Chocolate covered craziness

Months ago we found a plastic bag dangling on our door knob.

Already used to finding junk everywhere, we first thought our front door had turned in to the new waste deposit of the neighborhood.

In a way and to the standards of my former life, it was waste.  Although the contents of the bag appeared to be a present.

A huge box of chocolate cake bars. And a smaller package of muesli bars. No note, no card. We called around, asked colleagues and friends. Nobody seemed to have been the generous giver.

The Muesli bars were a far stretch from healthy. Not to mention palatable. The cake bars were so full of hydrogenated fats, they would not melt in the warmest summer sun. Someone meant well. Someone knew us very poorly but had meant well.

In the Netherlands we used to eat whole foods and very little sugar. We tried to avoid all processed foods. Here, things changed not just a little.

To fit in, I learned to adjust to the local kid friendly diet. In the country of disposables, portion sized snacks are a perfectly fine way to feed your kids. Candy is everywhere. Chips come in toddler sized bags. Sweet or savory, it appears to be breakfast to many of my Haredi friends’ children.

I learned not to cringe when people offered my kids a bag of salty snacks at nine in the morning. I am now able to not even raise an eyebrow when my two year old is offered two lollipops simultaneously.

One of the first times I met Sara in the playground she pulled out a big plastic shopping bag. When she emptied the contents of the bag, some thirty children eagerly awaited her signature snack. Flocking around her like pigeons on Dam Square in Amsterdam. At first my children thought Sara was handing out crafts supplies. Eager to start playing with what they perceived as colored sand. They soon learned to appreciate Israel’s way to express love for children. The local kids bit a corner off the bag and start sucking on the sugar Sara had dyed with food coloring.

My new friend, the playground crazy lady, offers the kids as many chocolate bars as they can hold. She smiles motherly when they flush it down with bright pink soda. Because of Hanukkah she had made Sufganiyot today: deep fried donuts covered in sugar. Offering the kids her shirt to wipe their hands off after eating.

Yesterday evening I was busy cooking when someone knocked the door. Mary Ann, a neighbor who I hadn’t seen in ages, stumbled in. In her hand, a fifty shekel bill. In her eyes, the haunted look that made me happy I hadn’t seen her so long.

The last time we did see her, she couldn’t stop whispering to us. We had hardly exchanged names when she started crying. In a somewhat louder whisper she told us she was so happy believers had come to live next to her. Because the Jews that lived around us didn’t understand Jesus as their savior. But now…

We avoided Mary Ann a little after that. And she had seemed to avoid us. Until yesterday evening.

Thieves and killers will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven! She exclaimed. I have stolen, or maybe taken, a bucket of paint that was outside your door. I thought that you had discarded it, that I could take it. But since tonight’s Service, I know I have to pay you! It was not right, I should not have taken it without asking!

I rushed to the kitchen. I did not want to be too close to this woman: Really, Mary Ann, don’t worry about it, we didn’t need that paint, I hadn’t even missed it, you must have been able to use it better than we would have.

I know now that I should’ve said: Fine, great, thank you, give me the money. But in stead I tried to make her feel better. Pretending the pan on the stove needed my full attention and trying hard to comfort her. Most of all trying hard to make her leave.

Mary Ann shut the front door behind her, tried to hug me, put the bill in my hand. The last thing I wanted was her money.

Half heartedly shaking her off, I thought I had a brilliant suggestion: Give it to charity! That way everyone wins!

Mary Ann looked around her and spotted the kids. She was obviously better at this than I: Buy a present for your beautiful children! Buy them candy!

The kids, who until now had pretended not to have noticed someone new in the house, all looked up with big round eyes. Then started cornering me, whispering: Mommy, yes, candy, gifts!

Mary Ann folded the bill and put it on our dining table, smiling contentedly. I did not want to interrupt her leaving, uttered a thank you and just smiled back.

The door knob in her hand, she turned around: Did you ever find the chocolate I hung on your door? I felt so bad I had taken that paint, I wanted to do something back.

She shut the door behind her. Leaving me behind with the faint smell of craziness, a solved mystery, fifty shekel, and kids begging for toys.

And candy.

