Thursday, December 3, 2015

The tension of terrorism.

The modern age has enhanced another dichotomy between living your life and living in the world. I can’t be totally aware of the news and be totally mindful of my surroundings. I can choose to be informed or I can prefer a narrower consciousness of my actions and environment. The polarity between global awareness and self-awareness leads to a messy dance between two important values. Both emotional, intense, and true… how can I choose between my studies and my society? How can the contrast between the news and the reality that reflects in my vision feel so clashing? I take a breath and try to lock out current events from my mind. I need to be in my world right now. I need to get through this class and go to my friend’s wedding.

I’m sitting in the middle row, translating legal terms and attempting to catch the explanations of contractual law. Twelve miles away from me, in Tel Aviv, a Palestinian man murders two Jewish men on their way to pray in the synagogue. The killer, Mahmoud, was employed by a Tel Aviv restaurant and now hears the pride of his community in his act of honor. I force my attention back to my professor. Wait, one of the victims was a Rabbi. I close my eyes and pray that this is all not happening. I try to zoom my awareness back to my classroom. My heavy heart doesn’t allow my internal processing to focus. I look over at other students, witnessing half the class distracted by their phones, checking the news. Then I hear about the 18-year-old gap-year student from Sharon, MA that was murdered while delivering snacks to soldiers, on the way with his friends to visit the park made in the memory of the three Israeli teens kidnapped and killed last summer. The battle between my realm of senses and the realm of news is over. I’m always overwhelmed that the best are killed. It’s always people that are living to the fullest that be get their lives cut short. The students are standing and I catch on that the class is over. I run to get ready for the wedding.

The joy of weddings is the ultimate joy. It’s the love between two; but even more so, the love of their community and the love for the future. It’s close connections celebrating the promise for the future. The anticipation for the moment for when they are married, that’s the tingles and smiles. The hugs and blessings, the singing and dancing, our attention is on the couple. But then we hear that another victim was identified as Rabbi Yaakov Don, a father of four and teacher of thousands. He lived so honestly, inspiring others to appreciate the challenges of living in Israel and become part of the solution. The wedding chuppah is starting. Joking, smiling, laughing, crying. My senses are returning to the moment here. They are a beautiful couple, glowing in excitement. He sings to her as she walks down the isle. The people of Israel are continuing to live fervently. 

The stories I hear about Ezra Schwartz z”l, the 18-year-old yeshiva student, describe him as a caring, inspiring and silly. He was a wonderful camp counselor, relating to shy campers and helping them conquer their fears. He improved the world by being himself, by believing in his role in the world. He was passionate about Israel and excited to be here for a year. Delivering food packages to soldiers was just one example of how he thought about others and turned it into actions. 

I’m dancing at the wedding with a full heart. The pain outside of this hall is still part of me but my senses are my therapy. My joy is the answer I have to the heartache of terrorism. Every terror attack plays a mean game of “why do bad things happen to good people?” and I hate that it’s always the best of my nation that doesn’t get enough time to finish their role. I guess its just what Jews are doing in their lives. There is no way that terrorists are only going after just the people doing acts of kindness. It is probably random. Which means that a random sample survey is proving that there’s a lot more goodness than what I initially expect. 

Just like dancing at a wedding, our roles aren’t just in the smiles, but welcoming the couple to their marriage. The nation of Israel is in a marriage together, with our land. We dance and sing and cry, sometimes all at the same time. Friday I wake up to the news that Jonathan Pollard is finally released. Saturday, four Israelis are stabbed in Kiryat Gat. Saturday night, walking to the Western Wall, I join an enormous group of gap-year students singing in a circle and sharing stories about Ezra. Our marriage, whether in front of my eyes or on the screen of my phone, is part of my existence. I read on the news that Mahmoud Abbas admits that he rejected an Israeli offer for a Palestinian state of 99.55 of the West Bank. I exhale the frustration of two nations with so much in common but no way to communicate past our differences.

Then 21-year-old Hadar Buchris on her way to studying stabbed to death at a bus stop and  20-year Ziv Mizrahi at a gas station. I shut my eyes and allow myself a minute before getting back to my writing assignment. I allow myself this and then tear myself away from emotions to continue the tasks for the day. Last night I had another friend’s wedding. Tonight is Sara and Ariel’s wedding. Her father and brother were killed by terrorists two weeks ago. Regardless of events that will unfold today, I will be there dancing along with thousands of others. I hear that my family friends have made it to Israel and I smile, knowing that coming to Israel exactly at this moment is the perfect thing to do. Visiting Israel is dancing at our national wedding. They are rearranging the dichotomy for the interest of honesty, bringing their environment to their national environment, just like Ezra did. They are taking ownership of the contrast and transforming it into joy. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Huts can be durable.

It's confusing to love something dangerous. It's overwhelming to be so certain that as a Jew, Israel is my home and yet so pained by the wars that arrive to my doorstep every season. The hostilities between neighboring nations rip apart worlds in the tradition of hatred. The distance wedged in between us, ancient cousins instead of reaching out across this little strip of land perpetuates the accessibility to animosity. The damage is our reality. 

