Returning Home

Six months ago, we made the decision to return to Israel. We knew we weren't eligible to make Aliyah - having lived in Israel for 11 years previously - but what did it mean to be a "returning Israeli"? Was it just a technicality or different status in our teudat zehut/identity card?

Almost as soon as we finalized our plans to come back to Israel, we found out about a "toshav chozer" conference that was taking place in NYC. Both Josh & I reflected many times during the conference, where MKs spoke from the heart about the beauty of returning "home," how mind-blowing it is that we have a country that not only offers practical and financial assistance to returning Israelis, but genuinely welcomes us "home." Is there any other country in the world that welcomes home its residents with open arms like Israel?

When my husband and I made Aliyah (separately) in 1998, there was no Nefesh BNefesh on the scene. No IDF soldiers greeting us at the airport. No ceremony. And this time around too, we were just a frazzled family of five with fifteen suitcases on a regular El Al flight. But even though we didn't get to enjoy the magical NBN experience, there was no mistaking the fact that we had arrived "home."

Moving countries is never fun, but when you are returning "home," you realize very quickly that you are NEVER alone. Not in our new community, Rehovot, where we were received with such a beautiful welcome; not in Misrad Haklita, where they patiently and gently talked us through the rights we are entitled to; not in our girls' elementary school, which welcomed our girls six weeks before the end of the school year without batting an eyelid; and not in our new apartment building, where our new neighbors offered us their fridge to store our food while we were without appliances, and invited us for Shabbat meals.

Three months later, and the honeymoon ain't over. When we left the US, we left behind not just amazing friends, but parents, siblings, our children's grandparents, nieces and nephews. Blood relatives. No easy thing. But returning to Israel, returning HOME, means that no matter how tough things get, no matter how harsh and ugly the world can seem, in Israel you are among brothers. Among family. One people, one heart.

These words play out constantly in our lives.

The limitations of the Israeli public school system only reinforce what a tremendous country Israel is, and how spectacular my girls' school is. It takes very little effort at all to find fault with the overcrowded classrooms, the low ratio of teachers-students, etcetera, etcetera, but amidst the chaos and disorganization, there are spectacular human beings who genuinely care about our children's integration back into Israel, about their comfort, about their happiness. One people, one heart.

This week I once again discovered that to be a "returning Israeli" is not just a technicality, but that you are truly being welcomed with open arms. As "returning Israelis" who have been out of the country less than 4 years, my girls are not technically entitled to receive any help from the school with Hebrew.

Yet Tachkemoni, my daughters' school, is choosing to overlook that technicality, and at the end of each school day, my girls receive an extra hour of assistance with homework/Hebrew. The girls' classes are bursting at the seams - Tzofia is one of 39 students with only one teacher - yet the teachers bend over backwards to make themselves accessible at all times for both us and the girls, and constantly are offering support and words of chizuk/encouragement. One people, one heart.

This summer was a disaster for Israeli children - yet my daughters' teachers and ganenet took the time to pick up the phone to check in and see how they were doing, and to offer support and encouraging words.

None of this do I take for granted. Last night I was at my youngest daughter's back-to-gan meeting. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, I told everyone that we just returned to Israel three months ago. The parents all clapped and said "bruchim habaim - welcome." Can you imagine such a scene in France, England, anywhere in the world? Where fellow parents - essentially strangers - in your child's class would be so excited and inspired by the idea of someone returning home to... Manchester?

We left Israel three years ago, unaware what it would mean if we ever one day decided to come back, but Israel was waiting for us patiently all that time to welcome us back home.


Is it any wonder?

Last week, on July 3rd, a Palestinian bulldozer driver went on a deadly rampage in downtown Jerusalem, knocking over a bus, plowing over cars, and damaging buildings. So far, three are dead, over sixty are injured.

When you are confronted by unspeakable horrors that defy the imagination, your first reaction is: How? How could this have happened? How did this man get his hands on a bulldozer?

The brutal but honest answer, one which everyone would prefer to avoid, is that we gave this man the weapon he needed to destroy life. The Jerusalem Light Rail Company hired a Palestinian man with a criminal record, someone with a drug problem who had spent time in jail for criminal activity, and let him loose with a bulldozer. And why? So they could save a few shekel on cheap labor. We gave him the "tools" he needed to kill us, and his sign-off was the words with which we have tragically become all too familiar: "Allah Akhbar - God is Great."

