Childhood, Family, Learning Hebrew, Letting Go, Living in Community, Love, Making Friends, Memory, Mindfulness, Parenting, Religion, Spirituality

I cry at bar mitzvahs

There is nothing like a lifecycle event to open my heart. Combined with the penetrating power of song and prayer, these moments make me so feel so vulnerable, so very aware of our humanity, of life’s fragility.

Since we moved to Hannaton in late 2010, I’ve been present for six bar or bat mitzvahs, five brises or baby namings. I’ve cried at all of them. Sometimes I’ve cried, too, at Shabbat services during the mishaberach prayer for the ill or during a minyan enabling one of my neighbors to say the mourner’s kaddish. Seven have lost a parent since I’ve lived here.

This past weekend — as our oldest child became a bar mitzvah in the synagogue on Kibbutz Hannaton — it was our family’s turn to be at the center of the community’s attention. My body still reverberates the joy that filled every inch of it on Saturday, as our friends and family welcomed my son into symbolic “adulthood.” At some later date, I might share my reflections on the immense gratitude I feel in response to the volunteer efforts of our friends and extended family so we could simply be present for this occasion. It was a gift like no other.

For family and friends who were not able to attend, and for readers of this blog, below is the dvar torah (a reflection on the weekly chapters of Torah read this past Shabbat) I offered to the community on Friday night in advance of the bar mitzvah. The torah portion, the beginning of Shemot, should be familiar even to non-Jews as it’s the story that is the basis for the film, The Ten Commandments.

I welcome your own reflections in the comments.


If Moshe had a bar mitzvah, I wonder what language he would have given the dvar torah in?

We learn in the parsha this week, that Moshe was a Hebrew by birth and in his early years, as he is nursed by his mother, is part of his Hebrew family’s household. Presumably, he learns their language, their traditions; becomes accustomed to them. But — though, we don’t know when exactly — Moshe leaves his early home and grows up in the royal palace, among Egyptian family, and Egyptian friends.

It could be, if Moshe had to give a dvar torah in young adulthood, he might have preferred to speak in his Egyptian language.  This was a revelation to me, and a comfort. That Moshe — one of our greatest heroes — was also a person who lived between two languages, two identities.

We also know Moshe questioned his ability to speak in front of a crowd, to be able to move the people God intended him to move.  He says to God in chapter 4:

“God, I am not a man of words … for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.”

Maybe that difficulty with speech had something to do with his living between languages.

Recently, inside an old cardboard box, I found the dvar torah from my own bat mitzvah  There it was, my speech, typed up and printed out on 1980s IBM printer paper, marked up first in red by the rabbi and then in blue in my mom’s cursive handwriting.

I read the speech. The words didn’t sound like they came from me. They were the rabbi’s words, and my mother’s. But not mine, not really.

I wondered then, reading my speech from 1987: Do we even have our own words at 13?

Of course we do. Except everyone is trying their hardest to make us say everything else but what we really want to say. They’re trying to shape our words in the same way they’re trying to shape us. In the hopes we’ll grow into smart, kind, loving, good people.

They — our often well-meaning parents, teachers, rabbis — might say to our face, “We love you just the way you are.” But then they act — we act — in a way so counter to this statement. We monitor and evaluate our children’s behavior, we narrate and judge their choices, we edit their words.

I wasn’t very good at speeches when I was 13. Probably because I hadn’t yet found the courage to speak in my real voice, with my choice of words. Since then, I’ve discovered the thrill of sharing my own words with others. Of writing what I think, of investigating my beliefs, of challenging people, of learning others feel the way I do or don’t.

A few weeks ago, however, when I started thinking about writing this speech in honor of Tobey’s bar mitzvah, I got nervous. I found myself asking, What am I going to speak about? What language should I speak in? Would only half the room really be listening if I spoke in English? Would I embarrass Tobey if I spoke in Hebrew? Would I sound like an idiot talking about Torah? Who am I to talk about Torah? Is that really me?

The questions, I realized, were not unlike those of a young person becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.


*  *  *


There’s a movie I used to love as a kid called Freaky Friday. For those of you who don’t know the movie, it’s about a teenage girl and her mother who one morning magically switch places for a few days. As a kid, I loved this movie for the reason most kids love this movie: Wouldn’t it be awesome to get to be a grownup for a day? To switch bodies with my mom and get to be the one to make all the decisions? To CHOOSE the way my day goes, the way my life goes? When to wake up? What to wear? Whether or not to even get out of bed in the morning?

The irony — all of us grownups realize — is that being an adult is a lot harder than a child imagines it is.

But what’s also true — and what grownups often forget — is that being a child is a lot harder than we adults remember.

