About Me

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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


From the founder of jewishlifestory.com (me :)) (please visit, use my service, and refer your friends....)

Simchat Torah.

We finish the Torah in an instant. The saga of Moses concludes. We stand ready to embrace our future, as a Jewish people, on the edge of the Promised Land.

Just as quickly, we start the Torah again. We are thrust backwards to prehistory (let alone pre-Jewish history) and the story of creation.

This ritual transition is sudden and breathtaking. There’s no time for reflection. No time for retelling.

The narrative, its lessons, its legacy – there’s no time for us, at the end, to preserve them for the generations to come. Not at the end of the Torah-reading cycle, nor at the end of our life cycle -- unless we seize the opportunity beforehand.

There is time along the way of life to preserve our stories, and it’s our responsibility to use it.

Moses paves our way in this regard, and Jews have followed suit ever since. Moses also demonstrates how gratifying the process of telling our stories is, if we take the time.

Consider Moses at the end of the Torah, standing high on Mt. Nebo, on the eastern side of the Jordan. Fated to die in exile. Steps away from his destination, his life’s job unfinished. It is unspeakably painful, tragic. Or so we think.

There’s a sense of loss, no question. Moses pleads with God to allow him into the land, to no avail. “’Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon…. ‘ But God was angry with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to me of this matter again!’”

Moses wants more. To go forward, to see more fruits of his labor. And so do we.
But Moses cannot. Nor can we.

As it says in Pirkei Avot, Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor. We don’t finish the work – of the world, of our lives. But what do we do with it?

Again, Moses. What does he do? For the rest of the book of Deuteronomy, he tells his story within the narrative of the people and prepares them for the tasks ahead in the land of Israel. It’s his legacy statement, and leads to the greatest reward of his life -- seeing the people go off, ready to embrace the future.

Moses implores the people to follow suit with their storytelling, in gratitude, when they arrive in the Israel -- in the presence of the kohanim, the priests. “Then you shall say the following before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt and lived there with very few….’”

Moses provides both a model and a mitzvah for us – of a part of the Jewish life cycle we too often miss. To capture our past, for the future, with anava, humility.

Tell your story, record it, write it. Preserve it, as Moses did, for your kids and grandkids, before the time is up.

It’s a message worth considering this Simchat Torah – as we move (back) from one story to the next.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Milestone and the End of the Beginning

We’re coming to the end of the beginning of the journey, and I’m ready for it.

Later today, the kids finish the last day of their first year of school in Israel. Unbelievable, that a year has gone by so fast. Unbelievable, that my kids have done a full year of school, in Hebrew, in Israel. I am amazed by them, and have accessed yet an deeper level of respect for them.

And what we, their parents, have put them through, by placing them in this foreign-speaking, foreign-cultured environment – oy! But we’re thankful we did it….

The kids are now vatikim, veterans, of the school system. They talk excitedly about the chofesh hagadol, “big vacation,” as do all kids right now. They chatter about the Israeli-style kaytanot, camps, that they’ll be going to in July. And they talk about the ones they want to go to next summer, particularly an insane camp called Al Hagalgalim, “On the Wheels,” which takes kids to a different amusement park/pool/field trip every other day of the camp – and leaves the kids grumpy and dead tired at the end of half a day… But it’s the rage, and they want it.

Thankfully, in the past couple of days, I’ve accessed my own memories of finishing the school year when I was little, and can identify with our kids’ excitement. I can get past the newness of this first year to realize that this would be new to the kids wherever they were. Things are getting normal. Baruch hashem. Blessed be you-know-who.

I’m also coming around in my own life – seeing the light of normalcy appear at the end of a year of upend, downend, and every end. I’ve been a rookie at everything – aliyah, full-time fatherhood, working out of the house – and I’m ready to be done with the hazing. Things are beginning to move with my service recording and writing people’s life stories – please look at jewishlifestory.com -- and I also see the possibilities for a patchwork career that is the norm for so many Israelis.

I crave normalcy. Crave a slowdown in the breakneck pace of the first year of aliyah. Crave the opportunity to raise a cold beer and make a toast to making it through this first step. August 4th was the day of our arrival. But maybe we’ll toast early – at the bbq we will be going to, at the home of other olim, on July 4th, that day of days. How ironic.


I’ll be winding down virtual aliyah and taking it into a different gear – still blogging about Israel but changing the focus a bit. After all, now I live here. I want to focus on the comfortable for a change.

