Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Gatekeepers and being welcomed

Today in the middle of Hebrew class, I started to think about my life here and my aliyah experience. A momentary space-out in the midst of an introduction to a new verb form, unfortunately. For the first year, things were difficult. Logistically difficult, that is. Getting bank accounts, registering with the health system, the types of things that require standing in long lines in government offices. The rest of that time was a slideshow of new and interesting experiences: ulpan, traveling throughout the country, learning how to drive amongst Israeli drivers, grocery shopping at the shuk, and making new friends.

I'm now in the middle of my second year in Israel. The newness has worn away, and I feel that despite my stumbling in the language, I am here standing on two feet and ready to move forward and to give back to Israeli society. What I'd really like to do is make a living on my own, to create, and to build something in Israel that will provide for more than just myself. To build a business that does good for the world.

Four years ago I started a business in San Francisco. It's an ecommerce business, a fairly simple buy low-sell high model with a socially conscious slant. In Israel, this particular type of business requires a license. Last week, I put together everything I needed to attain the license - bank account information, letters of recommendation, a letter from my lawyer, a letter from my accountant, my resume, a cover letter, copies of every form of identification I've ever had, my soul. When I arrived to submit my application, despite having been welcomed to the government office in the past, I was greeted with apparent disdain. Perhaps they heard that my business was small, much smaller than the other hundred-year-old businesses under their authority. Perhaps they're not used to young women starting businesses. Perhaps they're just not friendly, afraid I could create more work for them. I could continue to guess, but it's useless.

Rather than detail the whole of my experience, suffice it to say that it was demoralizing and demotivating. The inspiration dripped out from me as I wandered slowly to my car in the midday summer heat. My application had been rejected by a young office worker who needed additional documentation. Documentation that would be impossible for a startup to attain without significant funding. An hour drive in traffic to get there, 60 shekels for parking, and an hour drive back home.

So where do I go from here? I feel lost and a bit stuck. Do I continue to move forward, to attempt to get everything together so that I can get this license, be under the scrutiny of an unkind government office, and pay ungodly amounts of money just to maintain the license. Do I hire someone in the US to run the business from there, while I manage from here? Or do I change completely? Start something new, something more creative but related to what I was doing. Something that doesn't require a tremendous amount of oversight and out-of-pocket expenses to get started.

It's very hard to make a decision like this when it's tied so closely to me. It's a concept I've spent the last few years perfecting, building a client base, creating lasting relationships with wonderful organizations that are doing amazing things for the world. It's a business that I have built from the ground up that I'm very proud of - even if we aren't selling a million dollars worth of product every year ... yet! It may very well be the only concrete thing, aside from my daughter, that I've created and placed in the world.

So back to my thoughts in class. I'm new to this country, but I am a proud citizen. I want to give back much more than I take. Like learning Hebrew, nothing comes so easy here. It seems to take time, plenty of persistence, and the ability to weather embarrassment. But, someday, I plan to be fluent and established here. And when that day comes, I want to be someone that others can approach, who can inspire and help others achieve their dreams here. And perhaps this little bit of kindness and welcoming that I bring to the world will trickle down and affect the other gatekeepers of opportunity.

A lofty couple of goals and a lack of direction today. I spaced back into class and tried to participate. The teacher asked, 'what other verbs can you think of in this format?' I raised my hand and answered incorrectly. The teacher wrote my verb on the board, turned to the class, said the verb, turned back around and wrote a big 'X' over it. The exed-out verb remained there on the board for the rest of class. Yet another shaming, but I can take it. And if I can learn from this, then I will learn from the rest. Someday I will be fluent. Someday I will give back even more.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Har Ha Tayasim | The Pilot's Mountain


For my birthday this past Sunday, we decided to take a hike. We had no idea where to go, and unlike San Francisco where I'd just log onto bahiker.com and find a suitable hike, we had nothing to go by but a trail map of the Jerusalem Forest. So, we found a park in the forest that looked nice, and went. The park was called Har Ha Tayasim, which means "The Pilot's Mountain." We also decided we have to write down where we hike so that we and others can enjoy an English language online guide to nice hikes in Israel.

