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.


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…


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.

Jerusalem Syndrome

I love cults. There, I said it. I love to learn about lifestyles that tend to adhere to a certain kind of absolutism. Groups of people following strict rules or beliefs, living a rigid or more seemingly free flowing lifestyle, fascinate me. Not only do I want to understand what drives them. I also tend to think that life like that must bring a wonderful sense of simplicity. As long as  you live it according to a strict set of rules.

Maybe “cult” is not the correct way to describe the object of my fascination. Because I would also love to visit a country under dictatorship before it turns to democracy.

For someone who is hoping to wake up one day knowing what her calling is, this sounds like pure bliss. Inner peace and true serenity must come to those that do not have to figure out how to live life to the fullest or what direction their bliss went that “they should follow”.

Of course I realize I would find the opposite of inner peace. I would fight my way out. And that paradox might be the core of the fascination to begin with.

One of the wonderful aspects of living here. Hardly a day goes by without some kind of Religious Extremism. First of all our ultra orthodox Haredi neighbors. It took me a couple of months of learning to get to understand them . A couple of months of diving as deep as I could into their rites and traditions. Buying artifacts, reading books.

Judaism is quite an obvious part of every day life in Israel. So it was not just easy to learn more about it. It also felt as an necessity to understand more about the country I live in now. But here’s the fun part: Jerusalem tends to attract a wealth of religious fanatics.

Coming from a country where Free Will seems to be the religion, It almost feels like heavenly intervention to be here for a while.

I took my Hebrew classes in a place that is -very- closely related to Opus Dei .

During the walk over the old city walls we met “watchmen”. Dutch people who have dedicated their pro-Israel lives to reading the Bible on the old City Walls. Because they believe that that is what God calls them to do.

Or how about “God’s General” on Jaffa Street, who is saluted by several “soldiers of God”. The General knows for a fact that the war Israel is currently fighting is actually brought on by the sinful lifestyle of the Tel Avivians.

I want to believe every single one of them is right. Mostly because by nature I want to do everything as I should. I want to do everything right. But it’s hard. Having a book in my house that will protect our family from rockets sounds like superstition to me. Superstition that is forbidden by the same religion our Book Seller Aaron is faithful to.

Living life in celibacy with some other people from Opus Dei seems unnatural and unnecessary to me. Not to mention spending long and unpaid days on the City Wall to read the Bible out loud to whoever wants to hear it.

But then again, wearing a wig because you believe you should cover your hair, is that cheating or is it wise? And another favorite of mine: the mitzvah of wearing of TzitzitThe sole purpose of that Mitzvah is to not forget to fulfill all the other 612 mitzvahs.

The beauty of it all? Jerusalem Syndrome, the mental illness that hits some people visiting this city, has no preference for Jews, Christians or Muslims. Anyone can get it.

I wonder if the affected knows he is affected. Or she…


Shabbat oh Shabbat. It was on the seventh day that God rested. He looked back to what he had created in six days and he saw it was very good. Jews are required to perform the Mitzvah of keeping Shabbat. Isn’t that a wonderful idea. One Full day of rest and peace and quiet. One day of nothingness. One day to retreat, reculer pour mieux sauter, rebreathe and recover.

It is a brilliant concept, Shabbat. The first months of our stay here, I would dwell over it. I would go to the most orthodox of ultra orthodox neighborhoods and pretend I was preparing for Shabbat, too. There, in Mea Shearim, people would get ready for their big day. The Big Day that returns every week. They would make arrangements for Shabbat, clean and shop. They would bathe their children and dress them in their prettiest clothes. They would cook for the day to come and set the table with clean linen and beautiful utensils.

Shabbat is like a bride that should be welcomed in pretty clothes, with the best foods and the happiest spirit. A good Jew should live frugally and not indulge, except on his Holy Day. It all sounded so wonderful to me.

Of course, being the homeschooling mother of five young children, a day of absolute and obligatory rest equals a peek in to heaven. But it was also the happy spirit that seemed to surround this wonderful day of the week that made me love it. It had such a different feeling compared to the seemingly endless and boring Sundays of my youth.

But then reality knocked on my door once again. Knocked, because on Shabbat one is not allowed to open or close and electrical circuit so ringing the bell is a big no go. You can ask others to do it for you, though, as long as they are not Jewish. And since we still haven’t converted to Judaism yet, we have turned in to our neighborhood’s little Shabbat helpers. Our son has been asked numerous times to plug devices in and out and turn switches on and off.

Shabbat starts at sunset on Friday and lasts till sunset on Saturday. Of course we tried our best to keep the kids quiet on Saturday morning, just like we have always done on Sunday mornings back in Europe. We always tried to be as quiet as we could possibly be with five early risers. What we didn’t know but apparently is quite a golden standard, is that we have to shut up between two and four pm, too. And because it is virtually impossible to keep our bunch quiet for two hours during the day, we chose to leave our house now. Every Saturday we try to go places with them, so that we will not offend our neighbors.

Hard work? Yes, it is, because on Shabbat most things are closed. So we flee the city of Jerusalem to go to the beach near Tel Aviv. Or we visit a museum with liberal opening hours. And every time I get in to the car I also realize how lucky I am not Jewish. I can travel on Shabbat.

Shabbat is for the people, the people are not for Shabbat, a wise Rabbi once said. And I notice how hard it is for some to remember that. True, it is hard to find the perfect balance. But if you are afraid that ” An Arab is about to beat his wife up”, would you rather call the police yourself, or would you wait until you find a non-Jewish person to call the police for you? Making a phone call would close an electrical circuit and is formally forbidden on Shabbat. A panicking couple my husband met on the street last week decided the latter. And my husband decided to not call at all but just talk to the guy screaming at his wife.

Or how about our very pregnant neighbor who’s brothers are called back in to the army to fight in Gaza? She fears for their well being every day, not a fraction less on Shabbat. So she will come to our door to ask us whether we have heard any news from Gaza. When we look the Israeli news up on our laptop, she is not allowed to read it. And since our Hebrew is still crappy, we can not reassure her. When she starts crying I can not help thinking this Shabbat is in no way beneficial for a pregnant woman. So we inform ourselves through English languages news sites and casually tell her as if we looked it up for ourselves.

Often, on Shabbat, my dear Haredi friend Sara comes by. Always with her husband, sometimes with other family members. She brings sweets and smiles.The couple is dressed up in their most beautiful attire. Sara’s husband Rami wears a large fur hat. Sara herself is in white and gold. I still can not really talk to her and when her husband’s translation services aren’t fast enough for me, I want to use my translation app on my phone. On Shabbat, she can not read it unless I have written it just for myself. That’s when Shabbat gets too complicated for me and I put the phone away.

On the way out, last Shabbat, Sara leans against the wall while her husband kisses our Mezuzah. She accidentally leans against the light switch and lights up the whole room. An expression of true horror and shock darkens her face until her husband reassures her it is ok because it was an accident. I hug her and laugh. And I whisper in her ear: It’s ok, Shabbat is for the people.


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.