The reason they’re so secure in their masculinity is not due to months of paratrooper training or mandatory military exercises out in the desert.
It’s because, from a very young age, boys are formally taught and encouraged to dance.
And wear leafy crowns.
And carry flowery baskets.
And hold hands.
And revel in the beauty of their own bodies.
Very subtly, the women of Israel (and in modern times, men as well) have taught our male children that moving their bodies in rhythm and wearing beautiful crowns are not signs of femininity. They are expressions of joy.
I was tickled pink the week I accompanied my then four-year-old son to gan when we first made Aliya last year. In addition to the culture shock I got as a mother – kids climbing on top of chairs to build block castles and digging through trash to find treasures in what seemed like a junkyard turned playground out back – I remarked at how integral both singing and dancing were to the preschool program.
Every day, the children would learn a new song, either about the approaching season or an upcoming holiday celebration, and most Fridays, I would arrive at pickup to find my son in the middle of a dance circle, made up only of boys, carrying and waving brightly-colored scarves and stepping in tune to the music.
Not a one stood outside the circle – ashamed to be holding a purple scarf or embarrassed to be moving his body and holding hands with other boys.
Instead, they threw themselves fully into the act – even the ones wearing cargo pants; even the ones who prefer toy trucks to dolls; even the ones who might grow up to be tough guys. They all danced.
And, today, as our community celebrates the harvest festival of Shavuout, the young boys all arrived at school wearing olive crowns and carrying harvest baskets, decorated with white linen and flowers.
As a woman, but particularly as a mother of boys, it’s magnificent to witness – my son and his peers expressing their joy through movement and song without reserve.
But it’s also puzzling. What happens to these boys as they grow up? I wonder. How do they move from dancing to disrespecting and speaking harshly to each other on the soccer field? What happens to these boys who used to hold hands and dance? Who used to wear flowers in their hair and sing songs about the harvest?
I’m still so new in this country. And still so new as a mother, despite almost a decade of parenting. It’s true, I don’t know yet of the heartache that hardens our sons. The burdens they think they bear. The walls they think they need to put up to protect themselves once they leave the safety of the garden.
I am also still naïve enough, however, to think that there must be something innocent that remains once they leave the gan – something that helps carry our boys through adolescence in a country where men often have to act like “MEN.” Where boys mock each other on the playground and fathers hurl insults at each other from their car windows. Where men, in particular, but all of us need often to operate in a “shuk mentality,” as my husband refers to it. Keep up your guard. Be wary of those who might want to cheat you or steal from you. Yell first, think later.
Something must remain. Something beyond the images the mothers hold dear to their hearts, images of young boys wearing white shirts and flowers in their hair.
It’s been told to me that men grow close to each other during the army. That bonds are formed there. Perhaps, this is true. It’s certainly the obvious answer.
But part of me thinks the bond starts earlier, and then is sidetracked by life. The bonds are built on top of foundations made from purple scarves and olive crowns.
Every once in a while, someone says to me, “I don’t know how you do it – work full time, parent, and still have the energy to blog.”
I smile bashfully (but secretly pleased), and explain that “writing is not a choice for me.” I’m compulsive. When I get an idea into my head, I can’t move forward until it’s on the page. Writing offers me relief.
Additionally, I’m the lamest mother on earth when it comes to holiday celebrations, which affords me more time to write.
As compulsive as I am, I can’t compel myself to make flowery Shavuot baskets or hand-sew Purim costumes for my kids to show off at school.
I have very mixed feelings about this. I love seeing my daughter wearing the exquisite crown of flowers her grandmother made especially for her preschool celebration. I am so grateful that she gets to feel like a princess because my husband crafted her a breakfast basket filled with carefully prepared dairy delicacies. I just can’t be bothered to make the effort myself.
I’m not lazy. (Note comment above.) I just completely lack holiday spirit; in particular, I loathe school holiday celebrations.
It could have something to do with how much I resent arts & crafts.
