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Uncategorized May 9, 2012

What is Israel, Anyway?

Since I shy away from controversial topics, I’ve danced around the Israel issue for a long time.  Well, that’s about to end.

It seems that Neshama Carlebach has changed the lyrics to the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, to broaden its meaning and include Israeli Arabs.

Here are the revised words below. Changes are in bold, with the original words following in brackets.
As long as the heart within
An Israeli [Jewish] soul still yearns
And onward, towards the East
An eye still gazes towards our country [Zion]
We have still not lost our hope
our ancient [2000 year] hope
To be a free people in the land of our fathers [our land]
in the city in which David, in which David encamped [land of Zion and Jerusalem]
To be a free people in our land
In the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Part of what stymies American Jews in trying to figure out what in tarnation is going on in Israel is the core issue of separation of church and state.  Now whether that precept is good for the Jews or bad for the Jews depends on a lot of factors, but bottom line, it’s what us US Jews are used to.

Israel, though, was founded as joint church (pardon the expression) and state.  The state IS the church, see?  It was formed as a Jewish nation.  Now we have a move to widen that definition – make it Israeli instead of Jewish.

What IS Israeli???

Falafel?  Nosy taxi drivers?  Searing heat in the southern deserts?  Drought?  War?  Teva pharmaceuticals?  Naot sandals?  Soldiers?  What?

If Israel is not Jewish, what is it?

And if it is Jewish, must it be so politically?

For reasons I cannot fully explain, this change, following the whole controversy of  Jerusalem not being listed as the capital of Israel on birth certificates, makes me so, so weary.  Sad.  Tired.  Help me understand.

What do you think?

Uncategorized April 23, 2012

Israel: a Failed Marriage?

Intro: I rarely follow Israeli politics.

Now before you write me off, hear this:  when my kids start reporting intricacies and details of their disagreements, he said/she said, then I did this, then he did that, and that’s why we whatever, an intense wave of fatigue washes over me.  My eyes begin to close, my limbs become heavy, and my speech becomes slurred.  I can’t even listen.

When I hear news from Israel that there was a terrorist attack or an army debacle, I feel awful.  My eyes well up with tears, my lips begin to move in prayerful entreaties, and my heart contracts in pain.


When I read analyses that read like “he said/she said… then they did this and it was in retaliation for that, but that was only because whatever…” that’s when the fatigue hits.

Imagine that Israel and the Palestinians are a couple.  A couple with kids (the Land).  And they’re married (live jointly in the same place).  And they fight.  Ooh, bitterly.  Acrimoniously.  Fatally.  And the history is so long, so bad, and so tangled, that you can’t even unravel anymore who said what and who did what first, second, and third.  And then all the relatives get involved.

I am by conscious choice NOT discussing who’s at fault.  A marriage can be a failure, whether one member is abusive or it’s a mutually disastrously damaged entity.  Of course, I privately hold a very strong opinion on the matter, but that is not the subject of this post, and I’ll probably never write that post.  What’s the point?  Some will agree, and others will hate me.  Meh.

What I am saying is, if this were a couple, and they have a mutual child (by default if not by birthright), and they came to therapy in this state of dysfunction, would YOU counsel them to stay together?  Would YOU consider them peace partners?

This couple needs a divorce.  There is NO WAY to amicably (or in any other fashion) save this relationship. 

Great, Ruchi.  Now what?  Who’s moving out?  And who’s getting the kids?

I don’t know.  And I’m grateful I don’t need to decide.  But one thing is f’shore – these two will never get along, and the children are simply being damaged in the process.

Agree?  Disagree?  Flawed analogy?

Uncategorized January 19, 2012

My Jerusalem

My Jerusalem is
wet stones
copper sunshine in the morning
prayerful words, fighting their way to my lips.
Grapefruit and pomegranates, and
the most passionate people of the four corners of the earth
converging, colliding, headily.
My Jerusalem is
Ma nishma?
Boker tov!
My Jerusalem is
raw emotion, tears – from where??, a soaring love that
threatens to break out of me,
beautiful people and beautiful art,
soulful words, scribbled on construction sites.
Taxis filled, bursting, with the personalities of their
oh-so-colorful drivers.
My Jerusalem is
Shabbat Shalom
Baruch Hashem.
My Jerusalem is
Uncategorized November 21, 2011

What I’m Thinking When The Orthodox Make Headlines

A very thoughtful reader, alias “Should Be Working,” a self-described Reform Jew, posted the following incredibly respectful thought on my blog last week about The Danger of Being Orthodox.

