Family, Kibbutz, Living in Community, Parenting

Our long, hot Israeli summer

Somewhere in the middle of the very long list of “Things they don’t tell you BEFORE you make Aliyah” – a list that would include tips like “Don’t sell all your stuff before coming; you’ll need more of that Target brand crap than you think;” or “Israeli Tupperware really stinks” or “Living on a kibbutz means feeding kids that aren’t your own at least two days a week” – is this doozy: There is nothing for your kids to do in August.

Now, as you know, I live on a small kibbutz in the North. So it could be that my kids have less to do in August than their city counterparts.  And we did have Gan for the little one until mid-August and some options for the bigger ones in early August. But compared to what abounds in New Jersey in terms of camps and summer programs, our options were extremely limited and extraordinarily pricey.

Not that day camp is cheap in New Jersey; but when you decide to suck it up and pay for camp you know you’re getting a full day of activities – so much so that when your kid finally gets off the bus in front of your house at 4:45 pm, he’s happy to sit in front of the television for two hours, and you don’t feel guilty about it one bit because you know he’s been learning to swim and dive and make campfires and knots, especially fancy ones that get turned into friendship bracelets. If your kid goes to Jewish camp, you know he’s even hearing a little bit of Hebrew or singing Zionist pioneering songs. You feel like he’s had a good solid day of stimulation and exercise.

Here in Israel, we had two options for August, one of which was a regional camp which was reasonably priced but got less than stellar recommendations from people we know whose kids went last year; and the second was a morning Nature Camp that sounded a little bit unbearable to me in the 100 + degree heat of summer, and I knew would be a disaster for my oldest who craves high energy activity, not quiet, contemplative exploration of nature in the boiling heat of Israel.

This August, our first since making Aliyah, has been the longest month of my entire life. And it’s been twice as long for my husband who has had the bulk of the childcare responsibility this summer.

I’ve been lucky on the one hand in that I have an excuse for an escape. My full time job right now is a large chunk of our family income; and since I don’t have any vacation days left after using my four days in June, I’m pretty much required to show up at work. But my poor husband, who is a consultant and a part-time work-at-home dad, has been at the center of a rude awakening this summer. A mistake he will never make again, which is children need something to do in the summer. As much as the 1950s era Leave it to Beaver idea of summer (wandering around the neighborhood looking for pet rocks or selling lemonade in front of the five & dime) might appeal to you, it’s just not the reality for our post-modern kids who have grown up over-stimulated and under-inspired. Sorry if that’s harsh, but it’s true; even for my kids who I try very hard to under-stimulate and over-inspire.

The fact is if you are not prepared to be the resident camp counselor for your kids, you better pay someone else to.

In May, I gently suggested to my husband that we try to round up the funds to send my oldest to the States for the summer. He could stay with my husband’s cousin who has a house in upstate New York and who we trust to parent our kid (who has nut allergies). My husband squashed that idea in an instant and assured me the summer would be filled with “Avi Camp” activities (Avi being my husband), such as drawing, hiking, and English and Hebrew lessons. Avi even suggested he and my oldest would work on making a movie with our Flip camera, part of a “turning off Phinneas and Ferb and learning Hebrew” project.

The film project lasted approximately three hours.

Instead, my 8-year-old has been in between our house and his grandparents’ house near Tiberias, similar to, as I’ve come to learn, most Israeli kids between the ages of 4 and 10.

It’s truly amazing, I have to say, how involved Israeli grandparents are in their grandchildren’s lives. It’s not true across the board, of course, but it’s noticeably truer here in Israeli society than it was for the families I knew on the East Coast of the U.S. This particular cultural difference between the two countries fits into the “family is a priority” category which could be broken down even smaller into the “we really take care of our children” category, which could be loosely interpreted as “we love to spoil our children because that’s what parents do.” Depends on who you ask.

The way this looks in day-to-day Israeli life is parents of little children nodding yes, yes, yes as their little ones scream for junk food (Why? Because it tastes good!); parents of teenagers stuffing their kids’ pockets with cash (Why? Because they’re only kids once!); or Israeli parents of adult children paying their kids’ rent or buying them groceries on a regular basis or putting a down payment on a new house (Why? Because they need a little help getting on their feet is all.)

