About Me

I'm the Rabbi of B'nai Israel Synagogue in West Bloomfield, MI, a highly-participatory, traditional, egalitarian synagogue.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Turtles Return to Their Shells

September 16

The turtles have returned to their shells.

Not to say in any way that my kids are turtles. Well, at least somewhat. Coby is actually deceptively quick and light afoot, the piker that he is. Getting him to run, or to walk, or to do anything, for that matter, does magically bring out the turtle, however. Adina is slender and decidedly not of camouflage color. Yet she runs like a lumbering turtle, oh so painfully down the 40+ steps of our apartment building each school morning.

Socially, our kids are unquestionably turtles retreated into their shells. If it weren’t for the Anglo-euphoria of the first month in Israel, it wouldn’t be so hard. English, English, English. I’ve never heard the word so much – or at least paid attention to it – as I have since arriving on aliyah. The first month. The almost doting, English-speaking, Nefesh b’Nefesh-working lovers of olim. English-speaking camp for oleh kids. Playdates with fellow new arrivals. The International Herald Tribune (a.k.a. The New York Times) smiling at you each morning as you open the door. Free subscription just bursting at the seams – waiting to suck you dry next month.

Then school began. And so rang the bell calling the turtles to retreat.

Just imagine.

“I don’t understand a xxx!!!- thing going in this classroom. I can’t even say, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’ Are they playing with me, or are they teasing me? Am I following directions? What are the directions? I can’t play without speaking! I’m sad, I’m scared, I hate this.

“Mom and Dad, I can’t really say this to you, because I am too young to know how to, but, I am royally pissed off at you, and I want to go home to Wallingford and Perelman (Jewish Day School) right now. I don’t want to go to school, I want English certification of any child I am going to play with, and I don’t want to participate in any after-school activities that aren’t in my mother tongue. And I’m going to be really mean to you. I hope you in your infinite maturity and intuition get the message. Do something about this.”

Social retrenchment. Kid crisis. Not enough treats in the world to salve the hurt. Parent crisis. Parent guilt. Ugh.

So sets the stage for the First International Playdate – translators, moderators, the neutral territory of sweets and snacks, the whole nine yards….

Stay tuned.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Go West, Young Man

Thursday, August 6, 2009 -- Day 3

To be exact, I had to go a bit northwest, to Haifa. A rite of passage for most (not-under-duress) olim. To claim our “lift,” our shipment, all-our-life zapped into a 20-fit maroon “ZIM” container. (See its “before” picture).

This aliyah rite of passage is approached with equal bits of excitement and foreboding. Excitement, naturally. We get our stuff! Foreboding, why? Well, what happened to our stuff deep in the dungeon of a mercilessly-hot and damp cargo ship during its one-month voyage over the Atlantic and Mediterranean? Did Somali pirates negotiate its ransom? Did a crew member decide to use the container as his own personal “dumping” station? And how about that fear of all fears – realized all-to-many times, as with the home basement – THE FLOOD? Everything wet and ruined….

Foreboding, also. Dealing with the dreaded shipping and customs bureaucracy. Having to navigate your way – in Hebrew, nonetheless – through ruthless anti-social leathernecks bottled up in some steamy dilapidated building near the port.

And so I stuffed Adina and Coby in the backseat of our rented (1st of 4 rentals within the first 2 months – don’t ask…) Mazda 2 (as popular in the Holy Land as God) and we sped up superhighway Route 6 to Haifa. I put quite a bit of faith in the Holy One on the ride, to tell you the truth, trusting memory, a fairly good sense of direction, and rusty Hebrew to get me to the Haifa port… I would have preferred a GPS, but that is one of the only electronic products/appliances that we haven’t purchased in the past few days. To think we were leaving the consumer culture behind…

And we arrived. So ready to explode in pee that I left the kids in front of a pizza shop in the disgusting port area and ran down a seemingly endless series of corridors to a bathroom that hadn’t seen toilet paper in two years. There’s a lot to thank the King of Kings for here in Israel, especially when your kids aren’t kidnapped in a moment of absolute abdication of parental responsibility.

The Lord was certainly not there the next hour, as I hurried the kids past rows of porno shops on the way to the requisite steamy dilapidated building. As Bialik said, “we will be a normal state when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief and the first Hebrew policeman.” We’ve got ‘em all! In spades, in a country whose cable company is called “HOT,” and brazenly brandishes advertisements for its after-hours adult-only programming.

Then we entered said steamy dilapidated building. Any hope of an air-conditioned office went out the window the minute we entered and felt like we were in a burned-out building in downtown Newark. We walked up the wide concrete staircase, ready for our end – Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci waiting to mow us down. The end came on the 3rd floor, with the first live office in the building – the home of Sonigo Shipping and about 40 other affiliates.

The All-Merciful One returned and blessed us with the miracle of air conditioning, but not enough cash. Yet, we were in the red-light district! – an excellent location to again leave your children in an unknown location and to search out the best black-market exchange rate.

The kids were again not kidnapped, and I was able to sit down and unwind my red tape with Batya, the curt, deep-voiced clearly not-customer-relations representative – there was no such person within 2 miles. I signed my name a gazillion times and handed over 2500 well-traded enveloped shekels to her. “Your lift is here. We’ll likely deliver it next week.” Good, good. “If it clears customs on Sunday.” Bad, bad. “In that case, we’ll bill you for the extra shekels. And you’ll have to pay the movers the balance.” What balance????

