wHoLy Jerusalem by Michele Chabin

December 5, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelechabin @ 1:01 am
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Thanksgiving Far From Home

We’re transplanted Americans who have lived in Israel for many years, but we still do our best to celebrate Thanksgiving and so do many of our friends.

Growing up in Bayside, Queens, Thanksgiving was the only national holiday other than Christmas when my father, a liquor salesman who worked six days a week, didn’t have to report for work. Thanksgiving was family time, and I savored it.

With my entire family (except for my husband and kids) in the U.S., Thanksgiving in Israel is a time of nostalgia and longing. I envy my friends and neighbors who have their parents and siblings and cousins close by, who get together for birthdays and Sabbath meals and holidays – some of them for Thanksgiving.  

My husband and I have tried to instill a bit of this family Thanksgiving spirit into our own children, who were born in Israel and have never spent a Thanksgiving in the U.S. 

This year, with the kids off for Hanukkah and my husband and I off from work for Thanksgiving, we headed to the Super Land amusement park in Rishon Lezion and had a blast, just the four of us. We headed back to Jerusalem in time to change our clothes and head over to the Inbal Hotel (formerly the Laromme), where we enjoyed a traditional Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings: turkeys and sweet potatoes, as well as potato latkes and jelly doughnuts, it being Hanukkah and all.

The meal was accompanied by live American music, much of it from the first part of the 20th century, played by an excellent band.

Happy and full, we returned home and watched Home Alone 3.  While it wasn’t the same as being in the U.S., it was a family Thanksgiving after all.    

 

February 6, 2013

Dear Pres Obama: Please Don’t Visit Before Passover

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelechabin @ 11:52 pm

The news that President Barak Obama will be visiting Israel next month has pleased many Israelis, some of whom felt slighted because he didn’t visit the country – despite being in adjoining Egypt – during his first term in office.

But the timing of the trip, whose goal is to jumpstart long-stalled Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations, is also making Israelis nervous. Scheduled to begin on March 20, the three-day visit will end just three days before the start of the Jewish festival of Passover, which commemorates the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt.

Celebrated to some degree by virtually all Jewish Israelis, the holiday entails a huge amount of preparation, from cleaning the entire house to cooking the traditional Seder meal for a houseful of guests. And that means a lot of trips to retail stores.

According to their social media postings, many Jerusalemites fear that the Obama entourage and the security measures needed to protect them will severely disrupt traffic, especially in Jerusalem, which will already be packed with thousands of holiday tourists.

In an open message to Obama, one Facebook user asked whether he might consider postponing his visit until after the holiday.

“While I’m delighted you’ll be visiting Israel,” the woman wrote, “I’m worried that traffic will be at a standstill. But if you must visit now, would you and Michelle like to come to my seder?”

June 27, 2012

The Jewish Nobel Prize. Really?

Filed under: Jewish Nobel Prize,Uncategorized — michelechabin @ 8:56 pm
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Am I the only one left surprised by the Israeli government’s announcement of a “Jewish Nobel Prize” worth $1 million?

According to Tuesday’s announcement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s media advisor, the Genesis Prize, which will be financed by the Genesis Philanthropy Group, will be awarded to “Jews who win global recognition due to their achievements in the fields of science and the arts.”

Netanyahu, who will personally award the prize – why miss an opportunity to be the center of attention? – said

“it symbolizes Jews’ great contribution in human development and will be a source of pride for young Jews around the world. The Jewish People has developed excellence over the years due thanks to its values and heritage. This is an important step for the cohesion of our people and symbolizes its unity around Jewish values.”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, said the prize, by focusing on the recipients’ Jewish identity and not just their worldly achievements,

“constitutes an incentive for the welfare of humanity as a whole. Only by being completely aware of their link to the values of the Jewish heritage can modern Jews fully realize their creative potential. The Genesis Prize expresses the joint effort of the Jewish Agency, the State of Israel and Jewish philanthropists.”

While I can’t deny that highlighting an accomplished recipient’s Jewishness will indeed be a source of pride, however brief, for some Israeli and Diaspora Jews, I doubt that giving a Jewish Nobel to Itzhak Perlman or Steven Spielberg or some lesser-known do-gooder will make much of an impression on the younger generation, whose heroes are mostly rock or rap musicians, actors and athletes.

Furthermore, the world Jewish community already swells with pride whenever a Jew is given a real Nobel Prize. (I can hear the dialogue in my head: “Harvey, he’s Jewish! Look how many of the prize winners are Jewish!”)

