Posted by Lara Berman
“That’s Israel for you,” the police officer told me when I complained that people were littering on the beach.
“That’s Israel for you,” my friend shrugged after a granny elbowed me in the back so she could pass me quicker in the shuk.
“That’s Israel for you,” an oleh chadash (new immigrant) from my ulpan said after waiting two hours in the misrad klita (absorption office).
I don’t think so. And frankly, all that “that’s Israel”-ing is fraying my last nerve. See, it’s never said with awe or appreciation. Wouldn’t it be more apropos to come home from the Kotel on Friday night after witnessing the unparalleled joy, unity and celebration there to say, “that’s Israel for you”? Or, to look out the window on your drive north past the sprawling date orchards and vegetable fields using modern, green-friendly irrigation to then say, “that’s Israel for you”? Or to open the newspaper to Israel’s responsive, undiscriminating and sophisticated world aid and say, “that’s Israel for you”? But, no. Nine times out of ten, “that’s Israel for you,” is a socially-acceptable form of complaining; an all-too-popular way to dismiss all the beauty and merit of life in Israel and instead focus on the inconveniences, the negatives.
This came to a head one day when I shared with my ulpan class that I’d had to wait an hour in the post office to send a package.
“That’s Israel for you,” one classmate said.
Poor thing, I had to let her have it.
“No, it’s not!” I said, perhaps a bit too strongly. “It’s a post office and no matter where you are they are excruciatingly slow and stupidly annoying!” (Definitely not my most eloquent moment, but I mean, am I right or am I right? A trip to a Los Angeles post office also consumes an insane amount of time. At least in Israel, there are chairs and the staffers at my local branch have some enthusiasm about their work.)
Admittedly, my outburst was misplaced. (Sorry, Gila-le.) Truth is, I know my classmate appreciates Israel. She’s an oleh chadash. She sees so much good in Israel that well into her 30s, she picked up her entire life and moved here from Australia. That’s no small thing. But, she bore the brunt of my frustration because these thoughtless quips contribute to an unappreciative mentality that I believe, could ultimately be quite destructive.
While meant in jest, these comments contain truth, real issues that people have with life in Israel. That’s fair enough, after all, no place is perfect. But when these aggravations are used to summarize the entirety of life in a place, the consequence, however seemingly mild at the time, is negative. Those comments communicate “life is bad here and better somewhere else”; and easily lead to the thought, “so, I should leave.” Each time we put Israel down and boil her down to her imperfections, we strengthen this undermining train of thought.
Then, it should be no surprise that a shocking number of Israelis would leave Israel if they could. The West is overly idealized anyway. Israel is forever put down by the world and by Israelis themselves. So, congratulations to us all, by endorsing this form of self-hatred, we’re successfully contributing to such lack of appreciation that many believe the comments, and would leave altogether if given the chance. And why? Because we can’t help but exaggerate the hassle of waiting at the post office, for example, as if those annoyances don’t exist everywhere.
Nope, patriotism is so not cool today. I’ve seen it in the States. I’ve seen it in Israel. There’s this trend where it’s oh-so-chic to be blasé, to apathetically bemoan this or that. Meanwhile – me? I love to see the flag waving in Israel. Sometimes I just stop and notice it. I think to myself, “I’m so lucky to live right now, where this exists. I’m so grateful that I realize how special this is. I am so happy to be here.” But as soon as I share that sentiment with certain people, I notice the eye roll. Cynical comments race between their ears. It’s visible. They agree with me, but expressing it feels overly-romantic, corny or naïve. It’s far more comfortable to criticize and whine. But, I don’t renig or apologize. Call me crazy, I think there’s room for simple appreciation. And Israel is a long-awaited, exquisitely-beautiful, priceless gift that deserves every drop of our adoration.
The absence of modern, healthy Zionism around the world, but particularly among Jews and Israelis themselves troubles me greatly. How will others recognize our value and merit if we don’t? One simple step we can all take is to watch our mindless blathering. Those carping comments don’t help. Israel is our home and she is good. And if we want to say, “that’s Israel for you,” how about we all open our eyes and use it to describe any one of the miraculous, beautiful, shining examples of life in Israel all around us. And, for those of you who don’t see the good, because maybe you heard the complaints one too many times, go to the Kotel on Friday night. Or, drive up north past the green, blooming fields. Or educate yourself on the numerous contributions Israel has made that the entire world benefits from daily. And you’ll find that swell in your chest and have reason to say, “that’s Israel for you.”
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October 16, 2010 | 5:50 am
Posted by Lara Berman
Eskimos have 9 words for ‘snow.’
And the Zulus have numerous words for the color ‘green.’
So it should come as no surprise that the Jews have several words for ‘to make a dream come true.’
See, “l’hagshim” is for when a proper dreamt-of-dream manifests.
“L’mamesh,” is used when one realizes one’s self.
And then another word, “l’kayem” articulates the realization of an idea, a plan, or a promise.
…And that only covers up to level gimmel in ulpan.
Dreaming and the realization of those dreams is the through line of the Jewish people, of Israel, of Israelis. “If you will it, it is no dream,” Theodore Herzl said, as he envisioned a Jewish state. Historically, famously and sometimes begrudgingly, we are a people of visionaries, dreamers, thinkers and creators. And to only have one word for ‘to make a dream come true’ – well, that’s just ineffective. So, in our language, Hebrew, both our experience and our selves are expressed.
I too am a dreamer. I dreamt of coming to Israel to learn Hebrew and live in the land since I was a young lady. It took a long time, but my dream came true. As with anything, if you think too much in advance, expectations can grow, often creating fertile ground for disappointment. The longer the anticipation, the more elaborate the conjectures. So imagine how high my expectations were for this adventure? I’d thought of it for over a decade. “I’ll learn the language and live in the most special place on earth!” Yup, that could be a set up. So, picture the swell in my chest and lump in my throat now, as I write with utter appreciation and complete gratitude that being here has exceeded every imagining I could have imagined. And now the time to leave draws near.
