Tachlis #3 — Fish and Plants: A Love Story (in Experimental Phase)

Disclaimer: We’ve been “farming” for all of five minutes. So nothing in the following post should be misunderstood as indicating that we know what we’re doing, because we don’t.

“So what exactly do you want to grow on the farm?” (a reasonable question to which we have a long and short answer)

 

Short Answer: Everything, really, that we can.

 

Long Answer: We are trying to see if we can grow most of our own food. Our family’s diet habits have shifted over the past few years, and now we eat mostly whole and unprocessed foods: vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and animal-based proteins (there’s still plenty of junk in the house, and since we can’t grow chocolate, we will still have our account at St. Coby’s Tzarchania of Processed Foods). We’d like to grow all of the “whole foods,” except for the grains. We’re hoping to develop a certain autonomy when it comes to the quality of what we’re consuming, The thinking is that if we grow it ourselves, we know more or less how it was grown (organically, free-range eggs, pastured animals), and how it comes to the table (no packaging, compassionate slaughter).  

Our farm includes a sizable olive grove, so hypothetically that’s our oil supply. (The olive grove had been quite neglected, so we’ve started tending to the trees and hope to fertilize the grove with these giant mounds of cow dung we’ve been gifted by our generous neighbors, plus with the mulch from the pruned trees. Let’s see if that rejuvenates the trees and increases yield next fall.)

 

Those dark piles in front of the grove? Special gift from a special neighbor…

We hope to raise pastured livestock for protein and dairy — mainly sheep, a few cows, and chickens.  To do that, we need to plant grasses and plants that the animals can graze on. The field had traditionally been planted with a cash crop, like wheat:

A neighbor’s wheat sprouting after the first rain, Mt. Tavor in the background

Instead, Ira planted wild grasses indigenous to this region in the hopes that we can “re-grass” the soil and then successfully pasture the animals. We’d like to plant a few fruit and nut trees around the perimeter as well. But what about the bulk of the produce — the vegetables and most fruits? Are we tilling, sowing, planting, reaping?

First, the problems with the whole “Farmer Joe” model of doing things:

  1. Soils in Israel have been degraded by farming. Farmers haven’t necessarily kept to an annual rotational cycle of planting, and monoculture (raising a single crop) has depleted the soil of its vibrancy. Growing in the soil is unpredictable because the soil isn’t currently up to par.
  2. Conditions (climate, elevation, unpredictable rainfall) do not allow for growing a huge variety of foods in one particular area. There is only so much you can do with zucchini and eggplant — we want the whole rainbow of foods available.
  3. Water is very expensive, and traditional farming methods are not at all efficient. If there is sufficient rainfall, most of the water seeps back down into the aquifer and does not get absorbed by the plants. And that’s only IF there’s sufficient rain — plus, the rainy season is limited to the winter here. (Fun fact: did you know that it’s currently illegal to collect rainwater here for your own personal use? The rain, LEGALLY, belongs to the Land of Israel, and you can’t steal it away from her…)
  4. Pests and disease are far more rampant in a traditional soil-based farming model. It’s crushing to invest so much money, time and energy into planting, only to see your produce and trees decimated by the red spider mite (not to mention kashrut issues involving bugs and produce — it is forbidden to eat insects, so halachically-observant Jews must carefully clean away all insects from any produce they consume. This is a time-and-energy sucker, I can tell you from much first-hand experience!)

 

Solutions include resigning yourself to growing just a few crops that do well in this region (olives and almonds), and to spraying pesticides and chemical fertilizers over your crop to keep ravaging insects away and the soil properly nitrated. Since we want to eat everything, and since we want our produce to be organically-grown with no chemicals in the soil or pesticides on the crop, we’re exploring an old/new idea called aquaponics.

an aquaponics greenhouse — Ira’s dream

Since I was introduced to the whole idea quite recently, I’ll rely on a seasoned expert to define the concept: “Aquaponics is the cultivation of fish and plants together in a constructed, recirculating ecosystem utilizing natural bacterial cycles to convert fish waste to plant nutrients. This is an environmentally friendly, natural food-growing method that harnesses the best attributes of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water) without the need to discard any water or filtrate or add chemical fertilizers.” (Sylvia Bernstein, Aquaponic Gardening)

 

Basically, what this means is that the fish poop is great fertilizer for the plants, and the plants in turn filter out all of the ammonia from the fish tank, so the fish thrive. This whole symbiotic system can be as big or as small as you wish (Ira’s envisioning a greenhouse so that the conditions can be controlled and many different crops can be raised, plus there are far fewer rodents and insects in that environment. Currently, though, he’s experimenting with a tiny scaled-down system to figure out the kinks. He’s built himself a small tank, figured out how to construct a syphon/pump system and is testing out a few different types of grow beds, as you can see in the pictures).

Ira and Shalva standing over the fish tank; in the forefront are two different types of grow beds to grow produce

Hypothetically, you can raise a huge number of fish annually, plus a ridiculous surplus of vegetables in a small space, on very little water (since the water is constantly pumped between the fish tank and the grow beds). Lots of protein, lots of veg, extremely sparing use of water, no chemical fertilizer, avoiding pests — Eureka! I do believe we’ve got ourselves a potential solution.

40 happy tilapia and 10 happy goldfish in their new home

Time will tell, though. Here’s what I asked Ira (who took a course in aquaponics, so he knows much more than I do — but insists that yet again I add the disclaimer that he’s very new to this):

  • What kind of fish can we grow?

Tilapia, mainly, though perhaps some kinds of bass — no salmon. But you don’t have to harvest the fish. They can just live out their happy lives in the tank.

  • We can grow ANYTHING? As in…(eyes closed, hands clasped)…blueberries? (holding breath)

Well, pretty much anything. But blueberries are very tricky, so that might not work out. You can grow fruiting trees in the grow beds, though. All herbs, green leafies, pretty much every veg you can think of including roots and tubers (these need a specific type of grow bed called a “wicking” bed) grow spectacularly well in this system. 

  • How much upkeep is necessary?

Not a whole lot, but you do need to test the water on a somewhat regular basis to make sure that the (natural) filtering system is working, and troubleshoot if it’s not. Plus the pumps need to be in good working condition. I can follow all of this on an app.

Here’s hoping that his experiment is fruitful (literally), and that he can move on to more large-scale production. Meanwhile, we have to start tackling the halachic implications of growing produce this way, plus eventually think about the halachic issues involved in raising animals for dairy/eggs/meat. Though Ira has started learning hilchot shchita, there’s so much more that we need to learn. But as the mishna says: “He who learns in order to do, is granted the means to learn, teach, observe and practice” (Avot 4:6)  Let’s hope we manage to learn and to put into practice before Shmitta year arrives, when things will get a whole lot trickier down on the farm!

Tachlis #2: Adventures in Composting

Composting, recycling, cutting down on disposables — to quote my gif spirit animal:

aint nobody got time for that GIF

And yet, here we are, composting like a BOSS. What happened to my could-care-less approach that had worked for us for nearly twenty years of homemaking?

 

This push towards caring about the bigger picture is definitely fueled by our concern for our own little piece of E”Y. I had never given serious thought to the damage that my family was doing to the environment until moving to the moshav (I felt that issue was so far down my priority list as to barely merit any consideration.) Frankly, I’ve only just begun shifting a little in giving this matter passing attention because I’m starting to notice the soil on its own terms. I’m walking it daily, noticing its cracks and colors, feeling more akin to it all. I’m realizing that if I want to move towards a deeper, more profound relationship with the land, I can’t just focus on the land’s history — I have to take my eyes off the books and start paying closer attention to the very ground under my feet, the parcel that we’ve chosen to nurture and care for.  I’ve committed to examine and understand what’s going on (this basically means absorbing what Ira’s been learning over the past year or so), so that I can help do my small part in rejuvenating our fields.

 

As for Ira, his all-in approach to our new life has him committed to learning about and implementing some new behaviors regarding how we dispose of our trash. Basically, I’m along for the ride, so long as I don’t have to do much.  

