The Best Watermelon, Ever

Now that it’s hot my mind looks back on the time when I lived in Israel. It’s no surprise that heat does that to me, since it was very hot over there half of the year, while the other half was a fall/spring combo that never required a lining in a raincoat. The one thing that I love about the summer on the East Coast is that there are these marvelous, refreshing rains every once in a while and even if the rains are warm, they’re still a break from the relentless shine of the sun. Israel has a dry season and a rainy season, which correspond to the summer and fall/spring combo. I remember telling a friend on the kibbutz where I was living that I didn’t get why it wasn’t raining in the summer, that we needed a break. He looked at me and explained, as to a child, that not every place in the world has four seasons and not every place in the world has rain in the summer. Oh well, wasn’t I chastised from thinking that I was worldly since I came from New York City but in fact knew so little of other ways and places.

On one standard hot day I was assigned to work in the watermelon field. In the way that people always have something bad to say about everything, I was told that it was going to be horrible, that it would be hot and it would be back-breaking since I would need to be bending down all the time. But in the way that my optimism always outshines reality, I was excited to work at something new. Tempt me with the new, with an adventure, and I will sign up.

Our job (if I remember this correctly, since it was 27 years ago) was to pick the ripe melons and bring them to a truck on the side of the field. The negative-speakers were right, it was hot and it was hard. But that all dissipated when the crew leader told us that it was break time. In my life, I have never had as wonderful a break as this.

He took one of the watermelons, threw it down on a rock which split it in half. Those who had experience with watermelon field break-time knelt down and scooped up a hunk of red, dripping, watermelon with their field-dusted hands. The juice trickled down their arms and their faces. Another watermelon was sacrificed on the rock. My reticence over touching a watermelon with my hand (I was a knife and fork eater) which happened not to be clean was overcome in the “go with the flow” feeling that overcame all teachings from home when tempted enough.

In I went, scooping up my own hunk of melon. And in my teeth sank, more like melted, into the redness that was as ripe as ripe could be before souring into overripe. Surprisingly, the melon was cool, as if the hard shell protected the melon from predators and climate. It tasted red, and it tasted cool, and it tasted like a summer day that had been spent in a marvelously lazy way. It was amazingly crunchy and full of sweetish juice, but not too sweet, as sweet as a kiss before the tongue gets involved. I didn’t taste the dirt on my hands, but I did taste the moisture of experience in the guise of the best watermelon, ever. 

I never worked in the watermelon field again, probably because it was a small field and it didn't take long to pick all of the melons. But that memory, that moment, that taste has become quintessential to me, of me. Am I the melon or the melon-eater? Maybe I am both.

Do you have a moment that you look on as quintessentially you?

Mideast Peace, Northern Virginia Style

A day after Obama made his Mideast speech in Cairo I went to dinner theatre at my daughter’s middle school. The lunch school tables were set up around the cafeteria with white table cloths on them for that special school dinner theatre feel. Since we got there early, my parents and I sat at an empty table. As the room started to fill up one woman and her two young children sat next to me. Then, when it was already quite full, another family joined the table; there was a husband, wife, two older sons and a grandmother with a kerchief tied around her head.

I’m not sure how they got onto this, but it turned out that the woman next to me is Iranian and the husband and his mother on the other side of the table are also Iranian. It seems that people have sensors about people from the old country or maybe they detect a slight vocal inflection, in any case, they immediately identified themselves as homies. The woman sitting next to me saw my daughter and asked if we were Iranian too. No, I said, she’s Israeli. Well, we’re all from the same part of the world, she commented. I didn’t tell her that on all sides of the little Israeli’s family we’re from Eastern or Central Europe because my family is originally (just go back a few centuries and then a few more centuries) from that part of the world.

After the first act the woman next to me and I were served our cheese tortellini because neither of us went for the meat lasagna; she commented on how Muslims and Jews both eschew pork and shellfish. Yes, we both commented again on the similarities and how we’re from the same part of the world.  Which made me think of Mideast peace and how it’s so easy to hate someone or deny someone or ignore someone or harm someone when she is never sitting down to share a child’s play and a meal on paper plates.

Obama and all the other politicians can say what they want about the Middle East, and even pieces of paper can be signed, but until there is sharing of lives around tables, there will never be peace. In conflict studies there is something called negative peace; that’s where the sides don’t fight, but they don’t exactly partake together. Surely the paper signing is a goal and one that seems so far into the future because, honestly, having yet another American president trying to bully everyone to do what he wants is not the path to peace. I remember one day in class (for my master’s in conflict studies) we were bandying around the idea for a project that would involve baking bread and sharing it, how that would bring Jewish and Arab women together for a real peace conference, not the men with their weapons and hot tempers.

Could a kind of shared meal be an indicator? Could all of the interreligious dialogue and work be an indicator? Could a student who is Palestinian and a teacher who is Israeli be an indicator? Could humanity be an indicator? Could the throwing of weight and desire for power and control be a negative indicator? Could an intense desire to protect one’s own above all others be a negative indicator? What will it take for the men who control the delivery of flour, at whatever level, to realize that breaking bread together might be the ultimate goal? What will it take for tears to overpower rage and fear? What will it take for people to realize that we all break, but we don’t have to?

Maybe we all need to go into the desert to wander for forty years to see what is really worthwhile in a life. Maybe the longer we are away from the desert the more we forget about what is essential, about how we need each other to survive, about how we each have different skills that are necessary for survival. Maybe we need to know that an oasis is communal, as are the sands and dust storms. 

And those on the same side who are not on the same side, need to make those same realizations too. A somewhat related metaphor applies: there are as many opinions as there are ways to cook, but there's only one way to eat. What's more important: getting sustenance or how it's flavored?

Israel Story: Hard at Work on the Kibbutz

At the beginning of my time on the kibbutz I was disappointed that I was not put to work in the fields, for some reason after I was stuck with assorted dining room duties (which included a week of “paying my dues” in pots and pans, which required me to clean many, many pots that were bigger than I was) they kept putting me into the children’s houses. I wanted to be a pioneer bringing the soil back to life, taking part in the connection between how Jews lived on the land two and three and four thousand years ago. Granted, there were probably some form of children’s houses way back then, but it didn’t have the same feeling as touching dirt. Besides, it was humiliating to not understand anything the kids said to me. I understand that one of the reasons why I was there was to learn Hebrew, but anytime a five-year-old knows something that you don’t know, your self-esteem is bound to take a beating.

