A decade in the West Bank: a recap

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When I was a bride on the point of my wedding, my future husband and I were looking for a quiet rural place where we could raise our children close to nature and away from busy roads and packed streets. There are such places in Israel, but they are either remote or hugely expensive. In an act of thinking outside the box, we explored the possibility of hopping over the ’67 border, or “the green line”, into the Judea and Samaria area, also known as “The West Bank”.

It was not a political statement (at least not initially). We did believe, and still do, that Jews have the right to live in every part of the Promised Land as it appears in the Bible. Otherwise, all Israelis are nothing more than greedy colonists and might as well pack up and leave. But it was not what led us to move to the settlement of Kedumim and later, when that, either, did not answer our rural dream, to the surrounding outposts.

We soon found out that our motives in living remotely were vastly different from almost every other person we came in contact with. While we essentially wanted a homestead and complete privacy, our neighbors emphasized community and “doing things together” (which did not sit well at all with me as an individualist, and which in my opinion led to lots of gossiping and people sticking their noses into each other’s tushy).

Israeli farmers and settlers have historically been forced to band together for safety reasons. Independent farms are few and far between. We have not been able to attain this dream; perhaps we never will, now. Living among the rolling hills and picturesque views was lovely while it lasted, but it came with a cost.

One was safety. I don’t have statistics, but tragedies happen all the time. People die in car accidents. Hospitals are always full. But this can’t compare to the palpable feeling of pure evil walking all around you, of knowing that there are monsters in human skin who are out there to kill you and your children just for who they are.

During our time in the Shomron, we came in contact with two incidents of such evil: the attack on the 11-year-old Ayala Shapiro, whose family were our neighbors, which left her with severe burns that had maimed her forever; and the murder of Rabbi Raziel Shevach, who was likewise our neighbor in the last place we had lived before leaving the area.

I don’t run a political blog, but no, civil casualties during armed conflict are NOT the same as a terrorist who deliberately sets out to kill innocents, and the more helpless and weak they are, the better. During the massacre of the Fogel family in Itamar, the scum of the earth monster who had already murdered the parents and two of the children was about to walk out of the house when the 4-month-old baby, whom he hadn’t noticed before, started crying in her crib. He went back and stabbed her to death.

During our last four years in the settlements we lived in what you’d call the “hardest core” outpost. People there were no fuzzy sunshiny “let’s all get along” types. We were publicly shamed for doing business in the neighboring Arab village. But you can bet your life none of those isolated “fanatics” would have walked into a random Arab home to kill babies.

One thing I have realized most strongly was that the Shomron is an integral, indispensable part of Israel. I used to be able to watch the sunset glimmer on the surface of the Mediterranean Sea from my living room window. That’s how tiny our country is. Look at the map and see what is left once Judea and Samaria area is subtracted – a narrow strip of land along the shore, vulnerable and impossible to defend.

Many people, in Israel as well as around the world, labor under the delusion that if we just retreat to the ’48 borders as defined by the UN, all will be peachy and the Hamas and Hezbollah will drop their guns and rockets and we’ll all sing Kumbaya together around a campfire. Sorry, folks, not gonna happen. Those who hate us and want to kill us in Maale Adumim hate us and want to kill us in Tel Aviv. By the way, don’t you find it funny how Jerusalem, where Jews have lived thousands of years ago and which had never been without a Jewish presence, is so strongly disputed, while Tel Aviv, which is a historically recent creation, is not?

Quoting the Bible as the document that gives us the right to this land might not be accepted by all, but without it, what are we actually doing here?

But I digress.

Many settlements are like small towns with no clear political affiliation. People there mostly just go about their business and live like in any other part of the country. Where we lived it was different. The place had all sorts of legal obstacles to its development. There were often problems with electricity and running water. There were no shops, post office, bank, doctors, etc, within walking distance.

This lack of accessibility, even more than the clannish segregated social structure, was what I found most frustrating about my life on that area. Without a car or reliable transportation means, I was utterly dependent on DH for every little thing. If we had run out of milk and he didn’t feel like driving to the grocery store, too bad, we’d just have to do without milk. Every trivial errand turned into a huge logistic challenge.