 

I feel pretty confident in saying that we had an abysmal track record when it came to doing anything about the environment. Sure, we always wanted to do right by God’s green-how-much-longer earth, but honestly, it was just too much work. Mea Culpa on just about every violation you can think of. We were the reigning family in the Kingdom of Use n’ Toss. The lady at the chad peami store saved her widest smile for us, the Duke and Duchess of Disposables. We were all like: let them eat cake, so long as we can throw away the pan afterwards, along with the plastic plates and cutlery.

 

Then we bought a farm.

 

While I don’t think we’re on Green Peace’s short list for their most-radically-changed lifestyle award, I will say that the move to the country has changed how we consume products and dispose of packaging. I’m pretty sure being surrounded by gorgeous stretches of fields contributes to our current gung-ho sense that we, too, can recycle rather than toss. That and the fact that Ira has built his first experimental aquaponics system, which will eventually require some rich soil for his wicking beds, has caused us all to rethink our kitchen routines. How can our cooking and eating habits be altered to present an alternative to chemical fertilizers? Can our own consumption help supply the conditions necessary for plant growth in his contained system and, thinking larger, eventually help naturally rejuvenate our fifty dunam of farmland (which has been sprayed with chemical fertilizer for decades now)?

 

Going green is a slow process, but one tangible and fairly easy shift we made was the compost bin. Composting is super simple, and there are abundant resources online to learn more. Basically, you’re building a nutrient-rich material and getting rid of all of your organic garbage at the same time. Composting requires a combo of brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) matter. “Brown” includes things like dried leaves, ground up wood, paper, cardboard — the smaller pieces of all of these materials, the better. “Green” are things like food scraps (everything, basically, except for meat/poultry/dairy), vegetable/food peelings, manure, grass clippings.

 

Firstly, Ira bought four metal posts and wrapped them with chicken wire. There’s no bottom to this “bin.” Secondly, he and the kids went around the moshav and collected hay, leaves, and grass — grass itself contains the right balance of “green” to “brown,” so that’s a great ingredient to add to the brew. He bought a wood chipper to process the larger tree and plant trimmings that they had collected. Additionally, he was gifted with two bags of sheep manure from our landlord.

Once he built the bin (10 min), and the kids collected the debris/organic matter (20 min), we spent a few minutes more layering in the stuff. You layer brown green brown green, sprinkle the gantze zakh with some water, and voila! The magic happens.

Bacteria is decomposing the material and turning the whole brew into a rich soil-like material. You turn it over every week or two to keep it aerated. What’s amazing right off the bat (after a few days) is if you dig around just a bit, you’ll feel the pretty intense heat of the cook. The interior of the compost bin can reach between 135-150F.

As the mix breaks down, it shrinks quite substantially. Every Sunday, Ira adds two huge garbage bags of grass clippings, plus all the rotten produce benevolently donated to the cause by St. Coby of the Freezerburned Tzarchania. This stuff shrinks like sauteed spinach. We’ve only been at it for about a month and a half, and already have some real compost to transfer to Ira’s aquaponics grow beds (more on that experimental venture in a future post!)

 

It’s always helpful to give your compost bin some extra oomph to get it steamy. Ira was tipped off by a moshav friend that there’s a worm guru in Kiryat Tivon, and he went off one day to get himself some worms. (The sentences that come out of my mouth sometimes give me pause.) The dude gives away his worms to people like us for the sheer joy of spreading the compost gospel. The worms (like the bacteria) consume the scraps, and their worm casings are like “fertilizer on crack.”

 

Where does our kitchen routine fit into all of this? We have a small tin on the counter — in go all fruit/vegetable peelings, all produce that is past prime and can’t be salvaged in a soup, half-eaten sandwiches, stale carbs of all sorts, eggshells, torn up paper and cardboard wrapping. Even toilet paper tubes and newspapers can be composted. This gets emptied into the compost bin every other day or so. What ends up now in our (much-reduced) garbage can are past-due dairy and meat, plastic, and glossy food packaging. Our garbage can fills much more slowly than it used to.

Ain’t she a beauty? Bet it brings you back to shmittah year…

(Secret confession: getting rid of stuff in general gives me serious satisfaction, but getting rid of stuff by making it useful? That scratches a DEEP tetris itch. Like the mini triumph of putting together that pre-Pesach meal with a quarter pkg of phyllo dough and a can of black beans — that’s what composting is like, and I guess that’s why I don’t see that little bin as a nuisance.)

 

For the first time, we realized just how much kitchen waste is being wasted. Most of what is stocking our fridges and pantries is organic and really shouldn’t be thrown in the trash can, where it will just end up in a landfill. (What’s so wrong with that? The organic matter in a landfill is deprived of oxygen, and the anaerobic decomp produces high levels of methane. Composting exposes organic waste to oxygen, so carbon dioxide is produced instead of methane. Even a non-scientist like me knows that Co2 is far more beneficial for the environment than methane.)Landfill

I grew up in a recycling house. My mother has always been committed to recycling plastic, paper and glass — woe to whichever child would throw away the cottage cheese cup, or the comics section! I’ve always admired her dedication, but I could never really adapt any of her habits into our crazy hectic life. Convenience is critical to managing a large household, as are disposables. I don’t think I’ll ever be as committed to recycling as my mother, though I am willing to take on measures that are nuisance-free and don’t take up too much additional space in our already-tight kitchen. So as far as recycling goes, we have started recycling plastic bottles and glass containers — we have a large cardboard box unobtrusively by the back door for plastic drink bottles and glass containers. We bring large bags to the grocery store (most of the time, when we remember). We’re definitely using fewer disposables, though we may be offsetting that gain with the increase in water used for washing dishes. Don’t think of asking me to ever give up my Kirkland paper towels from Osher Ad or my seudah shelishit paper plates — it’s not gonna happen. But as I watch the garbage turn into gold for the soil, and as I watch more and read up more on just how much damage humanity has done to the environment in just the last fifty years, I’m starting to think maybe we all should be paying more attention, or there might not be much ground to bury our heads in in the near future.

 

Who are 45% of the People in Your Neighborhood?

How many Jewish Israelis, much less Jewish immigrant Israelis, have ever spent time in an Arab town or city? We might casually (or nervously) encounter Arabs in our daily lives, or even meet them more intensively in a professional capacity, but what about on their turf: in their schools, cafes and streets?  

 

No one will give me a clear number (and I’ve asked around the experts of this region), but Arabs comprise an extraordinarily large percentage of the population of the Lower Galil. The current number bandied about (minus the largest Jewish, Arab, and mixed population centers) is a whopping 45%. I could go my whole life sidestepping Sachnin and Arabe, two large villages in the Lower Galil, but then how could I honestly claim intimate familiarity with this region? My deeper interest is in the ancient Jewish roots of these places (Sachnin was the home of R’ Chanina ben Tradyon, and R’ Chanina ben Dosa is buried in Arabe, where R’ Yochanan ben Zakai spent 18 years studying), but it’s also important to talk about their current iterations as significant Arab centers.

 

Sachnin alone is much more “city” than “village,” with a population of 31 thousand people, a scrappy but very popular football team and a trendy coffee shop sandwiched between Renuar and Golbary. Neighboring Arabe has 21k residents, and growing. Both have taken a new turn, as younger Arabs are drawn away from traditional rural life to the bustle of the city. These places are quickly developing into urban sprawl, and have started to rival other popular hubs like Acco and Haifa in providing Arabs a more upscale, modern lifestyle. Check out some of the newer villas in Sachnin:

Villa at right, nestled deeply in the woods on slope overlooking “downtown” Sachnin. Seriously jealous!!!

What’s missing in both places is any real urban planning that we take for granted in Jewish Israeli villages and cities. There are no public spaces, no parks or benches, no trees or shrubbery. This is a cultural phenomenon rather than a matter of insufficient funds, argues Adnan, our guide; Arabs have traditionally been far more concerned with investment in their private homes than the appearance of public spaces. He’s hoping that with more and more Arabs entering Jewish communities and enjoying their green spaces, Sachnin might allocate more resources to build a park or throw up some trees.