So I was quite excited one morning when a friend and I were selected to work in the orchards. My Parisian friend, Arielle, was not so excited, but I more than made up for her lack of spirit and desire to dirty her hands. We didn’t quite understand the word for orchard in Hebrew, but we assumed that it was orchard using our basic Hebrew skills.

On the morning of our orchard work, we were confused when we were told to go to a building rather than to the tractor gathering site, but we figured that we were going to a different orchard. So there we were in our navy blue field work clothes (she had somehow managed to make hers look chic with a cloth tied around her head ala Lucy in some episode and me, well, I looked ready to sweat) when we got to where we were told to go. We were quite surprised to have the door opened for us by a man in a suit, not only because he was a man in a suit on the kibbutz but because he didn’t seem ready to prune avocado trees.

He eased Arielle’s concerns and annoyed me no end when he told us that archion did not mean orchard, but archives. We had been selected to work in the kibbutz’s archives. Lucky us. It was before Passover and we were the clean and dust team. Seriously, I did not go to Israel to be given a dust rag. For some reason he was pleased with us and had us back for a week of non-stop pulling books out and dusting off shelves. I don’t think that we even got much in the way of reminisces from him, so intent was he on getting as much work as possible out of us. Yes, that vaunted kibbutz work ethic, where did I put mine?

But someone must have felt bad for me (could it be because I kept saying I want to work in the fields?) because not too long after that I got to work in the cotton fields for a few days. For me, one morning in the cotton fields turned out to contain the one moment of my life that was truly perfect. It might be sad that I can only identify one moment that was so pure and beautiful and holistic, but it is enough for me. Enough for me to know that on a mountaintop in Israel, just moments after the sun rose, I stood up from my task, looked around and was touched in my deepest being by beauty and purity, and I knew it.

Before and after that moment I was walking across the barren field that would be a cotton field laying tubing that would bring water to the plants that were to thrive there. Since it was already hot during the day, we got to the field long before sunrise so that we wouldn’t have to work in the heat of the day. I was told how to lay the tubing and how to insert the little drippers into the tubing (so no water is wasted, it only goes right to where the plant will grow) and was given my section of the field to work in.

Since it was dark when we got there I didn’t realize that we were on top of a mountain (some might call it a large hill, but for Israel this counted as mountain). I had gotten into a rhythm and was fully focused on my work when I felt the darkness end and the light begin. I stopped, and looked out at the horizon and the contours of the land stretched all around me and the sky, and I had my moment of perfection. There was no one with me. I was not creating anything, I was not talking, I was not thinking. I was being one with that I was a part of. One with that I am part of.


Israel Story: Making Aliya (Moving to Israel)

A few weeks after I graduated from college at twenty, unable to think of what I wanted to do with my English degree and my desire to write but not actually doing any writing, and unable to wear one of those padded suits and string ties that were de rigor for professional women in those days, I took off for my version of a Grand Tour. I lived on a kibbutz in Israel for six months and then travelled in England, Scotland and Ireland for a month before returning to New York.

It was in a college dorm in London where the shape of my life was to find form. As I took a bottle of juice out of the sink which I had transformed into a refrigerator by filling it with cold water, the following thought bubble entered my head: “If I am not going to live near my family [I always knew I would live someplace other than where I grew up], then I am going to live someplace where my living there gives meaning to my life.” And with that my decision to move to Israel came into being.

What’s especially interesting is that my being the dunce in Hebrew classes when I was growing up did not sway me from this decision. For years of twice-a-week Hebrew school classes I was able to retain the ability to read five letters and two words: abba, father, and beit, house. I had friends who aced the aleph-bet, and who had gone on trips to Israel in a kind of perhaps-preparation for moving there if they so desired and if their parents so desired for them, but me, no preparation.

The only reason why I even went on the six-month trip there was because I was too scared and nervous to go to Europe on my own, and this would give me six months without worrying about where to sleep and where to go. I figured that I would find someone to travel with on the kibbutz, or, if I was lucky, someone from Australia with whom I could live back in Australia. (Every since I saw the movie Walkabout I thought that Australia would become my home territory.)

So there I was, at 21 deciding to become a citizen of a country I barely knew and where I didn’t know anybody beyond the acquaintance level. But I did know that I was pushing my life past the “me” expectations that were bogging me down. I was afraid of losing myself in a life devoted to acquisitions and days filled with inconsequential actions and thoughts, I yearned for meaning. Unable to figure out how to create the meaning myself, I did the next best thing and boarded a plane. I found meaning in every word uttered in an ancient language that created a bond going back millennia and in every path traversed that had been the site of defeats and celebrations still remembered. I created myself in a place that comforted me as much as it distressed me.

Growing up in New York City was wonderful, but the experience of living in Israel was different. It really did force me out of myself and my interests (which New York certainly doesn’t do, if anything, it forces you deeper into yourself), and made me see life as a community activity, or rather life as requiring community.
Maybe this is what people experience when they move to their family’s “old country.” They become aware of a duality: self and continuity. This is surely what I needed, and once again long for. But now, now that I am back in the states I don’t expect to act on my wanderlust again, I need to find a way to bring that feeling into my life—and my daughters’.

It’s not just in the foods or the holidays; it’s in a sense of self that is unmasked. Maybe that’s it, being clear that who you are is not just you, it is you as the latest version of those who have come before and who have unwittingly participated in forming you. It is seeing the self as a variation, not a unique model, that brings comfort and the ability to truly create, or to create truly.

Gaza and the Manassas (Battle of Bull Run) National Battlefield Park

The other day I walked around the Manassas National Battlefield Park with a friend. As in, I took a leisurely stroll on a cold, cloudless day through what had been a Civil War battlefield; “today, more than 5,000 acres comprise the battlefield park, allowing the visitor to explore the historic terrain where men fought and died for their beliefs a century ago.” We walked around some of those acres, and we read signs that told of where people died and where people were injured, and we saw cannons where they stood at the time of battle.

