Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

They Also Serve

"They also serve who only stand and wait."
~ John Milton, Sonnet XIX

Or, in my case, "They also serve who only sew and iron."

When I moved to Israel in 1995, I knew that my little daughter (then only two) and any other children I might have, would one day serve in the Israel Defense Forces. I didn't worry about it much over the years, and I'm not particularly worried now.

Liat has been in the army since November 2010. She went off to basic training, then took a training course to prepare her for the work she would be doing in her unit. Now she goes off each day to her unit, which is based in Tel Aviv. She comes home at night, unless she has to do guard duty. Of course, she is not in a combat unit, and has decided, despite the suggestions, advice, and pleas of her commanding officers, not to attend officer training school. There is a lot I don't know and don't understand about being in the army (especially all of those abbreviations - the Israelis are just as bad as anyone else at finding abbreviations for everything in the military!), but overall it hasn't been a bad experience for me, so far. Except for one thing.

I didn't realize that I would have duties to carry out, too.

When Liat was issued her uniforms, they were pretty much a one-size-fits-all type of deal. That meant I need to hem the pants, at the very least (I refused to take in the shirts). Once Liat was back home and had started working in her unit, I started ironing her uniforms. She has two shirts and two pairs of pants (that she will agree to wear) so I pretty much end up washing and ironing a uniform every day during the week. I have several women friends here who told me they did not iron their daughters' uniforms, and I shouldn't bother. But it seemed to me that if she is serving her country, such an obligation and honor is deserving of respect, and that includes presenting a proper appearance every time she leaves the house in her uniform. As it turns out, a long-time friend, who just retired from the air force, told me I was absolutely right to iron the uniforms. I appreciated that, especially since I know he is the one who irons his son's uniforms (as he did his daughter's until she finished her service).

And now, after just under eleven months in the army, Liat was issued her corporal's stripes. One patch for each sleeve. Two shirts, a sweater, and a winter jacket. Guess who is now sewing those on?

I didn't serve in the I.D.F., but at least I feel I'm also doing my bit.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Happy Birthday

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 25 September 2006.

I love birthdays. They represent our big chance to be royalty for a day. At our house, I go all out (some might say overboard) on birthdays. Yesterday, while celebrating a birthday of my own, I stopped to think about the way we celebrate birthdays here in Israel. Mostly, things aren't that different here.

As you can see in the photo, young children wear a crown of flowers on their birthdays. In preschools, birthday celebrants often sit on a special chair that has been decorated to look like a throne. In one preschool I know, the birthday kids rode in on a small wagon pulled by the teacher. There's lots of singing and music (note the cymbals). Israelis sing a Hebrew version of the ever popular Happy Birthday to You (the older kids even sing it in English, though it tends to come out "birzday", since they are unfamiliar with the "th" sound, which does not exist in Hebrew). However, there are several Israeli songs that are always sung on birthdays as well.

Of course, there's always a birthday cake and festive snacks. When my older daughter was in preschool, there seemed to be a competition amongst the mothers, who would prepare the fanciest cake. There were some amazing creations, adorned with marzipan, or small plastic animals. The snacks were almost always the same - and continued to be offered at all parties, whether in school or at home. They included toffees, marshmallows, small pretzels and the quintessential Israeli snack food, Bamba. Bamba is a peanut butter flavored snack that has the same shape and texture as the familiar cheese puff snacks available in the U.S. Practically everyone loves and eats Bamba, from toothless infants to doting grandparents.

In preschool, often it is the birthday child who gives a small gift to each classmate. We have a lifetime supply of floats suitable for use in a swimming pool, for example. Occasionally the teacher allows the class to give gifts to the celebrant. These are then dragged home in an industrial-sized garbage bag and sorted through. Some such gifts are still in use in our house, like the jump ropes and water pistols.

