Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Small Packages


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 14 December 2003

You may not realize it, but Israel is actually a very small country. This past summer, our family took two brief vacations; one near the very northernmost part of the country, the other at the southernmost point.

During the first vacation, in Eilat, my husband and older daughter went for a walk one evening. When they returned, they told me that after a brief stroll, they had come upon a sign that informed them that the border with Jordan was just a few meters ahead. Although theoretically Israel and Jordan are at peace, it is not a country one would feel comfortable stumbling into in the middle of the night.

Several weeks later, we traveled to the north, to a moshav called Ramot Naftali, just a few minutes' drive from the town of Qiryat Shemona. One day we decided to take a drive down one of the many scenic roads in the area. All too soon, we saw signs reading "Gvul Lifanecha" - "Border Ahead." A few meters more, and we would have been at the fence that separates Israel from Lebanon.
To reach Eilat, we had a drive of nearly five hours. When we traveled to Ramot Naftali, the drive was much shorter, perhaps two hours. In fact, the distance from Qiryat Shemona to Eilat is only about 530 kilometers, or around 315 miles. (By the way, from Netanya on the coast to the closest border with the West Bank is 15 kilometers, or less than 10 miles).

Of course I had known Israel was a diminutive country, but coming up against those borders during both of our trips made me physically aware of that smallness in a way I hadn't been before. It is one thing to know that the borders are there, and another thing entirely to encounter them when you least expect it. I now have a much greater appreciation for all that we have here, and how vital our army's constant vigilance is to our survival.

As tiny as this country is, however, there is an abundance of riches to enjoy. You can bask in the sun on gorgeous beaches, admire the wildlife in scenic wetlands, marvel at the stunning colors to be found in an arid, empty desert, float on the surface of the Dead Sea - the lowest spot on earth, and ski down a mountain wrapped in snow during the winter. You can tour the ruins of Roman cities and palaces, visit the oldest city in the world, and view places you've read about in the Bible. You can go parasailing or surfing, attend the symphony, opera or theater, take in a soccer or basketball game, or visit an art museum or the site of an archaeological dig. Indeed, Israel is a country of many wonders.

There are many more places I want to see in this country of under 8,000 square miles. Every year, I visit sites I have never seen, learn things I did not know, about this amazing country in which I live. Yet there is always more to see, more to discover. And with each discovery, I learn something new about myself.

(c) Amy Samin

Teach Your Children


The headline says, "A Chilling Costume."
IDF forces found this picture of a Palestinian baby dressed as a suicide bomber in the home of a suspected terrorist in Hebron. Photograph (c) Reuters. This photo was published in the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot in March 2001.

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 23 August 2002

"Train up a child in the way he should go, and he will not depart from it."
Proverbs 22:6

Since that time, there have been alot of changes, including new Palestinian leadership (at least, theoretically) and, more recently, a so-called cessation of hostilites amongst the various Arab groups, which was supposed to result in a more peaceful time for all of us. In recent weeks we saw Palestinian workers erasing "death to Israel" type slogans from the walls of buildings in Gaza and the West Bank. We saw a lovely music video of Palestinian children, singing about peace and love.

But as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The photo below appeared yesterday on the Hebrew language Microsoft News website. This, just days after the horrific terrorist attack on a bus in Jerusalem that killed dozens of people: babies, children and adults.


The caption to this picture (which appeared on msn.co.il on 22 August 2003) said, "Palestinian child supports the Hamas: Promising Revenge." Photo (c) AP

Forget about the politicians and what they want, say, think and do. As long as children are raised to hate, violence and bloodshed will follow. As long as youngsters are taught that what they want and believe is the only righteous path, there can never be harmony between different peoples.

I could never claim that Israelis are blameless in the situation we have now. But on Israeli television - on the news and on the political discussion programs - the Palestinian side is always represented. Journalists, professors, and everyday people offer their perspective on the way life is here today.

The reverse cannot be said for Palestinian television. Only one point of view is ever presented. Therefore, only that point of view is learned by the young. If you cannot see things from another person's perspective, you can never understand or accept him.

The same is true of radio, newspapers, even classrooms.

And so the cycle continues, for there is no one to break it. I wonder if the politicians have stopped to consider that, even if the Palestinians were given their own state, the violence against Israelis would continue. Because Palestinian children are being taught that Israelis are evil, that we hate them, and that it is their right to destroy us. Why would a new line drawn on a map change their beliefs, or their actions?

"When you teach your son, you teach your son's son."
The Talmud

(c) Amy Samin

Journey to Gamla


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 27 September 2002

Many have heard the chilling tale of the Jewish zealots of the mountaintop fortress of Masada, near the Dead Sea, who in 70 A.D. chose suicide rather than a life as slaves of the conquering Roman army. Far fewer have heard of Gamla, an ancient site in the Golan Heights that is known in Israel as the Masada of the North.

The ancient Jewish town built on the "almost vertical flank"* of the peak known as Gamla (derived from the Hebrew word for camel, "gamal," which the steep sides of the mountain resemble) was destroyed in seven months of fighting in 67 A.D. When it became clear that the Romans would soon conquer the entire site, the 9,000 remaining Jews leapt to their deaths in the abyss below the town. The town was never rebuilt, and visitors today can see enough of the ruins to visualize all that once was, and all that was lost.


In addition to the stark remains of the ancient past, travelers can explore the Gamla Nature Reserve, home to many species of predatory birds, most notably eagles and vultures. These majestic birds soar eerily over the bleak land, swooping in and out of the ravines. One can almost imagine these same birds having been here almost 2,000 years ago, observing from the safety of the skies the carnage men inflicted upon one another.


Also found at Gamla is the tallest waterfall in all of Israel. At 170 feet, it is perhaps not terribly impressive to those used to the splendors of the Yosemite Valley. Still, the Gamla waterfall is a spectacular jewel enhanced by its dramatic, chiseled setting. Even in the arid heat of late September, we discovered a sparkling, tantalizing spill of water, flowing endlessly down the precipitous cliff face.

In addition to these treasures, we had yet another reason to make the journey to Gamla. Until recently, thousands of young soldiers would hike some 20 kilometers up the mountain to Gamla, in darkness, to be sworn into the Israeli Defence Force. It was also there that they received the two items the army still considers vital to its soldiers: a rifle and a bible. It was at Gamla, 24 years ago, that my husband was sworn into the IDF. Nowadays, all new soldiers are inducted into the army in a ceremony at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem.


No trip through the Golan Heights can be accomplished without spotting the dozens of monuments to the fallen of other, more recent wars. You can't drive more than a kilometer or so without encountering another marker, more flags, freshly cut flowers and flickering memorial candles. There are also many large fields, fenced off with barbed wire. These bear notices warning of land mines, a legacy left by the retreating Syrians in 1967, exactly 1,900 years after the fall of the Jewish outpost of Gamla. On this journey of ours the ruins, memorial sites, and land mines seemed to me to blend into a portrait of this land, and the people who have long fought for their right to live upon it.

* The Jewish War, by Flavius Josephus

(c) Amy Samin

Going On


Scene of the terrorist attack on bus line 32-Alef
Photo copyright Yediot Aharonot


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 18 June 2002

"Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come."


William Shakespeare
Julius Caesar, Act II, scene ii

For months, the debate has raged here over whether it is better to carry on with our normal lives or to restrict our movements in the interests of safety. Many people feel that to make any modifications in their daily lives is to grant the terrorists a victory. "We won't let them beat us!" is their battle cry, and they continue to frequent crowded cafes, shop in the malls, and in general go on as they always have. One poignant example of this is the man who survived the Park Hotel massacre on the eve of Passover, only to die at the hands of a different terrorist in last month's bombing in the Netanya shuk.

The people on this side of the argument would agree with the quotation above. To live in constant fear is to die a little every day. And that does give our enemies a victory. Better, they believe, to live as normally as possible; to come and go as they wish, free people in a free country. Of course they are right. They should be able to move freely, to enjoy the privileges of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

And yet, I think there is hidden in this viewpont a certain sense of "It won't happen to me." This perception of invulnerability carries a seed of irresponsibility. It denies reality, to an extent, and reflects a lack of consideration for those who love and depend on you.

"The better part of valor is discretion."
William Shakespeare
King Henry IV, Part One
Act V, scene iv

Those of you who know me are aware that this is more in tune with my philosophy. I am not a big fan of doing things just to prove a point. And, indeed, friends who once scoffed when I told them I refused to go downtown anymore have started coming around to my point of view.