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Of stray cats and other human beings

We call her Caroline. She is more like us than we would like to admit.

She’s the red stray cat that we have half heartedly adopted. Even though people tell us red cats are mostly male, we are convinced Caroline is a she. And even though we know we are not the only one for her, we love her as if she’s faithful to only us.

We feed her daily, but will not allow her in our house. We have made a warm bed for her in the back yard that she never uses. We scare away other cats that have started spraying our back yard with breath taking enthusiasm. We worry when we haven’t seen her in two days. We are contemplating on bringing her to the vet because she recently started limping.

We can not take her home. My husband is allergic, getting her a pet passport would take months if not a year. And who says she will be happy with us, far away from her relatives, in our cold and rainy little country?

Caroline belongs to our family more than she will know though. When we arrived in Jerusalem, we still felt closest to the Christian heritage of our European background. I believe Jesus Christ has lived here. Regardless of whether he was the Messiah or just a very charismatic Jewish man. I believe the man that continues to inspire millions has travelled through the same hills as I travel through now.

But not long in to our journey, it started to feel as if Christianity was wrong here. It seems to be the religion that resembles the little boy in the back of the classroom. The one with the glasses and slur, the one that tried not to be too obviously present, or else the big boys will beat him up.

Of course, secretly, this little fella is taking good care of himself and getting stronger every day.

If you look closely enough, you see it happening. There is a large Franciscan Monastery just inside the Old City walls. It just so happens to be right next to the Notre Dame Center, a huge and beautiful Hotel with several restaurants and auditoria. Then guess who are the neighbors? Opus Dei has a stunning house that is being renovated right next door. While just a little step away, the Salesian sisters have their pre-school for Arabic children. On and on it goes, albeit in a modest, delicate, quiet manner. Behind walls and closed fences. Sometimes under the yellow white Vatican flag that vanishes against the Jerusalem stone.

Out in the open both Judaism and Islam are very present everywhere.

In the streets. In the never ending tension between people passing eachother. Both with head scarves. God fearing, but both fearing the other religion more.

In our ears when Muslims are called for prayer with loud and ever present Adhan, or when the siren indicates the beginning and end of Shabbat.

In our hearts when we meet up with Sara and her family, or when we think about the people we met on the West Bank that invited us to their house and in to their families.

Today was the perfect example of how all three religions brush against us like Caroline when she wants to be fed. The children and I walked to the Garden Tomb in East Jerusalem. It is a wonderful place where it’s easy to see Biblical stories come alive. My oldest son needed a present for a friend, I needed some hard to find Christmas decorations. The little gift shop seemed like the perfect place to spend some money.

A trip to any shop with five children in tow is a reason to become religious and pray for sanity. With our return to the Netherlands in mind I decided to cut us all some slack and allow the kids to pick a souvenir.

Heavy with Bibles, build-your-own-Arc’s and cute little nativities made in Bethlehem, we left the shop and headed back home. Even through the rain, our little bunch of blond kids attracted the never ending kind attraction of the locals. Older Arab men, young families and elegantly veiled women would smile or stroke our daughters hairs.

The border between East and West Jerusalem, between the Arab side and the Jewish side, is where we cross the street to go home. Waiting for the traffic lights to turn green we were standing behind a tall man. He looked old fashionedly British, with his folded umbrella by his side, his bowler hat and his long black coat. Were it not for his side curls, neatly folded behind his ears, we would have mistaken him for a tourist.

He turned around and looked at us: “you live here?”, he asked.

I nodded, careful not to look him in the eye too long. He pointed behind me, to the neighborhood we just came from. And continued: “because then you know, it’s dangerous there”.

The lights turned green and he walked away from us, obviously happy he had done his mitzvah to help a stranger. The children didn’t notice, but I felt a little bedazzled.

When we arrived back home Caroline was waiting for us. And the similarity was obvious. Like her, we are astray. She might be apparently genderless, we are nationless. Without a firm faith we feel friendship with everyone, regardless of religion. But like her, we can never let our guard down. For, like the man in the street told us today, enemies are suspected everywhere by the same people we befriend.