Being 13 is hard. You’re straddling adulthood and childhood. And you’re not sure, not really, in which direction you’d prefer to travel. Back to fourth grade, when homework was easier and friends were kinder. Or forward, where there is more freedom, but also more responsibility, confusion, and uncertainty.

I’d argue, too, that this splitting of identities is accentuated for a 13 year old living in two languages, two cultures.  English at home but Hebrew at school or on the soccer field. You often might find yourself asking, Tobey, as I often do, who am I? Am I the me in my own mind? Or am I the me out loud? And is there any way to blend the two?

What I want to say to you Tobey is that life is like Freaky Friday. There are days — like in the beginning of the movie — when you wish you were in the body of somebody else. And there are days — after all the madness that ensues — when you realize just how good it is to be you.

And usually we spend more of our time wondering what it might be like to be someone else instead of getting to know better and loving the person we are right now. This is not something that gets much easier in adulthood, but my wish for you this year Tobey and onwards is for a greater awareness of your true you right now.

Who was Moshe really on any given day? What propelled him that day in the fields to strike down the Egyptian? Who was he in the moment he did? Was he a Jew protecting his own? Or a compassionate Egyptian with a general care for humanity?  And what frightened Moshe afterwards? Was it only the idea of getting caught or was it the guilt of hurting someone who was a member of his own community?  Of one of his communities?

Moshe, if you think about it, was both an insider and an outsider wherever he went. There came a time when he had to decide, however, which of his identities was stronger, and that happens to us too, sometimes.

Tobey: I wish for you …to know who you are… and to love who you are. I wish for you self-compassion on the days when you question who you are (and there will be days when you question who you are). I wish for you the wisdom to distinguish between what others want for you and what you want for yourself. Not just in the short-term, but in the long-term. And so I wish for you also patience.

I wish for you a peaceful, quiet place for those times when you need to consider your choices and I wish for you the courage to choose to be YOU in the face of self-doubt or criticism.

You’ve shown us since you were a little boy that you have the makings of a leader. Being a leader is not always easy, though, as you’ve seen both at home and outside of it. I want you to hear today — in front of everybody who loves you  — that Dad and I are proud of you. We trust you and we believe in you.

There is light inside of you that shines so brightly, Tobey. We see it most clearly when you’re playing rough with your brother and sister. We can hear it, even, when you’re laughing with your buddies upstairs.

May your life continue to be filled with that light and may you continue to shine it upon others. Our lives are fuller with you in them.

Shabbat shalom.



Community, Kibbutz, Learning Hebrew, Letting Go, Living in Community

How I accidentally on purpose became that mystery girl

I have a tendency to say things I don’t mean.

Or, rather, say things I mean, but wish I hadn’t said or wish I had thought through before saying out loud.

This is not a new tendency.

It’s a delightful and attractive trait I’ve possessed since the 2nd grade when my teacher Ms. Levin aptly, but inappropriately, nicknamed me Motor Mouth.

Since moving to Israel, however, I’ve developed — like a nervous tick — a pause between thinking and speaking.

At first, I resented this seemingly cowardly pause.

I’ve always liked being quick and clever and as I met new people here, I was often disappointed that Israelis  weren’t able to get to know the clever me. She was always hiding behind her immigrant smile, trying to figure out exactly how to conjugate her joke into past tense.

By the time I figured out how, of course, it was two Tuesdays too late.

But once I made a few friends who I could speak freely with in English, and who appreciated my less-than-sophisticated humor, I no longer resented the pause, but relished it.

I relish it still. This is truly an added-value of aliyah. (This, and the fact that my kids have all learned to dance with no help from me.)

The pause I’ve developed in between thinking and speaking allows me to be more compassionate. Caring.

Mysterious, even.

I’m like Michael in the parking lot of the bowling alley of Grease 2.

Of course, my English speaking friends are capable of destroying my mystery girl image in an instant; if and when anyone cares to find out more about mysterious ole me.

But for a few days or weeks or months, when new people move in to my community, let them think of me as “the lovely girl who thinks so carefully before she speaks.”

Not motor mouth.

Not compulsive, impulsive, chatty, sometimes accidentally on purpose offensive Jen.

That mystery girl

Learning Hebrew, Letting Go, Making Friends

Be all you can be

Most of us spend our entire lives figuring out who we are.

Parallel to this, we also seek the confidence to admit to ourselves who we are and share that self with others.

It can be an entire life’s work.

Imagine, then, being reborn smack dab in the middle of that project.

This is what it has been for me to make Aliyah.

Some will say just the opposite.

That making Aliyah was like “coming home.”

That moving to Israel allowed them to finally “find themselves; ” to finally feel a part of something, rather than apart from.