I stopped liking arts & crafts in 2nd grade when I realized precision was integral when working with glue and felt. It frustrated me that I was never able to generate in reality the beautiful concept I had envisioned in my mind. It frustrated me even more when I couldn’t remove the excess felt from my fingertips. Now, even the words “arts and crafts” conjure up only feelings of frustration and inadequacy.
But to blame my resistance solely on the arts and crafts would be bogus.
Bottom line? I’m the Jewish Grinch. There’s nothing about holidays I like.
I know that depending on what we’re commemorating, I’m supposed to feel grateful, blessed, or triumphant. But, mostly I feel obligated, stressed, or depressed. In Israel, holidays usually mean my three children require three different outfits that I have to remember to launder in advance; three different lists of supplies to bring to school – from burekas to bisquits to bisli. And, often three different days on which they’re celebrating!
Holidays mean dancing in front of other adults, a fate worse than death for me. Holidays mean gathering around bonfires singing songs I don’t know the words to. Holidays mean eating foods that I’d otherwise avoid because they give me cramps, or turn my children into demons.
In Israel, like in America, holidays mean vacation for my kids and their teachers, but not always vacation for working parents. So, holidays also mean I need to figure out babysitting for my kids, so my husband and I can work.
I’m a bummer. I’m a buzzkill. I’m a Grinch.
I want to revel. But I can’t. I don’t feel it.
I didn’t revel in American holidays either. It drove me nuts there, too. Sign up lists at Halloween and Thanksgiving – Who would bake the pumpkin pie? Who would bring in the orange frosted cupcakes?
I vaguely remember once upon a time when I used to feel joy for holiday celebrations. The excitement accompanying unexpected Valentine’s Day cards. The joy with which I sang songs at my Hebrew school’s mock Passover Seder.
Where has that joy gone? How can I transform duty back into delight?
There is a moment, I’ll admit it.
There’s a moment when my heart opens. It’s like a wisp of a memory that I can almost touch, but not quite.
It happens when I watch my daughter twirl in her white gown. When I see my five year old son and his classmates dance with glee in front of their beaming parents. When I catch my 9 year old laughing and leaping with his friends from haystack to haystack.
In those moments, I feel my irritability dissolve; my load lighten. I let joy in. I feel relief.
There’s a glimmer of hope then — that next time I’ll be able to enjoy it…not just blog about it.
I’m still belching out mild nausea, but compared to how I felt last night, I am grateful to be able to sit up and type.
Last night, my husband and I went to a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant for a quick dinner before heading to a parents’ meeting at our son’s school. He had the chicken and I had the fish, along with the usual assortment of side salads.
I had barely put the last bite of fish in my mouth when I started to feel sick.
I’ll never know for sure whether it was an accidental allergic reaction — I have diagnosed food allergies, but not to anything I ate – or severe food poisoning. The doctor at the E.R. said it was impossible to know for sure. But I do know for sure I will never feel the same about my neighbors – in particular, the members of the first response team from neighboring Kfar Manda and the Jewish EMTs in the ambulance that soon followed: The confident one who called me “Mami” and told me I was going to be alright, and the cute one wearing the kippah who didn’t look older than 18. I’ll remember the nurses and doctor who took care of me at the Holy Family Hospital of Nazareth, and the patients in the beds next to me screaming in Arabic.
As you probably guessed, we never made it to the parents’ meeting. My husband took me straight home, where I stayed in the bathroom, violently ill. After about 20 minutes of this, I knew the reaction was severe and required attention. First, I told my husband to grab the epi-pen I carry in my purse. I’ve lugged this thing around with me for seven years, ever since my son was diagnosed with severe nut allergies at age 2. It’s maintained residency there at the bottom of my handbag along with the dusty gum wrappers and old pen caps, but I’ve never had to use it.