Like Caroline, we know where to get what, and how to behave where. We tell our children to say Shalom on this side of the street, and Salam on the other side. We love when people love us, and hide when the going gets tough. With our Christian heritage Israel seems like a perfectly legitimate place to grow a stronger faith. Yet we have lost more than we found. And like Caroline, we then find treasures in unexpected places.

We never really belong, nor fit in completely.

Like Caroline, we enjoy it while it lasts.

The key to success is to stay low key

One of our first weeks here, someone told us: the key to success in peace negotiations is to stay low key.

We translated it to something we tend to do well. We like making friends. Temporary friends. And with a large family, making friends is easy. Arabs will embrace you for having an Arab sized family, Haredim will not distrust you and Traditional Catholics will love you.

The large family catapulted us straight to the middle of this society.

I have this little game that I play with our middle child. I will ask her: what’s the best part of a sandwich? And she will shout out: The middle part! What’s the best part of a party? The middle part! And on and on it goes.

When it comes to living here, we are in the middle of things. And it is the best. We are neither Jewish nor Arab, neither Christian nor secular, neither left wing nor right wing. Or so I tell myself.

But then again.

We make friends on both sides. Or better said, on all sides. We have friends that belong to the Catholic somewhat sectarian Opus Dei, but also friends in a Protestant Christian community. Palestinian friends on the West Bank and Arab Israeli friends in green line Israel. We have Jewish friends among left wing critical side, secular side and conservative side. Our babysitter is Christian Arab and of course, there’s Sara my ultra orthodox friend. We have friends in the expat community but also among Lifers who come from abroad but are here for the rest of their lives.

All from different places and although in Israel, all further apart than this country stretches.

I sometimes think this year is actually about people, more than anything else. In a place so drenched in disputes, it is the people that make the country glow, flourish, or slowly die.

And it makes me want to tell you about all those people. It makes me want to get under their skin and understand them, to blurt it all out soon after.

Betrayal.

It feels as if I am betraying my friends.

I want to write about the young guy who recently joined Opus Dei, about his pledge of celibacy and the way he first offered to babysit our kids and then suddenly withdrew his offer.

I want to write about the two Rami’s in our life: one an Arab “fresh juice guy” who is the biggest fan of our youngest daughter and the other Rami, Sara’s husband. Two men that will pass each other in the streets on a daily basis, but never without an undertone of hatred and fear.

Now, I will tell you about our next door neighbors who made us chocolate cake yesterday, because they mistakenly thought it was our special day when we celebrate Sinterklaas. It’s a young family and they are lovely. Their oldest son plays with our youngest son and their baby makes me want to have another one.

When I wanted to go to their place yesterday evening, I first had to change my shirt. My newly bought sweater from Jericho has a proud print I can not read. In green Arabic it says: “Palestine”.

It would have been rude to enter their house with that shirt. And it is actually considered dangerous to walk through the streets of Jewish West Jerusalem with a print like that.

I feel absurd for changing my shirt when I walk through my own neighborhood. I tell myself I do it for the kids. When Jewish friends would see my shirt they might treat my kids differently, because their mom wears a shirt with the name of a neighboring country on it.

Anyway. I changed my shirt and we knocked their door. The oldest three kids and I sang traditional Sinterklaas songs for the neighbors and we all chatted away happily.

The subject changed to our departure. They were shocked to hear we will most probably go back to the Netherlands half January. And the next step is always to become each other’s friends on Facebook.

The key to success is to stay low key.

I had not been so low key on Facebook lately. And if I add up all the things I posted, I might not have been in the middle of the political spectrum, either.

How could I have been so naive to befriend our neighbor on Facebook? Aren’t real life friends close enough?

That night, I leafed through my new Facebook friend’s statuses a little. I had to translate some of his texts, although the photos made his opinions pretty clear. He was all but low key.

That night, I learned a whole new side to the story. A side I can not stomach yet, nor agree on. But a side I did have to see.

That night, the middle was not the best part at all.

 

I didn’t dare

We had a sick baby last weekend. So when Sara and her husband Rami knocked our door on Shabbat evening last Friday, I was still busy trying to soothe a feverish child.