According to the park’s website, these are the fatality figures: Battle of First Manassas in July 1861: 4,122 (Union: 2,896; Confederate: 1,226); and the Campaign of Second Manassas, August 27 - September 1, 1862: 23,869 (Union: 14,449; Confederate: 9,420). For a “grand” total of 27,991 men killed “for their beliefs” on those 5,000 acres almost one hundred and fifty years ago.

Yes, I know, the Civil War was an important war to fight and win. And so many wars are important because people are fighting for their beliefs. Most recently in Gaza, the Israelis were fighting for their beliefs and the Palestinians were fighting for their beliefs. And we could place placards along the streets that read: “A rocket landed here,” “A man/fighter/terrorist/son died here,” “A building collapsed here,” “A hope for a peaceful future expired here,” “A dream ended here.”

Yes, fighting for one’s beliefs is important. The only problem is, someone is generally going to have a different belief, one that either denies yours or seeks to eradicate yours. What to do? Pretend that only your side counts? Pretend that you can wipe out all detractors? Pretend that those whose beliefs go counter to yours are less human than you? Pretend that all those who don’t agree with you are stupid or naïve or unworthy of thought?

What to do? Fight for your beliefs so that there will always be battlefields to walk through, as parks or re-creations or as real-life battlefields? Or is there an alternative? Is there a way to look in horror at the loss of life and not say “it had to be,” but to say “they didn’t do enough to prevent the killing field”?

If you die for your beliefs you cannot live to fulfill your beliefs. So what, really, are you fighting for?

Yes, this is surely sacrilegious to say, especially for a Jewish woman, what with our history of fighting and dying for our beliefs. But really, we are in the 21st century now, can’t we somehow progress from fighting and then talking, to talking and then NOT fighting? It’s not as if we don’t know what happens when two sides fight, we know. We know that people die, people get bitterer, people hold onto their positions even tighter to validate that loss of life. Yes, they died for a reason, which is just a circular argument with death itself validating the reason for dying.

If we can transplant hearts and lungs, the very things we need for life, can’t we finally transplant those swords into ploughshares? Hasn’t history presented us with enough battlefields to stroll along? And enough heroes who died for their beliefs to honor and uphold? Isn’t it time to take to heart non-violence, not as an anomaly but as strategy and tactic and way of being? Does human history really need to keep repeating itself?

I’m not sure how this would come to pass, but perhaps a start would be for each person to accept every other person on this earth as being worthy of life and hope. Surely that shouldn’t be so hard for isn’t that, really, the basis of all religions (which seem to be used as the raison d’être for far too many wars, or at least the never-ending ones).

Peace Work

The last company I worked for in Israel (and the one that relocated me and my family to the US a mere nine months before the high-tech bubble went POP! and POP! went my job) showcased cooperation between Arabs and Moslems and Israelis a lot better than the students in my graduate program in Conflict Studies, and certainly better than the current situation in Gaza and Israel showcases.

The company was an Israeli-based company with an office in Virginia. If I remember correctly, in the US office there was one Saudi (he was the vice president), three Afghani, one Dane, five Americans, and four Israelis (one of whom was the president and CEO). I’m sure I’m forgetting some people, but that is the core that I remember. And the company that produced the give-aways and tee-shirts for us was run by a Palestinian/Jordanian.

Granted, we never discussed politics and discussions were mostly work related. But if there had been any animosities between people, any simmerings of political or religious stew, they certainly would have come up in our interactions in our interminable meetings round the conference table, but they never did. It was always relaxed; we had some very good times around that very big conference table. We used to play word games, because, honestly, how much can you talk about Next Generation software and hardware? We were all hoping that together we could ride the high-tech boom to financial success for all. I mean why not work together if there is a tangible result you are all working towards, and one that has such great potential for all? We had our stock options, we had our hopes, and we had to trust in each other.

And there is the (okay, a) key. We weren’t working together because we had funding from some NGO (non-governmental organization) to foster cooperation between Arabs and Israelis, or to see how well Jews and Moslems get along once they get to know the individual and get beyond stereotyping the unknown “other.” We were working together not because of the group we were identified as belonging to, but rather we were individuals with the talents and skills that we brought to the table. We were each there, Jew, Christian, Moslem—and we thrived (relatively, we did go bust after all)—because we were not there as individuals who identified with certain religious and national groups, but as individuals whose identity was just a part of what determined who we became as individuals. Our identity was all the things that made us who we were, we were not typecast. 

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Israel Story: Touching Evil

The following are a couple of difficult memories of life in Israel. Difficult, because, really, why can’t the Jews just be left alone in their own little country on the Mediterranean?

When I first moved back to Israel in 1983, after deciding that I was going to make my life there (the dramatic epiphany to be told in a later post), I lived in Jerusalem for a few months while I attended an ulpan (Hebrew language class for new immigrants). One day, when I went to the neighborhood supermarket to get some things before it closed for the afternoon siesta, I was told that it was already closed. Someone had placed a bomb in the bread section. In Israel in those days the two most popular kinds of bread were not pre-sliced and stuffed in bags, no, they were fresh and bagless. You could get “white” bread which was a really long loaf (a little shorter than a baguette, but with the width of “standard” bread) with a slightly crunchy crust, or you could get “black” bread which was a whole wheat bread, this loaf was smaller, browner, and grainier. Both fresher than anything my mother would get in the bakery in our Queens neighborhood. (Remember those, neighborhood bakeries?) Bomb in the bread section. I just couldn’t get my mind around that. Who would do such a thing? What higher purpose is being served by blowing up someone as she thinks about her pastrami sandwich with mustard and a pickle on the side?

One day, on Purim (the Israeli equivalent of Halloween, but the kids are supposed to go to school dressed up because it is a religious holiday), I imagined that I was living in the US and did not need to listen to the news before I got my daughter dressed in her Queen Esther costume (she saves the day—and all the Jews in Shoshan), and walked with her through the park in our neighborhood and to the government-sponsored pre-school. There were beautiful shade trees around the two-room school and no one seemed to worry about animals pooping in the sand (well, not too much). But as we walked in I could tell that something was wrong. In my mind, I’m thinking normal mom in the suburbs thoughts that I got the day wrong and they’re wondering why I dressed my daughter up today. But in their minds they’re thinking “why is she bringing her daughter dressed up and with rouge on her cheeks when a suicide bomber just blew himself up crossing the street in front of the most popular mall in Tel Aviv, killing children in their Purim costumes?”