And it’s true. Jews do win a disproportionately large number of Nobel Prizes, a fact that’s all the more gratifying because the people who choose the winners sometimes do so not because someone is Jewish but in spite of it.

To me, a Jewish Nobel prize is a little like having your mother tell you you’re brilliant or beautiful. While that’s nice, she’s not neutral, and her opinion doesn’t really count. So you continue to crave outside verification.

Finally, I feel the prize money is extravagant. Want to honor someone? Give them a plaque and a gala dinner. Anyone eligible for a Jewish Nobel almost certainly won’t need $1 million. People like that already receive hefty salaries, book royalties, speaking fees, or research grants.

Don’t get me wrong; Genesis (http://www.gpg.org/projects-israel) appears to do wonderful work to enhance the identity of Russian-speaking Jews around the world, and Natan Sharansky is a smart man who thinks before he supports a cause.

I simply wonder how much more Genesis could be doing with the million-dollar prize money.

December 26, 2011

Accompany the Beit Shemesh schoolgirls

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelechabin @ 11:55 am
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I think I know a way to fight the religious fanatics spitting and cursing Orthodox girls on their way to school every day. We need to accompany the schoolgirls.

Religious extremists in Beit Shemesh, a city between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, have been trying for years to impose their fanatical brand of religion (I wouldn’t call it Judaism) on their fellow residents.

Their latest Taliban-like efforts have included daily attacks (taunting, humiliating and most recently spitting) on defenseless 6- to 11-year-olds who attend the Orthodox Orot Banot School.

Last Friday, a popular news program about the growing extremism in Beit Shemesh, opened Israelis’ eyes by focusing on the plight of 8-year-old Na’ama Margolese, the daughter of American immigrants.

With the cameras rolling, Na’ama’s mother had to almost drag the terrified girl to school. The program also featured an interview with a haredi man who justified the act of spitting at women, including little girls.

I wonder if Na’ama and her classmates might feel better if dozens of their supporters accompanied them.

What would happen if, every morning and afternoon, when the girls walk to and from school, those of us who care about the children and religious coercion walked alongside them?

The girls and their families – and especially the fanatics – need to know that society cares about them and won’t put up with this disgusting behavior any longer.

Just as international activists accompany Palestinian schoolchildren to school in high-risk areas in the West Bank, I’d like to see Israelis and visitors to Israel walk alongside the Beit Shemesh kids.

The accompaniers, armed with cameras and good intentions, would provide protection and hopefully deter the fanatics.

Visitors from abroad, along with their Israeli counterparts, are already serving as “Freedrom Riders” on once-segregated Israeli buses thanks to a program from the Israel Religious Action Center.

Accompaniers should be modestly dressed, out of respect for the religious girls they will be accompanying.

It’s time to put our bodies where our outrage is.

Assuming the girls’ parents are interested, are you?

June 7, 2011

The Teak Table

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelechabin @ 3:49 pm
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Before my husband Sid and I got married almost a dozen years ago, one of the household items I insisted on buying was a proper dining room table. I wanted something nice and strong. Something with presence. A table that said ‘this is a home’ to all our visitors.

I found the perfect handmade teak table in a boutique furniture store in Jerusalem, where we live, and quickly went home that evening to get Sid’s seal of approval. But by the time I got back to the store, the table had been sold.

The owner noticed my distress but he couldn’t understand that this was no mere shopper’s disappointment.

You see, some months earlier, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, my Jerusalem rental apartment caught fire. Sid — my then-fiancé — and I were at a friend’s house for dinner when the fire started and had no idea what was happening. We were heading out to a late-night lecture when we noticed four fire trucks rushing toward my neighborhood.

We watched them race down the road and wondered who the poor people were whose apartment was on fire. It never occurred to us that it was my apartment.

When we returned to my building at 1:30 a.m. the hall light was out. We started making our way up to the top floor in the dark, when my dear friend and neighbor, Tehilla, opened the door. Her little girls clung to her side.

“There was a fire in your apartment and there’s nothing left,” Tehilla told me. “Come, sleep on my sofa and we’ll tackle things in the morning.”

Sid headed upstairs to take a look at my apartment. The door was destroyed and the apartment was filled with twisted metal and ash. The fire had clearly started in the living room, near the entrance (we later learned that faulty wiring was the cause), and snaked its way to the other rooms via illegally placed phone lines.

Windows were blown out. The appliances were ruined and plastics melted. My clothes were history, and the computer in my bedroom looked like something out of a Dali nightmare.

Three inches of ash covered the living room, courtesy of my extensive library. The sofa, the rugs I had just purchased in Turkey, and the wooden dining table and chairs were carbonized. My jewelry, stored on the bamboo bookshelves in the living room, simply melted.

