Life Under Lockdown (Israeli Style)

Wow!!! No-one, but no-one saw this one coming!!! Over two weeks ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu brought us from COVID quarantine to COVID lockdown. We had a 48 hour notice to get things in place before we would not be allowed outside our homes except to go to the grocery store, pharmacy, or doctor/clinic/ER. That’s it.

So I quickly donned my COVIDsuit – gloves and mask – and headed to the store to do some last minute shopping for myself and some elderly shut-ins. IMG_9193.jpeg

It was a bit chilly, still, but I don’t usually look like this. I don’t even recognize myself. I decided to see what was open and check out a few grocery stores. So so so surreal to see the always-jam-packed parking lot completely empty! The kupaot at the checkouts were all gloved and masked as well. At the next store, which was also mostly empty, I chatted up the delivery men. It seems most residents of the city are now using the delivery services offered by all the stores to get their goods. There are absolutely no shortages of food (or toilet paper).

The last store I went to (which is now the absolute norm and not the exception) had shoppers lining up with their carts – practicing social distancing. The line at Rami Levi extended down the block. Before  customers were allowed entrance, their temperature would be taken by a masked and gloved manager. An excellent idea. All voters and pharmacies now require everyone to be gloved and masked – and all are offering hand sanitizer. Our Aquagel is in no short supply here . And, unlike in other countries, price gouging is absolutely illegal!!

Everything non-essential is closed. Malls, restaurants, cinemas, synagogues, churches, mosques, all schools, tourist sites – now public places too- national parks, all playgrounds, rec centers. Public transportation has been severely limited. The IDF (armed forces) are now assisting police in patrolling the streets and helping people in need. The country is like a ghost-town, and eerily quiet, as most people have been fairly cooperative in sheltering in place.

Just before lockdown, the Jewish festival of Purim was celebrated. This is one of the most festive holidays on the calendar. Celebrating the triumph of Queen Esther over the wicked Persian Haman and his plot to annihilate all the Jews living in captivity in the Persian Empire, it usually involves costume parties, parades, and much revelry. Not this year. It is customary to give baskets of treat to elder family, friends, teachers, neighbors. So this year, we made up Italian dinner baskets complete with homemade pasta sauce, pasta, salad mix, homemade croutons, Italian dressing (I can make my own dressing now!!! YAY!!!), a baguette, tapenade, meringues, lemon curd and a bottle of wine. We left them on the porch of four of our neighbors who were on a 14-day self quarantine after traveling out-of-country. It was a great way to finally “meet” two of our neighbors…

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I must say, I’m busier now than I have been in ages. We harvested the last of the winter veggies from our garden, and cleared and planted the spring crop. Each of our windows has a huge concrete window box, and there are ginormous planter boxes that run the length of our entire upstairs mirpesset (balcony/porch).

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My wonderful daughters, Katie and Liz started a baking challenge. After seeing the breads, croissants, scones, and other delectables on their Instagram accounts, I decided to enter the challenge.

We’ve had movie nights and game nights. From Catan to Scrabble to Barrel of Spongebobs (where DID I get that one??); card games like Set, Spy Fight and Grizzled; and our live-action-Lord of the Rings-based, role-playing with our clan via Zoom. It’s all fun.

But the best part of all is seeing how the world is somehow coming together in unity to help each other through entertainment, education, self-help groups to conquer anxiety, Bible studies, and just to help one another out. I first noticed this by accident scrolling through Facebook posts, when I noticed Cold Play was doing a live concert. Then I read that my friends from LA, Moshav Band would host a Facebook Live/InstagramLive concert. As if this were not great enough, the Jewish Agency put together a wonderful treat: my absolute favorite Israeli artist, Idan Raichel (you MUST listen to the Idan Raichel Project!!!) serenading us from his living room. Since then we’ve sung along with Nefesh Mountain, and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. (Moshav Band does a live concert every Sunday night. Colin Meloy (@dullandwitlessboy, IGLive) is putting on a live show every Friday. The posts stay up for 24 hours for those that keep Shabbat. On and on – Andrew Bird, Blogoteque, magical band – we’ve seen more concerts in the last week than we have since we left Los Angeles!!! It’s awesome!!!

I’m loving the cooking tutorials on Instagram: tartinebakery and Smittenkitchen, and my newest:mixology with David Lebovitz. I’m having the time of my life here!!!

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And I’ve saved the best for last. My daughters keep track of way more than I do, and are there to let me know the latest and best. So – my one artist daughter follows Carson Ellis on Instagram. She’s an amazing artist, mom, homeschooler, and gardener/homestead farmer in Portland… who also happens to be married to Colin Meloy of the Decemberists! Big shout!!!! So Carson started a drawing club on Instagram, that has morphed into the #quarantineartclub (with daily challenges) which she sometimes hosts with artist, Wendy MacNaughton #wendymac,who teaches the most wonderful children’ s art class every weekday that I’ve become addicted to. Add to that story telling with #macbarnett and the wonderfully inspirational posts on how to keep children of different ages calm and occupied during lockdown by my incredible daughter, #liz_dunbar, and I’m almost on overload. Plus more art classes with #ronitjoyholtz, a young Israeli/American artist who is going places fast.

While my husband watches the stock market rollercoaster like he used to watch NFL games, and my son (whose trip to Scotland to hike the Highlands has been put on hold) plays computer games, reads, and angsts over his university applications – I’m in class. There’s just so much out there now. It’s a really special time, if you avail yourself to all the goodness out there. Anyway, gotta close this as I have a yoga class in 5 minutes.

Stay well. Keep informed. Feed your soul. Reach out to others – and please, please, please write me and let me know what each one of you are doing out there in “isolation.”

ALIYAVERSARY!!!! 5 YEARS!!!!!

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Who would believe? Five years already since we packed up our things and made the huge move from Southern California to Israel! Who would believe we’d be spending our Aliyahversary under quarantine?

This week was supposed to be incredibly special – celebratory. My old neighbors and girlfriends of 25 years were supposed to fly in for an incredible visit yesterday. We were supposed to tour this gorgeous, history-packed country for the next two weeks. We were supposed to see the best of Israel from the hiking trails and waterfalls of Mt Hermon in the North to the Arava Desert and the coral reefs of the Red Sea in the South.

Instead, life on most continents has come to a screeching standstill. Actually, this has been an opportunity to really see the best of this country firsthand. I’ve been following stories of food, toilet paper, sanitary supply shortages in the United States as panicked shoppers try to prep for the seeming apocalypse. Angry Americans placing blame on government leaders. Hoarding. Inflated black market prices for basic supplies. Israel is surprisingly not experiencing that at all.

Israelis are notorious here for not following rules, being unable to form a simple queue. But we are a people who know how to handle emergencies. Get me right: I’ve had my doubts over the years. Over the span of five years, we’ve had the imminent threat of war several times. Hezbolla’s 15,000 missiles aimed right at us from Lebanon. ISIS, rebel strongholds, Bashir’s forces and a raging civil war in Syria within striking distance of our city. Yet, these Israelis always seemed nonplussed.

The first days in our lovely rented villa were spent equipping the mamad, the safe room. I stocked it with water to last a few weeks, food, medical supplies, a portable toilet and sanitizers, camping lanterns and cookstoves, flashlights, cards and boardgames, radio, sleeping bags, big-out bags, copies of important documents, clothes…. we were set. I did practice rounds in the event of hearing the red alert siren. Ready to go.

But this coronavirus snuck up on us. For the past two weeks, we watched and listened as this country shut down bit by bit. Israel was the first country to proactively cancel travel visas and send tourists back to their home countries if they did not have a place to quarantine.  Incoming flights from Asia, Italy… incoming flights from Europe…incoming flights from the States: canceled. Hotels closing. We were the first country to put a halt to all non-essential travel. I spent the week canceling hotel reservations and tickets purchased. Netanyahu and crew made the announcement that any group over 1000 people, then 500 people would be barred. Sporting and cultural events were closed. Then came the announcement last week that all schools would be shuttered for the next five weeks until after Passover. Regional hospitals to able to handle the virus were assigned. Then the public service announcements: cinemas, malls, restaurants were the next too close. No meetings of more than ten people – and they had to keep a two meter distance from each other. That put an end to religious gatherings – in this Holy Land. If we feel that we have come down with the virus, call Mogen David Adom, the ambulance services. Hotlines are set up, and the appropriate crew will come to us.