I’m not criticizing this parenting style, mind you; that would be like biting off my nose to spite my face.  I’m just noticing it. And wondering if perhaps, the reason we don’t have more August summer programs for our kids is because working parents expect their parents to watch their children. And the grandparents are used to saying yes.

Or is the fact that there is no programming for our kids in August related to the long list of grievances coming from the folks protesting across the country in tents? The root of which would be, “We don’t get paid enough to afford rent and groceries; how could we possibly afford summer camp?”

No money to demand camp. No supply.

I’m not sure which is the reason for the lack of summer programming for kids. All I know is that if I were writing a book on “Things they don’t tell you before making Aliyah” (and I’m getting very close to that point), item #24 would be “Save money for a U.S. vacation in August.”

Trust me. If you follow tip #5 – “Save your garage sale for Israel; you’ll get a lot more money for your stuff” – you might be able to afford it.

Culture, Family, Learning Hebrew, Letting Go, Love, Middle East Conflict, Spirituality

Daily practice

The other day I discovered the blog of writer, investor and entrepreneur James Altucher. Someone at work forwarded me a tech-related post Altucher had written; and after exploring his blog a bit I realized that 1) he has a foul tongue (and I like it!) and 2) has much more to offer than subjective evaluations of the market and tips for entrepreneurs: He’s insightful and introspective.

In particular, his August 20 post, “How to be a human,” was chock full of topics of interest to me — the end of the world, the fate of humanity, and the fear and anger that leads a person to spew hatred at a stranger on a public forum.  Certainly, as I am not addressing on this blog a virtual audience the size of Altucher Confidential, I don’t come up against as much public defamation as he might. But in the 15 years that I’ve written for public audiences — in newspapers, magazines, and extremely opinionated blogs — I’ve certainly set myself up to be taken down. And it’s a lot less fun than when someone shares your blog post on their Facebook wall; or when a more celebrated blogger mentions you in their weekly newsletter.

Altucher claims not to care; not to be impacted by what others write to or about him. He instead acknowledges their anger as representative of and outlets for dealing with past trauma (ie. “Their fathers or mothers didn’t love them;” Other kids beat on them; “Girls or guys didn’t like them or called them names.”)

Altucher credits his humanity for providing him with the ability to rise above his own past traumas; to stop him, he writes, from lying, cheating, stealing, and even killing. In particular,  Altucher credits what he calls “The Daily Practice” as the force by which he remains sane and suitable for society.

His “daily practice,” Altucher claims, is “the only way I’ve ever been able to rise above animal and be human.”

I like this. I like this a lot.

I absolutely agree with Altucher that the world is full of angry, scared, depressed people that often act like animals, but moreso I like how he offers useful tips in a frank, yet accessible voice. Tips that might, just might, lead an Average Joe to be more contemplative, seek help, or better yet, take action.

(In fact, he reminds me of someone I know and love who strives to do the same.)

In questioning the nature and formality of my own daily practice, I realized there is one thing I have committed to each and every day since I moved Israel — Something that is often difficult, very frequently humiliating, and yet so nourishing for my soul.

Every day, I choose to have one uncomfortable conversation.

Typically, my uncomfortable conversation is in Hebrew, but sometimes not. Sometimes the uncomfortable conversation might be with my English speaking neighbor or boss, on a topic that makes me squirm, like money.  And sometimes it’s on a topic I’m emotionally invested in, and the uncomfortable conversation is with my in-laws and or my kid’s teacher.

The more uncomfortable the conversation, I’ve found, the more I learn about myself. The more uncomfortable the conversation, the more I grow.

Particularly for me, the uncomfortable Hebrew conversations have been humbling…which I think my soul really needs. Like Altucher, my daily practice has taught me how to be more human. In particular, to listen, to feel, and to do both with compassion.

But uncomfortable conversations, I think, could be a useful daily practice for almost anyone.

For my shy husband, for instance, the daily practice of having an uncomfortable conversation might be empowering. Or, for my son, offer the thrill of independence.

The uncomfortable conversation can break down walls and stereotypes. It can open doors…and close them. The uncomfortable conversation is often less scary than you think. Instead, it’s often surprising and enlightening. It’s a daily opportunity to practice self-restraint, love, and compassion.