(As a side note, I know that everyone reacts to, and deals with, horrific incidents like these in their own way. A dose of denial is necessary, and even healthy, in order to get through the day. People process events in their own way, and come up with their own explanations and rationalization to make sense of the inexplicable. That being said, I observe that when something awful happens, people find it a lot easier to say that a tragic accident happened because someone wasn't keeping Shabbat, for example, than to admit that our own country is cutting off our oxygen and signing our death warrant. Case in point: In our newly-opened Kanyon in Modiin, a man fell yesterday, on Shabbat, three floors from an elevator. And already people are writing in the talkback section on Ynet that it happened because he was violating Shabbat. For some reason, people find it easier to swallow to imagine G-d's reaction to the violation of Shabbat. Yet, when you tell people that WE, the State of Israel, ALLOWED THIS TO HAPPEN, because we knowingly, with our eyes wide open, hired a Palestinian convict and let him loose in a bulldozer - people look at you like you've fallen from Mars.)

And now? Now what is happening? How are we reacting? The government is questioning the legitimacy of demolishing this man's HOME in East Jerusalem. As far as they are concerned, It's one thing to demolish a person's at least three people's LIVES, but is it really appropriate to demolish their HOMES?

Just a couple of weeks ago, I heard on the radio that a Palestinian from East Jerusalem was distraught that his olive trees were going to be destroyed, because Israel was erecting a security barrier.

The bottom line is simple: In a country where murder is considered a "natural reaction" from the Arabs, but where it is questionable and even reprehensible to destroy OLIVE TREES and HOMES, is it any wonder that a six-month-old baby is going to grow up without her mother? There is nothing heroic about not defending your own.

The victims of the bulldoze rampage were innocent civilians going about their daily business, and traveling through the city. They are not just victims of senseless hatred and sadism from the Arabs, but they are victims of the State of Israel, who value their pockets and political careers over human life.

A six-month-old baby is robbed of her mother, and a bereft man is robbed of his wife. Two others are dead. Sixty others are injured. And we only have ourselves to blame. I am deeply ashamed.

A catalogue of car woes - is someone trying to tell me something?

Sometimes I wonder if it just isn't meant to be. Me. Driving. Behind the wheel.

As of today, I am now back behind the wheel. Now that my three-month period of being an intolerable backseat driver has drawn to a close (my poor long-suffering husband!), I can "talk" about the experience with some degree of perspective. In July of this year, my license was taken away for three months, and I was fined 1000 NIS, for an accident that happened two years' ago, on a cold December morning in Modiin. In order for you to understand quite how unlucky this was, you're going to need some background info. It's a rocky ride, but there are some laughs along the way, so hold on tight.

It took me over two years to get my driver's license in Israel. I could have bought myself a Ferrari with the amount of money I spent on driving lessons. Now before you draw hasty conclusions about my driving and coordination skills based on the length of time it took me to get my license, and the fact that I just revealed that I was in an accident, I can say emphatically that this one was beyond my control. In order to take the practical test, you need to take the theory test. After a couple of months of crawling around the Modiin streets in the evening with my Iraqi driving teacher, whose name - Sassi Sasson - continues to crack me up until this day, we decided that I was ready to take the theory test and then the practical test. At 100 NIS per lesson, Sassi had done well out of me, and he gave me his blessing to prepare for the test.

Not trusting my limited knowledge of mechanical terminology in Hebrew, I opted to take the test in English. Pretty logical decision, one might think, but that was my first mistake. Now, maybe because I am an editor, I have a heightened awareness of inconsistencies and the like, but it was quite clear from page one of the theory book in English (if you can call it that) that finding one coherent sentence that didn't totally contradict the previous one was going to be a challenge of enormous proportions. Sentences like, "The transmission works in operation next to the gear box and the crank shaft all together up and down," swam in front of my eyes, and I told myself that if I could pass the theory test in English, I could do anything. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I turned to Sassi for help, and told him that although I am no mechanical whizz, the book just made no sense. Even if Sassi explained to me the ins and outs of mechanics (why you need to know the complex mechanics of the car just to pass a driving test, I will never know), it wouldn't help. The test in English would surely be based on the nonsensical drivel in the book - so the question was: Should I learn the correct information in the hope that the English test would be more coherent, or should I memorize the entire book, however dumb and illogical, in the presumption that they would test me based on the false information in it? 