I fully expected to see huge lines coming out of the grocery stores. No food or supplies on the shelves. No. Quite the contrary. There’s plenty. No need for panic. Buy what you need. No hoarding. Antiseptic wipes to clean the carts and hands in plentiful supply. Face-masked customers and clerks greeting one another with a “Khag Corona samayakh!” or “Happy Corona holiday!” A bit surreal. The stores are much less crowded than usual, but still cheerful. Before entrance to a store or clinic, the usual security guard is armed with a digital scanning thermometer. He swipes our foreheads and asks each person: Have you been outside the country? Have you had any contact with a sick person? Have you had a cough or fever in the past few weeks? Why are you here?  You may pass. So weird…. but I feel pretty safe.

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The restaurants have all closed. But the home-delivery business is thriving!!! Extra drivers are being hired for grocery, pharmacy, pet store, and food deliveries. For those that have been temporarily laid off, they can fill out a simple online form at the Bituakh Leumi (Social Security) office and be reimbursed by the government for the loss of income. Things are running smoothly here. They seem to be organized and thorough. Funds have been fully allocated to handle the emergency.

Each person that has tested positive for the coronavirus has been tracked as to their exact whereabouts and contacts over the past two weeks. There is actually an online interactive map for tracking how many cases have been reported and their location (in real time)! I don’t know if I love it, but you can click the pinpoints on the map and get a detailed rundown, ted by the Ministry of Health, of where each infected person has been hour by hour- what stores they frequented; what sporting events; what synagogue or church or mosque; what clinic they used. There is a plethora of testing kits and facilities ready to handle the onslaught.

Even though all schools have been cancelled, online counsellors are available to help parents. They recommend being honest with the children, telling them exactly what is happening; instructing them on proper distancing and hygiene; the importance of keeping up a regular schedule and set routines; the importance of letting the child ask as many questions as they want – and trying to give them age-appropriate answers. There are on-line classes set up by each teacher – WhatsApp classroom groups, where the children can continue with their work and interact with their classmates.

WhatsApp groups are a big thing here. It is THE MAIN way people communicate in Israel. Whether classroom, sports group, groups for immigrants, hobbyists or religious communities. Everyone seems to be a member of an infinite number of WhatsApp groups. Not only are there WhatsApp classrooms, but new Quarantine Friend Circles, and even Quarantine Dating Groups!!! (spend your 14 day quarantine with a fun-loving guy who loves Thai food, hiking and animals – no joke!!)

Last week we spent the holiday of Purim making and delivering several food baskets for our quarantined neighbors. We knew of people who had recently returned from South Africa and Europe. They had to go into a 14-day confinement period. So we made big baskets of an Italian dinner complete with tapenade, crackers, pasta, pasta sauce, salad, homemade croutons and Italian dressing, meringues and lemon curd, wedges of cheese and a bottle of wine (Usually these mishloakh manot gifts for Purim consist of sweets and treats). We left them at their front gates with a cheery note and our phone number if they need anything else. a great way to meet a couple of our neighbors.

Boredom in your new self-imposed confinement? I think not!!! I’m totally surprised at and delighted with the world museums which are offering virtual tours: no lines, no crowds, linger as long as you’d like. The Met Opera is offering free opera screenings all this week – the best of the best. There’s Netflix and HBO and DisneyPlus. Hulu is offering free screening. Check out Spotify!!!! There’s a myriad of new Coronavirus, CO-VID19 and Quarantine playlists.

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The global community has been coming together in a most extraordinary way (how did people survive before the internet????). Authors are offering story times for children. Artists, drawing and art classes, activities and contests. Instagram is rife with lovely activities for all ages. Free yoga and exercise classes. Crafting lessons. Gardening help.IMG_9069IMG_9065 2IMG_9068IMG_9067

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I’m not trying to make light of this situation by any means. My husband has been glued to the stock market as it continues to drop. But hopefully, this dire situation will pass soon. Hopefully, we’ll stay healthy and take all the proper precautions. Here, it is not a time for mass panic. It’s a time to catch up on all those projects we’ve been putting off. It’s a time to hunker down, count our blessings, hug our loved ones, reach out to those across the miles. We are waiting for the next week of drenching rains to arrive and planning a time of board games and movies. Soon enough, the warm weather will be here and the cases of illness will drop off. There will be time to celebrate our Aliyahversary in style another day. Be creative. Be gentle. Be thankful. Be safe. Be well- we can get through this stronger and better people. May G-d bless us all!!!!

A Bit of Judaism for the Uninformed

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Our first Shabbat table in Israel

I’ve had several of my readers ask me to explain and clarify the Jewish Sabbath and also to explain the rules of keeping Kosher. So – I will try to simply tell about both.

In the Bible, the Book of Genesis starts with G-d’s creating the world. Each of the six days of creation: of the earth, the sky, the stars, planets, flora and fauna, man and woman are beautifully described. But on Day Seven, G-d stopped all His work and rested, thus setting the pattern for Shabbat, or the Sabbath. Here, in Israel, the days of the week are translated into “Day One (Sunday)”, “Day Two (Monday),” etc. But Day Seven is the only one that is extra-ordinary and is given a name, Shabbat. Because the days technically start at sunset, Shabbat begins on Friday evening and lasts through Saturday night.

In our hectic days crammed full of busyness, running around doing errands, working, going to school, using technology, and doing, doing, doing until our heads are about to explode!! It’s delightful…. no, it’s MANDATORY… that we take one 25 hour period to unplug, to rest and to just be. The Shabbat creates a peaceful island in time. It’s a time to unwind, to enjoy family and friends, good food and conversation, reading, napping, and being in the present. More and more people, even those who are not Jewish, are catching on to this holy and healthy, time-proven ideal.

Shabbat is a gift given by G-d to us. The keeping of Shabbat is likened to a wedding between us and G-d. And a glorious feast it is! It is truly a special time. In Israel, most stores and businesses close around noon in the winter and around three in the afternoon during the summer months. That way people can go home early to prepare. The pace of life outside the home slows to a crawl and the streets grow more and more quiet. Inside the home is a different matter as the wild rush begins.

The house is cleaned. Fresh sheets are put on the beds. The laundry is all done. The floors swept and mopped. All the food for Friday and Saturday must be prepared beforehand as one does not cook at all on Shabbat. A beautiful tablecloth is laid and fresh flowers placed on the table, which has been set with the good china, silverware and wine glasses. It’s truly a festive meal that will be served Friday night, the grandest of the whole week usually consisting of several courses. We shower or bathe and dress in nice clothes. The men go to synagogue before sunset to say their prayers. The woman of the house lights the Shabbat candles and says a blessing. And just like that, the Sabbath is here. All is done. No more work is allowed.

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Even the most secular people here gather with family and friends, lighting candles and enjoying a relaxed meal together. We sing songs at the table – welcoming the Sabbath Bride and the Sabbath angels into our home. We sing songs of joy and pray for peace to descend over the Land and our world. John and I pray both the traditional prayers and extra (personal) prayers for each of our children, present or not. John (and Max) recite the Eshet Chayil, Woman of Valor, prayer over me. It’s found in Proverbs 31. Then I recite the “Blessed is the Man” prayer over John from the Psalms. It’s quite beautiful, and really cements the family with the mortar of love, forgiveness, and blessing. It’s actually my favorite part of the whole week. Next,  Max chants the Kiddush, the beautiful blessing over the wine. We wash our hands, reciting the prayers, and then John says the blessing over the two loaves of freshly-baked, sweet  challah bread. We have two loaves on the table to remind us of the time G-d provided a double portion of manna on the Sabbath during the 40 years that the Children of Israel wandered in the desert. That way they wouldn’t have to gather their food on the day of rest. Especially if guests are present, the festive meal can last for hours. Appetizers, salads, soup, sometimes multiple main courses, veggies, dessert, fruits, chocolates…

On Saturday morning, you see people walking to synagogue. Each neighborhood has several. There is no (or very little) driving in Israel on the Sabbath. There is no public transportation. It’s very quiet, except for the sound of birds – or rain these days. Unlike in the States, Shabbat morning services start quite early here: 7:30 am to about 8:30. They last about 2 1/2 hours. Then the people walk home, the men in their kappas/yarmulkes and prayer shawls, the women in their finest. We eat a fine lunch that’s been pre-prepared (crock pots are great inventions), then spend the rest of the day relaxing, visiting friends, taking a leisurely walk. No cell phones. No computers. No television or radio. Just being present in the moment and to other people. It’s glorious. Such a gift to be detached. For those that are not religious, Saturday here is the one free day to take a field trip, go to the beach, desert or mountains, to go to a movie.