 

There’s a very small Christian minority here (900 strong) who are lovingly tolerated by their Moslem brethren (this was reiterated around ten times in as many minutes by the beaming Father Salah Choury, the leader of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who “invites all people to come visit Sachnin, City of Love and Brotherhood” [his words]).

The Father is very, very fond of St. George, who appears to residents in visions astride his galloping horse. There was also recently a dove who entered the new Cathedral (largest Orthodox cathedral in the Middle East, actually — and it was enormous), flew over to a patch of wet cement, and daintily stepped out the image of…a dove! They are covering it with glass and will venerate the miracle alongside the many other icons.

 

But enough about the Christians, since they make up such a tiny percent of the combined populations of Sachnin and Arabe. What did I gather about the Moslem population? Here are some observations and snapshots:

  • There’s a rather dilapidated ethnographic museum in Sachnin, described in its brochure as the “Urban Museum for Arab Palestinian Heritage and Culture.” We heard a nice shpiel on the history of Sachnin by the Museum’s director (who did not neglect to mention Sachnin’s Jewish roots), but most of the visit was devoted to the post-639 CE history of Moslem conquest/claim of Sachnin and the surrounding areas. Fun Fact: the mihbaj (coffee grinder/allover percussion instrument) was/is also employed as “message bearer” of sorts. Depending on how rapidly and earnestly the grinder is banging away, others are aware that there has just been news of a joyous event (a birth, an engagement) or impending danger. These people take their coffee extremely seriously.
  • They take their coffee so seriously, in fact, that I was offered coffee and refreshment everywhere I went. Father Choury was handing out CrissCross chocolate bars; I’ll forever wonder if his candy choice was intentional (I didn’t have the guts to ask him). 
  • Arab homes traditionally have a portrait of one’s ancestors, to give proper homage to roots. Also, the host will always sit closest to the door, seating his guest more deeply in the interior, an arrangement which conveys respect and protection for the guest.
  • I asked about the near-ubiquitous long pinkie nail sported by nearly every Arab man that I’ve seen. (I can’t be the only one who has ever wondered about this!) I was told there’s no religious or cultural significance, but a vestige of the 60’s coke craze. In fact, Moslems who pray five times a day must wash their hands before prayer, and long nails (and nail polish!) is considered a chatziza (a barrier that impedes ritual purity).
  • The signage around the streets here is in Hebrew as well as Arabic, but the street and institution names are naturally of Arab leaders and heroes. There’s no “Kikar Ben Gurion” in Arabe, not surprisingly. There is a statue of Gamal Abdel Nasser, paid for by the Israeli government.

 

Now to the highlight of my day, a visit to meet with the charismatic principal (Hamad Sayeed Ahmad) of the Almutanabi School, a mamlachati (government-sponsored) primary school with 400 students. He spoke plainly about the elephant in the room. I appreciated his frankness, and judge it especially important to share his assessment with others, as he is a top educator within the city and is conveying these values to the next generation. He describes himself as “a proud Moslem Arab Palestinian who is also a citizen of Israel”. From what I gathered from Adnan, most residents of Sachnin and Arabe would describe themselves thusly. They are happy as citizens of Israel, but they do not self-identify as Israeli, rather “Arab Palestinians.” This seems an important distinction for them to make as they understand their own identities, and definitely for Jewish Israelis to understand, absorb and not ignore.

 

While it is illegal to observe Nakba Day in an Israeli school, there is a city-wide observance, and so most students don’t even show up to studies. What is built into the very fabric of Sachnin far more profoundly than the rather-abstract Nakba is observance of al-Ard (Land Day), as well as commemoration of the events of October 2000. When the Israeli government tried to appropriate dunamage in that area in 1976 for army training land (and for development of Jewish villages), they were met with violent opposition that resulted in six local deaths, an event commemorated annually as “Land Day.” (If you’re going to read through any link in this post, let this be the one!)

Fast forward to October 2000, when local tensions between Arabs and Israeli police boiled over into violent demonstrations, exacerbated by footage of the (now-debunked) shooting of Muhammed el-Dura in Gaza, and Ariel Sharon’s ascent of the Temple Mount. Thirteen local Arab demonstrators were killed by police. October 2000 still beats loudly in the memory and rhetoric of the people of Sachnin, and they have a difficult time when a local decides to join the police force (few to no Sachninites serve in the Israeli army, and just a scattering do any sort of sherut leumi service). It’s of note that mosques built in Israel after the conflict in 2000 resemble el-Aqsa and don’t sport the traditional green domes, in solidarity and as homage to the al-Aqsa intifada

 

Local Arab possessiveness over their lands (the entire Sachnin valley, in this case, stretching from Sachnin to Deir Hana) is deep and fierce, and growing in intensity and confidence as time passes. They don’t feature של״ח (the multi-disciplinary approach to Land of Israel studies) in their curricula; why should they expose their students to the Jewish connections to the land? While I am strongly opposed to the legitimacy of allowing other “narratives” a place in determining land and resource allocation in modern Israel, pretending like over a million and a half Israeli citizens can’t possibly self-identify as Palestinian or champion the Palestinian cause is the very definition of burying our heads in the sand. (I understand their grievances, and am happy to have heard them, but I obviously believe in Jewish sovereignty over the entire land of Israel, and expect the government to act in the best interests of the Jewish majority. I know that my American-accented hebrew was particularly grating on Principal Ahmad’s ears [though he was very pleasant about it], precisely because to him, I am the very symbol of newcomer-usurper of his land. I am not going to apologize for my Zionism or my determination to promote a strong Zionist ethos throughout all of Israel, even though I’m doing so with an American accent. I think like-minded people should not be afraid to state that position plainly, as the Arabs I met certainly weren’t afraid to state their position plainly.)

 

Back to the delightful Almutanabi School. Almutanabi is a “Green School,” with a focus on creative ecology and environmental studies.  It is modern and clean, with resources far beyond any my children have experienced in their local schools: twenty students and two teachers per class, a robust computer center, lab and music room, impeccably designed public spaces and a luxury teachers’ room. Can you tell I was jealous? (I wonder if my kids’ crowded school, roughly double the size in population but smaller in physical plant, has been allocated the same budget as Almutanabi).

school’s entrance
general lounging area, as seen from second floor hallway

Arab literary giants such as Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq al-Hakim and Taha Hussein grace the walls of the school. In contrast, my kids’ school has pictures of Jewish women like Miriam Peretz and Nehama Leibowitz on the staircase. Different worlds, different heroes

One thing the school didn’t have was an Israeli flag.

 

The north (excepting the activities of Raeed Salah and his inflammatory Northern Moslem Movement, based in Umm el-Fahm) is often touted as the exemplary model of friendly neighborly relations between Arabs and Jews. Though my day continued on with further meetings, lots of kumbaya-peace tents and more of that fine coffee — the absence of the flag at the school lingered on as a symbol of the very complicated identity that my new neighbors have developed for themselves as “Arab Palestinians” who enjoy the benefits of also being citizens of Israel. In the north, at least, the Arab population see their primary identity as “Palestinian,” the Israeli classification as purely incidental. I hope that friendly relations can continue, but let’s not pretend that the Israeli flag will soon fly in Almutanabi School.  

Round and Round We Go

 

 

The great dissonance of Sukkot has us going around in circles

 

A great deal of my formative education involved memorizing bits of general knowledge about Judaism and its practices: mishnayot in Pirkei Avot, blessings of all sorts, dates and the ordering of the parshiyot. One critical piece of the “yediyot klaliyot” curriculum in elementary school was learning the different names for the holidays. Sukkot is also Hag HaAsif, Zman Simkhateinu and “he’Hag.” These I knew by the age of six, but the deep stirah (internal contradiction) inherent in these names only dawned on me in my adulthood.