The mountain is located a thirty minute drive outside of Jerusalem, just past Kibbutz Tsuba on 395. The ride is gorgeous, with sweeping views and cliffs on either side. At the mountain, you can first drive over to a lookout that has an incredible view of the Jerusalem forest and surrounding area, and a nice tree to sit under for a picnic lunch.

There is a groomed park area with walkways made out of Jerusalem stone, a few benches, some shade, and a memorial to the fallen pilots in the War of Independence. We had lunch on the benches in the park because the clean ground was perfect for a baby crawling at our feet.

From the park, you can descend into the valley below via two different trails. One, the blue trail, leads you along a winding dirt road. The other, the black trail, leads you on a steep, narrow path directly down the mountain. Both end up at the base where there is an ancient, well-kept spring and ruins of an overlooking stone home. The area by the spring has flat, grassy fields - another good place for a rest or a picnic.

We took the black trail, and it was really fun. Be forewarned that there is a lot of climbing up and down rock faces. We joked that the trail was a 4.8 in climber's terms. We did it with a baby on our back, so it's not that difficult, but be prepared with the right type of shoes. The blue trail is much easier, but doesn't have the shade and the surrounding greenery that you get on the black trail. Not sure exactly how long the trail was because it went straight down, but probably about a mile down and a mile back up. It took us about a little over an hour round trip.

Next time we hike, I'll remember to take some photos.



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Last minute oatmeal cookies

We host a shiur in our home on Wednesday nights at 8:30pm. Everyone sits on the couches surrounding a coffee table where I usually put out an assortment of snacks - dried fruits, nuts, and always some type of freshly baked good. Today I spent most of my usual time in the kitchen reorganizing and putting the non-Pesach dishes back in their ordinary places. No time for baking, until the very last minute ...

Exactly 15 minutes before the shiur, I decided to make oatmeal cookies despite the fact that we were missing pretty much every key ingredient in all the oatmeal recipes I found online in those last few seconds. Butter, flour, eggs, baking powder, to name a few of my missing ingredients. I figured worst-case scenario they'd turn out like granola. So, I pulled out the ingredients we had, and decided I'd just wing it. Surprisingly, they were delicious. And also ... egg-free, sugar-free, nut-free, gluten-free.

Ingredients:
3.5 cups thick cut oats (chopped in food processor for 60 seconds)
2 tablespoons silan (date honey - could also substitute real honey)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp vanilla extract
1-2 tbsp hazelnut oil (other oils work too)
6 oz raw applesauce
1 cup raisins
1/4 tsp xantham gum

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix the oats, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and vanilla together. Then add silan, oil, applesauce and xantham gum. Add more oil if necessary to get a flaky consistency. Add the raisins. Stir to combine. Roll about a tablespoon of dough between hands and place in muffin tins or on a baking sheet. Bake for 15 mins.

Bon appetit!


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Orange

It wasn't until I moved to Israel that I realized why the Jewish new year is in the fall. Israel, like California, dries up during the hot, rainless summer. The hills turn brown, the plants wither into mangled, leafless bushes, and the earth is grey and dusty. When September comes along, the weather dips just enough to grace the High Holidays with comfortable weather. The cool night wind clears the skies, and makes a dinner outside on the porch finally doable. It's the time of year that inspires us to rummage through our closets for cardigan sweaters and light jackets.

One month after Rosh Hashanah, just as we say the prayer for rain, like heavenly clockwork, the sky opens up and releases its first downfall. The first rains of the year are cool rains that make the steam rise from the heat-locked pavement and the hills pop green grass. The mangled bushes begin to sprout while the small, imported oak trees that line city streets finally decide to drop their yellow-brown leaves onto wet sidewalks. The oak leaves are our only sign of a traditional autumn.