After it gets dark on Saturday night, we have a beautiful home service called Havdala, or separation. It’s a special time/ceremony where we note the separation between light and dark, Sabbath and the rest of the week. We light a braided Havdala candle, smell fragrant spices, drink a sip of wine and sing lovely songs. Then, quick as all that, Shabbat is over. Sunday here is a regular workday and school day, and the hectic pace of life begins anew. But with Sunday comes the remembrance of Shabbat past and a looking forward to Shabbat to come.

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Now for the explanation of the laws of kashrut, or keeping a kosher home. In America, when most people hear the word kosher, they think of matzah ball soup, deli food, and bagels, cream cheese and lox. NOT!!!! Some others think ‘O.K. Jewish. Kosher. No pork, no shellfish. Got it.’ NOT QUITE!!! There’s much. much. much more to it than that. Actually I remembered the first day I arrived in Israel. We went grocery shopping and I asked a man where the Kosher food section was. He looked at me like I was absolutely nuts. “It’s all Kosher!”

So what exactly is Kosher? Based on the laws in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the Bible lists out the “clean” animals and the “unclean” animals. Any mammal that has a split food and chews it cud is Kosher – thus cows, sheep, goats, even llamas and giraffes are all Kosher. Horses (no split hoof), hogs, hippos, and hamsters are not Kosher. Any fish that has both fins and scales are clean. The rest are verboten. So – salmon, tuna, trout and tilapia are good. Eels, catfish (no scales), dolphins and squid – not Kosher. Neither are crustaceans. Most birds that have feathers and fly are good to eat. Except birds of prey. Nope to eagles, buzzards are hawks. No bugs. No cats or dogs or monkeys or bats – (no coronavirus).

The animal today that is to be the hamburger tomorrow must be slaughtered as humanely and gently as possible. Not to be frightened. A very quick slit of the jugular with a sharp knife – with compassion. All the blood must be completely drained from the meat before it is fit to be sold.

Add to this the injunction to separate meat from dairy products (from the law that a kid can not be cooked in its mother’s milk, an ancient pagan practice). So now, in a Kosher setting not only are the two not cooked together (No cheeseburgers. No beef stroganoff. No creamy chicken casserole.), but the items are never served at the same meal. On the same plates. We’ll get to that soon. Breakfast is usually dairy in Israel. Lunch and dinner can go either way. The best explanation I’ve heard for this is that it makes a clear distinction between life and death. Milk signifies life, and is not to be mixed with death. It’s profound…

I keep a Kosher home. I have separate sets of dishes and silverware for dairy and for meat. I have separate cookware. Separate sinks, Separate shelves in my cabinets and my fridge – all marked. Separate counters for preparing dairy and meat. It’s how I grew up, so it’s pretty natural for me. Vegetables, eggs, fruits, and fish can go either way. It’s called pareveh.  Dairy products are halavi and meat is basari. Kosher restaurants serve only dairy or only meat. Never are the two prepared, cooked or served together. Same with schools – and the army – and hospitals.

What else? All packaged foods that are Kosher are marked as such. In the States, there would be a little letter “U” enclosed in a circle. Look for it on the box or can the next time you go shopping. Cheeze-Its Kosher. Spam. Not Kosher. Bac-Uns. Kosher. Pop Tarts Kosher. Jif Peanut Butter Kosher. Cap’n Crunch. Not Kosher. Go figure. In Israel, most of the larger grocery stores sell only Kosher foods. The Russian and Arab grocery chains are not. All products are labeled as such – with differing levels of strict Kosherness as deemed by specific rabbis’ rulings. Very complicated here.

So, what else makes foods Kosher? If the product was produced in a factory or plant that is open on Shabbat, or the preparer works on Shabbat, the whole product line is rendered nonKosher. There are myriad other rules with varying levels of stringency that I won’t get into here. It can get very complicated.

Also, before one eats a meal, the hands must be washed ritually. There are special hand washing cups and special blessings for the washing of hands. In most Israeli restaurants, you will see specifically designated hand-washing stations from the little pizza joint down the street to the fanciest restaurant in Jerusalem.

Special blessings of thanksgiving to G-d are said both before and after eating a meal. That does nothing to change the food itself, but elevates your spirit to an attitude of gratitude and confers a special sanctity to the food.

In a nutshell, (nuts are kosher) those are the basic rules of Shabbat and Kashrut, although I’m sure I’ve left a ton out – and it will be pointed out by the most observant, this is just an Intro into Judaism 101 for the Unknowing. It’s a lot to digest (pun intended), but I’ve lived a Torah-observant life for much of my life, so for me, it’s just a lifestyle – one much more easy to keep here in the Land of Milk and Honey (both Kosher and can be eaten together!).

Tu b’Shvat Tiyyuul

Yesterday the sun broke through in all its shining glory after months and months of cold, rainy weather. We knew it was going to be short-lived as more was forecast for later this week. John and I dropped our son off at work, and decided to take full advantage of the respite from nasty weather. We drove to the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, to see the increase in water level after the past decade of drought conditions. It did not disappoint.

Just south of Tiberias, we pulled off at our favorite beach. What was once a sweeping expanse of brush, rocks and sand was now completely under water. It even came up to the stone embankment where the picnic tables and campsites were. The stone steps were partially under water. You just have to see!

We’ve been following the rising of the Kinneret water levels over the internet each day, but wanted to actually see the measuring stick at Yardenit (there is also one in Tiberias).This is where the Sea of Galilee flows out to form the Jordan River to the South. Right across the street, I was struck by groups of white-robed masses in the water. It looked like the scene from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” I had to get closer. Christian pilgrims from all over the world come here to be baptized in the Jordan (this is NOT the place where Jesus was immersed. That’s 70 miles downstream in the Samarian desert near Jericho). Anyway, there they were, taking full advantage of the sunny weather doing full immersions. It reminded me of a sort of mass mikveh, the Jewish ritual immersion.

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Pulling into Kibbutz Kinneret to turn around and go home, I saw the sign: Kinneret Dates Factory Story. This was turning into a real tiyuul, which is the Hebrew word for day-trip or field-trip. And just in time for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat, which will be celebrated from sunset February 9 – sunset February 10this year.

When I was growing up in America, this minor holiday was relegated to the ‘back 40.’ We didn’t celebrate it much at all. All I knew was that it was a type of Jewish Arbor Day. My mother, the designated “Tree Lady” of our synagogue would call up the congregants to ask them to order trees to be planted in the State of Israel. That was about it. Tu b’Shvat has grown in popularity in Jewish communities throughout the world, but here in Israel, it has been and still is celebrated as an agricultural and ecological holiday with much rejoicing.

In Hebrew, letters and numbers are interchangeable, so “tu” are the Hebrew letters ‘tet’ and ‘vav’ (adding up to 16), and Shvat is the name of the Hebrew month – so Tu b’Shvat means Shvat 16. The holiday is not found in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), but in the Talmud – the oral explanations of the Law. It’s basically the New Year for trees, or the time which trees are planted. There are both physical and spiritual levels to this holiday. Planting trees in the middle of winter is a sign of hope and a way of re-greening the planet. It has connotations of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and there are ties to the spiritual Tree of Life.

Historically, in the 1500s, in the northern Israeli town of Tsfat, the great Rabbi Isaac Luria (the same guy who wrote the Shabbat hymn, Lecha Dodi) put together a Tu b’Shvat seder (ordered feast) in which different fruits or nuts are eaten along with 4 cups of wine. There is a beautifully arranged Seder plate with raisins, almonds, pistachios, dried figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, and other fruits and nuts. There are special blessings: thanks and praise for G-d’s creation: over His sustenance through the year; for the winds and rain; for the fruits (or nuts) of the tree. After the prayers, nuts and fruit with a hard/inedible shell (klipa) and a soft interior is eaten – the almonds or pistachios; the oranges, pomegranates or bananas. Then one says the blessing over wine and drinks a small amount of red wine. Next, fruits with a soft exterior and hard center is eaten (olives, dates, apricots, persimmons, avocado) followed by a dark pink rosé wine. Next, fruits are consumed which can be eaten whole: figs, pears, berries, apples. And a light pink rosé wine is sipped. After that, the celebrants eat something made with wheat or barley: bread, crackers, or a pulse. Then comes the sips of white wine. All of this is interspersed with spiritual readings from the Scriptures and explanations on how one is to ascend from the purely physical to the emotional to the intellectual to the spiritual. Thank you Rabbi Luria. There are several interesting Tu b’Shvat seder guides on the internet, each with different highlights.