And then there are the special birthday wishes. In Hebrew, the word used for those special wishes is the same as the word for blessings (brachot, for those who know Hebrew). Indeed, someone celebrating a birthday will find him- or herself showered with blessings all day. In preschool, the children often draw pictures which are bound in a special cover and presented to the celebrant. Sometimes the teacher goes around the room, having the children offer their good wishes verbally. For a parent attending such parties, it can be tricky to hold back laughter at some of the blessings offered ("May you never break your leg falling off the swing during playtime," for example). It's the thought that counts.

As children grow older, they no longer need prompting to offer their good wishes. Here, people don't wish you a "Happy birthday!", they tell you "Congratulations!" (mazel tov) instead. Some kids will wish one another such things as success in their studies, and good health.

In the early years of elementary school, parents may bring cake or popsicles to school for the entire class to enjoy. Most teachers instruct students to invite all 35+ classmates to any birthday parties that take place out of school. Obviously, this can be an expensive proposition. It is common for parents hosting a party at home to hire an entertainer, such as a clown or a magician. Some offer craft-themed parties. Many parents, however, opt to hold the celebration elsewhere, such as a bowling alley or a place especially geared towards children's birthday parties. Several children I have known over the years have even held their birthday parties in restaurants or night clubs. As the kids get older, they begin to ignore the all-inclusive rule, and parties are often all-girl and boys-only affairs.

When my older daughter was in fifth grade, I learned of a new way of marking someone's birthday. I hope it is not a nation-wide custom. The kids in our neighborhood would buy a dozen eggs and a kilo of flour, and perform a modern-day tar and feathering of the celebrant. Throwing buckets of water over the birthday boy or girl was also popular. Fortunately, this type of behaviour usually only happened in the warmer months.

Starting around junior high school age, girls tend to buy one another helium balloon bouquets. These are often brought to school, though some girls wait until the afternoon to bring such offerings to their friends. Parties are once again coed, and often take place at night, rather than in the late afternoon and evening.

Most adults I know do not celebrate their birthdays with their friends. In over eleven years of living here, I recall attending only one birthday celebration for an adult who was not in my immediate family. It is customary, however, for friends to call with birthday wishes - blessings for a happy and healthy life. Another common saying on a birthday is "May you live to 120" (the age Moses was when he died).

Yesterday and today, I received e-mails, e-cards, telephone calls and even an old-fashioned greeting card, some from here and some from friends and family in the U.S. The sentiments expressed were all very much the same, no matter what the origin of the good wishes. I guess birthdays are pretty much the same, no matter where you celebrate them.

(c)Amy Samin

The War, from Here

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 30 July 2006.

We spent most of this month traveling around the northeastern United States. As has happened before, our enjoyment of the trip was ruined by upsetting news from home. This time, of course, was much worse. By mid-month, we were spending more time channel surfing for the latest news than visiting the spots of interest on our itinerary. The anti-Israel bias on the major networks only served to further upset us, until finally we found more balanced reporting on Fox News. Still, we knew we weren't getting the full story, so we checked in on the Hebrew press websites hourly.

Now we're home, and seeing the war from here is, as you might expect, another thing entirely. It's not just the different footage shown on the news. It's not the way each day is marked as day number X since the war began. It's not even just the weekly summary on Saturday night, showing the photos and basic information on all of the Israelis, soldier and civilian, Jew and Arab, killed in the past seven days.

It's the way, when an air raid siren goes off in Sfat, that fact is announced on national radio and television, along with instructions to the populace on what to do. It's the way neighbors, family, and friends exchange news, share their fears and worries over loved ones at or near the front lines. Forget the six degrees of separation; virtually everyone in Israel knows someone whose loved one is fighting in this war. Without too much effort, I can think of at least seven young people I know who are currently doing their regular army service. As for reservists, I can only speculate that the number is in the dozens. And it's not just seeing the war from here; the difference is in the way I can hear the army jets zooming by overhead, at all hours of the day and night. In fact, I hear them right now as I write this.

It's also the way the places that are being hit by hundreds of katusha rockets are all places I have visited. They are places where people I know live, or used to live. When we traveled to the north of Israel last year, I was concerned, briefly, about being so close to the border with Lebanon. I decided things had been quiet for quite a while, and I had nothing to fear. Little did I know that terrorists with rockets could have decided to shorten our vacation for us at any moment.