Two weeks ago, shopping with a friend in Jerusalem, my phone buzzes. I read the news that two parents were murdered with their children in the backseat and I wince from the ache in my chest. Later my phone relays the message from my school that this is the son and daughter-in-law of our beloved Rabbi and Rabbanit Henkin and the ache in my heart erupts in pain. My mind instantly races between imagining them receiving the news, about the four children witnessing the indescribable trauma and the warped theological crisis that I'm holding in my hands. My brain just can't wrap around the hypocrisy that these spiritual leaders now exist only in memories. It's a cry of frustration, of sadness, of torture. It's feeling helpless and embarrassed that this is the world that we live in. It's the paradox of all this happening during the holiday of Sukkot, when it's commanded to be happy. 
Sukkot, my favorite Jewish holiday, celebrates our love of G-d. After the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, we leave our homes for a week to just be in His presence, to just sit under the palm frond roof and elevate time with the holiness of family. The huts we Jews sit in remind us of the 40 years lead by G-d in the desert on the way to the Land of Israel. We were dependent on Him to show us the way to walk. Perfectly planned for harvest season, this holiday shakes its head to pride of material belongings and hugs us into an understanding of our humanness, of our lack of control in this world. 

As I join my nation tormented and grieving, my shambled pain transforms into the conviction that Rabbi Eitam and Na’ama Henkin were murdered during this holiday that embodies how they lived. They were brilliant thinkers. EItam was expected to become a leader in Jewish law as well as historical matters, bringing together religious educators with academia. Na’ama was an incredibly talented artist and poet, a creative graphic design entrepreneur as well as leader in their community and teacher of Torah. They harvested stalks and fields of accomplishments, miles and miles of expertise and inventive vision. They produced radiant children and gathered remarkable joy in their relationship with the world. And with all this success, they teach us that although our physical time in this world is temporary, the heaps of powerful living continues to bring forth fruit.
Just like the Sukkah, the temporary hut, our lives are about integrity. Vulnerable, yet built mindfully, our bodies and our Sukkot have the opportunity to create worlds of elevated time. Eitam and Na’ama will continue to live on through their children and through their accomplishments. If the terrorists were planning on shaking our identity, they were doomed to start. Eitan and Na’ama are going to continue living through stories and memories. Sitting at Shiva, the weeklong intense start of the mourning process, people from all walks of life come to grieve with Rabbi and Rabbanit Henkin. Jews, non-Jews, religious, non-religious… the room is packed in with voices and tributes and tears and so, so much strength. The weak walls of the Sukkah aren’t as fragile as expected. 

The smile on Rabbanit Henkin is a constant. Her eyes twinkle with every expression and every word is formed in between an ever-expanding grin. Sitting where no parent should ever sit, she asks directly compelling questions to visitors, welcoming stories and remarks, supplying fortitude to all that came to give strength. Other parents of terror attacks contribute words of support. “It gets better.” The crying baby in my arms will never know her uncle and aunt and the four children confused by the sudden pizza and sweets will be the proof that actions of terror simply don’t work on us. 

Claiming that the Oslo Accords are not applicable anymore won’t change reality, and to affirm to violence is childish. To profess nobility in knife attacks, stone throwing and shooting does not prove that one’s case is right. It proves the case to be lacking in humanity. As I look around the room to see how my nation mourns, I am filled with the honor of being a member of this family, that these are our traditions. I do not hate Palestinians. I feel sympathy for their political and humanitarian plight. I feel contempt for some of their actions that end up speaking for the masses. I feel hurt by our lack of coexistence and the fact that one of us is always pinning the other as inhuman. I sign in heartache. 

We can’t even take a breath of response to one act of terrorism before the next one hits the news. The pattern of horrible news every few hours is throbbing with bitterness. I sigh in relief reading the news that it was "just" an attempted suicide bombing. We can breathe out only when the stabbings are “just wounds” and not fatal. Every step in a public area has to be of caution. The sunny days tease us from the heavy atmosphere of carrying on with life. The nation of Israel is answering back with self-defense classes and pepper spray clenched in preparation. We are waving Israeli flags and baking cakes for policemen. We are going to weddings and bars, going shopping and volunteering. Life continues. Harvesting my resolution to find comfort in a world out of my control, I am blessed for the non-material and material fortune surrounding me. That I am still and always will be in a temporary hut that is fortified by traditions of warmth. Together, focusing on the lives of the individuals in our family, we will strike back with persistence to live. We will continue to believe in the fruition of the temporary.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

It was just a blink.

My 93-year-old neighbor kisses me on the cheek and blesses me to take care of myself. His faded blue eyes lock into mine. His voice softened by surviving the Holocaust, sweating in the factories, establishing a family and handing out smiles to everyone he meets...his words tug at my heart. He reminds me once more to put on socks because my feet will get cold only wearing sandals. Words such as appreciate and love and take care tumble out of my mouth, attempting an appropriate goodbye. I blink back tears and giggle uncomfortably, knowing how much I'm going to miss moments like this in Haifa. 

