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

A year in reflection

In retrospect, I’m glad we made Aliyah at the end of a calendar year. At the time, moving during the first of New Jersey’s many blizzards and dealing with holiday travel didn’t seem like such a good idea. But now, as I reflect on the year that we’ve been living in Israel, I find comfort in the awareness that I will never have to struggle to remember when we moved here. It was at the end of December, in the winter of the end of a decade. 

And, as if leaving our friends and family to move to a new country wasn’t turbulent or memorable enough, there was plenty else to mark this year in my memory. I lost a cousin. I lost my grandmother. And through these and other extraordinarily difficult times for my family this year, I was here and they were there.

In the chapters that mark my life, 2011 will be one I remember without a bookmark, without a folded over corner.

My kind friends and loving husband might argue with this, but the marks of this year also show on my face, which seems to be finally showing signs of age. This year, as exciting as its been, has also been the year that I started feeling aches in my joints and noticing that my body is not as resilient as it used to be.

This was the year I closed my business and started a new job. It was the year I gave up my Blackberry and then found it again, at least the Israeli Nokia version. It was the year I moved to the house down the street of one of my oldest childhood friends and the year I found that sometimes, moving away from your closest friends, actually draws you nearer to them.

This was the year I stopped obsessively focusing on healing others; and truly starting looking inward in an effort to heal myself.  It was the year I rediscovered the healing power of song and prayer; love and community.

This was the year I decided that a heaping helping of humble pie was good for me. That learning something new every day can be painful, but active listening often works better than talking, even when you want so badly to communicate who you are and what you want.

This was the year my husband really learned to appreciated me as a mother. And I him as a hard-working professional. It was the year I resigned myself to the growing up of my children, and the year I decided that they would be okay — in spite of my fears and worries.

It was the year I let go.

This morning, after I dropped off my five-year-old at gan, I shook my head in amazement. He had woken up this morning with a bellyache and asked not to go to school. After hesitating only a minute, we decided it was okay if he stayed behind and rested in his room this morning. After all, it’s a long week, and Fridays are half-day, looser schedules for kids in preschool here.

At around 9 am, he decided he felt better and asked if he could go to gan. I asked him, “Are you sure? You can stay home if you want. It’s fine.” He insisted he felt well and asked that I take him up.

When we got to the door of his classroom, he gave me a quick kiss, and with one last look back, left my side to play with his friends.

This was the same kid who one year ago, walked off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport, pale as a ghost, after vomiting for 12 hours straight. This was the kid who cried every morning for months when we dropped him off at gan; who wouldn’t let us leave; who begged us to stay home.  This same kid was now opting for gan over a day off at home. This same kid, didn’t know a word of Hebrew when we arrived a year ago, but now speaks completely in Hebrew with his friends…and with confidence.

This morning, my five-year-old’s brother is off playing with his own friends; and his sister, I’m sure, is chatting away in Hebrew with hers at her own school. My husband is preparing food for our Shabbat meal tonight with friends, and I’m here, taking a break from cleaning the house.

This was the year we turned our life upside down.

And our life righted itself.

Family, Religion, Spirituality

The emerging Jew in me

(This was originally posted on the blog section of The Jerusalem Post.)

Despite years of being a Jew in a Jewish family, Jewish tradition and, more specifically, Jewish practice often feel very alien to me. Shabbat meals, Shabbat services, Jewish prayers and rituals.  And despite being a bat mitzvah and many years a student in Hebrew school, there is little that I feel confident practicing, and there’s lots that I don’t.

In the past, this ignorance would sometimes surface as fear and loathing when, for instance, I was a teenager at USY events and I didn’t know how to do the Birkat HaMazon (“Grace after Meals”), let alone joyfully pound on the tables at just the right moments, like my friends did (the ones who had been doing it for years at Camp Ramah or Hebrew day school). Or when my college boyfriend took me to a Shabbat lunch at his friend’s apartment at the Jewish Theological Seminary and I was wearing jeans and a tank top, and all the other women covered their shoulders and knees. Or even in recent years, when I found myself in synagogue, standing next to my mother who was saying Kaddish for her father or when we chose a reform Mohel for my son’s Brit Milah, and accidentally offended my in-laws.

What surfaced as fear and loathing back then was likely fear and shame, as I understand it now. Feeling all the time that I was an impostor…stupid…uninformed. That there was something I should have learned along the way, but didn’t. As someone who thrives on information and knowledge (and who shrinks at feeling ignorant), I rejected Judaism. Flat out. I wasn’t interested.