I was homeless. Half-written articles stored in my computer were never completed as I struggled with insurance companies and the landlord who was responsible for the wiring.

I couldn’t stop imagining what would have happened had we been caught on the top floor with no way out. “Not being home saved your life,” the fire inspector told me.

After staying with a friend I found another apartment to rent. Sid and I married four months later. A new immigrant, he had few possessions to bring to our marriage.

The insurance I had enabled me to buy the basics: clothes, including a pretty $75 off-the-rack dress from Italy that served as my wedding dress; some appliances; a bed, chairs and a table.

That’s what losing this table meant to me.

The furniture store owner kindly handed me the phone number of Yonatan, the man who made the table. That Friday, Sid and I drove to Tel Aviv and met Yonatan, who lovingly creates tables from Teak purchased in Indonesia. He was just completing a table that I knew was meant for me.

Yonatan delivered the table just in time for us to host a huge Passover seder which 14 dear friends attended.

Our teak table accompanied us to the tiny but sweet apartment we purchased a year later. It got covered in mashed bananas after our twin boys were born in 2002 and was the center of our lives for many years afterward.

But as the boys grew, our living room/dining room seemed impossibly small, so we reluctantly put the table in storage. We’d intended to bring it with us when we bought a larger place. Unfortunately, even when we did find a larger place, the new apartment’s dining area was too small. Our table had to stay in storage a little longer.

I dreamed of putting the table, still strong but a bit time-worn, into our new building’s open, shaded garden in the back, entertaining visions of dinner parties and holiday get-togethers. We finally set up the table on a Tuesday morning in April.

At 4 PM that day, we checked on the table, just before taking the kids for a doctor’s appointment. When we returned at 7 PM it was gone.

“Maybe some kids took it for firewood,” Sid said, half jokingly, noting that the holiday of Lag B’Omer was coming up in a few days. To celebrate the holiday people light bonfires and tell stories.

“What kids would steal a gorgeous table that weighs almost 100 pounds?” I asked incredulously.

The little old couple next door came out onto their porch. They nodded sadly and said many things from their fenced-in garden had been stolen over the years.

“Arabs,” they said, shaking their head. “They come from East Jerusalem.”

Sid and I teach our children to believe in the goodness of others, whether they’re Jewish or Arab. That someone would choose to steal the table hurt as much as the loss of the table itself. Did it really matter who stole the table?

No. Not to me.

The next afternoon, Sid, who was going through some boxes in the garden shed, shouted for me to come downstairs.

There was my teak table, scratched but still beautiful.

“I saw some kids collecting firewood and I followed them,” Sid said with a grin, pointing to a neighboring garden.

After giving the young thieves the scolding of their lives, we examined the damage. We could have had the table repaired but chose not to. Like deep smile lines, the scratches remind us that life is about living, not fretting. We were spared a dozen year ago, on Shavuot, and that’s worth celebrating.

May 2, 2011

The Balancing Act

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelechabin @ 10:27 am

Holocaust Remembrance Day is an annual event in Israel.  As in previous years, Yad Vashem held a moving ceremony honoring those who died in the Holocaust and those who survived through luck, a miracle, and the help of neighbors and strangers.

At 10 a.m. the siren wailed, a mournful cry heard throughout the country. Jews around the country stood still, literally. Drivers stopped their cars in the middle of the street, opened the door and stood at attention.

For me, the one new dimension was my kids’ sudden curiosity about the Holocaust. Almost nine, our twins wanted to know exactly who in our families died during the Shoah.

In Israel, where children even younger than ours learn a great deal about the Holocaust in school, the question was inevitable. And although my husband, Sid, and I had been anticipating the question at some point, it was still a jolt, an electric shock of Jewish reality we had hoped to postpone for a while.

“Do you know how many children died in the Shoah” one of the boys asked rhetorically? “A million!”

“Do you know how many Jews were killed in the Shoah?” the other one continued. “Six million!”

Our job as parents is to make our children feel safe while exposing them to the world around them. For us – Israeli Jews – it can be an excruciating balancing act between relaying history, or even the news of the day, and not giving our kids a months’ worth of nightmares.

We’ve leaned on the side of protectiveness, but last month, we had no choice but to wake our kids up for school and tell them that Palestinian terrorists had murdered the uncle, aunt and cousins of one of their classmates. Since then, they’ve asked, repeatedly, whether our front door is locked.

Sid, whose parents were the sole survivors of their large families to make it out of Europe (they each had one sibling who had left before the war), had already explained that his parents, Bubbe and Zeideh, had escaped, separately, to Uzbekistan as the war unfolded.