Sassi could barely contain his excitement at hearing my dilemma. In Hebrew, he told me that I was absolutely right (thanks, Sassi, for telling me that NOW after I have already bought the book, and memorized each ridiculous sentence of its eighty pages) - the book was horrendous - filled with typos and inconsistencies - a landmine for any potential driver, and that he had a solution that would work to my advantage in more ways than one. As he delivered his master plan, I listened skeptically. Sassi suggested that I write a letter to the Ministry of Transport alerting them to the awful state of the English theory book. I should include in my letter some "best of the worst" sentences as examples of the mistakes. I should then take the opportunity to offer them my professional services as editor (gotta love the opportunistic edge of Israelis) to help them remedy the situation. How would this scheme benefit Sassi? Not quite sure. But he was mighty keen on the idea. He did say that he had other English-speaking students, and that it was in everybody's interest that something be done about the English theory book. Well, as ideas go, it wasn't the worst scheme in the world--but knowing the beauraucratical process in Israel as I do, I wasn't hopeful that the Ministry of Transport would be knocking down MY door anytime soon, however convincing my letter, so I left it at that, and promised Sassi I would give it some thought. This won't sound noble, but at the age of 26, as a mother and wife with a full-time job, I just wanted to DRIVE. Not launch a campaign against the Ministry of Transport, not write petitions, and rally for the cause. I just wanted to pass the damned theory test, so that I wouldn't have to take another cab again to pick up my daughters from gan.

 I told myself that I had written dissertations, and am now an editor - a silly theory test would not get the better of me. So I psyched myself for the test, and joined some giddy sixteen-year-olds in Modiin to take the test. Unlike me, they were taking it in Hebrew, and their books actually contained sentences that might actually help a person in a tricky situation with a flat tire. I was the only one who took the test in English, and the multiple questions were designed to trick. If I wrote the correct answer, would they fail me anyway, because that was not what was written in the English theory book? Felt like a lose-lose situation to me. And it was. I failed. Not just once. But twice. "Hi, my name is Sorelle, and I can't pass a theory test to save my life." According to the results of my theory test, I got 49 questions wrong out of 50. 49 questions wrong out of 50 - I ask you!!!  Well, as you can imagine, my self-confidence was at an all-time low at that point. That was until I read the local Modiin newspaper a couple of months later - and said that they were no longer giving out tests in English in Modiin, because there were reports of corruption, and that the tests were marked manually - and not on the computer.... each time you take the test, you have to pay another 113 NIS, so it was in many people's interest to keep on failing those unsuspecting Anglo students... At that point, I burned the theory book in English (no joke), and prepared myself to become incredibly familiar with mechanical lingo in Hebrew.

Well, three's a charm, and I passed my third theory test in Jerusalem. (Lest you think things were finally going smoothly, unbeknownst to me, while I was taking my theory test, my husband who had dropped me off at the test center had gotten into a minor accident, and collided into another car...) Yay! Hebrew prevailed! Sassi was profiting very nicely from my predicament, since he said that it was important for me to keep taking lessons while I was studying for my multiple theory tests, so that I wouldn't lose momentum, so we kept cruising round the Modiin streets, me, Sassi, and Ayal Golan, and all other sorts of delightful Mizrachi singers on the radio, as he regaled me with tales of Iraq, and his escape from there at the age of 14 when he left his family and moved to Israel alone. The editor in me was thinking at the time of offering to edit his autobiography - he told some pretty hair-raising stories - either he had a fascinating life, or he would make a great fiction writer.

