Wednesday, October 31, 2018

There But for the Grace of God...

the Atar family of Netanya, BDE
I can't blame.

I hurt so much for the loss of the Atar family, of eight precious neshamot, of six children, little seeds not even fully germinated... Everyone is in pain over you, over the loss of you. As we should be.

But I also hurt for a man and his family. A man who stupidly decide that he could drive and text / who reached for something that fell to the floor of his car / who tried to drive and answer the call of a loved one in crisis / who chastised a child driving his sibling crazy in the back seat / who spilled much-needed coffee on his leg and glanced down / who argued with his wife about her mother / who was momentarily distracted by something on the side of the road / who changed the channel on the radio to please his teenager, with whom he'd been struggling to make peace for the last tumultuous six months...

He is/was no doubt a normal good guy just a few days ago. He probably worked hard. He perhaps played with his kids, and did what he could to make sure they didn't drive their mother up the wall. Maybe he was trying to lose a few kilos. He had a letter on his desk that he meant to finish and send to his grandmother... but in a moment, his definition as a human being changed. In just one moment...

Everyone needs a good phobia.

I am not afraid of heights. I find spiders and lizards fascinating, snakes and rodents mere annoyances.

I don't like crowds, even though I love human beings individually...

But I am terrified of driving. Why? All of the above. So, though it inconveniences me and my family, I don't. I just can't.

I am terrified that I will make a small, stupid decision that will steal someone else's child from the world. That's my phobia of phobias.

Most of you have no choice. You have to drive.

Before ye judge... just be sure that you are absolutely certain that you will never, ever be distracted. Do your due diligence. But don't judge. We can't afford the luxury, in a world that moves too fast.

Rest in peace, precious Atar family. Rest in peace, soul and conscience of one poor, momentarily stupid human. I cannot imagine your pain. But you have my sympathy. I would probably have a very hard time continuing to live if I were you. I hope that the people around you can help you to remember that you still have work to do in the world. It's what any one of us would want, if we let ourselves down so completely, in a moment of carelessness. Please God... don't let all of us around you fail our tests.

NB: Since I wrote this post, more information has come out, some confirmed and some speculative. Readers have informed me (with a lot of grace and sensitivity) that there may be much more to this story than we knew in the hours after it happened, which is usually the case. It is possible that the driver didn't merely make an error in judgment, but has a history that I prefer not to express here for two reasons. I don't know for sure about the details of what is alleged, and don't want to misspeak. And the overall message could apply to so many situations we have all been in when a small error in judgment can change our lives... and I want to remind us to learn from them, but to leave the judging to courts of law, and to The Judge.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Returning from Choiceless Times

(Courtesy, Yael Shahar)