Shelach (של״ח) stands as an acronym for שדה, לאום, חברה (field, nation, society) but many teachers in Shelach frequently divide it into שיעור לחיים (lesson for life). Working with teachers and students in special education schools, religious, secular, and boarding schools for youth at risk, I learned much more that I ever taught. I took groups all around the country teaching them about history, geography, and the importance of caring for the environment, with the intention of cultivating their appreciation for living here in Israel. They took me to views of fascinating questions, pop music, hilarious stories and pride in being Israeli, teaching me about patience, diversity and tenacity. I took them to see water in the middle of the desert and they took me to see selfhood in the middle of peer-pressure. I took them to historic places, playing out the stories from the Tanach to help them relate. They took me to their favorite hummus restaurant, playing cards on the table while we wait. I led leadership seminars and weekly outdoor training programs. They led dance parties and group cheers. Forming bonds with these students developed my understanding of the variance of diversity in Israel. Forming bonds with them developed me as part of the diversity. 

I grab a few boxes outside of Rambam, the center for religious life in Neve Shaanan, Haifa. On Thursdays, the high school students distribute food to families facing hunger throughout Haifa. I stop by my adopted family to steal a few hugs and an apple. I hand them a thank you letter and gift for all the lessons and Shabbatot they have provided and apologize for any errors in my Hebrew. Twelve eyes on me as the acknowledgment is read. Hedva shakes her head. Not one error. I blink and giggle. She tells me how much I have given to them, inspired them and transformed them as a family, that this family and this home will always be open to me. A pause. A blink. "So when are you coming to visit us again already?" 

I blink and giggle saying bye to some of the Shelach teachers. I blink and giggle because it's impossible to share my appreciation for the pearls and gems they have filled my pockets with. I blink and giggle because it's unfeasible to look them in the eye and say that they have shaped me, that they have deeply impacted me. I blink and giggle because they joke about how Talya could sell her soul to study law and then with a smile tell me how proud they are that I exist and if only there were more of me in the world. I blink and giggle saying that I wouldn't have been able to do anything this year without their help and deeply appreciate their assistance writing up my touring material. I blink and giggle quickly saying "tov, yallah, todah." 

Haifa has stolen my heart. Haifa snatched my heart up when I was checking out at the supermarket and the Arab cashier prohibited me from buying the more expensive yogurt when there was a sale on the other brand. Haifa took my heart during one of her sunsets on the Mediterranean talking with Limor. Haifa swiped it when tutoring Nina in English and hearing her stories from the Soviet Union. Listening to her fire blaze as her smiling eyes relive her childhood memories and frown into darkness describing the circumstances under communism. One day she blinks and tells me that she's "getting used to me." Another time she mentions that she's never heard anyone speak about Judaism the way I do. So by the time I have to wave goodbye to Haifa and my weekly lessons with Nina, I just can't stop blinking. 

My roommate Chen and I discuss an alternate universe where we don't meet or we don't share the same room. The sand falling through my fingers and the waves tickling my toes find this hard to believe. It's just all too whole, too pure and too lovely to feel random. It's just too stubbornly passionate to fall into a folder of one of the many options. I blink telling Chen how this is just the beginning of our friendship but I blink again grinding my teeth that this is the end of an era. The grand finale of my two years of Sherut Leumi. The closing scene of the beautiful novel I just don't want to put down. My free bus pass is about to expire. My bags are packed. These two years were my whole life and in a blink, they take a bow. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

There needs to be more color.

I'm in Liberty Park, Jerusalem. I'm feeling embarrassed to be a religious Jew. It's an uneasy feeling to exist in the most spiritual city in the world, the most Jewish place in the world, and feel so pained, so heartbroken by the identity I hold. The full moon reminds me that tomorrow is Tu’ B Av, the holiday of love and rebirth. A few hours ago, six marchers in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade were stabbed by a fellow brother, an ultra-religious Jew protesting the celebration of gay love. No more than four days after we mourn the destruction of our Temple, the destruction of our unity, we prove that we are stubbornly opposed to learning our lesson. We go out of our way to hate instead of love as we are commanded to do. And then we take this hatred and pierce in violence. And then we displace the blame and continue the cycle. And then we sit at a family reunion and refuse to speak to each other. And our children won't even look each other in the eyes, let alone attend the reunion. 

The Hebrew word "Ravgoni" perfectly means colorful as well as varied. The rainbow flags frame the streets of Keren Hayesod. The painting itself is of young individuals in relatively modest attire. Colorful stickers of "Love others as yourself" and "ahavah" strut around while rainbow flags wave back and forth. Very, very colorful indeed. I look around in search of the varied and dumbfounded, I can only count four kippot and three skirts. I scan the political signs only finding Meretz and Joint Arab List. I watch the teens of Lehava, the extreme anti-Jewish connections with non-Jews group, protesting the march and whimper, discouraged by the lessons we are teaching our children. Who decided that homosexual sex is the main sin in the Torah and merits a death-match? 

