Category Archives: Israel Jewry

Everything as usual

by Hannah Winkelman (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

The mass exodus of people evacuating the bus should’ve clued me in. My phone had been buzzing all morning with Red Alerts; little did I know that for the next six hours, my phone would buzz at least 150 more times, signifying the deployment of rockets from Gaza to cities scattered around Israel.

I assumed this bus stop must have been a popular one. It wasn’t until the bus driver also exited the vehicle that I realized something was wrong. I took out my headphones and my stomach churned; the sirens were unmistakable.

This is my third time in Israel—a country marked by constant political turmoil and tension—yet I’ve never been confronted with any threats until now. The first time I came,  in 2011, I was 15 years old. The second time was last December on Birthright. The only time I felt unsafe was when too many fighter jets were flying at once for my own comfort. Our guide told us not to worry, so I pushed it out of my mind as the jets flew further and further away.

As I exited the bus, I turned my head toward the direction of the phones people pointed at the sky. Two or three thin lines of smoke were trailing after white objects in the sky punctuated by bright red. I expected fear, panic, anything of the sort—and yet, I was met with casual silence. No tension, no dread, no awe; I sensed impatience.

The sirens stopped, halting without a warning just as they had started. After a beat, the bus driver looked to his awaiting passengers: “ok, yalla” and I followed the Israelis as they jumped back on the bus.

The rest of the bus ride felt like a blur. A woman tried to speak to me in Hebrew, but her words fell on essentially deaf ears as I tried to piece together what she was saying with my remedial understanding of the language. She was impatient as I stuttered out in Hebrew “I speak a little Hebrew, do you speak English?” She rolled her eyes. I spent the rest of the bus ride in silence until I reached my stop.

The 20-minute walk home proved daunting. I couldn’t help but think about the possibility that if a rocket attack were to strike, I’d be stranded and defenseless, unsure of where to go. My mind spiraled with these anxious thoughts as my body moved through spaces both familiar and unfamiliar until I reached my apartment.

The assumed safety was brief. Only 20 minutes later, the sirens went off once again. We found the appropriate fall-out shelter—what looked like a closet ascending from the concrete about 20 feet away from our apartment—and we descended beneath the ground into the concrete bunker, finding inside children playing cards and dogs playing with their owners. The white walls and bare floor felt stifling as my roommates and I—three Americans—stood arm to arm. Voices of Israelis echoed and enveloped us, their casual treatment of the situation once again astounding. We were only in the bunker for five minutes.

I’ve always had a basic understanding that Israelis live in a state of apathy regarding their constant state of vulnerability. I’ve wrestled with my own opinions on Israel with the knowledge that it is a state that occupies while also under threat. But to witness the nonchalance Israelis have towards an imminent threat such as rockets dotting the skies was almost more jarring than the threat of the rockets themselves. I asked my friend in Ashkelon, the biggest major city closest to Gaza, if he was okay. He responded promptly in two messages: “hey thank you I am fine. Everything as usual.”

I didn’t write this post to report anything novel; most could surmise the ever-present internalized threat. But to witness it is so much more shocking than what I could have ever imagined. I will never understand what it is like to have lived in a country under constant threat; even after these nine months on Yahel, or if I stay for a few years after, or for the rest of my life, I don’t know if I’ll ever understand it. So while I will never be able to engage in the conflict or even day-to-day life as an Israeli citizen would, I can still fulfill what I consider my responsibilities to be as a global citizen—observing and learning to the best of my ability. That will have to be enough for now.

Hannah Winkelman graduated from Tufts University in 2018 and is currently living in Rishon Lezion in Israel on the Yahel Social Change Fellowship. She volunteers teaching English at a local high school and at various non-profit organizations. She is originally from Seattle, WA. 

Note: This post first appeared on the Yahel Israel Blog and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.  For more information about Yahel Israel, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/about

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A Sabbath Prayer

by Hadassah Brenner (Raanana, Israel)

It’s the Sabbath Eve
And the shuk is filled with wonderful smells-
Knafeh and fresh Challah bread
Chai tea, dried ginger, zahtar spice.
The cheapest deals you’ll find
Just before the stands close for the weekend.

I feel the sun, still strong against my back;
Sweat beads between my legs.
I wipe my upper lip, brush back my hair.
Sigh loudly.

All of Jerusalem seems to surge through Mahne Yehuda market.
Students. Tourists.
Little boys and girls, hands outstretched to catch fallen candy.
Black-hatted men, carrying their prayer books protectively.
Women with bright eyes shining through the narrow slits in their garb.
Soldiers, M16 rifles slung over their hunched shoulders.

Saba blesses the wine,
His voice still sweet and singsong,
Despite the years.
Vayihi Erev
Vayihi Boker.
There was night,
And there was day.”

