently read and am absorbing, “show that I am deserving of the Divine Presence.” This seems to be the worthwhile goal.

Trust the Divine Presence and do good; dwell in the land, and be nourished by faith. (Psalm 37:3)

 


PRIDE, GRATITUDE, & LOVE Vanquishing ignorance, hate, & turmoil

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I will miss the sights at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands

Today Is Day 212: Free the Hostages

I was supposed to fly to Israel on Saturday night, April 13. As I finished packing my bags, I heard that large gatherings were being cancelled and schools closed until further notice. Then, that the air space would be closing. Finally (substantiating the reason for the closures), that the Islamic Regime of Iran had sent a barrage of ballistic missiles and attack drones that would arrive sometime while my flight was enroute. Not surprisingly, I cancelled my flight.

That trip had meant so much to me. On a personal level, it was to be with friends in Israel and get a break from the aloneness of being in Florida. On the level of being a proud Jewish woman, one who used to live in Israel, it was essential to connect with Israelis—and the physicalness of Israel—at this moment. I wanted to be there, adding another pained soul calling out for the release of the hostages; to be there supporting those who continue to risk their lives for the safety and security of all Israelis; to be there absorbing some of the sense of loss that exists in the very air; to be there, too, as part of the power that is the Jewish people coming together for the continued strength and survival of our people in the face of yet another maniacal group of haters.

After the initial shock and fear, then relief that the attack was not destructive, I decided to change the order of my plans: move to Oregon first, then visit Israel. Not letting myself seep into wallowing or inertia, I quickly found a house to rent in the city where younger daughter lives. I move this week.

Which means that instead of being within the life and loss of Israel at war, I’m in the shock and horror of watching antisemitism in its ugliest forms on college campuses, spouting from the mouths and bodies of students, professors, staff, agitators, supposed intellectuals, and journalists.

A few days ago, I tried to work on the translation of a Holocaust survivor’s testimony as I have been doing for almost five years. It was too hard, and not just her Hungarian-accented Hebrew, but the fact that at this moment there are people dehumanizing Jews, calling for the mass murder of Jews, claiming that all the ills in the world are the fault of Jews—again.

After a few days, I was back at it. The mob of hate will not stop me.

Watching these hordes and then being told that they are peaceful is stunning, shameful. But more than that, to know that what they have been taught, what has swayed and twisted their minds to say “don’t kill these people, kill those people” as if that’s the greatest expression of human rights, is scary. There is no need for adherence to reality when it comes to hating Jews and Israelis and Israel.

But, listening to young Jewish leaders speak up and push back against the tsunami of lies and distortions from their classmates and instructors is inspirational. Their eloquence and clarity of thought is impressive. It makes me realize why we Jews are still here, after all these onslaughts. Though in each generation there are those who “drop out” and decide to not be Jewish, or to be so against all semblance of what a Jew is that they don’t count, some call these “as a Jew” Jews. The rest of us are going on with learning and studying, figuring out how to stand up in pride, improving each day as an individual, as well as a member of a people who pursue justice for others—though now seems to be a good time to get some help back—but if not, we will do what we need to for ourselves—and still look out for the other. Each of us needs to take on a bit of the burden: the fulfilling burden that is to be part of a people who, though maligned, continues to believe in being a light, for seeing the humanity in each of us for it is foundational to know that each person is created in the image of God; and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, it seems essential for those neighbors to see us this way, too.


Gaining Perspective in Uncertainty

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Not a pity party

On my recent birthday, a friend asked what plans I had. I told her, breakfast at my favorite café (Aioli), lunch with my mother at a restaurant on the ocean (Latitudes), ending with a private pity party, perhaps paired with birthday cake. A realistic plan.

I haven’t done pity lately because of my preoccupation with Israel and the continuing brutal holding and who knows what horrors experienced by the 133 hostages; and the continued rocket attacks in Israel, especially in the north and feeling empathy for the stress that all Israelis are living with; and the parallel stress that Jews worldwide are experiencing because of the events in Israel, the resulting vile onslaught of antisemitism and the dangerous hypocrisy that it breeds. And the sadness at the tragedy in Gaza that a terrorist government, supported by another terrorist government, has caused and continues to cause, abetted by antisemites in high places.

The drive home from the restaurant was along the ocean on the A1A, with its occasional view of the ocean amidst luxury homes and lush tropical greenery. A true staycation feeling. For a moment, I forgot the human-created tragedies and noticed the beauty that there still is in this world.

When I got home, I listened to a new voicemail message. It was from my gynecologist. No, big deal, she said, but call before the end of the day to discuss the results of my annual exam.

The no big deal, turned out to be a slight chance of cancer. Ugh. Not the word you want to hear any day, especially on your birthday. But what surprised me was that the celebratory pity party I had planned was immediately replaced by thoughts of gratitude. Of course, I don’t want cancer, and I hope and pray that the follow-up test I took the next week shows that it’s nothing, but in that moment, and since then, I realized that I had no need to wallow in woe-is-me: I am immensely grateful for my life.

Sure, I’d like things to be different, and, yes, I’m working toward that, but all-in-all, my life is pretty darn good. No winter home along the A1A, or even a condo in Delray Beach, or a partner to make my birthday breakfast, but there are people who I care about and who care about me—and I’m retired! And there is purpose outside of myself.

It occurred to me, too, as I tamp down diagnosis anxiety, that the work I’ve been doing on myself, especially since October 7th, probably has something to do with that. My focus has been more on the spiritual and religious, connecting to the wisdom and stories of Judaism and Jewish people: the long thread of life that has been at the core of my ancestors, and of wanting to be a better version of myself, growing from those traditions and accumulated wisdom.

A friend told me that children view people our age as old. We both laughed at the idea of being considered old in our 60s. But, now, sitting here, I kind of like that. Perhaps that explains where I am on my journey: this desire to focus on the transcendent, on being there for others and learning how to do that best, trying to elevate my soul (that which is essence), to keep being worthy of the trust people have placed in me as a person.

Praying for health and peace and compassion.

Follow-up: I'm thankful to say that the doctor said my test was negative. Breathing sighs of relief.


On Being the Archetypal Other

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When people forget our shared humanity—and Israel becomes a pariah state and Jews are pariahed; and blood libels are once again all the rage; and when binary thinking condemns conversations and peaceful conduct—to whom do we turn for strength?

To the wisdom of the wise.

The following is an excerpt from a lecture that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, gave in 2011, titled, “A People that Dwells Alone.”

“In ancient times, Israel was a small nation surrounded by large empires. In the Middle Ages they were the most conspicuous minority in Christian Europe. Today in the Middle East, Israel is the most conspicuous country that is not Muslim. Jews are the archetypal other, we don’t fit into the dominant paradigm—the dominant faith, the prevailing culture—and that is what we’re there for. To remind ourselves [humanity] that there is such a thing as the dignity of dissent. That’s what we do in life. We challenge. We argue. We stand out against the crowd; we go against the trend. We are apart, but we are not destined to be alone.”

About the Tower of Babel, he noted that everyone was saying the same things. He quoted Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin who explained why the Tower of Babel needed to be destroyed: “If everyone thinks the same thing, there’s no dissent. That is not a free society.”

Rabbi Sacks continued, “We are there to be different, for the sake of everyone’s right to be different. We fight for the right to be, whether as a nation in its historic land or as a religious group in the diaspora, we fight for the right to be free to live as Jews, not just for our sake, but for the sake of every other minority in the world.… Everyone who seeks the right to challenge the prevailing culture or the dominant faith. That is why we are there.”

His words brought me the comfort of history. For a moment. It is discomforting to be in sync with history, and not beyond it—as we had hoped would one day happen. Why must we once again be a scapegoat for yet another angry group? Why must we be forced to stand, isolated to some extent, before the forces of evil that, unfathomably, seem so enticing? Why must our every action be scrutinized, manipulated, and twisted? Why must we always be seen as other, when our otherness is so very ordinary?