I browse through the narrow range of ages and even slimmer variation of nationalities. The beat of the drums carry me along as I pray that it's not just the classic flamboyant person cheering on friends. Where's the variation to this rainbow? Where's the Likud and Beyit Hayehudi kippot srugot next to the elderly same-sex couple? Where's the random observer on the street corner joining in? Where are the Christians and Muslims and Druzim? Where are the Sfardim and Ethopians and Yeminites? Where's the diversity of our family celebrating the idea that we are all created in His image?

The parade feeds into a rally of spoken word poetry and demands to be accepted.... The only problem is that the audience already agrees. The leaders of the secular youth group share their coming out stories and receive applause from others who have done the same. But wouldn't it be interesting to share those stories to others who haven’t experienced it? Wouldn't it be nice for Bnei Akiva leaders to wave rainbow Israeli flags and hear these siblings that never were introduced at the family reunion? I imagine the dream of variation in the colorful assembly. 

I sigh in relief when Rav Benny Lau is called to the microphone. Whispers beside me mention that this is the first time that they have even seen a Rabbi at a Pride Parade. His speech is one of apology. He apologizes on behalf of the people of the Torah for the hideous attack. He expresses his regret for the repulsive actions. He shares his appreciation of the togetherness and ceaseless strength of the Pride community and cheers on their unrelenting love for one another. Next on the stage is Yesh Atid member, Zehorit Sorek, a religious lesbian who tells everyone how proud she is to be here. Only later after googling her, do I learn of her amazing strides in advancement of the Orthodox-gay community. Why isn’t the secular crowd told of Havruta, an organization for Orthodox gay men and Bar Kol, for religious lesbians? Why don’t I see JGY signs, and international organization for supporting LGBT Jews? How beautiful would it be for The Pride Minyan to share a Teffiah or the Orthodox LGBT youth groups to share their existence? 

I check the news to see is there is any news about the victim’s status post surgery. My heart drops reading that the 17-year-old girl is in critical condition and I see photos of the suspected perpetrator, matching the looks of the man who stabbed three marchers in 2005.  He was just released from jail three weeks ago and after declaring his obligation to stop this march just days ago, I can’t believe the police didn’t stop him from running into the parade. He was able to stab six people, one at a time before being tackled to the ground. Why couldn’t we stop him sooner? Why is everyone now condemning this action like that’s enough?

There’s so much blame to place and faults to recognize. Jerusalem Municipality should have granted a larger budget for the mostly privately-funded parade. The police should have prevented or at least halted this incursion. Lehava, the extreme anti-Jewish connections with non-Jews group needs to focus on loving all Jews. The Religious should have showed more support. The secular should have been more inclusive. The Right-wing parties should have made an appearance. The list of condemnations on this pre-Tu B’ Av parade beckons me to reassess my goals in blaming. “Ravgoni” is kind of like a kaleidoscope. Twisting around the polychromatic cylinder, I watch the light come through. Every movement of my touch changes the arrangement completely. Same colors, different depiction. Same colors, new outlook. Swiveling the kaleidoscope, I can see the need for improvements while still appreciating steps it will take to arrive. I turn my perspective from embarrassment to involvement. I rotate my view from pain to planning, pledging that next year’s Pride Parade will look a little more varied, a little more Jewishly diverse, and a lot more honorable of representing the beautifully strong community of Pride.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Tents are mounted.

I can complain a lot about Israeli teens. Annoying. Self centered. Materialistic. Obnoxious. They thread a yarn of frustrating moments and exhaustion into every hike, forcing my voice to rise above my cheerful volume. They pull the yarn tighter, making fun of my accent and complaining about the heat. They talk back most of the time, believing fully that they always know what's right. They are the youth of Israel. 

They do all this but also string on some golden beads of character. They kiss the mezuzah, talk about Shabbat plans, and ask me when I'm going to get married already. They always help unpacking the bus and offer their hand to one another on challenging uphills. They sing and dance and make up cheers. They ask deep questions and might even get goosebumps singing Hatikvah. They take kosher bites of food and discuss after-school clubs and minimum-wage jobs. They are the future of Israel. 

Then there are the M'shatzim (Madrich Shelach Tzaer), the high school leaders connecting schools to trails, connecting adolescence to responsibility. Tour guiding, leading courses and teaching outdoors skills, these 9th-12th graders bring tears to my eyes with their love for one another and the world. They give and give and give until their voice sounds hoarse and their hands are covered in bandages. They plan and execute activities, focusing on the path of improvement. They are the leaders of Israel.

Within these clusters of teens, there are always the voices of individuals who speak up. A 10th grader organizing a fundraiser for at-risk teens, entering an international start-up competition, organizing a group of friends to hike a section of the Israel Trail...these are the regular sparks beaming off from the tradition of initiative. I walk away from leading the two-week outdoors course for M'shatzim exhausted but deeply inspired. I call upon these teens to climb up even higher, demand them to arrive at specific times, to trust me when I do this all for their benefit... all while they sleep in their fragile, handmade tents. Being responsible for kids five years younger than me, I make a strong stance that I am representing the authority of the head of the course and everything I say is with his agreement. It's all from the breathtaking teachers, mostly secular, giving thanks to Hashem and honoring the chain of our nation. It's with love and belief that the teens are capable. That's what fires the growth in this journey. 