It wasn’t until I got married in a Jewish ceremony that I started considering, even for a second, that there was beauty in Jewish practice and that certain elements of the practice might be accessible and available to me.  It wasn’t until I sent my kids to Jewish preschool that I once again found delight in singing Jewish songs and chanting Jewish prayers, a joy that was familiar to me from childhood, but so distant.  It wasn’t until I moved to Israel a year ago that I started understanding and accepted that it was safe for me to open my heart to Judaism, even though I still had lots of questions and found few answers.

Last week, I traveled back to my home town in New Jersey for my grandmother’s funeral. And for the first time ever, that I can remember, felt comforted by Jewish practice.

In the past, when I found myself in uncomfortable or anxious situations, whether it was a painful experience like childbirth or an emotionally challenging experience like public speaking, I would soothe myself by humming a chant or a mantra I learned in yoga class 12 years ago.

Shri ram, jai ram, jai jai ram

I learned this chant in 1999 at a yoga studio in Manhattan. It stuck and I’ve been humming it for over a decade — I’ve even taught it to my kids and encourage us all to use it when things get a little…hairy…around the house.

But in New Jersey recently, on the way to my Bubbi’s funeral, I found myself humming something different. A nigun we often sing as we enter into prayer on Hannaton for Kabbalat Shabbat.

Laiiiii lai lai lai lai lai

And humming the nigun soothed my nerves and eased me into the Jewish practices yet to come. Mourning and remembrance.

Over the next few days, as I participated in the rituals that followed — Shiva, prayer, Mourner’s Kaddish — I hummed the tune. I taught it to my brother who figured the melody out on his guitar. I’d even say we bonded over this nigun, something we haven’t done for years.

Over five days, I realized that I actually knew so much more “Judaism” than I thought I had. And even more impactful, I understood that it was okay that there were practices and rituals I didn’t know. That I could take from the ones that served and supported me; and refrain from those that didn’t. That there is a time for learning and a time for engaging. That, in fact, I could know absolutely nothing about Jewish practice and ritual…and still benefit from participating in it.

That practicing a ritual you do not fully understand is not hypocritical or stupid or insincere.  It’s okay.

I also realized that once your heart is open, even a little, it may be easily filled by the power of those rituals — the ones you’ve chosen; the ones that fit your needs at that moment.

It’s easy for me to say that living here in Israel is opening my heart to Judaism. That living on a Masorti kibbutz in Israel and participating in its activities have acclimated me more to Judaism. I imagine that’s what it looks like to my friends and family observing the process. That, suddenly, I have “found” religion.
But, it could also be that I’ve entered that time of life when we need the comfort of prayer and ritual more often. Or that my heart has softened after years of marriage and raising children, of losing friends to illness, of losing grandparents to age, of watching my parents age and lose their parents. That my awareness is growing day by day that life is fragile and community is comforting and ritual is soothing.

It may be that my path of spiritual seeking has become more refined or less judgmental.

It may be a mix of all the above.

But, for certain, the key is my opening heart.  And my willingess to let strangers –or strangeness–in.

Letting Go, Religion, Spirituality


When my husband and I were deep into the process of coordinating our Aliyah back in the States, we received a lot of email communication from Nefesh B’Nefesh, some of which was extraordinarily helpful. (In addition to weekly webinars, NBN also has a robust website with lots of information for potential new olim — I would have been a lot better off if I had read any of it before I landed in Israel.)

Occasionally, though, I would get an email from NBN in my inbox and I would be really confused; in the same way I sometimes feel confused when I go to Shabbat services these days and in the middle of the service everyone starts bowing or shuffling their feet and I have no idea why or what I am supposed to do.

There I was 12 months ago: Confident enough in my intention and desire to make Aliyah — married to an American Israeli; 10 years of Hebrew school and USY under my belt; synagogue membership; two kids in Jewish preschool — but still, in many ways, feeling like an impostor.  This was not a new feeling for me — uncertain of my Jewishness among Jews– but a feeling that was becoming much more pronounced with my decision to make Aliyah.

While preparing for Aliyah, there were some things I didn’t understand, but felt awkard asking for an explanation. Shouldn’t I already know the answer? If was “Jewish enough” to be making Aliyah, shouldn’t I have been Jewish enough to understand all the steps involved in transforming from an American Jew into an Israeli?