A few days later, I listened to the podcast Wondering Jews during their discussion of antisemitism. A key idea presented was that Jews represent whatever it is that the ruling or majority groups hate. So, “For today's anti-imperialists and anti-colonialists, Israel is the quintessence of imperialism, truth be damned.” Once again, Jews are being condemned by the antisemites for being what they don’t want to recognize in themselves.

Then, in an online lecture, the speaker said that the role of Jews is to crush evil.

And I thought to myself, that’s so much to put on one very small group of people. To be condemned for being different and to defend everyone’s right to be different. To be hated and to fight against hate for all. To be derided for something that they’re not, while the deriders feel stingily better about themselves as they try to oppress the other. To be accused of crimes that are done to us. To be the bulwark against the spread of evil that others think is still wise to appease.

Who are the Jews that so many other groups depend on them in such twisted ways?

It’s not as if we are born with super-human strength or intelligence or courage or wealth or any number of advantageous advantages.

We are a people held together by religion, faith, traditions, education, and values. We are also a people held together by our love, and their hateful actions.

Going back to what Rabbi Lord Sacks said about Jews being the archetypal other. It is ironic that in this era when we’re supposedly all about accepting everyone for who they are and what they believe, vile antisemitism is rampant.

While my voice is barely heard, it is still another voice calling out, standing up—dissenting. Proclaiming, too, that I am proud to be a Jew, as different and alone as we may be. I am also proud of those people (friends!) who are not blinded by the cacophony of twisted logic.

This battle is not new. It is as old as the Bible. A while ago, I told younger daughter that I didn’t want to study Torah, that I wanted to learn from new stories that I could relate to. Now, I see how wrong I was. Those stories, and the analyses of them that have been a part of our ongoing oral and written tradition, are the basis for understanding our world today. I see now that learning from history is understanding how a people reacted to unfolding events, over and over again, and what fortified them. This now gives me strength.


A New Life Balance: Being Jewish after October 7th

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Since October 7th, my heart and mind changed. Technically, my life hasn’t changed, but that just goes to show that life is not determined only by the actions one takes in a day. How can it not have changed when the mental and emotional landscapes that enable me to thrive have been altered, and when the world around which my thoughts often revolve has been so dramatically devastated. This is the reality of a Jew in the diaspora.

I speak often with a friend who has lived in Israel for a long time. She gives me her perspective on how life has changed there and I give her mine about how the relative ease of being a Jew in the US has changed. Even if I haven’t been directly impacted—what does “directly” even mean when you see people screaming for the killing of you, your relatives, and your people?—reading about and watching what is happening in far too many places, and realizing what is happening—and could happen—has a cumulative effect.

When I go to Israel in April, I will get a better understanding of how reality has changed for Israelis, and, I expect, I will be changed even more.

But this is not to say that this has weakened me, this hate from those murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and incinerators of lives, and their vile supporters who, unfathomably, support them and their acts by their actions and inactions, their spoken and unspoken words. No. As Israelis have come together to fight the genocidal intentions of its enemies, we, no, I am reordering my be-ing with anger, fear, and disgust, but more significantly with pride and determination, re-establishing my mindset. Who are they to, once again, determine the future for me and my people. Not only is Never Again a rallying cry, so is Enough Already!

The other day I heard a psychologist say that there is no basis to the idea of generational trauma. I don’t know, to me it seems that this is another layer being added to our stack of Jewish experiences that joins us—forging generational strength, resilience, and determination—and through the trauma that is passed down in stories, creating the ways we participate in the world.

Ahad Ha’am (a Hebrew essayist and thinker, 1856–1927) said: “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Another part of that keeping seems to be antisemitism, since it keeps pushing us together, forcing us to focus on the Jewish part of our identity foremost, since that is all we are to others. But not as self-hating Jews who may refute their identity, but as proud matzoh-holders who refuse to see themselves through their haters’ eyes.

We had – thought / hoped / prayed / worked toward / educated about / committed to / built toward – a world in which there would be no more violence against us because we are Jews.

But we were wrong.

Once again there are actions against us and the world looks away, or, worse, stands by, tacitly supporting: not having the compassion to care and the clarity to condemn. It has been a harsh awakening.

Now I understand my ex-father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor who moved to Israel right after the war, who didn’t trust anyone outside of the family and especially not outside of the Jewish Israeli family. I get it. I wish I didn’t.

Living here in the States, the shock of seeing the physical attacks on October 7th, their vileness and then the depravity of how the hostages have been treated and ignored, downplayed and blamed, has been tough. 

Add to that the trauma of seeing how we are not seen and that our pain is minimized at the very same moment that we are held accountable for anything bad that happens, seemingly anywhere.

Clearly, antisemitism is evidence of the world’s insanity. It should be their problem, this irrational, evil nonsense, and theirs to deal with. It is their addiction. Their warped way of making them feel, somehow, that they are better than they are, more than they are, and that we are less than we are.

While we would like to not have to deal with their problems, we must. What addictive need do we answer? The need to hate, the need to be better than, the need to not look inside, the need to not deal with their own lives, the need to ignore the consequences of what has come before and what they have or have not done?

This latest attack in the stack has forced us to recognize that this generation is not, alas, different from previous ones: we have not escaped unscathed the deadly impact of antisemitism. Terrorists, we see you. Another selfish, rampaging horde that shows its dark side more than it says anything about Jews.

And we (even if forced to cower in fear) are standing within our identity. We will not succumb to the perversity of the situation or of grotesque accusations. We will continue to be who we are destined to be. Light and love and compassion will not be defeated. As so many of us are finding ways to be strengthened within our Jewish identity, so are we hoping, still!, that we are not alone. Not just because it’s hard to be abandoned, but because we know that we shouldn’t be—that the world can’t be that dark and bitter and hypocritical. And if it is, it bodes ill for all of us—and we must push against that, together.


Contemplating Purpose and the Man-in-the-Sky

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The interconnectedness of life in an Oregon forest

Before writing silently for 60 minutes, the participants in my Shut Up and Write! group talk about what they’re planning to write. This week, I explained that as my part in pushing against the rise of antisemitism and anti-Zionism—in addition to my aching howl to FREE THE HOSTAGES and my plea for people to stop being motivated by hate—I plan on sharing a Jewish learning.

It feels right to be Jewish publicly, showing that Judaism is a way of being that encourages the individual to constantly improve the self and the world around you, where empathy and concern for the other are motivating factors and that this religion, philosophy, culture, people—this way of being that has been around for over 3,000 years—is not something to chant against or accuse of horrors.

I was drawn back to a quote I heard in the Mussar class that I’m taking. (Mussar is a virtues-based approach to Jewish ethics and character development.) This quote by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, from To Heal a Fractured World, focused my pre-writing musings.

“Each of us is here for a purpose. Discerning that purpose takes time and honesty, knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of the world, but it is there to be discovered. Each of us has a unique constellation of gifts, an unreplicated radius of influence, and within that radius, be it as small as a family or as large as a state, we can be a transformative presence. Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be. Even the smallest good deed can change someone’s life.” 

Not only does this conceptualize the idea that we’re always where we need to be, but it helps me perceive each moment—each circumstance—as an opportunity for growth, to be more fully me. The idea that we must continually work on ourselves, combined with understanding that we are always at our appointed place, means that there is never an excuse to not try to be my best or even to find fulfillment in the simplest of moments. This moment—each moment—is not a mistake: it is a stepping-stone within a life.

Contemplating that quote, I keep returning to, we are “where God wants us to be.”

What does that mean? Am I (this human, this spark), on my own, or is there a current upon which our lives—each of our lives—flows? Is this the concept of God that can help me understand the idea of God that has been so elusive?

Which reminds me of something else that I read recently. In Jewish with Feeling, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, says, “Think of God not as the subject of your sentence, who is or is not this or that, but as the is-ing, the very process of being itself.” He went on to talk about not using the word God but to think of how we each are enlivened or en-spirited to live our lives.

As I looked over my highlighting in his book, another idea stood out.

