Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Oleh Mission

Is Zionism dead?
The question keeps repeating
In every conversation
It gets our pulses beating
Because we came here for a reason
Made Aliyah to stay
This is the Jewish homeland
No matter what the world might say.
At least that's the ideal
It's what I want to believe
But the fire is burning out
And there's so much left to achieve.
We let daily frustrations
Get in our way
Lose the beauty in the monotony
Of the day to day.
I've heard time and time again,
"I wish I was here in 48
To fight for my country
To help create this state."
This may not be a war
Where heroes will emerge
But Zionism needs a recharge
It's up to us to create the surge.
We are soldiers of the heart,
The warriors of blue and white
We have no guns, no grenades
It's with passion that we will fight.
This mission is important
We're not doing this alone
With us are the souls
Of those who never made it home.
Take a second, just a moment
And feel pride in this land
We have a Jewish country, a freedom
A place we can proudly stand.
It's a mantra, a message
Words that we can live by
As the walls of Tel Aviv
Scream Am Yisrael Chai
A Zionist graffiti
A mix of hope and despair
Remembering the heroes
Who used to live here.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Tefillin and Tattoos

One of the most important lessons we are taught as children is to "judge everyone favorably". We are supposed to remember constantly that we don't know the whole story, that we have no right to pass judgments on anyone else. We say this as we cross the street to avoid the secular teenagers, as we stare at the ultra-Orthodox girls who pass us on the street, as we recognize and pity that girl who used to be religious but isn't anymore. We think we know them, we create stories of what their lives must be like, and all the while we are unbearably self-conscious of what they might be thinking of us.

I was recently in a taxi in Paris, traveling from one airport to another. My driver was an Israeli guy, about 30 years old. He had tattoos up his arm, a piercing in his ear, and hair gelled so spiky it looked like it could cut something. He looked very intimidating, and it took a while for me to feel comfortable talking to him. But once we started, we spoke the whole way, two strangers stuck in an island of standstill traffic.

He wanted to know how old I was, and asked if I'd ever planned to travel the world.
"Probably not", I said. "All I've ever wanted to see was Israel, and now I live there."
He laughed. "Zionism," he said. "Cute."
I asked him why he left Israel for Paris. He thought about it for a while. A girlfriend had brought him here, and then he'd opened a business.
"When was the last time you were home?" I asked.
"My father died a month ago", he said. "I went back for shiva."

We talked a bit about his father and the girlfriend who had long since disappeared, and then the conversation shifted. I took an apple out of my backpack and made a bracha.

"So you are religious?" he asked me.
"Yes", I said.
He smiled. "You might not believe this, but I was once religious too. Shabbat, Yom Tov, Kashrut, I did everything. I wore a Kippah srugah, went to Bnei Akiva every Friday night. I even dated my rabbi's daughter."

I tried to imagine this very obviously secular man as a religious teenage boy. I couldn't.

"What happened?", I asked.

He sighed. "You know. Life happens. I wanted to have fun and get away from all the rules. I still believe in the One above, though. I grew up believing and I always will. If you don't believe, you have nothing."

He paused and looked out the window. "My father learned with me every night when I was a child. Now he's gone, and I've started learning again. Not much, but it's something."

I wasn't sure what to say.

"My Abba was always waiting for me to come home, to be religious again. But it wasn't for me."

"Do you ever miss it?" I asked.

He thought about it for a minute. "Sometimes," he said. "My sisters are married with children now and I hear them sing the songs that I used to know. It makes me remember the life I used to live. But maybe that's just part of being an adult."

Then he raised his arm, the one with the tattoo. "You see this?" he asked me. "I got this tattoo on my left arm, just in case I wanted to put on tefillin again one day. Just in case."

Then he laughed. "Enough of this religious talk, " he said. "What do you think about Bibi?"

The conversation quickly turned to a political debate, but I couldn't get those words out of my head. "Just in case I wanted to put on tefillin again."

The whole way home I thought about what he had said. I thought about his father, about his family, and I had a hundred more questions I wish I had asked him.

