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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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.

 

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?

 

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.

Yom Kippur

IMGP3233 Possibly our best day in Jerusalem so far. Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The day all Jews must stand before God and apologize, sincerely, for all their wrong doings over the past year.

No, let me correct that: not all their wrong doings. Anything they might have possibly done wrong towards another person is something between people. Something Jews do have to correct by saying sorry for. But not to God. This day, Yom Kippur, is something between God and the person.

The past week was fun. We got unexpected phone calls from neighbors we hadn’t seen for a while. Wanting to apologise for things we couldn’t even remember. When we didn’t pick up the phone, they would not try again. I guess trying once proves your intentions well enough.

The day itself, Yom Kippur, is spent fasting. Not for us, of course, even though we avoided lovely cooking smells drifting from our kitchen, tickling the nostrils of those living around us. Not for most children either, who we saw happily munching away from their now almost iconic bags of snacks. As always.

The best part of Yom Kippur though? All the roads are shut down. You are not allowed to drive. In the minds of many an ultra orthodox Jew even ambulances and fire trucks are supposed to stay in the garage. Roads are blocked and traffic lights are flashing orange.

The kids make the most of it by playing in the streets. Massively. Our youngest turned two on Yom Kippur and tried out her new doll stroller in the middle of the highway. Our oldest raced his remote control race car over the streets. Our fourth risked his life going downhill on a trike as fast as he could. Indeed, the only traffic accidents in Israel yesterday were among children.

The city was quiet, but for the singing coming from the many synagogues. We could hear birds sing, the wind blowing through the trees. It was lovely.

It was, for the first time in months and months, the first day that felt Peaceful.

I knew, for sure, you had fled

Lately, I have spent more time in the park with the kids. Before the war broke out, the park had been our favorite spot for a mid morning PE class, or a late afternoon chat with my Haredim friends and their numerous children. My friend Sara and I would sit down on a plaid and hand out fruits and treats to all the children that happened to be there at that time. Sometimes, we would feed as many as fifty kids at a time. Their five or six mothers would sometimes join us for a chat, but mostly would stay put. Their wide skirts and black capes too heavy and hot to move around a lot.

But when the war broke out it was too hot and uncomfortable to be out. The jungle gym in the playground would scorch tiny hands. The ground would burn bare feet. And the sirens, true or imagined, would hurt our ears. So we stayed hime, in the shade, hidden from the fear and tension.

My reappearance rose many an eyebrow. The last few weeks I have heard the same line over and over again: I knew, for sure, you had fled.

My heart knows the truth when I eagerly announce we had just been at home a lot because of the summer heat. I can not help but sounding proud and local when I state my courage. A little situation here and there will not keep us from staying till the end of our contract.

But when I lower my head and look at my hands in my lap, I sometimes add: I didn’t like the war.

And it is this last sentence that brings on a large variety of responses. With one similarity: acknowledgement and understanding. Who does like war? Nobody likes war.

Gone is the muscle talk of a few weeks ago. Gone the body language that speaks louder than words. Gone the fear, the anger, the screams of pain when one of theirs had been killed.

Suddenly, I hear more wise words than I have heard so far. From Amir Ran, who is the only Haredi man that will look me in the eye and talk to me. About Politics. About faith. About his trips to Goa before he became religious.

We are born as wild donkeys, Amir Ran told me today. And it is our duty to become what God wants us to become. We are born opposite of what we should be. Are capable of being. And sometimes it takes a lifetime to tame the donkey. If we manage to at all.

His words ring true to me. And are welcome, calm thoughts, when raising young kids.

And a hopeful thought when thinking about grown ups in parliaments.

Is that a gun in your pocket?

The Netherlands prides itself in being a country where free will is practically the main religion. The Dutch want people to think things through. Thoroughly. If you have, who can keep you from doing what you really want to do?

Abortion, Prostitution, Euthanasia, Cannabis, just to name the most well known. If you follow the rules, if you are an adult and are not bothering others, the Netherlands is the place to be.