 

Sukkot is heHagthe paradigmatic, prototypical “chag.” It is repeatedly assigned that shortened handle: “he’Hag” in the Torah inevitably refers to Sukkot. In some essential way, the holiday embodies “hag-ness” more than the other hagim. No wonder, really, since the ritual, liturgy and theme of this holiday is all about circles, the very meaning of the word “hag.”

 

Implied in this general name for “holiday” are the iterative cycles of time that we encounter with every mo’ed (a complimentary term for holiday, which literally means an “appointment” or, more specifically, an “appointment with time”). Every Pesach, for example, we revisit the concept of herut (freedom); every Hanukah, the concept of hinuch-dedication. But the ultimate hag, the one known simply as “Hag,” takes the concept of circuits to an extreme.

 

Consider that Sukkot is the only hag defined as “tekufat hashana,” (Exodus 34:22), the turning of the year. That turning is played out symbolically by the hakafot of the hoshanot, the daily circuits around the bimah with the four species, culminating in the hakafot with the sifrei Torah on Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. The very mitzvah of the four species is performed in the round. To bolster the cyclical nature of hag, the rabbis fixed the annual cycle of Torah reading to this holiday, creating endless possibility for further “appointments with time.” Sukkot definitely has us going around in circles!

 

Our liturgy alludes to completeness, a full roundness of experience — matters that will only come full-circle at the end of days. “May God re-establish the fallen Sukkah of David.” “May God find merit enough in us to seat us in the (celestial) sukkah made of the Leviathan’s skin.” Eschatological and mysterious allusions to restoring the dead, hints of the World to Come, weave in and out of the Sukkot liturgy as easily as the many references to bounty and blessing in this world. The meta-structure of Creation, this world and the End of Days are a definite subtext running through our observance of this holi

 

That Hag is also called “Asif” indicates yet another aspect of things coming full-circle. “A-s-f” means an ingathering, to be sure, but it also implies a conclusion — a final gathering. Va’yei’asef el amav/avotav is the biblical expression for death: “And he was gathered in to his people/fathers.” Sukkot marks the agricultural end of year: fields are emptying of their viable produce, grass-turned-hay is dry and dead, ready for baling. The schach which covers the sukkah must be of dead stuff — the refuse of the harvest.  The cycle of growth is completed as the world around us turns dark and cold, a fact marked by other death festivals observed universally in this season.

 

If all the death and contemplating-of-ends that surrounds this holiday wasn’t enough, Kohelet serves as the ultimate buzzkill for this erstwhile Zman Simhateinu, our very Hag of Happiness. Kohelet, the Debbie Downer of the Bible, is the centerpiece reading for this holiday, recited in dirge tune on Shabbat Hol HaMoed. Kohelet’s driving message is that it’s nigh impossible to make any real difference in this world of endless circles, where we are all destined for death and eventual oblivion. Everything is repetitive, and far larger than any one person, and the world will outlive your brief time here; where can you find your meaning within these perpetual, unalterable cycles?

 

A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and to its place it yearns and rises there. It goes to the south and goes around to the north; the wind goes round and round, and returns to its circuits….All things are wearisome, no one can utter it; the eye shall not be sated from seeing, nor shall the ear be filled from hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. (Kohelet, Chapter 1)

 

The marked emphasis on cycles, on death, on endings, and the concomitant sense of despair that often marks contemplation of the futility in finding any real meaning or purpose within these continuous patterns, seems absolutely antithetical to the essential characterization of this hag as “Zman Simhateinu,” the ultimate annual appointment with happiness. For how can one really be happy amidst all of this decay and death, where bright and hopeful beginnings mean little when reminded that they, too, will eventually end and be forgotten?

 

Beyond that, consider that the happiest moment of the entire year took place during Sukkot, at a celebration headlined by a reenactment of one of the foundational cycles in nature: the water cycle.

 

He who has never witnessed the festival of the water drawing (Simhat Bet HaShoeva) has never experienced true happiness in life. (Sukkah 5:1)

 

The ritual involves drawing water from the deep — from the Mei HaShiloach at the base of ancient Jerusalem — carrying it up to the Temple altar, and pouring it onto the altar, where it will cycle back to its source. One can almost imagine participants murmuring the following verse from Kohelet as they witness this rite:

 

All of the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers go, there they repeatedly go. (Kohelet 1:7)

 

What a gorgeous dissonance the mishna presents here: the climax of joy set against the paradigmatic symbol of natural cycles that must outlive us, forever. This dissonance is sublimely instructive, and cuts to the very heart of why the holiday of joy is also the holiday of death. Truly, happiness can only really be found in our grasping of a moment, fully aware of its transience. I treasure my baby’s cuddle precisely because I know now, as an older parent, that I might never have a moment like this again. (Younger parents, may not find these moments as remarkable — younger people in general aren’t thinking about endings or missed opportunities to seize a moment. I know I wasn’t, and I didn’t.) We transcend our mortality and join in the unceasing hora dance by living our moments deeply, knowing they are fleeting.

 

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise

Eternity, William Blake

Old Kohelet knew that it is precisely the passing of time, the contemplation of death’s inevitability, that brings one to complete joy. There truly is nothing new under the sun: parents have looked upon their babies with shining eyes since the beginning of time, and will always continue to do so. But our greatest joy is when we sit in our sukkot, sinking deeply into the moment and making it uniquely ours — our sukkah, our baby, our joy — transforming the instant into eternity.

 

How very special are we

For just a moment to be

Part of life’s eternal rhyme.

— Charlotte’s Web, “Mother Earth and Father Time”

(These musings on inyana d’yoma based on the shiurim of R’ Matis Weinberg)

45 Years Since Tel Saki

Meet Yaya.

Yaya (full name: Yoram Yair, but don’t know if anyone ever called him that) is a four star retired general. Doesn’t he look like one? But when we met him last week on Motzei Yom Kippur (11 Tishrei), he was just “one of the guys,” a soldier among comrades come together to remember their brothers who fell 45 years ago at Tel Saki.

 

We were there at the behest of Meir and Esti Fultheim, our new neighbors. Meir lost his brother and Esti, her brother-in-law, at Tel Saki, one of the legendary battles of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Avner Fultheim was all of nineteen years old when he was killed during the infamous battle. 

Avner Fultheim, hy”d

 

Most anglo olim have made aliyah within the last thirty years. The intifadas and the wars over the last three decades, the terror attacks and kidnappings and short-range projectiles and lethal kites take up whatever headspace we can safely devote to our nation’s losses. For younger adults, it is hard to relate to the earlier wars: sepia photographs of teenagers who would have been in the same high school class as our parents, the dated haircuts and moustaches in the pictures, things that went south on a distant northern border we rarely visit.

A conscious element of our move to Sde Ilan was the anticipation of new experiences that would deepen and broaden our familiarity with “old Israel” — the founders, the (original) builders. Meir and Esti are the very definition of “Old Israel” — Meir was born in Sejera/Ilaniah, moving right across the road to Sde Ilan with his parents upon its founding in ‘49. The pictures on his wall are of his grandfather, Aryeh Fabrikant (one of the pillars of early Sejera back in the early 20th century) with David Ben Gurion and Yitzchak Ben-Zvi (his great-grandfather on the other side was Yerachmiel Halperin, one of the founders of Zamarin, later Zikhron Yaakov). Esti was born to Holocaust survivors in a detention camp in Cyprus. Her parents, survivors of Auschwitz, were waiting for permission from the British to enter Israel.

The Fultheims are founders. Here they were born, here their children were born. They know every corner of the north as well as anyone could ever know it. They know it the way that only kids know their neighborhoods: where the rut is where your bike will definitely get stuck, where there is a hidden patch of perfect grass that even the adults don’t know about. That’s how well they know the north, from memories of exactly where the Syrians would shoot at their family cars on holiday. During the hour-long drive to Tel Saki, we were treated to dozens of stories, tidbits, virtual snapshots, all in such gorgeously measured and exacting hebrew (Esti was an elementary school teacher for forty years) that we could follow every turn of their words as we wound our way up the Golan Heights.  

