The High Holidays

Although the holidays are long past, its taken me this long to write about them (about a month and a half). Not so much because its time consuming, its just hard to process it all and figure out what I can take from it all. As I’ve said before, I am not Jewish, so all of these experiences were entirely new to me. Like the children, I had to ask why each holiday is celebrated, and look up the story behind it. The Kibbutz secretary, in his Rosh Hashanna speech, pointed out that the new year is one of the few celebrations in Judaism that are forward-looking. Most of the rest tell a story of how the Jews were persecuted and they over came (well, I added this last part).

The highlights of Rosh Hashanna included the special dinner followed by folk dancing, cake and a slide show. And the kite flying. Its a kibbutz tradition to make your own kites and then all get together and fly them during the holiday. It truly was wonderful, and fun, and delightful. I’m proud to say our kite flew – and it only took all of the grown men in our family to make it happen. The weather was perfect – not too hot, enough breeze, sunny (although its ALWAYS sunny here). And the camaraderie was really wonderful. People from all over the hill came, and talked and laughed together and enjoyed each other’s company. Afterwards we all ate a picnic on the big lawn in front of the dining hall. Now the kite is taped to the kid’s ceiling (lest we have to fly it again).

Yom Kippur was kind of a let down after the fun and festivities of Rosh Hashanna (if you know enough about Judaism, thats funny). Since many people were fasting, dinner was small and quiet. There was a small kerfufle about doing the regular Friday night service or not. Every Friday my father in law writes and then produces a small service where he and some other people read some thoughts, poems, passages and sing some songs on a related theme. Nothing religious, but something to mark the start of Shabbat (or the sabbath). Yom Kippur fell on Friday this year, and my father-in-law dutifully prepared a program on Yom Kippur and the meaning of atonement. But, as many people fast on Yom Kippur (in accordance with the religion) some people thought it would be inappropriate to do the program. He brought the program to the dining hall anyway. We arrived right on time but people were already eating, and no one had waited for the regular program. At first my father-in-law seemed like he was going to try to do the program any way, but in the end he gracefully gave it up, and we had a quiet dinner.

This actually gets at the heart of something that I see as a constant tension here. Israel is, by definition, a religious state. The children study the Jewish bible in school, all the religious holidays are also state holidays, after sundown on Friday night you cannot purchase anything in a store until sundown on Saturday (although Tel Aviv, I’m told, is a little different). I kid you not. One Saturday I dropped my husband off at the airport and mentioned I was going to stop at the grocery store on the way home. His response was “I think there is a law, at least there used to be, that businesses can’t be open on Shabbat – except of course a few designated emergency facilities.”

But maybe only 50% of the people I spoke to fast on Yom Kippur. Not everyone here on the Kibutz is Jewish – I’ve heard rumors that a few people know where to get Christmas trees! And then again, when I took the kids to the pool on the eve of Rosh Hashanna – note, the pool was OPEN- the other kids asked my kids how they could POSSIBLY go to the pool on Rosh Hashanna. And on Yom Kippur, people felt it was inappropriate to read a Friday before-dinner program, even though it was about Yom Kippur!

Its a huge adjustment for me, as an American, to be required by the government to consider religion in my everyday life, but I see Israelis having the same struggles. Do you let your kids play and laugh outside when others are quietly observing the religious rites? How long before the religious part of the holiday starts do you have to be considerate of others’ preparations? If you move into a house with a mezuzzah (a religious Jewish symbol) on the door, but you are not Jewish, can you/should you take it off? We just left ours – its probably good karma.

Sukkot turned out to be a big holiday here. Its the Jewish holiday where you build a hut to remember the huts the Jews built when they were wandering in the dessert after they left Egypt. The preschool had a sukkah (a hut), the after-school child care had a sukkah, and the kibbuz set up a sukkah. And for each one various community members gathered to help set it up and decorate it and to eat a meal in it.

Amusingly my four year old kept confusing the word “sukkot” [huts] with “sucariot” [candy] (I transliterated both words, so pronounce them as they are written). So it went something like this “are we going to play in the candy today?” “we built a candy at preschool today”, “I carried the leaves for the top of the candy…”

The kids had most of the month of September off for the holidays. Now they are working through a long two-months with no days off, until Hanukkah. Me too.

Our kite, flying high!

How to clean a floor in Israel (as taught to me by my husband)

Step One: fill a bucket with soapy water – fairly obvious, although back in Chicago, with my hardwood floors I often used spray-on cleaner that you squirt from a bottle just before you wipe with a mop.

