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.