 

The tekes (ceremony) began with the flag lowered to half-mast. Some observations from the ceremony:

  • A group of soldiers still in tironut (basic training) were in attendance. All of the soldiers were told in advance to roll down their sleeves and put on their kumta’ot (caps).

  • As the flag was being attached to the pole, everyone kept screaming good-naturedly to each other to make sure it didn’t touch the ground.

  • The commander who was addressing his troops was 20 — maybe 21. He introduced  Yaya by repeatedly addressing him as “Aluf Yaya.” Generals and politicians can be so attached to their nicknames that their given names become all but irrelevant.
  • Yaya got up and told all of the soldiers to sit down, because he was going to be a while and had what to say. They all sat Indian-style on the ground.
  • The original soldiers were all in their 60s, yet at Tel Safi, you could see in their faces what they must have looked like as boys.
  • One of the people present was in a black hat, kapote, full-on Chassidish garb. He apparently lives in Tzfat and attends every year, Esti told me. She doesn’t know who he is, but he doesn’t have any personal connection to the battle. He is there to honor the fallen.
  • The details of this battle are astounding. 5 soldiers holed up in a bunker, facing down eleven thousand Syrians. Their friends who died during a rescue attempt — “no man left behind” — deserve a place of honor in our collective memory. Take it from Ya-Ya:

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Here’s a warning to anyone impatient to hurry up and reach my central theme here: I am taking my time with this one. I am DELIBERATELY meandering around with this post, because A) August is endless and it’s making me sluggish; and B) the speedbumps here in Sde Ilan are unmarked, which has taught me (and my poor car) the hard way that sometimes, you just MUST slow down.

 

Everyone asks how we’re adjusting, and my stock answer is: as best as can be expected, given the circumstances. Circumstances are these: a seriously hot summer, nine excited people of varying levels of maturity who have all upended their lives on multiple fronts, a very large and exceptionally morose bullmastiff — all of us all feeling our way through our tighter new quarters.

 

How are we managing, given a rather massive downsize? Are we making friends? Let’s just say the word “gingerly” has never really applied to our style of doing things — we’re bumblers, lumberers, staggerers. We’re bursters into places, but well-meaning and kind in our bursting, like a family of friendly neighborhood drunks. We’re forward and smiley, so we’re easily tolerated. (This regards the moshav. Within the house, as each of us learns the rhythms of our new lives, we are definitely less tolerant with each other. Plus — the heat! We bravely venture outdoors to regain some civility for five minutes, only to scuttle back inside, preferring the jostling and stepping on each other in tight air-conditioned quarters to the peaceful calmness of large open scorching spaces.)  

 

The first week was a blur of setting up house with lots of well-meaning kids who understandably wanted a lazy summer with friends. I am indebted to my kids for bearing with chaos with as much grace as the Weissman genes allow for (again, see above re: the lumbering and bursting forth. I’d say imagine bulls in a china shop, but that idiom is overused — though it is an entirely accurate description of our general family condition.) The reorganizing of all of these lives into temporary digs has unfolded haltingly, in bursts, all progress meekly taking place in the shadow of the ever-present “what is there to eat” refrain. “What is there to eat” and the same fifteen Barney songs have been this summer’s anthem: Barney is the ever-present background loop, tolerated only because it is the sole measure which keeps the toddler entranced enough to stay out of trouble. As for our diets: sorry, but I refuse to divulge the exact type and quantity of junk that we’ve been feeding our kids and ourselves to keep the “what is there to eat” cry spaced at acceptable intervals. I will not be shamed.

 

It’s been three weeks — anything else going on? Well, there was a summer camp for a week there for our six year old, but that seems to be a distant memory. The oldest was here for a hot second before he escaped to his new digs. The sixteen year old stops in occasionally, but this has more to do with the fact that she’s an Israeli teen than it does to the move. Teens here are always camping on the kinneret in the summer — am I right, fellow parents? Large groups of them then come crashing here seeking creature comforts, then beat a quick retreat when they see what currently passes for “creature comforts.” Let’s just say that our young guests come with certain well-deserved expectations. Years of hosting hundreds of our kids’ friends have given us a reputation for a seriously laid back brand of “mi casa su casa” hospitality, with ample space for sustained “hanging out,” a tolerable smell, and lots of unhealthy food choices available to feed the ravenous young hoards. Now, though, the keter cupboards are regularly stripped bare (search above for the words “What. Is. There. To. Eat” as to why this is so). What’s more, the moshav is a odoriferous place (but it’s a charming reek!), and there are not enough beds for even the core nine of us. Plus, heavens! There is no dishwasher. So our young visitors, polite and lovely each and every one, are not currently chomping at the bit to spend sustained time in our rental, because it means doing dishes in a stinky place with no snacks as a reward.

 

An aside, and a very truthful one at that: We are thrilled when our dear family and friends come by to spend time. In the three weeks since our move, we have “entertained” six families and assorted visitors, all of them very good-naturedly accepting our apologies for a severely compromised hosting style. Thankfully, people who come visit are committed to the long-haul along with us, as I’ve made each one promise that they’ll continue to come out and share in our lives, as we share in theirs, and that eventually we’ll be able to host with a full cupboard and enlarged space to take it all in. We treasure each visit — keep it up, everyone! We’re in this together.

 

What has August amounted to? Organizing the home, endless laundry, cooking and dishes, you all know the drill. Thinking back over the last three weeks, I realize that a good chunk of our time seems to have been taken up with fostering a close and intimate relationship with the owner of the Keter outlet in Afula (our purchases have basically covered his mortgage), as well as St. Coby of the Freezerburned Tzarchania, Master of Endless Patience. In him we confide all sorrows as he beatifically points us in the correct direction of the pasta (logically placed next to the laundry detergent and pool floaties).

 

Both of these new friends, and so many of the other people we’ve met on the moshav and throughout the north, seem to be cut from a very different cloth than what we’re used to. For one thing, they talk more slowly and more measuredly. There’s not very much into rushing around. Even government offices and municipal services aren’t pushy and demanding. An example: I’ve been conditioned over a decade and a half in the merkaz to submit the paperwork required to enroll kids in schools/ganim by February latest, or risk “missing deadlines,” but here it’s more like “well, you can’t really do much until you actually officially change your address, so just swing by sometime in August and we’ll take care of it. Better yet, just send a kid.”

 

As I noted at the outset, the speedbumps placed haphazardly (maybe craftily — I’m not sure about this yet) around the moshav aren’t marked, as if to say “what’s your rush? Slow it down, fella.” Come to think of it, there’s not much by way of fastidiousness on the moshav. It’s not as much carelessness or laziness, as it is a sense of why sweat the small stuff? (Though I’d argue that curb appeal isn’t small stuff, and it would be nice to have well-kept properties; that’s the yekke in me, and my Aunt Judy a”h would be proud. But lots of others aren’t bothered by the trailer park aesthetic, and I think it’s due to the less-frenetic, more easy-going personality that the super-slow pace of life here fosters). There are lots of golf carts rolling slowly along, as well as kids of all ages on bikes, and interesting souped-up tractors (#lifegoal: pimping up some farm vehicle and giving rides to ecstatic little people. This is for the future.) People take it easy here.

 

Admission: this is not easy for me! I’m used to driving at breakneck speed, at timing things just so, at running and rushing through a busy life. I talk fast, I think fast, I used to move fast (turning forty changed that last bit). I’m of the “ok, what’s next?” style of life, finding it tough to be content sitting for long stretches not doing much. My closest friends always make fun of how much I loathe the summer: the late risings, the long hours of nothing planned, the general loafing about, the lack of schedules and expectations. These friends are blessed with “summer personalities” — they’re people who know how to enjoy themselves without needing to be doing something per-se. One dear friend, who works way too hard, just took a well-deserved vacation and told me she was going to sit by the pool. Are you bringing your phone? No way. A book?! Nope, nada. I will just sit. I kept on bugging her about this, because I couldn’t wrap my mind around Taking. It. Slow. (I’ve never really sat by the pool. Or on the beach. But you can bet that if I did, I’d be irritating myself and others around me with my general impatience to do something. I’m a real hoot to be around!)  