On another Purim someone blew himself up right next to a mother sitting with her baby in his carriage. They kept showing the twisted carriage on the news.

Then there was my pregnancy with my older daughter during the first Iraq War. I’m not quite sure if I can relate to you how relieved I was when on the first night of the war my ex-husband told me that the loud booming sound I heard and felt was the sound clouds make when they collide and no, of course it was not rockets slamming into a building on the other side of town.

And it is an odd thing to plan your shopping, not around sales, but around where you will feel the safest. Where a suicide bomber hopefully won’t go—or won’t go again.

I always told people that I felt safer in Israel than I did growing up in New York City in the 60’s and 70’s. And that statement still holds, because the random, senseless violence of muggings and rapes and murders in New York seemed so pointless, so random—so selfish. In Israel, because it came in spurts and often, because we convinced ourselves, only in certain parts of the county, it made life feel safer. I didn’t have to worry about someone ripping my necklace off me, I just had to live life as I would normally and hope that I am not in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if I was to be taken in an act of terrorism, at least, as my mind saw it, there was, somehow, a purpose, a meaning. I would have died because I was Jewish, not because I had a gold chain around my neck.

This current war or offensive or whatever it is called in Gaza does not bode well. Nor do the reasons why it came to be. Because without fine tuning any arguments or discussions here, if Israel left Gaza in September 2005, uprooting its citizens and all of their lives and livelihoods, and that was not enough, then really, what hope is there for lasting peace? (And this from a person with a master’s degree in conflict studies.)

It is horrific to once again see dead children in the arms of their mothers. And it is horrific to see people covered in blood and dust, and buildings destroyed. And it is horrific to see terrified people running for shelter when nothing can shelter them. And it is horrific to see people drained by fear, and frustration, and helplessness. It is horrific to live in a land of hate and divisiveness, when, really, all most people should want at the core of their lives is stability, hope, and a sense of calm, and peaceful purpose that encompasses all. 

May peace, sanity, understanding, patience, compassion, and empathy reign.

Israel Story: Walking to Jerusalem

I cannot believe that I have gotten this far into talking about Israel without mentioning Jerusalem, which is, perhaps, an indication that my journey to Israel was not one of a religious awakening. Even standing in front of the Western Wall (called haKotel in Hebrew) did not ignite a religious fervor in me. I must admit, this disappointed me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if standing at an important religious site you are suddenly filled with meaning and purpose, and the realization of who you are and what you need to do to fulfill yourself? And that, you know, God speaks to you. Well, that didn’t happen and so the journey continued—continues.

A few weeks after arriving at the kibbutz I went to Jerusalem for a weekend. (A weekend in Israel is from midday Friday, when most stores and official offices and services stop so that the Shabbat can be preserved, until Sunday when people head back to work. While the weekend is shorter than in the US, it feels longer, because you don’t go out shopping and filling your time with to-do lists, but have family meals and visit friends or go on day-trips, and generally do relaxing things, even, yes, stay at home and do nothing but eat nuts and seeds.) For some reason I got it into my head that I need to walk into the Old City of Jerusalem, like some kind of a pilgrim. No, not from the kibbutz, but from the central bus station in Jerusalem. Sometimes I come up with these truly absurd ideas, and then as a true absurdist, I act on them. So instead of taking a bus from the bus station as any normal person would do (as all normal people do everyday—this was long before buses were being blown up in Jerusalem), I started walking down Jaffa Road to the Old City. My intention was that my arrival to the Old City would be the culmination of a journey; that it would not resemble arriving at an ordinary tourist site. What better way to do that than by walking in the midday summer sun in the Middle East for two miles down a busy street?

Two miles is not a lot, nor was it an uncomfortable walk. This was, really, my first introduction to a more metropolitan Israel than I had been used to. I almost felt like I was back in New York, what with all of the people walking around and hurrying about. Of course, except in only a few parts of New York do you see men all in black with black hats, and women in long dresses with long sleeves and scarves covering their hair, and lots of girls in long denim skirts, and male and female soldiers strolling about as if it's an ordinary thing (which it is, but not in New York) and so many men wearing kippot (yarmulke) to make me realize that I was, indeed, in a Jewish city (even more so than New York). Jerusalem had the feel of an old, tired city, ancient even in the non-ancient parts.

The buildings were a lot lower than in New York, and older as well, or felt that way since they were mostly made of stone. Everything was in beige stone. There’s a building code that I learned about later that proscribes that all buildings must be constructed out of this type and shade of stone to keep the uniqueness of Jerusalem intact. Sure, that’s the only reason why Jerusalem is unique, the color of its buildings. (At some times of day and seasons, the color is more of a rose hue, and it truly is a sparkling city atop a mountain.)

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Israel Story: What’s for Breakfast?

The first breakfast in Israel at the kibbutz was an eye-opening experience, and not because it was in a large L-shaped dining hall where kids were not sitting with their parents and parents were not sitting with their children, but everyone was sitting with their peers. What was eye-opening was the food: all I need to say are two words: matzo and cucumber.

In the center part, where the two sides of the L met was a buffet area. There was a wide variety of foods available, many of which I did not associate with breakfast. There were whole cucumbers. There were whole tomatoes (or what was left of them after I had operated on them). There were big bowls of cottage cheese. There were what seemed to be containers of yoghurt but I was to learn that they were different kinds of white cheeses; in Israel the selection of white cheeses extends beyond the cottage cheese, sour cream, and cream cheese triumvirate that we have in the US. Not only were there kinds I had ever seen, but people were drinking them, they were so liquid. Speaking of drinking, there were little plastic bags of chocolate milk that the kids were drinking out of. They tore off a corner (yes, with their teeth, and since their parents were at the other end of the room, there was no one to tell them to use the scissors). 