We no longer shop in the mall or downtown. We no longer take our children to holiday shows or celebrations in the center of town. (Indeed, recently many cities have begun cancelling the celebrations. This sparked a whole new round of debate.) But we don't really miss those things. We are very cautious, perhaps overly so, but we have a wonderful life anyway.

But what about those for whom going downtown or traveling on the bus is not optional, but a required part of their daily routine? Those children killed in the bombing on the bus in Jerusalem this morning were not off to the mall to hang out and have fun - they were on their way to school. What about people like my friend, Noa, who works in the heart of downtown Netanya? Several times she has heard explosions from terrorist attacks in the city from her office.

These people cannot make a blanket decision to drop out of school or quit their jobs, in order to stay safe. The must go on with their lives, not out of bravado, but from necessity.

Many people have asked me, "How do you manage? How do you go on, from day to day?" The answer is we simply do. We get on with our lives as best we can, being as cautious as possible. It is rather like the philosophy found in this, the last quote I will throw at you today:


"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, 'I'll try again tomorrow.'"
Mary Anne Radmach

(c) Amy Samin

Bring on the Mouse


Mickey Mouse is (c) The Walt Disney Company

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 18 December 2001

Recently there have been rumors here that the Walt Disney Corporation plans to build one of its trademark theme parks in Israel by the year 2005. In the light of all that has happened here over the past 15 months, and in America in recent months, this news is a surprise. The kind or surprise that carries hope in its back pocket.

How can you have car bombs and spinning tea cups in the same universe, much less within mere miles of one another? How could there be costumed princesses, Goofy, and Donald Duck cheek by jowl with suicide bombers? And who would be foolish enough to go voluntarily to a place that has as its most distinguishing feature, in this day and age, its candidacy for being a prime target for mass murder and destruction?

There is only one answer: hope. Hope that we will live to see a better world re-emerge from the ashes of the "Al Aqsa Intifadeh" and the horrible tragedies of September 11th.

Right now I live in a world where I think twice before venturing to the mall or the movies. Where every time I pull up next to a bus at a stop light, I start sweating with fear - is a terrorist on that bus right now? How badly will I be hurt if he explodes himself now? My world is the kind of place where, when my friend tells me her father is going to take his grandchildren to a special Chanukah show in Tel Aviv, my first thought is fear that the sports arena where the show is held will become a target. I live in a place where "suspicious articles" (meaning any kind of bag or container that has been left unattended) are immediately reported to the police's bomb squad. Israel has been this kind of place for a very long time. Lately, other parts of the world are becoming places like this, too.

Americans can feel proud, and heartened, by the knowledge that their army is hard at work, making the world at large a safer place for its inhabitants. Would that we here could have a similar feeling. Due to external pressure, our army, one of the best in the world, sits on its hands and waits. And every day, more Israelis are wounded and killed. Perhaps that, too, will soon change. We can hope.

If Disney does build a park here, it will be a sign: "Better Times Ahead" or perhaps, "Peace is Here." To imagine Mickey Mouse here in Israel means to imagine a world where children go to sleep dreaming of Fantasyland and Space Mountain, not terrorists coming to kill them. To realize such a hope would indeed make this "The Happiest Place on Earth."

There are some here who feel that in their ardent desire for any and all things American, Israelis bring only the worst of American culture back with them from their travels. Some feel that Israel is less its own unique place, now that we have MacDonalds and Blockbuster Video. They fear that Israel is losing her true identity in her mad rush to become (as some here call her already) the 51st state.

But I say, bring on the Mouse!

"It's a world of laughter, a world of tears
It's a world hopes and a world of fears
There's so much that we share
That it's time we're aware
It's a small world, after all."


Richard M. Sherman
Robert B. Sherman


c) Amy Samin

Home of the Brave


Photograph copyright Yediot Aharonot

This Postcard from Israel was orignally written on 12 September 2001

Today was a national day of mourning in Israel. People here are in shock, not only because of the horrific tragedy of yesterday's events, but because they happened in America. Israelis view the United States as many things: a culture to be imitated, a wealthy country to be envied, and above all, a powerful ally to rely upon.

I don't believe that anyone in Israel ever dreamed that he or she would be in a position of panicked worry and mind-numbing grief over terrorist attacks in America. I know I have sent countless e-mails to friends and family over the last year, with "We're Okay" as the subject. Today, I received such an e-mail, and the role reversal stunned me. Here, we have become accustomed, if not reconciled, to being targets. We have learned the bitter skill of surviving in the face of tragedy. But we never imagined how painful it would be to sit by, watching while a disaster of such proportions took place in the strongest nation in the world.

The headline today on the front page of Israel's largest newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth, is "A Mortal Blow in the Heart of the Free World." We feel it here, too... and we feel for you. Israel has often been isolated, a pariah among nations - the events at Durban are not a new phenomenon. Yet we have always known that America would not let us be annihilated. But to whom does the most powerful country in the world turn, when disaster strikes?

Israel has one of the very best, and most experienced, search and rescue teams in the world - by yesterday evening, that team had flown to Europe, ready to come ahead to America to aid in the rescue efforts in New York and Washington, D.C. But America declined our offer of help, and therein lies the answer to my question. When cataclysm befalls America, she relies on herself. That is the source of her stength, and her salvation.

Americans have always been a fiercely independent, self-reliant people. That is, I believe, the reason she has attained her position as the leading nation in the free world. That is also why she is so bitterly hated by the enemies of freedom. And it is also why America will not only survive this catastrophe, but ultimately triumph over it.

We in Israel have long respected, admired, and relied on America. Today, we find ourselves in the unprecedented position of mourning with you.

Today was a national day of mourning in Israel. People here are in shock, not only because of the horrific tragedy of yesterday's events, but because they happened in America. Israelis view the United States as many things: a culture to be imitated, a wealthy country to be envied, and above all, a powerful ally to rely upon.

Oh, say! Can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there.

Oh, say does the Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?


(c) Amy Samin

News from Home


photo copyright Yediot Aharonot

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 11 August 2001

It was a relief to get away for a few weeks from the tension here in Israel. For months we had looked forward to escaping the escalating violence around us. While we were gone, we vowed, we would relax and enjoy a carefree trip through six states, ending with a stay at Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth. In fact, we did have a great vacation. But all the while, we felt slightly uneasy and even guilty, that we were off having a good time while those we left behind continued their routine of fear and stress. And in the back of our minds, we worried and wondered: what was going on back home?

We quickly learned that foreign media coverage of events in Israel is often unreliable. One article we read in the Salt Lake City newspaper made it seem that war was imminent. In a panic, we called my in-laws, trying to find out exactly what was going on. As it turned out, nothing much had changed since our departure less than two weeks before. I imagine my seventh grade social studies teacher would be gratified to know that the yellow journalism she taught us about is alive and well in the 21st century.

In many ways, it was worse to be away from home, than to be here, facing each day's events as they came. Clearly, some happenings were exaggerated by the media for effect. We also knew we weren't hearing about everything that happened each day; small attacks with only minor injuries and failed bombing attempts don't usually make the international news.

Most of all, we knew nothing about the mood of the country. How were people holding up? What kind of action did the people want the Prime Minister to take, as the days and weeks went by with nothing but a worsening of the situation? The feeling of being cut off from that was, in some ways, liberating. We relaxed, ate too much, and did fun and silly things. But like invalids living in a protective bubble, we felt that we were breathing artificial air. Where was the true breath of Israeli life?

We returned to Israel early in August. It didn't take more than a few moments for us to absorb the heat, humidity and anxiety in the air. One week later, while putting away the movie our daughter had finished watching, my husband switched to one of the major television networks. That is how we learned of the terrorist bombing of a crowded pizza parlor in the heart of Jerusalem. Three hours later, both major networks were still broadcasting live coverage of this attack, complete with video footage, on-site and in-studio interviews with various members of the police and government, political experts from think tanks and universities, and most touching, eyewitnesses and several of the people who were wounded in the blast.

We saw a conversation between an injured mother and two of her sons, who had become separated from her during the rescue efforts and sent to different hospitals. As I stood riveted in front of the television, tears streamed down my face. I admit, at times the news coverage here is so heart wrenching, I have to stop watching television for a day or so. But I am always drawn back. I guess that I, like many other Israelis, have a deep rooted need to know and understand the depth of my countrymen's suffering. I have learned that even if I am halfway around the world, I am a part of this country.