Stay! Go! Don’t go! Go and come back! The debate within me rages. Being in Israel is more than a vacation. It’s a return to yourself on numerous levels. Those who move to Israel are said to make “Aliyah”- which literally means they ‘go up.’ So that means leaving Israel is, let’s face it, going down. That’s not just a saying –it feels that way, like you’re moving from high to…well…less high.
On the one hand, I’m excited to go back to the States. I desperately miss my family, my friends, my dog, Feivel Flapjack. I miss certain conveniences. Practically, work awaits. And isn’t 5 months enough?
But that is a trick question if there ever was one. What is ‘enough?’ There is no objective ‘enough.’ Enough is when we say it’s enough. Sometimes I have a sense of what that is, as in: “Does he have ‘enough’ good qualities that I can build a future with him?” And sometimes I don’t, as in: “$X is ‘enough’ money.” But ‘enough,’ in and of itself, just doesn’t exist. It definitely doesn’t when it comes to time in Israel.
Slichot erev Yom Kippur, in the Old City, I looked out over the Kotel, from atop a nearby building to witness a biblical scene. Past midnight, wall-to-wall people milled, bustled, exalted and prayed, the energy something from another world. The hair on my arms prickled. “This is what Mount Sinai looked like,” I thought to myself in disbelief.
When has one had ‘enough’ of being part of the prophecy?
Post-Yom Kippur, no time wasted, all of Yerushalayim began building – sukkahs. Look up, sukkahs grew out of every meerpeset (balcony); look down onto Ben Yehuda, they lined the street, look out into every neighborhood, pomegranates hung from thatched roofs. Look anywhere – this is what belonging looks like.
When has one had ‘enough’ of not having to explain? Had ‘enough’ of being home?
Near Yam Hamelach (the Dead Sea), Idan Raichel performed in Nahal Zohar. Appearing as though he and his company organically grew out of the epic setting amid ancient cliffs lit in mystical blues and enchanting purples – truly putting Madison Square Garden to shame – they sang and danced, Jews of every color, freely and completely expressed and expressing.
When has one had ‘enough’ magic?
There is no such thing as ‘enough!’ something inside me screams as I watch children speaking Hebrew, playing in Jerusalem’s streets and splashing in Tel Aviv’s waves.
But, these gifts are not free (as Michael Oren enumerated beautifully here). All those moments were fought for and are at this very moment being watchfully protected. This too comes with the Israeli reality, causing another invention of the Hebrew language: many words for the English term ‘to manage.’
“L’haspeek,” we say when we’ll ‘make it’ regarding time.
“L’histader” we use when saying we’ll ‘make do.’
“L’hatzliach” we use to describe whether we’ll be successful or not.
Whether we’ll manage and how we’ll manage and at what level of success is forever in question among Jews and especially here in Israel.
I celebrated Simchat Torah with the Shabi family in Rosh HaAyin, a suburb of Tel Aviv not far from Petach Tikva. Omri, one of the ‘kids,’ picked me up from my bus stop. I sat in the backseat, next to his army uniform. His miluim (reserve duty) would begin after the holiday, causing him to miss a family wedding. He didn’t argue and wasn’t terribly upset; he accepted this was part of his duty. His story does not stand alone. Many are being called to miluim. Most people sense something ominous on the horizon and it’s scary. I’m scared. I’m scared for my friends. I’m scared by the news. I’m scared for Israel. And were I to stay, I’d be scared for myself.
“We finally have a home to live in,” I challenge myself. “Why choose exile?” Look, I am not so self-important as to believe my choice makes such an enormous difference. But I am one of many, and together, our choices do create an existential crisis, and a tangible one.
“Stay! We need people like you,” I’ve heard more than once from various people. The words strike a chord with me because they’re true. They’re true not because I’m so special, but because Israel needs all of us right now. Israel needs passionate people who believe in her and will work for her. Between the ‘brain drain’ (a phenomenon whereby successful Israelis leave Israel for higher salaries), biased media, low Jewish birth rates, outer threats, inner challenges – Israel needs each and every one of us to build her! Leaving does feel like abandonment, does feel cowardly, disloyal, wrong. This is not a self-imposed guilt trip, but rather, awareness.
But for now, I have a plane ticket to Texas. And until I arrive at the long-term answers for me, I can do my part to build Israel regardless of location, being a soldier on the front lines of the war of public opinion. That means speaking up when people misrepresent Israel and standing for her well being, even when it’s uncomfortable or unpopular to do so. This is a commitment to truth. And, finally, I will return.
When I came to Israel, I noshed on pastries from Berman’s Bakery. I took a walk through Emek Refaim and discovered Rechov HaRav Berman (Rabbi Berman Street). More than fuzzy feelings tie me to Israel; our connection is evident. And each of us has such a story. We are bonded to her, to one another and each have a role only we can realize in dreaming the dream and making it come true.
September 15, 2010 | 4:17 am
Posted by Lara Berman
Yom Kippur draws near, and the word buzzing around Jerusalem is “Tshuva.”
Tshuva, tshuva, tshuva - frequently translated as ‘Repentence.’
Don’t stop reading. I know, if you’re anything like me, the word triggers a massive case of the icks.
Repentence is a drek-filled word if there ever was one, full of punitive and shameful connotations; its link to Yom Kippur evoking memories of insanely, long days standing in uncomfortable shoes at synagogue, where we obligatorily beat on our chests, commiserate about how awful we’ve been and silently debate how much longer we must suffer this self flagellation before returning home to starve till sundown. Isn’t that how everyone ‘celebrates’ their holidays?
So, I for one was thrilled to learn that dreary understanding of Yom Kippur is completely wrong. Being a sin-full people is not a Jewish concept. Judaism doesn’t tell us we’re bad. It’s tells us we’re good. It tells us we’re beautiful, that we’re blessed, that we have enormous gifts to contribute.