I’m hoping to take these blog posts, some accompanying pictures, and create a literary memento to peruse on our coffee table. Writing about aliyah has helped me immensely, and I hope it’s been meaningful for you too.

If you have appreciated the blog posts, let me know, and let me know “what you want” as I continue to post from Israel. Will you miss the posts? How have they impacted you and your relationship with Israel? Are you that much closer to at least getting on the plane for a vacation here? Or even a step closer – you can still be far – to getting on the plane for good? What topics did you like the most on the blog?

I’m excited to hear your thoughts.

Reporting from Modi’in, as we conclude our first year.

Unusally unedited and straight from the heart.

-- Mark

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Flotilla Sails Away

Every once in a while, on our American Jewish journeys, we regard a teetering calm abroad as if it lives here at home. Invariably, it falls and breaks. Bad news from Israel.

We stop at the edge of the debris. Our hearts are pierced. We cringe, cry, whimper. We are angry, flabbergasted, befuddled.

The emotions dull as the news fades, as we remove to a safer place along our narratives. We hear and see little more. Until the next time.

We are witnessing such an episode now, the Mavi Marmara, and debris is everywhere. A decidedly non-humanitarian humanitarian boat. People ready for battle. Israel, to our shock, not. The stench of bloodshed. The larger context – the blockade of Gaza, Israel’s security needs, relations between Israel and Turkey, Israel’s dangerously diminishing standing in the world, the occupation of the West Bank, our relationship with the Palestinians – trembling in the foreground.

This episode may not recede as quickly as the others, and maybe that’s appropriate. In the eyes of the world, and many Jews too (this one included), Israel crossed a line – of brazenness, incompetence, sheer stupidity, depending on one’s perspective. As did the IHH, with its bare-faced abuse of the humanitarian flag.

Still, it will recede, ever so surely, to the “back pages” of the American media. Our attention, our concern – as well.

In contrast, the attention of Israelis began to shift from the minute we woke up that morning of May 31. Daily life in Israel – all the way down to its incessant car honking – is a reality check that reminds us that the sky is not falling. It quells the existential angst. It stabilizes the queasy ride into the moral realm. It gives flesh to Israel’s existence and diversity.

Consciousness of our country, it goes without saying, is not dependent on the news or the media. That’s a refreshing change for me as an oleh chadash, new immigrant, to Israel – one year removed from America.

Each day, I take my kids to a school where they speak Hebrew. We spend Shabbat on a kibbutz with a breathtaking view of the Jezreel Valley. With imagination, I can see King Ahab chasing Elijah through it. I watch quizzically as a whole nation gears up for a soccer tournament where they’ll celebrate a 0-0 tie.

True, I cannot get far from the debris of the Mavi Marmara. I hear it churn every time I turn on the radio. The din is audible in most conversations that I have, as if it’s inappropriate not to be with the nation at all moments.

And I can’t escape the moral challenge of the larger context, particularly our distorted relationship with the Palestinians. Every day, I see the corrosive power imbalance at work. Palestinian construction workers build and beautify my city, not their own. The ubiquitous walls, fences and checkpoints along the road from here to Jerusalem keep us safe but imprison Palestinians in their own local nightmares. Construction in the settlements digs us even deeper into places we can’t be if we are going to survive as a Jewish state.

But, yes, we Israelis live on, with the undercurrent of conflict, almost immediately. In a way that’s so difficult for American Jews – in their brief acute moments of paralytic shock -- to understand.

The flotilla is here. At the same time, it sails away. Depending on your perspective.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Celtic "Truth," at 3:30 am

(published in the Providence Journal (Rhode Island, USA) on June 3) -- (http://www.projo.com/opinion/contributors/content/CT_celtics3_06-03-10_5VINAN5_v16.1d64776.html)

3:30 in the morning.

That’s when I prove my mettle this Celtic playoff run.

I moved to Israel last year and brought my Boston sports triad with me (Sorry, Bruins. You lost me sometime between Terry O’Reilly’s last lumber off the ice and your perpetual playoff oblivion.)

This, of course, has been the case ever since I left New England 21 years ago. The nation, the legion, the fighting minutemen of Boston sports – we continue to spill our guts for our hometown teams wherever we are.

I established my personal record in 1986, in the NBA Finals. I hitchhiked 4 hours 3 separate times over land, bears, and ever other possible natural and man-made obstacle in TV-less Yellowstone National Park, to watch the first “Big 3” (and DJ and Danny) defeat Houston and slinking “center” Ralph Sampson in 6 games. Ah, youth.