Meanwhile in the States, you know how it goes, the maple trees turn all sorts of beautiful colors while smoke rises from chimneys gracing neighborhoods with that yummy, burnt fragrance. So many leaves fall in so many colors that raking them from the yard becomes an exercise in organizing a Jackson Pollack. The pumpkin picking, the hay rides, the chilly fingers, the steam that billows from your mouth, these are the things that I crave every year when November rolls around. A craving that is rarely satisfied.

I love fall, or at least I love what I remember of fall. Every year my body waits for it to come, and it never does. Living in California and the Middle East will do that to you. The space that was once autumn felt suddenly filled when I had Eliana. With the baby and a wonderful husband, I finally felt complete. In the days after her birth, I considered pushing to name her Stav, which means autumn in Hebrew. She was born in August, and is a peaches-and-cream spring-colored baby. Obviously, the completeness that her existence gave me had nothing to do with fall. Stav is still a pretty name, though.

Instead of reclaiming autumn with my daughter's name, I've resorted to reclaiming autumn with flavors. In California I made roasted kabocha squash and pumpkin curries, in Israel I've turned toward butternut squash. Roasted, pureed, mashed, stuffed, stuffed into other things, stewed, and stir-fried, butternut squash has become my silkier, sweeter replacement for that quintessential fall gourde - the pumpkin. From October through December, at least one dish of every meal I eat is a bright, firey, delicious orange color. Autumn on a plate.

On the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving this year, I cut a butternut squash in half, scooped out the seeds, placed the sides face down on a cooking sheet in a 400 degree oven. I cooked it until the skin bubbled and crackled. I stuffed it with a mixture of millet, sauteed zucchini, apple, fennel, a touch of honey and a few spices. I finished it off with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs and pumpkin seeds, and placed it back in the warm oven so that we could eat it a few hours later for Shabbat dinner.

Eliana had been outside of herself for the whole afternoon, crying and carrying on. We wrapped her up tightly and placed her feisty little body into the bassinette, preparing to take her to synagogue with us just up the street. I put on a black pencil skirt, a tan cardigan, a light belted jacket and a pair of smart, knee length black boots, and we started up the street with our baby girl finally calming down in her stroller. The autumn sky at sunset in Jerusalem is a white-gold color with orange and pink streaks, and the sky that particular evening was perfectly exemplary of its royal evening flush.

About a quarter mile up the road, next to a large construction site, Eliana's eyes finally became heavy, and as peace settled upon our family, we smiled at one another. Another week coming to a peaceful end. At just that very moment, our peace was disrupted.

The sirens began to blast. The eery wail warned us to take cover. Something coming within 60 seconds. Something from the sky. wwwaaaaAAAAAAAaaaaa wwwwaaaaAAAAAaaaaaaa.

For the last five days, hundreds of rockets were fired from Gaza at places like Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and other coastal cities. Sirens constantly blared in those cities, but in far away, inland Jerusalem, the sirens never went off except for annual drills and for Holocaust Remembrance Day.


In that moment, knowing that something was about to fall from the sky, I remembered East Coast thunderstorms. A sudden clap of thunder, forewarning that lightning was coming closer, where it would hit, nobody knew. I was terrified of thunderstorms, and as soon as I heard thunder, ran for cover in our cool, dark basement.

That evening in November, my instincts took hold of me and in my cute black boots, began to book it back to our apartment. My husband grabbed my arm and pulled us by a pile of bricks from the construction site. He positioned Eliana's stroller just behind us, her eyes facing the sky, and we waited. Her stroller no longer moving, she began to cry.

Five, four, three, two, one. BOOM BOOM fffwwwoooooooossssshhhhhhhhhhh. Alllaaaahhhhhhuu Aqbar!!!!!