I am standing with the 750 M'shatzim of the Haifa Region at the Kotel, in rows of three with hands behind our back. The yarn is now glistening. The 16-year-old leader screams "2,3" and the voices around me answer back "Hakshev" (aka attention). Shivers rise on everyone's arms. "2,3", "Hakshev," and the Kotel echoes back to us. More shivers. The Kotel begins this dialogue with us. We answer back a pledge of commitment to all that Shelach stands for. We sing Hatikvah and the tourists surrounding us join in. Someone taps me on the shoulder and in his heavy American accent asks me if I speak English. I smile and ask how he could tell. He introduces himself and his wife, visiting from Washington DC and asks me what's going on here. I tell them that this is a course for Israeli teens to become tour guides in their schools. He shakes his head in amazement, "I was just saying, I hope we see Israeli ruach when we go to the Kotel. Like this wouldn't happen in America. This is just so Israeli, so much ruach." 

Being part of something bigger inspires the individual to keep expanding past original limitations. Being part of something bigger taps me on the should and whispers into my ear that I am making my hours count. Being part of something bigger allows my dreams to become plans and my wishes to become the future. Being part of this means I care about it more. It's part of me more. It's building me just as I'm building it. A few students tell me how much I have changed them. I think about the big speeches and the small moments, the frustrating lacks of judgment and the hilarious jokes... All this now part of me. I hug each one of them tightly and say, "No, you've changed me."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

It's a diverse family.

"Yallah, help each other out!" My shouts to the 9th graders as we descend into the current get lost over their high-pitched screams. Here in the Lower Galil, we leave our tents in the morning to stop by the Crusaders' fortress on our way to the old hydro-powered flour mill. They belt the Israeli song from the EuroVison Competition- Golden Boy- a Mizrachi infused, English dance song... "I'm dah king of fun.."

We enter Nachal Ziv, walking upstream, knees deep. The three Ethiopian Jewish girls grouped together grasp each other's arms for support. The Muslim Arab boy jumps along, cracking jokes. The Iranian Jewish boy and the Russian Jewish girl giggle in flirtation as he lends her a hand. The Moroccan Jewish girl starts a water fight with her best friend, a Syrian Jewish girl. The Polish Jewish teacher yells at them to be careful and I join in warning them right as I slip on the algae covered rocked beneath me. All the students behind me burst into laughter and soon the hike continues.

The music of the water pushing past us becomes the soundtrack as we gain momentum. Our knees become more banged and scratched as we literally fall into each other over and over again. Two of the Ethiopian Jewish girls help a Russian Jewish girl cross a deep section and a minute later "Golden Boy" makes another appearance. Sometimes walking upstream feels a lot more like going with the flow. 

The tadpoles swim around us and the sun sprinkles through the canopy of different textured trees. The fig tree reminds me of Adam and Chava's first fashion experiment and the blue dragonflies whisper around me. I meditate on the cold water between my toes and throw my well-freckled arms up to the sky to absorb even more of this moment. 

Speaking with Emma about diversity, we nod in agreement that it's human nature to fear what we don't know. If we block ourselves off from the outside world, the universe becomes a lot more scary. If we don't bond with other nations and ethnicities, we lose out on friendships and support when being attacked. Being part of the modern world demands us to actively belong to the world. And that means that we have to know what we add to the collage of diversity. We need to understand our family. We have so many colors and cultures and languages. We have so many different customs and styles and struggles. We are unique siblings in a very contrasting family; a problem and a solution in itself. As the Ethiopian population voices their cries for more equality, they shed a layer of being refugees, just like the Sephardim did in the 70's during their protests. We are making progress moving upstream. 

The river leads us to a pool, and as we jump in for the ultimate water fight, we celebrate the struggle to arrive. "Let me show you how we do it! I'm a golden boy..." Some kids try to push each other down into the water. Some are on another's shoulders. One of my students jump on me and another one whines, asking me how much longer. Not all siblings enjoy the same event equally. The Arab boy swims over to join  us as we grab another teacher into the pool. Sometimes it feels like the stream is carrying us all together. As we dry off and toss on our hiking boots, we prepare for the tough uphill still ahead of us. There's always more uphill. 

We climb the mountain, speaking in the silent language of heavy breaths. The sun bakes down on us and our once soaking clothes have now completely dried. The slippery algae that once questioned our balance is now steep rocks. The water battling us is now gravity pulling us down. The water is now the lack of and the rushing sounds are now ones of birds chirping. It's another chapter of the same journey. It's an assortment of opportunity. It's a new grind that's equally fascinating. The movement is still enthralling. The history is all the more magnetic. And the action, that's the inspiration for it all. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The sirens of memory.