But what stuck with me the most was the knowledge that if I hadn't had that conversation with him, if I had just seen him on the street, I would never have guessed that he had a story. That he had a strong belief in G-d. That behind the tattoo was a man who had left himself a door back home.

"Just in case…"

Every person is made up of defining moments. The moment you get a tattoo on your left arm, instead of your right. The moment you don't throw out the siddur you never use, but leave it on your bookshelf. The moment you see someone you don't usually talk to, and throw them a smile.

I decided to work harder on myself, not to judge others. To constantly remember that every person has a back-story, has a journey, and I might never hear about it. That those defining moments are not written on foreheads or Facebook statuses, and they must be learned about through effort and time.

I wonder if he'll ever put on tefillin again. I wonder if he's happy. I wonder if he knows that because of that conversation, I will do my best to never assume I understand someone before taking the time to listen.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

ושבו הורים לגבולם - Welcome Home!!!

"What are you doing for Yom Ha'atzmaut?"
"Going to the airport.. My parents are making aliyah!"

I had this conversation maybe 50 times in the past week, and every time I had the opportunity to say the words my excitement doubled. I couldn't stop smiling. I told everyone I knew, including bus drivers and pizza store guys, unable to contain my happiness.

The thing is, my parents are in Israel a lot. In the past few years, they've been here more then they've been in America. It felt as though they were living here already. I couldn't figure out exactly what it was that I was so excited about. What was changing?

My parents met in college. They were set up by a mutual friend, who got tired of hearing them both speak about Israel all the time and figured they should just talk to each other.

My mom was from Detroit, artsy and creative, interested in photography and guitar.
My dad was from West Virginia, still speaking with his southern twang, focused on studying for his tests and going to classes.

They didn't have much in common at first.

What they did share, immediately, was a passionate love for Israel.

They dated, fell in love, and got married. The plan was five years. Five years in the states, and then they'd pick up and move to Israel, make Aliyah, live out the dream. But life happens. A community happened. I happened. (And six other siblings before me, but they're not important here). My parents became an integral part of their neighborhood, they sent their kids to school, and the five year plan transitioned into a "someday dream". New plans came to the forefront. Graduations, weddings, grandchildren. Life was never boring. And then, slowly, one at a time, we all started making our way over here. In the span of 6 years, six out of seven of their children made Aliyah. The dream had been passed along, a fire that wasn't spoken about too often but consistently burned in our home.

Yesterday, on Yom Ha'atzamut, I waited with my siblings and their children at the airport for my parents to come out. We held Israeli flags and lots of signs, some that made more sense then others. And that feeling when I saw them walking through the sliding doors was like none other.

Because it's not just about some papers that declare your citizenship. It's not the Teudat Oleh that my father was holding so proudly, not the benefits or the free cab ride or any of that. It's the realization of a 40 year old dream. The dream that a young married couple had spun together in a little house in West Virginia, finally being actualized with their children and grandchildren around to see them do it.

I realized why this meant so much to me. Why this was more then just another trip, more then just an official acknowledgment that yeah, my parents visit a lot. Because I believe in dreams. I believe in the power of wanting something so much that you won't let the flame of your wish burn out. And now I have proof. It may take 42 years and 21 grandchildren until you see the fruition of what you've been working for. But I've learned from my parents a lesson that I'll never forget. You don't give up. You keep on working on what you want. And you'll get there.

I feel so grateful that I had the opportunity to watch my parents live out their "someday dream".

Mazal Tov Mom and Dad!
I love you :)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

One Day A Year.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

One day a year, we commemorate those 6 million who were brutally murdered. One day a year, we allow ourselves to look at pictures and videos that will haunt our dreams, hear stories about children who never grew up, let the tragedy of the deaths of millions of Jews enter into our consciousness. We listen to the survivors as they paint pictures of death and destruction, of loss and of tears, of lies and deception. We light a memory candle and tell a story of a girl named Esther who's father was a tailor, who wore pretty dresses and had curls in her hair and got taken in to Auschwitz but never got to leave.