The time came for me to take the practical test, and by that point, I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with my second daughter. Getting behind the steering wheel was a challenge enough, never mind navigating one-way streets in Modiin at the mercy of insane Israeli drivers, and of course, as can be predicted, despite Sassi's assurances that I would pass without a problem (after over 100 lessons, I would hope so!), the tester set me a trap, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. He told me to do an emergency stop, so I did - but he failed me for parking on the wrong side of the road. Another 300 shekel down the drain, and some more "momentum" lessons with Sassi in between my next test. Well, I took my second test just two weeks before I gave birth to Tzofia, and as I was waiting to see which tester I would be subjected to this time, I was horrified to see that it was the same tester who had just failed me. I turned to Sassi in desperation and told him that after last time, there was NO way that I was going to pass! The tester hated me as it was! Sassi reassured me in the typical Israel fashion that does everything BUT reassure you - "Al tidag, hakol yihiyeh beseder, taamini li, motek" - "Don't worry, love, everything's going to be just fine." Of course, what this translated as, "I have a deal with the tester, and you WILL pass this time." I looked at Sassi menacingly, and told him that I had better pass, because at 38 weeks pregnant, I was fed up already, and that if I failed again, I would drive illegally, and wouldn't take any more lessons with Sassi. I don't know what it was that clinched it, but I did indeed pass the next time. The tester's demeanor and attitude was totally different this time - he didn't snap at me, and he was polite. I don't know whether it was because he feared that upsetting me would cause my waters to break in his nicely scented shiny car, but this was a joy ride. He made me drive around the block a couple of times - NO reverse parking, NO highway, NO traps - and lo and behold, I passed! YAY!  I had made it to the finishing line, but the drama still wasn't quite over...

<APOLOGIES FOR THE CLIFFHANGER> Stay tuned for part II of "Why did I ever think I could drive in this country?" 

A squash and a squeeze

A Squash and a Squeeze is a beautiful children's story that is a real favorite with my girls, and unlike many of the other books I read to them, where I am wondering guiltily if they will really notice if I skip a page or five, this is a book I have no problem reading... again and again. The book comes with an audiotape, so I mimic the wise old man and little old lady's accent with the best Welsh accent I can muster. 

The story centers on a little old lady who is dissatisfied with the size of her house, calling it a squash and a squeeze, (da-dum), but, with the advice of a wise old man (who looks like a venerable rabbi one might find in the kollels of Lakewood), who suggests that she bring in farmyard animals into her home, she soon discovers that it's not as small as she thought.  Not understanding, at first, why bringing animals into her already-small home would help her predicament, she questions the wisdom of the wise old man's advice, but nonetheless welcomes in animals, one by one, who wreak havoc on her home. The wise old man's final piece of advice is to take out each animal, one by one, and by the time her home is an animal-free zone, nafal ha'asimon, the penny has dropped, and she realizes that her home, after all, is not quite the "squash and the squeeze" she originally felt it to be. 

To me, this sweet story captures the essence of life, and I have had many a "squash and a squeeze" moment. Living in an apartment in a neighborhood which predominantly boasts large and beautiful homes, I, too, have experienced on occasion a "squash and a squeeze" feeling, where I just feel that what I have just isn't enough. And while I am not at the point of wanting to welcome in farmyard animals into our home in order to make me appreciate what I have - not being the greatest animal lover in the world - I do see that perspective is everything. It is OK and natural to want more - we are not nazirites that seek a lifestyle where abstinence is virtuous - but remember that you have a choice how to perceive your reality, and that everything is relative. You can want more, without sinking into depression about it - and the important thing is that in your desire to achieve more, earn more, possess more, don't lose sight of all the good things you have in your life - whether it be your husband, your children, your friends...

For many years, I have fought (admittedly not very hard, given my shopaholic tendencies) against my materialistic inclinations. I felt that being materialistic ran counter to Jewish thought. Wanting a big house, lots of clothes, nice vacations just wasn't holy, in my book. I didn't know how to reconcile those two aspects of my being - the desire to "have more" and my desire to be a good Jew. 

I used to feel very guilty for comparing what I have to what others have - but then I realized that if I weren't to do that, I probably wouldn't be human. The desire for "more," "bigger," and "better" is what makes human beings grow, work harder, and thrive to improve, in the interest of bettering their lives. Yes, it is true, most people, upon leaving the Diaspora, and making Aliyah, breathe a sigh of relief at escaping the materialistic mindset, whereby the size of your house determines the size of your happiness - but not always.

In my mind, as long as your desire to be extremely wealthy includes a desire to give tzedakah (charity), and doesn't turn you into a snob, then there is not necessarily a dichotomy. It's just a hard balance to strike - but I guess that's what Judaism is all about. The struggle to achieve balance.

Put your money where your mouth is...

First things first, Shana Tova to one and all. This blog has been inactive for the last few months for a host of reasons, but I thought I would rear my head, and come out of my hibernation, in order to direct people to Treppenwitz's blog, where he writes about the robbery of Pina Chama on Yom Kippur. Throughout the year, volunteers serve free refreshments to IDF soldiers, and I can think of no greater mitzva than to help this organization get back on its feet, and resume the holy work of giving a little back to our soldiers who give their lives up for our country on a daily basis.