What if you could go back in time and fix that one terrible error you made in your youth? Or even if you couldn’t fix it, you could at least seek resolution and absolution…
There were moments in Yael Shahar’s book, Returning, that resonated deeply with me, certainly with a me of the past. One such moment was when she “took advantage of the many eighteen-wheelers that plied I-35 on their way south. She would single out a truck, throttle the bike up to its full speed to get into the giant vehicle’s slipstream, and ease off the throttle as they were carried behind the truck.” After reading this passage, I knew I could connect with this very down-to-earth author. We already shared a common history.
But very quickly, Ms. Shahar and her characters took me beyond myself, into an excruciatingly different time in history, and to a wondrously different focus on the meaning of reality.
The trip through Returning is an excursion between times, foreign countries, and extremely foreign concepts. Alex, the main character, was a 17-year-old boy caught in the horror machine of the Holocaust. His primal need to survive caused him to accept a role in the hated and feared Sonderkommando in the Birkenau death camp. Several decades later, he struggles to find a way to atone for his choices. God blesses him with a handful of rare individuals willing to hold his hand and heart through this painful process.
I like all five of the principle characters very much, and find myself thoroughly caught up in their ordeal, hoping desperately that they find the answers they are seeking, and absolution. This is difficult writing at its best, allowing us to feel sympathy for the plight of the historically unlovable and seemingly unforgiveable. Ms. Shahar causes the reader to care about two people broken as much by their desire for survival as by the Nazis and their campaign of wanton evil.
The wisdom of the man who is Alex is by turns painfully poignant and inspiring. In his own voice, he allows us to travel inside the tragedy of the Holocaust that stole his family, friends and identity, as well as his relationship with his Creator:
“Will God torture us forever for being Jews?”
“Is this how we’re to be a light unto the nations, as fuel for the fire?”
“The foundation of my existence has been cut from beneath me, leaving me hanging in emptiness. Where once was a vibrant web of ties to others and to God, I find only singed and blackened threads leading into nothingness.”
These poetic words convey for the reader the abject emptiness of spirit wrought by daily life in the camps, especially for those manipulated into being “partners” in crime against their brethren.
Returning also carries with it the terrifying aspect that reality isn’t as we imagine it. Is the apparent time- and space-travel in this story true? Ms. Shahar certainly renders it believable, even for someone like me. I have never had a “spiritual” or “supernormal” experience. No one has ever reached out to me from the beyond. Unlike some of my dearest friends, my dreams have never been touched by visions of angels or demons or predictions of the World to Come. Returning makes me want to believe that such “touching the beyond” is possible, that there is always time to repair what we’ve damaged.
There is so much life-wisdom in this book:
“…beauty is to be found in working within the constraints imposed on us by life.”
“…when we imbibe ‘willingness’ to die for our sacred principles, then there is some hope we will be driven to find meaning in living for our sacred principles.”
“Sometimes the answer to our prayer is the ability to pray at all. Fortunate is he who can see his personal deliverance when it finally comes.”
And more, from wise Alex, who found a miraculous way to carry his story and life-lessons into the future:
“I thought of those times when one quiet smile lit up that impenetrable night, and gave me, if not joy in life, at least a reason to live. There was more power in one of those smiles than in all the weaponry of despair with which the enemy reduced us to silence. In rising above despair, the courage in that smile raised us all – if only for a moment – to the level of immortality.”
“These are my heroes…. Not those who take up arms against the Germans in a hopeless battle, but those who take up words against silence.”
“How could one remain resolute in despair when even the act of returning a lost hair pin was a form of communion with God? How could one remain distant from life when the act of biting into a piece of fruit was a motion toward holiness? Judaism is not so much a religion as a civilization. It has inherited some great wisdom and outstanding morals that have stood the test of time, honed down through centuries of caring for one another through hardship and exile.”
Returning is not for the faint of heart – but if empathy for the lives of some of our most misunderstood brethren is important to you, it is a very significant work. One leaves this journey with as many questions as answers, perhaps the most haunting a question to the self: What choices would I have made, in the “choiceless time” of the Shoah? And what should be my opinion of my brothers and sisters and the choices they made?  This powerful telling of a terrible tale has the potential to silence earthly judgment – and replace it with compassion.
Returning, by Yael Shahar
with an afterword by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Originally published at the Times of Israel under the title "Returning to the Land of the Living"

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Mother-Child-Grandmother Circles

     Like Russian nesting dolls, we hold people inside ourselves.
     At first, we are in awe of our ability to share with God the art of bringing life into the world.
     It doesn't matter how many births there have been throughout history: we think that we invented it with each new child.
     Poetry and radiant light hover around us and these new beings. We are in perfect harmony with the universe... briefly.
     Then comes the day when we are mystified and made small and helpless by their uncontrolled fits of unhappiness for which we have no cure.
     Later, they can be understood, somewhat better – but they are made entirely of hands. A blessing! She found her own feet. She understands that they belong to her! But then... Hands that must explore everything, destroy with a dance in their eyes, with a dance in their hearts, but totally free of evil intent. Hands that are seemingly everywhere at once.
     We discover that our time is not our own. We only want to experience going to the bathroom by ourselves, without them banging on the door, crying for food, comfort, attention, amusement... for just five freaking minutes.
     We cannot remember what it's like to take a shower alone. Exhausted, we feel guilty for loving them most easily when they are sleeping.
     They grow larger, more beautiful, more amazing... they take our breath away.
     They drive us batty.
     The memes we share on Facebook speak of our common understanding and our common frustration.
     We open our mouths, and our mothers come out.
     We roll our eyes together and nod in shared understanding: 15-year-olds should take over the government quickly, while they still know everything.
     Our shared love of the video of the lady singing to her daughter to the tune of the William Tell Overture will never fade, not even when we are grandmothers.
     Only then, we will laugh softly together at how our grandchildren are carrying on the tradition, and how we are coming out of the mouths of our daughters.
     And we will marvel at the nearly painful sweetness of watching our babies holding and teaching and crying over their babies...
     Like Russian nesting dolls, we will always be holding people inside ourselves.

If you haven't seen this, you must: The Mom Song to William Tell Overture

Thursday, September 20, 2018

During the Worst of Times, the Best of Times: Live Like You Were Dying

On the non-Jewish calendar, today is my 61st birthday.