I’m a lot older now, but still foolish.

I’s the graveyard shift for me now. Do or die. I’m a medical resident in my own personal insane asylum. One night on, one night off. 36-hour no-sleep stretches. Awakened when I don’t want to be – lest I miss an “emergency” when Doc Rivers needs me.

It’s not like watching the endless Red Sox-Yankees thrillers of ’04. At least I could get five hours of sleep in before work. But 3:30 am, start time? I can’t say I’m getting up early in the morning to watch the game, because it’s the middle of the night. So the pressure builds at 10 pm to go to sleep, but I’m a night bird. I haven’t gone to sleep before 10 pm since Hill Street Blues took to the air. So, what’s the point?? Let’s just stay up till game time, and let the next day be damned….

I can still appreciate Rajon Rondo’s dive-scoop-and layup at 3:30 am, but a Paul Pierce isolation, when Ray Allen and everyone else are wide open on the wing? I’m more agitated than I’d be in reasonable time and am reminded of the dark Antoine Walker days. My cereal gets soggy as I silently scream at “the Truth.” “Pass the ball!” And, Kendrick, don’t waste my waning energy complaining about another foul call….

With overtime comes the sunrise, a reminder of where I am and that soccer is truly king. If the incessant non-commercial World Cup commercials fed to us by ESPN International haven’t already drained that reality down my hoop. Oh well.

From this side of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, it’s even worse when the Celtics lose, as they did in game 4 against Orlando. I was the 13th man, played well more than the full 48 minutes, in the middle of the night, and had children wanting to know what clothes to put on a half-hour later. And I had no one to commiserate with over my morning Coke Zero. A game “last night”? Maccabi Tel Aviv?

So, Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots (the 8 pm, Israel-time starts are delicious…), thank you very much for all that you make me – make us -- do for you.

Just beat the Lakers, please. We’ve got to stay at least 2 championships ahead.

I’ll be watching you.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Blessing, In Hand

Limbs felled by age and infirmity, his right arm maintains its vigor, to convey His blessing.

I’m struck each time I experience it -- the strong, willful blessing of Asher Shemesh -- an old 81 in every other respect.

His arms, his hands lie dull on the chair rests. Long past their dutiful years – serving, saluting, blessing, pushing the papers of the people of B’nei Brak. Now, sadly, seemingly, serving only the needs of the self.

Ma nishma, Asher? (How are you, Asher?)

Asher’s eyes circle around the pleasant but confined study, stacked as it is by books not opened for years and photos from an old camera. The faint glimmer of desire disappears from his face.

Yet, suddenly, Asher’s arm responds, rising in a careful, stepped trajectory toward his face. It is a servant, the carrier of precious jewels. As it approaches its destination, his fingers come together as one, stretching towards his lips.

Asher kisses his fingers with the passion of relationship long-lived but still kindling. He then spreads his fingers north to the heavens, to the Source of blessing. To the source of Asher’s blessings – still appreciated, still magnified, even as his own fruit withers.

The gesture is imbibed with the faith, and the gratitude, of his ancestors, generations back into Iraq. Its expression needs no words.

Blessing falls back on me, like a soothing coat of warm mist. It is the blessing of a man, the kavana of a faith culture – from a land not my own. A blessing to which I am privileged – as a Jew living kibbutz galuyot, the gathering of the exiles, in the land of Israel.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Back Home

Our first return to the United States -- a joyous whirwind. The wonders of family smachot (simchas). The glow of two outstanding, young Jewish teens – my nephew and cousin – demonstrating their readiness to be part of the community. American Jewish light bursting through its cloud cover. Resting in the toasty warm cradle of parents, grandparents, other loved and friends.

And then to leave it, them, behind. Again. A heartbreak. As painful as the first time, last summer.

We come back to Israel. I cry on the couch. Who I miss. Whose hugs I long for. Whose hugs my kids need, even beyond.

Skype is great, but we can’t touch.

I grieve the loss -- present and future.

Until I remember where I am, and re-experience the splendidly familiar moments which make this place – Israel – the place my heart wants to be. Where I need to be.

I do a 360o (a 240, to be truthful) and gaze at the homey neighborhood of mirpasot, porches, gathered close together. Where locals live a good portion of their lives in the mostly temperate weather of Modi’in.