So – we found ourselves in the Land of Fruits and Nuts – literally. The factory store of Kibbutz Kinneret Dates. I visited the Garden of Eden and I can’t wait to go back! In typical Israeli fashion, the first thing we did upon entering was to see a movie on the history of this particular kibbutz and on the date palm. The date palm is one of the seven species of plants indigenous to Israel (dates, figs, wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, olives) and mentioned in the Bible. By the end of the Ottoman Empire and the desolation of the land by both neglect and destruction, every single date palm had disappeared in this land.

In 1908, Kibbutz Kinneret was founded and a pioneer named Ze’ev Ben Zion traveled to Iraq to bring back a truckload of palms – and Jewish refugees who were being persecuted by the Islamists. Both the palm shoots and the new immigrants thrived in their new land, so Ben Zion went out again to bring back 1000 new baby palms – and more refugees. Uri Stoner, from Kibbutz Kinneret, researched and developed different hybrids as well as novel uses for dates. In 1933, the kibbutz factory was founded and a multinational exporting of Israeli dates and date products had begun.

The factory store here has products unique to Israel…and all can be sampled generously. There are friendly (English-speaking)kibbutzniks available to explain all of the products. The date is nature’s candy. Naturally sweet and high in fiber, it gives a quick energy boost, yet is very low on the glycemic index. Minerals and compounds in the date are said to increase fertility and help pregnant women to have easier deliveries. They are very high in antioxidants and can help reduce blood pressure. Dates help maintain bone mass because they are high in calcium and magnesium as well as selenium. They are also rich in iron and fluorine – and essential fatty acids that actually help with hunger-control an weight loss. Yippeeee!!! So for a ‘normal’ person, eating 5-9 dates a day is healthy – more for late term pregnant women (dates are reputed to induce labor).

Who knew there were so many different varieties, flavors and textures among different species of dates? Most people are familiar with the Deglet-Noor and Medjool varieties, as those are the top exports, BUT:

Some are sweet and sticky: the Amari are moist and taste like caramel; the Deri are intense and flavorful- almost like a shot of espresso; the Amari, drier, but packing a sugar punch; our favorite, Hadrawi were soft and flavorful, not too sugary, but like butterscotch. We bought 3 boxes of dates.

And the products available!!!! My favorite date product is silan (see’ lahn), a date syrup/honey. I don’t know if it’s available in the US, but I use it in place of other sweeteners now – in cooking and baking, in teas and smoothies. There are different types of date spreads, date candies, date butters, and here, they are all available for sampling. And the prices here are some of the best I’ve seen in the country-

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In addition to date products, there were other products, all organic and made right here in the Galilee. There was carob syrup (which I also use in place of molasses), tehinehs (sesame butter) – so I bought 2 huge jars. I use tehnineh extensively now, including tehnineh and silan on rice crackers. Olive oil, locally produced, bee products, herbs and spices – all from this area.

Add to this the cosmetics line, Shivat, made from the seven species, and I was in absolute heaven!!! We really had a lot of fun, but armed with a couple bags full of goodies and a new cookbook (yay!!!), I couldn’t wait to get home and start cooking. So – now for the recipes!

The easiest is the tehnineh spread with silan. Tehineh is much richer in calcium and fiber and lower in sugar than peanut butter, and it is non-allergenic.

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This sesame seed paste is also mixed with the juice of one lemon and a spoon of silan for a lovely salad dressing for chopped cucumbers and tomatoes or for a mixed cabbage and carrot slaw with chopped green onions and walnuts and chopped dates.

               SWEET POTATOES WITH SILAN (parve/vegan)  serves 6

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 large sweet potatoes
  • 4 tsp olive oil
  • 3 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 4 Tbsp silan date syrup
  • 4 tsp sweet asian chili sauce
  • juice of a freshly squeezed lemon
  • a dash of chili flakes
  • 2 green onions, chopped finely
  • a sprinkling of coarse sea salt

Wrap and roast the sweet potatoes in a 200*C/400*F oven for about an hour. Mix all the ingredients of the sauce (minus the sea salt) with an immersion blender. Score the hot potato and pour the sauce over top. Sprinkle generously with the coarse sea salt.

FREEKEH STUFFED ONIONS (pareve/vegan) serves 6-8

 

This can be eaten as a hearty lunch or served as a side dish for a Shabbat dinner. Its roots are typically Middle Eastern, most likely Egyptian. Freekeh is a type of durum wheat that is roasted to bring out its nutty flavor. The word is actually Arabic for “rubbed” as the grains are rubbed before roasting. As freekeh might be difficult to find outside this area, bulgur or spelt can be substituted. You can also use brown basmati rice for this one. Because it is pareve (neither milk nor meat) it makes a great accompaniment to any main course.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2-3 whole large white onions
  • 2-3 whole large red/purple onions
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup freaked, bulgur, spelt, farro, or brown rice
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1 1/2 cups mixed green herbs cut finely (parsley, mint, cilantro, green onion, dill)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 cup silan date syrup
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped dates
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Prepare the stuffing: Heat olive oil and grain in a saucepan and fry until hot. Do not burn. Add boiling water and salt, Stir well and cover. Lower flame to simmer for 30 minutes. Then turn off heat and let sit for 15 more minutes. Gently fluff and fold in mixed herbs and cumin seeds, silan and fruit.

As the stuffing is cooking, peel the onions and slice the tops off. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Wrap in foil and roast about 20 minutes in a 200*C/400*F oven – until soft.  Let cool until able to handle comfortably. Remove the inner part of the onion with your fingers, pulling gently. There should be 2-3 layers of the outer shell left. Chop up the onion that was extracted and add to the stuffing mixture.

Fill each onion with the stuffing mixture. Place in a baking dish greased with olive oil. Sprinkle the onions with salt and pepper. If there is any juice from stuffing mix left behind, pour over onions. Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake at !70*C/350*F for about 20 minutes. Remove foil so onions can brown and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Serve hot.

                 GLAZED BUTTERNUT SQUASH (parve/vegan)  serves  6

Another great recipe – especially for fall/winter. It calls for butternut squash, but you can use any gourd, or a combination thereof and it will be delicious. I especially like seeing smaller pieces of different varieties of gourds for a gorgeous and colorful platter. This is a tasty side dish, but also can be hearty enough as an entree served with a hearty bread and a side salad.  Also, this is an amazing Pesach recipe (one which I plan to use at my Passover seder this year)-

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 6 gourds (butternut squash), halved, seeds removed
  • 3 tsp olive oil
  • salt and black pepper
  • ground cinnamon
  • 3 Tbsp silan
  • 2 sheets of matzah
  • 2 more tsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 190*C/375*F. Drizzle gourd halves with olive oil and silan , and sprinkle with salt, pepper and ground cinnamon. Roast for 40 minutes. Can cover with foil lightly, if it starts to brown too much.

For crumbly topping: heat a frying pan with the olive oil. Add the matzah pieces and cook over a medium flame, stirring constantly to glaze and brown. Add garlic , salt and pepper and a  small amount of cinnamon at the very end. Remove from flame, and add the chopped parsley.

Arrange the hot gourd pieces on a platter and spoon the crumble over top. Drizzle with more silan and serve hot.

AMAZING I CAN’T STOP EATING PUFFED RICE SNACKS!                                                  (                                                    (vegan/pareve)  

I made these yesterday and we just can’t stop sneaking them. Really rich, and decadent, yet I tell myself they’re healthy because of the tehnineh, silan. cocoa super-food combo. It makes me feel better about pigging out. But. seriously who can resist? I’m not paying $7 to $9 for a small box of Kelloggs Rice Crispies ….. when I CAN find them here! So we found a pretty lame puffy rice flakes for a substitute. I highly recommend the Rice Crispies if they are available in your area- just sayin.They can be formed into bite sized balls or put in a wax-paper lined baking dish and cut into squares. I did both. The best part is that they are super easy to make and require no baking or refrigeration.