“Nothing we can say about God will survive the rigors of logical analysis. But that shouldn’t get in the way of our search for the presence we have felt in our most spiritually open—or spiritually hungry—moments. If there is a tension between what we know in our minds and what we feel in our hearts, then let’s stay with that tension. If there is a contradiction, let us take it upon ourselves. Only let us press on with our desire to experience the numinous and serve the patterns of the universe in a deeper, more meaningful way.”

And finally, “That part of us that always seeks to awaken even more, I call soul. Judaism speaks of the soul as a spark of God.”

The concept of an eternal, spiritual energy or force, stripped of the anthropomorphic man-in-the-sky imagery, appeals to me—speaks to the essence that is. The something within that wonders about the connections between people—the strings that seem to draw us together in coincidences and circumstances as we go about our lives—prefers to contemplate the “patterns of the universe” rather than that we are disconnected individuals stumbling around. It seems so much more correct, so much more of a way to consider our own purpose because in this case, purpose is not merely survival. It is to be, as Rabbi Sacks said, “a transformative presence.”

To be within the presence, the fertile soil, comforts me and challenges me. I do not want to wither. I want to use the nutrients that I am given to “serve the patterns of the universe in a deeper, more meaningful way.”

With this perception of God, this force, this is-ing, I can cry out for the pain that others experience and believe that there is a gathering of life forces that has an impact, has meaning. And to that I say, amen.


"The Future Is Feminine": Insights from a Lecture

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Recently, I attended an online lecture by a Chassidic rabbi titled, “The Future Is Feminine.” I’m not sure what I expected, but nowadays I want to hear thoughts that haven’t been floating around in my mind for years. I’m also in a religious and spiritual seeker mind-frame where my focus is on learning from the accumulated wisdom of the sages of my Jewish heritage. October 7th propelled me faster down a path that I was already meandering along. A motivating thought: Why should I accept your concepts if they end up leading to—and even encouraging—the dismissal, death, and destruction of my people?

What surprised me, when I listened to the rabbi and heard the direction he took, was that I remained attentive to ideas that, until recently, I would have been aghast at and probably mocked. Now, I’m willing to listen. It seems that when concepts that had seemed valid turn out to twist and distort reality, casting good as evil and evil as good, that becomes the time to be open to hearing other ideas.

As I explained the main points to younger daughter’s boyfriend later that day, he summed it up succinctly, “Oh, it’s about women staying home.” It horrified me to think that I had listened to and found worthwhile thoughts in that vein. But rather than rip up my notes and turn my back on the rabbi’s ideas, I decided to read through them and think about whether there may be something to what he said, while still firmly in my feminist perspective.

While the ideas he presented are simplistic and stereotyping, I still found them thought-provoking.

Women

  • Women are motivated by how good the good is. Things can be so good, why not make them better. For women, achievements come from their identity, and contentment is their natural condition.
  • Women are motivated to do something good, which leads to their doing more good deeds; for example, keep Shabbat, then start to eat kosher food.

Men

  • Men are motivated to eliminate the bad. I must do something to get rid of the bad. They are anxious, then they become active to complete a task, upon completion there is a moment of contentment, then they return to anxiety, to begin the cycle again. Men identify with their achievements. They are motivated by anxiety, to make a change or to fix something, which is their natural condition.
  • Men are motivated to stop doing something negative, which leads to doing something positive; for example: stop eating non-kosher food, then keep Shabbat.

The Desired Direction

  • We all need to be more like women. Rather than focus on not sinning (the masculine approach), we need to focus on doing more mitzvahs/good deeds (the feminine approach).

I’m not necessarily thinking about what he said from the male/female dichotomy, though it may have some validity, though certainly not on a universal scale. Instead, I’m thinking about these two ways of moving through the world. It does seem more peaceful to go from the perspective that things need to be improved and to work at that, rather than that things need to be broken and then rebuilt. Not only is the latter way destructive, it’s also arrogant. It’s as if all the contributions of those before you are valueless and only yours are of worth. Each time re-creating, rather than growing a creation and maintaining its fruition.

The wars that were and those that are, could they have been prevented if the world had been more feminine, or acting from a place of improvement rather than destruction?

Since October 7th, my thoughts keep returning to this moment: Israeli hostages still held in terror tunnels, Israel living through the drain and devastation of war; the reignition of the nasty flame of antisemitism; Gazans suffering from the impact of Islamic terrorism and, ironically, antisemitism; and supposedly caring people failing to see the humanity and worth of every human.

And I think about how the rabbi’s ideas could help me think forward, to a way out of the gloom. The rabbi may have been talking about men and women in personal relationships, but that is not where I take them.

These days I see women baking challah, reading psalms, writing, speaking, informing, and organizing as their way of prayer to the Eternal Spirit to protect their loved ones, to return the hostages, to protect the soldiers, to stop the deaths and harm to all civilians—to bring about lasting peace. And I think, too, of the people I know who remain devoted to bringing together Jews and Arabs—people are people—because they cannot abandon the idea that Things can be so good, why not make them better, because they want to make that the way forward rather than I must do something to get rid of the (perceived) bad.

Perhaps the way forward, using the rabbi’s insights, is for me—for each of us—to commit to improving the world—focusing on that which is good: using and sharing our sparks within as best we can so that there is more light, and not a diminishing. Perhaps each of us—man and woman—needs to see what we can contribute to making the world a better place and not letting others, or even ourselves, rip apart the good with the bad.


Traveler’s Prayer: Looking for Comfort along the Way

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Before going to the airport to fly from Southern Florida to Oregon, I removed my car fob from my key chain. I wanted to keep with me the key chain with the hamsa (a symbol thought to thwart the Evil Eye) that has on it the Jewish Traveler’s prayer in Hebrew. I never did that before, but it felt important to have it with me.  

A few hours into waiting at the airport for my connecting flight, it was cancelled due to the weather and icy conditions at the destination airport. Rather than wait a couple of days until flights resumed and I could get a seat, I decided to take the bus—which was leaving in 40 minutes. As I was trying to find the bus stop (which, not surprisingly, is hard to find in an airport), my daughter’s anxiety (I wonder where she gets that from) about the road conditions was tempered by her boyfriend’s confidence that I-5 would be clear.

Since it was still only early afternoon and I didn’t want to sit around waiting in a hotel room for days, I got on the bus. The ride was supposed to take seven-hours instead of an hour’s flight.

The ride from Seattle to Portland was relaxing, since there was no evidence of snow or ice most of the way. I enjoyed being a passenger looking out the window watching the world go by instead of focusing on the road and the aggressive drivers down in Florida. I could see the view that we miss when we fly: the dusky shapes of hulking mountains and the dark green of a northern forest were a nice change from the flatness of the land and the bright greens of Florida’s greenery where palm trees are the only natural thing with height. Not that I’m complaining about living in the tropics, I just felt myself transition to appreciating the experience of being a detached passenger on a dimly lit bus and not a stressed, stranded traveler in the charged energy of an airport when delays abound. 

It was dark when we departed cold, snowy Portland, where we had to wait outside in the cold for our connecting bus. No one sat next to me, so I remained in my little mental bubble. As we pulled out and onto the snowy streets, I remembered my key chain and took it out. I tried to read the traveler’s prayer, but the lettering was too small and I wasn’t familiar with the Hebrew. I used my phone to read an English version of the prayer (see below). I read it over a few times, wanting to get a sense of what it said, the dangers that a traveler might expect, and what a traveler could ask of G-d as they embarked on a journey. I tried to absorb the prayer as a whole, and not necessarily think about the individual words.

A friend told me that she always recites this prayer before she goes on a trip, and raised her daughter to do the same thing.

I had never read it before. But it seemed right to think about G-d, or appeal to G-d, or consider other Jewish travelers (now and in the past) and what they needed to feel safe, or at least not completely alone on their journeys. And I wonder now, as I think about that moment of speaking and appealing to G-d, of wanting to connect to that spirit to protect me and look out for me—what will it take for a Jew of this generation to ever feel safe again on this journey. Is it possible? Is it something to desire?