“I want to take a risk here and ask a question in ‘outsider mode’, since I’m an outsider to Orthodox Judaism. This blog is one of the very few experiences I’ve had of feeling (not just seeing) the ‘inside’ of your Orthodox lives (in all the variations I’ve learned about here, thanks for all that insight into the differences), and also seen that warmth and caring and humility.

So my risky question is what it feels like from the ‘inside’ of Orthodoxy when you read about Orthodox Jews doing things that do not reflect love and joy with respect to those not in their communities–for instance in Jerusalem Orthodox Jews have spit on Christian clergy. Joy and love for one’s ‘own’ is a beautiful and admirable thing, but when you read ‘bad news’ or at least unflattering news, does it make you wish that other Orthodox people would behave more civilly and respectfully to ‘outsiders’? Does it make you feel like those people are wrong and the exception, or that they are just misunderstood, or that they have failed in responsibilities to what someone (Larry?) recently here described (don’t have the Hebrew term in my head) as representing the Jewish people in a positive light?

Such news reports, to be honest, do alienate me from Orthodox Judaism, but I want to hear from this thoughtful, positive-minded group what you think about such acts. I am, again, asking this with respect, and especially for Ruchi in creating this blog–because I can’t think of any other venue where I could actually ask Orthodox Jews how they view such incidents. (I suppose I could show up at Chabad or something and ask there, but the openness I’ve seen on this blog makes asking the question here easier.) “

A few of my other readers gave some good responses, and I’d like to add a fuller treatment of the question: it’s an important one.  Before I answer the actual question, though, I need to put forth a few general concepts.


The first thing that most Orthodox Jews will tell you  is, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.”  This is a cute line, and a nice way to sidestep our co-denominationalists’ disgusting behavior, but it’s just not satisfactory.  Can you say “don’t judge New York by New Yorkers”?  Don’t judge Islam by Muslims?  Don’t judge yoga by yogis?  If, indeed, the system is an appropriate one, and a functional one, shouldn’t you, indeed, be able to judge Judaism by Jews??  That’s just not good enough, while true.  To some degree, you can’t judge ALL of New York by SOME New Yorkers… but to completely sidestep that degree of accountability simply doesn’t sit right with me.  (I credit Rabbi Avraham Edelstein of Moreshet with clarity here.)

Therefore, we have to be able to judge Orthodoxy by MOST of the Orthodox. 


Item number two on the list: have you noticed that the vast majority of ugly news (Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike) comes out of Israel?  Why is this so?  Why is life there so fraught, so tense, so violent, so very, very on the edge of normal, polite behavior??  I just came back, and I lived there for five years, and oh, I love it so, but to be honest… it’s one of the reasons I simply could not live there.  Is it that Jews in Israel have to fight so hard, sweat so much, sacrifice so often, that simple manners become a luxury?  Is it that separation of church and state is a laughable Alice-in-Wonderland dreamworld there?  Is it that people live in such close proximity that “live-and-let-live” is for wimps?  Is it that Jerusalem has always been a place full of tension, a test of peace?  I don’t know, but it’s sad, and bad.  I don’t want to speak lashon hara (gossip) about the Land, my Land, the only Land I capitalize in respect and love, but man… it’s a tough place.


On the subject of lashon hara (gossip), it is important to distinguish between news, gossip, and opinion.  News is information that the public needs to know for a constructive purpose.  Gossip is information that the public does NOT need to know for a constructive purpose, but rather it’s to entertain or denigrate.  Opinion that is respectfully worded and deals with ideas is great.  Opinion that is personal and vindictive is lashon hara.  Not everything that is thought ought to be spoken; not everything that is spoken ought to be written; and not everything that is written ought to be published (Rabbi Y. Salanter).  I leave it to you, reader, to sort your reading material into its various categories.


This is my updated version of “don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.”  Instead of having Judaism and Jews live in silos, I view the Torah as the ultimately perfect ideal.  Everything in the Torah is beautiful and perfect.  No, that doesn’t always mean it all jives with the secular values of 2011, but it oughtn’t, because those will change.  Torah is immutable.  And I know some of you, my dear readers, interpret this in different ways, and I’m glad to discuss that one day.  But here’s my point:

To the extent that a person lives according to the Torah’s instructions, will his actions be beautiful, admirable, and noteworthy.