(c) Amy Samin

Summertime


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 25 June 2001

Although school is still in session until the end of the month (for elementary school kids), the usual signs of summer have already begun appearing on our landscape. My favorites are the watermelon stands that pop up along the roadsides. No simple folding table with beach umbrella - these open air markets often feature fluorescent lights and refrigerators run by generators. In addition to watermelon, you can often find peaches, apricots, plums and grapes - all of the sweet and juicy tastes of summer.

The hot weather also brings out all the beach bums. Many walk through our neighborhood to get to the beach, folding chairs or surfboards tucked under their arms. Local pools offer swimming lessons, sports, arts & crafts, and all kinds of fun activities for children.

Summer day camps always operate during the month of July. Young kids can be in a supervised program along the same daily schedule as they had in school. Even the simplest program offers special trips to zoos, public pools, and other places kids enjoy. For a little more money, you can put your child in a specialized camp such as riding camp, English camp, drama camp, and the like.

In August, many Israelis typically go on vacations, often abroad. Turkey, Greece, and Kenya are popular destinations, as is the United States. While they are gone, the highways are pleasantly empty, and lines everywhere in Israel are much shorter.

But one typical feature of summer in Israel will be missing this year. Normally, thousands of American teenagers flock to the country on exciting and educational tours run by various Jewish organizations. The kids seem to literally take over Jerusalem, where they spend much of their time. Large packs of teens wander the city, shopping and hanging out in cafes during their free time. Ben Yehuda Street, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare lined with trendy shops and cafes, is usually wall-to-wall people, with long waits for the desirable outdoor cafe tables. The intra-city buses are jammed with rowdy, happy teens enjoying a taste of freedom from parental supervision.

Although these kids can be noisy, and create long lines and pedestrian traffic jams wherever they go, they are regarded with affection by Israelis. Many of the teens are in Israel for the first time, and the experiences they have here will stay with them forever. Some may decide to return to Israel after completing college. Others may choose a particular career or path in life based on their summer in Israel. After all, sixteen is an impressionable age, and the tours are exceptionally well run.

But this summer, the kids are not coming to Israel. The vast majority of the programs run for these teens were cancelled by the organization that sponsors them.

And so today, Ben Yehuda Street is empty. There is no waiting at the sidewalk felafel* stands, and it isn't all that hard to find a seat on the bus. The museum at the excavated City of David, an ancient site within the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, may soon be forced to close its doors due to lack of visitors.

Indeed, there is a rather forlorn air about the city. After all the terrorist bombings, the drive-by shootings by Palestinians in the West Bank, the collapse of the wedding hall, and other tragedies, great and small, that have befallen us this year, the absence of those happy, enthusiastic teens is an abandonment crueler than anything Arafat could have dreamed up for us to endure. Bad enough to be weighed down with the unrelenting sadness the past year has brought; Israelis are tough, and used to taking such hits. They know from hard experience how to stand up and take it over and over again. But desertion by those we thought were our friends is a blow from which we may never recover fully.


* Felafel is a popular "street" food; it usually consists of deep fried balls made of crushed garbanzo beans and spices, which are tucked into a pita bread with tomatoes, cucumbers and techina (sesame seed paste).

(c) Amy Samin

Taking No Chances



Photographs copyright Yediot Aharonot

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 24 May 2001

This morning a Cessna airplane flew from Lebanon southwards into Israeli air space. After repeated attempts to contact the pilot of the Lebanese craft were ignored by its pilot, the Israeli Air Force was mobilized. Jets and fighter helicopters flew to intercept the Cessna and attempted to turn it back towards Lebanon. The Lebanese pilot ignored those efforts, as well as the warning shots fired by the IAF, which finally had no choice but to shoot down the plane. The pilot had by then flown 70 kilometers down the Israeli coast, which is approximately half the length of the country.

Perhaps you are surprised that I say "had no choice." Consider, if you will, all that has happened here in Israel since October of last year. Also, please keep in mind, that today is the one year anniversary of the Israeli Defense Force's withdrawl from the south Lebanon security zone. And remember that the Hezbollah, which coordinates most of the terrorist attacks that occur in this country, has long cherished dreams of escalating the violence against Israelis.

Now try to imagine the disaster that could have occurred if that Cessna was loaded with explosives and being flown by a suicide bomber, with a flight plan that would take the plane into the heart of Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city. As it was, wreckage from the plane damaged the roof of a school in the town of Mikhmoret. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

As I spoke with some of the other parents outside my daughter's preschool earlier today, a few said that shooting down the plane had been unnecessary, that the pilot was no doubt either stupid or inexperienced. The majority of the parents, however, supported the actions of the IAF. Still another parent complained that it took the IAF far too long to take action, and needlessly endangered the population. This kind of debate is typical in Israel. No doubt we will later hear of protests and demonstrations against the actions of the IAF in shooting down the Lebanese pilot, with counter demonstrations calling for harsher actions on the part of all branches of the army in the future.

Last week, in shock and mourning the loss of several fellow citizens in the Netanya shopping mall bombing, residents of Israel were treated to coverage of how the people in the West Bank village of Tulkarem (the home town of the suicide bomber) celebrated their brave hero and the deaths of his victims with singing, a parade, and the distribution of sweets. I am sure that had an Israeli pilot in a Cessna strayed into Lebanese air space, he would have been shot down immediately and another victory celebrated by the Hezbollah and the Palestinians.

(c) Amy Samin

Let's Go Shopping


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 29 April 2001

In spite of all that has happened in Israel over the past several months, life does go on. Grownups go to work, kids go to school, and we all still need to eat. But even something as seemingly frivolous as shopping has a different flavor here.

In Israel, a security guard inspects your bag before you enter the supermarket or store, not when you leave. Here, people are more concerned about what you might be bringing into the store, than what you might illicitly take out. At most malls, there is also a guard stationed at the entrance to the parking lot. He stops each car so he can look inside through the window, and asks the driver several questions. If he becomes suspicious, he will ask you to get out and open the trunk of the car so he can look in there, too.

Giant supermarkets and fancy shopping malls, such as the one pictured above, are fairly recent additions to the Israeli retail scene. Stores downtown are usually small, narrow rooms with shelves filled to the ceiling, and display stands cluttering the sidewalks. Years ago, people did their grocery shopping at a small, neighborhood "mom and pop" market, called a "makolet." Obviously there wasn't much of a selection there, since the store was often smaller than a typical gas station convenience store. My husband can recall the time when only the wealthier neighborhoods had such items as sour cream in their local stores. Fresh fruit and vegetables were purchased at the "shuk," or open air market. All cities and towns still have them. If the word sounds familiar, it may be because so many terrorist attacks are carried out (or attempted) at the shuks. Large numbers of people gather at the shuk, particularly on Fridays, to shop for the Sabbath.

Now we have strip malls and shopping centers, enormous supermarkets and discount stores. A visitor to Israel will see many familiar company names. We have Toys "R" Us, Office Depot, ACE Hardware, Blockbuster Videos and Tower Records, to name a few. The popular furniture chain IKEA just opened a store here this month. Being the Californian that I am, I prefer to shop in a mall, where there is ample parking close at hand. Besides, these days it is literally dangerous to shop downtown, as it is such a popular target for terrorist attacks.

It is not just the size of the stores and the merchandise they carry that has changed. Many people who work in retail, especially those who work for American companies, are learning a whole new standard of service. Here is an example of the old style of Israeli service: when I ordered my wedding invitations in 1989 in Jerusalem, I went to a small printer. After the invitations were ready, I went to pick them up and saw that they had been printed askew. When I pointed this out to the man behind the counter, his reaction was something to the effect that I was too picky and no one else would notice. In those days, this was a fairly common reaction: the customer is always wrong, and if he doesn't like something, that's his problem.

In 1998, the European edition of TIME magazine carried an article on this very subject, called "Civilizing Israel." In it, writer Lisa Beyer reported that such "boorishness is in part a legacy of Israel's miserly past." She goes on to explain that in the early days of statehood, the country suffered from shortages. This in turn created a situation where the merchant had the upper hand over the consumer. "(S)ellers grew arrogant and uncaring...buyers were grateful for whatever they got." This attitude prevailed for many years, long past the time the situation may have warranted it.

Further, with the appearance of European and American stores in Israel, local businesses face stiffer competition. If a customer doesn't like the way she is treated, she can simply take her business elsewhere. The upper hand has shifted to the consumer.

Also, these days Israelis are world travelers who have been to America and Europe and seen what real service is. They come home from their trips abroad and begin to demand better service here, as well. The combination of expectations from both the management of foreign-owned businesses and the consumer have led to increasing congeniality in the Israeli retail sector. Now, you can even return an item to the store, as long as you have a receipt (something that was unheard of even five years ago).