I am sitting next to my roommate in the Holocaust Research Institute in Haifa. It's just a 10 minute walk away from my apartment; but in this library, in this underground cave of history, in this computer and book-lined room of documentation, I am so far away from the comforts of my sunny room. Once ashamed of the Holocaust, dumbfounded and then obsessed, I now sit here totally mindful of the fact that it's 2015 and the Kristalnacht is viewed as a day in history. These dust-covered history books about the events of Hitler's rein mock my ignorance of my people's pain. I try to picture it. I imagine myself back in Berkinhau on my Poland trip two years ago. I knock my forehead against the table attempting to shove the memories into focus. I reread my journal from my Poland trip. Reading about the thick smells of the cattle car. The story of Jean, the lone surviver of her family and grandmother of my friend. Praying the afternoon Mincha services in the Warsaw cemetery. The sewer covers with small stars of David, marking the underground escape path from the ghetto. I squint trying to decipher my hurried handwriting recording my chilling excitement inspired by heroic stories. The pages totally fangirling on Yanish Korchak and his righteousness and on his unconditional love he gave to all these children that he saved. I turn a few pages and my eyes drown in sorrow.
I am proud of my connection to the Holocaust. I am 100% certain that I personally won’t forget. Nevertheless, Holocaust Remembrance Day is feeling like a solitary event reminder that toggles the refresher in my digital memory. How can it become just a notification on our screens? A blink of recognition before going back to our routine. Is it just a day my Facebook wall takes some time off from Coachella photos?
I turn a few pages in my orange and teal notebook. How did we allow this to happen? How did we willingly walk into the ghettos? Vicky Berglas’s answer is quoted in my pen. “It felt like independence to the Jews.” We were so desperate for independence that the illusion of autonomy in the ghetto trapped us into acquiescing.
Yom HaShoa is the anchor to our chain. It’s the siren that brings us back to the ship, united and fully aware of our vulnerable indestructibility. It’s the number counting, storytelling, generational tie to our painful survival. It’s the snowy walk through Treblinka and the flag of Israel wrapping around our shoulders. It’s Joe’s story that I share, remembering his eyes fighting the grief of being the only survivor of his town. It’s the grandchildren wearing IDF uniforms. It’s our nation crying together. It’s our nation fighting to stop Iran from continuing Hitler’s plans. It’s our same necessity to be independent. It’s my blue eyes and light colored hair screaming that I am a Jew. I am the Jew that wants to go back in time to whisper to my people to fight and scream at the silent endorsements of the world. Why does remembering feel so passive?
When the Holocaust ended, when we lost a third of our people, when we were liberated from the the death camps and shoved back into reality, we started building. We initiated that drive for autonomy of our people that welcomed us into the ghettos and chose to build our home. Our reaction to death is life. We summoned the lines of might to steer us into our self-determination. Now here we stand 70 years later, still figuring out how to balance our sails. We stand here 70 years later, counting 23,320 fallen soldiers and civilian victims of terrorism. Our answer to the Holocaust is far from a Happy Ever After. It’s the all too familiar pains in our chests, the short breaths of despair in our national survival. It’s the 116 soldiers that were killed this year. It’s Hadar Goldin z”b, and his fiancé trying to figure out how puzzle pieces could dissolve from existence. It’s Sean Carmeli z”b and Max Steinberg z”b, and their understanding that serving Israel isn’t dependent on place of birth. It’s the 2,000+ orphans. Its Eyal z”b, Naftali z”b, and Gilad z”b.
I sit here next to Chen. She’s organizing the books shelves and recording the numbers. In the background plays a documentary about the tattoo numbers from concentration camps. If only we had an Israel to run to back then. If only we were secure on our own terms. The siren sounds and I stand, thinking about Hannah Marks and Joe Getz. I sit down and thank G-d that I live in Israel. Six days later, I stand at the Yom Hazikaron ceremony in Haifa. I think back to all that has transpired since last year’s ceremony in Ofakim. Before the kidnapping. Before the war. Before my second year of National Service. Before deciding on studying Law at Bar Ilan. Before understanding that my path here in Israel has some loose bricks that will cause me to trip. This siren brings on damper eyes than expected. I sit down and thank G-d that I am Israeli.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The tree is blooming.

The thistles scratch at the threads in my hiking pants as I lead my 10th graders across the Lavi Forest. A map in my hand. A song in my throat. I am their tour guide, and more often than not, their life guide. They start a new cheer, screaming that the ban on wearing leggings on hikes forces them to wear pants that resemble ones of terrorists. My neck finds itself contorted backwards in appall and a few minutes later, I’m joining in on the “moralim.”

A voice beckons my attention. Another student obsessed with my ascent, my story, my insanity in coming here. He’s sure that I’m drunk off of some funky kool-aid. In his mind, America= perfection. And to leave such a paradise to come to this *#$@!, is a shame. I ask him what he wants out of life. I inquire about his dreams and his family. I interrogate him on this truth that he clutches in between his iPhone and bag of Doritos. And when he tells me that he’s leaving this place as soon as he finished the army at age 21, I tell him that his 3 years of service is just the starting line. He laughs and ask me to marry him so he can get a green card. I respond in my Israeli teenage slang, “sweety, your living in a movie.” …..So fine, why should I stay here?