The decision to leave did not come about in one day. Besides being attached to the area, we couldn’t afford to move anywhere else (forget that we could barely afford to maintain our own house, as it was).

I suppose the overwhelming feeling I had experienced in those days was simply exhaustion. I was tired of never feeling quite safe, of not being able to count on having simple necessities like running water, of everything being such a logistical nightmare, from checking emails to running to the grocery store, of being utterly dependent on my husband for every trivial little thing.

I feel extremely lucky that my mom had a home to offer us. Things are so much easier for me today that I sometimes feel like I cheated. I was certainly a lot more fortunate than others in my situation. Not everyone has generous family ready to help them out of lousy circumstances.

My heart is still with the courageous souls braving a thousand risks and inconveniences each day of living where I used to. I will always feel a strong emotional bond to that part of the country. However, there’s no denying I’m a lot happier and mentally healthier here.

The Magic Bagel

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This story happened a long time ago, but every once in a while, I recall it and feel the need to share, because it was so uplifting to me and, though seemingly a trivial incident, had a huge impact on the shaping of me as a young person.

Before I went to university, I worked at a number of odd jobs, the last of which was a cashier in a supermarket. It wasn’t easy, especially in the first few days. Hours were long, breaks were short, customers were rude – and on top of all that, at the end of my third day at work, I have found out that there’s a considerable sum of money missing.

I would have to return the missing money from my own salary. Side note: back then, it was legitimate practice. I fervently hope it has changed. A poor cashier that works for a minimum wage and made an innocent mistake isn’t supposed to pay. I felt so humiliated! This might sound out of proportion to you, I know, but back then I was very young and insecure. I felt like a total failure. I started walking slowly towards the bus station, my eyes clouded with tears.

There were few moments in my life when I felt more helpless than at that moment, when I sat motionlessly on a bench. Buses came and went, but I just couldn’t bring myself to get up.

And then the woman appeared. She had short dark hair and warm brown eyes, and looked like someone who is probably very cheerful and has a very large family. She was carrying a shopping bag and was obviously in a hurry; but when she saw me, she stopped walking.

“Excuse me, are you alright?” She asked.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I said, hoping my voice wasn’t trembling too much.

“Are you sure?” She insisted. “Do you need money for a bus ticket?”

Only then I realized I must have looked like a homeless drunk. My hair was a mess and my eyes were probably red and puffy.

“No, no, really, I’m fine,” I said quickly. “I have a ticket; I can go home anytime… I just… had some problems at work.”

She looked at me very kindly and said:
“You look like such a wonderful person. Don’t let anyone put you down.”

Then she insisted I must have one of the fresh bagels she just bought. I refused at first, but she just wouldn’t take no for an answer. She said I look exhausted and need to eat something. She gave me one of her bagels, said goodbye and walked away. I ate the bagel, and it wasn’t simply delicious; I felt as though it was a magic bagel – with every bite, the pain and humiliation were slowly disappearing, until I felt almost normal again; I got on a bus and went home.

Often, when I’m feeling down, I remember the woman who gave me that bagel, and the simple beauty of what she did never ceases to fill me with gratitude. She was in a hurry, but she didn’t just pass by. And she wouldn’t leave me alone the moment I said I don’t need anything. She refused to walk away without giving me at least some comfort. Whenever I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes. I hope that someday, as I work on making myself a better person, I can develop even a bit of that woman’s kindness and generosity.

In those few short minutes while we talked, I felt as though someone bestowed the precious gift of friendship upon me – something to keep me going at the darkest moments. It’s amazing how such little things can have such a tremendous impact on our soul. The words she said have resounded in my ears during many times of fear, despair and humiliation:

“You look like such a wonderful person. Don’t let anyone put you down.”

I know her words were a message from God, because He ever and always wishes to strengthen, encourage and uplift us. I’m not saying the messages we get are always meant to make us feel good. But they always carry a positive, not a negative force. They are always made of hope, possibility, insistence, improvement. They might painfully shake us, but they remind us He never gives up on us.