The following vignette, from the article mentioned above, truly captures the spirit of Israeli service today, in my opinion:

"A customer at the Princess Hotel in Eilat* is pleasantly surprised by the friendly and prompt service he receives in the cocktail lounge. 'The staff are so nice here,' the customer tells the waitress. 'Yeah,' she deadpans. 'They make us.'"


* A popular resort town at the southernmost tip of the country.

(c) Amy Samin

A Day in the Life


Photo copyright Yediot Aharonot

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 15 February 2001

Here's how it was living here yesterday:

On the way to the preschool to drop off our three year old, we hear the first special bulletin on the car radio. There's been another terrorist attack.

Through our shock, we catch a few words. Holon, military bus stop, estimated number of wounded. We turn up the volume.

More information filters in. The terrorist has crashed his bus into a truck while fleeing the police, and is wounded. No one dares go near him yet; the bus might be loaded with explosives. Army bomb diffusion experts are en route to the scene (this, by the way, is my brother in law's job when he is on reserve duty).

The reporter tries to keep up a commentary as she runs towards the scene. Out of breath, almost crying, she tells how many wounded and dead she can see, and describes the scene in much more detail than anyone really wants to know. Shakily, she asks people around her if they saw what happened. In the background, we can hear the sobbing of the wounded and those who simply witnessed the attack. In a hoarse voice choked with emotion, one man describes the way the bus accelerated and rammed into the crowded military bus stop at full speed. He relates how the driver then fled the scene.

From the beginning, no one believed this was a simple traffic accident. One reason is the target, a military bus stop packed mostly with young soldiers returning to their army bases at peak morning rush hour. Also, from the eyewitness descriptions, it is obvious this was a deliberate attack, not a simple matter of a driver losing control of his vehicle. Later, we learn that even the brother of the driver admits that it was a deliberate act.

Meanwhile, more details are discovered. We drop our kids off at school, and rush home to turn on both the radio and the television. Three dead, ten injured - then the numbers go up. And up. The driver is a Palestinian from Gaza, who had security clearance to work for the Egged bus company. He is seriously wounded and is taken to a nearby hospital for surgery. Somehow, if an Israeli had carried out such an attack in Gaza, I don't think he would have received anything more than a brutal death at the hands of the Palestinian police.

The questions start flowing. Why did the bus driver carry out this attack? Was he coerced? Is he secretly a member of a terrorist cell? How did he get security clearance to enter Israel and hold such a job in the first place? And the biggest question of all: should we permanently close the borders between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (areas of Gaza and the West Bank)? Has the time come to say "no more?" No more allowing our avowed enemies the right to freely enter our country? No more providing them with the opportunity to carry out such attacks? The debate rages all day.

Meanwhile, the radio stations play subdued music, just as they do every year on Memorial Day. Many television shows, especially sitcoms, are cancelled. At the post office, in the market, everyone asks one another: "Have you heard? It's awful. Why doesn't the Prime Minister do something?"

The kids come home from school. Evening falls. On the news, we learn the names, ages and hometowns of all of the victims. We see photos of them, these young men and women, smiling proudly in their new army uniforms.* We see photos of them as children, hear what they were like from grieving friends and families. We feel the loss of each and every one, like a knife to the heart.

That evening, our eight year old daughter is afraid to go to sleep. She has nightmares that terrorists will come and kill her. She started sleeping with a light on in her room in October; now even that isn't enough to keep the demons away. She is not alone. There have been several newspaper articles on the effect this "Al Aksa Intifada" has had on children throughout the country: regression, nightmares, falling grades, depression.

Morning again, another drive to the preschool. The Prime Minister has called for a temporary closure of the boundaries between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Special concrete barriers will be erected at 40 military bus stops around the country. As is always the case with such measures, it is too little, too late. And on the radio, the announcer lists the locations and times of all of the funerals that will be held on this gray, stormy day.

* As of today, the dead included 7 soldiers, ages 18 - 21. Four of them were women. One civilian woman, age 30, was also killed.

(c) Amy Samin

Voting for Nobody


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 18 January 2001

As most of the world knows by now, we in Israel have a special election coming up on February 6th. We will be voting to determine who will be the next Prime Minister of Israel. Of course, the outcome will have a much larger impact than that. Leaving aside the domestic ramifications, many of which are tied to the political alliances between each of the two main parties (Labor and Likud) and the remaining minority parties (currently there are approximately 14), let's focus on the most critical repercussion. Plenty of people are saying that a vote for Ariel Sharon is like asking for a war, even though the ubiquitous billboards and television ads promoting him claim that Sharon will bring a "secure peace." Naturally, many others insist that a vote for Ehud Barak is an endorsement of the division of Jerusalem, something that is anathema to almost all Israelis.

On a lighter note, after the debacle that was Election 2000 in America, most folks here are delighted to know that we need not fear the chad problem or malfunctioning butterflies. The voting method in Israel is just about as simple as it can be. The voter goes to the polling place (usually a school - election day, by the way, is always a special day off from work and school) and checks in, receives an envelope, and enters the voting booth. There the voter finds, resting on a table, a large divided tray. In each compartment is a stack of papers. In this election, for example, one stack will bear the name Ehud Barak, another stack that of Ariel Sharon. There will undoubtedly be, as there always is, a stack of blank white papers. And therein lies our own source of a potential brouhaha. In the past, people have used the white paper (called "petek lavan" in Hebrew) to do one of two things. They either write in the name of their choice, or they simply insert a blank slip into their envelope, and drop that in the voting box as they exit the polling place.

Many people have stated that they will either skip voting altogether, or they will make use of the white paper. They hope thereby to register their aversion to both candidates, and what they stand for. There is even a small group of people (mainly habitues of an upscale pub in Tel Aviv) who swear they intend to write in Bill Clinton's name on their white paper. But the fact is, unless some statistician counts up those white papers, the only thing they will accomplish is to fill up the trash cans. The only votes that will be counted on February 6th are those for the two candidates. If two million people vote, but of those only 250 vote for Sharon and 251 for Barak, with the rest white papers, then Barak will win. Simple.

As of today, Sharon has a large lead in the polls. And while I deplore the idea of voting for Barak, a non-vote will be, in effect, a vote for Sharon. That is something I cannot, in good conscience, do. I shudder to think what will become of this country if Barak is re-elected, but under his leadership I have less fear of the current and ongoing violence escalating into a full-fledged war. Sharon may claim to have turned a new leaf, but no one truly believes that. He is merely a steadfast hawk in temporary dove's plumage. Since I have no wish to send my husband, brothers in law, and friends off to fight in a war, it seems I will have to overcome my inclination to vote for nobody.


** NOTE: the graphic above says "Nobody for Prime Minister"

(c) Amy Samin

Har Ha Bayit


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 6 January 2001

I have always loved history. Learning about the past, and finding its connections to the present, satisfies something within me. Even though so many things have changed over the course of human history, I imagine that one thing has not: human emotions. Two hundred years ago, I couldn't have picked up a telephone to call my parents, much less sent them an e-mail with an attachment of a photograph taken just moments before. But the love that would motivate me to take such actions is the same in either case.

Many people, both in Israel and around the world, are now debating whether or not the Israeli government should return complete control of the Temple Mount (known in Hebrew as Har Ha Bayit - literally mountain of the house, but referring to the Holy Temple of ancient Jerusalem) to the Arabs as part of a peace agreement. A number of people believe that it is senseless to hold back the peace process over a piece of real estate, even if it is the place considered the holiest on Earth to Jews. (In fact, Jews around the world are always careful to face Jerusalem, and thus the Temple Mount, when they pray.) Their feeling is that enough people have died in the struggle toward peace, and the sooner we make the concessions demanded of us, the better. I would guess that those who hold this opinion aren't particularly interested in the value that religious Jews bestow on the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

In a way, I can see their point. The Western Wall (called the Wailing Wall prior to the 1967 Six Day War, which brought about the reunification of Jerusalem and allowed Jews to pray at that spot for the first time in centuries) isn't even a part of the ancient Temples of Solomon and Herod. It is, in fact, nothing more than a humble retaining wall, built to support what was once a massive compound above, including but not limited to the Temple. It is, however, an ancient structure, and the only remaining piece of something that was built almost three thousand years ago. Even to someone for whom the religious significance is meaningless, the historical value should be clear.