And there are elements of that sentiment I can relate to, but I wouldn’t say this has been my overarching experience until now.

Moving to Israel was a move away from who I am.

I am a communicator.

This is what I do. It’s what I love to do and it’s what I’m good at.

I’m also a relationship builder and an information gatherer.

And those are probably the three hardest things to do and be when you are a new immigrant, especially one in a country in which the main language is not your native tongue.

So why did I move to Israel?

For lots of reasons.

Good ones.

Reasons I stand by and do not regret.

But just as we do after many of the big life decisions we make — getting married, having kids, taking a new job — I ask myself now:

Who am I?

Who am I now?

Am I still me?

Some of my family and friends would insist I managed to be “me” even here in Israel. That I found a way to be the communicator, the relationship builder, and the information gatherer despite the challenges of language and culture.

On some days, I’d agree (and pat myself on the back, thank you very much).

But then there are the unforgiving days…

The days when I run into another parent in the parking lot, and I take that breath

You know that breath?

It’s the one you hardly notice but you take it right before you jump into a casual conversation with a casual friend in the parking lot.

Before you just “shoot the shit.”

You take that breath

I take that breath

but then I remember:

Im not me anymore. Not exactly.

This me thinks, “it’s going to be too, too hard for me to figure out which shit is the appropriate shit to shoot.And it’ll be even harder for me to understand the shit she is shooting back to me in Hebrew.”

And then I take another breath. This time, more of a sigh.

And I ask myself, Is it worth the mild humiliation? Discomfort?

I’m not sure.

So I don’t.

This is never a question I asked myself before.


And, similarly, there are some days…

Days when I know it’s really necessary for me to have a heart-to-heart with the teacher at my kid’s school. And I force myself to have the conversation.

Not because I am “the communicator” or the “information gatherer,” but because it’s what I HAVE to do. It’s on my to-do list.  And maybe I have that conversation, but I know it’s the mediocre version of what I could have pulled off in English.

And, oh how I judge myself afterwards.

And question myself.

In a way I never ever did before.


Because I knew who I was.

At least I thought I did…

Now, I’m not so sure.

Is who we are so fragile that POOF a move to a foreign country can change us?

Or do we just have to dig deeper, try harder to be

all we are. In spite of ourselves…

Learning Hebrew, Letting Go

Like A Kid Again

There are times when living as an immigrant in a non-English speaking country makes you feel and act like a child:

For instance:

You get lost. FREAK OUT! Where’s my mommy?

You can’t find what you need when you need it at the pharmacy. FREAK OUT! Where’s my mommy?

You don’t get what you need when you need it at the bank/post office/government agency. FREAK OUT! Where’s my mommy?

Cry hysterically.

Kick. Scream. Pound fists on floor.

Run out of steam. Leave dejected.

Yes, being a new immigrant is exhausting.

A lot like childhood, but with less opportunities for naps.

But nothing makes you feel like a child more than the process of acquiring a new language while living in a foreign country.

In the beginning, you’re like a baby …you understand almost nothing.  But people around you think you’re cute, so they speak slowly to you or patiently use hand signals.

After a while of living in the foreign country,  you start to adjust and understand, but you’re still completely incapable of communicating.

Then, slowly slowly, you can communicate … in baby talk. Ah, sweet release as you realize you can get your point across … sorta.

Then, at some point you start noticing and comprehending words around you — on signs, on the front covers of magazines, on the sides of trucks.

And without realizing it, you’ve grown up.

You’ve become a big girl. You can read. You get things. You’re in on the joke.

I experienced one of these exhilarating awakenings yesterday when I was driving to work.

I saw a bus in front of me.


And I slowly read the sign.

I knew the first word was Nativ. It was a word I recognized. And I knew the second word didn’t look like a regular Hebrew word, but I didn’t know what it was. So I sounded the letters out.

Just as if I was a first grader again. Syllable by syllable.

Using the only method I knew how to attempt comprehension.

I wasn’t panicked or rushed. So I could be calm and just explore the letters and the sounds with my tongue.

I felt my head move side to side as my brain worked through the problem.

What is it?

I was inside myself and outside myself at the same time. Participant and observer.

I reminded myself of my 6 year old son.

I imagine, deep inside, I reminded myself of me.

6 year old me.







I figured it out!

I was alone in the car so there was no one to share my excitement with.

And yet, I could see my face.

I knew my face must have looked as accomplished as my son’s when he learns a new word. It’s a look I’m familiar with lately. It’s the look of success he beams after he reads by himself a Level 2 book in English.

He’s good with the 4- and 5-letter words. But struggles when the words have multiple syllables.

He stumbles, frustrated.

But then he stops. Breathes.