Shorn of money, dignity, wits, and any pretensions to the idealistic revelry of Israel, I then got the Muhammad-Ali upper cut to the face on the way out the door, as I stared straight at a massive map of the good ol’ USA, in all its continental glory. Like Bilaam’s donkey, in more ways than one, the map amazingly spoke to me. “You dumb ass, Robbins. You are just plain and simple stupid. You left this great country of 50 states, large and small. You left me, this map whose mantle you worshipped at, in red and blue,every 4 years, whose cities, villages, and hamlets you studied endlessly in the Rand-McNally on every camping trip as a child. Thrilled at the tri-section point of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey? Crossing state borders, see if you’ll ever do THAT again.”

With that, I left, kids in tow, Leapster still a battleground between them, Amy likely still waiting for the refrigerator and washing machine delivery man to ante up back in Modiin. Still more red tape, not too mention eternal unpacking, for the rest of the century. Still uncertain about the whereabouts and whatabouts off our accumulated life-stuff, the foundation of our this-part-of-life to begin in Israel.

Stay tuned.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Heat is On

September 7, 2009

Don’t tell anyone else this -- :) -- but, our sorry, pale-skinned, Ashkenazi bodies are not made for Israel’s heat. Maybe 2000 years ago. And probably another 2000 years before we’re used to it again. No wonder the sephardi/mizrachi population is now the majority of the country.

During the day, the heat’s your shadow. There’s no escaping. It batters, presses, roils and broils. It’s like going for a dunk in the NBA and meeting finger-waving, shot-blocking Dikembe Mutumbo at the basket saying, “no, no, no.”

The biggest difference in the heat here as opposed to the States, at least the Northeastern part of them, is the sun. Sounds a little odd, huh? The sun. It’s always there. No clouds to speak of – for four months. This Shabbat clouds miraculously appeared and sheltered us on our 25-minute walk home from lunch. We felt like the people of Israel strolling through the desert, cloud-cover overhead. It felt 20 degrees cooler than when the sun is out.

So the day goes like this. Take the kids to school or camp at 7:30 or 8:00. Try to get an errand or two in. Then head indoors before the sun begins the rapid extermination of everything stupidly remaining under it between 9 and 5. The sun’s heaviest working hours in Israel.

Then, as if escaping long incarceration, people burst out of their houses, offices, and other cells at 5:30 or so and flood the parks, streets, malls, and any other even quasi-inviting outdoor space that stares them in the face.

The sun goes slowly away, dying a long death, now so pretty, ferocity forgotten.

A day in the life of the Israeli heat and the people it oppresses.

No Free Lunch at School

There is no such thing as a free lunch, or free school, for that matter.

We were prepared for this, but it is still a shock having your kids dismissed from school at 1:30 pm – so relatively early in the afternoon.

To occupy your children in the afternoon – and mostly in things non-academic, mind you – costs many shekels. You can find what you want – typical after-care, arts and crafts, sports, tutoring – but it certainly wreaks havoc with a working schedule and means you may be driving all around town. What to do?

There is an intense focus on children in this country, and also on the dirth of educational spending. Schools just don’t get funded. 35-40 kids in a class, terribly-paid teachers, schools of 400 and 500 students sharing one nurse with three or four other schools. It’s the Western world, but it’s the third world. It’s suburban USA, but also the inner city. Socialist expectations at their best, socialist results at times at their worst.

A kid cannot go to school for 5 ½ hours a day and expect to be well-educated, without putting intense pressures on parents to supplement their kids formal education with additional formal settings.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September 1 -- Adina Meets the Prime Minister

Only in Israel.

Adina Noga Robbins. Olah of one month. First day of school. Prime Minister’s there to inaugurate the year. Adina in front row. Adina shakes the Prime Minister’s hand, exchanges “shalom” with him.

Only in Israel.

This girl of almost 7 has seen the Prime Minister live, up close, twice -- in the first month of her life in Israel. Now, she probably won’t see a Prime Minister again for a decade or so, but it does say something about the country – and its intimacy – that’s she’s already buddies with Bibi.

Today, my worst fears….were NOT realized. Ha-hefech (the opposite), in fact. Coby, who I had to carry literally kicking and screaming to a playdate yesterday, walked shyly into his gan, but then quickly settled down to play with new friends at a table nicely decorated with a Lego-type game. A truly universal language. Words not needed.

Coby’s ganenet (kindergarten teacher), Ofra, and her seeyat (assistant), Yardena, truly set him at ease. They clearly love young children, and (they probably say this about all the kids, but it’s wonderful to hear it about your child anyway, particularly in the beautiful Hebrew words) and said he was madheem (amazing) and makseem (no translation necessary!), blowing kisses via their fingers in a quintessential, endearing Israeli way. He had a great day, and walked confidently out of the school at 1:30. “This is my place.”

Adina is clearly thrilled to be at school, and absolutely exhilarated at the number of children, the Hebrew spoken, and her backpack full of grown-up first grade books. A particular child she is, wanting things just her way. That, I guess, doesn’t make her very particular as a young child!

It was a thrilling day for me too. This was the day that real life began for the Robbins in Israel. And it was good. Very good.

BTW, I lost my keys – car, home, everything – schlepping the kids all around town. Thank God my in-laws were driving with their rent-a-car. But truly small potatoes the deficit was. And typically, for this 6-footer, the keys rested on top of the kindergarten refrigerator between 8 am and the time I returned to pick up Coby 5 hours later. I leave everything everywhere – but up high, not low. Some things don’t change.