One mirpeset catches my eye. A bouquet of flowers in the corner, in bright display. The romantic dance of a couple surveying its growth. A man with a kipa. A woman, long-haired, in pants. Real Israeli life, in all its typical, private moderation.

I walk back inside. Time for an early dinner on our cockeyed, post-flight biological clocks. The kids are watching TV, getting back to Hop, their Hebrew-language-dubbed cartoon network. With a few originals spliced in. Like right now. Shavuot is approaching, and on the air is a cartoon of Moses, Pharoah, and his magicians, dueling it out over snakes, blood and frogs. I can only smile. We have our soup and bourekas on the coffee table, taking in Moses at Mt. Sinai.

Shavuot as a liberal Jew in America was lonely. It’s barely on the map of liberal Jews in America, beyond the revitalized tikkunim, night-time study sessions, which dot the map of the more observant in our movements. Back in Modiin, there are no such concerns. My first check of email reveals a shul-wide pot-luck for the eve of Shavuot, with learning for all ages following. The phone rings with an invitation to Shavuot lunch. Problems solved.

I feel warmly in another cradle, that of Clal Yisrael, the community of Israel. We’ve returned to a cozy place that reflects our expressions, our schedule, even our needs from the boob tube.

I gaze above the trees of loss, absorbing the clearer vista of missing. It’s chronic. It never goes away, as fellow olim tell me. But there are soothants – the phone, Skype, and the visits, please G-d, that will continue to happen.

We’re back home. And it’s worth the missing.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Don’t get me wrong. I miss America. In a big way. My family, my friends, the familiar culture and folkways, watching my teams on TV in their time. All those things were on display for me as we visited the States for 10 days earlier this month, our first time “back” since aliyah last summer. I’ll get to these things, some time after I finish watching my Boston Celtics play the Orlando Magic this morning – at 3:30 am Israel time…..

For the moment, however, another big thing. Very big, and very illustrative of the country I left and the country to which I came.

America -- and China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, etc. -- make and America takes. More, bigger, by far, than anyone. I never realized it so.

From touch down on the tarmac in the USA so much was too big. Often excessively, wastefully and grossly big.

Obesity. People driven there by big cars. Stuffed to the gills by big food.

IHOP has added to its caloric record-setting menu with a stack of pancakes sandwiching cheesecake. Simultaneously leading the herd up mountains of home fries, sausage and bacon.

In Israel, people stuff themselves on fresh vegetables….

Big cars. I dunno, but my compact Honda Jazz has more interior room for 4 than the compact we rented in the States, an engine 2/3 the size, ½ the gas usage, and plenty of get-up to get us up the 2000 feet between here and Jerusalem.

Excess begets excess, as a cause and response. And in ways often much deeper than the frightening but shallow surface of food, cars, and American consumer culture.

Consider synagogue sanctuaries, of which we visited two during our stay. Broadly-speaking, American synagogue sanctuaries are majestic and colorful, focused on an overdone aron kodesh (ark) and a bevy of ornately dressed sifrei torah (torah scrolls) within. I believe in hiddur, the beautification of our religious items. Still, such sanctuaries are excessive.

Why are they made so?

It hit me during our trip, as Jewish life competed with life for Jewish attention. The Shabbat bride sung about in L’cha Dodi did not come walking down the street outside a Boston hotel -- as she does in Modi’in, whether you are observant or not. She was hidden, as a matter of fact, behind the rush of weekend traffic in and out of the city. The inspiring landscape of the prophets, which we view from our balcony, was likewise absent.

I understand it, I know it, I experienced it most of my life. In their synagogues, American Jews have to create kedusha , a separated sanctity, all themselves. At the flick of the switch when they walk in the sanctuary, to disappear into the recesses of their pockets the minute they leave the building. Therein the big, fancy synagogues – temples in the desert. Excess as a response to famine, to spiritual starvation, to the domination of chol -- the decidedly un-sacred – on the outside.

Kedusha permeates the environment in Israel. An aura of the divine blankets this land and envelops its time, no matter the desecration of the Holy One that too often characterizes Israel’s social and political life. Our Shabbat minyan meets in a hastily-transformed but pleasant two room senior center, with a paper-mache portable ark that rests otherwise in a storage pod and contains, at its max, two scrolls. But it doesn’t matter. Shul lives together with its environs, not separated from it.

Big is quintessentially American, at the surface level and below. But it not always better – far from it -- reflecting as much absence as presence.