The rockets were perfectly timed to land just before the Muslim call to prayer. Jerusalem is surrounded by minarets outfitted with loudspeakers and bright green lights. As the cacophony of the dozens of muezzins took over the airspace, we stood up from our corner behind the bricks, and hastened back to the apartment with a hysterical baby. No synagogue tonight.

That night, over stuffed butternut squash, we guessed where the rockets landed, and where they could have possibly been fired from. No ambulance sirens was a good sign not to be nervous, and the conversation quickly turned away from the war. As always, a peaceful Shabbat followed.

The next night we learned that the rockets had, in fact, been fired from Gaza. They landed in an open space next to an Arab village in the West Bank, near Jerusalem.

War was always something that happened far away. Something I could ignore while I paid more attention to things a little closer to home - what I was going to eat at the next meal, whether or not I was going to the gym that day, what my friends were posting on Facebook. Now that Operation Pillar of Defense is long over, the civil war in Syria continues on with dozens of casualties every single day. War is in my backyard, and all my Facebook friends are posting about Stanford winning the Rose Bowl and their New Years resolutions.

If it's close to me, it's close to you. Let's make a new type of resolution this year. Let's resolve to be aware of what's going on in the world and to advocate peace. Peace between each other, and peace between people we don't even know. It's what most of us want anyway, right? Who really wants to wage war but a few power-hungry bureaucrats. The rest of us are the same - dreaming of autumn, spending time with our families, and enjoying the company of one another during our little bits of time on earth.


Monday, July 9, 2012

Pregnant in Jerusalem

I'm 36 weeks and 5 days pregnant. Aside from not being able to run much, not having a flat belly, and not being able to wear my favorite jeans, I feel pretty much like the same person I was nine months ago. The fear of taking care of a baby is overshadowed by the impending doom of labor and a two-night stay in a foreign hospital.

In fact, it's not really the labor part that scares me. It's the foreign part. And really, it shouldn't scare me at all. I've been pregnant in a foreign country for nine months already. Practically all I know of life in Israel comes from a pregnant perspective. So now I'll share that perspective with you.

Starting with my expectations. When an American woman gets pregnant, she thinks about a few things that will happen during her pregnancy - friends getting really excited for her, a baby shower, fun prenatal clothing shopping at various specialty stores, putting the nursery together, strangers politely not saying anything about her growing belly, and a simple birth with an epidural and a tv monitor overhead running the latest movies. This is how I thought it would all go.

Here's how it actually went. First trimester doesn't count because I spent most of it inside, eating plain crackers, and lying on my couch. When the second trimester came, I popped pretty quick. With the baby belly in plain view, I would go to friends' houses for dinners and they would politely pretend they didn't notice the bump and offer me wine. Like a rehearsed dance, I'd politely refuse the wine and thank them, asking for juice instead. Still no comment.

Though I was done with the first trimester, I never felt comfortable talking about my pregnancy or relaying the fact that I was pregnant to anyone except close family and a few friends. People have different traditions here regarding pregnancy - some people wait until they're six months pregnant to talk about it with others, others are open about it after the first trimester. Generally, though, people stay pretty mum about the pregnancy until about 5-6 months. The purpose is to avoid the "ayin harah" or the "evil eye."  Same reason that people don't have baby showers before the birth or begin building a nursery in their homes. Everything waits until the baby is here, safely.

And then I reached that 5-6 month mark and all of a sudden the barrage of comments started coming. First my ulpan teacher asked me in front of the entire class if I was open to telling everyone that I was pregnant, because I obviously was. Then my other ulpan teacher incessantly began asking me how I felt. Again, in front of the entire class. People started to get up from their seats for me on the bus. Things were still a little lowkey at this point.

At the end of my sixth month, though, I started to notice a strange phenomenon. Men were commenting on my belly. The first one to do it was the middle-aged Sephardi manager at our local post office. As I dropped a letter into his hands to be mailed to the US, he pointed at my soccer-ball belly and said, "That is beautiful. Really beautiful." I was taken aback, and responded with a quick thanks and mentioned that I thought it was huge. "No, it's beautiful," he said.