Turns out, we as a people have drifted away from our beloved Judaism due to….mistranslation. “Tshuva” in Hebrew, the language in which it was forever intended to be understood, means ‘Return.’
Return to what?
Return to you.
And who are you?
No less than a divinely inspired ray of Light, an individualized part of Hashem Himself. This concept knocked my socks off it was so resonant. Hashem is so wild about us that He set up a yearly date with us; indeed created the world in such a way that every year we must do ‘Tshuva,’ or ‘Return’ to Him and in so doing, to our highest selves.
What a love story it is between Hashem and the Jewish people! And nowhere can it be felt more than in Israel, for you have to be utterly deaf, dumb and blind not to notice Hashem’s hand in this place every day. So, imagine what it was like to be here during Rosh Hashana. Forgive me, words will surely fail. There are some experiences that simply cannot be contained by language.
Dressed in a long skirt, as though a princess in a fairy tale, I walked the holy streets of Yerushalayim shel Zahav (Jerusalem of gold) like so many before me. No cars. Closed shops. Gentle breezes. A warm wish from each passerby, “Shana Tova.” (Good Year.) It’s was a new year, but still a solemn day; the future was being written, and we all know the world is precarious now. But red pomegranates dangled from branches, blue and tangerine flowers bloomed, shofar horns sounded far and near from the numerous synagogues I passed. The Knesset gleamed in the distance. I was home, living the dream of so many generations past.
And then I arrived at shul, an unpretentious place, a converted classroom. People crowded to get in. We shared our seats, taking turns sitting.
“No, you sit!”
“No, you sit!”
And the sound! Never before had I been in a place where each person knew the meaning and gravity of their words. “Yeruuuuushalayim!” the people sang. My eyes welled with tears. Do you know the song? The song with only one word: Yerushalayim. Swaying back and forth like flickering candles, our eyes closed in concentration with foreheads furrowed, the harmonies exploded. Surely, our voices reached the heavens! This is what praying was always supposed to be: joyful and fervent, passionate and connected, real and grateful, present and full. “Yerushalayim! Yerushalyim! Yerushalyim! Yerushalayiiiiiiiiiim!” Then the clapping and dancing began! How to explain what it is to sing of your home, of your people, in your home, with your people?
While leaving, I met a little boy with shirt tails out and a lop-sided kippah standing on the opposite side of the gate. He looked at me and with his 5-year-old, little voice said, “Ee efshar la’avor!” (It’s impossible to pass.) And he crossed his arms over his chest like a security guard.
“Aval, yesh li tochnit l’aruchat tzohoraim,” (But I have lunch plans!) I told him.
“Hmmm,” he thought. “Beseder!” (ok) he said, hopping onto the gate and letting it swing open.
Walking down the stairs, I smiled and turned back to wish him, “Shana tova!” (Good year!)
Still hanging onto the gate he replied, “Uuuuuu’metukaaaaa!!!” (And a sweet one!)
And then, from my bedroom, just before dusk set in, I heard another shofar blast. Where was it coming from? I rushed to the meerpeset (balcony). There, on the street in front of my own home, two men walked, blowing the shofar in every direction, ensuring every one, even from home, had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana. “Where am I?” I wondered. “How did I ever merit these magical experiences?” And then the wind rustled the leaves, and the sky began turning shades of purple and orange; and don’t ask me why, I knew the moment was wink from Hashem.
The chag ended. Still reveling from the holiday, I logged onto Facebook to see the outcry over TIME Magazine’s defamatory cover story, “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace.” Published September 13th, that’s one way to say happy new year. Here we have journalism at its most irresponsible. Most will never read the merit-less story within, rather they will take the accusatory and damaging headline as fact and use it to demonize Israel.
Truly this is brilliant. Now, Israelis are criticized for leading their lives! For pushing forward! For looking up! What would the world have them do? Let the terrorists win, spend their days in bomb shelters and behave as a paralyzed, frighten people? This bogus story got over 2,000 thumbs-up on Facebook.
So, here’s an opinion of my own: TIME, since you’re clearly hurting for readership (as you’ve foregone the basic journalistic ideals of verifiable truth and impartiality in deference to sweeping generalizations, sensationalism and shock tactics), how about you just stick to pretty pictures?
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As a fellow democracy, why are Israel and Israelis flagrantly criticized when they simply attempt to realize these basic pursuits we all agree are just?
But here’s the twist: it doesn’t matter what they say. Judaism teaches there is blessing in the covered. We don’t announce right away when a woman is pregnant. We wait till the ink is dry before celebrating a new job or business deal. We get married under a chuppah. Right now, the world is covering our goodness, our resilience, our commitment to creating a good life for ourselves and for the world, and in doing so, we are blessed.
On Rosh Hashana it was written, on Yom Kippur it will be signed and in between, we have the opportunity to plant seeds for our entire year. We will not drink the media’s hateful tonic, and on Yom Kippur we will Return to ourselves and to our greater Self.
The Moshav Band has a lyric, “Return to who you are. Return to what you are. Return to where you are born and reborn again…” As I bring my fist over my heart this Yom Kippur, I will not beat myself for living. We apologize for doing wrong because those lapses take us away from the lights we were born to be. There is a person only I can become. There is a person only you can become. Hashem dreamt of us together and apart with a twinkle in His eye. We are here to realize those visions. May we all return and rise to who we are and never make the mistake of forgetting that whatever the cloak of darkness, we are blessed.
September 3, 2010 | 2:10 am
Posted by Lara Berman
I was supposed to go grape picking this morning. A couple from my ulpan invited me to go with them. They frequently visit during the summer months to help farmers harvest their crops. The grapes at the vineyard in Psagot were ready, and so was I.