Based on the progress I’ve made since I started taking on the uncomfortable conversation as a daily practice, I daresay, it might be the key to Middle East peace. It might be the answer for world hunger and all that ails the world.

The key for progress and improvement lies somewhere within the uncomfortable conversation, I am sure of it. More specifically in the courage and compassion required to conduct the uncomfortable conversation (as opposed to the uncomfortable screaming match or the uncomfortable revolution or the uncomfortable war).

The uncomfortable conversation, by the way, doesn’t require two consenting participants. It only requires you: Committed, compassionate, humbled and empowered you.

You, as part of your daily practice, trying to be more human.

Culture, Kibbutz, Learning Hebrew, Letting Go, Living in Community, Love, Making Friends, Parenting

Ties that bind

Last night, underneath a full moon, within the sacred space of our kibbutz mikveh, ten women gathered to acknowledge our friend who will be bringing a new life into our community in a few short weeks.

Debbie’s due at the end of August and it’s become somewhat of a tradition on Hannaton to create a “birth circle” for pregnant women. We sculpt the pregnant mother-to-be’s belly into a keepsake “mask;” we drink tea, and last night, we shared our birth stories.

It’s taken me some time to feel comfortable in a circle like the one I participated in last night. I blame it on the fact that I grew up without sisters.

Others, like me, who grew up with only brothers, or those with no siblings at all can back me up: What might be seamless and normal for women who grew up alongside sisters often takes a lot longer for us.  When you grow up with sisters, you have years to learn the ins and outs of interacting with other women, of being comfortable in the girl group dynamic. Even if you aren’t close with your sister, you’ve likely figured out the subtleties and intricacies of female conversation.  You know how to fight fair and eventually make up. You’ve shared beds and clothes; you’ve taken your bras off in front of each other.

The rest of us arrive at summer camp or at college completely clueless – and it takes us most of our adult lives to figure it out.

Fortunately, as I’ve discovered, giving birth speeds up the sense of sisterhood. There’s nothing like the aches of pregnancy and pains of childbirth to bond you with other women. And, in all seriousness, there’s nothing that creates kinship like sharing birth stories…even when, like me, you consider your birth experiences to have been less than ideal.

Last night, I smiled when we were invited to share our birth stories with each other.  Having already experienced the intimacy that comes with sharing birth stories in a circle of women, I was really excited to be part of this exercise with this group of women…my friends in the making.  I saw this as the perfect opportunity to learn more about each other, to open up, to move past the everyday niceties, to connect.  

Until it hit me…again.

It would all be in Hebrew. I felt my smile fade and my stomach turn.

You would think that by now it would take less time to compute – the Hebrew element. But it doesn’t. There is still a time lapse during which it occurs to me that my understanding of how an experience might be is not how it will be in actuality. Meaning: Hebrew makes it harder.  Tiresome. And eventually, mind-numbing. When it’s in Hebrew, I find it hard to engage; frustrating to participate; challenging to connect.

So I disengage. And the moments that might have moved me instead become tests…not just of language comprehension, but of pure will.

I did my best to keep up. But then, as it often does in these situations, my mind started to wander. First to that insecure place that masquerades as boredom…checking my watch and checking out; wishing I could leave and go home to watch reruns of The Office (in English).

And then the transition to the outsider’s feeling of sadness and longing…The inner thoughts of “I bet I would have laughed too if I had understood the joke” or the inner shame of “I wonder if they know I’m just nodding along.”

And then to the place where fear and desperation lives: Fear that I will never learn Hebrew well enough to blend in; to feel a “part” of anything meaningful here. That my relationships will always be surface-based; that my interactions in Hebrew will always be met with challenges and confusions; that I will never be able to fully participate. That no one will really know me and I won’t really know them.

Which might not be a big deal for you, but is for me. Because meaningful connections are what moves me. And without them, my life suffers.

Despite my discomfort, I didn’t leave the birth circle. Instead, I stayed and shifted my focus. I ate watermelon. I observed instead of listened. And at some point, I realized I could follow the stories without understanding the words. I could hear the subtle differences in the stories coming from the veteran moms of three versus the new mothers. I could catch the different expressions on my friends’ faces…of wonder…of embarrassment…of confidence…and of pride.  And each was moving and telling.