When my husband came to get me I gave in to the sleep fighting sickly toddler. I decided to take our daughter to the living room, where Sara’s expression shouted “mixed emotions”.

“I didn’t dare to come over”. She said. “But it was your birthday, right? So I made you a cake.”

She pointed proudly at the glorious chocolate cake on the table. Decorated with a heart. We both raised our hands to our hearts.

Sara and I love each other through all the storms. It is a bond I can’t explain. We hugged tightly, our youngest ones on our hips.

Did you hear about what happened in the synagogue last Tuesday? Her eyes shimmering with fear. I didn’t dare to come over, she repeated. Because, you know, there are Arabs living here.

Sara and I live maybe a 150 meters apart from each other. She, in a bubble of Orthodox Jews, piled on top of one another in small shabby semi modern apartments. Large families who all follow the same Rabbi Eliezer Berland.

We live in an equally shabby but ancient Arab building that has been housing Jews for at least fifty years now. I haven’t seen any Arabs living close to us. But since we live close to East Jerusalem, Arabs tend to walk through our street. Or are hired by neighbors for repair jobs.

It was enough to scare Sara away. It is also enough to cause a close neighbor to run after his four year old screaming as soon as he goes out the door by himself.

Sara was hushed by her husband: it was Shabbat and there could be no mentioning nasty subjects. This was a joyful day. So Sara hushed and we continued patting each other’s knees, having her husband translate words for us without me looking him in the eye. Our usual lingo.

We switched topics: Rami had just returned from the Netherlands to visit his Rabbi. Eliezer Berland has recently taken refuge there after accusations of sexual abuse of young women.

Not that we talked about those accusations, mind you. It was Shabbat!  And he didn’t do anything anyway.

Without Rami mentioning it, it became all too clear we might just be a sign. A sign from God that Sara and Rami’s true life destination is to be found in the Netherlands.

The Rabbi had urged Rami to start praying for a job in the Netherlands as a kosher butcher. So that is what he does now. Every. Single. Day. Almost as feverishly as the child attached to my hip that night.

And as much as I would enjoy taking my best friend here home with me, I feel sorry for them if they would succeed. I can not believe them being happy when taken out of their bubble, to be placed in the cold Netherlands.

Where family is far away. Where like minded religious people are hard to find. And perhaps in these times the most important part of all:

Where there’s no constant need to be afraid of Arabs.

 

The Uprise

There’s a lot of debate going on lately. It’s all in a name. What should we call all the terrorist attacks of the last weeks?

It might be a bit arbitrary to the innocent bystander. What to call something. It’s not as if we are trying to name the new Messiah.

At all. There is little salvation in the continuous acts of revenge and hatred that have been flooding the country lately.

There’s no relief. Just grief. Anger and fear. Spiraling upward.

That, in itself is an uprise. An Intifada.

So should we or shouldn’t we call the current situation in Israel an Intifada? Maybe we should call it an Urban Intifida because it takes place mostly in Jerusalem? Or maybe we can call it the silent Intifada because it seems merely a set of somewhat unrelated incidents?

The debate is if we may call it an Intifada because there appears to be no guidance. There’s no structure. It is an unorganized sequence of terrorist attacks. Or so they say.

There is a certain modus operandi, though. The new fad is to drive a car into people. Whoever is waiting at a bus stop is a plausible victim. In a comment to an article in Haaretz newspaper a Palestinian woman mentioned that there were no other ways to demonstrate anymore. That all people wanted was their territory back and being treated as equals.

The incredible tragedy is that the regular ways to demonstrate do often lead to death, imprisonment and torture on the Palestinian side. And the building of more settlements. And a wall to protect the settlements.

Today, the Knesset votes about a Jewish Nation State Bill. In it, there’s no room for Arabic as an official language in Israel. It sets out to establish democracy for Jews only.

There is no voice the Palestinians can use to make themselves heard. Driving over people or stabbing them is certainly not doing their cause any good either.

Not helpful and very wrong. It’s an act of utter despair. It’s a cry of help of those that live a life of constant frustration, humiliation, fear and anger.

It does make it more daunting to take public transport these days. It’s the kind of adventure I do not feel comfortable with yet. Nor am I numb enough yet to not be afraid. So we walk. Take routes that will not come close to the bus and light rail stops.