I close my eyes,
Rocking ever-so slightly.
Saba smiles at me.

“Are you tired, my dear child?
Besiyata Dishmaya, Inshallah.
With the help of Heaven,
There will be peace in our land
And you will rest your wearied limbs.”

I look up at him, wonderingly.
“How can you be so certain, Saba?
We have yet to lay down our weapons
In the thousands of years that we have lived here.
How do you know the day will come?”
Saba presses the cup into my hands.
Wine bubbles against my lips,
Stinging my tongue lightly, as I sip.

“My child,
I know there will be peace
Because for every night,
There is day.
And on the Sabbath day,
It is written that we shall rest.”

It’s the Sabbath Eve
And the sun has finally set.
A fire streaked sky extends over the Judean Hills.
We are white angels drifting through the stillness,
Humming soft melodies
To welcome the Sabbath Queen.

This ancient song of a thousand voices
Rises from the Old City’s gates
And it doesn’t matter what mother tongue
The people speak
Or what God they call out to
Because it is the same prayer in every language:

Vayihi Erev
Vayihi Boker.
There was night,
And there was day.

Besiyata Dishmaya
Inshallah.
With the help of Heaven,
There will be peace.

Because for every night, there is day.
And on the Sabbath day,
It is written that we shall rest.

Hadassah Brenner moved to Israel after high school, was drafted into the IDF, and serves as a lone solider, a combat medic. For as long as she can remember, she has turned to words to help her understand and overcome challenges in her life. She writes about her experiences in Israel as a new immigrant, a lone soldier, and a woman searching for her place in the world, and has published a poetry collection titled The Warrior Princess Once Said https://www.amazon.com/Warrior-Princess-Once-Said-Fighting/dp/191607068X/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?keywords=the+warrior+princess+once+said&qid=1570378590&sr=8-1 and two blogs: Military Madness https://militarymadness.wordpress.com  and When the Wind Whispers https://whenthewindwhispers.wordpress.com

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Holy Ground

by Kayla Schneider-Smith (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

Bubby holds up a fist and makes a
zero with her fingers

This is how “Jewish”
Reform Jews are to me,

she shuffles me through crowded markets where
boiling men wear summer coats and study
their feet as we pass them

step to the side, step to the side,
Bubby goads, but all I hear is

make yourself smaller,
make yourself zero

Bubby buys me a white shirt
and a white skirt for Yom Kippur
the way she thumbs through the racks and lights up when
she finds something right
makes me feel like she loves me

so that each time the hot familiar anger rises
I remember how she bought me a Yom Kippur outfit and
walked me through the city with her rolling shopping bag and
poured me iced coffee slushies and
paid for taxi rides home and told me

I’m waiting for you to wake up

Wake up to what, Bubby?
to your God who
invalidates my God?
to my God who challenges yours?

Kayla Schneider-Smith is a poet, musician, and social activist from Monmouth County, New Jersey. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she recently completed the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where she taught English, piano and guitar to children, adults and senior citizens in a small neighborhood called Ramat Eliyahu. Kayla is currently pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Writing at The University of San Francisco and working as the Mindful Arts Program Coordinator at the San Francisco Education Fund. She aspires to be an English professor, Rabbi, or Interfaith Minister one day.

If you’d like to read some of her work in prose, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/single-post/2018/11/27/To-Be-Or-Not-to-Be-Progressive-Judaism-in-Israel

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Honey

by Saraya Ziv (Jerusalem, Israel)

Joëlle’s humongous plasma TV takes up a whole high wall of her hairdressing salon. You can’t miss it. And I, not having a TV of my own, don’t want to: an appointment with Joëlle is an appointment with culture.

Besides French soaps, she favors Israeli cook-offs or the spitfire chat-chat of talk shows. Her natal French and acquired Hebrew lead me through the weird life of chanteur Johnny Hallyday to an ancient and skilled woman teaching her great-grandson to make honey cake. The cake is for Rosh Hashana, which is imminent.

Commercials wish me Shana Tova, and, at last, six glamourosos of both sexes sit in a wide U, mikes clipped to their hip clothes. One woman sports long sleeves but naked shoulders, one curly haired man wears sunglasses nipped into the cleavage of his shirt. All of these people are Jews, and they are all talking at once.

I hear them say Rosh Hashana, but I don’t know if they’re condemning or celebrating. They talk straight into the commercials. They’re talking when the camera returns. They don’t seem to care that I’m out here. They’re busy.

Another commercial with more Shana Tovas, and when we return a young woman, sweet faced, dressed plainly, warm with smiles, is talking about her career.