*****OK, not as an affront to anybody but you hear the most amazing things living here. This is a true(?) story about John the Baptist. In the New Testament, John the Baptizer is a radical hermit preaching about the importance of being a B’aal Tshuva (repentant sinner who comes back to G-d) and performing ritual immersions/mikveh in the Jordan River. He announces the coming of the Moshiach, the Messiah. Anyway, in art he’s always pictured wearing a rough camel hair tunic tied with a thick rope. This ascetic is famed for his diet of eating locusts and honey. But it was a MISTRANSLATION from the Hebrew to Greek to Latin to the English of the King James Bible in the early 1700’s. The honey was most likely a date syrup like silan. And the carob tree (kheeroov) was also known as the locust bean in England. The ground carob beans are similar to cocoa powder, but much higher in protein and in antioxidants. Instead of eating yucky insects like a madman, John was actually consuming a fudgy, delicious superfood paste. Sorry to burst your bubbles, but I found it fascinating!

For those Christians who celebrate the feast days of favorite saints, this is a great recipe to make with young kids in honor of John the Baptizer. For my Jewish friends, it’s a lovely treat for Tu b’Shvat.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 1/2 cup tehineh
  • 1/2 cup silan
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup carob powder or cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips, melted in the microwave
  • 4 tsp silan
  • 3 cups crisped rice cereal
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped almonds (optional) or ground coconut

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Grease your hands with a little canola or coconut oil. Form about a tablespoon of the mixture into golfball sized balls. Or spread out in a wax-paper lined baking dish. Let set for a half hour, if you can resist the temptation to eat before then. Cut the chocolate rice mix into brownie-sized bars. Enjoy!!!!

 

 

 

 

Adventures in the Desert

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A few weeks ago I mentioned to a friend that I had always wanted to see (but never had) the film, Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole and Omar SharifObviously, things in the universe aligned, and I jumped at the opportunity to accompany friends on a spectacular field trip. 36 hours in the Negev Desert and the Arava region of southern Israel, which included a one-time screening of the movie about 20 miles from where it was filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

The verdant fields of central Israel soon gave way to blowing sands, Bedouin villages, and the desert. Now I could experience, at least for a little while, the footsteps of the Patriarchs. In front of me was the eastern Negev: the Arava. To the North, the Dead Sea Valley. To the extreme south, the Red Sea. This region is part of the Syrian-African Rift, stretching from Turkey to Africa about 3000 miles. The Trans-Jordan cliffs to the East (Biblical Edom) and the mountains of the Negev that run parallel to the West make up the 110 mile Arava Valley floor. The sandy expense of the Negev makes up more than half of Israel’s land mass. It was the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Of Moses. And later in history, under the British Mandate of Palestine, the land of T.E. Lawrence.

Except for stopping the car every 15 minutes to get out and take pictures, I made record time to the kibbutz where we would drop off our things before heading to the Arava International Film Festival in the new little village of Zukim (Tsookim/Zuqim/Tzukim). Tzukim in Hebrew, means cliffs. This community, first established by a group of Israelis and Anglos from the Southwestern United States in 2003, reminds me of communities one would find in Arizona and New Mexico. From the landscape to the architecture, it all seems strangely familiar. This little yishuv has big plans to double its size of 300 residents within the next ten years. Its main economy comes from travel tourism. Many of the homes have adjoining tsimmerim or guest lodges offering magnificent views and spa services as well as a small selection of gourmet (chef) restaurants. A community and sport center is currently under construction. Large buildable lots for sale offer expansive views of the red rocks and sandstone cliffs of the Negev. And what a magnificent view!!! There is also a funky desert artist colony there featuring sculpture, pottery, weaving and paintings.

 

For the past eight years, Zukim has hosted the Arava International Film Festival each November. Featuring the top tier of global cinema, the movies include old classics, international award winners, animation, shorts, documentaries, and films for children and adolescents. This film festival is garnering worldwide critical acclaim. The specially constructed “theater” is situated outdoors between the desert bluffs, yet consideration has been made for maximum comfort. Moviegoers recline on super-comfortable pillows lining the stands and are provided with individual luxurious fleece blankets for snuggling under during the chilly desert evenings. Pop-up restaurants line the path to the entrance, featuring fast food, gourmet, vegan, and Kosher options. Dine in a desert tent or take the food with you into the stands.

The filmmakers (or in our case, the immediate family members) are invited to share their experiences in the making of the movie featured that evening. What a treat! Both David Lean’s and Sam Spiegel’s families were there to speak on their travels in Jordan, Morocco and Egypt to film Lawrence of Arabia. Sam Spiegel was an ardent Zionist. Who knew?  As Jordan’s Hashemite Tribe controls the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, and they were so pleased with the movie, Spiegel was the only Jew to be allowed to pray at the Western Wall between 1948-1967. For us, the once-in-a lifetime opportunity to watch this masterpiece under the stars near its actual location was, as Sam Spiegel, Jr. said, “almost as good as watching Star Wars from outer space.”

The following morning. we woke up early to explore Kibbutz Lotan, where we spent the night. It is located about twenty minutes north of the city of Eilat on the Red Sea. Founded in 1983 by the Reform Judaism Movement, Kibbutz Lotan is “a place where spirit and earth meet.” IMG_5245.jpeg

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The community thrives on eco-tourism and its date farm. At one end is the kibbutz housing for the residents and the guesthouses for visitors. Each structure is made from straw and desert earth and is powered by solar and wind energy. As with all kibbutzim, there is a central dining hall, a kindergarten, and an elementary school as well as a library, synagogue and community center. A swimming pool and tea house/cafe are available for kibbutzniks and visitors. Bicycles, the preferred method of transportation on the kibbutz, are also available for the guests. Birdwatching and frisbee golf are favorite pass-times for both residents and visitors to Lotan. Eco-tours are given daily.

Of special interest is the Center for Creative Ecology, a sustainable community consisting of a dozen cottages where participants live, farm, and cook their meals. Recycled vegetable oil is used for fueling many of the kitchen appliances. Everything is recycled and composted for use in the desert vegetable garden and fruit tree orchard. Except for potable drinking water, all of the water used for irrigation, cleaning, laundry is recycled gray water or desalinated water from the Mediterranean. Vegetarian  cooking classes are offered where participants can bake breads and pizzas in the hand-crafted clay ovens.

Before our return trip to the North, a visit to Kibbutz Yotvata, the oldest kibbutz in the Arava, was in order. The Yotvata Dairy is famous throughout Israel for sakit shoko (sa-keet’ show-koh), chocolate milk that comes in a hand-held plastic sac. Every kid here loves it! Tear off a corner of the bag with your teeth and enjoy sucking out the velvety, rich chocolate milk inside. It’s an Israeli institution. And at the tour, you get to taste that shoko. In my opinion, Yotvata is some of the best milk in the country. And their homemade ice cream (glee-dah’ which is only available at the Yotvata Factory store) is the best in all the land! Even though they live in the desert, Yotvata cows are happy cows and their milk is a testament to that fact.

It’s amazing to see how these adventurous, hard-working Israelis are cultivating the barren desert. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, had a dream of making the desert bloom. A blooming it is. All along Highway 90 are date farms, pomegranate orchards, and rows and rows of covered agricultural tents. Using desalinated water, recycled water, and water from the Red Sea, there are tropical fish farms – yes!!! You read that correctly! We found Nemo in the desert! And herb farms – we found fresh Basil in the desert! And tropical flower farms! You can even visit the most eccentric place called Crocoloco, a crocodile farm in the desert. It is definitely a land of ingenuity!!! G-d promised He would make the desert bloom again –

Israel is a land of history, archaeology, culture, and breathtaking beauty. For a country smaller than the state of New Jersey, it never ceases to amaze me! It takes a certain kind of person to settle in the desert – and the people we met were part visionary, part stout-hearted – quirky and eclectic people. People devoted to a dream. Fiercely independent, a bit alternative, totally Israeli. I leave you with a bit of that quirkiness found in the most extreme regions….

