When I return to the United States, I promise to create individual blog posts about the many aspects of our Israel trip, but there is an underlying vibe in Israeli society today that is making news that I cannot go on any longer without mentioning.
Let me preface all this by saying how overall, I have absolute love for my (that’s MY) spiritual homeland. It is ancient. It is wi-fi’d high tech and hydrophonic modern. Every rock and stone tells a history of the Jewish people and the other civilizations that have come and gone here. I am not a tourist here, though I am living in hotels out of my suitcase. I can get by somewhat with my Hebrew. My kids and I have friends here. Though I am here right now I am already longing to come back again, and wonder how long will that be, and when will I ever be able to stay here for more than 10 or 14 days at a time?
I take pride that my children are walking through their history. More than any mid-afternoon Hebrew school class can offer, they have all week been immersed in hearing people speak Hebrew all around them, witnessing the miracle of chanukkah in the land that chanukkah happened, walking through the tunnels the Maccabees forged to reclaim and rededicate the temple.
How can I not be proud when I witness how much Israel has changed since my last visits? In 1967, most of Jerusalem’s old city, reclaimed from Jordan, lay in ruins. Now: synagogues have been rebuilt. Archeologic wonders like the excavations revealing access to all the length of the Western Wall of the Great Temple and then the Davidson Archeological Center giving access to all visitors the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount; the fact that my daughter blew her new Shofar in the very place that the Kohanim priests blew their horns to mark the end of Shabbat at Sundown on Saturday night:
The pride of how Israel has preserved artifacts of not only its own ancient peoples but of the cultures of Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Byzantines, and so many that tried to conquer and occupy Jerusalem. You want to see ancient sites? Greek? Roman? Byzantine? Come to Israel, it’s a historian’s one stop shopping place.
And then the pride of being at the Kotel on Friday night with thousands of Jews celebrating Shabbat and Chanukkah, blessing my children at Judaism’s holiest spot, how could I not feel pride at what Israel and the Jewish people have accomplished?
I was first very disturbed that first night at the Kotel. As Shabbat descended, men and women gathered to pray on their respective sides of the Kotel. And, like most times at the Kotel, I noticed women standing on chairs, looking over the mechitza, or separation wall, to wave to husbands, sons…
Then, a man came over to them. Shouted to them “Modesty, Modesty!” Get down! Get out of here!”
Slapping their hands. Slapping them. Shooing them away like they were children. Is this how a Torah Jew is supposed to treat the mothers and Daughters of Israel?
Then, more news reports.
- Haredi men saying that women may not walk on the same sidewalks as men in certain towns like Ben Shemesh.
- Haredi men spitting on a seven year old girl and calling her a prostitute because she was not dressed modestly enough in their eyes (the girl was orthodox and she was wearing a long sleeved blouse and a knee length skirt.)
We spend the last two nights at Kibbutz Halavi. A beautiful Kibbutz, a beautiful hotel. But many of the guests were ultra Orthodox Jews. Would it be too much for these, our fellow Jewish bretheren, to return a smile when I gave it to them, to even ask where we were from and make some small chat? Have they forgotten the mitzvah of greeting people with a cheerful disposition? Have they fogotten in their zealousness of making sure that every piece of lettuce and every cut of meat is under the correct hekshcer (kosher certification) that every Jew is responsible for one another and the meaning of Kibbutz is to gather together?
Have they forgotten the words, Henei Matov U Ma Naim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad – How wonderful it is to gather and sit and be together like brothers?
The direction of religious extremism in Israel is the wrong direction.
I’ve been making final arrangements for my son to have his Bar Mitzvah at the “Masorti Kotel,” a part of the Kotel off to the side of the main Kotel Plaza that is known as Robinson’s Arch. This is the designated spot in the Kotel Plaza that allows for a mixed prayer group of men and women.
How do I know the final arrangements are official? The rabbi of whom I am in correspondence with in Jerusalem cc’ed his email to “hakotel.” Yes, the Holiest spot to Judaism in the world was kept in the loop that my son will be called to the Torah in Jerusalem. Now it’s really official.
There is no way of documenting in words what emotions my family will be experiencing when my son, his brother and sister, parents and both sets of grandparents along with friends and a few surprise guests will come to Robinson’s arch to pray in honor of Nathan’s Bar Mitzvah. We’ve been planning this moment since around his birth.
But this story goes back perhaps even farther, it’s a story of the power of prayer and placing a note in the Western Wall, and how Gd answers these notes in Gd’s own time.
Once upon a time, a boy and a girl met one summer at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. They met through mutual friends on a cracked tennis court. The girl kept missing every shot, and the boy didn’t seem to mind chasing all these balls and retrieving them for her.
The boy really liked the girl. Loved the girl. But the girl just wanted to be friends.
That winter, the boy visited Israel with his family. They visited the Kotel, or the Western Wall. The holiest place in all of Judaism where Jews for centuries pour out their hearts in prayer for a united Jerusalem, for a rebuilt Jerusalem. The boy wrote a note to Gd asking that the girl would one day fall in love with him, his family would be blessed with health, and (a bit of a more material and earthly ask), that he would make it into the Engineering program at MIT.
