Ooooooooh! I Get it Now . . .

I’ve been meaning to write for a few days, but it’s been so hard to get KG away from the computer. Seems he has his own following now and it’s gone to his head a bit. And for any of you who really know KG (alias “Rocco,” aka “The Rocket Man,” and my favorite, “Einstein”), you know that when he finally sets his mind to something, it’s very difficult to dissuade him. Be that as it may, it’s my turn today. Sorry puppy. You’ll just have to wait.

Today was a special day. We had our first really big rain and it seems to have brought with it a big change in temperature. It’s been threatening to rain for a few days. Last week we had one of those Biblical and awesome (using the REAL meaning of the word) lightning storms. No thunder. Just lightning. Heat lightning, traveling behind, out of, and UP through  the clouds. Frankly, I think the lack of sound made it all the more eerie. And I’ve never seen lightning travel UP! I kept looking for it, thinking that maybe I just didn’t see it right. But there it was, stretching from the clouds upward into the black of the heavens. Huge bolts, jagged and visibly charged with the static of the heat that had built up over the months, now at an explosive point, leaped, jumped, bolted, and catapulted from one cloud to another. Horizontal, vertical, South to North. Yellow, blue, and white. I’ve seen such a display only once, on Martha’s Vineyard. It was a hot night as well, and there the bolts danced their hour-long pas-de-deux. I remember sitting on the sand at South Beach along with dozens of other people as we watched this celestial performance taking place far out over the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, the lack of thunder was replaced by the crashing sound of the waves, which made the experience all the more unique.

I was first made aware of our recent electrical storm in Afula by the flashing of lights that were so bright that I thought they were from a passing police car. But when they came again, and at irregular intervals, I went out to the terrace to look. And sure enough, off to the west was this explosive performance. I find myself lacking how to adequately describe the scenario. While watching the “show,,” In the back of my mind came a heavenly voice saying, “Hey! You want to see a magic trick?” I felt no fear, no sense of peril, no subconscious parallel drawn between the flashes of an exchange of highly charged particles and the flashes that are seen in war-torn areas. It was just pure delight and I refused to let any lines be drawn that would destroy the moment.

However . . . one can’t help but think about how such a natural phenomenon would have appeared to ancient man who attributed all such happenings to atavistic explanations. Lightning hits the sand and boom!  A Desert Rose. Desert Roses are created by the melting of sand struck by lightning  into crystallized  shapes that look almost like clumps of ginger.  How could ancient man (or woman) possibly explain this meteorological event and how it must have felt to be on the plains of Armageddon, here in the Jezreel Valley, with Jordon off to the East, Nazareth to the North and “Saul’s Shoulder,” the mountain where nothing grew since King David cursed it thousands of years ago, all around you while  watching such a storm. Even when we are so accustomed to and jaded by the wonders of our electronic age, even when we are so used to watching films with CGI effects that we accept as real, even so, a silent lightning storm such as this must surely move you.

Our season-changing deluge came in two phases. Phase I was during Ulpan when Osnati (my incredible Ulpan teacher) came dancing into the room singing “Geshem, Geshem!” (Rain, rain!). I might add that NO ONE here sings “rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day.” Such an offense would surely be dealt with quickly and harshly. No, this event called for a run out into the rain, standing like a little kid as the rain poured down on all of us. It just felt so damned good! Quite a site. 15 Russian doctors giggling like little children at the promise of summer’s retreat. It has absolutely overstayed its welcome.

Phase II came this evening as I lay dozing on the couch, felled by exhaustion (happy, but exhausted). I saw more of the sky light up, then felt a very sudden drop in temperature followed by a swirling blast of cold air, sending plants, chairs, felled leaves,  and patio furniture moving around. A gust? With great gusto came this gust. Might I actually need to wear a sweater tonight? Even better, might I actually sleep IN my bed, under my sheets tonight? Oh my! I can hardly contain my excitement.  Truly.

And on a last note, my cousin from the US came to visit me today. Harry is married to my first cousin, Abby, and has a disposition unlike that of anyone else I know. He is completely without agendas, always supportive, always asking how to help, always inviting you to come for Shabbas dinner, regardless of the 2 hour drive it would entail. There is no end to what he’d do for his family.

And so today, lugging hair products, replacement eye liner (deep purple to bring out the hazel in my eyes!), a Hebrew-English dictionary and a book with 501 conjugated Hebrew verbs, Harry arrived and presented me with my version of a Red Cross package. Hair products and books. Everything else you can get here (for a price).