Because It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby

Over the past several weeks, many people have written to me asking about the state of current affairs in the Israeli government, and about the past elections. I will attempt to explain the situation both here and abroad without editorializing or adding personal opinion. For a quick overview of the Israeli political system, please go to my February 18, 2019 blog on israeldreams.com Election Season:The Political Post

Last April 9, 2019, Israelis went to the polls after the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) was dissolved under a vote of no-confidence in the government of 2018. In Israel, the voters choose the party they want to represent them in the 120-seat Knesset. The system was originally designed as a true Democracy.  Because there are so many different parties, the winning party is forced to come together with as many other like-minded  parties who would be willing to work towards a semblance of common goals. After the votes are tallied, the President hands the mandate over to the winning party head, who, in turn, has 28 days to cobble together a coalition of at least 61 seats to form a working government. From the leading party, the Prime Minister is selected. None of the parties (there were over 40 registered parties in the April election) are large enough to make a coalition on their own.

Last April, the Likud Party, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, received a record number of votes. President Reuven Rivlin gave Netanyahu the mandate to form a government. The closest rival party, Blue & White, was lead by Team Benny Gantz (former Chief of Staff of the IDF under Netanyahu) and Yair Lapid (former television anchor and Finance Minister). They ran a Center-Left campaign and planned to share power, alternating the chair of Prime Minister between Gantz and Lapid, had they won enough votes. Lapid emerged as an “anyone but Bibi” player, refusing any attempts at compromise to form a unity government between Likud and Blue & White. Also, a key player, was Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Center-Right Yisrael Beitenu party, which received five seats. He was labeled “The Kingmaker, ” because by siding with either Likud or Blue & White, a majority ruling party would be formed. Instead, egos prevailed. Lieberman (former Minister of Defense under Netanyahu) refused to settle with Blue & White as they are too Left-leading for his party. He would not join with Likud because they are lined up with religious parties. Even though he espouses himself to the Right, he refused to join a Right Wing government where religious (Haredi) Jews are not forced to draft into the army or national service and stores and transportation are closed on the Sabbath. His party is strictly a nationalist secular one and he desires a “once-and for all, no-nonsense end” to the Gaza problem, yet he has not specified what that entails.

Hamas controls Gaza and regularly sends over barrages of missiles into southern Israel, in addition to their regular Friday riots along the border wall. The Hamas terrorists launch balloon bouquets with attached incendiary devices; they burn tires smoking out neighboring Israeli communities; throw grenades and molotov cocktails over the fence and at IDF soldiers; and try to scale over the fence or create terror tunnels leading to Israel in order to infiltrate and kill Jews. Israel supplies Gaza with water and electricity, but they are over a two years deficient on paying their bills. The border between Israel and Gaza has been sealed off by wall, fencing, and undersea barricades. There are set border crossings which are manned on either side by their respective armies.

Because an impasse had been reached in the last April Israeli election results, and no official government had been able to come together, new elections were called. It gave time for new alliances to be formed with several parties converging and some dropping out altogether. The second round of elections were held on September, 17,2019.

There are many people here opposed to Benjamin Netanyahu. Many native, secular, and left-leaning Israelis would like to see Bibi out at any cost. When asked why, typical answers include “He’s been in power way too long;” “He has established a dynasty. He wants to be king;” “I really don’t like his family. His wife is a shrew;” and “Bibi is completely corrupt.” Also, many citizens, especially those living in the South feel Bibi has been too soft on the Gaza terrorists. As one political hack recently wrote, “Ten rockets fired at Israel Friday night. Bibi’s response… NOTHING? Are you kidding me? This is your plan to protect Israel and our beloved residents in the South???? Nothing????”  Prime Minister Netanyahu has decided to hit back directly, strongly and regionally, destroying only known Hamas weapons factories and terror cell hideouts. Because there is a distinct possibility of a full-scale, Iranian-backed Hizbulla conflict to the North; and the strengthening of Iranian-supplied Houthi rebels in Yemen poised to attack from the South, Netanyahu fears opening up a three-pronged, full-blown war fought on all sides. So his tactic is more quid pro quo in dealing with the Gaza situation. And many people here feel it just is not enough.

For the past few years the press has been reporting of scandal and corruption – mainly in the form of bribe-taking – by Netanyahu. There has been widespread talk, especially in the weeks before the elections, that Attorney General Mandelblitt would indict the Prime Minister on corruption charges. So far, this has amounted to little more than talk and no official indictment. The mainstream Israeli media has sided with Blue and White, for the most part in their attempts to ouster Likud.

There are other foreign entities who would like to see Netanyahu toppled as well. Because he has made friends with the leaders of many countries throughout the world (especially once-hostile Arab nations); because he has helped uncover the looming threats from Iran; and because he has strengthened Israel technologically, economically and militarily, as well as encouraged settlements in Judaea and Samaria, he is seen as a threat by some.

Going back to the 2015 elections –

                   The [U.S.] State Department paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers grants to an Israeli group [One Voice] that used the money to build a campaign to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in last year’s parliamentary elections, a congressional investigation concluded…the money was used to build a voter database, train activists, and hire a political consulting firm tied to President Obama’s campaign – all of  which set the stage for an anti-Netanyahu campaign, the Senate Permanent  Subcommittee on Investigations said in a bipartisan staff report.                                                                                                                             -Washington Times, July 12, 2016

Several tactics developed by the George Soros-funded Open Society have been exported to Israel along with activists, money transfers and Rock-the-Vote style endeavors. Open Society funds many other Progressive groups, including the New Israel Fund, J Street, and Standing Together (also supported monetarily by the Ford Foundation in the United States). Working closely with Leftist Israeli political activists, including New Israel Fund grantees, Students for Justice in Palestine and J Street, American- funded Progressive groups attempting to replace Netanyahu played an important role in this past (September 17, 2019) election cycle.  I take this directly from the nif.org website:

NIF grantee, Zazim [Let’s Move, in Hebrew] – Community Action plan to    transport Bedouin voters from unrecognized villages to polling stations.

As the “Get on the Bus” Movement in the United States’ 2008 & 2012 elections had a sizable impact on the voter turnout which helped Obama become elected, it was decided to implement the same tactic within the Arab communities in Israel in the 2019 elections. There were reports of Samsung and Motorola phones given out in return for votes for the Arab Joint List members.

Also, from the nif.org website:

The Likud party’s campaign to plant cameras in polling stations which was intended to suppress Arab voters under the guise of preventing ‘voter fraud,’ was fortunately thwarted by a coalition of NIF grantees.

(According to Gavi E., a polling station attendant I interviewed, as a protest in some of the Arab villages in the North, the voting boxes had been filled with envelopes containing multiple party slips and envelopes that had been stuffed with toilet paper containing human feces. There was talk of placing cameras in polling stations to avoid rabble-rousing, but this idea was quickly nixed as being unfair)

Civil society organizations led an inspiring campaign against racism and Jewish supremist ideas this election cycle. While there are still political candidates and parties that support racist doctrines… NIF grantees took a stand and waged a grassroots campaign called “Don’t put racism in the ballot box,” mobilizing Israelis to demand that [ultra-Orthodox religious] not be allowed to run. -nif.org

Seizing the opportunity to escalate a terrible and tragic event this past summer was the American-backed, Israeli activist movement, Standing Together, Omdim B’Yachad.  Ethiopian immigrants with great needs form part of a minority in Israel. They are often overlooked and many live way below the poverty level in the larger downtrodden areas of Tel Aviv and Haifa. This summer an Ethiopian youth, Salomon Tekeh, was killed by an off-duty police officer. Although the case was reviewed thoroughly, and it was reported that Tekeh had instigated a troubling situation and had threatened the lives of children in a play-area, many Ethiopians believed he was killed in cold blood by the off-duty policeman on the scene. They also believe their plight is largely ignored by the government, which, unfortunately, is true. But riots which took place all around Israel were organized, in part, by Standing Together and the New Israel Fund in order to highlight racial inequity and foment dissent in the public sector. The Ethiopian community usually votes in a block to the Right, but by establishing a new ‘Ethiopian” political straw party, Tzedek (Justice), which had gone mostly unnoticed, there were hopes that Netanyahu would be unseated by the loss of votes to the Right. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were funneled by these Soros-backed groups to prop up one of the leaders of  Tzedek, Avi Yalo, who is also a leading member of the Committee for Workers International, promoting Trotskyism. Other top officials in the party are not Ethiopian, but receive grant money from Soros-funded groups. They include Saliman Amoor, Yulia Zemlinsky, Ishak Saporta and Yoav Lalum.