Within a month of writing that note, the girl (who would be me) turned him down when asked to prom. Within a month, the boy’s sister became seriously ill with meningitis and lapsed into a coma. And, the rejection letter from MIT showed up soon after that.
That boy felt like he was truly being punished by the Divine.
Not to worry. Gd answers prayers. Just not in the instant we would like them to be granted.
The sister of the boy recovered and thrived, went to MIT and went on to finish an MBA at Columbia University, has a tri-athlete husband and four beautiful children, and a thriving cupcake business!
Nine years later the girl that turned down the boy for prom came around and they were married before 247 guests!
The boy in the story is my husband. Whenever we are having an argument, or whenever my husband is getting on my nerves like when he doesn’t like the way I load the dishwasher, I think back to his note in the Kotel, realize that our marriage is meant to be by Gd, so I let it slide.
Now, I’m going back to the Kotel again, the fourth time in my life. No two trips to Israel or the Kotel are ever the same. Each time you go there, you are a different person perhaps at a different phase in your life. So, I’m going not only with my family, but I will also be going as a messenger taking along the notes my students wrote to place in the Kotel.
Most of them.
As my students started their note writing, they had many questions: How will Gd know it’s me? What should I write? How long does it have to be? Can I ask for anything…. anything? Is this a wish, or is this a prayer? And, will it come true, what I ask? How do they keep all the notes from falling out of the cracks?” …. and so on.
I guess this is a lesson to myself that it is hard for a child to know exactly how to compose a prayer of one’s own to be placed in such a holy place when one has only an abstract concept of the place itself. These students have only the most fledgling connections with Israel, let alone an understanding of the emotional impact that a united Jerusalem, and access to Judaism’s holiest site, has on the Jewish psyche. But they did their best, and I answered their questions as best as I could.
A note in the Kotel can express thanks to Gd for the health of family and friends. A note to the Kotel can ask to heal broken friendships or relationships. A note to the Kotel can ask to be provided for, and to never know hunger but one should not ask for “Lots of Money and an iPhone.” A note to the Kotel can ask for world peace and haters of peace, for their plans to be destroyed. But a note should never ask for the death of your enemies, let alone a family member. Gd is not your hitman. These notes will not be placed, nor do they deserve a place in such a holy place.
This time of year, Americans everywhere are shopping and carefully wrapping gifts picked out for those special someones in our lives. Odds are, if that special someone is a teenager, that Christmas or Chanukkah gift, I’m talking the big-ticket item, will come with a screen.
Last year, my husband and I bit the bullet and begrudgingly gave our adolescent children a laptop. We rationalized that the laptop was a necessity for homework. Our children get assignments that have to be completed at online websites like Pearson’s Successnet. We further rationalized that the children would want to send the occasional email to a friend. Furthermore, we told our children the laptop was to be used in a common room like the kitchen.
But, laptops being what they are, and teens being who they are, my kids inevitably used their gift to chat with friends in the privacy of their rooms behind closed doors.
There are many pros and cons to this virtual social life. Through Facebook and Skype, my kids share their daily minutia with faraway friends without running up my phone bill. They will never know what it was like to have to wait until late at night for the phone rates to go down to place that long distance call.
Just one generation ago, having a phone line in one’s own room caused concerns for parents. Remember hiding under the covers with the phone?
Now, the Internet is the place where parents of teens feel like they are losing control. Will they become vulnerable to online bullying if they are not savvy to the nuances of social networking? Will one wrong click result in viewing inappropriate web content?
In a last-gasp effort to maintain some control of my kids’ online activities, I hired Netnanny. This is a content monitoring software program that allows parents to use customizable filters to monitor where kids can go online.
- parents can customize the program as they wish to limit or completely block sites containing violence, sexual or hateful language or images
- Parents can limit or completely block websites to games or sites that support online gambling
- parents can monitor posts or conversations on social networking sites like Faceboook
- Parents can also use Netnanny to put limits on Internet time. You can set how many hours a child can use the Internet, and what times of day these hours are to take place. If you don’t want your kids on the Internet after 10 on a school night, Netnanny shuts off Internet capabilities after 10 p.m.
Sounds great, right? Perhaps there are parents who use this program with success. However, our situation wrote itself out like a bad reality TV show that could have been called “Netnannies Gone Wild.”
My daughter’s Netnanny woes:
- One day, she wanted to go online to search for ski equipment on Dicks Sporting Goods’ website. Netnanny blocked her because the retailer also sold guns for hunting. Reason for blocking: possible violent content.
- When she wanted to do some online window shopping for some bathing suits on Landsend.com, Netnanny again pulled her back by the apron strings. This time: risqué sexual content. On Land’s End. Sure.
- When she needed to research a paper for social studies about racism, she could not enter certain sites because they contained “hateful language.” or images of swastikas.