We toured the Emunah Center and Harry, who is always with camera in hand, clicked away. He kept explaining that no one back in the US really understands what I’m doing here (not “why the heck am I here” but literally, what this place is about). He was really taken aback by the campus and  the faces of the children. Snap! A kid climbing a tree. Clickl! A kid careening around a corner on his bike. Click click! Kids and madrichim (counselors),stopping to give me a hello hug.

Image

“Ooooooooooh!! Now I get it,” said Harry. It makes so much more sense seeing it.

“Ooooooooooh! Now I get it,” says Ellin. The power of nature really is awe-some.

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KG to the Rescue!!!!

Hi! Kelev Gadol here. That’s right! It’s me! I’m sitting here right at the computer where I am going to help Ellin out. She’s been  trying to get to the computer for a few days now, but her back went out and she just can’t sit for too long. So I finally fessed up that I’ve been sneaking in to her office every now and then and posting things under my own name. She looked at me incredulously and then  said, “Well, why not? I’ve certainly learned that anything is possible, so Rocco . . . Go to town!” And so here I am, paws at the ready to give you an update. Now, if I can only figure out what to do with my tail as I sit on the chair. Why don’t they put holes in the  darned seat so I can sit more comfortably? Really. Hasn’t anyone ever thought of the obvious?

We had visitors from the States a few days ago. JaneandBob Hillman from Trumbull, CT came all the way to the Emunah Children’s Center to see me. I know that they told everyone they were here to see their daughter and her family, but I know the truth. Just look at this picture! Can’t you see the love in their eyes? They missed me soooooooo much! The other couple there is BonnieandManny from Trumbulltoo! They are here for 3 weeks because they just love the Center and the kids and this is their idea of a holiday, folding laundry and building shelving. I think they’re just the greatest! (They are dog lovers, so it’s a natural fit).

Me, BobandJane, BonnieandManny. Isn’t it nice they all came so far to see me??

When BobandJane came, they and Ellin played Jewish Geography (Ellin’s favorite game). It seems that BobandJane have a cousin who lives nearby and that she is a really big macher (I love this word. It’s pretty easy for us dogs to say, in case you didn’t know it . . . ) and she helped prepare this unbelievable performance at Kibbutz Ein Herod, which is nearby.  They had a special performance there where survivors of the Shoa were paired with teenage kids from nearby kibbutzim. It wasn’t really like what my brother Max did with the AdoptaSurvivor program, but still the connection between pairing teens and survivors is really brilliant! What the kids did here was to re-enact what happened to the survivors and their families when they were the same age as the teenagers. It was  a play that had music, sets, props, fake smoke, and sound effects. The survivors would step up to the microphone, which the Israel’s call a “Madonna,” (hehe heh heh), and give a small synopsis of what happened when their families were taken by the Nazis. Then the teenagers would re-enact  it. I heard Ellin and Jane talking about how they sat there and cried. I think the Hebrew was a bit hard for them (Jane probably understood more, but Ellin gets stuck in hearing a word and then classifying it, like, “Oh! This is a masculine plural in the past tense!” And by that point, she’s forgotten what the word was and can’t remember its meaning and the play was about five minutes on to the next part. Ellin said at a point she just gave up and gave in to the moment. Ellin remarked at the bravery of the survivors. It’s not enough that they made it through all those years, but that they have the courage to stand up in front of an audience delivering lines they’d memorized and written just for the play. And then, to see the beautiful young children re-enact some of the most traumatic moments of their lives. That must take a special kind of courage and strength. Ellin is always in awe of these people.

Anyway, the Jewish Geography part is that Rotem Prog’s parents and grandparents live at Ein Herod, where the performance took place (and in an incredibly beautiful theater, I heard Ellin say). Rotem lived in Fairfield as an Israeli emissary last year and Ellin has become friendly with her parents and grandparents. So of course, they were at the performance (Ellin just happened to sit next to Rotem’s grandparents) and BobandJane’s cousin MiriamVered was there (because she is the big macher . . . . aren’t you paying attention????), and of course, MiriamVered and Rotem’s familiy all know each other. So there was Ellin, last minute going to a performance at a nearby kibbutz and sitting with 8 people that she knew. She just loves that sort of thing. How do I know all this? Because she came back and told me EVERYTHING! Ellin is a very good sharer and she makes sure that I don’t miss anything in case I wasn’t allowed to come with her. I probably would have loved to come to the performance and see everyone, but sitting on those seats without tail holes would just have been too much to ask of me. I mean, I love Ellin and everything, but even my love has boundaries, when it comes to the comfort of my “tussie,” as they call it in Hebrew, I have to put my own needs first.

