I’ve been washing black ash from my children’s hair. Lag Baomer was two days this week and Jerusalem took full advantage. The real day was pushed off so that people wouldn’t prepare their bonfires on Shabbat, so Sunday night was officially Lag Baomer and you couldn’t miss it. Thick smoke filled the air with a blazing bonfire on every corner, raising the already hot evening temperatures. It was definitely a night to walk around with Burnshield in my handbag.

Of course being Australian it is unimaginable that so many unsupervised bon fires are allowed outside every park, parking lot and all across the winding bike path that leads to the First Train Station. As parents we sent our children to their youth group bonfires with a prayer on our lips and dire warnings against playing with fire. But we had to let them go, we couldn’t prevent them from their night of charred potatoes, burnt sausages and roasting marshmallows until two in the morning.

This is where you enthusiastically exclaim, ‘Only in Israel.’

It’s not that no one cares about safety. It’s just that everyone is given space, including the children to learn on their own and build their fire safety muscles independently. They’re not scared of working hard, getting down and dirty and learning new skills. There is no whitewashed reality here. From the crooked shelves of supermarkets which could be more sterile and fluorescent to the green play grounds which have signs that announce the law that children under six must be accompanied by an adult. Which astoundingly means that children six and above can play at the park unaccompanied.

Undoubtedly this is a country that fosters independence. Where children learn about bus schedules and have their own Rav Kav bus cards from a young age. Where ‘not knowing’ is no excuse.

As the bonfires smoulder into ash piles throughout the city, I’m reminded what makes Israel special; its chutzpah, its Do It attitude, that gets people setting up folding tables piled high with drinks and BBQ food on the Jerusalem sidewalks on Lag BaOmer night. Laughing and singing into the wee hours of the night around their improvised bundles of burning wood, ignoring any fire engines that drive past. And miraculously I don’t hear any whining sirens that smoky, hot night.

Here’s a video my son sent from his group. It’s way too long. Watch the first two seconds so you have an idea what a lovely, heated, balagan it was. (And so that you can see that I am really not exaggerating.)

 

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Memorial at my son’s Gan – Kindergarten

Where do all the tears go? Is what I ask myself as I stand in the beating sun at the Yom Hazikaron – Memorial Day ceremony for the fallen soldiers and victims of terror at my children’s primary school. It is a commemoration run by the school children. Together they present and tell the stories of fallen soldiers, call everyone to silence for the siren at 11:00 am, raise the flag, blow the trumpets and march with flags in preparation for Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. Parents, children and old people from the area stand and sit together in commemoration of those who fell in battle, who were murdered by terrorists, who were at the front line for us to live as we do in Israel today.

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Grade 6 Leading the Memorial Ceremony

Freedom and independence comes at a price, as the principal of the school reminded us this morning.

Watching the future generation pay solemn tribute to the broad shoulders that they stand on is a very moving event, and the tears couldn’t stop falling. All the mothers wept behind their big sun glasses. (Just like last year which was my first experience of Yom Hazikaron.) No mother wants her son to go to the army. No mother wants their child to know of such evil in the world, of senseless killings of the innocent which we have to defend ourselves from. And yet we take our children to the ceremonies, they run the ceremonies, they know of their inheritance.

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Grade 3 – Flag Ceremony

The Jewish story is a story about process. Just as it was with Pesach, which we finished celebrating a couple of weeks ago, where we left Egypt to become a free people, and yet it took us forty years of wandering to reach the Promised Land, so too today with our modern Jewish story. We are a nation in process, and our modern commemoration and celebrations days reflect this.

Yom HaShoah was last week where the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust were mourned. It’s in their merit that we have a Jewish country of our own today as the founders of Israel and all who invested their lives in it declared, ‘Never Again!’

Today on this Memorial Day the flag of Israel is at half mast. We are mourning 23,544 fallen IDF soldiers and terror victims since the establishment of the State of Israel. Each with their own story, their own family, their own mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters, who are now privately mourning their loss. And they are not alone, as all of Israel has gone quiet today. Licking its wounds, trying to salve the nation’s bleeding, sad soul.

