Jewish Journal

The Enlightened Thumbtack

by Lara Berman

June 21, 2010 | 9:58 am

My incredibly talented teachers!

Left – Right:
Top row~ Tamara and Liat (my favorites!) and Israela, who I will have once I’m more advanced.
Bottom row~Orna and Fina. Fina is a clown - so funny!
Only Yehudit, the beautiful, Russian teacher is missing from this photo.

These ladies make learning a blast! They are superb and have made all the difference in my experience of Israel. Thank you, ladies!

Hey friends!

I am so pleased to be sitting in the air conditioning with a few minutes to write. It’s been a wonderfully busy time since I hopped off the plane already 3 weeks ago! These blasé afternoons are few and far between, but most welcome!

Now for those of you who are unaware (as I was), everything in Israel moves fast. This is a big contrast to LA where you start a project, it takes eons to move along and maybe, with some magical fairy dust, in five years it manifests. (Or is that just the world of entertainment?) Here, you put something out there and boom, boom, there’s progress.  For example, I thought I should get a job and/or find some volunteer work. So, last Tuesday, I was walking around Ben Yehuda and by the end of my stroll had a job offer AND a date. How about that? I wasn’t even in a good mood at the time. I’d had a wonky phone conversation that morning that had left me slightly miffed, but nevertheless, these beautiful blessings came swiftly, plopping into my lap. That stuff’ll cheer a girl up! Now, I didn’t end up accepting the job in the end, but Tomer was a cool guy.

This quick pace I’m referring to also goes for apartments. See I have to move on July 1st thanks to an apartment mess here. (Short story: I come home one night to a note from the girlfriend of the apartment owner, essentially kicking me out my own room! Drama ensues. Verdict: I stay. She gets the boot. BUT, as this is one of several surprises this landlord has sprung on me, I want out. Suddenly, I am in the market to find a new place. And it’s a chaval (shame), as my place here is spacious with vieeeeeeeeeews! But, mah laasot (what to do)? Cest la vie. So, it being June 21st already with no apartment lined up, I’m getting a tad antsy. “But, that’s how it is here!” My friends remind me. “You’ll have a place!” they say with the twinkle of experience.

And so it’s gone: word of mouth is the name of the game here and everyone is ready to help. Person after person has connected me to this apartment or that someone who knows of one – even and especially folks I barely know! I’ve noticed this all over Israel. The Israeli at the corner market gives me 3 apartment websites to check, “If none of these work, come back and I’ll call my friends for you.” You ask for directions – the random stranger escorts you to your destination. You’re missing the extra shekel to buy your water, they let it slide. It’s simply sababa (cool)!

Also this week, I had the opportunity to attend the Jerusalem Light Show in the Old City. Some installations were really beautiful and moving, like the history of Israel since biblical times done in a 3-D, light presentation. Other parts, like a video featuring weird, green, bubble faces made me think the artist must be an acid tripper.

This was one of several outings I’ve taken with my ulpan classmates. After learning the word for Chinese food, we went out for Chinese food. Last week we went bowling. And this week, inspired by the beauuuutiful weather (the days are hot but the mornings and evenings are perfection!), we headed outside to the light show. Tonight, we’ll watch the World Cup on Ben Yehuda somewhere. The World Cup has been frequently a topic of conversation here since Israel is very international and those games are a big deal here. The French, South Africans (obviously), Australians…and me (to my great surprise) are way into it! Sorry, football fans, but soccer’s got you beat!

And speaking of Ulpan, I’m still loving it! About twice a week, we’re bombarded with new info and my head feels like a thumb tack that is being squashed into a cork board. But fascinatingly, within 2 days that new stuff becomes old hat and something else is trying to finagle its way into my brain.

I’ve gotta rave about the ulpan for a moment here: I’ve been fortunate to have access to a lifetime of excellent, private education, starting with Country Day in Ft. Worth, then to NYU in Manhattan and finally to USC in LA, with plenty of seminars and classes in between. I’ve learned from the best, but I really believe the teachers here at Ulpan Morasha stand out as truly talented teachers. They make teaching an art-form, a skill. These teachers exemplify how far focus, energy, commitment and patience can go. I wish you could all come in and witness one of these classes as they are unlike anything else, especially if Tamara is with us.

Kodem kol (first of all), don’t mess with Tamara.  This spit-fire of a teacher has a brilliant way of organizing information and giving it over in an accessible and memorable way. She drills information into us as though she’s a sergeant and we’re cadets, all the while her bright eyes dancing. She’s 100% committed to each person’s success. She takes care of us but doesn’t baby us a drop. I heard she is a former ballerina and soldier, no surprise! She epitomizes grace and discipline. No one gets let off the hook with a mistake, but she manages to be tough without embarrassing anyone or allowing the space for doubt to seep in. My entire class is in awe of Tamara.