 

I can’t be certain that the slower pace here isn’t entirely due to the fact that we’re still in August. The entire country slows down in the summer for Chofesh haGadol. But my gut tells me that these unmarked speedbumps, the languid “ah-lan mah nish” coming at me from the father holding his newborn as he steers his golf cart down the road slower than my stroll, the tiny dog who graciously escorted me around on my Shabbat walk since we were the only two out and about at that ungodly afternoon hour, and the magnificent, understandable diction of the older folk as they all welcome me to come over at any time to hear their stories — all of these tell my gut to untie itself a bit. That my best work might come if I stop barreling through life, and that my best chance of feelin groovy and making the moment last might be in a place like this. So though I’m glad summer vacation is finally over, and thrilled that school is starting on Sunday, I’m not so sure I’ll be rushing back to the furious pace that I had always thought was my duty in this world. The speedbumps here, I think, will do good things for me, and for us all.  

Tachlis #1: The Acceptance Process

First in a series of “Tachlis” posts. Tachlis is Yiddish for “let’s get down to business.” This series deals with the nitty-gritty of transitioning our family from the center of Israel to the North. Hoping someone, somewhere, at some point might find this helpful.

 

One of the first logistical challenges we faced (and are still in the midst of) was the slow “unfolding” of our transition. You can’t just up and move to a moshav the way you can move from city to city. First, there is an acceptance process required of all new families (this we started in July 2016, two full years ago). It entails filling out detailed questionnaires (including essays/CVs), as well as meeting with the va’adat kabbalah, the acceptance committee, comprised of about six moshav members who give an hour-long informal interview.

 

Couples/families are then asked to come for a Shabbat, where they are hosted by different moshav members. There is also a full day of formal testing at one of two “testing centers” (one is located in the north, the other near Bet Shemesh), where couples undergo a battery of tests meant to assess “social suitability.” These testing centers take the process very seriously:

  • you pay a hefty testing fee for the two of you (forgot the exact amount);
  • you must bring your own snacks/lunch because you’ll be there the whole day (6-8 hrs);
  • You each have a separate meeting with a staff psychologist, and then a joint meeting;
  • If your baby is under six months old, you may bring a babysitter with you so that the mother can nurse her child at intervals. Over six months and apparently nursing isn’t so critical — the young man/woman is decidedly NOT welcome and must stay at home.

 

Why the rigamarole?

 

It really makes a great deal of sense. A moshav is a small, isolated community which was established with a certain tone, not just by a hodge-podge of strangers. Seventy years ago, a garin (core group) set out from Ilaniah to build themselves a community based on certain loose criteria, and this moshav was born. In the case of Sde Ilan, the moshav is self-defined as dati (religious). The community is looking for new members who are shomrei Shabbat and respectful of religious sensibilities. No one is searching with a candle as to what goes on in your home, nor do outward identity markers matter much. The moshav just wants to keep a certain character; it follows that families who are not religious, or are religious to the extent that heterogeneity/variety of practice within halacha is problematic to them, would themselves not feel comfortable in Sde Ilan, nor would the moshavniks be comfortable with such families. They also want to make sure that you’re not a David Koresh-wannabe looking to turn your nachala into a comfortable home for your Branch Davidians sect, that you’re not a Jew for Jesus, that you don’t run a cockfighting business and that you’re not going to build an underground bunker that you mysteriously retire to every night at ten.

 

Beyond this, though, is a rule which governs most moshavim, Sde Ilan included: you can’t control people, but you can have broad expectations that new members will be generally agreeable, nice people who are eager to work together within the moshav with all forms of community-building. A moshav is no place for very private people or personalities that do not work well with others. There’s nowhere to remain anonymous — moshavim were designed as collectives, after all! The rather intense acceptance process is in place to ensure that not only are criminals and psychopaths not welcome, but that new members will be an asset to the moshav. (Having successfully undergone three acceptance processes for yishuvim, kibbutzim and moshavim — Nof Ayalon, Shaalvim and Sde Ilan, respectively — we can attest that the criteria for all three are not unduly exacting or demanding. After all, they all accepted us!)

 

I get that more private or libertarian-minded folks would be turned off by such acceptance processes. They can be construed as judgemental and exclusive. Further, such a “controlled” community runs the risk of developing into a somewhat homogeneous body, which is a turn-off for many.  These anxieties are understandable.

 

Anecdotally, however, from our experience, not every yishuv/moshav is a homogeneous mass. That’s kind of impossible, given that people change constantly, values shift and children are often of a different mind than their parents. And there are those moshavim like Sde Ilan where the criteria are broad yet satisfyingly limiting for our comfort level: Are you an amiable sort? Will you be keeping kosher and observing Shabbat? Yalla, let’s hang out for hours at the park and grumble about the price that wholesalers are paying for our nectarines while our kids dictate the goings-on of the moshav.

 

Getting accepted is the easy part. It’s what comes after — for families that buy nachalot (farmland on which you’ll build your house or move into the preexisting house) — which proves far more logistically daunting.

 

The bylaws of our moshav (and many moshavim/yishuvim throughout the country) require us to actually live on the moshav for half a year before officially being voted in as a chaver (member) of the agudat hachakla’im (I like to translate this as the “farmers’ guild;” it’s the term for the collective of owners of agricultural tracts). To own a nachala means to belong to the agudat hachakla’im — which also means that you are the proud joint-manager of the moshav’s communal farmland, and have an equal say along with the other moshav farmers of what to do with it (Yes, you also have an equal share of its annual profits.)  

 

Were we to have bought a house in the moshav’s harchava (newly-established extension of the moshav, an growth initiative adopted by many yishuvim/moshavim to help the community stay vibrant in its population and financial health by selling plots of moshav land to mostly young families so they can build their own homes), then we would not need to be voted into the agudat hachakla’im and would not need to undergo the six-month “trial period” before actually building our home. If we weren’t planning on living on a nachala, we could have moved right into a home that we bought or built, suffering only from virtual suffocation in the first few weeks by mountains of chocolate cakes and kindness.

 

But our path (and others here as well, as we’re discovering among some of the other newbies to the moshav) is more complicated. You can either rent an empty house on the moshav for half a year (if you’re lucky enough to find one) and then start building on your land once you’re voted in, or you can plunk down a caravan or three on your land and live in it for that half year. We couldn’t wrap our heads around what the latter option would entail, so here we are in a rental for the time being, waiting patiently for these six months to pass. Our neighbors a few nachalot down chose the caravan option, and they have a very colorful menagerie of structures in place for the time being as their house plans get approved.

 

For those interested in living in a moshav and/or owning a farm in Israel, don’t let the long (and sometimes frustrating) process kill the dream before it even starts. As with everything, a jolly attitude and willingness to work within the rules goes a long way to getting what you want.

 

Next installment of the Tachlis series: Long-Term Storage of Your Stuff in the Interim Period

Baah, Baah, Black Sheep

View from our kitchen window

Here we are, under a week into our new digs in Sde Ilan. For all those wondering where exactly our “חור” (slang that I’d prefer be translated as “off-the-beaten path location,” but really means “where the hell is this place”) is located, here’s a handy visual:

how my kids describe our location

 

Where we actually live (use Kibbutz Lavi, Har Tavor and the Kinneret as reference points)

The kids have (mostly) been phenomenal, helping us dig out of boxes at breakneck speed. It’s important to understand that the youngest, just under two, is a tiny Godzilla. He is single-mindedly determined to upend all progress. Armed with a binky and a dream, Boaz does far more than just mildly “get in the way” (He is the very definition of a “yeled nezek” (a child who makes a big, big mess). His speciality is hiding things, and then not being able to tell us where he hid them, as well as throwing food and flinging tiny pieces of lego at our faces.