The September 17 election round held surprising results for some. Blue and White with Benny Gantz (I’m not sure why Lapid fell through the cracks this time) squeaked by with a slight lead over Likud and Netanyahu. The shock to Israel electoral results came from the Arab sector. The Joint List is a loose political alliance made up of several different Arab parties…. Muslim, Christian, Druze, Bedouin. Most of the Israeli Arab citizenry vote for someone along these party lines or they vote Likud. However, each faction composing the multi-faceted Joint List represents a different pressing need of the community it represents; and until now, has mostly been disorganized, at best. They usually receive 3-5 seats represented in Knesset. This past September, with the help of  the Zazim bussing project, and with the help of others who tried to strengthen the Palestinian cause, the Joint List became a leading contender. If the Arab votes could further drive a wedge in the two front-runners, there would potentially be more confusion in the formation of a stable government.  U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, D. MN, on Face The Nation, September 15, and also addressing Arab-Israeli voters directly through social media and television, called for the replacement of Netanyahu.  Also, JStreet backed several members of the Arab Joint list in the polls as a way to suspend West Bank settlement development and resuscitate a flailing Two-State Solution. As a result, the Joint List pulled off a record 13 Knesset Seats. They emerged as Israel’s third largest political party, and have backed Benny Gantz and Blue and White.

In September, President Rivlin met with each of the three parties to hear their platform. The mandate was first given to Benny Gantz, who deferred to Benjamin Netanyahu, who agreed with Rivlin’s proposal to form a Unity Government. It was suggested that Likud come together with Blue & White and that the two Benjamins take alternating turns as Prime Minister. Netanyahu would serve first. In the event of an indictment, Gantz would replace him. After Netanyahu was unable to form a working coalition, he agreed to join with Benny Gantz, who, in turn, rejected the proposal. The mandate was given back to Gantz, with members of the Joint List throwing their backing to Blue & White. Upon meeting with the Joint List representatives at the President’s home, Rivlin sat silent as Representative Ahmad Tibi (who praised terrorist murderers as “martyrs”) boldly stated

….we are not present absentees, we are not guests, we are the owners of this land. Not residents of this country. We did not immigrate here, we are a native population, and this native population sent us here to make a change.

For years, the Joint List by their own choosing, was outside the coalition consensus. Theirs was a strictly nationalist ideology representing Arabs most of whom reside in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. They are opposed to a Jerusalem capital of Israel. (The capital city of Ramallah is the recognized capital of Palestine). They are opposed to the presence of Jews on the Temple Mount (the latest hotbed of “discussion” whether as tourists or worshippers. There is not one member of this party that has accepted Israel’s right to exist. They are comprised of a loose party of Islamists, Communists, Fascists, Bedouins united under Arab sovereignty of Israel. Their platform includes unlimited building in the Negev and the Galilee; extending sovereignty over national parks and lands; continued payments for martyrs’ families (their ‘martyrs’ are terrorists who have been killed by the IDF during the act of perpetrating a terror incident); complete autonomy over the education system; major prisoner releases; reverting the State of Israel to pre-1967 (completely indefensible- look at a map) lines; and denying legitimacy of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland. With them there is no co-existence, no wavering. The Jews would be expected to pay dhimmi (taxes levied against non-Muslims) and would be relegated to second class citizens. Their charter is all in writing and can be easily verified.

At the JStreet Conference, held October 26-29 of this year in Washington, D.C. Invited speakers included Joint List Representative Ayman Odeh, Nitzan Horowitz, member of Knesset from the Leftist Meretz Party, a Socialist Democratic Zionist Party and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who also ran in the elections under a small splinter group. Besides backing both Benny Gantz and U.S. Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, both Odeh and Horowitz call for a two state solution to Israel, as well as moving the borders of Israel to the pre-1967 lines. Jerusalem would not be the designated capital of Israel, but Tel Aviv. More money would be given to Judaean and Samarian Arab communities and much of the border wall/fencing would come down. Supporting interest groups from North America include Partners for Progressive Israel and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

As this week, the Arab Joint List has called for a unity Blue & White/Arab party which would be Center Left/Left. Gantz refuses to sit with Netanyahu. Netanyahu refuses to lose the religious vote. Once again Lieberman will not sit with either majority party. Gantz has engaged in dialogue with the Joint List, but that has now failed.  Many Israelis are more than disturbed with the possibility of a protegé of Arafat and terrorism supporters being privy to top secret classified (military) information. Most people are tired of more of the same and underwhelmed with the possibility of a third election.

At this point – and proposals and alliances here seem to shift on a daily basis – there is an impasse. It appears highly likely that Gantz will be unable to form a coalition, so there is talk of new elections in January. This time, it has been proposed that Israeli citizens will vote just for Prime Minister…so it’s a fight between the two Benjamins. Guess Ilhan Omar was correct in saying “It’s all about the Benjamins, Baby.”

Ideologically, most Israelis are on the same page – Centrist. Some lean more to the Right and some to the Left, but for the most part all are united behind a strong defense and on stopping the threat of Iran’s long arms weaving terror tentacles throughout the MidEast. Currently, our economy is the strongest it has ever been. The shekel is strong. There is growth in employment. High tech start-ups and medical technology centers are booming. Israel has been setting tourism records year after year. We are well respected in many countries in South America, Asia, and Africa and have helped these countries in disaster relief efforts, water purification, medical aid, ecological advances and urban planning. The rate of Aliyah is up.

I have tried to encapsulate a very, very complex, continually shifting, political scene. There are so many more complexities to our system of government. We have no written Constitution as in the United States. We are a complete Democracy in which anyone can take part in voting in the election as long as a National ID card is shown. Any person can try to form a political party (see past blog). A party must receive at least three seats (3.25% of the vote) to be represented in the Knesset.  Yes, there are differences and discord. Yes, we have a lot of problems – especially internal affairs, wages, high cost of living, continual strikes by union members, and myriad other issues like effective immigration absorption. And yes, it seems that we are at a political impasse.

We as a nation are in immediate need of a fully functional government. We cannot be perceived as being weak in light of the Iran threat. All I know is that governments are on His shoulders (Isaiah 9:6). We pray that somehow G-d breaks the deadlocks and dissolves egos so that His will be done and we can go forth stronger than ever. Ultimately, this is all in His hands.

Feasts, Fasts & Fragility

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                                  And they found written in the Torah which the L-rd had commanded by Moses, that the Children of Israel should dwell in sukkot in the feast of the seventh month. And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mountain and fetch olive branches, and willow and myrtle and palm branches, and branches of thick trees to make sukkot, as it is written. So the people went forth and brought them, and made themselves sukkot, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the Temple, and in the street of the Water Gate, and in the street of the Gate of Ephraim. And all of the congregation of the people that had come out of captivity made sukkot, and sat under their sukkot: for since the days of Joshua son of Nun, unto that day had not the Children of Israel done so. And there was very great         gladness.                                                                                                                           -Nehemiah 8:14-17

 

As I write this, we are at the end of the great fall feasts of Rosh HaShonnah (the Hebrew New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Sukkot (the seven day autumn ingathering of crops – and peoples), Shemeni Atzeret (the time of rejoicing and praise) and Simkhat Torah (when the scrolls of the first five books of the Bible are completed and rolled back to The Beginning). It’s an emotional rollercoaster of personal introspection on how we lived our lives the past year. It’s a time of repentance and forgiveness – both spiritual and personal. It’s a time of great beauty as we bring in the fall harvest and decorate our little huts, sukkot, and live in them for a week. It’s a time of great rejoicing in the miracles of the past and present and the hope of the future. A time where we place our lives in the hands of the Almighty. A time when we realize (between all the feasting and all the fasting) the absolute fragility of our lives here on Earth.