When we arrived at my destination, I thanked the bus driver for his cautious driving and tightly hugged (and got tightly hugged back by) younger daughter and her boyfriend.

The next day, I ventured out to start discovering my new neighborhood, where I’ll live for a couple of months. It was icy and neither the streets nor the sidewalks were cleared. Not far along on my walk, I slipped and fell on my right arm. I took baby steps to make it back without falling again. It took 15 minutes to walk a square block (about 1,000 feet). Gratefully, nothing broke and it took a couple of days for my arm to be almost back to normal.

As I was recovering, I was thinking of the pain that injured Israeli soldiers are experiencing, and the pain that the recovered hostages are experiencing, and the pain that everyone impacted by the massacre on October 7 is experiencing, and, of course, the unimaginable pain of the hostages. I thought about how much my arm hurt just from falling on it, compared to what Hersh Goldberg-Polin might be experiencing after having his arm blown off.

This is not a time, I realize, to be alone in one’s thoughts—there is only how to use one’s thoughts and experiences to try, in whatever way possible—to connect with and help Israelis and Jews. This is a time to support each other in our pain and our (eventual) healing.

I wonder, as I’m trying to drop my skepticism and doubt, what impact all those prayers to G-d have. As I told my daughter the other day about a prayer session that I attend, “It can’t be a bad thing to send out positive thoughts into the atmosphere.”

The other day, this line in Psalm 54 stood out: “Behold, G-d is my helper; G-d is with those who support my soul.” It’s a line to linger with, to think about what it means to support my soul and to consider, too, that it is not just a job for myself.

How do our recitations and prayers and thoughts connect and build? How do they help us protect ourselves and each other? How are they heeded and what does it mean for a prayer to be manifested?

As a secular woman who has always seen my identity as a Jew as important, I think that perhaps I have missed the essence. I’m not sure where I’m going, but saying a prayer for a safe journey, and praying for the safety of those battling for Israel’s safety, and those traumatized by hate and terrorism, feels like the right direction. And knowing that there are others who are doing the same thing brings me the comfort of knowing that I am not alone.

May it be Your will, G‑d, our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that You should lead us in peace and direct our steps in peace, and guide us in peace, and support us in peace, and cause us to reach our destination in life, joy, and peace (If one intends to return immediately, one adds: and return us in peace). Save us from every enemy and ambush, from robbers and wild beasts on the trip, and from all kinds of punishments that rage and come to the world. May You confer blessing upon the work of our hands and grant me grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us, and bestow upon us abundant kindness and hearken to the voice of our prayer, for You hear the prayers of all. Blessed are You G‑d, who hearkens to prayer. (link)


Being Jewish at this Moment: I Am Angry, Disappointed, Sad / Determined, Inspired, Intertwined

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Walking out of the supermarket the other day, I was a few steps behind a woman with a baby carrier, her hair was up, making her back-of-the-neck tattoo visible. It said, שלום. I smiled. A simple moment of connection in that word, shalom—hello/goodbye/peace—especially seeing it in Hebrew, especially now.

As I passed her, I turned and said, “I like your neck tattoo.” She smiled back and said, “Thank you.”

Amid chants calling for death to Jews, either through slogans or increasingly blunt chants, and the grotesque ignoring/diminishing/discounting of Israeli women’s (and men’s, it now appears) horrific experiences of sexual assault and rape on October 7th, and the harrowing stories from the released hostages, and the increasing fears for the remaining hostages, and the stories of Jewish college students fearing for their lives on once seemingly pastoral campuses, and the vandalism and protests outside of Jewish institutions and Jewish-owned businesses, and disruptions of celebrations, and blocking highways and bridges, and the “context” that morally bankrupt college presidents (and their supporters and advisors) need to condemn genocidal antisemitism—and and and—this long list of pain and suffering—just let us Israelis and Jews live in peace!—this woman made me happy to see how easily she expressed herself and her existence.

It was a relief. Like when I see someone wearing their Jewish star or Chai necklace (חי, which means “life” in Hebrew). I look at them and smile, often with a nod of mutual recognition.

To spread those nods, I wear a new Jewish star necklace. This symbol, also referred to as a Star or Shield of David for the biblical king who ruled in Judea—Israel—from approximately 1010-970 BCE (more than 3,000 years ago!) represents Jews and Judaism. It was important to me to buy mine from an Israeli artisan: supporting my people in two ways.

When I took my mother to a doctor’s appointment the other day, a woman in a Muslim head scarf signed us in. I could see her looking at my necklace. There was no nod of recognition, but I felt an acknowledgment. Here we are, both proudly showing who we are, in this country where we are both minorities (against the backdrop of a big Christmas tree in the lobby and a small Hanukkah menorah), and especially since we are often portrayed as enemies or expected to be enemies. But we are not enemies. My abiding fear is that the extremes—the terrorists and their growing numbers of ghastly supporters who have become so visible and verbal—will continue to get to define how we see each other and how the world sees us. It does not have to be this way.

The pit in my stomach since October 7th is a real, constant presence even, here, in southern Florida. It is hard to remain calm amidst so much hatred—hatred with fancy explanations.

How does it feel to be obsessed with an entire group of people? How does it feel to hate people you don’t know? How does it feel to think that raping, beheading, and burning people alive is a form of liberation? How does it feel to believe that death is better than life? How does it feel to be proud of hurting and terrorizing people? How does it feel to know that there is so much blackness within you?

If this is a test for humanity, so many are failing. And it doesn’t matter the psychological explanations, the religious reasonings, or the philosophical underpinnings: to be ruled by hate is a dark existence. It is not one conducive to inquiry, discovery, creativity, conviviality, and inspiration, or even the basics: happiness and love.

Rather than seeing that there can be light and striving toward it, they are/there are insatiable black voids of hate.

I would like to pity those who refuse to emerge from their internal tunnels, but I am too angry, disappointed, distressed. Too many people believe blanket assertions of evil about Jews. The absurdity makes me laugh, a bitter laugh for the twisted state of the world.

I am too saddened by more reports of deaths. Of deaths because the people were Jewish, or protecting those who live in Israel. If prayers—heartfelt thoughts that go out into the ether, perhaps creating a stir, like butterfly wings—have an impact (how do we continue to believe this after centuries of this cycle of pain and hatred?) I want to use mine to find light, I do not want to be dimmed. Oh, how I want to believe that our continued existence, our strength, our commitment, our beliefs have been/are for good.

In my prayer class today, when one woman tearfully said how dismayed she is about the latest devastating news out of Israel, others told her not to give in to despair, to not let others break her.

I don’t know. I get not despairing because it removes hope, but not being broken? Perhaps the innate drive to repair one’s broken soul and spirit forges something stronger.  

But what purpose is the dead-end darkness of hate?  


Jewish Women Are Lionesses, Not Material for Mockery and Easy Jokes

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Jewish mothers are rising and we are lionesses!

We’re done being mocked for loving our families too fiercely. There can be no “too” much love, as there can never be enough kugel or rugelach (two tasty signs of that love).

Jewish mothers have often been portrayed in movies and TV as meddling, overprotective, domineering, aggressive, pushy, and even a tad bitchy in support of their brood. Is that bad? This is how we do generational trauma!

And now we see the reason for having developed those behaviors playing out right before our eyes. We see the devastated mothers of kidnapped Israelis battling the world to get their children back. We see mothers whose children were killed in a modern-day pogrom and mothers whose children, Israeli soldiers, died as they fought for our survival, bereft, grief-stricken, but still rising with an untamable fierceness to find their children, to protect the memory of their children, to roar in pain.

Does it still seem like a burden that a mother would want to know where her children are and when they’ll be home? Just one, two, three generations ago, it wasn’t a stretch for her to wait with real trepidation and supreme relief to hear from them, to see them, to pamper them.

Is it funny that Jewish mothers seemed to smother their children with constant concern when we are now presented, in the supposedly safe USA, with the reason behind the behavior: vile antisemitism?