Being in Israel doesn't mean we don't know what the rest of the world is saying. Our nightly news is full of reports of the demonstrations in Europe and around the world. We are used to the anti-Semitism, the anti-Zionism. That doesn't mean it doesn't affect us. But we will persevere, because if we don't, we will perish.

As of now, the residents of Netanya haven't yet been instructed to enter their bomb shelters. I know people who are hosting, or seeking housing for, refugees from the north. Friends who work in the military are now doing so around the clock, even on Shabbat when necessary. Friends with teenaged sons are looking at the future and praying that this war won't go on as long as the last one. Indeed, all of us are praying for the safety of our soldiers and citizens.

That's how the war looks, from here.

(c)Amy Samin


Photo (c)Avinoam Samin
This Postcard from Israel was originally published on 27 April 2006.

When I was a kid, I learned about the Hasmonean family known as the Maccabees in connection with the holiday of Chanukah. Later, on my first trip to Israel, I discovered another, more refreshing, kind of Maccabee. When I moved to Israel, I was introduced to yet another Maccabi, one that was even closer to my heart (and other vital organs). All of that seemed like more than enough to be going on with, but it turned out that I hadn't quite finished with all Israeli things Maccabee/Maccabi.

After a few months of living here, I figured out that the professional sports teams (mainly basketball and soccer) have names like Beitar Jerusalem, Hapoal Petach Tikvah, and Maccabi Haifa. The first part of the name denotes an association with what were once certain ideological/political movements. The second part are names of the cities in which the teams are located. I quickly realized that while there are dozens of soccer and basketball teams in Israel, there is really only one serious professional team in Israel: basketball's Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv.*

Maccabi TA (as the team is most commonly known at home - Elite is the name of the team's sponsor) is the only Israeli sports team to enjoy international success, as well as top ranking at home. The team plays both in the national league, and in what is called the Euroleague. Maccabi TA has won five European league championships, and is heading into this year's Final Four playoffs tomorrow night. They have the largest (approximately 10,000 seats), most deluxe arena of any team in Israel. And, according to the team's players, Maccabi also has the best fans in the world.

As you might imagine, there are some non-Israeli players on the team. In addition to Israelis such as Tal Burstein, Yaniv Green, and Sharon Shason, there are a number of American players (some of whom have married Israeli women and become citizens themselves). Anthony Parker, Maceo Baston, Derrick Sharp and Will Solomon are valuable additions to the team. Nikola Vujcic, from Croatia, is another top player. We even have a promising new player from New Zealand, Kirk Penney.

Israeli fans are passionate about their sports teams, and no fans are more dedicated than those of Maccabi Tel Aviv. During home games, the seats are awash in a sea of bright yellow shirts, punctuated with blue and yellow hats and scarves. The noise is deafening, with horns blaring, whistles shrilling, and sing-song chants being offered up to inspire the team to ever more daring plays and three point shots. Often you'll see members of Parliament, television personalities, former team players, even Cabinet Ministers in the crowd. An impressive number of fans travel to watch the team play in Europe, as well. In almost every post-game interview, players mention the support of the fans. After the last regular season game this year, as in years past, the coach thanked the fans for their love and support. Then the team members stood together in a line, raised their linked hands, and bowed to the fans, moving to each side of the court until they had offered their thanks and appreciation to all of the fans in the arena, as well.

As much as the team values its fans, we supporters of Macabbi Tel Aviv appreciate all the team does for us. For Maccabi Tel Aviv represents more than a basketball team to us. The thrill of the game takes our minds off of our problems. Often an important Maccabi victory is the lead story on the late news, and claims the front page of the morning paper. It's a marvelous thing to see joy and celebration in the news, instead of the more usual discord and suffering. The success of the team brings out feelings of pride, as well. Our team has the responsibility and honor of representing Israel in European sports, and does an extremely good job of it. We know that in Europe, as well as at home, and not unlike the Maccabees of old, Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv is a force to be reckoned with.

*Note: As of 2008, Maccabi Tel Aviv has a new sponsor: Electra.