Refugees for 12 years, with two small daughters, they finally made their way to the U.S in 1951.

This year we explained that on my side of the family, grandma’s mother lost an uncle and several cousins, and that grandpa’s mother also lost family.

We pray that our boys won’t seek out the details of the deaths until they’re old enough to absorb them.

How will they deal with the knowledge that virtually all of Sid’s paternal grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins – some tiny children – were mass-murdered in the all-Jewish town of Trochenbrod-Lozhist on Yom Kippur. The Nazis chose days when they knew most people in the shtetl would be in synagogue.

Maybe when they older, and they ask, we’ll let them watch Everything is Illuminated, a film based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s  fictionalized (and sanitized) account of the shtetl’s liquidation.

We don’t know the exact horrors that awaited the other relatives, though we can guess. We don’t even know some of their names, but are trying to find out.

As Sid lit a memorial candle on the eve of Remembrance Day, I shared with my bright-eyed sons what the Holocaust and Israel mean to me, to instill them with pride, not fear.

I told them I feel terribly lucky to live in Israel, the home of the Jewish people, “where we have the strongest army that can protect us. There can never be another Shoah because there is a state of Israel,” I said with a smile I didn’t feel.

“What if five armies attack Israel all at once?” one of the boys asked. “Then the armies of the United States and England and France and other places will come and help us,” I replied, more hopeful than certain.

At the memorial service at Yad Vashem, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared, “Today, there are new enemies threatening to destroy us.”  “And let the world know, that when the People of Israel, and the IDF say ‘never again’ – we mean it.”

President Shimon Peres said that Israel’s existence “is our answer to the enemy: We have no other home.”

Sid and I were born and raised in the U.S. and our kids have American citizenship. We do have a second home to run to, God forbid, if necessary.

But our kids also know that if something bad happens in the world, Diaspora Jews like grandma and grandpa will have a safe home in Israel.

May they never need it.

March 20, 2011

wHoLy Jerusalem

Filed under: Itamar,Purim — michelechabin @ 1:06 pm
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Last week, like hundreds of thousands of other Israeli parents, I had to tell my 8-year-old twin sons about the unspeakable murders of the Fogel family in Itamar, a small Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

We couldn’t put off the conversation because, as we learned late Saturday night, a boy in Yoni’s class is a nephew of the slain couple.    Even though we don’t allow our kids to watch the evening news, we knew they would learn about it the next morning from their teachers and classmates.

We also knew that the nephew would be in school the next day, rather than at the funeral for his uncle, aunt and three cousins.   There really was no escaping this.    So for the first time in our lives as Israeli parents, we had to share the details of a terror attack with our children.

You would think this would be familiar ground by now, since we live in a conflict zone, but it’s not. The violent Palestinian uprising that left so many dead in the early years of the last decade gradually dissipated when my boys were toddlers, and today Israel is at least as safe as any other country.

When there is a terror attack – and they do still occur from time to time – they are generally “far away,” in the West Bank, a 20-minute drive from our home in Jerusalem, but psychologically a world away.   Or so we think.

As the kids slept my husband and I formulated a plan.   It felt surreal as we rehearsed how to tell our third graders that their classmate’s family had experienced a terrible tragedy and that the family must be feeling very sad right now.

What if the kids asked for the gory details?  What if they internalized the murders and feared for their own safety?  Hadn’t they played “How do we kill a robber if he comes to our house?” just the day before?  (Yoni thought of placing a rubber squeaky spider toy by the door, to alert him of an intruder, while Eitan decided his plastic cowboy rifle work best.)

I could barely sleep that night, thinking of how the Fogel family had been murdered.  I kept checking to see if our doors and windows were locked.   In the morning the kids dawdled in bed and I thought my head would explode from the tension.   Finally, when they seemed fully awake, we told them that a tragedy had befallen the Fogel family.

“Where did this happen?” Yoni asked.  “In a place called Itamar, pretty far from here,” I replied.

“Who killed them?” Eitan wanted to know.

“Terrorists.  Bad people who are Arabs. Most Arabs are good people, but not the people who killed the family,” I said.

“Arabs!” Eitan said, not convinced that there are good Arabs in the world.

“Were they shot?  ” Yoni asked? I looked at my husband.   “I don’t know the details,” I said, lying.

“Did the police catch the killers?” both wanted to know. “Not yet, but the police and army are searching for them,” my husband said.