Before the performance, BobandJane met Ellin at the Emunah Center (you saw the picture a few paragraphs above, right????). So after the photo session (ahem), we all piled into BobandJane’s rentalcar and drove to our home (they wanted to see how we were managing). They were terrific and really sweet about our home. I think they approved, but you’ll have to ask them in a few weeks when they go back to  Tremble Connetikut (what a really weird name for a town!).  But that won’t be for another few weeks because they’re going to Paris just to see Ellin’s dear friend ChantalJanisson. Chantal and Ellin have been friends for more than 30 years and so since BobandJane are going to Paris anyway (it’s a pretty long way to go for a baguette, but to each his own), they’ll meet up with ChantalJanisson and meet her husband MarkGaito (a Jewish guy from NYC!). So then I guess I’ll have to refer to them as  ChantalandMark.

And so that’s about it. Ellin’s in the other room cursing at the spasms in her back and said walking me this morning was like “taking your dog out for a walk while in the last stages of labor!” Well, I can’t relate to that, but figure it must be something like the pain when I watch Ellin eat some chocolate ice cream and know I can’t lick the bowel because chocolate isn’t good for me. I’m sure my pain is worse, but I’ll let Ellin feel like the hero in this one.

Time for me to go and plop at her feet. She gets very nervous when she can’t see me and so no matter where I lay down, there’s Ellin! That’s us! Rocco and Ellin! Just like Peter Pan and his Shadow. . .

 

KG signing off.

The End of the World (as we know it).

I have always wanted to visit Megiddo. I don’t know why this has been so important to me. But if 27 contiguous civilizations sacrificed everything to guard this relatively spot on the plains of the Jezreel Valley, there must be something to it.

Approaching Megiddo from my home in Afula is a 10-minute car ride. From the distance, it looks like nothing special. Just an outcrop with a big gash in the middle topped with a sprinkling of tall palm trees. You think, “what is it that made this one spot so invaluable to civilizations dating back to the Neolithic period (7th and 9th millennia BCE)?” It is one of those situations where you really do have to go to understand—boots on the ground type of stuff. Once you arrive and make your way to the top, you are in the midst of 15 acres rising 60 meters above the surroundings. And then you stop, catch your breath, look out all around you, to every direction, and you begin to understand. To a world where a good vantage point meant the difference between flourishing and perishing, this spot on an otherwise flat plains presents a vista that remains unbroken for miles.

location, location, location . . .

And let’s not forget about commerce and trade. Megiddo sits at the confluence of an international trade route that linked the ancient world’s centers of culture and power, namely Egypt and Mesopotamia. Bronze and Iron Age wars were fought here. Think of Canaanites, Biblical Canaan, and you think of Megiddo. The lush plains, the deep and fruitful spring of fresh water that gave birth to the tunnel hewn into solid rock in order to guard the city’s water system. It’s arguably one of the most incredible feats of engineering and sheer will power ever created by man.

I had long heard of the brilliant feat that allowed inhabitants of Megiddo to fetch its life-sustaining waters from the spring located outside of the city walls. So as to hide its original entrance,  Megiddo’s inhabitants dug a 36-meter-deep shaft, straight town, with a spiraling staircase hacked into the shaft’s sides. Today, the stones that once felt the slapping of hundreds of thousands of sandaled and bare feet as they trod up and down these staircases (one going up, one going down) are today replaced by 187 steel steps, (hopefully) firmly anchored into the side of the walls. Once you arrive at the bottom of the shaft, you walk another 70 meters through the horizontal tunnel that extends to the spring.

The tunnel from the shaft to the spring.

The outer entrance of the spring remains concealed beneath a massive stone  somehow placed there to  hide the original access to the spring,  making it invisible to anyone who looked for the source.

The long way down.

The water system is the final destination of the hike through Megiddo.  Before you get there, you can look at a slice of the mountain created by the archaeologists revealing 20 cities sitting one atop another. You see the rounded mound that served as the seat of cultic practices for more than 2000 years.

Only once before had I ever felt so small and so overwhelmed by man-made structures. The first time was when I stood on the Alexander III Bridge crossing the Seine in Paris. I had seen photos of Paris all my life. I had lived and studied in Florence and had traveled a decent amount. But I had never been to Paris. And there I was. Simply crossing the Seine on a perfect, clear, starlit evening. Midway across the bridge, it occurred to me that I was finally in the Paris that loomed so largely in my senses. I was overwhelmed. I began to weep. Not cry. Weep. I was horrified with myself. But I couldn’t stop the sobs or tears. I just turned around so I couldn’t see anyone (I didn’t care if they saw me), and gave in to the feeling for a few seconds. A few days ago, standing at the bottom of the spring in Megiddo and after talking myself out of fits of vertigo and  claustrophobia in order to reach the well, I felt the same emotion invading my composure. I had almost turned back, so great was the feeling of dread, knowing I had to walk down this long spiral, through 70 meters of a low tunnel under tons of rock. I didn’t want to go but I needed to go. After everything else I’d been through the past few months that led up to my exit to Israel, I could not let rock and a 70-meter walk in a passageway stop me.