For an American Jew, it’s a big thing to realize that small is good. It might be the first step over here, to a lifestyle not consumed by big, to a society where it is much easier, blessedly, for Jews to bring kodesh and chol together.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


I’ve learned the Israeli way. Carpe diem. Sparkle in the highlights of life here. Build that life, as I would anywhere. Consider the complexities (and tensions, ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies, and tragedies) in which I live, but don’t dwell on them.

Dwell on them, however – and they are literally everywhere I turn – and they may land me in an existential pit of Josephan proportions.

As an illustration, yesterday, a pedestrian 10-minute drive to neighboring Modi’in Illit.

Leaving Modi’in, I cross route 443, the city’s northern boundary. Simple enough.

I immediately pass Shilat, a discount zone best known as the local address of Israel’s prime cut-rate supermarket, Rami Levi. It’s a subject of unresolved debate in Modi’in whether we do our food shopping in the West Bank, because it’s not quite clear whether Shilat is in the West Bank -- or not.

Going along, I know I’m in the shtachim, “the territories.” Everything betrays the relative lack of investment – and the coming investment. For Israel, it’s frontier.

I feel its freedom. The untamed, hardscrabble Biblical landscape. Dust kicking up off the side of the road.

I feel its fright. Running down the gauntlet of the suffocating, fenced-in two-lane highway. The fences of the security-guarded yishuvim, settlements.

5 minutes hence I turn into Modi’in Illit, an enormous Charedi (ultra-orthodox) enclave, and its twilight zone of Middle Eastern life. We’re one-week away from Yom Ha’atzmaut, and every municipality in the country is decorated with the blue and white. There are plenty of flags flying in MI, touting the city and its mores, but no blue and white ones. I feel sick about the message conveyed, the message not conveyed, to all who live there.

It’s a yishuv teeming with children and rising buildings to house them. Hundreds of Arab construction workers sit on the street corners by the construction sites, waiting for rides home after work. Or waiting for work, as far as I know.

Isn’t there a construction freeze in the settlements? I’m only asking for clarification, not making a political statement. Is my government saying what it is doing? Doing what is saying?

I’m confused and distressed, riding along the rim of Joseph’s pit.

But then the kids and I arrive at our destination, in the West Bank, in a dungeoned storage room, in an apartment building on the outskirts of town, across from a fence separating the yishuv from everything else. It’s a meeting with our 5-year old’s feeding therapist. She’s helping us build a normal life in Israel.

I heave a sigh of relief. Today, I am lucky.

The turbulence subsides. The discontent is in its place. I stand up, sit up, drive straight.

I’m happy in my portion. Troubled by ours. Obsessing about neither.

The Israeli way.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Coby Speaks Hebrew

For years, its possibility made my mouth water. Now, it’s the most succulent taste of aliyah.

Coby is speaking Hebrew. Spitting it out rapid-fire. While playing with his friends. And while talking to us.

The self-confident demands of the wise child. Tayn lee et zeh (“Give it to me”).

The rejections of the wicked child. Lo rotzeh (“I don’t want to”). (Or even the more chic Israeli, Lo ba lee.)

The loving affection of the simple child. Aba, anee ohev otcha (Dad, I love you).

The absent-minded non-sequential ramblings of the child who does not know how to ask, which I’d repeat if I could understand them….

It’s an absolute miracle how it happens, though not an overnight one. (The truth about most miracles, huh?) You place a 5-year old who doesn’t know Hebrew in a gan chova (kindergarten), with maybe 3 or 4 other kids who speak English, and then you hope and pray for the next ¾ of a school year.

Every time you walk into his gan, you feel (at least what you imagine is) the pain of your child’s lack of understanding of, his muteness in the language. You wonder whether you could make it one day in that environment, let alone 6 days every week.

And then it happens. The synapses of the fertile brain, the strivings of young enthusiasm. Helped by a little swab of God’s paint brush.

Coby speaks Hebrew. A delightful, independent-minded, mischievous, articulate, Hebrew-speaking little Israeli, well in the making.

Next stop, my guess after the summer, Adina. Following her little brother. Good for him, and her. Her parents? Well, there, a story for a different time.