Blocks are placed in front of bus stops to protect the waiting passengers from drive-in terrorist attacks. When we drive through Jerusalem or through the West Bank, we have to drive around the people waiting for busses in front of the concrete blocks.

Yes, I said that right: people are waiting on the wrong side of the protective blocks.

And it strikes me: People are so used to fear, they do not recognize the feeling anymore. Fear turns in to anger. And angry people wait for the bus on the street. Angry about the bus that is always late. Angry about terrorist attacks. Angry about the way the bus driver shakes them on the ride (our children call it a free roller coaster ride). Angry about their life.

But never afraid anymore. Or so they think.

An Intifada would be scary. So we will not call it that. No uprise. Just a lot of angry people fighting each other.

And nothing changes.

 

 

 

No worms

The first time I bought flour here, I posted a photo of the bag on facebook, adding “good to know”.

On the bag was the recommendation: “sifted, no worms”

I thought it was hilarious. Although I also learned from my friends to keep flour in the fridge. Just to make sure.

But this week I got a peak of our future, by going back decennia.

It was the little bag of pistachios in the back of our kitchen cupboard. I just kept forgetting it was there.

We would keep on buying new pistachios to nibble on right away. Even our terrible two loves pistachios so we made sure to never be short on them.

The location of that ol’ bag was unpractical. Tucked away behind the peanut butter and the Tahina. When looking for snacks I just always skipped that shelf.

Until last week. I needed to create more space on this particular shelf and found the long forgotten bag. Deciding to throw the now stale batch away, I took one last look at the contents of the bag.

Let me first explain something. I have elaborated on our apartment before. On how I learnt this country is a far cry from the organized Western World as I know it. Things break. Things get shabby. Things leak. And amidst it all, one tends not to notice when things get a little shabby here and there.

Dirty floors? Sure thing with all the kids around. Dusty surfaces? The desert is not far away, and paired with the air pollution in Jerusalem things get grimy pretty fast. And apart from that, with helicopters roaring over our heads, shots in the not so far distance, who cares about the upkeep of the house.

In short, I hadn’t really noticed a lot of extra dirt in that cupboard.

With the colder weather and thanks to Ze’ev’s poison I haven’t seen a roach in ages. I am slowly relaxing about the whole tiny animals situation here.

Until I lifted the bag of long forgotten pistachios. The first thing I noticed was that the contents had turned in to pistachio shells and… something that looked like saw dust.

And then it became clear: the insides of the bag moved. My pistachios had become alive.

Quite literary, actually. The bag was swarming with maggots. Tiny cream colored new friends with darker heads, or tails for that matter. Never having enjoyed fishing I haven’t seen that many maggots before.

A closer look learned the whole cupboard was infested. Lots of pets for my animal loving middle child who radically changed her mind about becoming a vet.

My reaction was an interesting combination of disgust and some sort of “homeschooling teaching opportunity interest”. Not to mention a bout of obsessive compulsive cleaning afterwards.

The day passed. A last lone little one crawled up the tiles in the kitchen. My disgust had now almost vanished. It was ironic, really.

Here I was in my vegetarian kitchen, killing living creatures. But also in touch with tomorrow. Maggots are wonderful sources of protein. Possibly one of the more important sources of protein of the future.

I am regretting not having been courageous enough to fry our home grown livestock. They might have been quite a treat: Pistachio fed Maggots.

They had also snacked on various other foods they had found in that cupboard. And as grossed out as the kids were, they couldn’t part from their beloved sprinkles.  So now we check the sandwich for movement before eating.

Not long before moving back home again, we start feeling like seasoned Middle East travellers.

Pistachios, anyone?

 

 

From here to the moon and back

We’ve been from here to the moon and back.

Last weekend we visited Taybeh. One of the last Christian towns in Palestine. It is a lovely, quiet place. The most noticeable difference from all the other towns on the West Bank is not so much the religion. It is the absence of rubbish and trash on the streets that has now become almost iconical to our Middle Eastern experience. Taybeh is as clean as the inside of it’s churches.