Last week was the saddest of times. The 45-year-old father of four, Ari Fuld, Hy"d, was murdered. While grocery shopping. For being a Jew in the Holy Land. I cried a lot during Yom Kippur, for a young widow and four orphans. I cried for a Jewish people who had lost a hero, a man whose passion for Israel, for the Jewish people, for Zionism, for teaching Torah, was unquenchable and inspirational to countless people around the world. He was also a teacher of self-defense to men, women, and children. And my heart broke for them: if the Lion of Zion could be taken down, who couldn't be? Who could feel safe at a shopping center ostensibly designed to show the world that coexistence is possible, when some shoppers believe that it's okay to stab a man in the back?

But from the little that I personally knew of Ari, I believe the best tribute I can give him is to continue living. In Israel. Proudly Jewish. Proudly Zionist.

My sons arranged for the best birthday present I have ever received, and a wonderful tribute to LIFE. They took me skydiving.

This was actually the bachelor party for my son that was postponed due to weather. (He's been married for just over two years. Spoiler alert: marrying her was a great idea.) Dani told his buddies that this was the day to give it another go, and that they'd have one more attendee. While none of my other sons could participate due to the demands of work, they paid for my ticket, sent supportive comments throughout the day, and cheered at the end as if Moms had climbed Everest.

I had a great crew, including my youngest son and my Dearly Beloved (who chose to play the role of ground crew, since he doesn't believe in jumping out of moving vehicles at 11,000 feet in the air). One a kid I've known since he was born. Another, my son's brother-in-law. The last member of the crew is one of our star football players, whom I will miss very much. Until he can't handle the sidelines any more...)

L-R: Gideon Reis, Dani Eastman, Ruti Eastman, Avi Eastman, Avi Schamroth, Avrami Farkas

The flight crew, geared up.
Paradive in Haifa is staffed with people who clearly love their work. First, young ladies with great senses of humor had us fill out the usual "if you die or are badly injured, don't blame us" legal paperwork. (All jesting aside, they really are careful to make sure you are not jumping into the deep end, so to speak, without knowing the dangers.) Then they showed us a promotional/instructional video. There was constant briefing to be sure we knew what to do and when to do it, and what not to do. The instructors/guides were calm and patient, and fun.

My guide was a very respectful fellow named Arnon. He was a great teacher, giving information and encouragement as needed. He taught me how to twirl the parachute so that it was like a wonderful aeronautical waltz. We had a very pleasant flight over the teal-blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Arnon didn't seem to mind when I chattered joyfully about the amazing world of beauty God has created for us to enjoy.

Paradive does a very cool thing for the spectators (in this case, Team Avi): they post the parachute colors of each participant, thus allowing the spotters on the ground to get some good aerial shots.

Hey, Avrami! Lookin' good!

Howdy, Avi S. Smile for your mom and dad.

Roger, Haifa. The Ema has landed.
These guys look all Top Gun now, don't they?

There is simply nothing as sweet as benship*.
We all discussed post-experience how we felt. What were you feeling when you jumped out of the plane? Which did you like better: the free-fall or floating under the open parachute? (I couldn't decide. Like steak and red wine, each has its contribution to the total adventure.) Were you scared? How did you handle the moment the chute opened? Would you do it again? (If money were no object, a few of us at least would have gotten back in line.) "I think I'm seeing the fifteen-year-old mom," said Dani, with a grin.

None of us could stop smiling (except for the few moments during which we composed the #toocoolforwords gangsta post-flight photo). I'm still grinning.


You can do a lot of things on your 61st birthday.

You can hang out with your best friend.

You can paint your nails red. (I recommend it.)

You can also go skydiving. Now I need to go 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu...

With the best friend, best ground crew, best cheerleader God ever created, puh-puh-puh. (Caryn and Inbar, take note: your earrings, your necklace. Ruti's tee shirt courtesy of the Paratroopers branch of the IDF.)

*Benship - a Ruti-generated word for that unique and special relationship you can only have with your adult children

Moms - not a typo. One of my frighteningly large array of nicknames.

The title (to those for whom it isn't apparent) is a mashup of  Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (from 1859) and Tim McGraw's song released in 2004, just to display the broad palette of inspiration out there in history.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Best Birthday EVER!

30 Kislev 5778, 1st day Rosh Chodesh Tevet, 6th day of Chanukah.

Not mine. Though my recent 60th was very, very special, thanks to the Dearly Beloved.