This, of course, transcends denomination.  It’s directly proportional.  This means if a person doesn’t even know he is Jewish, but is not a gossiper, that person is living in accordance with Torah teaching in this area of his life, and this area of his life will be beautiful and special.  If a person gives tzedaka (charity) – his actions in this area are beautiful.  If a person observes Shabbat, accepts suffering with serenity and faith, smiles at a stranger on the street, bends down to retrieve someone else’s trash, prays for clarity instead of getting angry… these are all ways to behave in accordance with the Torah.

Which means that when a person behaves in way that is ugly, illegal, rude, embarrassing, or hurtful, he is NOT acting according to the Torah in that area of his life.  He may be acting according to the Torah in OTHER areas of his life (Shabbat, kosher), so those parts of his life are beautiful, but the icky stuff is in trangression of Torah.

As well, the obvious Orthodoxy in the garb and external observance just complicates the issue, because now the bad behavior is not just in direct contradiction to Torah, but makes it seem as though “Orthodoxy” sanctions the bad behavior.  Double ick!

In short, when Orthodox people behave badly, that bad behavior is CONTRARY to Torah.  He’s acting that way despite his “Orthodoxy.”  If many Orthodox Jews (however you quantify that) act that way, you have a bad trend that must be addressed from the leadership.  On that note I will tell you that every lecture I attend and nearly every article I read in the “very Orthodox” circles are focused on how Orthodox people should and can improve themselves.  Introspection and upgrading our behavior, ESPECIALLY in the areas of interpersonal relationships (yes, with outsiders too) are at the top of the list.  In fact, the most Orthodox rabbi in the world (my designation), Rabbi AL Shteinman, may he live and be well, has said this publicly many, many times: always seek to upgrade your behaviors with other people.


Therefore, with all this information, here’s the chronology of my thoughts when bad news about the Ortho-Jews hits.

1. Denial
It’s not true.  It didn’t really happen.  That’s insane.  How could anyone seriously act that way??  OK, maybe it happened, but probably no one read it except for me.  How could anyone find this stuff??  The web is so big; maybe it got buried.

2. Anger
Anonymous (or not) Orthodox person, how could you do this to me???  To God?? Do you know how hard I try to be a good ambassador for Judaism?  Do you know how large is the gap that exists between fellow Jews??  Why are you making it worse, harder?  Don’t you  THINK before you ACT??  Journalist: why?  Why are you writing this?  Is this to denigrate, to sensationalize?  Are you happy you got people to smirk about how the supposedly-holier-than-thou Jews are finally revealed for what they really are: a bunch of no-goodniks?  ARRRR!

3. Bargaining
Let’s say this disgusting behavior really did happen.  It’s a crazy fringe group.  No one really takes them seriously.  You can’t possibly find any Rabbi who would sanction this.  None of this is in the Torah.  Torah is perfect.  There are so many Orthodox folks doing good; don’t they outweigh a few crazies?  Sure, their customs might be unfamiliar, their dress a bit different, their culture slightly divergent… so what?  I just have to work harder, blog faster, try harder to teach my kids that God wants us to behave with love, respect, and joy to all human beings… oy. 

4. Depression
I can’t.  Can’t read this stuff anymore.  Maybe I need to crawl under a rock and not read the news and DEFINITELY not read any blogs and unfollow a whole slew of people on Twitter.  I pretend I have such a thick skin, but I guess I’m kind of sensitive after all… It’s so upsetting, to try so hard, to know so well what Torah living is about, to shout from the rooftops how beautiful it can be… just to be thwarted by a bunch of bizarre crazies who make headlines and journalists who are gloating over the mound of charred hopes.  I go through my day like an automaton… have no zip…

5. Acceptance
“The work is not yours to finish; neither are you free to completely shirk it” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:21).  There will always be those, have always been those, that are a chillul hashem (disgrace to God’s Name with their bad behavior).  There is no way I’m going to change that.  What I can do, must do, is be a kiddush Hashem (elevation of God’s name with good behavior).  I can only do what is humanly possible.  I need to know enough to be productive, and that’s it.  I need to introspect and make sure no trace of bad behavior infects me.  I need to keep doing what I’m doing, reaching, teaching, learning, growing, parenting responsibly.  I need to to take things both more and less personally. 

“A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness” (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi).

Yes, readers.  These are, not coincidentally, the five stages of grief.  This is how I feel when I hear that an Orthodox person has publicly and badly failed in being a good Jew.  I grieve the Torah that was transgressed, I mourn the kiddush Hashem that was lost to us, and I wistfully miss the feeling that us Jews can indeed, be one family.  It’s hard to grieve so much.  But I care that much.  I love us that hard.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thanks for reading.