Thus, it’s easy enough to recognize the messages that are not from Him, usually spoken by people around us. If anyone in your life, anyone at all, deliberately makes you feel, and/or explicitly tells you that you are worthless; wicked; stupid; hopeless; crazy – that you are a terrible person, that you will never be able to make a difference, that you will never get up, shake off the dust and walk on – know that their message is not from God, and therefore not true, because He never wants us to drown in despair. He wants us to know there is always hope.

Finding family

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I have shared this special adoption story some years back, and am inspired to re-visit it today.

Matanya (not a real name) was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare genetic disorder which caused him to have severe facial deformities and feeding problems. His parents, who didn’t feel capable of raising such a child, made the decision to leave him in the hospital. It must be noted that despite multiple ultrasound scans during the pregnancy, his condition was somehow missed – praise the Lord for this miracle, for otherwise he would probably have been aborted.

Batsheva, who worked in aforementioned hospital as a midwife, was moved by the fate of the little baby who spent week after week in the hospital nursery. Despite the many efforts of the staff to make him as comfortable as possible, he seemed detached, didn’t make eye contact and didn’t smile. Batsheva started visiting the baby and felt terrible every time she went home, leaving him behind. She realized that for a child like this, the only chance to ever have a normal life is to be raised in a supportive and loving family.

Eventually, Batsheva and her husband Shlomo decided to adopt the baby. They had eight children at the time, ranging in ages from 15 to 3, and the older children were involved in the decision. They took Matanya into their home and gave him a family.

“We got eight wonderful gifts from the Lord, healthy and whole” says Batsheva (translation mine). “It was precisely out of that feeling of fulfillment and thankfulness that we felt the need to give back to our Creator by taking care of a soul that was not ours. We felt we can give this child a place in our family. And B”H, the Almighty guided us hand in hand throughout the way.”

“I will never forget how I slowly picked him up and held him for a long time, and he, a tiny four-month-old baby, put his head on my shoulder and fell asleep. It was like he said, ‘I finally found Mommy.’ We all cried from emotion.”

I cried from emotion too, as I read this article. Praise God for such kind and generous souls who gave hope and comfort when it seemed there was none to be had. Truly He sets the solitary in families.

“Just a few hours of being in a warm home made our Matanya smile and look us straight in the eye. It’s amazing how he immediately felt he belongs with us.”

Matanya since went through multiple surgeries which have improved his condition, and will have to go through more as he gets older. He will never look “normal” but otherwise his prospects are good and he is a happy and intelligent child.

Batsheva keeps in touch with Matanya’s biological parents, and tries to be as merciful as possible when relating to their decision of leaving him in the hospital. Matanya was told that he was adopted. “I told him how we walked into he nursery and immediately fell in love with him and chose him of all babies. I said to him he belongs with us for good.”

On the other side of the door

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Have you ever had to climb into your house through a bathroom window? I had this unforgettable experience a few years back, when my two older girls were a toddler and a baby.

Around midday, the girls and I were returning home from a play-date visit in a friend’s house, tired out and ready for lunch, story time and a nap. I opened the door, let Shira in, and lingered outside with Tehilla to give the chickens some fresh water.

Just as I had my back turned to the door, I heard an ominous click of the door locking from inside.T ehilla and I were out and Shira was in the house on her own, and there was a locked door in between.

I tried to get Shira to unlock the door, but the lock was stuck. All the windows were locked from inside too (for safety reasons) and I couldn’t quite get her to understand how to open them. Once it dawned on us that we’re separated by a locked door, we both got quite panicky. I heard Shira crying inside and could do nothing – I felt so helpless, my husband had a key but he was at least an hour and a half away.

I called a friend who lived nearby, more for moral support than anything else, and she dashed right over to try and get us to calm down, and to coax Shira to give the key another try from inside. In the meantime, I made a last desperate check of all the windows and discovered – hurray! – that the shower window is unlocked.