Feeling down about living in Israel?

If you wake up one morning, and you are feeling less than chipper about living in this country of ours, after opening up your mail to discover that you are being screwed by Bituach Leumi, and owe them a million shekel, or go to the mechanic, and find out that they are charging you four times the amount they should be paying you for repairing your car, here's a video I recommend watching for a pick-me-up. It gets me EVERY time.

When I think what Nefesh B'Nefesh has done for the Jewish people, I am rendered speechless. This year, in the summer of 2007, 3,500 people from North America are supposed to be making Aliyah through Nefesh B'Nefesh. These figures blow my mind. In past years, when faced with annoying bureaucratical procedures related to Aliyah, I would feel a twinge of jealousy. Where were NBN in 1998 when I needed them most? Making Aliyah from England was a somewhat lonely experience - I was the only one on my flight who was making Aliyah, and actually was one of 17 to make Aliyah that entire year from England. Thank G-d, things have changed, and this year is a record-breaking year for Nefesh B'Nefesh.

They are returning Jews to their homeland, but there is more to it than that. Due to the psychological trauma that we endure on a day-to-day basis, as a result of watching our country go from one crisis to another, we are, to put it mildly, low on morale. We don't have Scharansky anymore in the forefront of politics to give us inspiration; we don't have ANY leader or prime minister appearing on our TV screens giving us any hope or pride in our country. So what are we left with? What keeps us going from day to day? What is stopping us packing our bags and heading out on the next plane to.. wherever...?

For me, it is watching videos like the one above, where hundreds of Jews are crying their eyes out as they kiss Israeli ground, at the privilege of making Aliyah, returning to their homeland. That to me is a lifeline. It not only reminds me of why I am here, but it reinforces the essence of who we are as a people, and what we can achieve through shared goals and ideals. The fragmentation amongst our people that threatens to tear us into shreds is momentarily forgotten, and we remember what it is to smile at the sight of an Israeli flag, or the sight of an Israeli soldier in Ben Gurion welcoming new olim to their home; people who just moments before were strangers to each other, separated by continents and different existences, are united by the very fact that they are Jews and they are... family. For that feeling, I owe Nefesh B'Nefesh everything.

Fighting inertia

I don't know if this is just me, but when I am extremely pressured with work, and have a to-do list that contains more items than there are minutes in the day to do them, I am far more productive than when I actually have time on my hands, but am somehow unable to get my act together. Know what I mean? Until Shavuot, I was working on three editorial projects simultaneously, yet I still managed to go shopping, make phone calls, ya di ya, yet here I am now, enjoying a brief hiatus before the commencement of my next project, and I have become Queen Procrastinator, concocting a multitude of excuses why it is best for me not to fulfill the most menial of tasks. 

Oh well. Still no excuse for not blogging, I know. Truth is, I have had a lot on my mind lately, mainly about what is happening to this country of ours, G-d help us. My husband's aunt, who made Aliyah from Milwaukee the year I was born, 1978, spent the Shabbat with us. She has lived in Jerusalem for the last thirty years, and has raised six children in this country. I was talking to her on Friday night about what is going on politically this country, and how hopeless things seem to be right now. Sometimes when I speak to Israelis who have been in the country since almost the establishment of the State, my spirits are buoyed. They have seen the good times and the bad times, and they have a sense of perspective that we newbies lack. I was hoping that I would hear some reassuring words from Josh's aunt, who is a deeply spiritual and passionate woman, but she too expressed a sense of helplessness that has been weighing me down now for a while.

If I am to be honest, I have to admit that I am not too hopeful about the future of this country. I want to believe that before we can see the light, we have to experience dark, and all of that, and that we have witnessed miracles before, but somehow it feels different now. I don't know that as a Jewish people, we necessarily deserve this country. Perhaps we might delude ourselves into thinking that we are entitled to this country, that it belongs to the Jews, and it is therefore our inalienable right to hold on to it, but what are we doing as a Jewish people, as a nation, to DESERVE it?