There were also green olives although they were unrecognizable at first. I was used to round khaki-green olives with pimentos in their mouths, I hadn’t realized up till then that they were born with pits and they were not of a uniform shape and were a bright green. There were also green peppers and hard boiled eggs (sigh of relief there) and then there was the bread section. I know this will sound incredibly naïve, but I didn’t know that you could eat matzo except at Passover. In my family, we would eat the five one-pound boxes of matzo during the week of Passover and then not have them again until the next year. I was sure that someone had said that you can’t eat them other than at Passover, apparently it was a “should not” rule and more applicable to the weeks leading up to Passover rather than an all year ban. But this was, I guess, my first understanding that Judaism kibbutz-style was another movement altogether.

The choices paralyzed me, I didn’t know what to do with the cucumbers and cheeses and tomatoes for breakfast, so I just took a slice of bread and yellow cheese and sat down. Yes, “yellow cheese” was what it was referred to. It wasn’t American, it wasn’t Swiss, it wasn’t cheddar, it was much milder, I guess more Muenstery, and it was good.

Well, sitting down wasn’t such an easy task because it was like being in a high school cafeteria, and I had not fared well there. But I did see a group of people from my ulpan, so I sat there. Everyone seemed to be sitting with his or her group, and so I was relieved that I had a group to join and was not an outsider, even though that’s certainly how I felt with my bread and slice of cheese.

In the middle of the table was a metal pail about a foot high. Hmm, what’s a pail for I thought and then watched as the people in the tables near me were peeling eggs and putting the shell in the pail. And people were peeling the cucumbers or cutting the ends off and putting them in the pail. Ah, a garbage pail on the table, what a lovely idea. I swore I would never use it. But, as I warmed to the idea of having a salad for breakfast the appeal of using the kolboynic became obvious. So not only did I eventually become a convert to salad in the morning (I never could break the matzo rule) but I used a slopdish too.

Recipe for a great breakfast salad: using a dinner plate as both your cutting board and your eventual plate, cut into very small pieces a tomato and a cucumber, cut up a few green olives and a hard-boiled egg, add a big dollop of white cheese (5%, that was the low-fat version as opposed to the 9%), add some ground pepper, a dash of salt and swirl all around. Enjoy.

Small Town Socialism

From what I understand of small town life, or what is extolled of it, a big plus is that your neighbors will help you out when you’re having a tough time. You know, we help you and if (God forbid) things are bad for me, then you’ll help me. If that isn’t some kind of small-town socialism, then I must be mistaken on the basic principle of helping each other out, albeit in a more institutionalized way, that socialism represents. I have experience living in a socialist society, since that is what a kibbutz is, so let me tell you about socialism from the perspective of a senior citizen on a kibbutz.

Working in the dining hall was certainly not the peak of my kibbutz experience. I wanted to work in the fields; I wanted to milk the cows; I wanted to live the pioneer experience. I certainly did not want to make sure that the old people had filled the salt shakers and the napkin holders correctly. But that’s what I did for about two weeks. Why, you may ask, didn’t they just give the job to me or the other volunteers rather than the old people who might have been making mistakes or going really, really slowly? Because everyone wants to feel useful, everyone wants to be a part of society, everyone wants to do to the best she can. So rather than tell people that they are making mistakes, that they are no longer useful, jobs are found for them and people make sure that everyone feels useful because that’s how it’s done on a kibbutz. Everyone helps to the best of his or her ability—even as one’s ability changes and represents no more than a desire to help. People are not told they are not doing enough, it is understood that life is a cycle and we need to be respected in each part of the cycle for what we can do.

So maybe all of those naysayers out there don’t realize that they are practicing socialism on a small, private scale. This is a part of the fabric of our society, in small towns and big cities (yes, even in cities people know their neighbors and help them when they can) that has not, yet, been ripped asunder.

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Maybe you could help: I would be interested in hearing someone explain what farm subsidies are if not a form of socialism?

Israel Story: In the Movies

I just helped my daughter read her lines for her Advanced Theatre class (as advanced as it gets in 8th grade, that is) which sent me back to my day in the movies. Yes, you are talking to a star of an Israeli movie.

The thrill of anticipation at possibly being discovered on this outpost of civilization in the Middle East hit the female members of the ulpan and volunteers when we found out that a scene from an Israeli movie about reserve duty would be filmed on our kibbutz. The primping promptly began.


Ulpan: a Hebrew-language immersion program. The specific ulpan that I was on was based on a kibbutz, where you studied Hebrew for half of the day and worked on the kibbutz for the other half. The main rationale behind this program was to bring young Jewish adults from around the world to Israel, have them fall in love with Israel and then either make aliyah (move to Israel permanently), or go back to their home countries and spread the word of how wonderful Israel is, and then remember their fondness for Israel when they are making money, which would cause them to donate to Israeli causes.

Volunteers: Young adults who worked on the kibbutz full-time for a small stipend, in exchange they received room and board and a chance to live in a foreign country while they pondered what they will do with their lives when they get back home. The volunteers generally came from Europe and had not attended college, and so this was part of their post-high school life before the grind set in.

Reserve duty: Israelis (boys and girls) serve in the army after high school, and then after their three years (boys) or two years (girls) of mandatory service they need to serve on an annual basis for a certain number of days every year for many years to come. This means that much of the Israeli army is composed of reservists, who generally take this duty seriously (that is those who aren’t trying to get out of it).

On the day of filming we were told to wear colors. By this time I had received my formerly lost backpack, and wore what was probably a non-descript outfit since most of my clothes were purchased to be comfortable for my year-abroad trip. We had to meet with a woman who was responsible (well, she had a clipboard) to note what each of us was wearing just in case they needed to reshoot the scene.

We then went into the club room which had been prepared for the filming, which means it was hot. Hot as in artificially hot and not like it would be hot outside under the white-hot sun of summer (which it wasn’t yet, since in the summer the Lebanon War had already started and all of these actors pretending to be reserve duty soldiers would really be reserve duty soldiers serving with their units). No, hot as in what happens to a room whose windows are blacked out with heavy curtains and lit with many very bright lights. The heat in the room alone was enough to make me know that I would never want to be in the movies.

But the inexorable boredom of the day was even worse than the heat. My God, it was a five minute scene and it took hours to film. Talk of mind-numbing. But wait, we’re getting to my moment in the klieg lights.