The colors of spring glitter around me. I can feel a spiritual awakening within my bones as the sun adds a few more freckles to my beaming skin. I breathe in the air of change and re-center myself. The beauty around me is simply distracting. A worm coming to say hello. A tree welcoming me for a nap. A bird singing a love song. I remind my students, and myself that our hiking is a fulfillment of a commandment. We are marking our territory, fulfilling the need to retreive the gold in every four steps. I tell them that a gift only transitions into the recipient's property when you start to utilize it’s potential. I shriek out my commands for hydration and they roll their eyes, unaccustomed to the taste of unsugared liquid.

We meet a carob tree and I introduce them to my friend. I recite my appreciation for Hashem’s fruit and take a bite of sweetness. I ask them to open up the fruit to inspect the seeds. All exactly the same size. I quiz them on my friend’s abilities and attributes. In the Talmud, theres a dude who plants a carob tree. Everyone laughs at him for planting a tree that will only bloom in 70 years, way after he passes away. Why plant for something that you won’t even reap from? A student shouts, “Duh, it’s for his kids.” Investing for future generations. That’s why I’m standing here with you instead of in California. I’m planting Jewish trees. What are you planting for future generations?

There are several trees in this country that make me stop walking. The tangy red of Erythrina trees continuously disturb my strut. Their flowers cluster together like the feathers on a Las Vegas costume. The stocky petals command my attention at every meeting. I guess we are mightier as a bunch. And against a dark bark, we blaze in a fiery contrast. My students start chanting “Talya, the queen!” I guess thats my hint to move on. On my next explanation, I call upon my students to be my teachers. The more they involve themselves with connecting to this land, the more logical is my story. I am here because I am a Jew and Jews live in a Jewish country. If we didn’t have a Jewish country, we would just be praying for and working towards starting a Jewish country. So now we have what to start with. The seeds are already blooming.

“Nu, how much longer?” I promise them another 20 minutes…. because 20 minutes is always the perfect answer. And at the seder table last week, we all finish the 4 hour hike through our history with the exact same answer. “Next year in Jerusalem.” The thorny purple flowers and the blazing red trees, that’s our answer. We defend and make our identity present, standing high with whoever will join us, harvesting our potential until we can fully broadcast our freedom.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The way she loves.

Love is something so complicated I don't know if any definition could cover all cases. Love is demanding and intense, and yet youthful and inspiring. Love is what The Beatles sang about, what Emily Dickinson dreamed about, what initiated wars, and hopefully will finish all wars. Love is larger than life and love creates life. 

I didn't realize that I was in love at first. I know I felt excitement and curiosity. I  know I wasn't ready to settle down yet, still playing yo-yo with plenty of suitors. I didn't expect to feel tingling shivers or to walk around trying to cover up my smile. I wasn't planning to find "the one" - let alone believing that it actually exists. But that's exactly how it works. Love causes us to do the things we wouldn't expect.... like packing up from the place I've lived my whole life and leaving the people that mean the most to me. 

Loving Israel is loving the good and the bad. Loving her is believing in her potential and being patient when she lets me down. Loving her means getting to know all of her and even loving the parts that I wouldn't dare to appreciate in someone else. Promising myself to her is investing in our future. Love demands me to love fully; and as my heart opens, I also bleed out tears of missing the people I've left in favor for our relationship. And in return, she gives me the highest quality of life I could have asked for. She gives me awesome views, sidesplitting laughs, a reason to wake up and the inspiration in my dreams. She encourages me with her youthful strides of growth. She fortifies me with historical reassurance. She gives birth to children of audacity and strength. She builds herself up to grow and flourish in unlikely circumstances. She converts her battles into confidence, her worries into accomplishments, and her petiteness into might. 

I have butterflies in my tummy. And I have headaches that won't subside. And I have a few scars from bad fights. And I have tremendous desires to protect. And I have anxieties of her leaving me, or her perishing from this world. And I cannot fully comprehend why others don't love her like I do. And I can travel to other countries and experience their culture, but my heart always stays with her. And I want to scream out my love. And I want to shake the world to listen to her testimonies as well. And I want to tell the judge that she's not perfect but she is innocent. And I want this nightmare trampling on our love story to end. And I want my nation to join me in supporting our partner. And I want the UN to give thought to other tragedies occurring in the world besides my love's transgressions. And I want to catch my breath because love is too exhausting. And I want to give her everything, even what I'm lacking. I want her to flourish and the red carpet to roll out behind her and the camera to capture her unstoppable beauty. And I thought that I wanted a break but know that I can't exist anymore without her in my life. 

The problem with having such intense love is the eery shades of ephemerality. Sometimes on a grey day, I worry that one day there won't be an Israel. And I honestly think that if this would happen, I would lose faith. I would probably stop practicing my people's traditions. I would end up depressed and forsaken, like the widow that just drifts away. 