Already as the afternoon progresses and the sun begins its steady descent into nightfall, the flags have risen again. Everyone’s spirits are roused as the celebrations begin, and the switch from intense sadness to equally intense joy begins. The dissonance is hard to bare. Both bring forth tears.

The only way I can explain Yom Haatzmaut and it’s ecstatic happiness in the shadow of the deep loss of Yom Hazikaron is that they are about the same thing. Those who died, sacrificed their lives for us to live in peace and security. Not to celebrate our country, our nation and our children on this day, is to say they died in vain. We need to celebrate, be it through prayerful songs of gratitude to God with the special Yom Haatzmaut minyanim that take place throughout the country, or through getting together with family and friends and barbecuing, which is the national custom of the day.

Unity, gratitude, and happiness are the biggest acts of gratitude that we can undertake for our dead. We dance and sing on Yom Haatzmaut not despite the sadness but because of it. Because we appreciate the great sacrifice that establishing this country has taken. And we all know that living here and investing in our country as Jews we are making sure that the tears for the 6 million and the 22,544 are not shed in vain.

Chag Yom Haatzmaut Sameach!

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It’s 10:00am. The siren just went off. A dull, high alarm where everyone stops, stands still with heads slightly bowed. There’s a deep resounding silence as the cars stop and everyone gets out onto the road. Young school children stand at the front of their school gates, holding onto the iron fence rails. Mothers with prams, old people on their morning stroll all freeze. It’s an eerie moment which brings home the Holocaust as more than a memory but as a national moment which we all share.

This morning as I stood still in my own silence whilst the alarm rang, a modern shofar of calling. Beyond the whine of the siren I hear dogs yapping and the chirping songs of the Jerusalem birds, which is usually drowned out by beeping traffic. It felt so peaceful, and I thought to myself that the dogs go on barking and birds chirping around us, through all moments in our lives. Through the generations. When the Jews were taken to the forests to be shot, piled onto railway carriages, lining up heads shaven, tattooed, a mere number on the way to be gassed, or those marched to their death. All would have heard in the silence yapping dogs and chirping birds.

There’s a deep sadness in realising that we humans are our own worst enemies. We cause more death and destruction than any natural disaster that befalls us.

Last night we lit the Holocaust memorial candles that my boys brought home from school. Each candle had the name and details of one of the 6 million murdered Jews. The boys read their names and my thirteen year old as he lit his candle said without prompting, ‘This is in memory of Yechezkal Gitzinski’. And as the memorial candles flickered alive they reflected our lives. One life passes on and another one is born. The whole of European Jewry perishes in a gas oven and an antiquated country and language is renewed, reborn. A phoenix flying high from amongst the tear stained bloody ashes.

We can’t forget our past. We’ve moved forward and left the shtetl towns with their ghosts, but the tremors of sadness, loss and fractured spirits are still felt. My mother in law can’t speak about her father’s murdered family from Brno, Czechoslovakia. And the saddest of all are the lonely survivors, who live in abject poverty under our very noses as was discussed on Jerusalem radio yesterday.

Yom HaShoah is not only about remembering, it’s about grieving, it’s about seeing the world through the lens of the way we would like the world to be. By keeping our ghostly memories alive we teach our future, child by child, how to be grateful and give and create a world that says, ‘Never Again!’

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By the time you reads this you are probably sick of matza, but comfortably happy chewing coconut macaroons. The market stalls in the Shuk that usually sell fruit and vegetables have transformed into macaroon havens. Mounds of chocolate covered almond and coconut macaroons are bought instead of Jaffa oranges. I couldn’t disappoint my fruit man and not buy from him, so I went home with my plastic bag of macaroons, and was pleasantly surprised at how yummy they were.

The month before Pesach in Israel is silly season; everyone is walking about in a bit of a harried daze as they try and figure out when they’re going to ‘turn over’ their kitchens into chametz free zones. Even if you want to ignore the frantic, hectic hype, you can’t. At the health food store the manager reminds me to buy my cleaning products for Pesach, three weeks before. The bus conversation is all around cleaning, and that’s two weeks before. The week before Pesach, the boiling vats are on every corner of Jerusalem, as everyone lines up to kasher their metal pots and utensils. At this stage only the bravest can face the supermarkets. The yellow hearted, like me, shop a few weeks in advance so as not to face the two hour long queues. Having said that the products available for Pesach are unbelievable. It’s the perfect time to shop for Gluten Free allergies; corn tortillas, chocolate energy bars, all shapes of pasta, Doritos and of course the macaroons. Unfortunately Ashkenazim don’t have a gastronomic party like the Sephardim. They have to make do with the chocolate covered, coconut macaroons.