I’ve certainly obsessed about using it – on him or on me – and I’ve instructed countless teachers and relatives on how. But last night, when I popped the safety off the top and jabbed it into my thigh, I proved to myself what I’ve always told the anxious adults who care for my child, “When you need to use it, you won’t hesitate.”
My husband’s eyes bulged as he watched me stab myself and as I told him to call the Israeli version of 9-1-1.
The next hour is a blur. I recognized the Arab accents on the three gentlemen who entered my house holding medical gear in large metal containers, but I didn’t care. I just wanted the shaking to stop. It was only much later, after one of them popped his head into my room in the E.R. to check on me, that my husband told me he was one of the first response team who came from Kfar Manda, the Arab village next to Hannaton, where I live.
As hazy as the ride to the hospital was, my memory of the E.R. is clear. By then, I had been pumped with steroids and two bags of saline drip. I was still nauseous, but significantly improved and alert. Too alert. Soon after I arrived, two patients were checked into the beds next to me. One seemed to be in a similar situation to me – severe pain and vomiting. As she moaned, my husband remarked that it was probably lucky we don’t know Arabic; I just held my ears and hummed to myself. You didn’t need to speak the woman’s language to know she was praying to God for help, and begging for relief.
I held back tears as they brought the next guy in. In my imagination, as I unwillingly listened to his screams, he had either lost a limb or his wife. We found out later, when the police came to interview him, he was the victim of a terrible crime.
By that point, grateful for the food poisoning and/or for the epi-pen, I just wanted to go home and recover. Moreso, I wanted to hug my sleeping children; snuggle against their pure innocence; watch them breathe. My mind, which had been up until that point fogged with fear and discomfort, was now all too filled with socio-economics, class structure, and war.
In this country, I constantly feel like a young child, always learning something new and aroused by a here-to-fore unknown awareness of the world around me.
Today, I am moved by the pain of my neighbors here in this land where appearances are more than deceiving; they are cause for confusion and often unnecessary fear. Today, I am touched by the love of my neighbors, who despite what they may learn as children from jaded adults and from personal experience, still find reason to commit their lives to caring for people who are different from them; people they might just as easily consider enemies.
Today I am grateful – for my health, of course, but also for our level of consciousness, which is more elastic than we think, and able to shift in a moment. One minute our eyes are closed; and the next they are open. One minute we judge; the next we offer our gratitude. One minute we hate; the next we love.
Long ago and far way, before I got married and had kids, I worked in Manhattan for five years, almost three of which I spent living downtown in what is now chic NoHo. I’d say (and I often do) that such a biographical detail lends me an urban edge, but 12 years later, that edge has just about disappeared.
What I have retained, however, is the mythical city-girl handbook I used to carry; the informal list of safety rules I used at all hours of the day or night in that big city long ago, but have since shelved for only occasional browsing when I find myself in a big city without my car, or my husband, or a city dweller to hold my hand.
Last night, I dusted off the mythical city-girl handbook and slipped it into my trendy kisim handbag. (In case I’ve given you the idea that I actually know how to choose a trendy handbag, let me assure you it was a gift from my mother-in-law.)
After attending a work event in the outskirts of Tel Aviv, I was dropped off by my colleague in front of the Azrieli center downtown. We had just spent the day kicking off Israel’s 2012 Agritech conference with about 200 others at the AgriVest Summit, a conference where investors and entrepreneurs explored big topics like feeding the world and solving the global water crisis.
After getting dropped off at the center in front of one of the three towers at Azrieli, I was tired but still breathing in the fumes of post-conference self-assuredness. I thought my task would be easy: Find the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which supposedly was located somewhere in the Azrieli Center.
Looking up to the top of the skyscrapers, I could see signs that indicated the shopping mecca inside: H&M, Forever 21, Fox. But I couldn’t see a sign for the hotel.
Don’t panic, whispered the tall skinny girl sipping a frappacino on the cover of the city-girl handbook.When you don’t know where something is, she reminded me, ask a policeman or a taxi driver.