Step Two: get out your “smartoot” (a large cloth made a packaged expressly for use in cleaning the floor – but really I think any cloth would do, however since I’m no expert there maybe magical qualities associated with a smartoot). Also find your giant, industrial-sized squeegee, which is on a long broomstick, usually its kept in the shower – no tubs here in the kibbutz – because after you shower you have to squeegee the water off the floor into the shower drain so the next person to use the shower doesn’t slip and fall and break their neck on the tiles. While there has been no neck breaking (thank goodness) there has certainly been slipping in our bathroom. As a side note, one of my daughters always walks in the bathroom with her toes curled up because she doesn’t like to touch the wet floor.

Step Three: drop the smartoot into the bucket to get it properly soaked in soapy water – but DO NOT WRING IT OUT

Step Four: remove the dripping wet smartoot from the bucket, spilling copious amounts of water all over the floor, and drape it over the business end of the squeegee. Then use the squeegee to rub the smartoot all over the floor, spreading soapy water everywhere (I hope you’ve thought ahead and worn your flip flops – known as “kuff-kuffeem” because of the noise they move was you walk – kuff, kuff, kuff, kuff…)

Step Five: When the rags seems to run out of water, or falls off the end of the squeegee, or looks dirty, repeat as needed from step three. Leave all the soapy water sitting in puddles on the floor as you move through the room.

Step Six: when you have finished wiping down the floor in the room you’re in – or part of the floor – drop the smartoot into the bucket and move the bucket out of the way. Then use the squeegee to squeegee all the water (and gunk in the water) towards the shower drain (or the front door if you live on the first floor). My patient husband explained that all the houses in Israel are built with a drain in the floor (usually the shower drain) that is, of course, just a little bit lower than the rest of the house so you can clean the floor.

Step Seven: repeat steps three through six until you’ve done the whole house.

Step Eight (to be completed only if you really like using a squeegee, or you are an extremely thorough person): Rinse and wring the smartoot thoroughly, drape the damp (but not soaked) smartoot over the business end of the squeegee and wipe down the floor again to rinse one more time and wipe up any extra water and soap. No need to use excessive amounts of water as this is only a rinse phase.

Tips (learned from personal mishaps):

*This is a game of strategy – your task is to figure out the best order to complete the job so that you work always progressively toward the drain, and don’t have to walk back over the slippery, soapy floor to refill the bucket or wash distant parts of the floor.

*This method works because everything here is made from ceramic tile, cement tile, or cement – floor, walls and ceiling.

*Don’t squeegee out the front door if you don’t live on the first floor.

*If you’re slow when you first do it, your husband might accuse you of being “thorough”.

*Don’t forget to pick up anything that is sensitive to water before you start (including whatever you are wearing on your feet, because you are going to splash water all over everywhere, and anything below ankle level WILL GET WET.

*If (or when) you spill water all over your cloth couch – or anything else- it will dry within a few minutes – the humidity is often below 20% here, and stuff dries FAST.

*Keep the number of the guy who cleans out the drain handy because, even if you are careful to sweep first, and pick up the gunk as you’re cleaning, its amazing how much sand and hair and other gunk gets washed down the shower drain. I think we are all loosing more hair here than we did in Chicago. Maybe its hot and we’re shedding. Definitely its hot, maybe we’re shedding.

*Be sure to do the floor when the kids aren’t around for at least several minutes after you’re finished. Its really satisfying to see the tiles look all smooth and shiny before they walk all over it again. Like a clean mirror, one print mars the whole thing.

Big squeegee with bathroom sink as size reference
Squeegee with “smartoot” draped for cleaning

Cycle 1

So we have completed an entire cycle. My husband left for three weeks and then came back for two weeks, and has left again for three more weeks. Cycle one proved to be extremely exciting. I experienced monster sized cockroaches, a ride in the ambulance to the emergency room, an air raid siren, vacation in the north (including several days of driving), school meetings, and daily life. Then my husband came home.

First the emergency room: my daughter was at “summer camp” sitting on a stone bench, when the bench fell forward off it supports and onto her ankle. One of the teachers managed to pull it off her leg – injuring her fingers in the process, and called my mother-in-law, who then got to the scene and called me. The call went something like this: Ring, “hello,” “You must come something heavy fell on your daughter” “okay, I’ll be right there.” I walked quickly, but I didn’t run because I thought “something heavy” was something like a book from a top shelf. I didn’t know it was a stone bench 6 feet long and 18 inches tall and wide! In the end the ankle wasn’t broken, but she didn’t walk on her injured leg for about a week and a half.

First the negatives: I was dismayed that no one stabilized her leg before they picked her up and put her on the stretcher, and they didn’t secure her in the back of the ambulance. First we had to stop at the regional clinic 7 minutes away, then we were sent on the hospital for x-rays about a half an hour away. It felt like we did a lot of waiting around at the clinic (after all we were the only people there!), and again she wasn’t restrained in the back of the ambulance the whole way to Eilat.