Then, last night, I logged onto The Jerusalem Post newspaper. I was looking for an article I’d written, but before I could get there, the day’s lead headline blazed: “Four killed as terrorists open fire near Kiryat Arba.” Less than an hour from Jerusalem, on the same road I’d be travelling in the morning, two men and two women were killed, one of them pregnant. Z”L. The terrorists first laid fire from afar, then approached the car and shot the travelers at point-blank range.
The attack was a response to the peace-talks between Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama in Washington happening today.
The Israeli Defense Force expected more attacks in the coming days and put the country on high alert. Clearly, I shouldn’t go. The vineyard lies off Route 60, the same highway where the Israelis were murdered yesterday.
Psagot is a small, religious community in Samaria, outside Ramallah. Ramallah is one of those towns so dangerous people shudder at the mere mention…like they do Hevron, outside of which is Kiryat Arba. Why tempt fate? The country was on high alert. Go next week. I would support the families living there another time, I told myself. “You don’t have to prove anything,” my mom added. But I hated stopping my life due to fear.
I rarely write about these heavier topics. There is so much good to talk about! Israel is so full of life, beauty, resilience, wisdom and perseverance that the world, for whatever reason, ignores; they’d rather stonewall our home and her people as perpetrators, oppressors and bullies – an upside-down appraisal that makes me feel I am Alice through the Looking Glass, where what should be up is down, and what should be down is up.
So, until now I didn’t write about the shop in the Old City’s Arab shuk where hateful t-shirts lined the walls. My friend took me to the store because she’d previously found beautiful and cheap Shabbat skirts there. But upon entering, I was assaulted by horrifying messages. One t-shirt depicted a masked man holding a machine gun in front of the Palestinian flag, underlined by the black, capital letters “Free Palestine.” Another t-shirt showed a choking head, eyes popping out, and tape over the mouth that said “Free Palestine.” Wristbands bearing the flags of America and Israel donned the strangling hands. Another shirt showed the Palestinian flag covering a map of the state of Israel while the Israeli flag sunk in the ocean.
I left immediately, unable to spend a shekel or even another moment in that place that espoused and profited from hatred and destruction. Based on my friend’s facial expression, she disapproved of my response.
My friend, though a fellow Jew, has been raised on a strict diet of liberal media. It was her first trip to Israel. Two weeks since landing, she hadn’t yet been to the Holocaust museum but she had been to Hevron and Bethlehem to witness the Palestinian ‘plight.’ I asked her if she planned to visit Sderot and the surrounding towns. No surprise. She hadn’t. I emphatically requested that she do her “due diligence” on both sides of the complicated issue, before thoughtlessly accepting the stories of our neighboring propaganda artists. Though, deep down, I had little confidence in her ability to be open minded.
Heading back through the Arab shuk, I noticed the vendors’ friendly faces all too eager to accept my American dollars to finance G-d knows what. I decided: I’ll spend an extra 30 shekels, thank you very much, support the family and know my thrifty purchase of a skirt or menorah didn’t finance a fellow Jew’s death.
I also never wrote about the time my roommate sat in our living room crying, recounting the incidents in Bat Ayin, a hippie community where her brother lives. A toddler had been taken and killed by Arabs, chopped to pieces with an ax. Another man had gone into the forrest for hitbodedut (speaking to G-d in your own words) and never came back. They were murdered, stam. (Just like that.) I didn’t know what to say, as she sat there attempting to somehow reconcile her belief that surely all people deep down want peace with the reality that there are (and I don’t find it an exaggeration to say) evil people mired in hatred who target and murder innocent civilians. Four or five year-old babies, no less.
I left out the time I ran into a group of backpackers on my way out of the Old City at midnight after a party. The backpackers were speaking to a very suspicious-looking character. The shared glances between my friends and I spoke our shared conclusion that this was not a good situation. My friend gestured for the students to come over to us. One did.
“What’s up?” my friend asked.
“We need a place to stay tonight. We’re looking for a hostel, but this guy wants us to go with him. He says he’ll take us to a cheap place. Could be okay, but he’s being really pushy about it,” the backpacker said.
“There’s a hostel in the Jewish quarter that’s still open now. It’s really close,” my friend said. We began directing the young guy, providing the hostel and street names.
“What are you doing?!” the dubious man suddenly shouted at us, clearly annoyed.
“We’re just talking to the guy. What’s the problem?” I replied, trying to make it sound like no big deal.
Then he suddenly and intensely screamed at us, “Jew! Go home!”
The backpackers looked shocked, as did we.
I was dumbfounded, but my friend yelled back, “We ARE home!”
The backpackers headed toward the Jewish Quarter, and we continued on our way, everyone slightly rattled.
Those examples of hatred Israelis cope with on-goingly and personally. But there are also the experiences we cope with together, like, in the case of Gilad Shalit. A constant inner battle wages within me and others because we all want him home. There is no mistaking that. In Israel, we are one family. That’s why someone might offer you unsolicited advice while walking down the street, or escort you to your destination if you’re lost; you’re not a stranger. We care and we value each person’s life. L’Chaim (to life), we say at weddings, bar-mitzvahs, and before taking a sip of our wine or beer. People wear “Chai” necklaces around their necks. Chai means ‘life.’ Life, life, life. Our focus is on this life – making this life holy, making this moment…and this moment…and this moment count. Life. It is the foundation of our moral code.
And so the entire country is acutely aware of Gilad Shalit’s life passing in captivity. He “celebrated” his 5th birthday in Hamas imprisonment last week. But, as we writhe imagining the misery of his daily existence, we are also acutely aware that the price of his freedom runs high. Releasing the 400+ terrorists Hamas demands in exchange for Shalit, sets a dangerous precedent that kidnapping works. (And that assumes they actually honor the exchange, at the end of the day.) Not to mention, hello? It sets hundreds of terrorists back on the streets. They return to a hero’s welcome and a high percentage, according to statistics, return to kill again.