Out of all the Finnish, British, Irish, French, South African, New Zealander(?), and American women there the director chose me for a staring role. Yes, I was “Girl who with Candy Dish.” (No, there will be no snickering or ironic statements about giving me a candy dish to carry, at that time I was a size 8 and as you all know, able to stop strong soldiers about to board buses with my smile.) Yes, I was filmed walking across the room from where I stood to get a candy dish and back again, offering it to those reserve soldiers who had come to relax at our kibbutz. (The very premise of having mostly-married midlife reserve soldiers being entertained by twenty-something foreign women on a kibbutz is absurd and sexist, but I think it was to fit into the plot of men figuring out how their lives were going since they had been in the army as young men.) Only one take of my walk across the room was needed, so I either have a natural affinity to acting, or candy.

The day went on endlessly, as did my reading with my daughter's lines from “A Children’s Hour,” but I got through both of them. I figured that the scene would be cut, with no memento of my acting career. But I was wrong.
A few years later, when I was already married, my mother-in-law called to say that she thought she had just seen me in a movie, but that was not possible. YES! I was not cut, I had my moment preserved. Too bad my moment of fame was so insignificant, but then again, it did give me a one up on my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, and that was not to be taken lightly in light of the fact that nothing I did was ever as good as anything her children did.

Israel Story: Wanderings With and About David

David (or Dudi if you prefer) and I were to become good friends. “Good” in the way that a 20-year-old who is too shy to make a move, and a 21-year-old who is not attracted enough to make a move herself and yet attracted enough to not want to discontinue the relationship, can be good.

And so began my first post-college boy-girl friendship/relationship. And I wonder now about what could have been. Yes, there were men with whom I exhibited my temporary loose qualities, but not with David. And there certainly were none who wooed me as he did. And me, well, I did not deserve his attentions. Or maybe I did. It’s just that the end is so painful for me, since I am still ashamed of myself; I thought that I was so mature, but in reality, I was as young and unthinking as anyone I might have mocked.

It was a lovely romance reminiscent of the kind that happened (I assume) when a man and a woman got to know each other by spending time with each other before they had sex. 

Not only that, but David was my weekend knight-in-shining armor taking me off the kibbutz for a change of scenery and company. Of course, that was when he got to take off his knight uniform and relax. So every few weeks when he would have a weekend off (he was doing his military service), we would spend Saturdays together. But it wasn’t just the two of us, it would be with friends from his army unit and their girlfriends (also in the army). Maybe he used me to show that he had a girlfriend, when, in fact, we had never kissed. Who knows?

Those were wonderful trips. A bunch of carefree 20-year-olds (at least for those hours together) walking through the rivers that feed into the Jordan River and standing under waterfalls whose waters originated in Syria or Lebanon. We would find restaurants in off-beat places, or go to a friend’s house for tea in a glass and biscuits (some Britishisms remained from the time of the Brits in Israel). Yes, those Israeli soldiers might be strong and mighty, but they are young and still finding their way from childhood into manhood. One moment they are in high school and the next they are being taught how to protect the homeland.

Any way. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. What was this? We didn’t talk much; after all, my Hebrew was still sketchy and his English was not too impressive. I was thinking that this should probably end, since it was so undefined and I was beginning to feel that maybe I was leading him on.

And then the first Lebanon War began (June 1982).

Reality came knocking hard. Many of the men on the kibbutz were called up to their units. The boyfriend of my one female Israeli friend on the kibbutz was called up. Even though she had lived through wars and skirmishes and situations before, she was overwrought.

And a “friend” with whom I exhibited my looseness on the kibbutz, someone I barely spoke with even though his English was good since his father was American, sought consolation after learning that his best friend from the neighboring kibbutz had been killed.

A few weeks into the war, the extremely handsome soldier from the kibbutz came back for a few days leave bringing me news of David—that he had been injured. He had received shrapnel to his skull.

I’m figuring that he must have told me what hospital he was in because a day or two later I went to visit him. He wasn’t as bad as I feared, but I must admit, I was pretty freaked out by the whole experience. A friend wounded in a war was so far from my life expectations, and then to be treated as his serious girlfriend by his parents and his friends, and, at this point, by him, was overwhelming. I can remember that the way he looked at me had changed, and I wasn’t ready for that. It had a very very serious quality to it. (I guess being wounded in battle would be a pretty likely circumstance to bring about an epiphany.)

The first night I visited him I slept on a chair in his room. The next night I slept in a hostel in Tel Aviv. Sleep. Hmm. The hostel was full, so I was given the manager’s bed. Everyone seemed to be watching some important soccer game, while I literally crashed on the bed. That is until I rolled over and discovered a shard of glass in bed with me. End of sleep.

I went back to the hospital the next day and spent a few hours with him and then I went back to the kibbutz. A couple of weeks later, I went to visit him when he was recuperating at home. (Digression: his home was large and lovely, and his parents as welcoming as any potential daughter-in-law could want.)

Finally, he had the nerve to kiss me. Maybe his epiphany told him not to be shy any more. But I said no, in all the awkwardness of feeling that he needed me, but feeling, too, that I couldn’t be needed by him. And so that is how I left him. With a white bandage wrapped around his head and an intense look of disappointment. Or was it frustration at not getting what he wanted? It doesn’t matter, because since that moment I have regretted how I acted. And though we are not supposed to carry our sins or our disappointments in ourselves from year to year, and maybe I am making my self and my life out to be more dramatic than they really are, I still regret how this ended and that I did not contact him when I returned to Israel seven months later to see how he was and to explain myself.

But by that time I had met my future ex-husband (I kid you not, at a different bus stop), so what was the point of stirring  up his feelings again, since he had probably moved on by then any way.

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Israel Story: Weekend in Tzfat (Safed)

It turns out that not all of my relatives who had immigrated to Israel had been killed in Arab riots in Jerusalem and Hebron at the beginning of the last century. No, there was a strand that was going strong, having moved from their last home in South Africa about ten years before. How did I discover this? Well, the scion of that branch of the family stopped by the kibbutz one afternoon not long after I had arrived in Israel looking for the small package that I had to deliver to him. Yes, my irresponsibility and procrastination goes way back. But I digress.