And slowly slowly, he tries to read the unrecognizable new word:






And this is what being an immigrant is like in a non-English speaking country when you’re not lost, not seeking a product in a pharmacy or in desperate need of a document from a government agent.

When you’re not feeling out-of-control, you can tap into that spirit — the good part about being a kid.






Health, Learning Hebrew

Olah’s Lament: Health Care in Hebrew

Universal Health Care is not all Peaches and Herb, as I once thought.

(And yes, by Peaches and Herb, I mean peaches and cream.  But ever since I accidentally once said “peaches and herb” (with a soft h) when I really meant peaches and cream, I am compelled to use the much sillier Peaches & Herb. It’ll catch on, you’ll see.)

Back to Universal Health Care.

Why am I title capping Universal Health Care: it’s not a proper noun.

And yet people speak of it as if they know it intimately. As if it’s a person or a place that requires commitment to or vehemence against. As if it requires an I.D. bracelet.

Since, in general, I tend to be non-committal or centrist when it comes to most heated political issues, I typically spoke in the past of universal health care in lower case.

Until I moved to Israel.

Because now, being in the system (as opposed to just daydreaming about it), I have stronger opinions.

Now, all of a sudden Universal Health Care is title capped. It’s personal.

When I first moved to Israel, I loved that I could go to the doctor whenever I wanted (or so I thought). I could get bloodwork done, a strep test, and an anti-fungal cream all in the same place, and pay practically nothing. No co-pays for visits. Pills cheap like candy. And all because I had a little card with my name in Hebrew and my new Israeli ID number.

Universal Health Care, you the Man! I thought.

Why is everyone up in arms about this concept? Who wouldn’t want doctors at the ready? Prescriptions for 5 bucks a pop?

Now, two years later and nine months into a mystery health condition to which I can’t seem to get anyone to pay attention, I’m a little less enamored with the concept that once seemed simple.

Of course,  lack of personal attention is not a problem unique to Universal Health Care, you might say. We also have this problem in the United States, where health care is privatized.

True. We do.

But, in the States I managed to find a few doctors within my insurance program who gave me a certain level of specialized attention. It was attainable, if not a little challenging.

But here, I feel very much as if I can’t find anyone in the system to care. Like, no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t be able to find a doctor who would see me through this condition until we figured out what it is and what to do about it.

Don’t worry about me. I’m not dying.

But if I was, I wouldn’t know it. Because no one will give me an answer! They just keep passing me on to someone else who is “more specialized” than they are.

My next visit (4 doctors and two ultrasounds since the first visit) is supposed to be to a “general surgeon.”

Can anyone tell me what that guy does?

How does he know more than the “general practitioner?”

Or the “woman’s doctor?”

Or the “woman’s doctor surgeon?”

The Hebrew word for surgeon SEEMS to be used interchangeably with specialist. Which is just as confusing if not more than the fact that the Hebrew word for infection (daleket) is the same as the Hebrew word for inflammation

Infection and inflammation are TWO VERY DIFFERENT diagnoses!

Just as different as surgeon and specialist…at least where I come from.

The surgeons here are apparently the only doctors in Israel that learn a specialty. Which, if taken literally, is really upsetting to me as someone who likes to avoid invasive procedures.

Worse, the surgeons are super-specialized to the point that if your problem falls just outside the boundaries of the region they are specialized in, they give you the “Ain Ma La’asot” shrug of the shoulder and send you off to the next guy. Who, of course, doesn’t have an open appointment until 6 weeks from Wednesday.

6 weeks from Wednesday at 8:10 pm.

(By the way, no one — not the hottest super model; not the youngest, most peaches and herby looking man or woman — looks good doing the “Ain Ma La’asot shrug.” If we don’t give this cultural expression/body language up simply because it’s defeatist and obnoxious; we should give it up because we look ugly doing it.)

The funny thing about Universal Health Care in Israel is that everyone here is happy they have it, but if they want someone to take them seriously, they see a private doctor.

By which I mean specialist.

By which I mean surgeon.

By which I mean general surgeon … 6 weeks from Wednesday.

It’s possible this is all one big misunderstanding.

That there is some secret I don’t know because I’m new here. Or there’s some magical expression I need to say in Hebrew when I call *2700, the hotline for my kupah.

It could very well be one big misunderstanding.

Especially, since there’s no “manual of services” available in English when you join the Universal Health Care system in Israel. Not even if you pay extra to be in “Mooshlam,” the upgraded platinum level of service. Which, as Americans pre-conditioned to be terrified of socialized medicine, we all buy into.

Yes, it could just be yet again one big misunderstanding.

My recommendation to Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2013, in light of the damning article and follow up posts about them in Ha’aretz this week?