But even laying aside the religious and historical worth of Har Ha Bayit, there is another distinction to consider. This ancient spot, and most particularly the Western Wall (called the Kotel in Hebrew), is a powerful symbol even to non-religious Jews. Particularly to Israelis, the Kotel serves as a focal point. Many army units hold their induction ceremonies in front of the Kotel. Couples who marry in Jerusalem stop at the Kotel for photographs before the wedding. The annual national Memorial and Independence Day ceremonies, broadcast live on national television, are held there. One secular Israeli recently told me that Har Ha Bayit is a symbol for the state of Israel; that if we relinquish it, we might as well abandon the entire state. Or, in the words of one person's assessment of the situation (which I read on-line): "There are many paths to peace; one of them is surrender."

I can certainly appreciate this point of view, particularly in light of what happened several months ago at Joseph's Tomb. As you may remember, Israel fought desperately to maintain control of this holy site, reputed to be the resting place of the remains of one of Judaism's patriarchs. Finally, the army concluded that the cost of keeping up the fight was too high, and turned the site over to the Palestinian Authority, which promised to protect the site. Within minutes of the Israeli Defense Forces' withdrawal from the area, Palestinian rioters began burning, hammering, and literally pulling the tomb apart, stone by stone; all the while brandishing submachine guns and chanting slogans calling for death to all Israelis.

I, for one, find it inconceivable that Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, is even considering for one instant turning over Har Ha Bayit to the Palestinians. As the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (1853-1952) said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Any student of Jewish history knows that ours is a legacy of suffering and oppression. With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, there is one country in the world where Jews are the majority. Of the three major world religions, only Jews have but one tiny country, 300 miles north to south, less than 30 miles across its narrowest point. How far are we willing to go in our search for a peaceful existence? How much are we willing to surrender for what will be, at best, an uncertain peace? I can only hope that we will remember our past, find the connections between our history and our future, and decide wisely.

(c) Amy Samin

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chanukah


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 23 December 2000

Friends in America have asked me if Chanukah is as important a Jewish holiday as Christmas is to Christians. I'm not surprised that people may have that perception; Chanukah is very much a big deal in the United States. But that is only owing to its proximity to Christmas. It wasn't until I moved to Israel that I learned that Chanukah is, in fact, probably the least important holiday in the Jewish calendar. It is also the only ancient holiday not mentioned in the Torah (Pentateuch).

Chanukah is basically about fighting assimilation and oppression. When King Antiochus IV took over the Syrian territories of the Greek Empire in 175 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era, which is how Jews refer to the time before Jesus was born) he also became the ruler of what is now Israel. Antiochus campaigned to force Greek culture and ideals on all of the varied peoples under his rule. One such ideal was the worship of pagan gods. A family from the town of Modi'in (north of Jerusalem) formed a band of like-minded Jews, called themselves the Maccabees, and rebelled against Antiochus and his mighty army. Miraculously, they won.

Okay, so Chanukah is a story about fighting oppression. Then why do Jews light a special menorah (which is basically a generic term for a candelabrum) called a chanukiah for eight nights? The answer to that is one of those charming tales that steadfastly survive, no matter how unlikely it seems that they could be true.

Once the Maccabees defeated Antiochus and his army, they headed to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple to make an offering to God. There they discovered that the Greeks had defiled and destroyed the holy temple, up to and including the special oil used to keep the ritual menorah there alight 24 hours a day. After careful searching, the Maccabees, so the story goes, found a single jar of purified oil, enough to keep the menorah alight for only one day. They used it, knowing that it would take another eight days to obtain more oil. Another miracle occurred, and that one jar of oil burned for eight full days, long enough for a fresh supply to arrive and ensure that the menorah remain constantly lit.

Some people today light chanukiot (that's the plural of chanukiah) that use oil, but most have succumbed to the modern convenience of brightly colored candles. Oil still finds its way into the festivities, however, as the traditional foods of Chanukah are potato pancakes (called latkes in Yiddish, levivot in Hebrew), and jelly doughnuts (soofganiyot in Hebrew), both of which are fried in oil. The spinning top (dreidle in Yiddish, sevivon in Hebrew) game associated with Chanukah was one supposedly used by Hebrew children to fool the Greek soldiers into thinking they had abandoned their study of Torah in favor of gambling. The Hebrew letters on the four sides of the dreidle stand for the first letters of four words, which translate to "a great miracle happened there." Of course, here in Israel one of the letters is different, as the saying is "a great miracle happened here." Israeli kids are always fascinated by the American dreidles I show them.

As I mentioned in the beginning, Chanukah is really not a big deal here. Before the holiday younger children tend to have special lessons on the holiday. Aside from lighting the candles, eating the festive foods, and perhaps getting a bit of "d'may Chanukah" - pocket money - on the first night of the holiday, there are only a few special occurrences of note. First and foremost to the children, of course, is the week's vacation from school. Also, preschools and elementary schools usually host parties which tend to include some kind of singing and dancing performed by the children. Many special concerts and live shows for children premiere during the week of Chanukah, as well.

Something that happened to a friend of mine in America got me thinking about Chanukah and the fight against assimilation. Her first grader received a worksheet in school, with various scenes depicting the steps of selecting, bringing home, and decorating a Christmas tree. The class was supposed to number the pictures in their proper order. My friend's child, however, is Jewish, and had never had a Christmas tree. She tried to guess the proper sequence, but ended up bringing home a paper with a very low score. My friend was furious at the teacher's assumption that every child in the class shared this experience and would be able to complete the worksheet properly.

My daughter routinely brings home such worksheets, but they are, of course, concerned with Jewish holidays. How, I wondered, would a Muslim or Christian child in her school feel about getting such an assignment? Now, the likelilhood of there even being any Christian or Muslim children in Liat's school is slim; much lower than that of finding Jewish kids in the average public school in America. Still, I would imagine that being in that position must be extremely uncomfortable. Being in the minority can make one feel unimportant, excluded, even derided.

These days, we don't have to worry too much about forced religious conversion. Still, an unknowing oppression can be, in its own way, as damaging as one perpetuated by force.

(c) Amy Samin

Our Cousins


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 18 October 2000

I think most cultures must have slang terms for their enemies. Those terms serve as a sort of psychological defense; if you belittle your enemy, he is not so fearsome. As is all too obvious lately, Arabs are the enemy of Israel and the Jewish people (and vice versa). However, the most common terms that Israelis use when referring to their enemy are not like the terms most other cultures use. Israelis usually call Arabs "Yishmaelim" ("Ishmaelites") or, most often "b'nay dodeem" - "cousins."

These names, of course, originated with the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis. When Abraham's wife Sarah remained barren after many years of marriage, she offered her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham as a concubine. Hagar bore Abraham a son, who was named Ishmael. Thirteen years later, Sarah finally bore her husband a son, who was named Isaac. Although Ishmael was the older son, Isaac was the son of Abraham's beloved wife, and his father's favorite. Tradition has it that the Arab people are descended from Abraham and Ishmael, while the Jewish people are descended from Abraham and Isaac. Cousins.

It may seem strange to think that the events of the past several weeks can be traced back to the time of Abraham, yet I believe that is indeed the origin of the enmity between our two peoples. Of course, many things have happened since then to feed that hatred. But in a country where even something as mundane as the names of the days of the week are based on the biblical story of the creation of the universe, I do not find it odd to consider that this hostility has so ancient a foundation. Everyone has heard the saying about not being able to choose your relatives. And many people have found, sadly, that some of the most bitter resentment they have ever felt is reserved for their parents, siblings, or cousins.

There have been Jews and Arabs living on this land for thousands of years. During that time there have been countless acts of violence and rage. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 served to intensify that conflict. Many Arabs fled the newly created state, while others remained. Those who fled became refugees in any number of neighboring Arab countries, such as Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. They are known to us today as Palestinians. The Arabs who remained in Israel became citizens of the new state. But while there are Arab political parties in Israel, and Arabs serving in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Arab Israelis live in conditions that are far below the standard of most of the rest of the country. Arab Israelis do not serve in the army. On one hand, this protects them from potentially ending up in the position of fighting against their own family members in a war. On the other hand, it is part of what denies many Arabs access into the higher levels of society, where army service has an impact on your status. Many Arab Israelis work in menial jobs such as construction. Not exactly the most decent way to treat our cousins.