Once at the hospital they had trouble checking us in because even though we are insured, our insurance cards hadn’t arrived yet, so they had to read an email from my phone – which they guy checking us in couldn’t read. Eventually the other person at the desk showed him how to do it (leave it to a woman to be able to do it quickly and efficiently), and then we waited, as you do at a hospital emergency room. The only other terrible thing was that when they finally looked at her and sent her to x-ray and got her a wheel-chair – the was blood on the hand-rails. Also on the floor… ugg it was soo disgusting! Also they never offered her crutches – or really any medicine (she had gotten a dose of ibuprofen at the clinic) – which is the complete opposite of what would happen in the US.

Those were the bad things. The really nice things were that many, many people in the Kibbutz came to ask how she was and to offer condolences and help. The Kibbutz secretary and the director of the child care called and stopped us on the sidewalk to continually ask how she was doing. But they didn’t do it because of some overdeveloped sense of liability. They asked because they were genuinely concerned that she was okay. When I went for a follow up visit to the clinic (on my on initiative, not because anyone instructed me to do so – also VERY different from the US), the nurse gave us everything that she thought we might need to help my daughter get better – antibiotics, crutches, bruise reducing ointment, ace bandages (called elastics here)… without question – or charge. This is the same nurse who has treated ever ailment my husband has ever had since he was a baby! And the crutches – probably the same pair my husband would have used when he was a kid – some things remain the same.

The vacation: My father in-law planned a lovely vacation in the north – north of the Sea of Galilee. I got a rental car and we caravan-ed the whole way – me following him on Israeli highways through more than 425 kilometers of Israel, and back again. I am pleased to say there were no problems.

My daughter’s ankle was better enough by then, and we did some hiking, and rode a cable car, and saw an actual swamp. My experience of Israel has always been extreme desert. So it was amazing to see a different climate. We stayed in a kibbutz a the top of a mountain and the views of the valley below were breath-taking. The kibbutz bordered Lebanon, so it felt exciting too. But the most wonderful was that it was cool and breezy, with clouds and fog! I knew I would miss all the variations in weather when we moved here. But I was surprised to miss clouds! Perhaps the most wonderful sight on our trip, though, was the 90 foot high “Tanur waterfall” a few kilometers south of Metulla, another border town. Any 90 foot water fall is amazing, but this in a country I think of as arid and dry – really incredible.

School and daily life: I braved a school meeting with my daughter. Fortunately for us the councilor with whom we met was not afraid to use her English – which was pretty good. I did less well with all of the reams of notices about school that I received every day. Imagine hours of sitting with Google Translate on my smart phone, typing in each word and sentence. Now the app has a “take a picture” feature. One form was a supply list, so I had to brave the store (the supplies here were sold at the toy store) a few days before school started. I just handed over the list and the clerk walked around filling my basket – with too much stuff, it turned out.

Air raid: The air raid siren went off at exactly 12:59 one morning. I had been asleep for almost an hour. It was exactly as you might imagine – a very loud sound that lasted probably a minute. Then: nothing. I jumped out of bed, checked on the children (they didn’t even hear it) and ran to look out the window. No one was outside. After pacing the house from window to window for several minutes I heard my neighbor across the hall come out, so I went to meet her. It turns out her English is very good! She didn’t know what was going on either.

After a flurry of phone calls between me and my husband in California, and my husband and his mother here in the kibbutz (don’t ask why I didn’t call her directly, it was 1 in the morning), it was determined I could go back to bed. When my mother-in-law got the “all clear” text she called to tell me it was all okay. Sleep did not come quickly that night.

I found out the next morning that some Egyptian radicals in the Sini peninsula had launched a rocket attack at Eilat, which the Israeli defense system called the Iron Dome shot out of the sky (so cool right?). But every time the siren goes off in Eilat, the whole region gets the alert – even though I live 30 minutes from Eilat.

The next day, the guy in charge of security at the Kibbutz, who is also the guy in charge of the school-aged child care, told me a little bit about what I am supposed to do is such a situation. I get three minutes to get into the bomb shelter. There’s some travel adventure for you!

As for the cockroach – well I’m told they’re a fact of life in warm weather locales. I hate roaches – I mean really hate them. This one was big enough to attack back if it wanted. First I took a picture to send to my husband to tell him his services were needed. Then, because I’m not one to stand around and let the absence of a man stop me from doing, something, first I tried to capture it – but those buggers are FAST. Then, because I didn’t have a shoe big enough to squish it I sprayed it with all kinds of noxious, toxic chemicals (also known as Raid) and then slammed the door behind me. My daughter helpfully pointed out it could escape from under the door. So I stuffed a towel and waited. About a half an hour later I went back to scoop it up and throw it out, but IT WAS STILL TWITCHING!! So I bravely still scooped it up and threw it out the window. But first I took a picture of the (almost) dead bug to send to my husband to show that I didn’t need him to do my dirty work.