Problem is, it’s a small window that opens only halfway, and it’s right near the ceiling. In a stroke of uncharacteristic technical brilliance, I managed to remove the glass panes, which left a square right below the ceiling, large enough for a rather thin person to climb through (I’m proud to say I was even able to replace the panes later, in correct order).

I found a ladder behind the garden shed, took one of the plastic garden chairs and slipped it through the window into the shower stall so that I would be able to step on it once I swing my feet through the window. I then realized there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this in my long denim skirt. Sincerely hoping no one can see this, I slipped out of my skirt, immensely thankful that at least I was wearing long pants underneath. I then climbed to the top of the ladder, swung one foot over the window, then another (in an acrobatic fit I had no idea I was capable of), then I climbed down to the plastic chair – and yes! I was in!

I hurried to my frightened child, comforted her while telling her never, never, never to mess about with the lock again, and swung open the front door, admitting my friend together with her little ones and Tehilla, who was sitting in her stroller all the while, enjoying all the attention and oblivious to anything exciting going on. With a deep sigh of worn-out travellers, my friend and I settled on the couch and sofa to nurse our babies. Finally, rest was at hand.

Later, when I was at leisure to think it all through, it occurred to me how this whole situation illustrates something bigger – the feeling of helplessness, the frustration, the fear; separation from our dearest ones; knowledge of being very close to something precious – so close, yet unable to reach it. And finally, the miraculous discovery of a way to get to it – doing things you didn’t think you could do, climbing up a steep ladder, a dangerous squeezing through a narrow gate, and finding yourself, finally, at the peaceful place your heart so desired – your home.

Pesach cleaning for the desperate

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After a decade of marriage, it’s probably time to come to terms with the fact that cleaning will never be my hobby. There are many aspects of homemaking which I enjoy – cooking, definitely. Baking, mmm. Taking crisp, freshly washed, sun-dried clothes off the line – absolutely. But cleaning? Frankly, I can think of a thousand pleasanter ways to spend my time.

Of course, since we all appreciate clean floors, bathrooms and windows, I do clean, but the weeks between Purim and Pesach have never been my favorite time of the year. Add to this the fact that I’m due to have a baby in a couple of weeks, and you’ll get a picture that doesn’t exactly fit in with a marathon of vigorous cleaning. In fact, if I can but manage to drag myself off the sofa and do some dishes, I’m likely to congratulate myself at this stage.

Right now, it’s so much about letting go and lowering my (and everyone else’s!) expectations. We are facing a few stressful issues, but I’m really determined to reach the moment of going to meet my baby in as peaceful, stress-free state as possible. Last time around, I wasn’t able to do this. I was consumed by thinking about what I still need to do, and felt nearly cheated by the baby arriving a couple of days before due date, when I had counted on an extra week (my first two pregnancies lasted around 41 weeks).  Obviously, it was completely irrational, but I felt as though someone hit me on the head with a hammer and sent me headlong to a place where I wasn’t supposed to be yet.

So, this time, I don’t care what happens around me. I don’t care if my waters break at the precise moment when I’m trying to scrub the stove. I don’t care if my house isn’t really clean. Pesach is about getting rid of any trace of leavened bread. We’ll make sure to throw it all out. Dust on top of bookshelves isn’t leavened bread. Messy closets aren’t leavened bread. Grime on windows isn’t leavened bread.

Sure, it’s really great to take the whole kitchen-scourging thing a step further, and make it into full-blown spring cleaning. But you know what? I can’t do it this year. G-d has given me this pregnancy, and He has also scheduled it for this time of the year. I am sure He didn’t want me to forego the rest and relaxation so necessary in these last weeks of pregnancy, nor to exhaust myself by trying to do more than I am physically able to, nor to risk hurting my back by bending, lifting, or climbing ladders.

So I’m going to putter around, doing the easy stuff like sorting out our kosher for Pesach food items. My husband and older kids will pitch in with what they can. And I’m going to have my baby when she comes. And the dust will accumulate a little further, and wait for the time when I’ve recovered my health and strength. And life will go on.

Also read this lady’s down-to-earth and practical article – a breath of fresh air to all who have been harassed by the upcoming holiday and all the cleaning it entails.