I have to shake off that thought. I have to do everything in my power to ensure it won't occur. I have to persuade my people to come here as often as possible. I will tell them to move their family tree to their original grove. I will explain the improvement of quality of life in the national community. I will share the excitement of joining in the greatest experiment in our history. I will sing the music that my love sings, the quality lyrics that western music forgets to continue. I will hug with gratitude the citizens of Israel, who consciously choose to support our love. I will do this and do more; and even that won't be close to enough. 

Love is exhausting. Love raises me to new levels of self improvement. Love comforts me with feeling understood and asks me to conquer challenges. Love teaches me a little something every day. My love is unique to me and unique to Israel. And my friends' love of Israel is exclusive just to them as well. My particular journey getting to know Israel is still just beginning; we are still working out some kinks and catching on to each other's rhythms. She might have a tough day and ignore my needs and sometimes I'll be small and revengeful. But the relationship is worth it all. She's worth it. She will give my children a wonderful education. She will prove them to be upstanding people who act on their values. She will give them opportunities to live life to the fullest; to live life truly richly. We are together for the long haul, and this relationship is making our life all that I've wanted. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

There's magic in nightmares.

It's hard for me to put pen to paper when it comes to terrorism. It's hard for me to write about my feelings when it's all beyond understanding. When humans act worse than animals, when the world looses individuals of impact, when the media reports unfairly, when the vast population doesn't register the dangerous trends.... I just sigh in painful hope that some else has a better answer to it all.

When I was younger, I was terrified of Disney villains. I often had nightmares of them haunting me after they moved on from the hero of the movie. This was a fact of life and I expected their visits. I was afraid of the dark... But even more afraid of the shadows that arrived when a nightlight was added. Sometimes the solution forgets to supply comfort.

When I was in high school, I feared tests and projects. I worried about fitting in, but furthermore being true to myself. I was scared of rejection and insecurities.... but never scared of being a Jew.

Transitioning from an 8th grade class of 10 Jewish students to a 9th grade class of more ethnicities and religious identities than I could count, I reviled in the dance of diversity. I pranced around from traditional Indian dance performances, Pilipino hip hop, and Christmas lyrical. And in return, I represented my faith and my nation with thoughtful answers, samples of traditional food and the hereditary sense of humor. Proud to be Jewish in the mixture of my public high school, I had to catch my breath when I look up from my Freshman biology project and a blurred swastika appeared.

It's masking tape on a t­shirt. It's a boy’s joke of a symbol is an attack against me. It's a wake up call that sometimes it's not cool to be Jewish. It's fear. And I tell him immediately to take it off. He asks me if I am a Jew and I reply, “Yes, I am, but that is besides the point, because the Holocaust is no joking matter.”

But, my bold reaction didn't dispel my disgust of this foreign behavior. My sister, returning from a teen trip to Poland, volunteered to help me with a counterattack. I remember that next day suiting up for school wearing my Israeli Defense Force shirt and Star of David necklace; fortified by my secret weapon grasped in my shaking arms­­- my sister’s photographs of concentration camps. I walked up to him and offered this evidence, holding my breath as my legs shuddered. There was something in his expression when looking at the photos. Something so honest and apologetic. And then he respectfully showed the photos to his friends who were joking with him about the swastika the day before. I released my lungs as he returned the pictures to me simply saying, “Thank you.” Relief. Triumph. Hero wins. Villain learns a lesson. I'm a strong Jew. I am a proud Jew.

But then it keeps happening. At the UC schools. In Europe. In New York. In Israel. I just keep watching the nightmares come back. It's all encompassing. It's not cool anymore to be a Jew. It happens when we stand up to our villains and especially when we don't. It happens when we are distracted and even happens when we are focused. So what's the point? When does the happy ending block out my nightmares?

Strolling around Disney World, hand in hand with my family, I am back to my childhood. I am back to believing in heroes overcoming the odds. Skipping around nostalgic landscapes, I learn how to continue being a Jew. It works just like the magic in Mickey's wand. It's the power that feels so obvious in our imagination. So I close my eyes and imagine my future children skipping and jumping around with kippahs and Hebrew wishing around them. Just for a second, the future is so real... I can allow myself to get through the present in order to bring about the magic. I can allow myself to continue believing in our creator even when my people buying kosher food are murdered. I can find determination to amplify my freedom of speech even when others were murdered for theirs. I can continue living even though others weren't given that choice.

I can and I do this because there is pride in survival. Even when my left arm is tied behind me and my right eye is punched out, I can continue fighting back. And when I fight, I'm fighting for everyone else who can't anymore. I am fighting for the magic of the future to unravel. I believe that Jews will continue despite terrorism. I even believe that we might continue because of terrorism. I know for certain that I am a stronger Jew from my 9th grade encounter with a swastika. I testify to the desperate need for Israel because I stood in gas chambers in Poland. I feel the pain brought on by our villains, prepared for their threats to continue unfolding. I have yet to discover solutions to the nightmares. We as a nation are stumbling with a bloody nose, still going at it with our fierce determination, fighting for a magical victory.