This week of Chol Hamoed everything has calmed down. Families have come together, drunk their four cups of wine, participated in the Jewish specialty of Q & A, eaten way too much matza and used the left overs for matza pizza. At least that’s what we did with our soft matza, especially bought from the Bucharian quarter in Jerusalem. Before you rush out and buy them, I have to report that we officially prefer cardboard, machine made matza to the rubber, frozen, soft handmade matza. Next year we will try the fresh hand made version.

In the soft breeze after the storm of preparation anxiety I have to sit back and comment on how hard it is to cope with the unknown. I turned my kitchen over on Thursday, because I couldn’t live in the no man’s land of uncertainty anymore. The kitchen is either kosher for Pesach or it isn’t, and as we live between these two worlds a great discomfort arises as we face the grand change. It made me think that this discomfort is part of the process of Pesach, of the concept of freedom. We all like certainty. I especially like it. I make decisions hard and fast. Like getting married, making Aliyah – quick decisions with far reaching consequences, but they had to be made. Sitting on the fence is the greatest discomfort of all.

The only problem is that life is full of uncertainty. As has been often said, the only certainty in life is change. And the only thing that gets us through that squirming discomfort is a profound faith in a greater power, in that same outstretched hand that took the Israelites out of Egypt. In life we have to make very big decisions personally and nationally. Get off our comfortable padded walls, and take a stand. Be it with our own behaviours, relationships, careers or where we live.

The discomfort of getting ready for Pesach, is the discomfort of getting ready to journey on to our promised land. This land is different for each of us. Personally, my promised land may be being more patient, braver and more honest to reach that space of inner peace and connection. Next year in Jerusalem symbolises something different to each one of us. The uneasiness is figuring out what it is and letting go of all that chametz, unneeded ‘stuff’, and jumping into the leanness of matza. Letting go of what was to see what you could actually be. When I think of Pesach this way, as a lesson in making big changes, I have a renewed respect for the Israelites and a renewed fondness for chocolate macaroons.

Today Jerusalem is still sleeping at 8:00 am. This is because the clocks have gone forward an hour, which means we’ve all lost an hour of sleep, unless of course you have the luxury of sleeping in. This may not be the only reason Jerusalemites are lying in bed listening to the birds’ morning chitter chatter, welcoming the Spring blooms. Last week Friday was the Jerusalem Marathon, this week has been the music festival, Sounds of the Old City. Last week we ran the 10 km, last night we rocked with the best of Israel’s musicians. It’s no wonder the streets are silent this morning, besides for the random bark of a passing dog.

For New Yorkers, Jerusalem is a quiet city. For someone come from Sydney and Johannesburg especially, Jerusalem is well and truly happening. There is nothing like these big events that get your adrenaline pumping and running or dancing with all sorts of people that you wouldn’t normally see. And that’s the connection between these two big events. People gathering to celebrate Jerusalem.

When you run a Jerusalem marathon, and I dream of one day running the full thing, (although that may just remain a pipe dream at this stage) you are running for something more than a run. I think any marathon run, or yes even 10 km group run, has a special energy of people joining together in common purpose and goal. It’s not competitive unless you want to come first, and there’s a camaraderie that enlarges the heart and keeps your legs pumping, even when they want to stop. Running in Jerusalem takes on a special significance as you sweep past the monuments of Israel, the Knesset, the streets in town and power down Jaffa. When you reach the hill ascending into the Old City, the blaring music that adds that extra beat to your feet gives you wings as you hit the cobbled stones, which are a runner’s nightmare, but you don’t mind because you’re running history. Something my great grandparents never would have imagined possible.