Monday, March 15, 2010


עדלידע.  Adloyada.  To the non-Israeli who gives me the correct definition of this word go all our remaining chametz....
I’ll give you a few moments, and a few lines.
Keep on trying. 
You can get it.
OK.  The definition of adloyada is “Purim carnival.”  What?????
Here, the beauty of life in a Jewish country, with a Jewish language, at work.  Incorporating the purpose, the gestalt, of a word, within the word itself.  It’s simply unbelievable.
Let’s go back to the Talmud, tractate Megilla
“A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’.”  Ad de-lo ya-da bayn arur Haman v’baruch Mordechai.
Albeit with considerable disagreement over manner and extent, the rabbis want us to drink, party and rest our minds on Purim.  “Until he does not know.”  To release the cognitive discipline of our lives, at least for a day.  To go with the heart, with what is different – hafuch – on this day.
Men dress up as women.  Women dress up as men.  Chilonim (the secular) don the garb of dati’im (the religious), and vice versa.  And, here in Israel, we go to parades where everything is turned on its head.
People really like it.  In fact, amazingly, Purim in Israel is longer than Pesach.  The stores start selling costumes months before.  Schools upend the normal order of things – with fun activities, dress-ups, spoofs – the minute the month of Purim (Adar) begins (2 weeks before Purim).  In fact, I don’t think our daughter had any academic studies at all for 2 weeks!
People clearly need to party here, to carpe diem.  And G-d knows they’re entitled.  They’re entitled to turn things on their head and pretend, in a sense, that they are elsewhere.  In mind, spirit and body.
Adloyada is at the heart of what Purim means to Israel.  Perhaps a “Purim carnival” is good enough for the Diaspora.  But not for here, where the Jewish past and present live.  In love, in tension.  Trying to make a life together.
My chametz inventory is getting low.  So whoever guessed correctly, get here soon….
A sneak preview:  Pesach preparation is much less insane in Israel than it is in the United States….


Tuesday, March 2, 2010



Tiyul -- its simple meaning, its pshat. “A walk, trip, hike, excursion, tour, outing, drive.”

Tiyul – its deeper meaning, its gestalt, its drash. Consider a linguistic root – natal. “To take, to lift.” The sense of ownership implied.

Let me take you on a tiyul, and we are just learning.

A chamseen, desert heat weave, has come. Back, for a moment, from its brief winter vacation. Our shorts are likewise back from their brief winter vacation on the top shelf.

Tu B’shvat, the blossoming of the trees – they’ve rung our doorbell for weeks. We’ve listened with half an ear. But the chamseen knocks wildly, and we can’t ignore its plea to come outside.

Ah, but it’s a school day. Not a problem...when your kids get out at 1:30 pm! Plenty of time for a tiyul.

T-shirts, water bottles, pita sandwiches, a mix of pretzels and raisins, sunglasses and sunscreen in hand, and we’re off. Destination – the Castel, gorgeous mountain and outlook, site of a decisive battle of the War of Independence.

We drive east. The meadows, the rolling hills – they are as verdant as they will ever be. We relish the bounty of the winter’s rains. Patches of wildflowers grace the landscape. The thin cows of Joseph’s dream graze in packs, fearing no sacrifice these days. The road is awesome, but short – like Israel itself.

We get on route 1, the lifeline of modern Israel, connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. 50 kilometers, 3500 feet, and a million miles away from each other.

The passage is proud. The trees of the JNF forest stand resplendently on all sides – embodying the souls of Israelis past and present, and the renewed self-confidence of the Jewish people.

We arrive at the Castel. The kids are already complaining. “I am bored!” Those decisively non-magical words, the bane of parents’ existence.

The Castel doesn’t cooperate, at least at first. “It’s just a hill. I’m tired. I don’t want to walk up.” But, yes, as if on cue, like so many other sites in Israel, the Castel speaks for itself. There’s a partially destroyed house at the top, an exclamation point from a different – or is it? – era. Its stone is weathered and beaten, grass sprouting out. But one with the land, it cannot be denied.

Coby races up. Adina picks up her slaggard pace. The house of the mukhtar (head of the village) is surrounded by an intricate series of trenches, a maze of delight for the children. We tell them of the battle that raged here 62 years ago. Battle -- the subtext of most sites in the land of Israel. The message of power, of kill or be killed – so dominant in the known time of the land.

Rattled, we are also stilled, rejoicing in our portion -- as we see the kids grasp, take and lift the land we have travelled so far in distance and in time to live in.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Hug Factor

It may not be the biggest transition of our aliyah, but it certainly is one of the most underrated. The hug factor.

Let me explain.

Setting – Wallingford, Pennsylvania. A young rabbinic family. In-laws, aunt and uncle, extraordinarily close friends and colleagues within a 25 minute radius. A congregation – from its youngest to its oldest members – eager to dote on the children of the rabbi. Lots of hugs. Lots of attention. TLC – available at the drop of a hat.