This was all very subliminal, mind you. I wasn’t consicously aware that I was questioning my own qualifications for making Aliyah. Consciously I was preparing all the documents with ease. I am a Jew after all. I have the figurative C.V. to prove it.

But just as I had never felt Jewish enough among Jews, I didn’t feel “oleh enough” among the olim.

Let me offer you an example. Apparently, when Jews from other countries make Aliyah, they will sometimes change their names.  You could be a 45-year-old woman, whom her whole life has been called Randi, and one day she lands in Israel and her name is Rivka. In December, you’re Susan or Bill or  Mandelovitch and, in January, you’re suddenly Shoshana or Ruven or Manof.

And it’s not just make believe. It’s legal. I don’t know exactly what happens, particularly when you go back to the States to visit, but it’s legal in Israel.  I imagine your American passport still lists you as Susan, but for all official and unofficial intents and purposes here in Israel, you are Shoshanna.

So, Nefesh B’Nefesh sent us this email a month before we made Aliyah asking us if we would be changing our names, and instructing us what to do if so. Huh? I thought. Change my name? Isn’t that something only zealots and freaks do? (Yes, judging, judging, judging.)

I could see the practicality of changing our names — all of which save for my husband’s are very Anglo — but I could not imagine calling my son Oliver by his Hebrew name, Itamar. Or by any name other than Oliver.  Certainly, as an idea, it seemed fun to come up with a new beautiful name for myself–one of my own choosing, one that was easy to say– or to have a second chance in naming our children (particularly our daughter whose name I think we chose in haste). But I couldn’t imagine it. For better or for worse, I am a Jennifer who likes to be called Jen.

Then, soon after receiving that email, we went to an NBN job fair a month before making Aliyah. If we didn’t feel out of place enough already at the event — fairly secular Jews in a sea of Orthodox –we were introduced to a seemingly secular couple our age who was also making Aliyah to the North around the same time we were. They introduced themselves to us by their “new names,” with a shy footnote that they were trying those new names on for the first time. My husband Avi and I smiled and nodded politely, but after they parted, we exchanged looks as if to say, “Say WHAT?” (This was one of those delightful moments where I once again thanked the Divine for gifting me a husband who I could have “say what” moments with.)

Who were these people we were making Aliyah with? Who were we to be making Aliyah?

Who am I to be making Aliyah?

And really…Who am I to call myself a Jew?

My husband was already an Israeli citizen. He was born in the States to two Israeli parents who moved to the U.S. as young adults. His parents returned to Israel with their children when my husband was in preschool and they lived here for many years while he was growing up. He’s Israeli. He may not “look Israeli” or “act Israeli” (this is something I heard over the years from my family and friends when they first met my husband.) But he’s Israeli. This (along with the eight years he spent at Solomon Schecter)  lends legitimacy to his both his Judaism and his Israeli-ness, in my eyes.

But who am I? Am I Jewish enough to live here? Am I Jewish at all?

The irony, I have learned in the 11 months that I have lived in Israel is: I am not the only Israeli asking myself this question.

In fact, a lot of Israelis are asking themselves this question. And, in some ways, I might be considered “more” Jewish than the ones who aren’t  because I am asking the question.

As deficient as a Jew as I often felt in the States, I am feeling here…awakened spiritually. Indeed, more awakened possibly than Israelis who have lived in this country since birth…Israelis who have never stepped foot in a synagogue their entire lives. Perhaps, even more awakened than religious Israelis who have been praying daily in the synagogue for years.

I bring this up not to judge or to compare, but to transform my judgment into compassion. My judgment of myself. My judgment of others.  My judgment of religion, of spirituality. My judgment of the words “God,” or “Universe,” or “Divine.” My judgment of prayer practices, of devotion.

I share this with you as a way to publicly offer myself compassion retroactively and to ask forgiveness for the judging.

My wish is that as my spiritual journey continues, however it continues, may I continue to explore Judaism (my version and yours) with curiousity and compassion…and an open heart and mind.

And, as always, your feedback and contribution to the discussion (via Comments) are welcomed.

Culture, Living in Community

A big girl in a little bubble

(This was originally posted on my Jerusalem Post blog, Israeli in Progress)
My husband and I often laugh that we really enjoy the little bubble we’ve created for ourselves here in Israel.

We live on a small kibbutz in the North. We have a 20 minute drive to the nearest supermarket, and a 45 minute drive to the nearest shopping mall. That might be off-putting to most; and admittedly it’s sometimes off-putting to us. But placing ourselves at a great distance from crowds and commercialism forces us to live a more simple life. We have less decisions to make, less traffic to navigate, less people to growl at.