There were at least 10 taxi drivers in front of the Azrieli Center and not one of them knew where the Crowne Plaza City Center was. One told me, “Forty shekels, I take you there.” The other explained defiantly, “Crowne Plaza is by beach. I take you there. Forty shekels.” A third told me in Hebrew, “After the pedestrian bridge. See it? Just down the street? I take you there. Forty shekels.”
Hmm…I thought, maybe I should find a policeman.
Instead, I looked for a café where I could charge my phone, which had died an hour before. (The city girl handbook was written before there was 3G or Google maps.)
On my way to find the café, I happened upon the Crowne Plaza City Center exactly where it was supposed to be, in the lobby of one of the three towers. As I approached the reception area, I had to decide who I wanted to be: Israeli resident or tourist? When we’re in the big city, where you often find tourists, we olim get to choose — do our best attempt at native or pretend to be naive tourists. After our klita package runs out, this freedom to choose is just about the only benefit we olim have left.
Built up with confidence that the hotel receptionist was paid to be nice to me, I tried on my Israeli. I offered her my teudat zehut, my national identity card, instead of my passport when she asked for ID.
“Oh, so you are Israeli?” she asked. “Well, sorta,” I answered, the only response that comes naturally to me at this point, only 18 months post-aliya and still struggling with the future tense.
“Should we continue this transaction in Hebrew or English?” she asked me in a voice that sounded like a proposition.
Considering the last time a stranger flirted with me, I almost considered continuing the banter in English. Lack of stimulating banter is one of the things I miss most in this country. Instead, I shyly told her we could try and see how far we’d get in Hebrew.
We got pretty far. So far, in fact, I ended up holding a room key and a frequent traveler card.
After check in, I proceeded to the elevator, where I found myself in front of a panel of buttons that resembled no panel of buttons I had ever seen in front of an elevator. I couldn’t figure out how to get up to my room on the 14th floor. I once again consulted the city-girl handbook in my mind and remembered words from the final chapter: “When in doubt, watch what the person next to you is doing and mimic her.” Which is what I did, and yet I still wasn’t able to get to the 14th floor; the elevator only stopped at 12. And there were no up or down buttons. I was trapped!
Finally I asked the other rider for help — in Hebrew, but in a thick American accent because this is what you do in Israel when you need to ask a stupid question. She explained how the panel worked only by pressing the digits of the floor you need.
By the time I got into my hotel room I felt really, really foreign. Like a big fat 7-11-slurpee-drinking, baseball watching American foreigner. I went to sleep a bit defeated. Tomorrow would be a new day…hopefully.
The next day, however, didn’t start off much better. As I walked into the Agritech conference, my hands aching with the weight of the heavy boxes I was holding, the lobby was awash with long lines and pushing people. The wait at the registration desk seemed like it would take forever. Oy! When was this adventure going to get easier?
I stood in line for a few minutes and then looked around. I saw that there was no one monitoring the entrance to the exhibition hall. I picked up my boxes and headed toward the entrance. The American in me was hesitant to cross the invisible line that marked the boundary between the registration area and the exhibit hall. I didn’t have a badge. I hadn’t checked in yet. I couldn’t just walk in, could I? But the Israeli in me holding the heavy boxes had no more patience to spare.
And the Israeli is the one who crossed the invisible line.
The American in me shuddered at what I perceived as a security breach, but the Israeli in me (and the former city girl) was proud when I made it all the way to the booth without being stopped.
And the tall girl holding the frappacino on the cover of the city-girl handbook? She smiled and whispered knowingly, “When in Rome…”
When I’ve had enough coffee in the morning, I choose to listen to the Israeli news on my drive to work instead of the latest self help guru I am following.
Truth is, I am not fluent in Hebrew enough yet to understand exactly what the newscaster reports, but I know enough key words to get the gist of the headlines, and unfortunately too many keywords not to panic when I hear pigua (attack) or Ahmadinejad.