It being a Christian town, alcohol is not on the black list. Even better: the town is well known for producing it’s own beer. We wanted to visit the brewery. Take the tour, show the kids how beer is made and give the local economy a boost in a pleasant way.

Our small car barely fits all of us, but we managed to squeeze in four boxes of, let’s say, support for both the occupied territories and us parents.

Our youngest daughter fell asleep in the car on the way back and we decided to keep on driving not to wake her up. And driving…

Until we arrived in Nablus.

The history of the ancient city of Nablus goes back at least 9000 years. It is called Schechem in the Bible. It nestled itself at the slopes of, and mainly in the valley beneath, Mount Gerizim.

To go where no European child has gone before. That is how the children must have felt. Our very blond middle daughter had gotten used to her movie star status in Jerusalem, but the people of Nablus took it to the next level. Ten minutes after we parked the car, she asked us to buy her a head scarf. Almost everyone who passed her in the overcrowded streets would touch her hair. People stared. Children would stand still right in front of us and gaze at us, mouths open wide.

Our youngest daughter quite enjoyed the show. Safely on her father’s arm she would happily wave at the crowds, throw hand kisses at whoever requested it and would kiss cheeks of complete strangers.

Some people would nod at us and say “welcome”. Some would ignore us and most people just looked at us. Not angrily, not afraid, not amused. The look in their eyes was more of an interested, almost fascinated nature.

We might have just mirrored their fascination.This was a town in another country. This was so far away from the Israel we have seen so far, we felt as if we had landed on the moon. Everything was different. The people, the buildings, the atmosphere.

We decided to go with the flow. We bought Kanafeh, which Nablusians pride themselves in being the best at preparing. We ate in a local restaurant. Bought the girls shoes with glitters and diamonds. The family was clearly warming up to the place.

Mount Gerizim was still on our list. Half of the remaining Samaritans  still alive had built their village there, on their Holy Mountain.

We paid a cab driver to lead the way. Which he did to the best of his knowledge. Bringing us past more proud green Hamas flags than I had ever seen before. Straight to the immense new mosque on the slopes of the mountain.

When we got out of the car to congratulate him on the mosque and ask him again for our intended destination, he had to make a few calls. Mister cab man drove us a little further and then waved out of his window: on, onwards, that way.

The way lead us to a closed fence. Probably the only side of the fence our Palestinian cab driver would ever be able to see. In our fortunate position as aliens, Westerners, tourists, we could go back and try to get to the other side of the fence through the checkpoint at the entrance of Nablus.

So back on our tracks we went. Past the magnificent palace of the Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri. We couldn’t help but ring the bell at his gate. Unfortunately we weren’t welcomed in to the house of the man who reportedly has as much money as a third of Palestine’s economy. Not this time.

By no means discouraged we did eventually end up in the Samaritan village on top of Mount Gerizim. Situated just behind the Jewish Settlement Har Brakha, meaning “mountain of blessing”.

Which is a funny name, when you realize that it is exactly the dispute about the holiness of the mountain that drove Samaritans and Jews apart. Jews believe history took place and shall be made on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Samaritans, true to the Torah and worshipping in a synagogue, believe Mount Gerizim is the place to be. Always has been.

Not only did God create the world, starting at Mount Gerizim. It was also the place Abraham was told to kill his son Isaac. The only dry part during the flood when Noah built his arc. And according to recent Dead Sea scroll work, Samaritans might be a little better in topography than Jews are.

Samaritans are on their way to become extinct. They tend not to marry with non-Samaritans and their gene-pool necessary for healthy offspring is quickly diminishing. If there ever was a blessing for us on that mountain, it was being able to be amidst these men and women in their distinct Shabbath attire. To see history being alive. To embrace the frailty and temporality of it all. Admire the stubbornness and dignity.

It was time to head home. Through the Tapuah junction where deadly or near deadly incidents between Jews and Arabs happen on an almost weekly basis. Past numerous settlements and Arab towns. Back to Jerusalem.

When all the kids had finally drifted off to sleep and we were about to call it a night ourselves, someone knocked on our door. Gently, kindly.

When we opened the door, there was Veigy, one of Sarah’s younger sisters.