As I understand the religion of Islam (the religion practiced by most, though not all, Arabs) hatred of the Jews is an integral tenet. I have seen videotapes of news broadcasts from within the Palestinian Authority (areas in Gaza and the West Bank that have been turned over to the government headed by Yasser Arafat) of religious leaders standing in their pulpits preaching loathing and violence against Jews. Hanging in the classrooms in the Palestinian Authority are maps of the region that do not include the state of Israel. The school books distributed to students also disseminate the policy of hatred and violence agains Jews and Israel. I have seen young Palestinian children spewing the vicious, repugnant rhetoric of their elders, and seen young girls learning to assemble and load their assault rifles in less than a minute. If this is the education Palestinian children are receiving, how can we hope there will ever be peace with our cousins?

In his work, my husband has befriended several Israeli Arabs. He has joked with them, shared meals with them, worked alongside them. I, too, have come to know several Israeli Arabs. We have found, as so many others have before us, that once you get to know someone, it is hard to think of him as an enemy. Yet we are faced with new evidence every day that within many Palestinian and Arab Israelis lies as fierce a hatred as has ever been known. It is bewildering to feel both fear and kinship towards someone. Will we ever be at peace, my enemy, my cousin?

(c) Amy Samin

Where is Home?


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 16 September 2000

I know a number of North Americans who made aliyah (moved to Israel). Each one has a different story: the why of it, the reactions of family and friends left behind, and the personal realities of adjusting to life in Israel. I have known ardent Zionists who finally managed to fulfill their life-long dream of moving here, only to discover that they simply couldn't adapt to life here. I know others who have lived here for decades and feel that this is the one place on earth they were meant to be. I know people whose parents were proud and delighted at their child's decision, and others whose parents have refused to speak to them since the day they left for Israel.

I have lived here for five and half years. Most people I know have been here much longer than that, and are in a slightly different place, emotionally, than I am as regards living here. I haven't made a study of it to see if there is a recognizable pattern to adjustment to Israeli life. I can tell you that my own experiences have included feelings of confusion, regret, and indecision (should I move back to America? did I do the right thing, moving here?). The longer I live here, the more certain I am that I have done the right thing, the best thing for myself and my family. Yet, every time I have gone back to America to visit my family, I have been haunted by a lingering sense that there, too, is home.

How can I deny or forget the place where I grew up, when every trip to the store, or to see friends there takes me past places that have meaning for me, even today? "See that building there?" I asked my daughter Liat a couple of weeks ago, as we drove along College Avenue in Berkeley. "That's where my high school used to be." Now, why should she care about that, especially since the high school buildings are long gone, and the school is thriving in a different location? But it matters to me. "See this furniture store here?" I asked her a different time. "Your aunt and I used to come here and shop when we were teenagers. It was a clothing store called The Little Daisy back then." I didn't blame her for her noncommittal answer and small shrug. But how could I not feel a pull, a sense of belonging, to places that hold so many memories? And feeling that pull, how could I resist trying to share some of my past with my daughter?

But the more I looked around, trying to reconnect with my past, the more I saw how much things had changed. That doesn't affect my fondness for the places I remember, but it reminds me that time doesn't stand still. And that's as it should be. Sometimes the visits I make in my mind to the places of my past are more meaningful than the reality.

(c) Amy Samin

Bet Elazraki Children's Home


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 6 May 2000

Sometimes we read or discover something that has the power to change our lives. That's how I felt when I read an article about the Bet Elazraki Children's Home. It is the main home to 107 children ages four through eighteen, whose parents are unable to raise them due to mental retardation, drug problems, abandonment, alcohol abuse or a combination of the above.

Of the many people and issues that need support and action in our world, children in need touch my heart most deeply. After learning of Bet Elazraki's existence, the only thing on my mind was, "How can I help?" Realizing that I have it in my power to make a difference had an immediate impact on how I see myself as an immigrant to this country. It is one thing to learn a new language, build a home, put your children in school, make friends and find your way around. It is another thing entirely to realize that someone needs you, regardless of how long you've been here or how well you speak Hebrew.

Anyone who does volunteer work of any kind can tell you that the giver in such cases often receives more than the recipient. One of these benefits, I have learned, is a sense of belonging.

After first reading about Bet Elazraki, I made an appointment with the home's fundraiser, Debbie Paneth. She gave me a tour and explained many things about the home: its history, some general information about the children who live there, and many other things. Although government funding pays for such necessities as food, clothing, and counseling, the home relies on donations and volunteers for many other important things. For example, the children's clothing is mended by volunteers. Funding for professional tutors for the children comes from donations. Anything above the basic is provided by donors and volunteers, including toys.

These children are being given a chance at a better life. Many go on to study at universities, others serve in elite units in the army. But for now, I feel the children of Bet Elazraki deserve the things that I consider "basic" for my children: their own party clothes for Shabbat and holidays (as of now, the children have their own school clothes, but must share the clothing saved for special occasions), their own toys, cheerful decorations for the walls of their rooms, stuffed animals and dolls to keep them company at night. For now, I can help to provide at least some of these things. Later, I hope to help out by tutoring in English.

When I think of all the ways I can be involved in Bet Elazraki, I feel more positive about myself not only as a human being, but as an Israeli citizen. I am learning that the power of giving is incredible.


** If you are interested in learning more about Bet Elazraki Children's Home, please contact Debbie Paneth at panethsa@aquanet.co.il

(c) Amy Samin

Israeli Insurance


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 11 March 2000

Last week, my daughter took her gas mask to school.

When Liat first told me she was supposed to bring her gas mask to school so that it could be inspected to make sure it was still in proper working order, I was shocked. It was another one of those "Only in Israel" moments. This was not the kind of thing I had expected to have to worry about as a parent.

Of course I knew that we had the gas masks at home. In Israel, every citizen - adult, child and infant - is provided with a gas mask. Actually, the infants use a device more like a tent, but the purpose is the same. This has been the case since the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein bombed Israel with conventional weapons, and threatened to also use chemical ones. In fact, for several years after that war, parents of newborn babies were provided with these tents before the mother and infant left the hospital. Periodically, the masks are inspected by the army to ensure that they will function properly, should the need ever arise.

So last week Liat and her classmates had their turn to hand in their masks. Because she has grown since we received her mask, she was provided with a larger one.

The masks are not the only security precaution you will find here. Ever since the establishment of the state in 1948,the law requires that all homes be built with a bomb shelter. Apartment buildings used to have large, communal shelters. Large public buildings, such as schools, shopping malls, office buildings, and theaters also have bomb shelters.

Nowadays, each apartment has its own shelter, which must also be capable of being sealed against poisonous gases (another new law since the Gulf War). The rooms look like any other, but the walls are constructed out of solid, reinforced concrete. A retractable heavy iron shutter closes off the room's only window which, like the room itself, has a regulation size and construction. The door to the room is also made of metal, with a heavy duty locking system.

Sometimes on the news we hear about residents of northern towns, such as Kiryat Shmonah, being sent to their bomb shelters while the Hezbollah* shoots rockets onto the city. And of course, during the Gulf War, people throughout the country spent a great deal of time in these security rooms.

Obviously, these are necessary precautions that everyone hopes will never be needed. But they are like life insurance for us, and are accepted as a normal part of the cost of living, just like car insurance. And in a way, that acceptance is the most shocking part of all.


* A terrorist group which operates from Lebanon, on Israel's northern border.

(c) Amy Samin

Israeli Weddings


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 2 February 2000

In the last 10+ years, I have attended more than a dozen weddings here. But it has been awhile since I went to a wedding, and things continue to change here, with more and more American and European influences affecting all aspects of Israeli culture. So while what I write was at one time true (in my experience, anyway!), things may be different by now. Here are a few characteristics of Israeli weddings I have attended.

Of the more than twelve weddings I have been to, only one was held in a synagogue. A few (including my own) were held in a hotel. The great majority take place at banquet halls. The wedding invitations are usually produced by the banquet facility, and come in a business sized envelope, complete with the logo of the establishment as the return address, and a map to the place imprinted on the back of the envelope.

Many people hand deliver invitations to close friends and relatives, and mail the rest. I will always remember making the rounds with my then fiance, visiting relatives he hadn't seen for ages, sitting through stilted conversations, eating and drinking refreshments I didn't want so I wouldn't seem rude to my soon-to-be relatives. In large families, the duty of distributing invitations is divided up between the couple and their parents. And by the way, no one is expected to RSVP (and usually, no one does).

In an interesting switch on the American system, the groom often wears a suit that is purchased especially for the occasion, and likely never worn again (even in corporate offices, many people still don't wear business suits to work). The bride, however, usually rents her wedding gown.