Celebrity news, like Whitney Houston’s death this year, comes through loud and clear. I love it when they splice in a comment in English from Obama or, in the case of Whitney, Crying Funeral Goer #4. I feel really smart in those moments.
But when they start discussing the crime beat or internal political developments, I am in way over my head. Not only that, but I also get this overwhelming feeling that I should be understanding what they’re discussing. Like, it’s important or something. CONTINUE READING
Since I began chronicling my life experiences in a public forum like a blog, I’ve learned there are feelings and personal experiences I might have been better off keeping to myself. Looking at blog posts I wrote three years ago is almost as mortifying as leafing through the journal I kept in 9th grade; the one that’s peppered with love poems only an angst-ridden teenager living in upper middle class suburbia could write… READ MORE
There’s a chorus inside my head that won’t shut up.
It’s the group of internal activists (who look remarkably like me except they wear sexy wife beater tank tops and cargo pants) holding up signs that read:
STOP TALKING ABOUT IT AND DO SOMETHING
The activists look like me, but they are a lot louder and a lot less lazy. They also speak better Hebrew than I do because they are imaginary (and sexy).
I can’t be sure, but I think they run on adrenaline. Or hormones. Or fear. They certainly are antagonized easily.
I’ve been trying to shushy them since I moved to Israel. I rocked the boat enough in the good ole’ U.S. of A. and I was hoping for a fresh start here in Israel where everyone thinks I’m that nice, but boring introvert who lives in the ugliest house on Hanaton.
But the hot chorus girls in my head won’t shut up.
They keep saying to me, “Do something! You know you can. You know you want to.”
What are they talking about?
Okay, I’ll tell you. But promise you won’t tell anyone?
I like to change things.
I like to figure out what’s not working (in my life or yours) and make it better.
There are some things that bother me about living in Israel. Some of it I’ve agreed to suck up and get used to: like imitation Ziploc bags. And some of it I tolerate: like signs with egregious spelling mistaeks. (I mean mistakes). But there are other things that I just can’t tolerate, and I know these are the things that the hot sexy chorus girls in my head are screaming about.
Things like garbage fires. Which aren’t as bad as tire fires, I guess, but still really, really bad for my asthma, and probably for anyone else’s healthy lungs.
And, of course, the health of our children, my own three and the “children of Israel.” The angry mom in me; the woman that a whole slew of activist moms in the States know as “The Wellness Bitch,” she is the leader of the hot chorus girls. She’s the loudest one. Because she has seen how I can affect change when I set my mind to it and when I empower others to do the same. And she’s bored with nice, quiet Jen.
She wants me to make some phone calls. She wants me to push people’s buttons. She wants me to write to government officials and call out Israeli food companies that use Yellow #5. She wants me to hang flyers in Kupat Holim promoting natural birth. She wants me to seek out all the amazing wellness practitioners that she knows exist here in Northern Israel and create community.
But she knows I’m afraid. So she hasn’t pushed too hard. But she’s getting antsy. Or maybe she is taking advantage of the fact that she can read my mind and she knows I’m a little less afraid than I used to be.
So, now I have two choices. I can hope that a few Extra Strength Excedrin will do the trick. Or I can start making a list of people to call in the Ministry of Health or Environment to see what can be done about those garbage fires. Apparently, there’s already a law against them. But that’s not stopping my neighbors in the next village over.
It’ll be a small first step, I know, but that along with a visit to the organic farm where we buy our veggies might be just enough to appease the hot girls inside my head… for a little while.
When I first moved to Israel, before I got my full-time job here, I started networking in search of freelance writing work. I had already started writing this blog about my Aliyah experience and had gotten positive feedback from both friends and colleagues. One of my colleagues suggested I reach out to Kveller.com, a new blog for Jewish parents, thinking they would be interested in syndicating this blog or hiring me to write another.
I wrote to the editors at Kveller and pitched my blog idea, confident they would write back to me with a big, fat YES.