- Finally, Netnanny blocked my daughter from Skyping with a friend in Israel. Perhaps the program detected a Middle Eastern ISP address and determined it was thwarting some kind of terror plot.
I did find Netnanny’s monitoring reports useful in terms of tracking what she and her Facebook friends were chatting about. However, Netnanny was a bit too overprotective when she deemed that “Hiya Hon, Luv ya” written by one of her BFFs was considered sexually explicit language.
My son had his own woes with Miss Netnanny
- He could play no games on miniclips.com. Wait, that was my intention. Miniclips always spread viruses on my computer and I find these games to be a complete waste of time.
- But, in an attempt to play an innocent game of solitaire, my son was blocked. Why? The game involved the use of cards: potential for online gambling. In my defense, I did block video games, but barring a game of solitaire was going a bit too far.
- My son is an avid guitar player. Often, he looks guitar tabs up to play the latest song he hears on the radio. But Netnanny blocked guitar tab websites. The reason: Music and entertainment, may have explicit language.
After a few months, Netnanny disabled and corrupted all of the laptop’s Internet capabilities. I needed outside help and turned to Microworx, a Brighton information technology company that specializes in computer troubleshooting.
It took several days and about $200 to free my computer from Netnanny’s clutches. When I called the company to ask for a refund, Content Watch, the maker of Netnanny, refused because the software’s warranty had expired. In the end, there is no substitute for giving your teens a good lesson in common sense, social networking etiquette and harsh warnings about not trying to search for anything illicit before you let them go online.
Excuse me, Content Watch, if I was not a fortune teller and could not predict your crappy software would cause my computer such problems.
In the end, we fired Netnanny. In the New Year, and the years to come, raising teens will come with many challenges. Now, it is navigating the information superhighway. Soon, it will be learning to drive on a real highway.
The best I can do is to offer my guidance and always let them know that if they need me, I will always be on the other side of that closed door.
I am writing to you somewhere within the American diaspora. In a few weeks, my husband and I will be taking our children and our parents on our first family trip to Israel. When we get there, I hope that the Israelis we meet there don’t think that we are devoid of any Judaism or Jewish life back in evil America.
Let me explain. I just viewed some commercials made by the Israeli government warning them of the risk of assimilation, of losing their Jewish identity if they move to and remain in America. The Jewish Federations of America, along with most American Jews, took offense.
A lot of controversy has been stirred by this ad campaign trying to lure Israelis living in America to come back home to Israel if they want their own children to remain Jewish.
To those of you not familiar with it, here is an example of such an ad. Basically, an Israeli grandma and Grandpa in Israel are skyping with their family in America. The grandparents, seated in a living room with a lit Chanukkiah (candles for chanukkah, it’s NOT a menorah) in the background, ask their granddaughter what holiday she is celebrating. She joyfully shouts (to her parents’ dismay) “Christmas!”
(this ad has been removed as I write this post)
Here is what I know, good and bad, about Jewish life in America and Jewish life in Israel.
- Israel, you have no better friends in the world than the Jews of America.
- I am involved with the Partnership2Gether program in my city. Each time we are visited by our Israeli counterparts, friendships are forged and dialogues begin about Jewish identity on both sides of the sea.
- The Israelis making their first visit to America greatly admire how hard American Jews have to work to maintain our Jewish ties. Yes, we are pulled in many directions trying to balance secular commitments with the religious. But yes, we enjoy the freedom we have of making our own choices.
- The Israelis who came here greatly admire the role of women in synagogue life. Some of them for the first time saw women serving as rabbis. Some of them for the first time had the honor of being called to the Torah for an aliyah.
- Israelis who visited America expressed their disgust with extremist religious strains that take an “all or nothing” approach to observing mitzvot to the point that rather than trying to observe Judaism to their own comfort level, they have abandoned any Jewish practice at all.
- Yes, some of my middle-school aged Hebrew school students are from intermarriages. And many of them struggle with their identity, especially in December. But we have to respect that non-Jewish parents who love their children made the hard choice and the sacrifice to raise their child in a religion that is not their own. It is a choice they believe in and many try to learn about Judaism right along with their children.
- My students ask if they are a “bad Jew” if their family doesn’t light Shabbat candles every Friday night. They ask if they are a bad Jew if they help their non-Jewish parent set up Christmas lights. What can I possibly tell them? I can’t. All I can teach them are the tools and the mechanics of Hebrew language and the religion. It is up to the individual parents and families to apply or not apply, these teachings in the privacy of their homes.
- Am I a bad Jew if I find myself this time of year humming a Christmas tune? Not really, as Christmas permeates every facet of American culture between October 31 and December 25. For impressionable Jewish American children, it is all the more impossible to ignore. I teach my students and my own children that it is okay to admire the lights and decorations, but know it is not our holiday.
Bibi, I’ll be in Israel all of Chanukkah. Why don’t fly over to the states and spend your Chanukkah in America and see how hard Jewish Americans work to say “no, Christmas is not our holiday. In spite of being a minority, we choose to worship our God and practice our religion the way we choose.”
Isn’t that after all the message of Chanukkah?