(c) Amy Samin

Dying of the Light

Photo (c)Avinoam Samin

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 29 March 2006.

"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Dylan Thomas

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been on my mind alot lately. I feel rather alone in that, though I know that's not the case. I suppose it's only natural that after months in a coma with little or no change in his condition, Sharon would be relegated to a verbal footnote at the end of the news broadcast, if that.

Not that anyone deserves such a fate, but it seems particularly unsuitable for Sharon. If you looked at the article linked above, you'll know that Sharon has been a major figure in the history of modern Israel. He was the kind of person who could truly be described as "larger than life" (and that did not only apply to his figure). You might hate him or love him, but you couldn't be ambivalent about him. Now, I suspect, if people think of him at all, it is as an object of pity. When he does, eventually, die, people will say, "Oh, was he still alive?"

For most of his life, when Ariel Sharon did a thing, it was with gusto. In 1989 my then-fiance and I were having dinner in a nearly-deserted restaurant in the Jerusalem Hyatt Hotel. Suddenly, in walked Arik Sharon with an entourage. We watched, surreptitiouly and in awe, as he put away a meal that could possibly have fed a family of four, talking and laughing, gesturing widely to illustrate his points. His enjoyment of the meal, and the moment, was evident. Here was a man who loved life, and savored every moment.

Now this man, this fighter, this leader, is reduced to a comatose invalid. He has become an inanimate object to be shunted off into the oblivion of a quiet nursing home, but only now that the elections are over. We wouldn't have wanted any reminders of him to influence the voting, after all. It seems Sharon only remains strongly in the minds of the religious right, who have taken to sneering at him as the evildoer who is finally getting his just desserts.

In the first weeks after Sharon's devastating stroke, we played the "what if?" game alot. In the first couple of weeks, the questions were along the lines of: What if Sharon wakes up today and is ultimately able to resume his role in Israeli politics? Later, that changed to: What if Sharon wakes up this month, at least in command of his mental faculties? Finally, we wondered: What if Sharon wakes up before the elections? Of course, time passed and none of those scenarios came to be. Now, Sharon's waking up or not is no longer something that would have a tangible impact on the future of the country. A cause for celebration, undoubtedly, but not an earth-shaking one.

What is far more likely is that Sharon will spend whatever time he has left in silent oblivion, well cared for no doubt, and mourned by his family and friends. There will be no last almighty struggle, no application of that once-fierce will upon the greater forces that surround it. But if Ariel Sharon does, in fact, go gentle into that good night, at least he had - and took - the opportunity to rave and rage in all the years before this final, inevitable twilight came to lead him home.

(c)Amy Samin

Interesting Times

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 30 January 2006.

I once read somewhere that the expression "May you live in interesting times" is actually a subtle kind of curse. I can see why that would be. Sometimes life in Israel is just a little more interesting than I would like. I suppose the same can be said of anywhere on the planet. Anyone who is not happy with the way things are going in his/her country might feel that there's just a little too much going on; too much crime, too much apathy, too much suffering. If there was no war, no hunger, no disease, life would be quiet and peaceful. Soothing, rather than interesting.

That's not to say we don't have periods of calm and normalcy. Much of the time I feel my life is pretty much like what it would be if I lived in, say, Iowa. Of course, no life is completely free from worry. Like ripples in a pond, they spiral outward, from the personal to the global. My normal concerns center around things like the everyday health and well-being of my family, and whether we'll be able to establish an Internet network in our house. From there, my thoughts may turn to neighborhood issues such as lack of parking, and whether the sixth graders who serve as crossing guards at the intersection near the school really know what they're doing. The behavior and priorities of our city's mayor cause me a great deal of anxiety, as well.

Then come national issues. Politically, our country is in a tenuous situation. Our prime minister is in a coma, and the politicians are behaving like characters in a soap opera. The overwhelming success of terrorists in the recent Palestinian elections is a clear message with grave security ramifications for Israel. Our education system, while badly in need of an overhaul, may be headed in the wrong direction with the Dovrat reforms. Budget cuts have left the elderly and ill vulnerable.