Pitch: Fun, snarky Jewish mom leaves the comfort of her chic New Jersey suburb with her husband and three kids to try to make it as a kibbutznik in Northern Israel.
The editors wrote back that they liked my writing style, but that they already had a cool Jewish mom makes Aliyah to kibbutz column.
There’s two of us?
Well, apparently there are. At least two of us.
The editors forwarded me Sarah’s blog post about moving to Israel, and I thought to myself, “Hmm. I guess I’m not so unique after all.” Sarah’s writing reminded me of my own, a blend I like to consider “tell-it-like-it-is honesty infused with snarky vulnerability.”
Figuring out that someone else had already pitched my idea and got the gig before me was a tiny blow to the ego, I’ll admit. Nonetheless, I secretly smiled knowing there was another Jen-like new olah mom out there.
The first half of the article was like reading the California Girl version of my life, or at least an alterno-verse version of the summer I first visited Israel in 1992.
I laughed at Sarah’s recollections of her first visit to the Kotel which were “spiritual” and “meaningful” and “fucking awesome.” And I smiled knowingly at what she recalled as her passionate statement to the Israeli passport control worker promising that “one day she would return.”
I remember being that passionate girl. I remember being madly in love with an Israeli soldier. Um, I mean, Israel.
I could also relate to her experience of missing that connection to Judaism once she returned to the States. It happened to me, too. And I spent years trying unsuccessfully to recreate it while living in America.
But what I couldn’t fully relate to in Sarah’s post were her expectations that moving to Israel would somehow be a seemless transition into Israeli life and culture. I didn’t share the expectation that being a Jew in a Jewish land would naturally translate into being understood or loved or accepted by your friends and neighbors. In fact, I was really worried that no one here would get me. That our family would not fit in. That I would never feel like this was my home.
In fact, the one thing that drives me nuts about the “Aliyah Movement” is the idea that American Jews moving to Israel are, in fact, “coming home.”
That sentiment, when I am at my ugliest, makes me want to vomit. When I am feeling kind, it simply bewilders me.
This “Coming Home” slogan is plastered all over the Nefesh B’Nefesh marketing materials. It’s the titles of videos on YouTube. It’s written in permanent marker on poster board and embroidered onto hats. And all the time I think to myself, “Is it true? Are you? Do you?”
For a little while, the fact that I didn’t feel that way made me feel like a fraud, like an imitation oleh. Like the fake tofu version of a new oleh.
Where was the meat?
Did I really deserve this Aliyah if I wasn’t 100% sure Israel was my home? That this decision was the right one? That I would be happy here? That I would stay?
In the 16 months since I made Aliyah, I have come a long way. In the 16 months since my Aliyah, I have worked hard to make this country my home. I have worked hard to learn the language; to make friends; to take on challenges that scare me; and to be tolerant and even accepting of cultural difference that are so offensive to me that I want to jump on the next plane back to Newark Liberty International.
For instance, I have learned that I can both hate the Israeli woman up my ass in the line at the pharmacy and at the same time admire her for being ambitious and bold. I can both cringe at the reckless abandon of Israeli parents when it comes to their child’s safety; and at the same time, smile with pride at the independence my children have acquired since figuring out that falling 5 feet from the top of the jungle gym onto concrete really, really hurts. I can scream at the dogs who run off their leashes; and quietly be happy they’re around to bark at the would-be robbers.
I have learned to love and accept this country, and my community. And I still reserve the right to complain about her.
If that’s not home, what is?
The real problem lies not with Israel. Nor does it lie with immigrants who are constantly comparing their new home to their old one. And certainly, the solution is not, as some of the commenters on Sarah’s post would have one believe, “If you don’t like it, then leave.”
If anything, what we new immigrants need is compassion. Compassion from our neighbors, both the Israelis and the olim who have figured it out already.
And compassion for ourselves, as it takes a lot more than a slogan or a birthright to feel at home.