From the outside, Israel seems so fragile: the world’s seemingly permanent misunderstanding and the fury of blood-thirsty hatred from her neighbors. Not to mention, the hotbed of loathing from within one need only scratch the surface to discover, as demonstrated by my experience in the shuk, for example.
Yet while here, I feel safe. Is it a false sense of security? I walk around fearlessly. I travel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I splash in the Kinneret. I ride buses. I pass sites of previous terror attacks and they don’t cross my mind. Today aside, I don’t make choices out of fear. That’s the Israeli mentality. We don’t let them win; we don’t let them get to us. We live.
And that’s why you see parties here brimming with utter joy! People dance in the streets on a regular basis. There is an appreciation for life; a call to live.
How the media twist such a people into the ‘bad guys’ baffles me.
Iran plots against Israel and the Jews first, the West next. Ignoring these declarations and deeds, we’ll one day regret.
People and leaders naively trust those who glorify death and believe such people will drop old vendettas over “coffee talks.” Such wishful thinking seems the simplistic dream of a disconnected people removed from reality. The talk seems enlightened or evolved, but irresponsibly gambles with our lives, with our hard-won home, not theirs.
“ It would be nice if something made sense for a change,” Alice said. Somehow, in this upside down, modern world, people love the underdog, even if the perceived underdogs are murderous terrorists. Perhaps the Mad Hatter can explain.
I pray people wake up. That they awake from suffocating political correctness. That they are shaken from complacency to act upon dangerous threats…while there’s still time. That they choose life.
And in the meanwhile, each time I see a soldier – each of whom allows me to visit here and live here and enjoy a reality wherein there is a Jewish state –I implore Hashem to bless them. May they and all of Israel and her leaders be safe and protected, guided and blessed, healthy and strong, wise and successful. May she win the battle on the ground and the battle of public opinion. And may all life-loving people awaken to the truth and support her in all ways, in word and action. This Rosh Hashana, may Israel and all of us be inscribed in the book of LIFE. Amen. Ken yehee ratzon. Amen. And so it should be.
August 30, 2010 | 11:10 am
Posted by Lara Berman
Or worse yet, JAP- y.
Sheesh! Where did these stereotypes about Jewish looks come from?
And has anyone noticed that plenty of Spanish, Italian, Arab or Indian folks could easily share the same description?
Whatever the reason, people think ‘Jew’ and Barbara Streisand comes to mind.
They think ‘Jew’ and Alan Dershowitz appears.
And BRILLIANT as they are (and they sure are), we (Jewish people) are pigeon-holed as that look in our entirety.
Well, here’s another area in which Israel could use some better PR, because Israelis are freakin’ GORGEOUS. I stare. I can’t help it. And I come from Texas (originally), NYC (for college), and Hollywood (ever since). That means, I’ve got some means of comparison. ‘Cause, check out what we know about the beauty those places tout:
Texas ~ According to “Men’s Health Magazine,” the most beautiful women in America hail from Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas. Ahem, my home towns. Since 1980, they have a higher percentage of beauty-pageant winners and playmates than anywhere else. And, according to their survey, the greatest number of beauties per capita! (We’re not talking plastic, manufactured beauty either; we’re talking home-grown goodness.)
New York City – Model capital of the world. I used to live across the street from the world-famous Elite modeling agency, where gawky, emaciated, Amazon women roamed the streets as though they were normal members of society and not imported freaks! (I say this of course out of pure jealousy, as I am 5’4” and curvy and doubt I will ever awake in the morning to find myself otherwise.)
Los Angeles – Home of Paris Hilton, Catherine Zeta Jones and every dazzling starlet who ever was or will be lit by the glittering glow of Hollywood’s limelight. They are the beauty trendsetters of the world, their entire existence dependant on the height of their cheekbones and the bounce of their bottoms. And we, the world, impressionable dolts as we are, eagerly down their dysfunctional definitions of beauty unquestioningly like kneeling children swallowing bread at first communion.
I digest…er, digress…point is, I have room to talk cause I’ve seen all these beauties up close and personal and let me tell you, after all that…ISRAEL’S BEAUTIES TRUMP ‘EM ALL! Listen, if any dude ever tells you Jewish girls aren’t pretty, you send that poor fella to the promised land, to witness for himself the land flowing with milk and honeys.
I always had an inkling that Israelis were gorgeous because my mom is Israeli, and poo poo poo, she is and always has been a total cha-tee-cha (hottie)! But I didn’t realize we had a whole country full of stunning people. And I’m not just talking about the women, though we can start with them.
From exile, Jews of the world have returned home and it’s created a “something-for-everyone” collection of beauty. We’ve got the striking, sun-kissed, dark-haired, dark-eyed beauties. We’ve got the Eastern-European/Russian contingent, fair-skinned, classic features, light-eyed and blond. We’ve got the Latin Jews, the French Jews, the Ethiopian Jews, the Swedish Jews and the Indian Jews. And then, oh my gosh, we have the mixtures which make for scandalously, exotic combinations where an olive-complected, black-haired gent can turn to reveal crystal-clear, blue eyes that can (and have) stop me in my tracks. The Tel Aviv beach is the perfect place to observe these many different types of Jews, home from foreign lands.
Furthermore, Israelis love salads. They’ve made the desert bloom, so now they’re taking advantage of it, eating fruits and vegetables as the basis of every meal. This makes for some amazingly svelt bodies for them, and delicious eye-candy for me. Trim guys play “matkot” (a game somewhere between ping-pong and tennis) on the shore, running and jumping and glistening (if I do say so) without any extra skin jiggling! And the women, well, they can just lie there for all to admire. (And they do!)
That isn’t to say every woman is a rake. There are real women of many shapes and sizes and ages. But, whereas in America most women participate in our culture of self-loathing, in Israel women wear their bikinis confidently. Curvy or straight, they own their physiques, and their acceptance and love of what they’ve got translates to beauty. What a small view of attractiveness I buy into in the States. These ladies, without speaking a word, taught me through example the meaning of Sophia Loren’s wise words: “Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than her own thought that she is beautiful.”