For the next couple of months, the only people to comment on my pregnancy were men! Middle-aged men, not old, grandfatherly types. Most wanted to guess the gender or my due date. Some wanted to thank me for adding a child to their nation. Once, when I was looking at an apartment with my husband, the owner of the apartment began a conversation with me by guessing the gender of the baby, then continuing to talk directly and only to me about life, his wonderful memories of San Francisco and his dreams for the future. For about 20 minutes this went on while I was standing holding my husband's hand. Despite my bump and my husband on hand, I honestly think the guy was flirting with me.

After those couple of months, I concluded that men in Israel are fascinated by pregnancy. That they think it's beautiful. This came as a welcome surprise.

Then the eighth and ninth month came along. I carry very forward, so I look like I'm ready to pop. This is when the men stopped commenting, and the women began. Some gently patted my belly while casually walking by, saying something like, "In good time." Others tell me not to worry. One woman at the natural foods market reminded me that I should be practicing for labor. Then she gave me samples of creams I could put on my baby. Other women didn't say anything, but smiled at me reassuringly as I walked past. As if to say, 'don't worry, it's going to be fine.'

This army of women, I feel, sees my impending labor, my impending induction into the world of motherhood. From their angle, they feel a little sorry for me, perhaps a little nervous. It reminds me of high school, when I would run a race, finish it, recover, and then wish the next girls luck before they stepped on the starting line. My stomach would jump with butterflies while I reassured them that if they relaxed and did everything they practiced, they'd be fine.

In the end, I didn't have the baby shower, the friends ooing and ahhing over my belly, the pre-designed nursery, the polite silence of strangers in public, or the assurance that I'd have an epidural and a tv set in the hospital. Instead, I got to follow an ancient tradition of keeping my own secret for as long as I felt comfortable, of not bringing baby stuff into my life before the actual baby arrived, and most importantly, feeling that despite being around strangers, I was still amongst a group of people who genuinely appreciated, respected, and felt excited about my pregnancy, too.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Israel and the Continental Divide

At the European Lacrosse Championships in Amsterdam, the Israel team made it to the quarterfinals. The previous game was a huge upset win against Wales. Wales had been ranked 8th as of the year before. Also, it was rumored that Wales led the charge in trying to keep Israel out of the European league. It was a sweet victory.

After that win, I felt so proud of our team and of Israel. They'd really proven themselves and their country, and earned a well-ranked spot in the European league. I sat in the stands for the quarterfinal match between Israel and the Netherlands feeling full of patriotism for my country. They played Hatikvah and I stood and sang the words, then they played Holland's national anthem and I stood for that, too. I was that gloating, pregnant wife.

I spread myself and my lunch out on a bench at the sidelines, hoping that no one would come sit directly next to me so I could stretch out if my back started to hurt. There were plenty of benches and seating when the game began. After the first quarter, though, the area was full of screaming orange-clad fans. The spot that my cheese sandwich filled was the last resting place available. Soon enough, a very tall, very Dutch sixty-something mother came and pushed it aside, replacing it with her derrier. "I hope you don't mind," she said after affixing her seated position so that we were thigh-to-thigh.

On its home turf with a throng of fans dressed in electric orange, the Netherlands played extremely well. They were an excellent team, and as I watched them play, it was obvious that they had the full package - a great offense, a great defense, and a great goalie. To be fair, the Israeli team had only been playing with one another for a few weeks prior to the tournament. Israel trailed behind, but managed to score a few goals.

Somewhere in the third quarter when the score was about 12-3, the Dutch woman on my thigh turned to me and said, "Can you please tell me why Israel is in the European league?" I responded that Israel and much of the Middle East is on the continental divide. That it's sort of like Russia - part Europe, part Asia. She looked at me aghast. "I certainly never heard that. Tell me, why isn't Israel part of the EU then?"