Finally there are issues that affect us all. Globally, the environment, health issues, and terrorism are the chief causes for concern. At times I wonder how much longer human beings will be able to inhabit this planet.

Of course, you can easily insert your own fears and worries in place of mine. These days, even children know enough about what is going on around them to lose early on that carefree innocence many of us seem to remember having had. Life is no longer the simple experience it once was.

The question is, how do we handle the interesting times in which we live? The ever-popular "head in the sand" posture is one of my favorites, but I can only maintain that stance for so long. Some people take refuge in egoism, devoting their energies exclusively to their own comfort and welfare. Others look outward, and wonder, "What can I do to make the world a better place?" Through the Internet, I have come to discover just how many people there are who adopt the latter as their platform. I have been amazed and humbled by the sheer numbers of people who are willing to use their time, in a multitude of ways, to bring comfort and cheer to others. The cynics among us may feel that such actions, though well-intended, actually accomplish very little. I beg to differ.

It is easy enough today, through the marvels of cyberspace, to discover just what people think and feel. On-line newspaper articles, interviews and blogs enable us to get inside the minds of others. To those in need, on the receiving end of the help and good wishes of others, each small act of kindness makes an enormous difference. And those who know the story of the Starfish know that by taking action, the givers are also helping themselves.

Interesting, isn't it?

(c)Amy Samin

Paving Paradise

This Postcard from Israel was originally published on 20 November 2005.

When we first moved to this neighborhood in 1995, there were a couple of paved streets, an older section with a synagogue and a mom and pop market, a new elementary school, a few new apartment buildings with a couple more under construction, and sand. Alot of sand. We walked across sand dunes from our apartment at the edge of the neighborhood to check on the progress at our home's construction site. Now, of course, there are other houses, streets, preschools and a park between those two places.

When we bought our as yet unbuilt house, we saw the plans and schematics proposed for the entire neighborhood. Or, so we thought. We knew where the public playground would go, where the streets would be put in. After a bit over a year, our home was finished and we moved in. There were still more undeveloped lots than houses on our street (which, by the way, was nothing more than a sandy track). We looked forward to seeing the area grow, and eagerly awaited the day when neighboring homes would be built and the winds blowing in from the Mediterranean Sea would cease carrying sand into our yard.

Over the next few years, homes went up and improvements were made to beautify the neighborhood. Families with several kids - and several cars - moved in, and things began to get a little crowded. More preschools were built, and a group of residents fought for - and got - new classrooms added on to the already overfull elementary school. The road leading into and out of the neighborhood became congested, particularly during the morning rush hour.

A second elementary school was built, a new mini-mall complete with a small supermarket went up (putting the mom and pop place out of business). A second commerical area was built, complete with a MacDonalds. A traffic circle was put in on the main street leading past the first elementary school, and speed bumps were added to other roads.

Now things are going one large step further. Rather than continued development and refinement of the settled part of the neighborhood, we have signs of expansion on the previously untouched northern edge of the neighborhood. Signs for future high-rise apartment buildings have gone up, along with model apartments. Heavy machinery clears away wildflowers and brush, flattening out the dunes in preparation for the construction of a new, bigger shopping mall.

On the one hand, all of this construction and development is a sign of stable economic times - a good thing. On the other hand, the neighborhood is already straining at its seams. Parking in a small neighborhood like ours shouldn't be impossible, yet it is. While there are two elementary schools, there is no junior/senior high school. There aren't even enough preschools. Just leaving the neighborhood during morning rush hour can take a quarter of an hour, or more. This place is no longer the cozy haven it once was. Soon, the fabulous view of the Mediterranean Sea from the main road will be blocked by a shopping center and apartment towers.

In the early days, we were impatient for the neighborhood to be finished, and settled. Now, when we look back to those days, our eyes are covered by rose-colored glasses. Still, in spite of the inconveniences, the area was quieter, the pace was slower, and people had time to hang out in their front yards and chat. I guess the song really does have it right: "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."

(c)Amy Samin