Uncategorized November 10, 2011

Israel: Love and Frustration

A Facebook friend of mine who made aliyah last year (ie moved permanently to Israel) posted the following:

“I wish born and bred Israelis would understand that I can love Israel and be frustrated by it at the same time!”

Yes!!  True!! Me too.  I wish *I* would understand that.

On my recent trip I felt: intense love, frustration, nostalgia, guilt for moving away (we lived there for 5 years), relief for moving away, homesickness for Cleveland, homesickness for Jerusalem, cynicism at Israeli notions of service, and intense respect for their innovation, gumption, and sheer brilliance.



Uncategorized October 12, 2011

But I Don’t Want to Spend Summer on a Sand Dune… part 2

My friend Roni Sokol of the hilarious is smack in the middle of telling her Israel story… here’s the long awaited part 2 – just in time for she and me to travel to Israel in 10 days.  Thank you Roni!

Send money, I’m not coming back.
After I cancelled my flight back to the states, my Israeli family unilaterally decided that I would sleep on Great Aunt Rivka’s couch for the duration. This ended up being 6 months. The tricky part was that, although she allegedly spoke fluent English, Rivka could not understand my “American accent.” Accordingly, we had to communicate with a writing tablet for the entire time I lived with her (and her numerous pet cockroaches).
It didn’t help matters that at 3:00 in the morning the first night, my friends from LA called to inquire whether I was being held hostage, or even worse, joined a cult. They demanded explanations to the following questions: “What are you doing there?,” “Why are you staying there?,” “Did you meet a boy or something?”  Yes, they were all convinced that I met a boy and that is what was keeping me there. When I told them they were wrong, they would not believe me. So, I decided to go along with it. Yes, I had met a nice Israeli soldier boy who only came home from the army base on weekends, and I decided to hang around and wait for him. Interestingly, that answer actually satisfied them more than my previous answer–that I just liked it there.
The truth was, I had no idea why I was there or what I was going to do. I just wanted to stay. I was intrigued by the people. They were blunt and honest and real. They sort of reminded me of myself. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get away with sunning myself on the beach all day everyday (or would I?), so I decided that the first thing I needed to do was learn the language. I mean, if I was going to stay there indefinitely, it would be a good idea to know how to properly ask for my burgers well done.
So, I went to this place called an” Ulpan”.  This is where people go to learn conversational Hebrew in a hurry (reading and writing optional). This is where my grandparents met when they came over before the war. I went there every single day for months. And you know what? I learned the language pretty well. I was able to communicate fluently with 4 year olds and the elderly. I made lots of friends from all over the world at that Ulpan. I became friends with a German boy named “Ari.” I decided that when I had a son, that would be his name (not because I liked the guy that much, but because I liked the name). I still love the name (and my son, Ari, of course).
Well, I needed to do something else besides study Hebrew day in and day out. My parents were asking a lot of questions and the money was drying up. Fortunately, my Great Uncle Aaron would slip me some sheckles here and there. He was pretty cool for an old guy who didn’t speak one word of English. Not one word! He grew fond of me, though (thanks to my cousin who would translate).
Aside from Uncle Aaron, everyone kept asking me what I was going to do next and I got tired of not having an answer. So, I took Bus No. 4 over to Tel Aviv University and walked in the office marked “Overseas Student Program.” I filled out an application right then and there. They wanted money. I gave them some. I was accepted for the coming semester. What did I tell you? Israel is AWESOME!
I moved into the dorms and became a student. When we started, some University officials took the women aside and told us to beware of the Israeli men. They would flatter us and wine and dine us in order to get to the US of A.  They warned that our hearts would be broken in a million little pieces. They also warned us to expect to get mighty chunky, as the women always tended to get fat on this program, while the men wasted away to nothing. This could have something to do with the falafel, but I’m not entirely sure.
The semester was incredible–an experience like no other. I learned more about the history of Judaism and the culture than I’d ever known. And then June came. The best year of my life was over. I had become a different person. I had matured tremendously, and yes, met an ivy league boy (or 3).  I was pumped up, motivated, ready to take on anything. But now, it was time to fish or cut bait. Would I go back to the U.S., back to college, back to life as I knew it? Or stay there, bum around, sleep on that lady’s couch, get a job?
I decided to return home. One year had passed since I left. I needed to finish college and get on with my life. My Israeli family took me to the airport. We were all sullen. As I got ready to board the plane and was giving all my hugs, Great Uncle Aaron said in Hebrew that he did not want me to go. I told him in my broken Hebrew that I would be back. I promised. He responded that no one ever comes back when they leave for America. By then, he had tears flowing down his face. I told him I’d be different.
But, I wasn’t. Although the country always held a place in my heart, I did not return until 20 years later, when I visited with my husband in 2005. My Great Uncle had already passed. So had the aunt whose couch I slept on. But, the memories all came rushing back. Although the country had changed substantially since I left, so much was the same. It took me right back to when I was 19.
In two weeks, I will return to Israel. It will be 25 years since I pleaded with my mother not to send me to a sand dune. I expect (and hope) that this two week trip is just as magical as that unplanned, impulsive, and completely incredible year in 1985 which changed me forever.
Uncategorized September 28, 2011