At some point, I realized too that just being a part of this circle, no matter how little I comprehended or contributed to the conversation, indeed connected me to the women sitting there. I realized that these women weren’t strangers to me anymore. That at least half in the room were women I had already confided in on some level and the other half were women I would want to.

While not quickly enough for my taste, I am moving from outsider to insider. And it’s simply because I’ve chosen to show up, and be as “me” as I can be in spite of the language barrier, in spite of my insecurities, and in spite of my fears.

Much like giving birth. Much like becoming a mother. There’s only so much you can know and absorb from sharing information…the rest comes with time and experience…and the courage to simply show up.

(This post originally appeared as “Israeli in Progress” on The Jerusalem Post blog.)

Climate Changes, Middle East Conflict, Terrorism

Looking for trouble

Apparently, I missed an earthquake today. I don’t know how. I wasn’t riding in a car. I wasn’t swimming. In fact, at 11:53, the time at which it happened, I remember looking at the clock on my computer and wondering how long I should wait before taking lunch.

But I missed it.

I’ve been waiting 36 years to be at the center of a natural disaster and I missed it.

Okay, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake centered some 50 miles away from you is not quite a natural disaster, and I should be thankful for such a statement.

But, since my coworkers, just a few desks away from me, felt the shaking (most thought it was construction going on in our office building), I’m a bit bummed that I didn’t feel a thing.

Maybe I was too hungry.

Others would brush it off, be happy that it wasn’t “the big one” that apparently Israel is due for. But, not me. I have this unexplanable desire to feel the earth tremble.

I don’t know when my obsession with disaster began.

Certainly, when I was still a kid. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d put my money on The Wizard of Oz. I was entralled with the film from a tender age, and those of you who are American and in your thirties or older will remember that  it used to be an annual tradition to watch The Wizard of Oz on TV, like the Ten Commandments during Passover, or The Year Without A Santa Claus, during the holiday season.

I remember being as young as five and sitting Indian style in front of our color television watching intensely the cyclone rip Dorothy away from Kansas to Oz. Since the movie simultaneously thrilled me and petrified me, I spent half the time in front of the TV and the other half behind the couch hiding.

So, it could be that my fascination with catastrophe is thanks to L. Frank Baum.  Or, preferring smut to literature, you could subscribe to the Audrey Rose theory: I was reincarnated into this life after perishing in a terrible catastrophe in a previous life; my soul is haunted by said catastrophe; and I naturally seek out to learn all I can to prevent it from happening again.

Or, more realistically, perhaps I’m just one of the many thousands of sensitive human beings who, without trying, automatically attempts to empathize with another’s suffering by imagining what it’s like to be in one of those situations: from tsunami to hurricane to flood.

I know I’m not alone in my fascination. There’s a reason why in recent years we’ve seen an explosion in catastrophe related entertainment:  With shows like “Storm Chasers” and “Full Force Nature,”  The Weather Channel and The Discovery Channel expertly take advantage of our society’s growing interest in (and dare I say understanding of) the frequency with which disasters occur, how ineffective we are at predicting them, and how often they signficantly impact civilization.

When I moved to Israel, I was really surprised to learn we are located on a bunch of active fault lines. Furthermore, there are some dormant volcanoes sleeping in the area of the Golan Heights. Who knew? Here I was anticipating only the anxiety of terrorist attacks or regional turblulence (aka “war.”) I had no idea that earthquakes and volcanoes were a possibility, too.

Don’t mistake my glibness for a death wish or insensitivity for those who have suffered horrible losses in the face of disaster. I know I can afford to be glib because I’ve never gone through it. 

But now, with the ghosts of war and terrorism constantly hanging over my head, I suddenly realized I don’t want to. In fact, I wonder if there is some way to retroactively reverse all that wishing for disaster.

Because, truth is, there is only so much turbulence this sensitive soul can handle. Considering I still jump every single time they make innocent announcements over the kibbutz loudspeaker, I think it’s probably best I didn’t feel the earthquake.

I need to stock up on my adrenaline for when I might really need it.