It’s clear now why Jewish mothers always need to know where their children are and who they’re with. Today, their children are on campuses where students and professors mass together to call them murderers and chant slogans for the destruction of their people, and where administrators are dangerously silent—where exactly is the line between overbearing and sensibly protecting their children?

It’s clear now that this protective stance may be one of the reasons why Jews have survived through so much destruction and turmoil over the centuries.

Look at those Jewish lionesses whose sons and daughters have been abducted. They are not settling for letting men in high places figure things out quietly or standing behind any man. Nope. Centuries of institutional oppression, wherever we have lived, taught Jewish mothers to be the strength and the backbone of the family. But now, finally, they don’t have to do that quietly, salvaging what is left of a destroyed family—no, they’re demanding to be seen and heard. Let’s heed the cries of these modern versions of our Biblical mothers. They are a force to be reckoned with. And their voices sear our hearts.

I’m in awe of Jewish mothers in Israel. One woman I know has two sons serving in the military, and still she goes out and volunteers, determined to do more to support other people who are suffering. Another mother, with two daughters in the military, provides succor to those with whom she interacts, even as she herself is consumed with worry.

Thinking back to Jewish mothers who sacrificed in ways big and small (which is it when she gives an extra matzoh ball to her children, but only takes a single lumpy one for herself?), nagging them to keep studying so that they can get into the finest schools in the land and have professions that they could take with them wherever they may be forced to live. Now, somehow, they need to protect their children on campuses rife with antisemitism and hate, reminiscent of the baying crowds of the pogroms that drove so many of our ancestors from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

How can it be funny that a Jewish mother sees her children as little princes and princesses? Why not smother your children with things when just a generation ago all was taken and destroyed: all that your family had managed to amass from the previous pogrom or expulsion. I finally understand that being raised as a Jewish American Princess was aspirational and not something by which to be embarrassed.

We Jewish women need to channel our inner lionesses, demanding that all Jewish lives and what happens to them matter.

I recently joined a daily women’s prayer group where we recite tehilim (psalms), as an act of calling to God. I’m not really sure why. But part of me feels that through it I’m establishing a connection with Jewish women in the past for whom prayer was an integral part of their lives, their expression of faith, of that which is within and which they could control. I’m also connecting with other Jewish women in that zoom room who are earnestly praying for safety, victory, and peace. It’s not that I believe in the power of prayer, but I realized who am I to not believe in it. Why not do something that I don’t understand, something through which I send out my voice and my heart.

Once I would have mocked them—me—but now I see nothing to mock in hoping that there is a force that binds the world and that, perhaps, the positive energy that we create can somehow be for the good. We are quiet lionesses. We each need to find a way to express our pain and our hope—to not give in to the drag of fear and anger, but to let our pain lead, somehow, to something better.

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October 7 Broke My Heart: Sharing My Words and Feelings at this Devastating Time

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Cafe life in Tel Aviv in better times

Last week was my younger daughter’s birthday. She turned 28. She and her boyfriend went to a restaurant near their home for dinner, then to a bakery for birthday cake to complete their celebratory evening. Last weekend they went to a concert and this weekend they plan to go hiking.

If we hadn’t left Israel, the place where she was born, years ago, the reality of her birthday would be much different. Would she have gone to the nature party where so many young Israelis were killed, abducted, shot at from the air, and wounded by grenades in shelters? Would she and her boyfriend have been called to reserve duty? Would she need to huddle in the safe room or stairwell of the building where she lives when sirens go off, or along a barrier on the highway when she and her sister went together to or from a funeral or shiva call? Would my daughters be organizing supplies for people who have been displaced from their homes because of the constant intermittent bombing of Israeli towns and cities? Would they know that I, their mother, had moved to Israel from America for a better life for them as Jews, which I still believe to be true, which is a damning statement to the world.

It boggles and doesn’t boggle my mind: the hatred, the victim blaming, the anti-Zionism—the antisemitism. For years—up to now—I wondered intellectually about the reasons behind antisemitism. But I think I will stop doing that now. Does it matter why people think it’s okay to kidnap Israeli children, rape Israeli women, murder Israeli men, and harm Israeli elders? Does it matter why people gleefully support the kidnapping, raping, murdering, and harming of Jews? They do. And others don’t speak up against it. That’s enough to know.

Kind of like with the bombing of the hospital parking lot in Gaza. If you don’t care that terrorists did it, if you don’t even stop to ask, “Are you sure?” about who did it or the number of people killed, then why should I let you agonize my brain?

My blanket understanding after doing so much reading over the years, including for a Master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, is that there is evil in the world and there is the pull of the ego for power and control over others. There are people consumed by envy and low self-esteem, and fear that they will be harmed by bullies, so they bully first. There are people for whom Jews are scapegoats, blaming them for all their own failures and disappointments. It’s so easy to live in the crowd, without an independent thought, without the moral fiber to ask “Is this right?”

And there are those who have been taught to hate. What chance does a child have to know right from wrong when the adults in their life—at home, at school, in the mosque—encourage them to hate and kill—that Jews are not worthy of life? These brainwashed, life-deprived people cannot abide that people—Jews—show that, no, your way is not the only way. We do things a little differently, but can’t you see that it’s all the same: we all have the same basic needs? OK. You say a prayer in Arabic and we say one in Hebrew. So? What’s the problem?

Apparently, you can’t forgive us that we decided that the way we had been doing things for centuries before your religion even started is just fine for us, but you, go ahead, find your own path. (And this same sentiment and analysis fits with Christians; and, oh, how I wish that after 2,000 years they have finally come to accept us as we are.) How does our dedication (and stubbornness) harm you and your belief system? Does everyone have to be the same or kill anyone who isn’t? Are we at a modern Inquisition where conformity is king. Is this the philosophy that liberals, who supposedly believe in free speech and human rights and individual rights, have adopted, thus completely relinquishing their morals?

On this topic, the spread of antisemitism, there are enough thoughtful people, who I have been reading over the years and intensely so over the past two, heart-wrenching, aching weeks (two weeks that feel like a lifetime)—at this holy work of calling out the, oh, so basic, truth that Jews are people too. 

Since that black Saturday, October 7, these people have had to explain things over and over and over again, hoping to dismantle the little house of hate cards that some have built in their brains, and to prevent others from creating their own.

There have been so many words, but there have also been those horrific images.

As I feel committed to listening to people’s stories, so, too, did I feel that I need to see what happened—what was done to people because because because—there can be no reason for such brutality. It is not a crime to be Jewish.

But following through has been hard. Not hard to understand that people can be brutal savages. Hard to witness a human body—created in God’s image—to have suffered so much. Hard to grasp the pain those people experienced. Hard to know that people think it was—is—okay to cause so much pain because they’re Israelis.

No. I don’t want to think about those savages any more.

I want to think about the victims, alive and dead. I want to think about the people who may still die protecting Israel or simply living in Israel—who are not all Jews. And, yes, I also want to think about the civilians in Gaza who may still die because their leaders don’t care about them.

Since the massacre on October 7, I have been to a prayer service, a Solidarity with Israel rally, and an information session about the work that Magen David Adom does in Israel (it’s Israel’s Red Cross, but without the cross). At each meeting, the phrase Am Yisrael Chai (the People of Israel Live) was chanted at the end, signaling that while we had gathered to mourn and cry at the horrific massacre of Jews in Israel, we also reaffirmed our faith and our connection to each other.

We Jews are a people with a religion and a culture with approximately 4,000 years of continuous history in our homeland, Israel (c.1700 BCE, the Biblical patriarchs of the Jewish people settle in the Land of Israel). Some of us like to refer to ourselves as a tribe. After all, there are only 15 million of us (finally back at our pre-Holocaust population). While this deep familial connection between us may have been hard to see recently with the divisions that the government seemed to be sowing, we are standing side-by-side at this moment of attack and survival and commitment.