From Sarah! She said, stretching out her hands, holding two plastic plates. Each plate held two beautifully crafted, homemade birds’ nest pastries, filled with ice cream.

With our hearts and minds still filled with moon dust. Veigy helped us land back here again.

 

 

Let’s talk about sex, baby

One of the things I learned about Judaism is its orientation towards sex. Frankly full swing fascinating.

Again, no better place to witness the Jewish take on sex than here in my own ultra orthodox neighborhood.

Forget about the urban legend of the hole in the sheet (it is said some ultra orthodox Jews are so concerned about modesty, they have intercourse through a hole in a sheet). In Judaism, sex is everywhere.

Sex within the marital context, is the woman’s right. Actually, deprivation of it is a reason for divorce.

Women are on top, so to speak, within the Jewish religion. And to stick to the metaphor, men are at the very bottom.

That is also why women, being the stronger and holier sex, have to stay out of the men’s sight in synagogue. Were the men to see them, they would be unable to concentrate on their religious duties.

Some say a married couple should always sleep together completely naked and that foreplay is a full day activity. However, when a woman is Nida, within most orthodox communities her husband should not touch her at all. Not even directly pass her the butter at the breakfast table . A woman is considered Nida at least twelve days a month during her fertile years. For a newly wed couple, that’s an awful lot of foreplay.

No wonder that the custom is also not to look someone of the other sex directly in the eye. I am still struggling with this. It feels so incredibly rude not to look my friend’s husbands in the eye. I am getting better at it. Often though I awkwardly still don’t know what to do when I greet my friend. Should I  just ignore the character in black by her side? Or acknowledge his existence by nodding in his direction? Is it over the top to tell my friend to tell her husband bye? Or is talking about him also wrong?

Names are not just names. Names are given with seduction in mind. Most of my Haredim friends are called either Sara(h), Odele or Racheli. And so are their daughters. When they have more children, they will throw a Miira, a Maryam and a Veigy in the mix. Calling out to my friend Sarah in the playground is a tricky thing because almost all the girls wil look up.

One of the Odele’s explained to me why most girls share the same names. This, too has everything to do with sex. Odele said that when all the women have the same name, it will prevent the men from cheating.

I am not sure if I know how that works, but I guess cheating on your wife Racheli with another Racheli will just not feel as sweet as cheating on Racheli with a, let’s say, Samantha.

How vastly different, yet strikingly similar my night of clubbing was with two old friends who came to visit. We stayed up late and enjoyed the local LGBT scene. Starting in the friendly Evita Bar. Not only Tel Aviv’s oldest gay bar, but also Tel Avivs bar with the oldest gays.

We ended up in Shpagat. Across the street a pretty boy had his shirt off. His pants were hanging so low, we almost got to meet his member. As straight as he could still walk, he ended up between my own two pretty boys. Introduced himself with an Arab first name and a German sounding last name. After that, he got a little repetitive.

Pointing at my friends, poking their chests with his finger or slapping them in inappropriate places, he kept asking the same thing. Bringing me from Tel Aviv, right back to my friends in Jerusalem.

Because while Pretty Boy was desperately looking for love, he longingly repeated what by now must have been an almost existential question for him:

Top or bottom?

Are you top or bottom?

 

People are… human: Dinner in the Sukkah

Here is it was. The moment we all had been waiting for. Dinner in the Sukkah.

Frankly, I had been dreading it. We were invited to have dinner in the Sukkah of our neighbors, built on our balcony.

The kids loved the whole ceremony. Building it, looking at it, playing in it. They Could Not Wait to have dinner there.

But I didn’t like the idea one little bit. Maybe I am too shy at heart for a gathering like this. Maybe I felt bad that I couldn’t help cooking because my kitchen isn’t kosher. Maybe the perfectionist in me didn’t like not knowing what would happen and how I would fit in.

My 4 year old son had embraced the neighbor’s teenage girls as his best friends, being the few people in the area that speak sufficient English to play with. But my most intense encounter with our neighbor hadn’t been my finest moment in Israel so far.