“I think we’ll ask a locksmith to put an extra lock on our door,” my husband continued, trying to sound reassuring.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting – tears maybe —  but suddenly the boys started running around the room, pretending to be cops or soldiers apprehending the terrorists.   They grew a little wild as they entered their fantasy world, their voices becoming shrill.   It was hard to calm them down in time for school, set to start in a half hour.

A typical kid reaction, my husband reassured me.   I wasn’t so convinced.

What were they hearing in school? I wondered all day.    Would they be the same confident, carefree kids I put to bed the night before, or would they be traumatized, forever changed?  A week after the slayings, I can’t say for sure.

When I picked up the boys from school that Sunday, Yoni quietly described how the Fogels were stabbed, his hands making knife-like motions.   He reported, incorrectly, that the slain family had a son in the army, not realizing that the oldest is just 12.

I myself saw the Fogel’s young nephew hanging out with his friends in the classroom, smiling and laughing.   It was clear that reality hadn’t yet sunk in, but that it would, all too soon.   And it has.

That night Yoni had a nightmare. “I had a bad dream about what happened yesterday.”  We cuddled for a few moments and he drifted back to sleep.

Both kids mentioned the murders the next day, but haven’t since.    They seem okay but only time — or the next terror attack — will tell.

All children experience challenges that ultimately make them stronger, but some of the uniquely Israeli experiences kids encounter – asking mom to call the bomb squad when encountering a suspicious object;  personally knowing people touched by terror; and  mandatory army service at 18 – I could easily do without.

At times like these the fact that we decided to move to Israel from a pretty cushy life in the U.S.  brings on the guilt pangs.   Were it not for me, my Jerusalem-born kids wouldn’t have to deal with such Israeli rites of passage.   They’d be sweating over Little League and other American stuff.

Instead, my kids are grappling with a terror attack (in-between soccer practice and Purim costumes).

There’s nothing quite like Jewish mother guilt, Israeli style.

March 18, 2010

Pepsi grandson drinks up Israel

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelechabin @ 4:51 pm
 

Tyler Barnet, grandson of Herbert L. Barnet, a former president of Pepsi-Cola, knew almost nothing about the company’s adherence to the Arab boycott. He was in Israel this week on a Birthright trip. aCourtesy of Birthright Israel

by Michele Chabin/Jerusalem

During his childhood in Garden City, L.I., Tyler Barnet, grandson of Herbert L. Barnet, a former president of Pepsi-Cola, knew almost nothing about the company’s adherence to the Arab boycott.

Raised Catholic, Barnet, now 26, wasn’t taught about Israel or anything else Jewish.

“I grew up knowing there was some sort of anti-Israel boycott, but I didn’t know the details,” said Barnet, who spent this week touring Israel on a Birthright trip.

Barnet acknowledged the irony of his situation during an interview at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, on Monday. Pepsi only began selling its products to Israelis in 1992, right after the Arab League discontinued its boycott.

“It’s complicated,” Barnet, a young entrepreneur who is the founder of the website SoAnnoying.com told The Jewish Week. “My father’s mother, Annette Sobol, was Jewish, as was Herbert Barnet, my father’s father.” Barnet was the man who headed Pepsi in the 1950s, during some of the many years the soft drink giant caved into Arab pressure not to conduct business with Israel.

“When Annette died, leaving two young children, Herbert cut all ties with his Jewish family and roots,” said Barnet, who now lives in Manhattan.

 “We don’t know why,” he said. “What I do know is that he sent my father, who was 3 when his mother died, to a Christian school. My mom and dad got married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

Barnet’s interest in Judaism was piqued when his father’s older brother died.

“A rabbi called and said my uncle had been living in a Jewish community. A year later, I decided to see what the Jewish half of ‘half Jewish’ was like.”

Barnet contacted his paternal grandmother’s sister and her descendants, and even some of the Barnets. Their warm welcome created a sense of belonging.

“Today, a lot of my friends are Jewish and I join them on Shabbat, on Rosh HaShanah. I’ve been to Jewish weddings,” Barnet said.

A while back Barnet visited Auschwitz “but it didn’t really hit me until just now,” he said, referring to Yad Vashem. “Now I suddenly understand what was really lost.” 

Birthright, Barnet said, “has been a transformative, pivotal experience.” Prior to the trip, “I considered myself a ‘critical atheist.’ Now in Israel, I see Judaism from a philosophical perspective. Before coming here I thought it would be impossible for me to adopt religion. Now I think it’s a possibility.”

Barnet is already planning to return to Israel soon, this time with his father, who is halachically Jewish but unconnected to the Tribe.

“I think my dad is really happy that I’m making a connection. He must have lost a sense of identity though decisions made for him by others. That’s something I want,” Tyler said.

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