I’m not sure why Jews need to keep proving that they are worthy of being treated just like everyone else. Oops. I caught myself: I’m not going to think about antisemitism. I’m going to think about Am Yisrael and Jewish pride.

If part of our assignment as Jews has been to be a light unto the nations, then even now, our unity and support of each other, in Israel and in the Diaspora, show that our spirit, the thing that makes us human, the motivation to care about others, the force that keeps us Jewish regardless of religious observance, is mighty within each of us. Strong even as we suffer watching the parents of kidnapped children plead for help, for their immediate rescue and release. Strong even as we absorb the pain of parents, whose children were murdered, with their otherworldly look because they now inhabit a different world.

I ask that you don’t use labels—Jew, Israeli; Muslim, Palestinian—to determine who is deserving of compassion, of life. I ask that you see that terrorists (yes, that is a label) who set out to murder and abduct others do not represent a worthy cause. I ask that you look at yourself to see if you have a light within that could be used for good, rather than supporting evil. 

And, me, I will do what I can from here, in the States, to support Israel and the right of Jews to their homeland, to acceptance, to peace.

One small step that I am committing to at this time when rockets are still landing in Israel, and terrorists are still trying to infiltrate from the south and the north, and when so many people have been displaced from their homes because they don’t have homes any more or they are in harm’s way, and others have been called up to serve in the military, is to buy at least one product made in Israel each time I go to the supermarket.

Am Yisrael Chai!

Wonderful View
Peaceful evening scene in Zichron Yaacov in better times

 


My Latest Post at The Times of Israel

My latest post at The Times of Israel has just been published. Please go there and read, "My Failed Aliyah: Back in the States, But Where Is My Heart?" In this piece I talk about my initial aliyah journey to Israel and how I ended up back in the States for so many years, understanding that a place can have physical and emotional meaning.

And now, while there is so much going on in Israel, it's important for me to think about what it means to me--and clearly to so many Israelis.

 


Being in Israel after 22 Years: A Reaffirming and Inspiring Journey

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New and Old Tel Aviv

When I arrived in Israel in mid-October, I took the train north from the airport outside of Tel Aviv to Binyamina, the stop nearest where I would be staying. In the hour ride, I looked around the crowded train at the people working on their laptops, talking to each other or on their phones, gazing out the window, sleeping—people in the interim stage that is travel. Out the window I saw office buildings, strip malls, industrial areas, greenhouses, farms, neighborhoods of private homes and apartment buildings—and I thought to myself that the antisemites and anti-Zionists who want to destroy Israel don’t seem to grasp—care—that this is a real country, with millions of people living their lives. This is not a political statement; this is life. This is not merely a decision written on a piece of paper or a vote in the UN. This is not a military base. This is home to generations of Jews who are simply living their lives, as they have done since ancient times.

Israel has a robust infrastructure—one that is continually being developed, as evidenced by that train itself which didn’t exist when I flew out in 2000, and the light rail I took in Jerusalem, and the light rail being built in Tel Aviv, which made the traffic there even worse. This is not a temporary spot to move from. This is the place Jews have prayed to return to. This is home.

This should be the place to feel at peace, as when you get home after a long trip. After more than two millennia of being chased out of towns for trying to make a living in the only ways permitted, or being forcibly converted because we’re still waiting for the Messiah, or being burned for praying differently, this settling in should be lauded. Our ancestors were not all killed. They did not all give up. They did not fully concede to the majority religion wherever it was that they lived at that time. Seems to me that perseverance and dedication are behaviors we generally value and admire.

That the people who proclaim that no Jews should live in Israel are accepted astounds me. That the people who want to deny Israel’s right to exist—Israelis right to live in their country—that they want to give one group rights and then deprive those same rights of another group (not just of a homeland, but of life itself)—seems to be the definition of inhumanity and hypocrisy. In the twisted way the world and the mind work, they are seen as being on the side of freedom. Dangerous hypocrisy.

The absurdity in rising antisemitism, the throwing of the Jews—who are just people like all people, trying to live their lives—once again under the scapegoat bus of a world full of people who find it easier to hate and blame than to consider the challenges of someone else’s life situation, challenges my (natural) inclination to believe that people are basically good. This is a stark testament to the fact that this is not a time of enlightenment, as we had hoped. No, it is a time, just like any other, where there are advances and setbacks, a constant struggle. We are not better because we have indoor plumbing and vaccines. People are still people. But why does poor treatment of Jews always have to be a sign?

My month in Israel, with more trips on trains and buses, miles of walking along bustling streets, and people-watching as I sat at cafes, was inspiring. I remembered anew why I had moved there after college and why I had stayed for almost 20 years. To feel an intrinsic bond with the people around you is not something to take lightly. To see jelly donuts in bakeries as a sign that Hannukah is coming (yeah, this celebration of oil!), as opposed to the barrage of Christmas merchandise and programming meant that I didn’t feel excluded, that I belonged. Jewish people feeling safe in their own homeland should be the goal, not something to conspire against. Jewish people feeling safe wherever they live or travel shouldn’t be a goal, but the norm.

I wish that “people are people” wasn’t my sour understanding that people can be horrible to each other, to Jews, as they have been over the centuries. No, I wish I could interpret it to mean that notwithstanding our differences, we focus on the commonalities and that leads to curiosity and acceptance.

A commuter in Israel should not be a terrorist’s objective. It should be what it is, a person going to work or school, supporting their family, sharing ideas, overcoming challenges, helping those who need it. People living lives. Such a basic concept.

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Downtown Tel Aviv




Fate or Meeting a Long-Lost Friend in the Holocaust Museum

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View from the grounds of Yad Vashem (author's pic)

I met my ex-husband waiting for a bus at Haifa’s central station. I was by myself because the person I went into Haifa with wanted to stay and shop, while I wanted to get back to the kibbutz where I was living to start getting ready to fly to England in two days. We briefly chatted while waiting for the bus to Tiberias, then, once the bus came and I sat down, he slowly walked down the aisle and sat next to me. We talked, somehow; I had enough Hebrew and he had enough English to hold a conversation. He visited me the next day and we exchanged addresses. Over the next six months we corresponded and when I made aliya (moved to Israel), we met again, beginning our very romantic romance that didn’t end romantically.

Shortly after my family and I moved to Virginia, knowing no one, I took my daughters to a children’s festival. I was alone with them since my husband, who wouldn’t have wanted to go there and would have suggested something else, had briefly returned to Israel to deal with his green card. After sitting down, I looked behind me to see how full the auditorium was, and, there, a few rows behind us was a friend who I had lost touch with when I went away to college. Our friendship was a foundation upon which my life in Virginia depended.

The latest fateful encounter was a few days ago in Jerusalem. Some people have religious revelations there; I had a supremely human one.

In the midst of the emotional experience that is Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, I saw a friend from New York who I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. I was watching a short video on the experiences of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, a special interest since I’m translating and condensing survivors’ stories from there for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. As I watched, I noticed a woman to my left who was also watching the movie. She seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place her. I stepped back as if to turn away. Then I thought that I can’t walk away just because I couldn’t remember her name.

I turned to her and said, “I know you. I’m Laura.” She looked at me with eyes full of the sadness that weighs on you in that museum. Then they widened into excitement, and said, “I’m G.” And in that moment, we remembered each other. We hugged with all the emotion that bears down on you there, but also from the deep well of disappointment that had been our lives when we had last been in touch, each dealing with our turbulent divorces from our husbands.

How to explain how unexpected this encounter was? Neither of us lives in Jerusalem, or even Israel for that matter. Both of us on vacation, in a large, busy museum with our minds engrossed. It is not a people-watching place. An unexplainable meeting. Fate.

It turns out that she was showing Israel to her second husband and the next week they would visit her daughter (who had been a childhood friend of older daughter’s) who now lives in Tel Aviv. They visited the museum the previous day, but hadn’t finished, so they came back and started where they had gotten up to when the museum closed. I thought that I wouldn’t get in since they said that there were no entry tickets.