If we look at the current government, we will not find one individual who has not faced indictment. If we look at our educational system, it is enough to make you weep. Children in chiloni (secular) schools are not learning about Zionism; they are not learning about the history of Israel; they are not learning about Tanach, and the festivals.  The few secular Israelis in this country who actually care about instilling in their children a sense of national and Jewish identity have to send their children to religious schools in order for them to receive the most rudimentary education. We know an exceptionally nice secular Israeli couple who live in our neighborhood, and run a food store in Modiin, and they told us that even though they are not religious, they feel that they need to transfer their children from the secular school to a religious one because their teenagers' faces were blank when you ask them who were Golda Meir and David Ben Gurion.  So again, what exactly are we doing RIGHT in this country that entitles us to hold on to it? We [and I am talking about the majority of Israelis] don't turn up to vote for elections; we try to mollify the Arab world at the heavy cost of our own security and soldiers' lives; we are constantly and futilely seeking the approval of other governments; we are apathetic and indifferent about what is going on this country, and instead fantasize about green cards and ways of leaving the country. By giving up on Gaza, we have shattered the ideals and hope of the young settlers whose passion has been extinguished, and who have become old and burnt out overnight. So what do we do as a response to the upheaval and psychological trauma that has afflicted our country? Do we learn from our mistakes? Do we avoid the pitfalls that were responsible for our downfall? No. That would be too logical. We are talking of giving up the Golan, going back and repeating our mistakes, resulting potentially in more bedlum, more chaos, and ultimately, the downfall of our country. The Jews of Sderot are suffering on a daily basis, and instead of providing them with refuge and support, the government is encouraging them to stay put. On Friday night, when we were discussing the situation over Challah and chummus, as Jews are wont to do, Josh said that the Jews of Sderot ought to stop paying their taxes as a way of protecting themselves. That way, the police will arrive on their doorsteps, arrest them, and they will find themselves in the haven of a police cell, where at least they are safe from rockets.

When you take a look at the insanity in Israel, it is all too easy to throw your hands up in the air, and say: What can we do? We are totally and utterly powerless. The government is doing nothing to protect us. Lives have been lost and terrorized in vain. What can we, as individuals, do to effect positive change? The best course of action might very well seem to be to pack one's bags, and leave. But for all those people who have made Aliyah to Israel, who have thrown in their lot with the Jewish people, for better for worse, I don't think we left behind our families, our cushy jobs, our luxuries, to give up that easily. I think that apathy is a luxury that we can't afford, and that small steps, even though they may seem to be inconsequential, can go a long way in boosting our individual, and ulimately collective, morale.

Josh's aunt was telling us about the organization VAT (Victims of Arab Terror) that provide financial and emotional support to those people who were either directly affected by terror, or who have lost family members to terrorist attacks. She told me that she was feeling a similar sense of malaise, but that she heard about this organization, and decided to attend an event in which victims of terror gathered to share their stories. People whose lives were torn apart, people who lost limbs in terrorist attacks, who lost their children, who had every reason to give up on life and humanity, were sharing their stories, but were living and breathing testimony to the enduring strength of the human spirit. They were not bitter or angry or despondent, nor did they talk about leaving the country. They talked about the miracles, the beauty of Israel, and the hopes for better times. I was deeply moved by her description of the event, and it made me feel that perhaps there is something we can do. You just have to be able to push aside the all-consuming feelings of frustration at the country, and focus on helping people in whatever way you can - whether it be someone in the street, opening up your home to Jews from Sderot, or donating money to worthy causes in Israel. There is always something you can do.

Female Mohelet - a personal touch

Female mohelet

Yeah, I know, this is my fourth post of the day, but who's counting?

I read in the Jerusalem Post this weekend about a female Mohelet, Rochelle Schwartz, who came to Israel recently to perform a ritual brit milah, circumcision, on a newborn boy. The article reveals:

With over 25 years of medical practice under her belt, Schwartz has provided non-ritual medical circumcisions as a family doctor to many of her patients and their new young family members. She has developed, over the past 15 years, a unique pain prevention protocol. The technique includes topical and local anesthetic, pain medication and sugar pacifiers (for the newborn to suck on along with the wine), all of which help to virtually eliminate the pain involved in the circumcision procedure.

Schwartz, 53, finally acted on her feelings nine years ago, when she became one of three practicing female mohalot in Canada. Rochelle had studied the Halachot of brit mila with a rabbi for a year prior to becoming a mohelet. She had a Conservative upbringing and currently belongs to a Reform synagogue in her Jewish community in Toronto.