When it comes to weapons, the Dutch are not so soft, though. Sure, if you love to shoot, you can sign up and become a member of a shooting range. After a year, you may apply for a license to purchase a gun. But even then you may only carry it on the way back and forth from the shooting range to your house. Even toy guns that look a bit too realistic are illegal.

There is no wide spread hunting tradition. Basically, except among gangsters and criminals, guns are not considered cool. People found at shooting ranges and hunting societies were rarely the most popular in school.

Actually, I had always been a little afraid of people that love guns. Like one can be afraid of the unknown. I just hadn’t seen that many. I thought, as most Dutch do, guns belonged in the righteous hands of law enforcement and the army. And that’s it.

Until a rifle stroked my leg when I was walking the streets of Jerusalem. It dangled off a long strap over the shoulder of what looked to me like a civilian. I had gotten used to all the uniformed people in the streets carrying guns. But this was new.

It turned out I just hadn’t paid attention well enough. Because guns are everywhere. Tucked in the back of people’s pants. Happily swimming in a lady’s handbag. And dangling off young father’s shoulders. Even looking differently at people now, I am sure I am only seeing a fraction of the amount of weapons being carried around by people.

I learned the question of the guard at one of Jerusalem’s largest shopping malls, Malcha Mall, wasn’t that weird after all. Even before I could enter the parking lot, he made me open my window to ask me if I was carrying a gun. At first I didn’t even understand the question. He wanted to repeat himself, and stopped short when he saw the bunch of blond kids sitting in the car with me. I still don’t know whether it was the kids or the fact my Hebrew is still very crabby that made him decide to stop his interrogation.

When we went to the playground today, a young couple was sitting on a bench, obviously very much in love. They were fondling, not even kissing or heavily making out. Still, they were the talk of the town among my Haredim girl friends. It enraged them. These could only be Arabs. How could they do this, in front of the children?

One of the ultra orthodox women got up and went to the couple. She told them to leave, or else.

In a country so full of guns, one can not help but wonder “what else”? What could have happened if the couple hadn’t been wise enough to leave the playground. If they would have replied in an unwelcome way. If things hat gotten nasty.

Or is carrying a heavy weapon around in the scorching heat of summer, just something that people need to do in order to feel safe?

I’d rather meet people that are glad to see me. That’s for sure.

 

As many friends as the world stands still

Those words, “I have as many friends as the world stands still”. Then tears accompanied the words said next: “that means zero”.

My poetic middle daughter who just turned six has a way of saying things.  She could’ve said: “as many friends as we have bananas growing in our back yard”. Or: “as many friends as I speak Arabic”. But she didn’t. She used words that are more important to her than anything else. She used a planet.

Not so long ago my middle daughter wanted to become an astronaut when she grows up. Until she realized that astronauts are only chosen from scientists and doctors. Then she decided she wanted to be a vet first. And even though the pink phase has kicked in heavily, stars and planets are still more important to her than princesses and castles.

When the earth does not turn it means a very important nothing. It means a none more heavy then a milky way. It means a Zero as in Zero Kelvin.

When we left home half a year ago, she had a few good friends. But when five year olds are friends, they are friends because they do tricks together on the jungle gym. They are friends because they dress up together, play tag together and fight together.

Skype is horrible on a jungle gym. Facetime doesn’t pull it off while dressing up. And Hangouts are coolest at twice her age. So slowly but surely the few good friends of before have found other lions to play circus with. Different mermaids and knights, different buddies and pals.

How about the locals? Aren’t kids finding new friends wherever they go? Not so much. The playgrounds closest to our house are solely in use by Haredi, ultra orthodox Jews. For a future astronaut, boys are perfect playmates but here, boys will only play with other boys. The girls tend to get a bit too warm with their long dresses and tights to run around wildly. And a fight is most fun when you at least understand each other’s lingo. Playing with Arab kids is hard when there are few to be found and other expat kids all go to school during the day.

As many friends as the world stands still. Every time I thought about her saying that this morning, tears welled up in my eyes. I asked her: wouldn’t you rather go to school here? Not if schools don’t have animals like home. Would you like to go to day camp? Only to the eleven day horse back riding camp that is too expensive to back out off after a couple of days.