It’s a run that proves that dreams are possible. Not only because it’s in Jerusalem, but because so many are running for charitable causes. They announce themselves with big, colourful signs, matching shirts and the scampering teenagers who run back and forth to each other. Many of these runners are pushing wheel chairs, with disabled want to be runners, up the precipitous inclines. Complete strangers share the load with them cheerfully pushing up, up and up. This is an event that everyone should come to. Either to run in, or sit on the sidelines at a stylish cafe on Emek or in Town to cheer the runners on.

Speaking of dreams, walking through the Old City to the rhythm of different bands from all parts of the world is a dreamlike experience. It was on all week, and we went for the last night not really knowing what to expect, walking from the entrance where old Israeli songs about Tiberius and Haifa were crooned the high stage overlooking the lit up Old City walls, to creative installations of interactive musical instruments, flags of material you could press for an electrical musical note, floor piano keys you could walk on or, if you wanted a fun tune, dance on. Wall drums out of glass bottles, kiddie drums, saucepans hung high on the wall, making me think what a pity I didn’t bring the kids. This was quickly forgotten as we came to the Mizrachi music, where the crowds were swinging their hips to Iraqi music I grew up with. I wondered if everyone grew up with it and were reliving memories of records turning round and round in the 80’s living room. The melodic blast from the past continued into the Rova square. Where there was a Chassidic band playing lively chassidic niggunim, with dancing, circling whirls of people in front of them. It was a like a big farbrengan bash from Flood street, only this time in Jerusalem, with all types of Jews and not just black hats.

That for me is the best part of these events, the coming together of all different Jews, from all different backgrounds. You just had to dance at the ‘thunderous’ (as the programme described it) headphone music party to see this. A headphone music party is where everyone boogies to music on headphones. And boy was it a party in the narrow Old City alley. It’s quite a scene of people listening separately to their music and yet hopping around exuberantly, at times singing the words out loud together into the silence. Soldiers in olive fatigues, black hatters, girls in tight pants, boys with necklaces and that new hair cut, shaven on the sides and a tuft of hair in the middle. You could even hear Arabic in the mix of Hebrew singing, It didn’t matter who you were, this was the party to be at. How I loved that thunderous silence.

And maybe that’s what Jerusalem is in many ways, a thunderous silence, of so many people all together doing many different things. Each to their own rhythm and beat. You can’t always see or hear it, but when we’re all brought together for a common cause outside of ourselves, a run, a music festival, Jerusalemites can forget their differences and just enjoy being! It’s really there it just depends what you choose to see and more over listen to.

It’s been a very joyous month of Adar in Jerusalem. This week the streets have been filled with clowns, soccer fans, fairies, super heroes, ferocious tigers and cuddly crocodiles. Outrageous hats, face paint and glitter are the norm. This is the national holiday of joy, and Israelis need no encouragement to be happy and party. The streets feel light with a continuous song in the air welcoming this month that is the harbinger of happiness. It’s swept away the bitter cold grip of winter with a shining, warm sun, literally and figuratively. There is nothing like happiness and joy to break barriers as absolute strangers find themselves smiling at each other and sharing their childrens’ costumes on their phones.

Purim is not one day here; it’s an entire week at the schools of street parades, carnivals, dress up parties and Purim markets. It’s the festival of children, and as my son’s kindergarten teacher said, ‘We are all children on Purim.’ And she walks the talk, dressed up as a fire woman and parading down Emek Refaim with her gaggle of nursery school kids, dressed up in their masks and princess dresses, skipping and singing along. They greeted and sang to everyone they meet, from the blind man’s Labrador, to the local grocery shop (where they march through the aisles), to the relaxed couples sipping their cappuccino’s on Emek, to the Pizza shop, where they ordered their lunch, and then went on, as a final stop, to the Saba of the Gan’s home ( his teacher’s father)to sing and dress up with him. The children had the best Purim parade, with no music, no accompanying school, which they usually have and no balloons or police, as they had last year. They simply were happy and made everyone else happy as only three and four year olds can.