Rosh HaShonnah was filled with joy for us. As usual, we spent the days prior receiving calls and well-wishes from and making calls to friends to extend greetings for the New Year. My synagogue attendance this year was way different than any other I’d experienced before. I didn’t want to leave my husband for too long, as he had just come home from the hospital the day before, so I attended services at the Mizrachi (those Jews from the Middle Eastern countries)/Moroccan shule down the street. Their liturgy was completely unfamiliar to me. Way different than the Ahskenaz/European style I was used to. Yes, I could follow along in Hebrew in the prayerbook, but all the chants were with different tunes. Many of the prayers were different, more upbeat, some prayers completely absent, many new (for me) additions. The worship (still segregated by sexes) was much more out in the open, with arms raised hands extended upwards; bowing and prostration; general exuberance. Obviously, I was out of my element, something I’ve grown used to since moving here – but all the women were more than glad to help me find my place and understand the rubrics – even without having to ask. Perhaps they spotted the confused looks on my face? The closest comparison I can make is this: a traditional Roman Catholic walks into a Greek Orthodox basilica…

The Day of Atonement is the one day in Israel where absolutely EVERYTHING comes to an abrupt and screeching standstill. The morning before, all the radio stations begin to play soft, introspective music. Songs of healing from past mistakes and songs of love and forgiveness (not necessarily Hebrew or religious) play quietly. By 3 pm the radio stations stop their programming  for the next 30 hours. Same for the television stations – unless there is a national emergency. All transportation stops and major roads and highways are blocked off and shut down. Even the airports close for Yom Kippur!

In the morning, it is just the sound of birds. Absolutely no noise. It seemed that even the neighbors’ voices and footsteps of people walking to synagogue are muffled on this holy day. So much peace!!!! No loud jackhammers or low, rumbling busses and trucks. No jet planes racing through the skies. Just silence. Glorious silence.

Yom Kippur was more of the same for me: paddling rather happily through unfamiliar waters with lots of help and encouragement from the ladies at the Mizrachi/Moroccan synagogue. It gave me time for introspection and comparison: these services represented my past year. My own personal health problems had been put temporarily on the back burner as we dealt with the triage mess of my son’s Crohn’s Disease and my husband’s cancer journey. We have navigated the murky waters of a healthcare system that is new to us. Paperwork. Bureaucracy. Doctors. Appointments. Social Services. Hospitals. Treatments. Surgery. Home care.  Old friends and family members have fallen away rather unexpectedly. New friends have been at our side to help us understand and cope with our situation every step of the way. There were those people who did not know what to say or do; even we had no words at times. It was always awkward. Yet we put our hope and trust and faith – all our anxieties and questions – into the hands of G-d. These were some of the things I meditated on during Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur here literally ends with a bang. Loud banging, to be exact. People come home from a long day of fasting, grab a bite to eat at home or at a community break-fast, and then grab their hammers and the banging starts. Until wee hours of the night, families are busy constructing their little huts, sukkot, in which they will eat, sleep and play for the next seven days. They appear in backyards, on balconies, in alleyways and streets. Restaurants build sukkot outside their establishments. Hotels have giant ones, big enough to hold tables for all their guests. It really is a sight to behold! My favorite this year, was the one erected at a bus stop.

During Sukkot, we remember the time immediately after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt; the miraculous eradication of Pharoah’s pursuing forces as they were swallowed by the Sea of Reeds; and the tremendous defeat of the Amelekites – after all these miraculous victories – we found ourselves in the middle of the desert, dependent upon G-d for absolutely everything. For water (the Almighty provided water flowing from dry rocks and Miriam’s miraculous wells). For food (He gave us quail and manna in the wilderness). For protection (He saved us from the hands of all our enemies). For a way to live (He gave us His Law). For direction (the Pillar of Smoke and Cloud of Fire to lead us).

We celebrate this festival not during springtime, when the horrible, unpredictable winter weather is over and the days are sunny, but at the beginning of fall. It is a time of complete unpredictability of climate. In Southern California, we used to joke that the only thing that was predictable was the Santa Ana Winds and subsequent brushfires blowing and choking us out of our little booths. Here in Israel, it marks the beginning of the fall winds and rains. Just as we finish putting up our sukkah decorations and have one or two glorious meals in our tabernacles, the world turns upside down almost literally.

This year, Max erected our sukkah solo. It was a rite of passage. He had helped his dad every year, but this year, he built it on his own. We were all quite proud of the accomplishment. I, once again, decorated in grand style, hanging my Leat Silvera Sukkah Walls (visit her awesome website!!!) and silk curtains… hand blown glass fruit and veggie ornaments  dropping down from the rattan roof/skakh. The table was set, fresh pumpkins and pomegranates adorning the table. The twinkle lights were up with additional hanging lights… my hand-tied vine wreaths adorned with willow and olive branches with added votive candles and silk ribbons. A couple good friends brought food and wine and we feasted the first night away- despite the oppressive heat wave we were having.

Early morning of Day Two, we packed John into the back seat and headed down to Sheba for our follow-up appointments with the doctors and nurses. Great news: the surgeon thinks he got most/all of the cancer and there was no apparent metastasis. Yay!!!! Way to go, Dr. Haikin!!! Way to go, G-d!!!! However, he will have to undergo another round of chemo and further testing. Just to be safe. Our bodies are so fragile. How much more can they withstand???? After a very long day, we packed John back into the backseat for the drive home. Stopping along the way, the hot, sunny day suddenly changed and it seemed the gates of heaven had re-opened. Lightning ripped through the sky and the winds began to blow. There was a huge drop in temperature and big raindrops started hitting our windshield. The sidewalks were awash in puddles and a small amount of flooding ran down the streets.

By the time we got home, dusk was upon us. The storm had passed, for the most part, but the closer we got to our neighborhood, the more downed branches and parts of disassembled sukkot we dodged that were lying in the streets. The main entrance to our neighborhood was blocked by police cars and a downed tree. Neighbors were milling about in the street. The power to our street and the one below ours was completely out. According to the policeman who lives next door, the winds rushed through the wadi (huge gorge/ravine) below us – we live on the side of a mountain – that it created a vortex. A small cyclone (he actually used the word tornado) had skirted long the side of our mountain. A tree had fallen across a power line. Neighbors’ roofs were torn off or badly damaged. People lost satellite dishes and rooftop water heaters. We did a cursory check of our house. Our patio furniture on the balcony was strewn all over the place and jettisoned below. There were lots of tree limbs scattered everywhere, and, of course our sukkah was ashambles. Thank goodness Max had the foresight to fasten it down and to the sides of the house or it would have been a total loss! We were blessed. Without power for 3-4 hours until well after dark, but all was intact.

The next morning, I went downstairs to inspect…. and spent the entire day cleaning up a few broken items, and mopping up the dust that had settled deeply into even crevice. But we were blessed. Neighbors told us they felt their whole houses shaking and the noise was so strong several people thought it was an IDF jet in severe distress. It had all sprung up and happened so quickly. And there was substantial damage – but not unfixable – on our street.

All I know is this yearly reminder of the frailty of life (see my past blogpost last year, Frailty) continues to be made present wherever we go. Our sukkot blow away. Our bodies, our lives are temporary, sometimes they fail mid-use. But just as the Shekinah, the glory and promise of G-d physically dwelled with the Children of Israel in the midst of the wilderness, the Shekinah can dwell within us in our fragile sukkot. That Spirit can be still and small or manifest in the strongest ways. It’s up to us to seek it out, to allow it to shine in all its glory as a light to a hurting world.

I want to take this opportunity to express our gratitude and love to those who have showed us tremendous support: my husband’s friends from work have been (amazingly) with us to bolster him with encouragement when we most needed and least expected it. To all the folks back home who sent letters and cards. It’s nice to know there are praying people out there lifting us up as we pray for them. Thank you to Gino, Della, Angelique, Roland, Tsippy, Josh, my old rabbis, Bill, Mike, Lee… for the emails and calls. To Marc and Carolyn for all their help, especially with Haggis. To Sinead and Giacomo for their daily calls and offers of help. To Carola, my peerless prayer partner and Torah Talk sister. And Yolanda, who’s been there like me – for her prayers and advice and my midnight phone calls. For Judy, a continual source of inspiration and strength in impossible times when it looks bleakest – your smile and words – what can I say? For Paula, always ready to put down her busy schedule to help us. For Gabi, who helped us with translations….endless translations. To Efrat and Hanan, our protectzia in more ways than one. And to my dear friend, Galit, always there to provide information on navigating the system, for the latest on medical research, for translation, for constant prayer, and for lending an ear to my whining. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And to anyone else I missed. Our special angels. We appreciate all your care and concern.

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