The stories are horrifying. They are terrifying. They are so far from my reality that I cannot grasp their true meaning. I stare into the flames of the bonfire that we have lit to set the mood, and I try as hard as I can to remember those who died, and to wonder why they did. I wonder what we can do to avenge their blood, to be able to stand up and say NEVER AGAIN and believe it to be true.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago, questioning our right to the words "Am Yisrael Chai". I wondered how we are deserving of redemption when we, as a nation, are so far from perfect. In a comment, a friend of mine wrote: "Who says perfection brings the geula? Perhaps it is the fight against imperfection".

This is an idea I can understand. This is how we can avenge the family that we have lost. We are not supposed to be perfect. But every time we struggle with our religion, every time we mess up and choose to try again, it is a slap in Hitler's face. We are living here, here in the beautiful land of Israel. We are in a Jewish country, fighting with imperfection, trying to be the greatest Jews that we can be. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we fall. But the action of getting back up again, of saying no, we won't settle for mediocrity, we are the Jewish nation and we will survive the way we have survived for thousands of years, that is how we can honor those who died.

The horrors of the Holocaust are too much for my mind to wrap itself around. But I can understand the future. I can understand that we are in a constant battle for perfection. That we have an incredible responsibility to take on - the responsibility for hundreds, thousands, millions of lives that were cut short too soon. Children who would have grown up, gotten married, and had children of their own. Brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts - gone. And yet we are still here. Struggling with our imperfections. Trying to become the best people that we can be.

We give ourselves only one day a year to contemplate these things. One day a year where we can force ourselves to take a look at the past and see how we need to change our futures. Don't let it pass you by.

And now I can say, after all of these thoughts, that if we can accomplish our goal of a continued struggle, if we can pass along the message of Jewish pride and responsibility on to our children, if we can continue to grow for those who cannot - Am Yisrael Chai.

The Nation of Israel lives on.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Am Yisrael Chai??

Am Yisrael Chai.

It's one of my mantras, the nation of Israel will live on. The nation of Israel. It's you, it's me, it's all of us. It's the secular, and it's the Charedim.

I believe in unity. I am a big advocator of Jewish pride, Jewish unity, Jewish love, and when other people bash other sectors of our religion I do my best to defend. We're a small nation and at the end of the day, all we have is each other.

I've heard people say they hate the Charedim in Israel. The biggest conversation in the country is why they can sit and learn in yeshiva while our sons and brothers need to go to war. And though I agree that they should be fighting, I can still understand them. They're just good people who want to learn Torah, who want to be closer to Hashem, who think they're doing the right thing. How can you look down on that?

I was at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem tonight, waiting for my bus. It goes through my city but ends up in B'nei Brak, a very Charedi area, and the whole line was mostly made up of Charedi families. I've never seen so many people waiting for a bus before - there were probably over 100 people standing there. We waited for around an hour for all the buses to fill up and leave, and the mood was mostly good natured. Everyone shared their water and cookies, assuring each other that it was kosher for Pesach with no kitniyot and wondering how long it would be until the next bus came. We all complained together, taking pictures of the ridiculous line that stretched all the way into the back of the room and doubled back again.

And then it was my turn to get on the bus. As the bus pulled up, some Charedi yeshiva guys who had been standing by the door for five or ten minutes rushed up to get on. They were stopped by an older Charedi man who yelled at them. "What are you doing?? Have some respect!"

One of the guys, about 20 years old, yelled back "What do you care? Get on the bus and shut up." They started pushing everyone who had been waiting to get on, fighting to get to the front of the line. There were elderly men and women, a few pregnant women, fathers with little kids, a girl with Down Syndrome who was standing behind me. Everyone was yelling at each other, and I was just praying I would get to the bus alive and be able to find a seat. One older woman very calmly told the guys to calm down and wait because other people had been waiting longer. "Do you work for Egged?" one of them spat at her. "Get out of my face and shut your mouth".

At that point I finally reached the stairs and turned around to see one of the guys, my age, pushing forward to get to the door. An old man was in front of him, and he lifted his arm to tell the guy to stop. The yeshiva student grabbed his arm and forcefully PUSHED him backwards. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Until then, I'd been a spectator in this scene, but when I saw that my hands started shaking. "What is wrong with you??" I screamed at him. "What would your Rabbi say about the way you're acting right now? Would your father be proud of your yeshiva education? Have you not learned Derech Eretz yet??" My words came out in a mixture of English and Hebrew, my dikduk completely lost. He looked at me, said "Chatzufah, why are you speaking to me?" and turned away. It was all I could do not to slap him across the face. I had a ridiculous urge to grab his kippah and throw it as far as I could - I've never in my LIFE been so full of rage at a person.