She is one of several teachers who rotate to our class; we have two different teachers per day – one before break and one after. The communication between the teachers at this school is impeccable; when the second teacher of the day comes in, she knows bidiyuk (exactly) what vocabulary and concepts we’ve covered, and resumes the lesson with complete synchronicity. Todah raba, morot (teachers)!

In other news, Friday, I made it to Tel Aviv am now quite sun-kissed. I’ve turned golden brown. Nothing like some color to make you feel fabulous and healthy. I’ve been especially enjoying this after visiting a Bubbe last week who told me that she doesn’t remember ever being young and beautiful. She’s a Holocaust survivor and even though she showed me photos of herself where I thought she looked quite glamorous, she insists she was never beautiful. Well, like most ladies, I can be super critical of myself, but Bubbe’s story made an impression on me. So, I’ve decided not to repeat her experience and have since been walking around everyday feeling quite young and beautiful. And let me tell you something – it’s a wonderful way to walk around.
As I referenced earlier, Israel is also unique in that when you ask a question here, because there’s a direct line to Hashem, one gets nearly instantaneous answers. And so it was this week with Michal, a girlfriend of mine who I’ve known for years, but on that day she began sharing stories with me I’d never heard before which totally illuminated certain situations I was facing. With such divine timing, she was definitely a holy messenger that day.

I’m also really beginning to feel like a Yerushalmit (a Jerusalemite – it’s like being called a New Yorker or an Angeleno) because I’m now bumping into people everywhere I go. Let’s start with last Thursday night. I’m on a date with this nebishy guy. We’re walking down Yaffo Street, and I’m dreaming of how to escape from this date (nice guy, just zippo sparks) when who do I see in Jlem??? The Tel Avivian, Odelia Shabi! I shouted to her and she began hopping around, grabbed my hand and whisked me off with her to the Moroccan restaurant she was headed to with her touring group. Turns out she also wanted to vanish from her company! We danced and goofed in the street and Mr. Nebish laughed at our silly antics. Thank you, Odi! You brightened my night!

More chance meetings: Friday morning, I’m off to Tel Aviv and who do I see entering the Central Bus Station? The famous and totally, wonderful Rabbi David Aaron of Isralight! (If you don’t know him, correct that right away! I recommend his book, “Endless Light.”) I chatted with him briefly and off he went. That night, back from the ocean (which was perfect aside from the occasional medusa (jellyfish)) and the crafts fair in Tel Aviv, I found myself in the Old City at the Kotel for Shabbat and who is also there? Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis who wrote, “The Committed Life” and Sarah Schneider, author of “Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine” which a good friend made famous in Pico Robertson by referencing it constantly. PLUS, I saw Reb Mottle of Isralight dancing with the soldiers at the Kotel too! I guess I’m just in sync with the enlightened these days.  :)

And by the way – it was such a pleasure to be able to be on the beach in Tel Aviv all day and that night be enjoying Shabbat in the Old City of Yerushalyim. Amazing!

Now, one new thing I discovered this week that I can’t wait to share with you was watermelon (which you’ve heard me talk about) with (drumroll pleeeease)….NANA! (Aka: mint) Thank me later, just go and try this! When it’s boiling outside, blend up a limonana (ice, mint and lemon) or toot with nana (strawberries, ice and mint) or avatiach with nana (watermelon, mint and ice). Holy moly, these concoctions will knock your socks off for real. I can’t go a day without one of these refreshing yummies. Hey, it’s nearly 100 degrees here and a watermelon addiction means you have to carry those bowling balls home in the heat! Ze lo pashoot! (It’s not simple!) One deserves a reward after that!

Back from the beautiful blues of the Mediterranean, I had Friday night dinner in a gorgeous home in the Old City that had been redone Moroccan style – it was exquisite with no detail left undone – Lions of Judeah and Magen Davids set in the stone of the sinks, floors and walls. The couple who lives there wasn’t able to have children and so instead began a program called, “Thank the IDF” and another program that helps soldiers transition from army life back to civilian life, helping them land on their feet career wise. Kol HaKavod (all the respect). The soldiers who joined us that night were all going on to become higher-ranking officers. The couple asked them why they chose that path and the answers were so sweet and selfless. Everyone was taken aback. “I was at school at Technion [a very prestigious, technical school], but when I was there I knew it was only for me. My country needed me more here [in the army] right now and so I came.” Can you imagine the motivation of our enemies’ soldiers? These young men exuded such sweetness and love for Israel and selflessness. I was blown away by the heroes at the table.