By every modern and global standard, Israelis top the beauty charts.
But there’s another beauty, an ancient beauty Israel boasts.
Unlike Tel Avivians who are more secular, Yerushalmi (Jerusalem)beauties cover themselves in brightly colored, flowing skirts and scarves. With bohemian sparkle they float down the streets, their modesty adding to their mystique.
As a Westerner quite comfortable with showing skin, I wondered if these ladies secretly wish to bear it all. So I asked Yifat, an Israeli friend from Tsfat who, for me, lives and embodies the amazing wisdom and richness Judaism offers. She is truly a LIGHT, down-to-earth, holy and inspired.
“Do you ever just want to take it off and wear…a tank top?” I asked her.
She thought and then answered, “You know, when I went to America, I drove past all these billboards with women just wearing their bras and underwear and I couldn’t believe it! I wondered, where are all your feminists?!”
“What do you mean?” I asked her. “It’s the model’s body, and she has the right to do with it what she wants. That’s the feminist movement.”
“Really?” Yifat challenged. “Because I thought the feminist movement was about women being seen as more than just baby-makers, more than just sex objects. Do you think anyone cares what that woman on the billboard has to say? Do they care what she thinks? Will they even care about what she looks like after age 25? Where are all your feminists protesting?! She is on display as nothing more than a body!”
In Israel, when someone gives over a piece of wisdom that knocks your socks off and makes you see differently you say, “Pssssshhhhh,” and you sit back in your chair to absorb it all. This was a “Pssshhhhhh” moment.
Yifat loves the way she dresses and that self respect and modest beauty are palpable. Sure, not every religious girl thinks exactly like Yifat, because no group of people all think exactly the same way. But, she enjoys that people treat her differently. They can see she’s observant. And it engenders a different level of consideration. Folks think twice before speaking crassly toward her or even in front of her, and if they slip, they apologize. In short, her inner beauty is felt. She comes with a different degree of dignity.
Beneath every Israeli’s beauty is a student, a soldier, a Jew. Modern, ancient. Romantic, traditional. Well traveled, rooted. Bohemian, sophisticated. Inner, outer. This is the beauty of Jews, of Israelis.
We’ve all met those people we can’t help but dislike at first glance because they just seem to have it all – like the way I spoke about those models in NYC; they were just so beautiful I wanted to hate them…without even knowing them! Well, that must be why the world likes to put us down. Sometimes it’s hard to look directly into the sunlight.
August 24, 2010 | 1:27 am
Posted by Lara Berman
Neshek means ‘gun’ in Hebrew. You should all know this. So you don’t stand out like a classic, SToOPiD tourist…like I did.
I had just arrived in Tel Aviv, as I do nearly every week. I hopped off the sheirut (shared taxi) and headed into the Tachana HaMerkazeet (Central Bus Station) to catch my bus to the chof (beach). Of course, before anyone enters, they pass through a metal detector and their bag is checked – an unfortunate but necessary precaution at places with high concentrations of people. (Truth is, the checking has become so commonplace that I hardly notice it anymore.) But this particular Friday, because I was staying the weekend, I had a huge bag too jam-packed to be searched properly.
So, the beautiful, Ethiopian, lady soldier simply asked me, “Yesh lach neshek?” (Do you have a gun?)
Now, who knows? Maybe it was because I’d just gotten off the phone, maybe I was still waking up from the nap I’d taken on the drive over, maybe my ears hadn’t yet popped after coming down from the 7 hills of Jerusalem and my brain was clogged – I dunno, but a major, space-cadet moment ensued as I could not, for the life of me, remember what the heck ‘neshek’ meant.
So, I answered, “Ehm, lo yodaat.” (Um, I don’t know.)
“At lo yodaat?” (You don’t know?) She questioned quizzically, looking at me as though I had 3 heads.
“Neshek?” I repeated, cocking my head to one side, like my pup when he’s perplexed.
“Ken! Neshek! Yesh lach neshek?!” she said, slightly exasperated and visibly confounded that idiots like me were allowed to roam the streets freely.
Then somewhere, from the dustiest recesses of my mind, it came to me – ‘neshek’ means GUN!
“Lo! Lo! Betach, lo!” (No! No! Of course not! No!) I suddenly squawked, the context of this incriminating exchange suddenly illuminated.
A moment of silence followed, as we each sussed out the other.
She debated, I suspect – is this panicked chick just playing dumb or is she an honest-to-goodness imbecile? I stood, subtly twitching, trying to play it cool, while inwardly cursing myself for not reviewing my vocabulary words more diligently.
And then, probably against her better judgment, she said, “Ok, teekansi.” (Ok, come in.) At which point, I grabbed my bag far too eagerly and dashed inside with an awkwardly, high pitched, “todah!” (thanks!).
Suffice it to say, and I am not proud of this, I am not yet an Israeli.
It was also made clear the day I walked into the “SuperPharm” through the exit instead of the entrance, and so, had the glass doors open and close on me repeatedly while the does-it-really-need-to-be-that-loud siren sounded. See, whereas in English, I look at a word and can’t help but read it, in Hebrew, I still have to focus and concentrate…neither of which I did…(as demonstrated by completely missing the enormous, red YETZIAH (EXIT) sign) and so, was trapped and mashed between the automatic doors like grapes under Lucy’s feet, too stunned and embarrassed to escape with even a morsel of grace. When I finally entered the store, a woman approached me to see if I needed any help. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she meant in the store or in life in general.
That wouldn’t happen to a real Israeli.