But I Don’t Want to Spend Summer on a Sand Dune

Roni Sokol is a fellow woman, Jew, blogger, and comedienne.  Her blog, Mommy in Law, is hilarious, and usually kosher.  And here’s her tale:
The year was 1985. Yup, I know, some of you weren’t even born yet. Well, I was born and I was actually 19 years old.  It was May. My girlfriends said “Hey, let’s go backpacking around Europe!” and I said “Yeah, cool!” In true teenage form, I never even considered the cost. 
So, I asked my parents for the cash and my request was met with a resounding “NO!” They would NOT pay for me to go “bum it” around Europe all summer. No way! That would not teach a work ethic or the value of money or … whatever other lessons they felt they needed to teach me.
But, my mother (a native Israeli) said (in her deep, thick, accented voice) “The only place I will pay for you to go is ISRAEL (pronounced by her as YIS RAH EL!) For this, I will pay!!”  Now, I was not raised religious in any sense of the word. Being sent to Israel was always used as a threat in our household. For example: “Keep complaining about the dinner and I’ll send you to Israel so you can see what famine looks like!” or “You better stop ditching classes or we’ll send you to Israel where you’ll have to live in a tent on a sand dune and you’ll learn to appreciate what you have!” or “All you do is lay on the beach! I have a right mind to send you to Israel where you’ll have to fight in the army and learn about RESPONSIBILITY!” 
So naturally, when my mother made this offer to me, it was made without any intention of the offer being accepted.  In fact, I answered “NO!!!” and proceeded to slam my bedroom door.  But then my father took me aside and advised me to go. I asked in a whimper: “But what about the sand dunes?” He said “Go, you’ll have the time of your life.”  And slowly, he talked me into it.
So I approached my mother and said “OK, I’ll go.”  She said “go where?” I said “to Israel (pronounced by me as “IS REAL”). She was dumbstruck. She had never expected this. She was kind of stuck now. She reluctantly agreed.
So I went  for two weeks in summer of 1985 (with a cousin whom I promptly ditched). I got off that plane and saw things I’d never seen before–people actually kissing the pavement as they exited the plane, boys and girls my age combing the streets in military garb with actual UZIs strapped to their waists, a wild and fun night life in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and some incredible sites. And best of all, I didn’t have to sleep on a sand dune! (Actually, I never even saw a sand dune!)
It’s really impossible to explain the effect that Israel has on a person (especially a Jewish person) until you get there. It’s kind of like trying to explain childbirth to someone who’s never had a baby. It’s something one needs to experience on his or her own.
I don’t know what it was about Israel that sucked me in. I’m pretty sure it was not the rotary phones that they still used when I was there, or the fact that the TV had only one station, or the fact that you couldn’t find a piece of ice anywhere in that country to save your life and you had to drink your Coke warm, or the fact that the toilet paper was purple and felt like sandpaper. In addition, my experience was not necessarily “religious.”
I think it was the people. The attitude. And the way it felt to be around my own kind, to be in the majority for the first time ever, to be in a place where “Jewish” describes everyone and not just a teeny portion of the population. There is something very welcoming and comforting about being with people who share your history. I felt like I was at home.
The two weeks went by very quickly. I became acquainted and reacquainted with lots of family and spent hours touring the country. And then it was time to go back. My flight was scheduled to leave the next morning. I picked up that rotary phone and dialed the 25 digits I needed to dial to reach my parents in Los Angeles. I told them “Send clothes, I’m not coming back.” And I cancelled my return flight.
To Be Continued…