"I always had a love and passion for my Judaism," she says. "I began to think that being a mohelet would be a way to combine my love for Judaism, my surgical [skills] as well as my spiritual life."

I can't deny it sounds great - it seems very logical that women, who by nature are more compassionate than men, should work as mohelot, but as an Orthodox Jew, the first question that entered my mind when I read this article was: what does Halacha have to say about this?

The article addresses this very question:

While according to Halacha, the obligation to perform brit mila falls on the father, there is a biblical precedent for a woman carrying out the act.

According to traditional sources, Jewish tradition does not recognize that the mother has a mitzva to fulfill; that is, the responsibility falls upon the father to recite the blessing of the brit mila. "The mother is encouraged to recite the bracha [blessing] with the father or without the father present following the circumcision," says Sacks.

Theoretically, he says, women may circumcise. He also mentions Tzippora in the Book of Exodus, in which she performed a brit mila. However, according to tradition, Moses is said to have taken the flint from her hand and completed the brit, thus ultimately retaining male dominance in the performance of this traditional Jewish practice.

The male dominance is also seen in Orthodoxy, which adopts the view that since it is not normative practice within Jewish communities, permitting women to perform brit mila would only erode the power of custom and tradition. Rabbi Shaul Farber, a practicing Orthodox rabbi, and founder and director of Itim, the Jewish life Information and Advocacy Center, says that there is an ongoing debate within the Orthodox community on whether women can function as mohalot.

The Shulhan Aruch, the universally accepted legal code book of Jewish law, includes the basic laws of brit mila. The legal code, which was compiled by the great Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid 1500s, combines both the differing customs and laws of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewry. It is a reliable legal source of Jewish laws and practices.

The male dominance is also seen in Orthodoxy, which adopts the view that since it is not normative practice within Jewish communities, permitting women to perform brit mila would only erode the power of custom and tradition. Rabbi Shaul Farber, a practicing Orthodox rabbi, and founder and director of Itim, the Jewish life Information and Advocacy Center, says that there is an ongoing debate within the Orthodox community on whether women can function as mohalot.

The Shulhan Aruch, the universally accepted legal code book of Jewish law, includes the basic laws of brit mila. The legal code, which was compiled by the great Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid 1500s, combines both the differing customs and laws of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewry. It is a reliable legal source of Jewish laws and practices.

Halacha is not set in stone - each generation confronts a new set of circumstances, and while we endeavor to adhere as closely as possible to Halacha, it has to change with the times and needs of new generations. The root of the word "Halacha" means in English, "to walk, to go," denoting physical movement. We live in a generation where women's talents and special qualities are no longer going unnoticed, and while it is true that some mitzvot apply to men and some mitzvot apply to women, if there is a biblical precedent for female mohalet, I don't see the problem. If it was OK for Tzipporah to circumcise her son, why should Jewish women not train for this, if they so wish?

It seems to me that the only real Halachic objection against female Mohelot is the fact that "since it is not normative practice within Jewish communities, permitting women to perform brit mila would only erode the power of custom and tradition."

This line of reasoning begs the question: Is our tradition not strong enough to withstand POSITIVE change? Why are we, as Orthodox Jews, so petrified of making changes that will allow women to play a more participatory role in Jewish rituals and communal life?

On the other hand, people might question Rochelle Schwartz's sincerity. I know I did when I read the article. She writes that she performed a brit milah in Israel for the following reason:

I wanted to come to Israel to perform the brit mila, because this has traditionally been performed by an Orthodox mohel and just as I was a pioneer in Canada performing brit mila there, I wanted to become a pioneer in changing the way people feel about brit mila in Israel and be one of the first women to perform it in Israel.

It seems that Rochelle's motivation is to go down in history as being a pioneer, to be one of the first women to perform brit milah in Israel. While I obviously understand her desire to be famous, if she were truly genuine about performing the mitzvah of brit milah, why couldn't she have continued to perform other brit milot in the US, without needing to seek the limelight?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts.

Nobody to blame but ourselves

150000 at rally in tel aviv
Over 150,000 people gathered yesterday in Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Winograd interim report, which revealed that Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and former chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, were to blame for last year's Lebanon War, provoked deep anger amongst Israelis. Truth be told, I was not surprised at all by the report - what surprised me more that there was any reaction at all from a nation who have become increasingly apathetic and self-destructive over recent decades.