The table of Abraham

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In the Jewish Grace after meals, Birkat ha-Mazon, there are lines specifically intended for the guest to say: and this table shall be as the table of Abraham; all those who hunger shall eat from it, and all those who thirst shall drink from it, and it shall never lack bounty, always and forever. I find in these lines a very beautiful image of hospitality.

Our first dinner guest was sprung up on us quite unexpectedly. The memory stands out vivid in my mind; we were a newlywed couple, married perhaps for a month or so, and it was one of the first Shabbats we spent in our home. We were just returning from the evening service when a stranger came up to us and asked if he may have a dinner with us. We exchanged startled looks, but somehow (if not very eloquently) we must have given our consent, because half an hour later this man was seated by our table. It turned out that he is our neighbour, a middle-aged bachelor with no family living nearby. For as long as we continued to be neighbours, he was often our guest. He used to bake the most wonderful pita bread, and it was initially through trying to emulate him that our passion for bread-baking grew and flourished.

I am a scrupulous kind of person when it comes to receiving guests; I have good intentions of being hospitable and welcoming, and having my doors open to others, but when the rubber hits the road I often get these fretful nervous attacks, thinking that nothing is up to scratch – that the food I prepared isn’t fancy or plentiful enough, my home is not clean or orderly enough, my children not disciplined enough to allow space for adult company to talk.

But all this passes in my mind before the dinner or lunch takes place; once we are in the thick of action, I feel very glad for having done it, as there is nothing like the exchange, fellowship, enrichment of discussion, and generally just the knitting of hearts and communities together, that takes place ’round a dinner table. Leisure time is plentiful, the children play together, and there is that ease and laughter that accompany a good meal in good company.

I am beginning to relax. Around here, an impromptu invitation usually assumes that the guests are bringing some food with them, which turns every shared meal to a spontaneous pot-luck party. I’m telling myself not to fret about the additional side dish I did not have time to make, and think instead that washing dishes after everyone is already bountiful enough. :o)

It never ceases to impress me just how much our society lost by, when people stopped regularly congregating around the dinner table. Food, family, fellowship – the magical trio. Immediate family first of all, of course, but then the circle is expanded; others are included, made to feel welcome. Jokes are shared, discussions spring up, ideas are born. Once people dispersed for time-efficient gobbling up of substandard food from plastic TV-trays, a crucial element of togetherness was abandoned. As a clinical nutritionist I feel qualified to say that at least half of all our modern obesity and other nutrition-related maladies would be solved by the return of the family table. I truly believe there is no better way to make someone feel welcome and accepted, than invite that person to share a meal.

So my advice, to myself and to others, would be – take the plunge. Invite someone over; it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Perhaps you didn’t prepare dessert; perhaps your home has a lived-in look (a couple of kids will give that perpetual air to a house); but your hospitality will be warmly appreciated as you toss on an apron and continue smiling and chatting with your guests while you soap up the dishes in the sink.

An update and a book review

First off, I would like to thank all the amazing people who left me comments and private messages following my last post. We are slowly coming to terms with the tragedy, and I was finally able to sleep a whole night. Above all, I’m praying for strength for my poor friend and her children, and for wisdom for our government, who must finally wake up and understand that the only way to increase its citizens’ safety is by harsh measures and an unapologetic stance, rather than by finessing and beating around the bush and PC talk.

In the sleepless nights that have been my share this past week, I’ve been reading John Seymour’s The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency. There’s nothing to take one’s mind off things like reading about malting or raising goats. Though much of the information in there will never be relevant for us (such as anything that has to do with raising pigs and rabbits), I’m loving the book; it’s the ultimate, most well-rounded and practical DIY guide to all things a homesteader, on whatever scale, might need, from tilling land to baking bread, from building fences to raising and managing livestock, and everything in between. Sure, it branches off into chapters that have enough fodder for specialized books on their own, and the savvy reader can find manuals that focus on, say, just animals (such as, for instance, my The Basic Guide to Backyard Livestock, and other, more detailed works) but it’s the best introductory condensed guide to self-sustainability I’ve read so far.