Yes, a lovely life. Absolutely. But not Israel. So we come.

And we’re in a terrific shul community with a billion kids our kids’ age, Jewish kids. (Everywhere you go in this town of Modiin, in most every setting, the billions are frolicking.) Non-stop play in the yard during shul. Shabbat invitations here, there and everywhere. Our kids excitedly bugging us on Sunday as to who’s coming for Shabbat the next weekend.

We can’t have both. It’s the lot of olim. The love and hugs of those most intimate of our family and friends, we, painfully, have to leave behind – to experience a lot less than we’re used to. The breadth and vigor of every minute Jewish life and companionship – well, that’s what we get.

It’s a trade-off. “Giving up” (although not quite) one family for a much larger one.

Those “there,” treasure those hugs. You and your kids. Those on your way, get plenty of them while you can. Know that your kids will need more hugs than ever from their primary source – you. Those here, you already know what I’m talking about….

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Aliyah, 2010. You’d Be Surprised Who’s Coming.

1. Santa Claus. Getting ready to retire. Tired of the snow. A thousand inches on the ground in Mid-Atlantic. 75 degrees in Modiin today. Elves are considering too.

2. Chairman of UJA Continuity Commission. After 20 years, an aha moment.

3. Sen. Harry Reid. Safe haven for those, G-d forbid, who believe in universal health coverage.

4. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Everyone arrives late here, and no one cares.

5. Batman. Purim costume sales skyrocket, outstrip meager Halloween market.

6. Steve Jobs. Because there are many of them in Israel, and, by the way, every Israeli will have an I-Phone by the end of the year.

7. The Pillsbury Dough Boy. Has franchised bakeries here. And makes challah too!

8. AIG executives. AIG advertises at the top of the hour on Reshet Bet, for heaven’s sake.

9. Bud Selig, baseball commissioner. 1:45 am Superbowl start makes it an absolute non-starter – like most World Series games in the USA.

10. Record numbers of English speakers like you. Check it out – http://www.nbn.org.il/media/media_news/news_2009/december/12.29.09_jta.html

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Organic Jewish Supermarket

The supermarket tells the story, brilliantly.

It wasn’t a great day. Something I didn’t want in my “lift” came anyways. The compulsion to fit too many tasks in too short a time. The disemboweling frustration of inevitable failure.

So I walked into the supermarket. Mind locked in frustrated self-absorption, body robotically readying for another task. Ready to tip over.

If not for the tree, right there at the entrance to the supermarket. Not literally, but in every other sense. The Tu B’shvat display. I had never seen a Tu B’shvat display in a supermarket.

Dried fruits hanging off the tree, with special marked-down prices. Nuts galore. Apricots, mishmish. Cashews, cashews. Companies competing for your almond shekels. The quintessential Tu B’Shvat mix of dates, figs, prunes, and carob. At the entrance to the store. Displacing cereal, cookies and the rest of that nosherai.

Smiles all around. On me too. Returned, delightfully, to an integrated humanity. And to the flow of a society celebrating the rebirth – seasonally, existentially -- of its trees, its flora.

It was, in a moment, a magical sense of what it is to be here. In the organic Jewish supermarket.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What Great Recession?

I left America in the Great Recession. I expected Israel to be in no less.

I had heard inklings otherwise. The housing market didn’t taking as big of a hit here. Mortgage lenders resisted the temptations of sub-prime bundling funny money. Unemployment didn’t soar. The gap between rich and poor continued to widen, but that – chaval (unfortunately) – was not news.

Still, I expected a land half-drowning in the gargantuan recessionist wake of its sponsor across the seas.

Lihefech. How wrong I have been.

It’s a place of considerable economic optimism. And for good reason. Israel understands itself and its role in the world economy. It’s a producer of one great resource, which multiplies into many. Ideas. Jewish brainpower given the license, and the financial backing, to dream, invent, and innovate. Almost behind the world’s back – so bent as it is on delegitimizing Israel politically -- Israel has become one of the world’s leaders in research and development.

People with ideas do great things in this economy, and in the world economy. And it trickles down to daily life in the village. One look at the ubiquitous on-line “Modi’in list” yields a roster of individuals determined to transform their ideas into a living. Jobs sizzle on employment websites like burgers at (a kosher) McDonald’s. And are devoured likewise. High-tech companies envelop the Sharon-plain highways like the buns on the burger.