The next morning my younger daughter asked why there were a bunch of dead bugs on the floor – I had sprayed enough poison to kill a whole nest of roaches. It makes me shiver just to think about it.

The Villan
The Defeat

The Freak Out

Last summer, after months of increasingly more intense and careful planning, I packed up my three young children – the youngest of whom had just turned 3 – and took on them on a road trip across the mid-west, alone. We tent camped the whole way, except for three times: once when our tent was blown down in a storm; once when we stayed in a “covered wagon” at the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead; and once when we stayed in a “KOA Kabin” because one of the kids had always wanted to sleep in a cabin. We encountered rain, windstorms so bad our tent was destroyed, cold, heat, and a plague of bees. We hiked, scrambled up rocky out-croppings, swam, hung out, explored, went sight seeing, and in general had a wonderful, exciting trip. All of which I planned and executed alone. While I was nervous, I did not loose sleep over it, I was not reduced to a blubbering idiot, or paralyzed with fear…

Which is why I (and my husband) were a little surprised at my reaction when he left the kibbutz this week for a long stint in The States. I was reduced to tears and sobs at the mere thought of him leaving. On the morning before I took him to the airport, I couldn’t plan plan for my first dinner without him. In short I was completely freaked out!

But it doesn’t make sense. We have been here in the kibbutz for three weeks. We have had time to move into our apartment and get it almost all set up (the story about the furniture will come later). I have cable tv, internet, air-conditioners in every room, a refigerator, hot plate and toaster oven. The kids are established in a daily routine of childcare, hebrew tutoring and pool, followed by dinner in the dining hall and bed – which, for those who are paying attention, means I don’t even have to cook. My in-laws live a three minute walk away, are anxious to help, and considerate of my privacy. Plus MANY people here speak English – either as their native tongue or learned in school (English is a required subject from the 4th grade). Furthermore, everyone is happy, friendly and supportive. People want us to be successful here. I have no need to freak out. I am not alone in the woods in a tent with my kids hoping a tornado doesn’t come along to knock a tree on us squishing us all. We are not zooming down the highway at crazy speeds while one of the children has a temper tantrum and throws toys at the windshield from the back seat. I do not have to handle every problem, every cascade of tears, every fight alone. And still I am completely freaked out.

In case you haven’t already inferred, I like a little adventure in my life. I like the challenge of picking up and moving to a foreign country. I like to see new things and have new experiences. I also like to have some control over things. I like to be able to consider most of the possible outcomes and plan for them. Last summer, I couldn’t plan specifically for the windstorm that destroyed our tent, but I expected that at least one night we would have to pack it in and stay at a hotel. Also, I like to have my partner backing me up. In this case, I like to have him with me. My husband and I choose each other to be the person with whom we want to have adventures. We want to figure it out together. When he goes away, especially for the first time, he’s not present for the adventure. I can’t use him to help plan for eventualities, he’s not there to hold my hand when something goes wrong, and to strategize how to make it right.

And so, for a few days, I will freak out. And then, I will remind myself to breathe in and breathe out, and I find a way to keep going.

The Adventure Begins!

So the journey began in late December or early January when we told our families that we were really going to do it – really going to move to Israel for a year. We’ve planned on this adventure for as long as we have been married. We already had one false alarm when we almost moved, but now we were really going to do it! Really.

After negotiations with the company, in which it was agreed my husband would be doing a lot of traveling; and negotiations with the storage company, in which it was agreed we would be paying through the nose for the privilege of keeping all our junk; and negotiations with our children in which we decided what we absolutely, positively could not live without for a year; we packed up our stuff, gave up our apartment, said goodbye to our friends, boarded a plane and went.

We and all of our 6 suitcases, 3 children, 3 car seats, 5 backpacks and a camera bag got on two different airplanes followed by a four hour car ride south from Tel Aviv through the dessert to a Kibbutz a half an hour from the southern tip of Israel.

Although my husband and his family grew up in this Kibbutz – and in fact his parents live there still – I and my children do not speak Hebrew, nor are we Jewish, nor have we ever lived outside of the northern United States. We were used to seasons, to weather, to humidity. Southern Israel receives about 2 cm of rain per year (about 1 inch for you fellow Americans). In Chicago, well lets just say there were whole weeks I couldn’t get to my garage because my back yard was flooded almost to my knees. I’m used to never being able to leave the house without a sweatshirt and or rain coat.

Nevertheless, we packed our stuff, made our preparations, and went.

In the coming months I hope to relate my thoughts and my experiences during this adventure. Maybe you’ll be amused, maybe I’ll gain some insight, or maybe it will just pass the time for both of us. Enjoy!