Joëlle tells me the woman is a chef, a new Israeli from New Zealand. The panel pelts her with questions ensemble, and gently, smiling at the onslaught, she replies. Black-and-white stills show her at her pots and ovens. Joëlle says, “They’re asking her what she makes special for Rosh Hashana.”

She describes a honey upside down cake in English and Mr. Curly Hair translates to Hebrew. “Ha-fuach.” I pause. It’s the word in the Megilla of Purim, where good and rotten, optimism and dread, normal and insane, are tangled: upside down.

They throw her more questions. It’s a mosh pit of noise. She describes a complex dish, then slips back to English to say, “Honey coated ham.” No one needs to translate.

This panel of hip Jews, to a one, becomes absolutely still. Ms. Shoulders looks down at her shoes. Mr. Curly stares ahead.

The director must be nervous with this hush. His timing wildly off, he cuts to commercials, which wish me, again, Shana Tova.

Saraya Ziv attended SUNY Buffalo, worked as a Business Analyst on Wall Street, and left the United States one April morning in 2015 on a one way ticket to Tel Aviv. She was born and lived in New York City all her life, but now lives a short drive to Jerusalem. You can find more of her work at her website, Jerusalem Never Lies https://www.jerusalemneverlies.comwhere this piece first appeared

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Lion of Hope

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

Black stocking feet and no shoes.

Blue and white prayer shawl
wrapped around his head and arms.

He stands in front of the ancient Wall,
his face hidden.

Large as a lion, he raises his hands
like a street performer before the worshippers.

He sweeps his arms above
the old man in white,

above a boy
in a blue baseball jersey,
#32,

above the rabbi
in back of the Torah.

The Lion of Hope roars, and
his prayers speed like Lefty’s fastball,
soar to the top of Mt. Moriah,
pure as tears protecting a child’s prayer.

He steps slowly to a chair by mine.
I touch the Wall and hear
the Big Man whisper,
I am exhausted.

After prayers we walk together
to the Kiddush table by the stairs.

The Rabbi raises a cup of wine.
Big Man turns to sing sweet
Shabbat songs to Chinese tourists.

He shakes my hand.
Shabbat Shalom.
Be healthy. Have peace.

Brad Jacobson is a volunteer every summer in Israel in the SAREL program. He teaches TESOL at the Asian Affair Center at the University of Missouri, where he has an MEd in Literacy. In the summers he enjoys exploring places with his camera like the Old City of Jerusalem, Tzfat, and the Red Sea where he scuba dives. He has been published in Tikkun, Voices Israel, Poetica, Cyclamens and Swords, and the University of Missouri International News.

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“Give, You Shall Give”

by Dobra Levitt (Jerusalem, Israel)

Two memories lodged in my past seem to have waited years for my Talmud Torah class to reveal their true value.  We have been learning the laws worded as double expressions in the Torah such as: give, you shall give; lend, you shall lend; load up, you shall load up your neighbor’s fallen donkey. The law of restoring a pledge, “restore, you shall restore,” requires a lender to return the garment of a poor person who has given it as security for a loan. Since his garment is most likely the only covering he has, Torah law made it obligatory to return it to him each day before sunset for as long as it’s held as security. The first memory from my working years in Philadelphia brings this law out of the pages of the Gemarah into living reality.

After university and before I found my first teaching position, I worked for a short time at the Department of Public Assistance.  My job was to visit people receiving financial assistance, lend a sympathetic ear to their cares and concerns, and send in a standardized form recording my observations. The people I visited were humble folk, grateful to the powers-that-be for the help they got and for the “nice miss” who listened to their troubles.

The job took me into neighborhoods I never knew existed. One place was a single room apartment in a building “somewhere near the railroad tracks.”  Its occupant was a small, elderly Afro-American man. By now he’s just a memory of a memory, but for many years he was a living person in my heart.  His slight form, his politeness and gentleness were not abstractions describing him but qualities inseparable from what endeared him to me.  Except for a plain wood bureau and maybe a few items he kept in a closet, the only things he possessed in this world were literally a table, two chairs, and a cot that served as his bed.  Lined up on the bureau top were framed photos of loved ones “from the South.” They were all that really mattered to him. I can’t recall his talking about anything else. I remember standing beside him as he showed me each one, telling me who they were and how they were related to him.

At the bottom of his bed, folded up very neatly, was a khaki overcoat he may have bought at one time from an army and navy store. As sure as I stood there, I knew that coat was what he used to cover himself at night. I may have asked him or found out from my supervisor that a blanket had been ordered for him—it troubled me so that he still had not received it. I must have sent in the visiting form with an urgent request for its immediate delivery, but I was scheduled to leave the Department shortly after my visit, so I never knew the outcome of my gentleman’s story. I always hoped that someone broke through the bureaucratic red tape and got his blanket to him without a minute’s further delay.