One Charedi father was trying to get on the bus - his wife was already on, and he had been putting their stroller on the bottom. One of the students straight out punched him in the stomach. A fight started, cameras were everywhere, and I somehow paid and sat down, watching out the window. I can't describe the feeling I felt right then. It's NOT the Charedim. It's these students, these guys who spend their lives in yeshiva and never learn manners or how to treat a person with respect.

A part of me wants to forget it happened, not write this blog post, go back to my naïve ideas of love and unity and am yisrael chai - that idea that if we want it enough, we can all just get along. But I know that these guys will marry girls who will have sons who will learn from their fathers and there has to be a way to end this.

I've never really encountered anti-semitism. And although I've have a few altercations, the Arabs and arsim in the country have never brought me to tears on a public bus. But this made me cry, and not only because I feel sad for the Jewish nation, but because I was terrified. Because everything that I believe in, Am Yisrael, the land of Israel, everything that I think is worth having pride in, took a shot to the heart when that "bochur" wearing a black kippah who probably had just davened maariv pushed an old man so he could get onto a bus.

So I ask you - where do we go from here?

What am I supposed to think now?

I don't hate charedim. There are good and bad people in every sect of Judaism - every sect of the world. But something needs to change in the way they educate their sons. I don't want to start a Charedi bashing wave because of this story - I want to make a change. This is not okay. This is not what we survived thousands of years of persecution for. The Jewish people have come a long and painful way to get to the place we are today, and if after all that we can't respect each other, how can we ever imagine that anyone else will? How can we imagine that we're deserving of any kind of geula?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Possibilities of Unity

It is human nature to make generalizations as we grow up and learn about the world. We view reality through the shades of our memories and experiences. Sometimes that protects us from repeating mistakes, but most of the time it just prevents us from seeing things clearly.

I spent Shabbat in a community that I have judged quietly for years. It is a community full of people who, in my mind, were just like the close-minded "yeshivish" people I had tried to get away from throughout high school. I went there for Shabbat, reluctantly, and was pleasantly surprised. The families I met were kind and genuine, opening their homes to us and offering us anything they could. They were down to earth, regular people and I found myself enjoying their company and realizing that maybe, possibly, the Jewish people are not split into normal and charedi, that maybe there's a middle ground, and maybe it's not a bad place to be.

It was during Friday night davening though, that I felt like Hashem figuratively hit me over the head.

We were davening Kabbalat Shabbat. All the men were singing and dancing, and a woman walked up from the front of the shul to come speak to me. I thought maybe she was about to tell me that the girls I was with were being too loud, or maybe that they were not dressed modestly enough. She put her hand on my shoulder and leaned over. "Darling", she said quietly in my ear, "your hair is astounding." I looked at her, a little confused. Then she said, "I hope you have the zchus (merit) to cover it very soon, and that you find an incredible husband who will admire it every day."

"Amen", I whispered, taken aback.

And then she smiled at me and walked out of the shul.


I didn't know how to react. But for some reason, I wanted to cry. I wasn't sad. I felt moved in a way that I haven't felt in a while. Who was this woman? Why did she take the time to walk over and give me a bracha?

So many thoughts raced through my head at the same time.

I'd been calling this place close-minded and judgmental, I'd been saying that it was a community full of people who would not accept anyone who wasn't just like them. And as I’m formulating my not-so-polite responses to her imaginary criticisms, this woman comes over just to give me a compliment and a beautiful bracha.

When was the last time I had done something like that?

When was the last time I'd even seen anyone doing something like that?