At this point, I probably should have pointed out that Switzerland isn't in the EU either, though no one seems to question its position as a European country. Rather, I shrugged, and let the Jewish grandmother on the neighboring bench chime in, "No, Israel isn't part of the EU because it can manage its own economy quite well." End of conversation.

I saw the lady pointing at me while talking to other Dutch parents from afar a few times after the game was over. I didn't completely know if my answer had been correct yet, but frankly, I thought it totally inappropriate of her to ask me, an obvious Israel fan, such a question after Israel had been successfully participating in the tournament for the previous ten days. In fact, I was offended by it. Of course we're part of the European league. And while I'm at it, yes we're a country, and no matter how many goals your son's lacrosse team scores on us, we're not going anywhere.

I looked it up a few days later. Apparently Israel isn't on the continental divide between Europe, Asia and Africa. Though it's very close to being so. Geographically, Israel is located in Asia. Socially, Israel is considered part of Europe. So, when it comes to sports, Israel is included in European leagues and tournaments.

Does this mean I eat my words and that the woman was right to question? Or, does it still mean that despite all of that, the woman should have never asked me. That the asking of the question was one of those anti-Zionist inspired moments? I guess I'll never know, but something still doesn't sit right with me about it. To be honest, I think her motivation might have stemmed from a little bit of both.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Traveling and then going home

To me, the best traveler is the person who can go anywhere and ensconce themselves so deeply into their surroundings that they can easily imagine settling down and living in the alien land. That person was me. Until about two days ago. Everywhere I went, I hung on to every detail of the foreign life I could live there. Imagining myself waking up in the mornings, walking down the picturesque streets, catching the various forms of public transportation to my job, lunching at the local cafes, partying with friends at the city/town/village's expansive nightlife, and taking day trips to the sites that dotted the outskirts of wherever I happened to be.

This yearning to live wherever I happened to travel brought me to live in some of the most interesting and exciting places in the world - Shanghai, Beijing, San Francisco, Jerusalem. Over time, though, the feeling of needing to live where I wasn't began to make me feel extremely unsettled. I imagined life in Kauai, Portland, Boulder, Burlington, Berlin, Charlottesville, New Orleans, and essentially anywhere I traveled. Returning home to wherever I happened to be living at the time brought with it a feeling of unease for giving up on an exciting new life full of possibility.


I spent the last ten days Amsterdam, a city touted as one of the most open, diverse, and sophisticated cities in Europe. Its streets are clean, historic, and lined with the most elegant sites - canals, houseboats, handsome multistory row houses, open-air cafes, tall blondes on bikes, flower shops, and museums galore. The city has a vibe of calm prosperity and order. It's the type of city that would have me endlessly daydreaming of my life as a Dutch resident as I wandered Amsterdam's streets for those ten long days.

But something was different this time. I managed to observe Amsterdam as a settled outsider. I enjoyed everything as a passerby might, knowing that the ten days would soon end. I had the things I wanted to do, the places I wanted to go, the delicacies I wanted to eat all lined up and went through them one by one. Visiting the Van Gogh Museum, getting lost in the Jordaan, dipping a fresh croissant in steamy hot chocolate, and riding a tour boat along the canals were among some of the
 highlights. And as the time wore on and the trip began to come to a close, I longed for Israel again.

I missed the shuk, the streets teeming with emotionally charged people from all over the world, our Prius, our beautiful spacious apartment, the cool evening breeze, the pool up the street, the feeling of being amongst family, the idea that simply living where I'm living has a meaning of its own. Essentially, I missed home.

Returning to Israel with a renewed sense of respect for where I live and what I'm doing here was the most valuable experience of this trip to the Netherlands. Back at home on my couch, sipping homemade hot chocolate, overlooking the wide valley that snakes beyond our veranda, through the hills and off to the Dead Sea, I feel very much at peace.