Once in, though, if either of us had gone at a different pace or turned to look at something else, there would not have been that moment of recognition.

We hugged and cried, loudly. (I wonder what the people who saw us thought had brought us to that emotional state at that spot.)

We talked for a few minutes, it was hard to stop, but there was still so much more of the museum to experience. We arranged to meet later that day at her hotel, which was a few minutes from mine. As I continued, my thoughts were full of excitement and surprise at our meeting, reconnecting.

Fate? Something brought us together. Made those other chance encounters happen too. Not many over a lifetime, but they had been significant, had brought so much to my life. Those people at those moments. Me at those moments.

What is it that we want from friendships, relationships? To feel heard and be asked to listen. To be encouraged and give support.

I was in Jerusalem for three days and it was fascinating. But I was not moved. I did not experience a connection to God, or the force that is.

I reconnected with a friend.

It makes me wonder if friendships are part of the essence that is. Part of the fiber that connects all living things. The people, who may be briefly in our lives or present for much of it, bring us deeper into ourselves. They accompany us as we—timidly, irreverently, thoughtfully, naively, trustingly—trod our path. Perhaps what connects us—that otherworldly thread—is that we each need something outside of the self to help us fully become ourselves, to experience and appreciate our lives and who we are, in all that is.


Back in Israel: A Tourist in a Place that Had Been Home

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Where we used to live in Tel Aviv

I’m in Israel visiting for a month after not having been here for more than 22 years. Much is different; much is the same. For Israel; for me.

When I left in the summer of 2000, I lived here with my family, my husband and I were about to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary in the dream home we recently purchased, one daughter was going into 4th grade and her sister into kindergarten, and I worked in the high-tech industry. Now, I live in southern Florida with my mother (after leaving Northern Virginia where we moved that summer for what was supposed to be a temporary stay), I’ve been divorced for many years, my daughters have both graduated college, and I retired from teaching (a career I hadn’t even envisioned in 2000). Twenty-two years of living, but always wistfully thinking that I should be in Israel.

This trip represents action—finally back—and a moment to pause before moving forward, unstuck. It’s time to accept, I see now, who I am and where I am. I need to acknowledge that the past is different from what I thought it would be. How many of us are living the lives we had imagined when we were 20?

Looking forward, I need to think about what I need to do so that this moment becomes a stepping stone for what will be, rather than a memorial keeping me stuck contemplating what was not.

From 0 to 20 in New York, 20 to 40 in Israel, 40 to 60 in Virginia. Maybe the moves and the timings were right. There was enough time in each place to adapt and feel at home, as least as much as possible when I live so much in my own (internal and external) space. 

On this trip (because that is what it is), I see that I have always been a woman who spends much of her time wandering around by herself, people-watching, contemplating, being in motion and still at the same moment. I feared encountering this aloneness (one reason why it took so long for me to come back). But that’s okay, I realize; it’s my core.

But I’m not always alone here. I have come to meet people I volunteer with long-distance and to finally see the two institutions I’ve spent hours helping raise funds for, so that they can continue the important work they do in bringing people together, providing an education, showing that equality and mutual respect are not just for other people in other places. I am necessary. I have purpose. I may be a wanderer, but I’m also a giver. That balance maintains me, wherever my home may be.

Israel is busier, more crowded, more built-up, than when I was last here. But still, the characters and the character, the sounds and the Shabbat silence, the foods and the interactions, remind me of why I moved here so many years ago. To be Jewish in Israel is a somber and satisfying fulfillment of identity and history. It is to feel connected from the root.

The Hebrew that took years to learn looks and sounds wonderful: I read signs and advertisements, listen to the news (oh, the news ☹), and I can still eavesdrop (this was my first indication that I had learned enough Hebrew to integrate into society), and ask for help, and hold conversations. To see people dressed like me, the many secular Israelis, and the religious Jews, with their head coverings and clothing styles signaling their belief systems, is comforting. It is to re-immerse into a world that feels so comfortable, even though it has been so long. At home, but not home is still a satisfying to experience.

Being confronted with my past in such a physical way makes me realize that life is not about the choices we make, but how we live from them. My actions and inactions have led me to a fulfilling life, with people who I love and who love me. Not an outcome to regret, but one to celebrate.

Going forward, perhaps I can incorporate more frequent visits here so that my past, my present, and my future blend together.

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My view now in Zichron Ya'acov

In One Month: A Trip to My Past

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Positive thoughts on a morning walk

In a month, I’m going to Israel for a month. I haven’t been there since the summer of 2000 when my family and I moved to Virginia—a temporary move that became permanent. That’s a long time to be away from the place I originally immigrated to assuming that I would live my life there.

When I left, I had a good job in the high-tech industry (it relocated us), a husband who had an excellent job waiting for him at a DC law firm, older daughter was going into 4th grade and her sister was starting kindergarten. We stayed for a few days with my parents in Queens, then we made our move to Northern Virginia.

About a year before we left Israel, after years of house hunting, we moved into our dream home in Ra’anana (a city about 12 miles north of Tel Aviv). It was a huge accomplishment and we were both proud. But I was to learn that getting what you wish for can exist at the same time as creeping unhappiness.

When I left Israel, I thought peace was on its way. I had seen two cars with Jordanian license plates in Tel Aviv, surely, a positive sign. I thought that I was going to have a brief break from the tensions, that Israel was going to finally deal with the internal strife between religious and secular Jews, and that my daughters would have the opportunity to get to know my family better. I was also going to take a break from the Laura I was in Hebrew, almost fluent, but always missing a word or not getting an expression, and anxious about making grammatical mistakes. I missed being the funny, sarcastic Laura I was in English.

When I first moved to Israel, I was 21. I had a life to create and I did. My Israeli life. When we left, I was 39. Since then, my life became another life—almost every aspect unexpected. My second American life. I lost that high-tech job, got a master’s degree that I never really used, divorced my Israeli husband, became and then retired from being a teacher, and my daughters went on their own trajectories on the other side of the country. My father died, my mother moved to Florida, where I now give her emotional, tech, and driving support.

What will it be like to return to a place that I’m told is so different from the one I left? Will I feel at home in this new version? Who will I be there? Who would I have become if I had stayed? I fear going back, being a stranger to my past.

Perhaps I need to embrace then/now/if thinking with the understanding that people and places don’t have to be permanent to be impactful, and that permanence isn’t always what we need. There is always regret, because there are always opportunities not taken and experiences not lived. On the flip side, there were different opportunities experienced. Life is not a blank slate.

Regret exists in not having stayed, but there is also the understanding that if I had stayed and gotten divorced there, things would probably have been very hard for me. I gloss over this, but it is part of the reality that I must acknowledge to loosen the regret and accept that things unfolded the way they were meant to. Accept the trajectory, accept how our lives were created in its wake.

This time when I go, I’m not a young woman seeking adventure or a middle-aged woman still expecting others to direct her life. No. It’s me, seeking to return to the place that is so meaningful—the place that enlivened me and took me out of myself—that started me on my path to being a more compassionate person than if I had stayed in New York.

Now, I’m looking to spend time in the place that has meaning beyond my (a) single life, enhancing my perception of what it means to lead a purposeful, fulfilling life. Perhaps to embrace and absorb and share has always been the point. Perhaps the outsider that I became once I lived in Israel and then returned to the States is how I could fully life my life.

Trepidations for this trip, this journey. It is finally here. This past, this potential. This is me.


On Being Jewish in Virginia on November 16, 2014

Since May and the killing of four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium it seems that everything I’ve read has been about antisemitism somewhere, everywhere, in the world. Except here, but I won’t be surprised if it arrives. Well, that’s not quite true since it did arrive a few years ago in the form of a swastika drawn onto a desk in my classroom as well as the memorable phrase, “F- this Jew.” So, no, I won’t be surprised when it arrives. I will be horrified and dismayed, again.

 

There was also the shocking tableau in school a few years ago of an Asian girl calling her Asian friend a Jew because she bent down to pick up a coin that was on the ground. Why not pick it up?