It was then reaffirmed again the day I slipped down the Jerusalem-stone steps on my way home from the shuk (market), breaking my newly-purchased eggs all over the street. This happened because I’m too vain to buy practical shoes with good traction on the soles because I don’t think they’re very pretty. As a result, a dime’s worth of water tripped me and next thing you know, I’ve landed flat on my bum and am looking up to find a very concerned Bubbe hastening toward me with arms outstretched, “At beseder???” (Are you alright?) I nodded and she went into action, flagging down a passerby. “Gever! Ha’meeskena nafla—ta’azor la!” (Mister, the poor thing fell! Help her!) And so the dude came to my rescue, carrying my flying, rolling-cart down the rest of the steps for me. Bubbe dusted me off, helped me clear the street of eggs (as much as was possible), ensured I was ok, made me promise to be careful, and then sent me home to clean myself up.
Worst part is, I still haven’t bought decent shoes. I’m just walking veeeery carefully. Totally not an Israeli yet.
Then there was the time a car stopped to ask me for directions. ‘Perfect opportunity to speak Hebrew!’ I said to myself. As I thought about how to express the directions, I just kept repeating “Yashar, yashar” (straight, straight) because I knew for sure that was the first part. Well, apparently, my thinking took longer than expected because at a certain point, all the people in the car joined in saying “Yashar, yashar” in unison with me. Very funny. They all started cracking up. I think I was supposed to be a good sport and start laughing too, but I’m really trying to learn Hebrew. This is very sensitive for me and it just kinda hurt my feelings. I felt dumb and being a very expressive person, my deflation must have been evident, because as they drove away, one girl stuck her head out the window to yell back to me, “No, no, ze haya beseder, todah!” (No, no, it was ok, thanks!) But I could still hear the others laughing. Oof.
This all happened within about two weeks and I don’t really know how to wrap it up. I guess…mmm…I can’t wait to be an Israeli.
August 12, 2010 | 2:16 pm
Posted by Lara Berman
Before I left Los Angeles, a couple of folks handed me dollar bills. See, when flying, it’s customary in the Jewish world to give the traveler a dollar to donate upon arrival. This practice comes from a teaching that a person in the midst of doing a mitzvah cannot be harmed. So, in giving me this holy task, they also protected me, in my travels, from harm.
Along the same vein, my extraordinary girlfriends also wanted to look out for me. But instead of dollar bills, they gave me tasks, actual good deeds to perform:
~”When you get off the plane, smile at the first person you see,” Cathy said.
~”Go to the Kotel (Western Wall) every week; remember where you are!” Barb added.
~”For at least the first three days, when you wake up – stand, connect to Hashem and say the Shma with total concentration…even if it’s just the first line.” Anna offered.
Holy women. True friends. They’re my ladybugs and they’ve taught me so much about friendship and life and Judaism—and much of what they love about the aforementioned came from Rabbi David Aaron, founder of Isralight. At their referral, I’d read “Endless Light,” a brilliant book that resonated deeply inside and affirmed that this was a teacher I needed in my life. So, being in Jerusalem, of course I couldn’t pass up the chance to study with this special rabbi. (Though between us, I nearly flaked after realizing the potentially irrecoverable damage missing an entire week of progress at Ulpan Morasha could cause…eeeek! Nevertheless! Halachti! (I went!))
For 10 days I lived in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Did you get that?
That couldn’t have happened even 50 years ago.
How did I merit that?
Suffice it to say, it was completely surreal.
Each morning, I’d slip slide on the smooth Jerusalem stone to class, my sandals unable to grasp the well-worn stones. The golden tones of the city’s rocks created my daily wall paper. Yiddish and Hebrew conversations dotted in the streets, and I overheard talk of Talmud and halacha in shops and cafes. Thursday night, the smell of Shabbat-food cooking already filled old, windy, streets named, “Ha-Talmid,” (the student) or “Or Ha-Hayim,” (light of life).
Let me give you a taste, tireh (check it out):
Friday night, dressed up in my long-skirt and gypsy bells (every outfit needs a splash of fun, after all) I headed with a friend toward Kabbalat Shabbat through the rova (quarter) square. There in front of the stunning Horva Synagogue, clusters of children ran and played - tzitzit flying behind the boys; girls carefreely, twirling in their dresses.
One such girl was Nechama, a 4-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed moppet, who we recognized as the daughter of one of our Isralight rabbis.
”Can you help us find Isralight?” my friend and I asked her.
”Ok, c’mon,” she said as she led us, skipping all the way. “You go in here,” she said, pointing at the stairs upon arrival.
”Aren’t you coming too?” we asked.
She shook her head. “I’m going back!” she replied and danced her way back to the square, knowing the area like every child knows their local playground.
Such a simple story, but quite emotional for me. See, she’s the dream, folks.
The prophecy goes: “One day, men and women will rest on their walking sticks from old age and children will play in the streets of Jerusalem.” This was no prophecy. This was reality. Nechama was proof. Here was a Shabbat-loving, Hebrew-speaking sabra, skipping in the footsteps of her ancestors, living in the land of her soul among brothers and sisters, playing without a care in the world.
And then I got it. I was doing that too. My long skirt, brushing against the ground, a brightly colored scarf wrapping my shoulders; if I ran into Avraham Avinu that night, we could speak to each other in the same language (thanks to my ulpan).
And it started happening, as it always happens on Friday night, I became much bigger than myself. My little body just couldn’t contain all the goodness that I felt. And so, at the Kotel with a crew of other women –sisters disguised as strangers – we saaaaaang! And we blessssssed each other! And we daaaaaanced! And we cryyyyyed! And it was magical and moving and magnificent.
It was happening to Sara too. And to Vanessa. And to all my new friends from Isralight. I’d seen it before on Birthright: Jews with hardly any Jewish education or connection, who’d been fed a strict diet of cock-eyed media suddenly moved to tears inexplicably at the Kotel on Shabbat…what can I say? It’s a soul thing.
I’ve come to the conclusion that you simply cannot ignore your self in the Old City, especially on Friday night. There’s a swell that happens inside that bubbles up and out – it’s the sense of being fully connected to who you are and learning, if you didn’t know before, how beautiful you are and how special your family is. Recognizing that your connection to everything is real and that the driving force within is divine. It’s about being present to the blessing of the moment and knowing that these gifts have always been and will always be – yours.