The rabbi also offered some amazing Torah around this, saying that we are taught to be like G-d. For example, if G-d is kind and non-judgmental, so we should be. And what does G-d do? Hashem guards Israel. As it says in Tehillim (Psalms 121), “Behold, He neither slumbers nor sleeps – the Guardian of Israel.” And so the rabbi taught that the soldiers were being like Hashem in their work – guarding the people of Israel so that we can sleep in peace.

We headed to the Kotel (Western Wall). I held hands with Rina, my best friend here, so we wouldn’t slip on the well-worn, Jerusalem stone. “This was us in another lifetime,” she said to me. “We were sisters.” It was familiar and sweet to be there. For sure we’d been there before. “And I think we were sefardic,” she said with a giggle. Classic Rina.

I wish I could have taken a photo on Shabbat of the site at the Kotel. It was packed with people. The soldiers dancing with the Chassidim. Shabbat songs filling the air, swirling into your ears. Wow. It was emotional to see. So special.

Just imagine: If you had told the scattered Jews of Europe only 100 years ago that within 100 years they’d be living in their home, Israel, able to pray in freedom at their holiest sites whenever they wanted to and even on Shabbat; that millions of Jews would return from the diaspora to create a Jewish country; that religious and secular would dance and sing together; that Israel would, like David and Goliath, win war after war despite all odds; that it would thrive, leading the way in environmental issues and science and technology; that it would be a thriving democracy, a beacon of equality, retaining its high standards of morality despite zero respect, recognition or tolerance; that it would fly its flag, with a magen david on it, over Jerusalem; that we would pray and dance and sing in freedom without fear – you know what they would have done? They would have laughed in your face. They would have said you were crazy.

We’re living in a time of miracles. To stand at the Kotel on Shabbat amid hundreds of Jews of every stream, from all over the world, all home to connect again was to live a dream that my grandparents couldn’t have experienced when they were born; it was to live an experience that was only a pipe dream for over 2000 years. To be alive today is a merit! To live in Jerusalem? What did I do to deserve it? We are so lucky, you and I to be alive right now.

And so, I took a moment, under the blanket of stars to take it in: these sweet people who stand for goodness and who continue despite hatred that comes from all directions and even from supposed “friends.” And I listened to the religious girls sing and hummed along, somehow knowing the same tunes, and I saw the bobbing heads of the men dancing over the mechitza (the partition between the men and the women), and I felt Hashem there, with all of us, kvelling with such nachas (pride) and joy. What a gift it was.

Finally, I want to share with you a special third meal I had over Shabbat that could only have happened in Jerusalem…I don’t even think it would happen in Tel Aviv. The third meal of Shabbat happens before Havdalla. This week, after lunch in Gan Sacher park, we had third meal on the front lawn of my friend Ravit’s apartment building. An impromptu Torah discussion broke out and afterwards, the men in attendance had a minyan (group to pray) and began davening arvit (the evening prayers), right there on the lawn. A gent in a suit with white hair, off the street popped in, “I need to say mourner’s kaddish” he said with a strong accent. Of course, the minyan was happy to oblige. With his strong, Sephardic accent and loud voice he said Kaddish, thanked the minyan and then was gone. He had given meaning to our minyan and clearly, our minyan had meaning for him. Such a zchut (merit)!

The men continued. We all blessed the moon and each other, and it was time for havdallah (for Shabbat to end). A neighbor who’d joined us brought down a havdallah candle, besamim (spices) and wine. Her little 3 year-old son – a gingi (red head) with short, growing peyot (side curls) held the candle high, his gingi, 1 ½ yr old sister looking on. We all formed a semi-circle, arms around one another and sang songs before letting Shabbat go. It was while we were singing that I glanced behind me and saw that all the neighbors had come out onto their balconies to watch and participate. Some sang, others were silent. Some were elderly couples, some were our age and some were kids, all humming and sharing in their own way.

We brought out Shabbat and then the real singing began – everyone danced, swinging each other around and blessing each other with a good blessings like safety and happiness. Where else could this happen?  What a gift it was and we all felt it.

So, needless to say, I’m feeling very appreciative these days. I’m drinking in this experience with large gulps. I’m aware that, bli ayin hara, I’m very lucky.

It’s funny, people said that living here would be a wake-up call; that it would kill what they saw as a romantic view of Israel. But, they were wrong. I never said Israel was perfect. But, I have such appreciation for all that she IS. And I’m not focusing on what she isn’t. She IS magic. She IS ours. She IS a gift. It IS a privilege.

If a fig tree is blossoming with delicious fruits and you focus on the few weeds at the tree’s base that grow because that’s the nature of any garden, it’s chaval (a shame), because if you’d just look up, you’d see the sweetness within reach just above your head.

Shavua tov, friends. 
B’ahava m’Yerushalyim shel zahav…
(With love from Jerusalem of Gold…)

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