Anyway, he picked up his package and invited me to visit the family at their home in Tzfat. (In English this is usually spelled Safed, but that spelling is so far from the original Hebrew pronunciation that I cannot bear to use it. So try to make a little spitting sound and get the name out in Hebrew.) It was their holiday home away from their Jerusalem home. Tzfat is famous as a center of Jewish learning (of the Madonna kind) Kabbala, and for being an artist’s colony. Sounded like a plan to me.

A few weeks later, I made the journey. I hitchhiked from the kibbutz to Tiberias. (No lectures on hitchhiking, in those days in Israel it was safe. Well, that is until my friend and I were almost kidnapped on another trip, but not because we were Jewish but rather because we were young American women of the supposedly loose kind. All of these digressions.) From Tiberias I took the bus to Tzfat.

Their home was truly lovely. It was an old stone house, or rather a few old stone houses joined to make one labyrinthine home with all sorts of nooks and crannies. I got to meet my Israeli family, which was lovely, and I was made to feel part of the family. Yes, if you have a guest do the dishes and throw out the garbage you can be sure that you have permanently endeared her to you. Present were also two of their daughters and two of their sons-in-law, both of the women were pregnant, which left me, the one able-bodied woman, to help the matriarch. (Let's not even go into the men not offering to help or being expected to help, that would surely be a digression.)

Other than having to do chores, it was a lovely weekend, with lots of singing around the dinner table and home cooked meals that I had not had since arriving at the kibbutz where everything was home cooked, but home cooked for a “family” of 500 is not quite the same as for a family of ten.

On Saturday night my cousin drove me to the bus stop in Rosh Pina, which is part of the way down to Tiberias. On Fridays bus stops and buses are filled with soldiers going home for Shabbat, and on Saturdays after dark (when the Shabbat is over) and Sunday mornings the bus stops and buses are full of soldiers on their way back to their bases.

As I stood waiting a tall, dark and handsome soldier started talking to me. (No, this is not mr ex, for those who might be wondering.) We chatted while we waited for our buses to come.

A few weeks later an extremely handsome man from the kibbutz was asking for me. Ah, heart palpitations of the positive kind. But no, in his extremely poor English he was telling me that one of his buddies wanted to speak with me. Yes, I was being tracked down. I had told the bus stop man the name of the kibbutz where I was living, and a soldier from his unit—this soldier—lived on the kibbutz, and he asked him to find me and speak to me. I must say, I was the talk of a very nosy town because of this for a few days, and I was reveling in the attention. Knowing that you are being pursued has a lovely ability to bring light to one’s sense of being.

I recall telling him that yes, his friend could call me for a date.

And so a few days later Dudi (I kid you not) called to ask me for a date. I must explain, David is as popular a name in Israel as it is here, and so you have the various variety of variations; the two that I could never bring myself to utter being Dudi and Dudu. And so, I was to go on a date with, Dudi, although I told him that I could not call him by that name, for sometimes a rose really does smell like, well, you get where I’m going here.

I had been told that all Israelis are poor; that all Israelis live in crowded apartments (not like me with four of us in a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom); that all Israelis have teeny tiny cars. Well, David dispelled all of those rumors. He arrived in a huge Volvo and took me to a Chinese restaurant in an old stone house in Tiberias.

This son of a Romanian father and an Egyptian mother was to dispel other rumors, including those that tall, dark and handsome men are rough and tumble. But I think I must stop here, you have other things to do and I must mull over this part of my Israel story before I can proceed in the telling. And I need to bring forth memories of this long-ago time, and savor them (and be remorseful, too) before they are ready for the page.

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Israel Story: An Explanation

Since my mind does not work in chronological fashion, I figured that I should tell you that the stories that make up the "Israel Story" will not be told in chronological order; rather, they will be told in the order that they come to me and as I am able to fully develop them into vignettes.

I also feel that I should clarify that my original intention when I graduated from college, since I only knew that I wanted to be a writer, was to be an au pair in Italy (pretty impressive). I had studied French and Italian in college, mastering neither, but loving Italian, and so hoped to go to Italy to work on my language skills (cough cough meet some Italian men cough cough). But the family I had made plans with decided to go to Argentina for a while, leaving me in the lurch.

“Israel, why not go to Israel” someone recommended.

“Yes,” I said, “why not go to Israel.” I figured that I would meet someone with whom I could travel around the world there, since I was adventurous enough to travel to Israel alone, but not enough for the solo European tour. I had also dreamed of living in Australia (another story altogether) and figured that this could be a way to reach that goal.

And then I found the program (Kibbutz Ulpan) where you live and work and study Hebrew on a kibbutz for six months. That seemed ideal to me: getting to go abroad and not have all of the stress (at least not right away) of being on my own. You know, just me and my (lost) backpack.


An Israel Story: Tomatoes Anyone?

My life in Israel started on a kibbutz, which is basically a community of a few hundred families that lives and works together, and shares in all of the support systems of that society. Everyone works for the kibbutz, in different capacities, and even those who work outside of the kibbutz deposit their salaries into a common fund. [There are a few hundred kibbutzim (plural for kibbutz) all over Israel; the first one, established in 1910, was down the road from where I lived.]

Since I lived on the kibbutz in 1982, things have changed, but at that time all of the members ate their meals together in a community dining hall. Just think, you could go years without having to prepare a meal, or you could go a year or two preparing meals for hundreds; or you could not fold a towel for years, and then, well, you could supervise volunteers from all over the world as they folded towels in the laundry for you and your neighbors. There were children’s houses for the care of children so the parents, especially the mothers, could go to work. The premise here (remember this idea goes back to 1910) was that instead of one woman staying home to take care of one child, the kids would be “pooled” together so that mothers could go out to work, and the adults could take turns caring for each others’ children.

In short, a kibbutz is a self-contained socialized system. As I said, things have changed (for example, the ascendancy of the communal dining room has waned, and more people work outside of the kibbutz than at that time), so what I am recounting is life as I knew it then, and as it was followed on the kibbutz where I lived for six months.

First Job: Tomato Selector
My first job on the kibbutz was in the preparation room. I, of course, had no idea what the “preparation room” was, but quickly found out that it is part of the kitchen, where the food gets prepared. Made sense. So off I went in my very worn cast-off clothes, since my own clothes were still somewhere between New York and Tel Aviv.