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a few friends about Jewish unity. We were talking about building the Beit Hamikdash, about how it's not possible until there is genuine achdut (unity) in our nation. Until we can learn to accept each other. A debate broke out over whether or not the idea was even realistic. If there was any iota of possibility that we could reconcile all of our differences within the next ten years. We each brought in examples from politics, from the army, from our own lives and experiences. I think the conclusion was that we'd all like it to happen, but the rift between the charedim and dati leumi is too big to bridge.

We have these built up notions in our heads about each other. And yes, some of them are true. But at the end of the day, we're all Jewish. We all have the same goals, the same values, the same frustrations. There are beautiful, kind hearted, genuine people on every inch of the Jewish spectrum. The secular, the traditional, the dati leumi, the charedim. If we could all find a way to put our shades of experiences aside and just see each other for who we really are, anything is possible. Unity is possible. The Beit Hamikdash is possible.

This lady just thought she was doing a nice thing when she came over to me in shul. She didn't realize that she was opening my mind up to the possibility that I could be wrong about these people. That after a few hours in the community I realized that I was, in fact, wrong about them. That maybe I need to readjust my view of the world. That when I start labeling others and judging them, I am the kind of person that I never thought I would be, the kind of person I've warned others not to become.

They say each mitzva we do is a brick in the future Beit Hamikdash. That one day, Hashem will lower the thousands of mitzvot onto our world and we'll be able to see the physical, tangible acts of kindness that we have done for each other. Let's do it. One person at a time, one conversation at a time, one smile at a time.

The possibilities are endless.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Aliyah and Elections

I never cared about politics in America. The extent of my political activism was our high school mock election, and I don't even remember who I even voted for.

Somehow, here in Israel, I've become obsessed with politics. My conversations with friends, my Facebook posts, the things that I read and videos that I watch have all become centered around the upcoming elections. I don't go a day without debating the benefits of Bennett vs. Lapid, or why I think Bibi has been moving towards the Left lately, or even just making fun of the Green/Pirate parties.

I can tell you exactly why politics changed from "free tshirts" to something I actually care about.
It's because of Naftali Bennett.

My decision to make aliyah was not a well thought out plan. I just felt so passionate about living here, nothing else seemed as important. I had a fire inside of me and nothing could put it out - and it burned until well after I'd made aliyah. I spoke to Americans who were here for their gap year, emphasizing the power of a Jewish country, trying to make them see how important it was for all of them to stay. I read Yoni Netanyahu's letters, and kept that book next to my bed so I could read it all the time. I listened to all of Bibi's speeches over and over and over again, memorizing his words. I picked out my Zionist heroes, found friends who cared just as much as I did, and threw myself into Israel culture. I bought Shoresh sandals, had an Israel flag tied to my backpack, and (half) traded in my country music for Udi Davidi, Shlomi Shabat, and even Eyal Golan.

As time passed, the fire began to fade. I came to Bar Ilan and met a hundred other students who had come from America, like me. I waited in office lines for hours, only to find out the one person who I needed to speak to was on vacation. I'd struggle to speak the language, and end up frustrated and resorting to English. The beauty and wonder of aliyah stopped being so prevalent, and the regular bureaucratic frustrations set in. We'd make jokes about how life in America was so much better, about how we were so dumb to move here, and I started to become a lot more cynical about this country. I'd never leave, and my love for Israel was still there, but the passion and joy I felt from simply being here had somehow been lost.

And then, during Amud Anan, I heard Naftali Bennett speak. It didn't feel like I was listening to a politician. He spoke about how he would put his life on the line for Israel. He talked about how this is a Jewish country - how this is our country. How we must defend ourselves, and not apologize for it. How we can't give it up, no matter what, because it belongs to the Jewish people. I was fascinated by him - he was confident and clear, he did not speak defensively, and he put into words the feelings I'd had when I first made aliyah. I read up on his platforms and found that I agree with most everything he stands for. I realized that it matters to me that there is a strong religious Zionist voice in the Knesset. I realized that my vote makes a difference, and that I can make a difference. And I also realized that my love and passion for Israel does not need to be a blazing fire, as long as I know it's still there.

This is not about politics. This is not about Bayit Yehudi or Likud. This is about taking an active role in Israel's future. Remember why you made aliyah. Remember how you felt that day when you got off the plane, and reignite that fire.