Work with the kupat holim on an American-friendly semi-private health care system. A happy hybrid between Private and Universal. Something to please the centrists — those of us who prefer our health care systems to be lower capped, as long as they work in our favor.

Learning Hebrew, Work

Water cooler conversations

Trust me.

I want more than just small talk.

I’m a jokester at heart. Snide, sarcastic, internally begging for your laughter from the minute I open my mouth.

All I want to do is talk to you.

But I can’t. I’m afraid.

I’m afraid I’ll say it wrong. I’m afraid I’ll say it right and you’ll respond.

I’m afraid you’ll want my answer.

I’m not so good at answering.

Unless I agree with you. L’gamrei. Or you’re looking for the bathroom.  Or the elevator. Or the way to Karmiel.

But like a devoted scholar of deception, I’ve mastered the art of small talk.

I can tell you how much I love your dress. I can even ask you where you got it and feign surprise.

But don’t ask me for my opinion on the latest political scandal.

I know. You won’t. You’re just as afraid to talk serious with me as I am with you.

But trust me.

I have so much more to offer you than unoriginal compliments and directions to the nearest facility.

I’m a story weaver. A speech giver. A pulpit preacher – desperate to shove my opinion down your throat.

And I am just as tired of telling the same story in the coffee room as you are of hearing it. The one where I justify my espresso addiction by relaying how I used to think café shachor was a quaint regional delicacy until I made Aliyah.  No one thinks this story is more old and tired than I do.

Trust me.

I’m quick and clever. The comeback I crafted in my head after your joke in that meeting the other day was three different shades of awesome until I tried to translate it word for word into Hebrew. I got as far as “Your mother is,” when I realized you were already half way out the door.

Trust me.

Back in the old country, folks thought I was cute because I’m short and blonde and snarky, not because I mixed up my feminine and masculine. Back where I come from, I never mistook masculine for feminine unless I was lost in Chelsea.

Trust me, that joke wasn’t my best.  And if I was able to make more than small talk with you, you would know that by now. You’d give me slack on that one because you would already know just how witty my typical ditty is.

By now, if we made more than small talk, I would have won you over with my charm, style, or my inexplicable ability to interpret your crazy dreams – a talent I exhibit best over espresso…in English.

Family, Learning Hebrew

Want you come?

Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

Okay. Wink your left eye for yes, your right eye for no.

No, wait.

Really. I don’t know want to know. Don’t tell me.

I think I already know, and it’s making me squint and squirm.

Okay, fine. I’ll ask:

Your kids are scared of me, right?

Stop denying it over forced uncomfortable astonishment and laughter. I can see right through you.

Be honest: When I invite your kids over to my house in my broken backwards Hebrew, they’re not just being shy when they hide between your legs and refuse to answer me no matter how sickly sweet I make over my voice. They are trembling with fear. Right?

They’re thinking:

There is no way you can get me to go anywhere with that thing.

They don’t see a kind-hearted, fun-loving lady in front of them – they see stranger danger. Massive stranger danger.  Forked tongue kind of stranger danger.

I might as well live in the abandoned house with the broken shutters.

I might as well be the old Russian lady handing out dusty-wrapped sucking candy at the entrance to the new $1 store.

I might as well be the hungover clown handing out balloons outside Foot Locker.

I might as well be this leperous hag from The Princess Bride.

I told you I didn’t want to know.

It makes me cry a little inside. And laugh a little inside.


Look, I understand where they’re coming from. I don’t begrudge your kids their worry.

It’s hard enough for an adult, let alone a four year old, to summon up the courage to go to a friend’s house alone, where she will be assaulted by the sounds and smells of someone else’s life.  It’s hard enough for an adult, let alone a four year old, not to know immediately where the cleanest bathroom is or what kind of snacks are in the pantry.

So I understand her resistance to going alone to a stranger’s house where the mommy is a gibberish-speaking freak. Where she can’t be sure if I’ll understand what she’s asking for when she wants to leave or when she wants marshmallows and wafflim…together…as a sandwich…for dinner.

It doesn’t matter if her BFF actually seems to love that gibberish-speaking freak. And sometimes even wants to kiss it. (ich!) Your kid can clearly see how different I am from the other mommies.

Different mommies are scary.

Which is why we hardly ever seem to have playdates at our house.

Not necessarily a bad thing. It means our house is often quiet at 6:30 pm and we can actually attempt a reasonable dinner and bedtime routine – something I long for from the States more than grass-fed beef and Bounty paper towels.  Back in the days when my kids were fed by 5 and in bed by 7, as opposed to falling asleep on the couch while my husband and I try to sneak in an episode of Mad Men.

Every once in a while, however, I do come home from work to find my daughter playing princesses with a friend from preschool. Someone brave who accepted an invitation from my husband, who speaks perfect Hebrew and therefore is presumably a lot less scary.