Triumph. I made it through. I stood at the bottom of the source of such engineering brilliance. I no longer felt any panic. No dizziness. Just a small sense of accomplishment and a true sense of awe for the brilliance and sheer willpower that created the shaft and tunnel, not to mention the brilliance that foresaw the way to create them.

Rhoda, you with your “boots on the ground” philosophy of teaching me history would have been thrilled to be there, although I’m not quite sure you would have made it through the 70-meter shaft to triumph. It’s OK though. I thought of you the entire way through.

 

 

Simhat Torah? Simply Tremendous!

Well, this was a night to remember! Actually, it’s been a few weeks to remember, and it culminated in last night’s  festivities.
A few hours earlier, the Beit Knesset in the Center was crammed with kids singing and dancing with the Torahs. Of course, the girls were on one side and the boys on the other. The girls were being held up to see what was going on, and we got an occasional Torah to dance with. That was a little difficult, but frankly,  it feels less odd each time I encounter it. That brings to mind one of my mother’s favorite sayings . . .  “You can get used to anything if you do it long enough . . . even hanging.” Typical Rhoda. This isn’t to say that having a mehitzah is the same as hanging. It’s just that I’m not noticing it as much anymore. And frankly, with all the gevalt that goes on on the boy’s side, I don’t really mind a little peace and quiet.

But getting back to the event. Toward the end of the services we were joined by people from the synagogue near by. The place was crammed and it was hopping! Whatever your particular feeling about Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed Judaism, just put it aside for a moment. Just imagine about 100 kids all excited by the holiday, the singing, the clapping, the candies raining down on them like big, pastel-colored hail. It was a freilich feeling unlike any I had experienced because the energy was coming from the kids. It wasn’t the adults really.  It was all about the kids and their relationship to the holiday. If I compare the scenario to a mash-pit, I wouldn’t really be too far off (don’t know what it is? Ask your teenage kids and they’ll explain!). And the topper? Coming outside after the service to the first real rain we’ve had yet this year. It felt wonderful to get drenched and I had forgotten how much I love the smell of the rain. It lasted all of three minutes, but everyone knew that it signaled the end of the summer and the onset of the winter.

Later that evening, after things had quieted down a bit, the celebration shifted to the streets of the town. No driving. Just Celebrations! The TorahMobile made its way up the main boulevard in Afula, music blasting, with more candy flying from the truck’s windows (sort of like a Jewish MardiGras), kids holding inflatable Torahs, and a gevalt unlike I’d ever seen. It was like a rock star had come to Afula.

Eventually, the crowds made their way up to the large parking lot at the top of the boulevard that had been turned into a stage and a dancing area (again, with mehitzah). A giant, giant inflatable Hasid was in the midst of the dancing and all you could  see  was this huge hat and inflatable curls bobbing up and down. I tried to take a photo of it for you all, but it was just too dark. Anyway, it’s probably more bizarre if you use your imagination, anyway.(And can you imagine what the factory workers in China think when they see this balloon come off the assembly line?????).

I met  the kids (of all ages) from the Center in the streets, and we all celebrated together, dancing, jumping, clapping, and laughing. Yes. I danced. (Please don’t tell my children. They’ll think I went over the deep end.) And it was wonderful. At one point, I called some of my Russian friends from my Ulpan class and went to get them so they could experience this as well. I’m not sure they knew what to make of it.
I suppose I should tell you that Rocco was right in the mix of everything. It was quite an experience for him, but he did beautifully, especially when he saw a kid walking with a tremendous Mylar balloon of a Dalmatian dog. The context of that one is still alluding me and both the kid and Rocco stopped to look at each other as if so say, “What the   . . . .?”

And so ends about 2 weeks of Jewish holidays that have been unlike any that I’ve ever experienced. Again, I must stress that being among an entire community celebrating the holidays rather than in an isolated part of a larger community, dealing with shifting  schedules in order to get to schul, work conflicts, and a general disconnect from what the holidays mean to us as individuals, belies the major difference between the way the holidays are experienced here. I don’t feel as if I observed any of the holidays. I celebrated them. That’s not a lesson in semantics. It a lesson in context.