An atmosphere of opportunity abounds – even for an ex-congregational Conservative rabbi from the States, not the most employable of designations here in this land of regrettable “official” Judaism.

Granted, the economics of Israel are hard. Wages are much lower than the US. The cost of living – excepting health care and education – not much different. Where the twain shall meet? Lives piecing together 5 jobs, and consistent overdraft. Making end of the month payments, period. On a grand scale, severe underfunding of national priorities outside of defense. And if you’re an oleh, best to still follow the adage that in order to make a small fortune here, bring a large one.

But, friends, this is not your dad’s Israel. Israel is now a capitalist country with some socialist leanings, not vice versa. Israelis are not sitting waiting for Iran. They have better things to do. Better things and better ideas than most anywhere, I venture to say.

Monday, January 18, 2010

It Happened: My Hebrew Breakthrough

It happened, of all places, on the basketball court. Not a classroom. Nor a sabra’s Shabbat table. Not the bank, the post office, city hall, the supermarket, and dozens of other places where I’ve felt like half-a-dummy for the first half-year of my life as an oleh. My Hebrew breakthrough, on the basketball court.

I’ve been playing five-on-five, weekly, for the past four months, back on the court after a bar-mitzvah long absence. At times exhilarating – hitting that game-winning shot once again (at least once…). At times frustrating – I ain’t 30 no more. And always – lonely. I don’t know the guys. And I don’t know the language to get to the know the guys. Let alone the language to let a teammate know he’s about to be felled by a stunning pick.

As a student of Hebrew, I’ve long been like a computer with with no operating system. Full of detail, no good way to spit it out. An academic’s dream. A layperson’s nightmare. Cracking my teeth when I speak Hebrew in the street. Sorely lacking in confidence. Fearful of making mistakes. Lacking in the lingo of the day-to-day, not to mention the meelot yachas, the prepositions, to connect my fancy High-Hebrew words. Which I shouldn’t use anyways….

I’ve needed to know how to play a full-court game. No cheap fouls. No referees. For fun, for competition, for jostling, for lifing. Joking, laughing, words under and over my breath.

Two months ago I realized I was making no progress on the Hebrew front – neither within the pages of the dailies, the broadcasts of the news, nor on the street. So I got a tutor who has set me straight. Get rid of the perfectionism. You’re not giving a sermon, rabbi. Listen to the news like you would in America. You don’t need to know every word. Enjoy yourself – it’s not a mountain to conquer, but a process.

A process. Aliyah is all about processes. Not finished products. And I’m usually aiming for that finished product, to be impossibly good.

So, the other day, I told my first joke on the court. I didn’t think, “What is the right way to say ‘hello?’” I asked plainly for the Hebrew words for some basic basketball terms. Time to start moving around on hatkafa, offense. Leezrok, leezrok, shoot! Time to start talking with the guys about their lives, their families, their job. Breaking through the invisible line that divides me from the Israeli army guy.

Well, I did it. I’m speaking Hebrew now. It’s my other language, not just my fraudulent attempt at bi-lingualism. I feel authentic. I can be here.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Skype World

I started out a skeptic. No longer. Skype is the real deal, friends.

Telephone calls are terrific, but you’re not there. With Skype Video, you are.

Last night Amy and I, in Modiin, spent an hour with family, gathered together for the New Year in Manhattan. It was our longest Skype Video get-together to date. 1 hour, 3 minutes and 43 seconds, to be precise. We enjoyed it with relish.

What made it different than a telephone call? Mom Judy’s facial expressions , which I’ve spent my life trying to read. Niece Jenna’s enormous, I-am-a-delightful-but-humble-third-child, want-to-hug-her smile. Dad Arthur’s bear-like girth, his trusted newspapers in hand as he strolls the first floor. Brother-in-law Dan’s mini-cowlick, after one of his patented day-off naps on the couch. Sister Alisa’s presence in the video background, regarding the scene with great satisfaction. Niece Jesse’s impish scuttle in and out of camera view. Even niece Ariel’s Yankees shirt. The winter woolen sweaters that we don’t see in mild Modiin. The clear pictures of my sister’s homey kitchen area.

After two Shabbatot dearly missing our families in the States, cognizant of the traditional end-of-year get-together no longer ours, life could not have been better for us between 11:30 pm and 12:30 am Modiin-time last night.

We’re living in a Skype world, and aliyah-as-hardship will never be quite as hard again.

Mark -- skype address:  markrobbins67