I’ll put my bags down and move to hug my daughter who is thrilled to see me. Then I’ll notice the little girl hiding behind the couch wearing a pink Sleeping Beauty gown and clip-on earrings. Don’t worry, I say with my eyes, I only eat little boys.

Out loud, however, in my broken Hebrew, in my sugary sweetest voice,  I say to her, “Want you come eat my house?”

Learning Hebrew, Letting Go

Pay attention

New language acquisition is a journey that is part concentration, part commitment, and part willingness to look stupid.

Do not move to a non-English speaking country if you are proud. Because until you master the native language, you will spend most of your interactions with locals either looking or acting like the village idiot.

This is particularly challenging for individuals who are serial blushers, easily mortified, or folks who would rather die than be singled out in a crowd.

Now, since I have gotten used to being singled out in a crowd (for being blonde, short or for possessing an inherited impulse to say whatever is on my mind), I’m probably more qualified than most for the inevitable humiliation that comes with not understanding what’s being said to me or accidentally cursing someone when I meant to ask for water.

At the very least, since moving to Israel and opening my mouth for the first time, I have built up a tolerance for shame.

There are days in Israel when I feel like an A+ student. Days when I navigate the train system without any assistance. Days where I manage to tell an EMT which of my veins usually works the best. Days where I manage to set up playdates on the right day and at the right time.

Then there are days when I’m the kid who needs the 504 plan.

Sometimes Hebrew is just too hard for me to pay attention to. Sometimes I just want a government-funded translator to accompany me through life.

Recently, I started taking my friend Tamar’s Pilates class. Now, Tamar is great. Once she finally realized how bad my Hebrew truly is (for months, she thought I was exaggerating), she started breaking her teeth to speak more English to me. She works really hard during Pilates class to make sure I understand what’s going on — when to squeeze my stretched out post-pregnancies pelvic floor. When to release.  When to breathe in. When to fall to the floor in agony.

Despite my petite and seemingly flexible frame, I’m not one of these dancer types. I hide my lack of coordination very well … until you get to know me better, or walk anywhere with me and discover how clumsy I am. So Pilates, even when taught to me in English, is a challenge for me. I’m the girl in the class that never knows whether I’m meant to mirror the teacher or do the opposite — because, after all, her right is my left. Right?

I’m the girl who always does repetitions to her own beat even when the instructor indicates otherwise. Not because I’m a rebel, but because I didn’t get it.

I’m the girl who works really hard to pay attention when the teacher is looking at me because I know chances are I’ve been doing it wrong. Otherwise, I would have actually felt it when the teacher shouted, “Ladies, do you feel it?!” I did not, however, feel it. Not in my thighs nor in my lower abdomen, only in that place you feel embarrassment and reproach.

So taking a Pilates class that is offered in Hebrew is a real sign of courage on my part. Or desperation. My belly is getting too flabby for a woman who is not having any more children.

I need something. And I’m willing to suck up the shame to look better in a bathing suit this summer.

The problem is I have to concentrate 100% of the time during Pilates class. I can’t let my guard down at all. This is not unique to exercise class in Israel. It was true also in the U.S. whenever I took yoga or Pilates because of the above-mentioned lack of coordination and confusion. But it’s more of a challenge here because when Tamar calls my name and asks kindly in Hebrew, “Jen, do you understand?” I can’t say yes or no because, truth is, I wasn’t listening.

Instead of actively listening, I was off in la-la land wondering if people liked my Facebook post; or if anyone retweeted my zombie apocalypse article (or if the zombie apocalypse article was too over the top for my “target audience.”) When you don’t fully understand the language you don’t possess the ability for instant recovery. You can’t do two things at one time.

You probably haven’t realized how adept your brain is, have you? Think about the last time you weren’t paying attention to your spouse or your child. They asked you a question and you either gave a half-assed nod or didn’t answer at all. As soon as they get pissed off at you or, in the case of my youngest child, stole your smartphone out of your hand and tugged on your left breast, what did you do? You quickly put “recall mode” into action, right? And somehow, you managed to recall some or most of what the person just asked you.

This does not happen when you are not listening to someone speaking your non-native language.

Recall mode fails.

But, while I’ll never be the dancer, I’m a bit of an actress. I got the chops.

And when I’m caught by surprise, woken up from my mind’s wandering, I play the role of dumb immigrant really well.

Of course, I’ve had a lot of practice.

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

Culture, Kibbutz, Learning Hebrew, Letting Go

The Jewish cowgirl rides again

(Originally posted as “Kibbutz girl in the city” on the Times of Israel)

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.