I prepared the best way I could. I took two tylenols to kill my upcoming headache that tells me I stress out too much over little things. We bought flowers and kosher fruit juice in factory closed bottles. Like observant Jews on Shabbat, we bathed and put on our nicest clothes to prepare for dinner.

And then we waited. Waited for the knock on the door that would invite us to our own balcony. To have dinner with the couple and their daughters that were so obviously very observant. The man with his side curls and his beard. The woman with the head scarf and the daughters with their pretty smiles and long skirts.

The knock came, we settled on the plastic chairs and the beautifully set table. We watched, observed and learned. Our neighbors told us to ask them anything we wanted to know and so we did.

Time passed and a miracle happened. It was not just that it started raining and we had to move inside. The rain in itself was a miracle, it hadn’t rained for months. Their house was a blessing because it was just as messy as ours. But the real miracle was something else.

Our neighbors, that I had thought older than myself, are much younger than I thought. The way they observed their religion, much less stringent than I had expected because of their attire. The way the kids played, much nicer than I could have ever hoped for.

The neighbor guy explained the secret of Sukkot to us: that it was more than anything else a matter of faith. That by living in a hut for a week, one proves that one believes one’s life is in God’s hands. That he will take care of you, no matter what. But that it is up to you to believe that.

That sounded like the very observant Christian friends we once had. This sounded all too familiar. Nicely familiar.

But it was our common background. Our being human, that proved our common ancestry.

Their faces appeared behind his beard, her scarf. Their fears and hopes, their dreams their experiences, it was all so similar to ours. I could feel the pain of her, see his worries and I knew their emotions as if they were my own.

And it was then that I knew: no matter who your enemy is, no matter what your faith is, we are all the same.

We are all so…

human.

Of tents and old men staring at branches

What Christmas is to many people in the world, Sukkot is to some12 million Jews living scattered around the world. Even the non-religious Jews set up their “Christmas tree”, er, Sukkah.

A Sukkah is a temporary building. The roof has to allow starlight to shine through. Jews should “live” in the hut for eight days during Sukkot. But as with many Jewish laws and mitvot, they found a work around. So eating in the Sukkah will suffice.

Our neighbors asked us permission to build their sukkah on our balcony, for they did not have space to set one up themselves. It is customary to not start building your sukkah before Yom Kippur is over, but boy oh boy was the wait long for many neighbors. As for the kids.

Many huts already arose long before Yom Kippur. As Sara explained to me, this was to claim a lot. And thus allowed. Our kids, having been invited to help set up the neighbor’s sukkah, were dragging wood and lumber, palm leaves and basically anything they could find home. You never now what one might need to build a sukkah.

The day came and the sukkah was build, three days before Sukkot. When we couldn’t find a kid, it was sure to be found in the newly built extra room on our balcony. The whole neighborhood turned into a refugee camp, or so it seemed.

Cars had to park elsewhere because all the parking lots were taken. By Sukkah tents and huts. The outside of the Sukkah mostly made of wooden panels and sometimes of white tent fiber. Inside is where people went all out: guirlands and stars, fake fruits and plastic vines. Beautifully set tables with, of course, the always present single use plastic table ware.

The best part was when we visited Mea Shearim to buy some flowers for our Sukkah. All throughout the neighborhood, old men in their orthodox attire were closely inspecting the four species.

Imagine your great grandfather trying to decipher the instructions on his medication, without his glasses on. I have never seen people inspect a branch so closely, or observe a lemon with such care. Nor have I seen people drag fresh dates on a piece of palm through the streets for that matter.

And above it all, there were all the balconies above our heads, every single one turned in to a Sukkah. It made me think of an ad in the Parisian subway for storage room: Une pièce en plus (an extra room).

We fell oddly misplaced and wonderfully part of it. My scarfless hair, Kippahless boys and yet our many children. Our modest but yet far too colorful clothes. It is my favorite state of mind: being part of something yet being a bystander.

In a way, this must be how my ultra orthodox friends feel every day when they step outside their bubble. So much part of this country, and yet, always the odd bystanders, too. Living without smartphones and internet, without television and technology. Dressed differently and yet so alike.

At least all Jews like to build their Sukkah. Observant or not. And frankly: we would love to have the same tradition.