Kibbutz, Letting Go, Love


I’m sick with yet another cold in a series of countless colds since I moved here. I am not exaggerating when I say that I’ve been ill more times these last eight months than I have in total in the past five years.

Countless people have told me that this is not unusual for new immigrants to Israel; that many get hit with stomach viruses or other infections thanks to new microbes and less sterile conditions. It could also be that I’m back to working in an office environment, in contact with more people on a day-to-day basis. It may have something to do with a change in diet or the stress that accompanies a big transition like a move across the world.

It could be any one of those things.

But as I sit here, with my bedroom door open, enjoying the breeze from the West, as well as the bugs that may fly in through the screenless opening, I acknowledge the great changes in me since I moved to a small kibbutz in Israel. In particular, the mass giving up of control that I held on to so dearly for most of my life; the letting go of fears that caused me to be angry and bitter; the welcoming in of blows to my ego; and the letting down of the strong guard I placed around me to deal with the pain I associated with being wrong and being hurt.

This all happened here in Israel? In eight months?

No. Not really. But the quiet that I have embraced here allows me to hear and see it.

Do I feel this sense of peace and calm all the time?

No way. But I am very clear that it exists for me now more than ever before.

Have I turned into a weird, hemp-wearing, sprout-eating, New Agey hippie? Some would argue I have been that hippie for years, and now I only blend in better with my environment.

A great transformation has and continues to take place for me here. It certainly didn’t start with my Aliyah in December, but has become more and more noticeable. I do not equate it with religion, per say, but it deeply moves my spirit. It’s overwhelming and confusing, at times, and, since I’m certainly not fully evolved, it can also be curious and anxiety-producing.

But just when that anxiety seems to be overtaking the curiosity and ease, I happen upon something or someone that is able to bring me back down to ground level. Sometimes it’s a wise friend or a colleague. Sometimes it’s a timely post on Facebook. Sometimes it’s a dream or a memory. Sometimes it’s an innocent suggestion out of the mouth of one of my children, or an angry accusation or a loving reminder from my husband.

Today, it was the butterfly.

I’ll tell you a little secret about me: Once upon a time, during a turbulent, yet exciting chapter of my life, I did something very bold and out of character for me.

I got a tattoo.

Okay, big deal, you think. Half the population between the ages of 18 and 40 have a tattoo, and of that 50%, a sure 10% have a tattoo with symbolism similar to mine.

It’s a butterfly.

But it was a big deal for me. My butterfly was a statement. It was a symbol that appeared time and time again before I was awake enough to recognize it. My butterfly, once a part of me, gave me strength to make extremely difficult choices. And she continues to remind me of who I am, but more important, who I strive to be.

And, of the great unknown that accompanies great change.

I read today something I never knew about the transformation a caterpillar makes into a butterfly.  A Greek poet and naturalist named Theodore Stephanides wrote,

“How great a mystery of Nature is the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly! This is not, as one might imagine at first, a gradual process of transition and modification. The body of the caterpillar is not just reduced or enlarged, it is not pushed in here or pulled out there there, it is not moulded as it were into the body of a butterfly. Nor is this the case with any of the caterpillar’s organs.

No, a far more astounding sequence of events takes place. Inside the horny envelope of the pupa, the whole caterpillar melts and deliquesces into an amorphous semi-liquid pulp until nothing of its original form remains. Viewed as a sentient entity, that caterpillar has “died”. It has no organs with which to contact the outside world, no nervous system to afford it awareness, however dim, of its own existence.

But after death comes resurrection. Somewhere in that pultaceous mass a mysterious controlling force is concealed. Science is baffled and even the imagination is confounded. It cannot be and yet it is! Some wholly inexplicable directing influence now exerts its power and slowly cell by cell, organ by organ, a new being takes shape. A new organism is gradually built up that bears no resemblance to the lowly caterpillar either in function or in shape, and a glorious butterfly spreads its wings to the welcoming sun.”

I am not so grim as to suggest that my multiple illnesses over these past few months foretell my death or my “deliquesce into a semi-amorphous pulp.” But I can wrap my mind around the idea that my body is adjusting to the change my soul is making, and is naturally going to fight it. And perhaps all the illness is simply a sign of growth and of the beautiful shape my being is yet to take.