Most weddings are held during the week. Tuesday is considered a lucky day to get married, because in the Creation story in the book of Genesis, on the third day of Creation (which works out to Tuesday here) it is written twice that God saw that what He had made was good, instead of only once as on the other days (Genesis 1:9-13).*

Another common practice here is to have a professionally filmed video made before and during the wedding and reception. Many couples don their wedding finery and visit a few special sites in the city. I was married in Jerusalem, so my husband and I went to the Western Wall, to a neighborhood overlooking the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, and to the grounds of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) building. Many people also go to local parks.

Once at the wedding site, the families of the couple form a receiving line and await the arrival of the guests (some of whom show up wearing casual clothes, even blue jeans!) Most people bring an envelope containing check for the couple instead of a purchased gift. These envelopes go into a locked box provided by the banquet hall. The bride and groom make a grand entrance together, usually to some kind of fanfare music, after most of the guests have already arrived.

From there, the bride usually goes to sit in a special throne-like chair on a raised dias. The guests then go to greet her and wish her well. Meanwhile, the groom and his male family members, and friends - two of whom serve as witnesses - sit with the rabbi to sign the ketubah (marriage contract).

When everyone is ready for the ceremony to begin, the groom goes to the bride and places the veil over her face. This is to ensure that he does not suffer the fate of the biblical Jacob, who worked for seven years to marry one bride (Rachel) but was tricked into marrying her older sister Leah, instead (Genesis 29:20-25).*

Once the wedding is set to begin, the guests usually ignore the chairs provided and crowd around the chuppah (wedding canopy) to get the best possible view. This is one practice that I know is gradually changing.

There are many other Israeli wedding customs, particularly Ultra Orthodox ones, that I didn't cover here; mainly because I am less familiar with them. Still, as with weddings anywhere in the world, Israeli weddings are a time of great joy and celebration.

* The Jerusalem Bible, Koren Publishers, 1989.

(c) Amy Samin

Rabin's Legacy


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 15 November 1999

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995 shocked Israelis in a way these unflappable survivors had never been shocked before. This people, so inured to conflicts with external enemies, struggled with the idea that an Israeli Jew had killed his own country's leader.

There have been many repercussions, but none more significant (to me) than the campaign to teach children how to deal with violent feelings of their own, as well as violent behavior on the part of others. This campaign began with a commercial showing certain kids being ostracized: one example was a boy waiting in vain for his birthday guests to come to his party. The message at the end of the commerical was: if you hit other kids, you won't have any friends.

Then came a catchy music video aimed at getting children to recognize when their behavior has gone beyond the boundary of what is acceptable. The lyrics encourage the kids to stop and think about what they are doing, then to change their behavior and make peace with their enemies (much as the country itself is attempting to do). Throughout the video, the singers, as well as various celebrities and politicians, demonstrate a special gesture. This gesture is intended to be used as a signal by the children to remind them to stop reacting violently to negative situations.

Several different story lines were created as different backdrops for this message. One shows two boys lying on stretchers in a hospital emergency room, separated only by a curtain. As each boy is being treated by a doctor, he tells his version of the fight between them. Their words are almost identical. When their cuts and scrapes are tended, both boys stand and come face to face. They offer each other hesitant smiles, then use the special signal created by the anti-violence campaign. As you look at these two bruised and bedraggled kids tentatively smiling at one another, you are hard-pressed to see any difference between them.

At the start of the school year, I noticed a new course in my daughter's curriculum. Along with reading, writing and arithmetic, she (indeed, all the kids in her grammar school) are taking a course in violence prevention. This involves, in part, weekly assemblies, classroom discussion, and even homework.

It is sad indeed that it took a tragedy to bring these efforts about. I only hope they will make a lasting difference.

(c) Amy Samin

Israeli-isms


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 23 October 1999

Every culture has its own shorthand. In America, there are both national expressions ("Have a nice day!") and regional ones ("y'all") in common usage. Many of these expressions have their origins in the media, whether through advertising or popular television shows and movies.

As far as I can determine, few Israeli expressions come from television or movies (yes, we do have a motion picture industry here). But there are certain things that many Israelis do or say in a variety of situations. Keep in mind, of course, that these are generalizations based only on my own experience!

One of the most common things Israelis do is make a tsk-ing sound. They use this as a negative answer to a question. ("Have you seen the new Disney movie?" "Tsk.") Often this is accompanied by a single shake of the head. Now, I grew up believing that making such a sound was rude, but here it is perfectly acceptable.

Many catch-phrases here reveal a fatalistic streak. One common term is: "ain mah la'asot," which can be translated as "there's nothing I (or we) can do about it." The attitude of the speaker is: there are forces larger than we are at work in this situation (not necessarily referring to a divine being). It is frustrating to hear this expression when you've gone to complain to someone who is supposedly in a position of authority. I often wonder if people say this in order to avoid having to deal with a problem. Closely related to this saying is "mah ani aseh?" (literally "what will I do?" but conveying more a sense of "my hands are tied" or "what do you want from me?"). This is usually said in a defiant or defensive tone, guaranteed to raise your hackles.

Another expression I can't stand is "ee-efshar" ("impossible"). I have been told this on more occasions that I can (or want to!) count. Many new ideas, innovations or suggestions are met with this response. Most people want to continue doing things the same way they always have. Making changes or trying something new involves work and taking a risk. I once told a sales person in a kitchen store that I wanted a certain kind of cabinet built into my new kitchen. She told me it was impossible, so I walked out. The Israeli carpenter I ended up hiring later told me, "There is no such thing as 'ee-efshar,' just 'lo rotzeh' ("I don't want to")." I feel lucky to have found a talented carpenter who believes that anything is possible if you try hard enough to make it work.

Yet another non-answer is "yeheeyeh beseder" ("it will be okay"), which seems to be meant as a soothing response that is often offered when the speaker has no intention of actually doing anything to help things turn out right. In some magical way the situation will be resolved.

The other type of sayings you will often hear reflect a rather superstitious nature. When people (all kinds, not just religious ones) talk about the possibility of something bad happening, they always say "eem, has v'haleelah..." (which loosely translates to: "If, God forbid...") before mentioning illness, accident, disaster, or any other unpleasant occurrence. I once even saw this term used in a newspaper headline talking about a hypothetical situation. On the other hand, when people (again, not only religious ones) tell you that they or their families are well, they will often say "barooch ha shem" which literally means "blessed is the name (of God)" but can also be translated as "thank God."

The funny thing about these types of expressions is that many people are not even aware they are using them most of the time. These terms have become verbal reflexes, instinctive and unconsidered. In this way, these various expressions reflect part of the national personality.

Israelis have a reputation for being aggressive and rude. While this can be true, they are much more complex than that. Israelis are, after all, a mix of people from many different countries, cultures, and traditions. Two weeks ago, a conference on what constitutes Israeli identity took place. Philosophers, artists and historians spent several hours discussing this topic, and came away without a definition. Although I doubt there is an easy answer, perhaps it would have helped if they had left the college campus on which they held their debates, and spent some time in cafes, on buses, or in line at the supermarket. Or even, "has v'haleelah," stuck in traffic.

(c) Amy Samin

Sukkot


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 4 October 1999

I would guess that most Americans have never heard of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (sometimes referred to as the Feast of the Tabernacles). It is primarily a harvest festival; but it also serves to remind the Jewish people that, on the road from Egypt to the Promised Land, God sheltered our ancestors. It is interesting that this holiday, almost unseen in the United States, is one of the most visible in Israel.

A sukkah (the plural is sukkot) is basically a small structure, similar to a hut or booth. Here in Israel, people can just go down to the hardware store and buy a special kit that contains everything you need for building a sukkah. They are very easy to put together. They are usually made of metal poles which form a frame, and are surrounded by fabric, which forms the walls. The most important part of the sukkah is the roof, which must be made of a natural material. Many people form the roof (or schach, as it is called in Hebrew) out of palm branches. The schach must provide more shade than sun inside the sukkah, but you also must be able to see the stars through the branches at night.

But an unadorned sukkah is as unheard of as an undecorated Christmas tree. It is traditional to decorate the sukkah with gourds, vegetables, and fruits, to remind us of the origins of the holiday as a celebration of the harvest. It is more common in Israel to buy colorful chains, lanterns and other decorations made of Mylar (I believe these decorations are orignially intended for Chinese New Year celebrations - a rather odd thought!). Whatever their origin, these decorations certainly add a festive flair to the sukkah. Many people also include holiday drawings and crafts made by their children. It is also customary to include somewhere in the sukkah a list of the "ooshpeezeen" or special guests who are traditionally invited to join you in the sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. It has always bothered me that there are no female ooshpeezeen.