Rather, it was that very Dearly Beloved's birthday this past week. The fellow who has spent most of his 69 years worrying more about the happiness of those he loves than striving for his own contentment. I don't think I've ever known anyone who puts other people at the top of the list to such a healthy degree. You have to be very comfortable in your own skin to do that successfully; and Coach is indeed blessed with that extraordinary self-possession.

Four of our sons were in Israel for the birthday party. And they really came up to bat (if my football players will forgive an "unworthy" metaphor). Via Snapfish, they and their lovely brides produced a book of Abba's famous sayings. The book is filled with photographs that remind them of special moments between each of them and Abba, with funny expressions he is given to repeating, and most preciously, with love letters from each of them. (Life hack: If you want to tell that special someone that they do, indeed, matter to you very much, don't wait. Write that letter now. You cannot know the power of your heartfelt words.) Each son or daughter-in-law read passages of the book, to much laughter. And tears of love flowed when they each read their own letters aloud.

My contribution was the best photo ever (IMHO) of Coach.
After we finished drying our eyes and congratulating each other, I brought out the last gift: a painting by our very talented friend, Steven Seward. I don't think anyone has captured my dear best friend as well as Steven did. He has not just talent but wisdom: since his work had to be done without a model and with an ocean between us, he asked for several photos from which to choose. After perusing them, he told me he wanted to use the one that would make Avi happiest: the one with his bride in the picture. Smart guy, this portrait artist! (Kudos and gratitude to his lovely bride, Caryn Good Seward, for facilitating so much of this project.)

We look forward to celebrating many, many birthdays together, please God. But this year's birthdays have certainly reminded us that the best gift of all is the love of our humans.

Chag Urim sameach. Keep adding light to the world!

Special thanks to my daughters-in-love for hosting a wonderful Shabbat birthday celebration, with delicious food, comfy sleeping arrangements, and grandchildren, bli ayin hara, puh-puh-puh!

Interested in contacting Steven for the commission of a portrait? You can visit his website to view his portfolio at I'm always happy to make a shidduch.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Angel, Breaking with Just a Smile

9 Kislev 5778.

Yesterday, my eldest grandchild turned 18.

I have lived long enough to have a third generation reach adulthood. It boggles the mind.

This is a love song to my Lily, whose existence is a miracle, even more than every child is a miracle, whose birth brought closer hearts separated by misfortune, bad choices, gulfs of continents and seas and cultures.

Lily, you make everyone who meets you smile. You have brought out the best in people who may have remained ordinary, and brought out the magic in people who are trying their best to save the world, one child at a time.

You're in the process of making a little brother an even better and finer and more sensitive super-hero than he would have been without you. (No doubt, the baby brother will gain from these lessons as well.)
You have caused two excellent people to become monumental, in my eyes, in their binding together a nest to hold you and your brothers. Even when that nest got tested by your teenagerness, which you surprisingly couldn't avoid. Like getting wrinkles and pimples at the same time, one would have thought you would be immune, but no.

None of us knows how much light you have to add to this tragic little world, nor for how long.

But your distant grandmother wishes for you and for all of us who love you that your light will shine and continue to refine all of us.

Thank you for coming into my life, little person, little hummer of ancient songs. I love you.

"...Darling Lily, is an angel from Heaven
Come to see us a little while
Stage door Johnnies wait for her
Our voices encore her
They just adore her style

Darling Lily, doesn't dream of the heart
She keeps on breaking with just a smile..."

from the song by Henry Mancini

Friday, November 24, 2017

Sigd: Hearts Facing Jerusalem

Yom Chamishi, 5 Kislev 5778.

"Remember, I pray Thee, the word that Thou didst command Thy servant Moshe, saying, If you transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: but if you turn to Me, and keep My commandments, and do them; though your outcasts be at the utmost parts of heaven, from there will I gather them, and I will bring them to the place which I have chosen to set My name there."  
-- Nehemiah 8-9

Imagine spending generations reading these words, and believing that the prophet Nehemiah was speaking directly to you and your people! And then finally coming home, on "the wings of eagles," to "Yerusalem"...

Fascinated with a story I heard about the first Ethiopians to "come Home" to Zion, I have wanted to experience the Ethiopian holy day, Sigd, for most of the decade that I've lived in Israel. Work, weather, and my general shyness prevented it, until last Thursday.