We’ve noticed that “The Bubble,” as we call it, keeps us relatively safe from the stresses of modern family life. The stressors I’m referring to include mainly getting in and out of cars, weaving in and out of traffic, suffering the impacts of noise pollution, air pollution, and people pollution.

Instead of packing ourselves in and out of our cars multiple times a day, or boarding busses or trains; we walk our two little kids to preschool in the morning and our oldest son walks himself to a bus stop on our street.

When we get together with friends for playdates or social outings, it’s typically at our house or theirs. And we walk there. We hardly ever eat out. We hardly ever go out, to be honest. I work 20 minutes from the house and my husband works mostly from home. Our most spontaneous and adventurous day is typically Saturday, when we might hop in the car for a drive up to the Golan to hike, explore ancient ruins in the Galilee, or spend Shabbat with my in-laws who live 20 minutes away.

Some would call our simple life boring. But we call it easy. And easy translates for us as good.

This is not to say that everything about our life here is easy, but we’ve successfully managed to eliminate a lot of the every-day life stressors that we felt while living in New Jersey, without adding too many new ones to the mix.

(If you read my blog, you know the short list of Israel-related stressors includes:

1. Too many nuts here; 2. Rockets sometimes fall nearby; and 3. Hebrew is hard.)

Yes, our little Israeli bubble is nice. Our Bubble is quiet. Our Bubble is fairly uncomplicated.

But, it’s still a bubble, of course, which makes it a world contained within itself. There is a world, however, that still exists outside of it.  And in this world lives my extended family, my friends, and my colleagues.

So unless I plan on completely walking away from modern life, which my husband tells me I can’t, it’s important to exit the Bubble every now and again, as scary as that can be.

After ten years of American suburban life, I learned that if you don’t, you undoubtedly lose movement in your “brave muscle,” the one that keeps your inner scaredy cat in check.

In the States, this fear to leave your safe little bubble is sometimes a side effect of Suburban Malaise – when you move out from the City to the suburbs and your life becomes a bit too predictable; a bit too mundane; a bit too regimented and conformed. I imagine there are some people who also experience Kibbutz Malaise, a depression stemming from being away from all that city excitement when you move up North.

But not me. Here in my little Israeli Bubble, with its cozyness and simplicity, I risk suffering from Kibbutz Contentment.  The condition stems not from being stuck, but rather, not wanting to ever leave.

When you suffer Kibbutz Contentment and you have a pressing need to venture out from your bubble, you find yourself fretting for days beforehand. You scour Google maps, plot your routes in advance, and, if you have rusty Hebrew, write down all the words you will need in your own handmade little pocket dictionary.

When you suffer Kibbutz Contentment you avoid not only planes, trains and automobiles, but platforms, lines, and crowds. Sometimes you are brave enough for parking garages or malls, but never big sales and only during the week and mid-day hours.

When you suffer Kibbutz Contentment, you’re often worried equally at the idea of being alone in the city and being around too many people. Taxi drivers are your enemies, as are cashiers, waitresses, and homeless people. Why? Because they all want to talk to you.

I was in Tel Aviv at least five times in the past month for work, and all five times I experienced anxiety as I prepared to head out of The Bubble. But I have to say, I worked my Brave Muscle and it came out the other side achy, yet stronger.

I rode the train. I’ve even switched trains… three times! I bought multiple tickets. I spoke (in Hebrew) to all my “enemies” — the taxi drivers, the waitresses, and the clerks — and even the sophisticated Tel Avivians I had to conduct meetings with.

I was courted at fancy schmancy agencies and conference centers; sipped espresso in cafes; and pushed my way in and out of ticket lines. Twice this week, I drove Cvish HaHof, the beach highway to Tel Aviv from the North, as well as the super-highway, Cvish 6. I drove alone and pumped my own gas; which isn’t as easy as you would think considering all the instructions are in Hebrew.

After a long week of working my Brave Muscle, I returned home from work last night as exhausted as I would have coming home from an extreme workout at the gym. But I smiled as I drove through the yellow gate that separates my Bubble from the rest of the world.“Aizeh Bogeret,” I said to myself.What a big girl you are.

And the hugs and kisses and big glass of red wine that awaited me as I walked into the door of my bubble within a  bubble were all sweeter for having missed them.