Rabbi David Aaron only strengthened this organic outpouring of connection. He filled in the blanks and filled out truths I’d arrived at intuitively. Now, it wasn’t simple – he challenged me and my mind felt stretched out after a class with him! But in the end, I landed with strong affirmation. Judaism is spiritual and rich and wise – that’s not my version of it, that’s what the sages and the Torah and texts have always said – that’s what it IS.
Passing the ancient ruins built by conquerors in the Old City of Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but think, for all their pomp and circumstance, I was the one standing there, not them. A child, like you are, of the generation that gets to live the prophecy!
July 30, 2010 | 4:57 am
Posted by Lara Berman
The lesson of the week, in language and love: It’s time to persevere.
The wake-up call started over Shabbat in Tel Aviv when I met two, tiny tykes. We’ll call the older, curly-headed one Geni, since he’s a genius –certifiably. And we’ll call his little brother Mowgli, since he’s a perfect copy of the spunky “Jungle Book” character. These two squirts prattled on and on in Hebrew all night, and after 2 months in ulpan, I understood…nothing. Nothing! And it sent me into a tail spin.
My despair truly set in after dinner. The boys whipped out the board game “Oseh Kesef” (“Make Money”) or as we call it in English, “Monopoly.” As the boys reminded me how to play the game, my face alternated between expressions of perplexed focus and lost frustration. The rules were gobbledygook to me. The game-card directions went completely over my head. Finally, Geni said, “Look, what it’s telling you is…” Yeah, that’s right, he whipped out some perfect English he’d apparently picked up on a family trip to India, and after assessing my language skills realized he’d get further using his 8-year-old English than by trying to work with my broken Hebrew.
I left dinner feeling sunk. On one level I know my Hebrew has improved dramatically. But flopping at this very everyday experience really sent me into a multi-day mope. My inner conversation went something like this: “What’s the point? I can’t understand after all this time and studying?! Should I just go home early? Will all this time and effort be wasted? How embarrassing if after 5 months of focus I fail. I’m probably too old to learn a new language. My friend Odi learned Spanish in 3 months and Hindi in two and all from scratch. Clearly, I don’t have an ear for languages…” v’chooley, v’chooley (etc., etc.)
And after whining to my mom and others misfortunate enough to enter my sulky sphere, clarity struck. I had reached my turning point, my moment of truth. The half-way mark of my trip had arrived and I was due for… a speed bump! Hello?! I should have expected it. After all, every process has ups and downs.
Furthermore, it dawned on me that that my reaction to this test would determine success or failure. If I allowed myself to grow dissuaded and deflated, my actions would follow suit – an inner acceptance of futility would derail all my past and future efforts.
In short, if I continued to pout, everything would be a waste.
Heegia ha’zman le’hachzik mahamad! The time had arrived to hang in there! Recommit myself! Persevere! The experience showed me that I need more exposure to the language, more work, more vocabulary, more, more, more…effort in many ways! But the good news is: there’s time. Ten more weeks, yalla v’tachzik Mahamad. (Let’s go and hang in there.)
Hashem really wanted this lesson to sink in, because I was taught it again, only in the romance department. I did a speed-dating event, intending for it to be a discreet experience…until JPost caught it on tape and put me on their front page. Just what every 30-year-old girl wants: to be the poster child for single-dom. Sheesh.
I tried the event because it was Tu B’Av (the Jewish Valentine’s Day), one of my girlfriends had raved about it, and frankly I needed to put some effort into my love life. This seemed like a good way to meet new people. But (spoiler alert), like many-a-dating experience, it only wound up providing entertainment to my family and friends.
The night was a bust. Only one guy perked my interested – a gorgeous, Israeli guy named Nir. Dimples, great smile, full head of dark hair, 6’4”—classic ‘tall, dark & handsome’ – he reminded me of John Travolta in Grease. (And what girl didn’t have a crush on Danny Zuko?) Problem: he’s 25. So, I felt a little bit like Mrs. Robinson. But, what the heck? He asked me out to dinner after the event and I said sure.
We ordered and suddenly, after knowing Nir for all of 30 minutes, I find myself playing “Whack-a-Mole.” For those of you who haven’t been to an arcade recently, “Whack-a-Mole” is that game where you must smack the moles that quickly pop up from the holes on the board with a giant hammer. The more moles you whack, the more points you get. In this allusion, Nir’s hands would be moles and it was my job to smack them away as they kept popping up on different parts of my body. Later, my walk home consisted of blocking Nir’s various efforts and lines to get into my apartment, and now, you have a sense of the evening.
See, I like gentlemen! I like conversation! I appreciate the common sense and sensitivity to recognize when advances are premature or unwelcome. I do not like the roaming hands of virtual strangers. Suffice it to say, there was no Grease Lightening.
I’d expected a summer of spiritual, strong, Zionist suitors! But all I’d found thus far were lost boys. By evening’s end, I felt exhausted and discouraged. Another flop. Another stupid dating experience. And nothing promising on the horizon.
And then I realized, again: Heegia ha’zman le’hachzik ma’amad. The time had arrived to hang in there.
Look, I wish I could choose the time table for certain things in my life; meeting my beshert (true love) definitely falls into that category. But Hashem has His own plan. The good news is, His plan for me is way better than my plan for me. So, with that in mind, my job is to stay open. As hard as it is sometimes…and it is…I must remember that a clenched fist cannot receive anything. Hashem can be ready to give me all I want and more, but unless I’m open, I’ll miss it; I won’t be able to grab it.
So, this is my work: open up and remain open. Put one foot in front of the other. Refrain from coming to conclusions. And Tachzik Ma’amad. Not being able to see the big picture is no reason to get pissy; especially since the big picture is, it’s all working out perfectly.