“This organised cupboard clearly requires massive rearranging”

As I’m writing this, he has decided to change up his usual routine of slurping the milk and throwing the cereal on the floor to doing just the opposite, just for kicks. Here is is, triumphant:

Smug?

Such fun! But the other kids have had to endure my intense delegating and ordering about, and their efforts had us in a relatively tidy state as Shabbat was coming in.

 

Any others out there who have seriously downsized? Yes, all of our friends who have made aliyah! (We’ve never really done so until now, having moved to Israel right out of college with no belongings to speak of.) The difference is that we have a long-term storage container around fifteen minutes from the moshav, so Ira’s been shuttling back and forth this past week, moving more and more stuff there that’s been relegated to the “we’ll see you when we see you” status. We’re trying to be minimalists, but how can you be minimalists with nine people, three of whom are teenagers and two of whom are little boys? It would also mean having to do laundry every five minutes, so we’ve quickly sobered up and realized that minimalism for us means twenty towels instead of forty, and fifteen coffee mugs instead of thirty. #progress

 

Anyway, some interesting and random observations from this past week, in no particular order and of no particular significance:

 

  • Names here are a novelty for us. I’m willing to bet real shekels that our yiddish-named daughter is the only Kayla in the entire lower Galilee, whereas she was one of at least half a dozen back in Maale Adumim. So far we’ve heard the following names among the kids of Sde Ilan: Yatir, Ofek, Eshed, Bosmat, Kaneh. There’s a girl named “Nes-li,” and it’s taking all of our effort not to ask her if her last name is Toulouse (ve’hamayvin yavin). Ira told me that one guy was called up for an aliyah with the name Avraham ben Yitro. Ira will fit right in, as he’s taken on the biblical pronounciation of his name: ee-RA (עירא היאירי, one of the giborim of David HaMelech, who is identified in the Talmud as the Rebbe of David. But he’s forgoing the “Ya’iri” part.)
Pic that came up when I searched googleimages for  עירא היאירי
  • Sheep sound exactly like you’d imagine grown men trying to imitate bleating sheep might sound.
  • As in Nof Ayalon, we have been inundated by chocolate cakes. That’s the quintessentially Israeli way to welcome people to the neighborhood. Someone brought over a tray of sabras, which are mildly sweet with large inedible seeds. I’ve discovered I’m a fan of the figurative sabra, not the actual one.
  • We qualify for the locals’ discount at Aqua-Kef on the Kinneret.
  • The kids here are very tight-knit groups, especially the older set, where there are only a few kids per grade. Four or five kids going into 11th grade, nine going into ninth, fifteen going into seventh. As the grades get lower, there are more kids, since the moshav has expanded in the last few years, incorporating a gorgeous harchava (expanded neighborhood). The harchava is essentially a long tree-lined street where young families have built lovely homes for themselves. There have been a half-dozen babies born this past month, and I spotted a number of expectant moms in shul this past Shabbat. כן ירבו!
  • Though the kids in the moshav seem more like siblings than friends, they’ve been extraordinarily friendly and inclusive of the Weissman kids. They’ve come over multiple times daily, inviting our kids “to hang out.” As in any yishuv/moshav, kids rule the place and are extremely independent from very young ages. This comes with a blessed abundance of self-confidence and ease with adults. This isn’t new to us, having lived for four years on a yishuv, but it’s more of an extreme here in that the layout of the moshav is very “summer-camp like,” with lots of wide-open spaces, little by way of formal layout, no sidewalks to speak of, and many more bikes/souped-up golf carts/scooters than cars on the “roads.” Such informality suits us, and we’re really happy to be back in that groove.
  • Shoes are optional.
  • So are tzitzit and kisui rosh. Religious accoutrements run the gamut here from everything to nothing, but the uniting factor is that just about everyone is shomrei shabbat. There’s a refreshing individuality and heterogeneity here among the moshavniks in this dati (religious) community. People are very genuine and true to themselves because there’s very little by way of “social expectation.” More on this in another post, as it’ll have to wait for me to observe far more than just one week of life here to fully grasp the extent and implications of this marked difference from other places we’ve lived in.
  • The tzarchaniya (what they call a makolet) is best described as what would happen if you were to give Boaz the keys to your neighborhood makolet for an hour. It’s total chaos and nothing is where it should be, but it’s forgiveable and even loveable. In that weird way that you inevitably end up smiling at the toddler who has wickedly overturned all of your good work, you end up feeling affectionate (though exasperated) at the freezer-burnt yet half-melted ice cream chest and the baby powder haphazardly placed next to the cream cheese. Plus, Coby the owner is a doll with the patience of a saint (he has to be to work there and locate what you’re looking for).

 

One last anecdote before I sign off for today. Boaz can only drink goats’ milk because cows’ milk bothers his stomach. St. Coby of the Tzarchania tried valiantly to locate some but couldn’t, and Rami Levi and Supersol (each a 10 min drive in opposite directions) also had none.
This is how we winged it, moshav-style: Ira asked Eitan the sheep farmer if we could have some sheep’s milk. He said no problem, but if it’s goat milk we want (since apparently sheep milk has 2.5x the fat of goat milk), then Zvika the goat farmer lives down the road, and he’s happy to give us some as well. Ended up with two large jugs of milk, one goat one sheep, which we pasteurized on the stovetop before Shabbat. 

Goat milk. Or sheep milk.

 

Off to settle Ruvi into yeshiva today (we’ve taken to calling him Ruvi of Nazareth, since that’s where he’s attending yeshiva), though the others still have a solid three weeks of summer vacation. Chodesh Tov to you all!

Ruvi of Nazareth. I know, I know, but I couldn’t help myself…

 

 

Under Two Weeks Out

I bought a container of milk the other day and the expiration date was 6/8. That’s our moving day, and all of a sudden this all became very real. So real that as I placed an Amazon order just now — though delivery date says under two weeks — I typed in our new address (which is a non-address, by the way: just “Weissman, Sde Ilan” — that’s how small the moshav is), just to be safe.  

Some shelves are coming down, and some furniture is gone, as if we’re a stage crew dragging our feet reluctantly through the task of tearing down the scenery of a much-loved, long-running show that’s had its final fun. Yet I’ve also attacked our stuff with a sort of vengeance: I’ve purged, sold, kicked curbside and gifted much of the detritus that nine people can accumulate over years, so much so that I had casually chucked a set of drossy travel candlesticks, rescued from the dump by a kind neighbor who polished the silver and returned them, having found them embossed with our initials. Maybe it’s a lesson that I shouldn’t be so cavalier with “tossing the old, embracing the new.”

I gave my last shiur (for a while, at least) this past Tisha b’Av. That was terribly sad for me — who knows when I will be able to articulate myself in Hebrew to the level required to start teaching again? Or if that will ever even happen?

Around a year and half ago, I spoke for a while with a rabbi from Tzfat. He was born and raised in Memphis, and then learned for many years in the Gush. He moved to Sde Ilan to serve as the moshav’s rabbi for eight years, becoming more and more Breslover until the lure of Tzfat drew him to the upper Galil. This rabbi advised us (warned us?) that moving from the Merkaz to Sde Ilan would be like making aliyah all over again. The more I think of what’s in store, the more I appreciate his comparison. 

If the moed of Tisha b’Av essentially requires one to face reality head-on and doesn’t allow for compromise or retreat into comforting artifices, then this Tisha b’Av represented, on a personal level, the awareness that it is extraordinarily difficult to break away from the lives that we’ve built for ourselves, no matter how much glee I’m getting from filling garbage bags with all of this stuff that we just don’t need. I watched a few minutes of the Nefesh b’Nefesh feed via Facebook this morning, marveling at how people, entire established families, wriggled right before my eyes out of the cocoons they’ve known their entire lives to open their wings for the first time into a brave new world. We’re deeply in their shadows, the scope of our move far less drastic than bonafide aliyah — but I do feel a shared experience when looking at a mother’s face as she descends the plane, profound excitement and anxiety mingling in the tremble of her smiling mouth.