Many families that are not religiously observant build sukkot, mainly so that their children can enjoy the fun of eating, playing, and perhaps even sleeping in them. For the week of Sukkot, religious people will only eat and drink while inside a sukkah. Many also sleep in the sukkah.

As you drive about on your daily business, you will see sukkot in the front and back yards of private homes, on the balconies of some apartments, and in the communal gardens of apartment buildings. You will see public sukkot as well. Shopping malls and restaurants build very large sukkot so that their patrons can eat out during the holiday.

I have said before that when I celebrate the Jewish holidays in Israel I am most strongly reminded of why I wanted to live here. Sukkot, in particular, reinforces this feeling. Growing up in the United States, I would see one sukkah a year, at our synagogue. I didn't know people could build a sukkah for themselves at home until I was in my mid-twenties. And it wasn't until I moved to Israel, at the age of 35, that I began to understand what it meant to me to be able to see this symbol of the holiday prominently displayed everywhere I went. America is and has always been an excellent place for Jews to live, but even America cannot offer me this feeling of community-wide connection to thousands of years of tradition.

(c) Amy Samin

The High Holy Days


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 20 September 1999

This is the most solemn and contemplative time in the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah (literally, "head of the year") and Yom Kippur (also known as the Day of Atonement) are often referred to together as the High Holy Days, or the Days of Awe. Friends in America have asked me if Chanukah is the most important Jewish holiday, since it receives so much attention in America. Actually, Chanukah is considered a minor holiday; it has only become so widely known because of its proximity to Christmas.

As with all of the other Jewish holidays, the High Holidays (or Ha Hageem, as they are called in Hebrew - literally, "the holidays") are observed in Israel on a large scale. In the schools, children learn about the holidays, make crafts and sing songs relating to the holidays. The supermarkets offer special deals on all kinds of festive food items just before Rosh Hashanah. Cola bottles are adorned with specially decorated labels, wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year. Gift baskets of all kinds are available. It is customary here to exchange gifts at Rosh Hashanah (interestingly enough, it is not a common practice to exchange gifts at Chanukah. That custom is only recently gaining favor here). Companies provide their employees with gifts, from bonuses to baskets of gourmet honey (one of the traditional things to eat at the start of the Jewish new year is apple slices dipped in honey - to symbolize a sweet year).

In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, people exchange the traditional holiday greetings and often seem to go out of their way to be friendly and kind. Anyone who has ever visited here knows that those two adjectives are rarely used to describe the average Israeli. It is almost as if a "holiday spirit" begins to pervade the air, and people become warmer and more considerate than is usual here.

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated by some by first going to synagogue for a special prayer service. It is almost universal here, however, to enjoy a festive family meal on the evening of the holiday (remember, Jewish holidays actually begin at sundown and last until one hour after sundown the next day. In Israel, the exception to this is Rosh Hashanah, which is observed for two days). In many Sephardic families (those whose ancestors were expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition and who settled in many of the Arab countries) it is also common to hold a kind of seder, not unlike those held during Passover, but much shorter. My husband's family came to Israel from Yemen, and it is from them I learned of this practice. The Rosh Hashanah table is laden with many foods, from peaches to squash, fish to beets, and of course, apples and honey. The purpose is to sample and enjoy many fruits and vegetables (each with a symbolic meaning for the new year) for the first time of the new year, and to recite a special blessing over each one. In this way, we are reminded of the source of the bounty we enjoy.

Yom Kippur is by far the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is a time of contemplation, prayer, and fasting. Many people, even those who are considered secular (non-religious) attend Yom Kippur services in synagogue on the eve and day of the holiday. A majority of people also fast. Israeli radio and television stations fall silent. And virtually no one gets into a car. Our first year living here, we rented an apartment that overlooked a large boulevard and was not far from a major highway. We never noticed the sound of the traffic until Yom Kippur, when the noise became obvious by its total absence. The utter stillness of Yom Kippur in Israel is an almost eerie thing, so great is the contrast between that day and all the others.

One result of the absence of cars is the appearance of people, walking up and down in the middle of main streets. Last week the newspaper published a photograph taken by a foreign journalist living here. Last year, he rode his bicycle out onto the freeway that runs through Tel Aviv and took a picture. His photo of a ten speed bike posed in the center of a completely empty 4 lane freeway really brings home the fact that the whole country experiences, and is affected by, this most solemn of days.

(c) Amy Samin

Back to School


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 6 September 1999

I would imagine that having your oldest child start elementary school brings back alot of memories for most parents. I often find myself comparing the way things are done in my daughter's school to the things I remember about my own school days. I don't know how many differences are simply due to the passage of time (such as the prevalence of computers in school today), the fact that this time I am on the other side of the backpack, or cultural differences between Israel and America.

In Israel, the school year always begins on September 1st, and finishes on June 30th. Kids are in school from 8 am until 1 pm, later on some days as the kids get older. On Fridays (the eve of the Jewish Sabbath) they get out at noon. There is now an effort underway to extend the regular school day for all kids until 3 pm, but I don't know if or when that will happen. Kids go to school six days a week, from Sunday through Friday.

At my daughter's school, the grounds are surrounded by a chain link fence, much as my elementary school in California was. Unlike at my school, an armed guard sits at the front gate, and patrols the grounds regularly. This is something you get used to rather quickly in Israel, as there are armed guards at the entrances to shopping malls, supermarkets and many office buildings, as well.

In my daughter's grammar school there are four first grade classes, four second grade classes, and three each of third through sixth. Each year more kids move into the neighborhood (which is still being built) and the school gets more and more crowded. Last year they added one classroom, and another new classroom is under construction right now. But soon they will run out of places to tack on an addition, and parents are very concerned about what will happen next.

There is no auditorium in this particular school, though others have them. Our school is next door to the neighborhood community center, however, and shares that facility's gymnasium in the event of school assemblies, concerts, physical education lessons and the like. There is no cafeteria...all kids bring their lunches and eat at their tables in the classroom during the long recess at ten in the morning. This ten o'clock meal (aruchat eser) is traditional in Israel.

Last year, when my daughter started first grade, I was shocked to learn that in addition to learning reading, writing and arithmetic with her main teacher, she would be taking classes in geometry, art, music, creative writing, road safety, nature, sport and several other topics - each with a different teacher. Her schedule was more complicated than the schedule I had in junior high school! In fact, most parents buy their child a special chart to keep track of the daily schedule. On these charts, each school day is broken up into one-hour segments, with a space for the child to write in the corresponding subject.

In second grade, the students begin learning Torah (the Pentateuch, or first five books of the bible) as part of their regular curriculum, even in the secular (non-religous) public schools. To this day, my husband and his brothers remember names, stories, and even quotes from the bible. This odd (to me) combination of religious knowledge and secular behavior is a striking feature of the Israeli experience. In addition, by third grade (usually) children begin learning a second language - English. In this country of immigrants, many languages abound: Arabic, Russian, Amharic (Ethiopian), French, Spanish...But it is English which is a required subject in grammar school. I didn't begin learning a second language until I was in high school. Sometimes the things these children are expected to learn and master amaze me. It seems quite a demanding environment for the students.

On the other side of this equation are the teachers. One of the things that bothers me the most about my daughter's school is that, as the children arrive in the morning, there are no teachers visible. They are gathered in the teacher's lounge where they sit and drink coffee. They often arrive in the classrooms five to ten minutes after the bell has rung, coffee mug in hand. Perhaps it is my faulty memory, but I seem to recall my teachers sitting at their desks at the front of the classroom, greeting each student as he or she arrived. In general, the teachers seem to me to have a lax attitude about their role in supervising the children. When a child behaves badly, he or she is sent from the room, but not to the principal's office. Instead, he or she is left free to roam the school grounds - or even run off if he or she can find a way to do so.

When I question the teachers about these issues, they shrug and tell me that the children must learn to regulate their own behavior, and to "be brave." The teachers seem to have the attitude that too much supervision will make children weak and dependent. It seems to me that this is an excuse for their own laziness, but it does fit in with what I have seen of the Israeli attitude about the need to be strong and self-reliant.

I struggle daily with the issues of what I see in the school and what I remember from my childhood, trying to decide what is best, what is "right" for my children. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if my kids went to school in America, instead of here. For one thing, there wouldn't be the need for two parents who are licensed to carry guns to accompany every class field trip in the event of a terrorist incident. But in the end, I believe the advantages of raising my children here outweigh the negatives. After all, things in America are not the same today as they were when I was in school.

(c) Amy Samin