Talmudic scenarios, at least literally, are not common anymore. It’s unlikely that when we step out the door we’ll encounter a lost sheep we should exert ourselves to return to its owner or help a neighbor unload his fallen donkey, but there are rare exceptions. With my own eyes I saw how a frail mortal could have nothing to his name in this world but one garment to cover himself at night—and if he had to give it as security, his very life could be endangered if it wasn’t returned on time.  “If you take thy neighbor’s garment to pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; it is his only garment, his covering for his skin; wherein shall he sleep?”

Reading this passage from the Torah, I felt the incredible closeness and immediacy of Hashem in every situation and far more deeply felt the line from tehillim that came to me: “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies extend to all His works.

Years later, and on a lighter note, the second memory is a perfect embodiment of the doubled expression, “give, you shall give.” One of the meanings the sages derived from the repetition was that it was better to give multiple times – giving smaller sums to several charities rather than a lump sum to only one or giving to three poor people five shekels each for a coffee rather than fifteen to one person. Little did I know at the time that I was fulfilling a law of the Torah in this ideal way.

I was at the time learning in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, occasionally making forays into Boro Park for shopping or meeting friends. Leaving Boro Park one early afternoon to catch my bus, I was accosted (if I can use that word for such a diminutive crowd) by a class of very young yeshivah boys in the fourth or fifth grade asking for a donation. It seems they were collecting for some charitable cause that their school turned into a class competition. There may even have been a run-off among individual boys to decide the Supreme Collector of the whole yeshivah.

Good fortune went round that day. For some reason I had a lot of small change in my bag and on the spot became a dispenser of charity coins to maybe twelve very happy boys. You would think a windfall of immense worth fell into their hands as each one walked away, shouting and jubilant, with his nickel or dime. When just two or three boys were left and I had come almost to the end of my change, I began thinking I should hold on to what was left for the bus fare or something else I might need. Walking towards my bus stop, I explained to the boys why I was “closing up shop.” Having done so well as a group, they accepted the decision with a good grace and went their boyish way – except for one unappeased boy. I can almost see him as he stood his ground. He was smaller than the rest and just as it was undeniable that he wore glasses, so was it absolutely clear he wore intelligence. It was written, as they say, all over him. He persisted at my side, backing away with me as I walked. “But I gave to the whole class,” I told him. “Yes, but I’m a different person,” he answered. And to whatever I said that I thought bolstered my argument, he answered in his childish voice, never changing his tone or showing the least irresolution: “Yes, but I’m a different person.”

Of course I gave him. How could I not! He was so preciously unique and his ingenuous logic was unassailable. It was my logic that was below the mark. Surely I must have had a few bills in my purse so I could have gotten change for the bus, and what could I possibly have suddenly needed in the minutes it took to walk to the station that twenty-five cents would help pay for? When I look back, I think I was acting on the not uncommon instinct to preserve my money lest – who knows? – I might go penniless!

I treasure the  memory of my little yeshivah boy. I can’t begin to count how many times his innocent “Yes, but I’m a different person” has sounded in my heart, making me smile and, on occasion, even admonishing me. Sometimes I am unexpectedly approached by a group of needy people here in Jerusalem where, unfortunately, the poor abound. This often happens before the festivals when poor men and women with needy families ask for help. I have to remind myself: true, nowhere does halacha require me to give away all my money, but I won’t fall below the poverty line if I give more than I regularly give to people who are asking.  Each one has a just claim; each one is a different person.

Dobra Levitt lives in Jerusalem where she writes and teaches creative writing.  She published a memoir called The Fish in the Yellow Paper, a collection of essays describing her childhood and high school teaching years in Philadelphia. Here’s a link to her book if you’d like to take a look: https://amzn.to/2ukRsMG

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At Sammy’s Store

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

Today is Shabbat.
I stop in for a Bamba
Peanut snack and Coke.

We do not pay
until after Shabbat.
Sammy wears a Yankees hat.

His first language is Arabic
but he speaks English and Hebrew
to customers.

David visits Sammy every day.
He manages the Heritage House,
the Jewish hostel next door.

Sammy, David and I dream
about sailing around the world.
We will meet at the ship tomorrow.

Or the day after.

 

Brad Jacobson is a volunteer every summer in Israel in the SAREL program. He teaches TESOL at the Asian Affair Center at the University of Missouri, where he has an MEd in Literacy. In the summers he enjoys exploring places with his camera like the Old City of Jerusalem, Tzfat, and the Red Sea where he scuba dives. He has been published in Tikkun, Voices Israel, Poetica, Cyclamens and Swords, and the University of Missouri International News.

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