Tu b’Av, “the holiday of love,” is a few days from now. Tisha b’Av brooks no avoidance of facing the magnitude of what we have lost and what we stand to lose. Yet built into the timeless rhythm of our moadim, appointments with time that connect us with the Borei haOlam (the Creator), is the release of Tu b’Av. Tu b’Av requires that we emerge into nechama, living a brand new paradigm, finding comfort even within the difficult (sometimes agonizing, sometimes exhilarating) journey from the past to the future.

These liminal days between Tisha b’Av and Tu b’Av mark (for me, at least) a huge settling into a new paradigm, a dawning realization that this is, indeed, it. The days are picking up speed and rumbling fast towards closing a hugely significant chapter in our lives. Here is the challenge that I’ve laid out for myself: hold on fast to these moments, don’t hurry to the next unwritten chapter — don’t just chuck everything out (though most does have to go — really, how many copies of The Revolt does one family need? We must have had five.) Sit for a long time at the cafe to breathe in the Jerusalem evening air, and don’t take for granted that you’ll be able to come back any time the mood strikes. Savor the Judean desert sunset, such a given over these last years, since it won’t be part of your landscape anymore. Most importantly, in the mad whirl of farewell parties and spontaneous drop-ins, be present with the close friends and wonderful people who have made up your day-to-day world for the past number of years — and make sure to bring them along with you in your memories, as you face the blank pages of the new chapter you’re about to write.

The Kids Are All Right

All of a sudden, here we are. A little less than two months out, and only now getting around to posting about the most important factor in this whole move: our kids.

 

Most of the inquiries I’ve received over the past year concern the kids: how are they taking to the forthcoming move, what will they be up to next year, steps we’ve taken to prepare them for this. Changing direction mid-stream is complex enough for Ira and me, but factoring in the weighty decision to change seven other lives (some of which are at critical junctures) is itself a whole other cornfield of hypotheticals.

 

It’s one thing to be cavalier with your own life choices. Once you become a parent, though, you’re responsible to put the best interests of your children as a critical, if not the primary, factor in making those choices. So while it is true that none of our kids came to us with the novel idea of picking up and moving to a farm in the Galil, this move is most definitely with them in mind.

 

These kinds of decisions (like choosing a spouse) are multi-factored. Ira is committed to reconnecting to the earth and having our land sustain us; I’m driven as a mission to settle the periphery and connect others to the beauty, history and richness of the Galil. We want these, and more, for our children. We want them to learn how to live off the land, how to treat animals compassionately and knowledgeably while they are in our service, to be so rooted that they intuitively understand the many stages between seed to table because they see and care for the growth around them every daily. As natural as these things should be for us all, they aren’t for our family, and this we want for our kids.

 

We want them to fully live the practicality of farm life as a Jew in his land, meaning that the many halachot guiding and shaping our ongoing relationship to the earth and to our animals should be second nature to them. If they graft to extend the orchard, let them do so with an awareness of כלאיים; let them know exactly which herbs require separation of terumot and ma’asrot, and what peter rehem means practically. We want them to see the Galil as we do: a great and wide frontier, still underdeveloped and definitely underpopulated by Jews, abundant in potential and opportunities that they can make for themselves.

 

Perhaps, as well, they’ll come to appreciate the tolerance that we’ve seen within different communities in the north — a sort of silent understanding that we must be true to ourselves before we can yield to the demands of the group. Along with the slow and sweet pace of life farther away from the bustle of the merkaz comes the privacy and space to fully grow into yourself. There’s much less of a cacophony of social and religious expectations that may otherwise drown out your own still, small voice as you’re finding your way to love God, and to serve Him.  

 

So that’s why we want this, because we dream it for them. Now — as to the “tachlis”: how are they taking it?

 

I’d say remarkably well. Obviously, it’s hard to leave their close friends and the routines that they’ve been used to for years. Also, I can sense that the anxiety of moving to a place where there are very few English speakers (if any) is getting to some of them, though all of our kids are sabras and speak a fluent hebrew. Since our neighborhood in Maale Adumim has a very strong anglo population, though, many of their closest friends and definitely the families that we are closest with are English speakers, and the dawning realization of abandoning that “safety net” is causing some worry.

 

But at the same time, our kids come by their sense of adventure naturally. They realize there’s a lot to look forward to on the farm, on the moshav, in their new schools and in meeting new friends. There may be a newness, but there is also a familiarity. They are not olim, they speak and think in Hebrew, they’re excited about playing an active part in designing the house, caring for the animals, planting with their father, joining me on digs, learning new things.

 

Following are some elements/concrete steps we’ve taken to ease the transition:

1. We talked about our dreams early and often.

 

 

Our kids have been hearing about how much we’ve been wanting to move to the Galil for years now. True, we used to talk about it wistfully, as if it were indeed going to remain an unactualized dream: “Oh, how nice it would be to move here! Could you imagine living here?” We’ve been explaining the appeal that the Galil has to us — the “why’s” of making such a move — for quite a few years now. This has been an ongoing conversation in our home, so none felt that the move was abrupt or were particularly surprised.

2. Timing is EVERYTHING.

We’ve scheduled this move carefully to coincide with a transition year for most of the kids. Right now, Ruvi is graduating 12th grade, Bat-Chen is graduating 8th grade, Shalva is graduating 6th grade, and Chachi is graduating gan (kindergarten). They’d all have been switching to new schools in September even if we weren’t moving, and each would have been attending a school where they’d have to meet a whole new group of kids. Tziona is finishing up third grade; moving to a new elementary school that will take her from 4th-8th grades (the school at Kibbutz Lavi includes a middle school) is a reasonable transition. Boaz will turn two in a few months — he’s portable.

The one exception is Kayla, who is entering 11th grade next year. She is in an arts school in Jerusalem which suits her perfectly, and she won’t be moving to a different ulpana (religious girls’ school) in the north, but rather staying put. She’ll be boarding here with dear friends of ours, parents of marvelous twin girls who are Kayla’s closest friends. Like Ruvi, who will be in yeshiva next year, and Bat-Chen, who is attending Ulpanat Kfar Pines, Kayla will spend Shabbatot and vacations with us (along with their many friends. We’ve never “only” had the original 7 Weissman kids as our own — there are always “honorary Weissmans” who grace our home and bring lots of warmth and laughter to our lives.)

3. They’ve checked out their new digs.

We took the three elementary/middle school-aged kids up to poke around their new school in Kibbutz Lavi, to meet the teachers and kids, and to familiarize themselves with the campus. We’ve been up to Sde Ilan a few times for Shabbatot and just to hang out, so that the kids could already start to feel the pace and atmosphere that life takes on there. They’ve all been to see the nachala, to take in their inheritance and start seeding their own dreams for their futures.

Checking out the animal pen in their new school

4. Moving in the Whatsapp age is a whole different ballgame.

So many of our deepest relationships are nurtured by whatsapp. This technology allows for natural, sustained, and regular interaction, for remaining constantly present in each other’s lives even if we don’t live in each other’s proximity. The five people I speak with the most on a daily basis, outside of my immediate family, don’t live in my neighborhood. And my kids also regularly communicate with their friends via whatsapp.

Now, I know well there’s no substitute for actually seeing and spending time with old friends, which I’ve promised the kids they can do as much as is feasible (we’re only moving two hours away, not to another country!) But knowing that they can whatsapp and facetime with their beloved buddies is very comforting to them.

 

One final note on the matter: Israeli kids are independent kids, starting from a relatively young age. They feel a freedom and ease in navigating their world, more so than kids who live in more dangerous countries like the US, France or South Africa. This translates into a culture where many Israeli kids are totally comfortable taking public transportation both within and between cities throughout Israel, and are more confident and capable in unfamiliar situations. So while any parent would naturally be concerned in moving their child to a new setting, we’re somewhat less so. As parents who have only ever parented Israeli kids, we’re more excited than nervous for them, as they are definitely more excited than nervous for themselves.

And of course there’s Phoebe, who doesn’t get excited about anything, but will be moving with us nonetheless. Maybe the sheep will get a rise out of her.