Maybe my little astronaut is training to be the perfect candidate to inhabit a far away planet years from now. Maybe I am setting her up for a life of social struggles. Maybe the family will prove to be her core. I do not know. All I can hope for is that she will always be able to find refuge in poetry.

And she is not that far from the truth anyway. The world, here, in Israel at war, has stopped turning for many.

613 rules that rule the world

Jews were given a set of rules from God. Where Christians were given ten, Jews were given the same ten. But, because all animals are created equal, Jews were given an additional 613 to live by. That’s right, 613 rules that rule the world of my Orthodox Jewish friends.

Each rule is called a Mitzvah (and talking about more than one you would use the plural Mitzvot). To make it extra fun, one can fulfill one Mitzvah in more than one way.

Ready to convert to Agnosticism? Not so fast. A lot of these Mitzvot are things most Christians, Muslims and Buddhist already tend to do anyway. I am all in favor of sexual freedom, but as far as I know most people refrain from having sex with their mothers. And that is just one of the mitzvot about sex.

A whole bunch of other Mitzvot are things that come to mind when one thinks about ultra orthodox Jews. Like the side curls, or payot, that stem from the Mitzvah not to shave the corners of your head. Circumcision and not working on the seventh day are two other well known Mitzvot.

A good Jew can only pass the ultimate trial at the Heavenly Court after his death if he has done two things right. He has to have Emuna (more on this in a seperate post) and he has to follow and perform all 613 Mitzvot. Did I say two things right? Make that 614…

And here comes the tricky part: How does one perform all the Mitzvot correctly? That’s a hell of a job! A job that my Haredi friends struggle with every day.

When little three year old Nathan doesn’t want to share his Pretzels, his mother will call out to him that it is a Mitzvah to share, and so little Nathan will share. When men in my street turn their heads and eyes away from me to look at the wall, I know it is not because they are too rude to greet me. I know it is a mitzvah not to look at other women. I am well aware of the rules my friends live by.

I know they are so afraid to eat anything not-kosher, I will buy the watermelon I want to share with them only from the Jewish store. If I buy it from the Arab store they will not eat it. We take the plastic wrapper with Arabic on it from the napkins before we offer them one. And shame on me when I offered one of the kids in the park a sip of water from a bottled water company called Jericho. The mother gently but firmly pulled the water bottle away from the child. Jericho is an Arab brand. 

Men should not wear women’s clothes and women should not wear men’s clothes. Shopping for clothes has never been less fun then in Jerusalem because there is so very little we can buy and wear everywhere we go. Hotpants are a waste of money, but even regular pants can only be worn by the girls when we go out of town. If I want to be nice and approachable for my friends in the park, I will have to cover neckline, knees and preferably elbows. Some days, the girls and I just don’t want to leave the house because we don’t want to change in to less offending clothes. I am fine with that. If I want to live here, if I want to be friends with people that can not go to heaven if they do not follow certain rules, I should oblige.

But then a severely disabled man who suffered from spasticity needed help to get off the bus the other day.  Two Haredi women were standing right beside him. He held out his hand to them, so that they could grab it and help the man off the few steps he needed to take to get to the sidewalk. And in stead of the Mitzvah to help this man in need, they withdrew. Both women took a step back from the man. Thinking they could not touch his hand or they would burn in hell touching the body of another man that did not belong to their family and was not their husband. 

In Ashdod rockets were threatening to kill it’s inhabitants. When the sirens went off, men were directed to a shelter, but women could not enter and had to go to a separate room. Sex segregation might be a great way to prevent adultery, but during a rocket attack we might want to stretch the rules a bit, maybe?

I love the idea that in order to live a good life, 613 rules will lead the way. But I can not live a life that consists of rules only, without the freedom to think and apply. My friends can. They think about what is right, but only according to these strict rules. That. I think, is worrisome.

And what worries me most these days: It is a Mitzvah, too, not to panic and retreat from battle.