Azrieli Tower, Tel Aviv (courtesy Wikipedia)

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…”

= = = =

P.S. Thanks and love to Devora, my favorite Jewish cowgirl, for the inspiration for today’s headline.

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, Learning Hebrew, Making Friends, Parenting

What do you call this?

When I first started blogging about my Aliyah experience, about two weeks into our new life here, a friend in Israel (also an oleh from the States) told me he had also started a blog when he first made Aliyah. But he soon found he “didn’t have much to say or was too busy to write.”

I smiled and thought to myself, “I can’t imagine ever feeling as if I had nothing to say about our experience here or no time (or inclination, rather) to write about it.”

That was almost a year ago. And my last blog post was a month ago.

I have asked myself many times over this past month, “Why aren’t you blogging about this or that?”

The answer in my mind each time was some version of, “I’m too tired.”

But I think the real answer is, “I’m too busy living here to write about it.”

I am approaching my one year anniversary of making Aliyah. And, thus, approaching the time of reflection.

And suddenly, reflecting on my life here, seems a luxury I do not have.

There are too many va’adot (committees); too many aseifot (meetings); too many parent-teacher conferences; playdates; conference calls; rush projects; and networking meetings.

There are nights when I have to work late. There’s the weekly ulpan I am a part of. There’s the appointment with the massage therapist and the vaccinations the kids have to get.

Of course, there are the seven loads of laundry each week and the dishes every night. There’s homework, volunteer projects, yoga class, birthday parties, Shabbat dinners, and Skype calls with the folks back in the States.

There’s life.

For so long, our life was focused on klita (absorption.)  Our klita was front and center. For a time, our life revolved around visits to this Misrad or that Misrad. Our life was filled with papers to sign and documents to scan. Our life focused on meeting new people and navigating new roads.  Our world centered on making sure everyone was mentally safe and sound here in a new land, new community, new school. Our life revolved around figuring out whether or not we were “going to make it.”

I think we figured that one out.
At least, for now.

Psychologists would likely agree that all five of us in my little family unit are still very much in the process of “absorption,” particularly emotionally. But it’s clear to me, that we’ve pretty much been absorbed.

There’s a word in Hebrew for moving here: Aliyah.

There’s a word for the process of getting adjusted and trying to fit in: Klita.

But is there a word for the space in which I now exist? The space in which I live, with both feet planted, yet still not so firmly?

Is there a word to describe the space in which:

I still find myself fretting when I wait in line at the grocery store?

I still find myself scripting out all my conversations in my head before I have them in Hebrew?

I still find myself screaming at drivers?

I still find myself longing for American stores and American conveniences?

I still find myself grateful for English signs and English speakers?

I still find myself crying sometimes at how hard it all seems?

The space in which I do those things and yet  also know with confidence that I am happy? That I have friends? That my children have friends?

That we’re all better-than-okay?

Is there a word for this space?

There is a phrase, I’ve learned, that parents use to try to get their kids to calm down when they’re acting up or, in the case of our lovely Shabbat lunch last week, acting out while the grownups are trying to enjoy good food and wine.
Their parents say to them:

“Tistadroo!” Which loosely, and with typical Israeli brashness, translates as “Manage!” 

Often in response, the child will say Ani m’soodar! Which could be loosely translated as “I’m arranged!” or “I’m settled!”

Any person, but especially any parent, who has been through a big life change understands, there comes a point at which you, too, have to “Manage!” When you no longer have the luxury — or the inclination to– focus on “The Change.”

And one day, God willing, you notice you’re managing pretty well.

And that’s when you’re m’soodar.

You’re settled.

Culture, Education, Family, Kibbutz, Learning Hebrew

Fool’s errand

This morning, as I was just starting to feel better about my tough week, my husband corrected my Hebrew.

It’s perfectly okay that he corrects my Hebrew — it’s something I have asked him to do with the intention of learning quicker. After all, aren’t your mistakes sometimes more memorable than your achievements?

Despite the fact that I’ve asked him to correct me, I still often feel like an asshole when he does. Particularly when I realize that I’ve previously made the same mistake in front of someone who didn’t correct me. Someone who let my mistake just hang there in midair. Who just nodded, but inside thought to herself either a) “awww…isn’t the new immigrant so cute?” or b) “dumbass.”

The correction, in case you are wondering, was my use of the word “chuggim” when I really meant “chaggim.” Chuggim, for those who don’t speak Hebrew, are after-school enrichment type classes. Chaggim are literally holidays or festivals, but refers here in Israel to the Jewish High Holidays. In  September, people are constantly referring to “achrei hachaggim” (after the holidays) because the chaggim are as disruptive to your life and schedule here in Israel as winter break is in the States. In September, you’re just getting your life back on track after the summer break and then WHAM, the chaggim hit you.