 

And then there was the one-date guy whose memorable comment about Jews needing to atone for killing Jesus was definitely a here-now comment. Come to think of it, just a couple of weeks ago a friend of a friend, upon hearing about the relationship-ending comment, said, “Well, they did.” Yes, here. Yet, when I told that to younger daughter, she said that a friend’s sister who went to a Catholic high school in this area was taught that it’s not true. So here and not here.

 

But, honestly, reading about antisemitism was so much “nicer” when it was just in my historical reading, and not my newspaper reading.

 

It makes you—me—wonder, what’s wrong with the world that it needs to hate people who didn’t take your guy as their guy? Do we really all have to accept the same truths? And even their guys don’t have the same guys and truths, so, really, what’s a person to do? What have we Jews done except survive (minus those who, horrifically, didn’t survive) the laws and restrictions that were placed in front of us? Could someone please give us the most well-deserved medal for putting up with the tantrums of tyrants and not coming out with hatred on our breath, but still, unbelievably, committed to improving the world (tikkun olam). Still hoping, impressively, that the world would become a moral and ethical place, putting to an end the constant spark-less spark to stab and shoot and run over Jews, and then blame the Jews themselves because they exist(ed).

 

Ugh.

 

It’s so hard to think about this rationally, when there are people who accept as acceptable blank hatred or institutional hatred or taught hatred or systemic hatred. That hatred creates spaces where Jews are not allowed to breathe, never mind utter a sacred word.

 

What is it that perpetuates insanity?

 

Did Adam and Eve leave Eden so that the theory of perpetual hatred could be tested? Could we just say that yes, hate is as ingrained in the human soul as the need for approval, and move on to discover, let’s say, the healing power of a compassionate smile?

 

Or maybe we really do need to put all young men on a few islands, with no social media devices, preventing their wise elders from teaching them to the test of hate, and then we all could continue on our merry way to save the earth from our much too big footsteps.

 

A gloom has seeped into me, relentless in its hold, pushing me to consider what I can do to push back. At the same time, I still need to live life as if my job and my maintenance of self and home are all that matters.

 

That was a few days ago.

 

The last couple of days gave me a moment’s reprieve from the closed circle of hate and despair.

 

A student I had a few years ago came by to tell me how well he’s doing in his current English class, and to thank me for having taught him. That student is Palestinian.

 

And a Muslim student who is from the same area of New York that I am from, and who is covered except for her face, smiled with appreciation when I spoke a few words in Hebrew at the prompting of some of her classmates.

 

That is the cycle as it should be.

 

The eternal shame of humanity is that we are only human when we break bread with one another, for when we are in a group we come into the mass that becomes the mob, and within that momentum we lose the remembrance of ever having a heart that beat for a friend’s pain or our own. That mob mentality can take hold of us even when we are staring out the window in solitude. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe venomous hate supersedes all other emotions in its pull on the heart and mind. Maybe the irrationality of the seemingly ever-present antisemitism is in my trying to understand it as if it is a research question to be answered and, once answered, shelved. But it is not.

 

Perhaps the real shame is that elders abuse their young by teaching hatred so intensely as to stultify generations.

 

Perhaps the shame is that it’s so easy to manipulate people to hate.

 

Perhaps it is thinking that there is a purpose beyond breaking bread.

 

A conundrum.

 

Why are we born with hearts that constantly need to be filled with something?

 

Why do we want to look in the mirror as we walk down the street?

 

As I sit here hour upon hour, with thoughts that feel at times like the prayer of the non-practioner, I go in and out of hot flashes. One moment my sweatshirt is zipped up and the next the heat rises, uncontrolled and intense, and I unzip, and then just as suddenly it leaves, and I zip up again. It is a crazy way to be. I know how I should feel, but that doesn’t mean anything when the hot flash takes over.

 

Is that what it feels like to hate: to have your innards taken over, to lose control of yourself to something beyond yourself? Is there something tempting in the totality of loss and gain in that process that enables people to prefer the heat of self-denial to the preservation of self?

 

At some point in the next few years my hot flashes will end, and I will (hopefully) regain control of my thermostat. What can I say of hate? Let it burn up like the crumbs at the bottom of an oven: the cinder all that is left to represent the harm of hate, and the uselessness of preserving it as if it has a value other than to darken and embitter.  


The Passage of Time

  Part of the oldest house in Old Fairfax

 Part of the oldest house in Old Fairfax, Virginia

On Friday night I went (bearing leeks in lemon sauce) to a Shabbat dinner. There were at least 30 people around the hostess’ very wide and long table. I barely knew anyone when I got there, but I can’t say the same about when I left. (You have to love Meetup for these opportunities.) After the traditional prayers over the candles, the wine, and the challah, prayers were offered for the safekeeping of Israel’s soldiers and the people of Israel.

We were sorrowful and sincere, filled beyond the brim with decades and centuries of the pain of being Jewish. It is oppressive to always feel that history is tracking you down, calling you out for existing. But there was strength, too, in the commitment to finally defeat history.

My mother told me that she went to services at her synagogue on Friday night and the cantor, who was leading the services, offered up prayers for the safety of the people of Israel.

No prayers were said for the Palestinians who have died or those who are suffering and my sorrow/guilt for that rests heavily on me.

After dinner I talked for a little while with an Israeli man who had the distinct misfortune of reminding me of my ex-husband. Not in the way he looked (I wonder if my ex is balding?), but in the attitude: the arrogant explanations that transformed a discussion into a mini-lecture. The thing is, I first heard all of those it’s their fault and they just want our destruction analyses back in 1983 when my ex-husband was explaining Israeli history and policy to me. At a certain point, though, history becomes irrelevant because its repetition nullifies it, and all that matters is this moment and what you do with it—what you want to do with it and what you try to do with it. There are the philosophies that guide societies, but aren’t there, too, the comforts that people seek to create and live within?

Days ago conjoined twins were born and died in Gaza because they couldn’t get proper medical care. Their one heart was not strong enough to beat for two bodies. Are we the same: unable to share our hearts with the people who beat beside us?

This summer I decided that next summer I would go to Israel for a month to volunteer for a project that does intercommunal work. As I looked for groups, I found that there are many organizations and schools working toward understanding and coexistence between Jews and Arabs. I also found that when I told this to people, they were surprised that there was anything beyond the endless cycle of hatred and violence and retaliation and suffering and blaming that we see endlessly in the news.

There is the constant struggle between those unseen voices who just want to be left in peace and to make peace, and those who take up the air in any space and decide how the rest of us will breathe (and if we will breathe).

When I did my conflict studies I learned about outliers and how they ruin the steady pace of life for all of us. Outliers are extremists, those who won’t be placated and who push until their conditions are met, and if that doesn’t happen, they come out swinging. They are the big bullies who should be dealt with by being stripped of their bad boy bully stripes and left with only the nakedness of their desire to be at the center of the show. We need therapists, not diplomats.

Yes, yes, I understand that there is more than that to what is going on, but that pushes me past thoughts I can control. Perhaps facts are fireflies, while people are the solid earth. Can we stop swatting and begin tilling?

The interesting thing about living life past the halfway mark is to realize that things that seem to take forever, end up arriving at some point. At 40, I wondered if I should study for my master’s degree; it would, after all, take forever. But here I am, ten years after I completed it on the slow track. Funny how that happens. Funny, too, isn’t it, to resign to hopelessness when there is nothing as hopeless as being a defeatist.

 

On Saturday morning I went on a walk with another Meetup group. Part of the walk was through Old Town Fairfax. In front of the old courthouse (built in 1799 and used by both sides during the Civil War) is the spot where, during the Civil War, the first Confederate officer was killed (Capt. John Marr) on June 1, 1861. A stone monument in the middle of a well-tended lawn marks the spot. I have driven by that spot for years never knowing that it had ever been anything but a tranquil place.


Music to Face More Reading

Lotus pods

After a day of reading about Gaza, I need a respite in music. This is my attempt at being a DJ.