When we voted for Kadima, could we put our hands to our hearts, and honestly say that we weren't aware of the type of man that Olmert was? We all knew that he was a liar, cheat, and fraud, who cared not one whit for this country, and for the Zionistic ideals upon which it was founded. Did we honestly expect Olmert to lead us nobly and courageously through war, and protect our country? I think not. So why the outrage now? Too little, too late. We had our chance. Anyone with half a brain could have predicted this outcome. But we as a collective nation let it happen, and the result is blood on our hands from lives that have been tragically wasted.

Why did the Israelis let this happen? Because they are tired, fed up, and self-centered. And just like the case in a drowning marriage, they forgot what it was that they were fighting for. I don't know if I can say with any certainty that most Israelis dream of leaving this country, and feel little or no connection with the land of Israel and the notion of a homeland for the Jews, but in the majority of encounters that I have had with Israelis since I made Aliyah in 1998, they express deep surprise that I choose to live in this country. "Why are you here? If only I had a passport and the option, I would leave." The sad reality is that Zionism has become a dirty word that barely leaves the mouths of our politicians, let alone youth. We have forgotten who we are, and what we stand for. And like the abused wife syndrome, we feel that if we only keep quiet, and stay in the background, and don't antagonize the Arabs or the international world, people will leave us alone. Well, it hasn't worked.  

In recent years, studies have indicated an increase in obesity in Israel, but we are not just suffering from excess physical weight. We have become flabby as a nation and have lost our resolve, our backbone, that enabled us to triumph in other wars in the past. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people showed up yesterday for the demonstration does give me a glimmer of hope. Even if the demonstration will be largely ineffective in accomplishing its primary goal - to oust Olmert from the government - it indicates that people are starting to wake up, and come out of their coma of indifference. Pain, anger, outrage, those are emotions that indicate humanity and life, and ultimately hope. I really don't know how we are going to be able to extricate ourselves from this almighty mess, but I do know that the first step is to actually feel, to react, to shout out, to say no more. Indifference and selfishness are the destructive traits that threaten to kill us as a nation.  

Good reads

If you are curious what other people are reading, or want to find some good reading material for yourself, Goodreads is the place for you. Enjoy.

One aspect of living in Israel which really infuriates me - yup, it's Friday the 13th, and I am in the mood for a rant - is the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, there are no English-language libraries that allow you to take out books FREE OF CHARGE. (If anyone does know of such a library within the Israeli borders, let me know, and I will happily make the trek over there.)

You won't often hear me say very positive things on this blog about my hometown of Manchester, England, but it has to be said - the public libraries ROCKED. As a child, I would hand in the coveted library card that entitled me to take out as many books as I had plastic bags in which to carry them, and I used to leave the library about twenty pounds heavier, with a pile of books that were taller than me. And it was free. I mean, I suppose it stands to reason that they would provide such a service - what else is a girl to do in her free time in Manchester? Indoor activities were definitely the way to go in our cold, gray, and dismal climate.

In the English-language library in Modi'in, you have to pay a ridiculous 250 shekel (which is over $50) just for the privilege of becoming a member, and 50 shekel for the first book you take out, and 10 shekel for each subsequent book, and to add insult to injury, you can only take out 4 books.

For that money, I may as well head over to the local Steimatsky, Israel's best-known book chain, and BUY brand new books that are not discolored with coffee and ketchup stains. Okay, I might not actually leave the store with the book I want, but at least it would be MINE, all MINE. Steimatsky may be Israel's largest book chain, but do not mistakenly make any mental comparisons between this bookstore and Barnes & Noble. Unless you are interested in overpriced travel books, coffee table books about the history of Israel, and the odd Steven King novel, you'll be lucky to leave the store with a book you can sink your teeth into. They don't even have their own website. Sigh. I mean, even I have my own website. What is that all about?

What I find myself doing nowadays is heading over to a second-hand bookstore on Rechov Yaffo in Jerusalem, Dani's. I hold onto the books that I like, and those that are in the reject pile I return, and receive thirty or forty percent of the original price I paid. Pretty sweet deal. It just means, though, that I have to head over to Jerusalem whenever I have the reading itch.

Anyway, if anyone has any inventive (and legal) ideas how I can get my hands on some good English-language books in Israel, don't be backward in coming forward.