I actually know the difference between chuggim and chaggim. It wasn’t a true mistake; the kind where I used the wrong word because I thought it was the right word.  It was a mistake of confidence. It was a mistake rooted in my desire to speak Hebrew without thinking, which is what all the veteran immigrants advise you to do.

The two words are similar sounding and used frequently (at least by weary parents). Chuggim just came out. I quickly understood my mistake after my husband corrected me and also suddenly realized it wasn’t the first time I made it…and that the previous time was to a friend of mine. (A friend, I hope, in the “aww….isn’t she cute” category.)

The chuggim/chaggim mistake came up in the context of my mother’s upcoming visit to Israel, which we are all very excited for. (Yes, emphasis added with love for my mother who reads every word of every blog post…and then analyzes what I must have really meant when I wrote it.)

In June, I asked everyone I knew if they had a school calendar for the upcoming school year. My mother was planning a trip during the chuggim (which is probably what I  said at the time, though you now know I meant chaggim). It was my intention to coordinate her trip with the break from school and work during the chaggim.

Everyone assured me that yes, there would be a national holiday declared, but they couldn’t tell me the exact dates.

What?!? This was maddening to me, and more so to my mother, from whom I inherited my “bordering on maniacal” organizational skills and obsessive need to plan in advance. How could they not know in June the official school break for the High Holidays? Wasn’t it the same every year? Didn’t it occur between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? Or during Sukkot? Or both? Sure, our winter break in the States varies from year to year, but it basically starts a few days before Christmas and ends a day or two after New Year’s. It’s predictable! You can plan around it! You don’t need to be a fortune teller to figure it out.

But no one here could answer my question. Not the parents with kids currently in the system and not parents of older kids. No one knew. I even searched our regional web site (in Hebrew!!!) to try to find out the answer on my own (after my husband politely decided not to on my behalf).

I finally just heard yesterday from a coworker who heard it announced on the radio that the school break would be during Sukkot (the week after my mom’s visit.) I think, but I’m not 100% sure, that the Ministry of Education just decided this the day before school started.

So much for trying to coordinate my mom’s visit. (Yes, mom, I am still taking time off work and we will keep the kids home so they can visit properly with you.)

“You could have called the school,” I blamed my husband this morning when he got the “official” announcement in his email inbox.

Huh, what are you talking about?, his look said back to me.

“Don’t you see? This is my life here,” I wailed at him this morning before he left for a meeting. “Half the time I feel like a moron and the other half I feel like an imbecile!!! Maybe you should take pity on me! Moving to Israel made me stupid!”

“On your walk to your meeting,” I spat at him with venom (but really sadness and frustration), “think about that! Spend some time thinking about what it must feel like to be ME! Stupid, stupid me!” (The words I actually used were a little more foul, but the above is basically what I meant.)

In a moment of brilliant patience and kindness, my husband kept his mouth shut, nodded, and walked out the door. Whether or not he actually spent time pitying me on his way to work is another issue.

I was blessed with a quiet house in the hour after he left. My oldest kid was out at a friend’s house and the two little ones were in Gan. I spent this luxurious hour sulking, cleaning my dirty house, sulking, putting in some dirty laundry, and catching up on the lives of my far-away friends through their posts on Facebook.

While scanning the Facebook updates from Hurricane Irene-damaged New Jersey (and still selfishly sulking), I was fortunate enough to find a video link in my News Feed from my FB friend Carol, a veteran American immigrant to Israel who I’ve never met in real life. The video she posted reminded me of something very important; something that wiped the sulk away and replaced it with a guilty sigh.

In between the moments I feel like a moron and the moments I feel like an imbecile, I actually feel alive. More alive than before. More connected to myself, my kids, my husband, my community, my planet.

It’s my acknowledgment of and addiction to this feeling that makes the stupid bearable. It makes me want to stay, instead of leave.

True, when I lived in New Jersey, when I had my own business, when I was considered a community leader and an educator, when I was writing for important publications and being interviewed by journalists, I felt like a smart Somebody. It was a really good feeling.  But, in truth, what was attached to that feeling of being smart was a compelling need to constantly know more and do more. To research, to learn and to share. Naturally, I was addicted to my computer, to my BlackBerry, and to social media outlets. In order to maintain my competitive edge in that space, I had to be turned on all the time.

All the time.

What were the consequences of being turned on all the time?

You know what they are. Think about your irritation when your husband interrupts you when you are in the middle of an email; or the compelling urge to check Facebook while you are sitting at a table in the Food Court across from your son; or the panic you feel when your internet isn’t working.

My life here has allowed me (forced me?) to disconnect. Not completely, obviously, but significantly.

And, suddenly, I remember there’s a good side to being Stupid.