And one last thing that this holiday season did for me—It connected me closer to the people I live and work with. I spent the holidays with different kids on my lap, painfully aware of their hunger for a gentle hand and a compliment on how beautiful they looked for the holidays. I had my hands held and arms linked with more young kids and young adults than I remember. The experience was visceral. And unforgettable.

Sukkah Mania!

I never used to care really about Sukkot. Sure, I liked seeing the sukkah up at our synagogue, and it was fun being invited to someone’s home to have a meal there. And I did like waving my lulav and etrog. But once again, I didn’t really get it.  I thought it was about building the hut and making sure it was decorated and had palm leaves on the roof. I thought it was about avoiding the bees as they feasted on the flowers and fruit that we hung. I was stuck on the structure of the building, but never really gave much thought to what went on in it. I couldn’t relate to it at all. It seemed too atavistic, too foreign, too remote. Tonight it all changed. Tonight it was about bonding, about the present while recalling the past, and about gathering together for prayers for the future.
Now I’m sad that sukkah is almost finished. I’ve just left the sukkah that was erected by my Tunisian neighbors on the first floor (conveniently placed in my parking space). I think that the party was just getting started (it’s 10:45 pm). And even though I stink of cigarette smoke, I’m happy happy happy. I have spent several evenings in sukkot since I’ve been here. One was at the home of someone who works at Emunah. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t alone on the first night, and so they invited me to join their family. It was a wonderful time. The sukkah was huge and had a television in it (I’ve actually heard that someone has an A/C in theirs!). We had BBQ (except for Ellin the vegetarian), and laughed and really enjoyed the evening.

But my favorite sukkot memories are going to be with Eva and the girls. Eva and her sister Odeya are the women with whom I often spend Shabbas. Eva lives on the first floor and loves to cook, sing, and get caught up in the ruach of her prayers. The first night in the sukkah, we all said prayers over wine, nuts, fruit, and bread. When I say “all,” I mean that Eva has gathered many of the women who live in my apartment building. It’s become more of an extended family building, with all of us “adopting” each other. Eva made sure that Sarit got to say prayers for her small children, that newly married Orit could blush as everyone wished her fecundity and all speed in her efforts to have a baby. Monique was honored by the presence of her husband, Doron, who by day is probably a dour bank manager, but in the evening is a wise-cracking, joke-telling, wild-dancing guy who lives on the first floor across from Eva. The common denominator was the joy. It wasn’t the serious holiday I remember. It was mayhem and just pure fun.

All the women took turns saying the prayers over the different types of food one-by-one and then had to imbibe the food that we just said thanks for quickly. No one was allowed to talk while the prayer and subsequent eating took place (but can you stop a Jew from talking or making a wise-crack?). And everyone seemed to get a kick out of the American girl who actually knew most of the prayers. There was singing, clapping, ululations, and laughter. Every time someone had their turn at the prayer, there was a congratulatory singing interlude. It was like being congratulated for taking part of the ritual. It felt wonderful.

And let’s not forget the dancing (actually the first “Israeli” dancing I’ve seen since I came here). Turn up the volume on the car radio and do some Yemenite and Moroccan dance moves. Fun, fun, fun! Retell stories from the bible. Retell the greatness of the rabbis from Sfat and Tiberias. Have some of the water that comes from near the tombs of the rabbis dabbed on you to alleviate any pain or worries (I liked that part) but for heaven’s sakes, DON’T mistake it for regular water and drink it!!!!).

Tonight was very very special.  All the women helped make a challah. In the sukkah. We all took turns shaking the flour through the sieve while we sent prayers upward for the health of loved ones. While Eva and Odeya added the water, sugar, salt, and yeast (all without any measuring cups or spoons—all done by “feel”), they mushed everything together while telling more stories from the Bible. There was something very primitive about this. Bread was being made communally, and to pass the time (although this was actually a ceremony), tales of greatness (Moshe Rabenu was mentioned several times!) were told. I could imagine woman doing this same thing for centuries. It was actually very bonding and it didn’t make much difference whether I understood it or not.

Eva and the girls posing for a Sukkah shot! Hippie Ellin, dati Eva, Odeya and third sister Lea, and chic Monique are just some of the girls here. Cross cultural/cross age bracket, cross levels of observance. Just lots of coming together.

Another thing about Sukkah in Afula (I’m sure it’s like this elsewhere as well)—The restaurants all have a sukkah outside to make sure you fulfill the mitzvah of gathering and eating inside one. Could you imagine Starbucks having a sukkah outside with all the other tables?

. . . Just one of the many sukkot that appear at the restaurants and coffee houses in Afula.