The OU Israel Center arranged a morning tour of various sites integral to the exploration of Sigd, which means "prostration" in Ge'ez, the holy language of both Jews and non-Jews in Ethiopia. Our very competent and entertaining young guide was David Bratspis. ("Go ahead. Just get right into the pronunciation. Don't hide from it: brats' piss.") His self-effacing humor and factual research made him easy to like and respect immediately; and his presentation throughout the day didn't disappoint.

Our first stop was the cemetery on Har Herzl, where David introduced us to the memorial commemorating the loss of more than 4,000 Ethiopians who died en route and in Sudan on their way to the Holy Land in the 1980s and early 1990s. They succumbed to famine and disease; but they also were robbed, raped, and murdered by people they trusted as guides. Happily, many thousand Ethiopians -- also known as Beta Yisrael -- were rescued during the airlifts (designated Operations Moses, Joshua, and Solomon) from 1984 through 1991.

Representations of Ehtiopian tukulim (huts)

Sitting at the monument, we listened raptly to David as he told us the history of Ethiopian Jewry, facts about the three key languages among the people, and details about their dwellings (a thatched, conical hut called a tukul), and their practices, many of which were decidedly Jewish in nature.

the names of those who perished

David reminded us that it might be more appropriate to call this day (29 Cheshvan, fifty days after Yom Kippur) "Yom Sigd" rather than "Chag Sigd," as it is a holy day of commemoration, and half-fast, and a very solemn day of blessings and prayers. David pointed out that Sigd became an official holiday in 2008.
After our educational visit to the Har Herzl memorial, we re-boarded our bus to head for the Tayelet, a promenade located in Talpiot, and the highest point in Jerusalem. Their holy leaders, called kessim, chose the Tayelet to continue the practice of a mass pilgrimage to the highest available point, and gazing toward Zion.

David showed us an example of the Orit (pictured), the sacred text of Ethiopian Jews.
From the Tayelet, they worshipers can see the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem. The Ethiopian practice is to join with their kessim, rabbis, to recite prayers, to read from their holy book called the Orit.

At least this is the practice of some. "What proof do we have that the Ethiopian Jews are authentically Jewish? Some of them (mostly Amharic speakers) hold by going to the Tayelet, to continue the old practices; and some of them (the Tigrinya speakers) wouldn't be caught dead there, and go instead to the Kotel." After we all had a good laugh at the classic joke (two Jews, three opinions), David told us that many Tigrim do join the observance on the Tayelet. But his humor served to remind us that these Jews are part of our family, something we continued to learn and feel throughout the day.

At the Tayelet, we were "turned loose" to walk around, take photos, make conversation. I met lovely people who were more than willing to talk about the day, about their families, about their profound love of Israel.

Some of the ladies were shy at first to be photographed; but after I explained that I write a blog to share what is lovely about living in Israel, they were interested. Once I expressed my happiness in being able to participate in this holy day, they were eager to talk. We discussed how special it is to share traditions, and the joy they feel bringing up their children in the Israel their parents only dreamed of.
Only kessim sit under the umbrellas; so if you see an umbrella in the crowd, you know there is an Ethiopian rabbi there.

We received many blessings from these holy people.

A young soldier was proud to protect all of us as we mingled on the Tayelet.

After this visit, we moved to the Kotel, to say the afternoon prayers with our Ethiopian hosts, who then broke the fast over traditional sourdough flatbread called injera, with which they were very generous. They were also very generous with their brachot. I collected abundant blessings from more than one kes for my sons and their families.

"Will you pass on the observance of Sigd to your children?" The boys were sure. The girl was just shy, as is usual with most girls everywhere.

I saw her standing under an umbrella. "Is your husband a kes?" I asked her. She seemed surprised that I knew the significance. (Score another one for David, our informative tour guide.) "My father is a kes," she answered. After the breaking of the fast, she took the microphone, and made a short speech to the assembled crowd (which I sadly did not understand). She was the first to offer me some injera, even before she took for herself.

Kessim of both groups of Ethiopians davened and broke the fast side by side. We can all learn from each other, I think, about getting along.

I hope to participate again in Yom Sigd, less as a curious observer and more as a fellow olah, as well as in the many and varied cultural customs of my wonderful Jewish Nation. As my dear and wise Mama, a"h, always said, "Why do people fight about their differences? Wouldn't it be better to celebrate our rainbow of colors and all of our different ways of viewing the world?"

The mounds represent the mountains met during their trek to the Holy Land.
Ethiopian Jewry officially recognized by the Rabbinate
You can contact David on Facebook about arranging a tour at David Bratspis Tour Educator.