I was placed in front of a large sink and counter, and told to inspect a couple of crates of tomatoes. I was to rinse the tomatoes, put the good ones in large bowls in preparation for being served in the dining hall, and put the bad ones back in the wooden crates.

I don’t know about you, but up until that time I had never encountered a tomato outside of a supermarket. Since I grew up in an apartment, I had never even encountered a home-grown tomato. My tomato expectations were: red, uniform shape (meaning round), firm, and clean. But the tomatoes in the crate did not conform to that standard; there were mushy parts, there were green parts, there were tomato booboos. They were not round. They were uninviting. And they were not clean. (Okay, I did understand that that was part of my job.)

Going through one crate, out of the hundred or so tomatoes that I inspected, I found about four tomatoes that I thought were of almost supermarket-quality. I was proud of having saved the kibbutzniks from having to eat less-than-standard tomatoes.

My supervisor came over to inspect my work. She was horrified. I was made to understand that I am a wasteful American woman. She gave me a knife and told me to cut off the bad parts and not to be so picky.

What? It had never occurred to me that just because part is bad, that does not mean that the whole is bad. I thought that the entire tomato must be perfect in order to be purchased or eaten. Why had I never seen these imperfect tomatoes before? I mean I had touched tomatoes with bruises, but these were not bruises, these tomatoes had serious issues.

I welded the knife and picked up the first rejected tomato. I felt it; there were mushy parts. Conquering my revulsion, I cut off the mushy parts and placed the surgically-altered tomato into a bowl. And on I went, dispensing with imperfections and creating a new kind of perfect tomato. In the end, there were about ten tomatoes that were not salvageable. The process was perspective-altering. It had never occurred to me that just because part of something is not good means that the rest is not good.

This first lesson in a new land was a good lesson to learn; in fact, it became more than a lesson in tomatoes, it became a life lesson. If a tomato is not all bad, don’t discard the good parts along with the bad. In life, this insight enabled me to understand that there is good with the bad, and to look for the good parts, and not to focus on the bad parts. Yes, this could be a useful lesson. Only problem was, I went overboard, and focused too much on the good, forgetting that the bad was not cut away as with a tomato, and so was still a part of the whole. I guess there are some problems extrapolating things from tomatoes to people. So the revised lesson has become: focus on the good, but don’t overlook the bad.

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An Israel Story: Welcomed by Song Birds

I feel like indulging in sweet nostalgia. You know, the kind that bars the bitterness that came after, the kind that transports you to happier times before the fall. And now, now that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are upon us (the “big” Jewish holidays), I am thinking of Israel, and the years I lived there, especially the time when I first got there, before I realized that this would be my home for more than seventeen years, when it was still the place of my first young-adult discoveries.

The First Morning
It was February, so I was surprised to wake to the sound of birds outside my window. I peeked between the curtains, unsure what I would see, after all, I had arrived at the hotel in the middle of the night after an eleven-hour flight and I hadn’t seen anything. In fact, I had no idea where I was, except somewhere in Israel.

Pulling back the curtains, using them as a shield since I was naked (my bright red backpack with my things for my year’s journey had been lost), I was confronted with the brightness of a morning sun streaming in through the leaves and branches of a huge tree, a tree that blocked the entire window in all its green glory. And when I looked up, through the green leaves I could see a radiant sky-blue sky. Oh, the glory of springtime in the middle of what was supposed to be winter. I had left Buffalo in the middle of my fourth cold, murky December there, and two months later I left New York in the middle of the slushy, steel-colored winters of my childhood and youth. But now, now I woke to a brilliant Israeli morning, and it was only six o’clock.

I was a twenty-year-old college graduate starting on my grand adventure. I closed my eyes and listened to the incessant calling of those birds and felt the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the tree, and I found myself coming to life.

The drive to the kibbutz where I was to live in a work-study program for six months was a journey in every sense of the word. The kibbutz was at the southern tip of Lake Kinneret (in English it is usually called the Sea of Galilee); the drive took us from the populous Tel Aviv area (I discovered this from a more alert passenger) through the Jezreel Valley. I was driven there, along with seven others, by a driver from the government department that ran the work-study program. We were headed to different kibbutzim in the area. (More on life on a communal farm in another posting.)

As much as I tried to stay awake on the drive, I fell asleep. Car rides, even fifteen minute ones, generally lull me to sleep; that is unless I am driving.

I awoke to another unforgettable sound: sheep bleating. I woke up because the car had stopped, and the car had stopped because a shepherd (yes, they really do herd sheep) was crossing the road with his flock. We waited patiently while the sheep got to the other side and we all looked at each other, aware, finally, that we were not in America any more.

The vision of Israel that I had in my mind was of desert. I expected to see sand every where, or at the very least for everything to be in shades of beige. But when I looked up from the mass of sheep I almost gasped: there was a verdant carpet of rectangles of green laid out all across the valley that we looked down upon. It was truly a glorious sight.

It was truly an awakening in the modern/ancient land of my ancestors; what a glorious sight and feeling. As I beheld the view, my mind beckoned forth the Holocaust stories and Israeli pioneer stories that I had practically fed on from the moment in December when I decided that I would start my world travels in Israel.

The drive went slowly as we dropped passenger after passenger off at the kibbutzim they would be calling home for the next six months. Mine, of course, was the last one on the route. But that way I got to drive through the Jezreel Valley and then down toward the Kinneret (as it’s called in Israel) and past the ancient city of Tiberias, and over a tributary of the Jordan River where I saw people in white robes standing (later I was to find out that this is the site where many Christian pilgrims to the holy land get baptized), past a burned out Syrian tank on the side of the road (I found this out later), past banana trees (I also found this out later, how would a city girl know what a banana tree is?) on either side of the road, and then into the kibbutz that I would happily call home for six months.

And the first person who met me there was the hyper-active director of the program who ushered me into a room full of well-worn clothes to replace my missing ones (which would arrive three days later by taxi from the airport after my backpack had been found). And my new life had begun. I thought it was symbolic that I came practically naked, only me, to meet my new experience, to partake, finally, in my life.

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