And that’s what this month has been about, being simply happy. Yes, there is a whole story of Purim, which is why we are happy. The Jews were saved from annihilation. Jewish survival is a fabulous reason to celebrate. However there’s more than that to the injunction to be happy. Simple joy is a concept we struggle with as we go along our daily lives, which has its hard moments, like sick kids vomiting in the night. (For those who have not yet been plagued, there is a horrid stomach bug going around Jerusalem.) I’m learning that I need to get beyond my preoccupation with what I think is important; assignments, essays, work dead lines, fancy Shabbat meals, burnt dinners, picture perfect homes and clean walls (that four year olds have not penned their master pieces on.)

I look at the happy Jerusalemites around me. I know that many are struggling to pay the bills, exhausted as they balance their numerous jobs, their children, or are looking for that special someone and are lonely. Everyone has their sad story, and that story has been put on pause this month, as we are all swept up in the energy of being happy because this is the time to be happy. Because this is what we choose to be, as we wish everyone a Happy Purim.

In a way I wish Jerusalem could always be this way. Simply happy. Able to forget its horror stories, and ghosts of winter and embrace happiness, joy, connection and giving which the month of Adar brings. The harsh edge of city living, as everyone vies for space would permanently disappear and we could all smile at each other and in that moment be happy as we connect on that basic human level. Realizing that at the end of the day that’s all that really matters. As three and four year olds already know and understand, and the rest of us have simply forgotten, and need the month of Adar to remind us. Happiness is a state of being, a choice, indeed the road worth taking.

This seems to me the reason why the Rabbis teach that “Yom Kippur is a day like Purim”, a day approximating Purim, because it’s not the fasting and sacrifices that God ultimately wants, as Isaiah (Chapter 1) candidly points out, rather it’s our smiles, joy and connection in our everyday lives with ourselves and each other, which naturally leads to social justice and enduring happiness and peace. No one says it’s easy, sometimes the best things are the hardest, but it’s definitely something to aim for, one smile at a time, beyond this happy month into many happy, happy months.

Jerusalem hands you gifts when you most need it, and when you least expect it. As I walked down the street this afternoon bundled up against the chilling winds, my face being warmed by the sun. I saw an old woman with a stick, hitting an olive tree, one of the many olive trees that line Hizkiyahu Hamelech street. She was dressed in a colourful purple silk dress, with gold embroidery, it was old and worn and muddied like her face. It told her story of coming from another time and culture, perhaps from a Kurdistani background from across the Zagros mountains or Northern Iraq. And she was hitting this tree with all her strength. I stepped around her to avoid the black olives falling on my head. I had to speak to her, I asked her if she was collecting olives. ’Yes,’ she replied in a thick guttural Hebrew. ‘Olives.’ She gestured to her checkered shopping trolley which was full of freshly harvested black olives from the ground, with a beautiful, wide smile which showed off her missing teeth. I felt like I had been handed a gift. The simple happiness of collecting olives on the narrow, public streets of Jerusalem.

The encounter with this simple smile warms my heart every time I think of it. Simplicity is something I’m craving in the craziness of everyday living in a city, bringing up a family, keeping up with everyday pressing demands. My theme has been finding my centre in the centre of a city which is considered the centre of the world. Yet you couldn’t find a metropolis of greater extremes. It’s climate for starters. Auburn Autumn days were scarce this year as the weather turned from boiling hot to bone chilling cold as fast as a leaf falling from a tree.

Jerusalem is also the social frontier of all peoples, Jewish and Non Jewish. It’s the polestar of the Ultra Orthodox, Chassidic, Secular, French, Anglos, Sephardim and Middle Eastern Jews as well as Arabs, Christians, and all shades of people and religions in between.

Economically it has the poorest of the poor of Israel living in it’s golden sphere and the wealthiest Jews from all over the world pushing real estate prices up so that the ground you walk upon is equivalent to bars of gold.

All these opposites create a dissonance in the city of God, which is enough to cause anyone to develop the dreaded Jerusalem Syndrome.

So in some ways I feel the irony of looking for serenity in this pivotal city of paradox. Where the best and the worst of religion, people and self comes out. Ever the optimist I focused on the simple moments, condensing complications into a cappuccino and ticking the never ending to do list in Hebrew. I was getting on top of my game.

And then the fires happened. My friend who lives in Yad Hashmona, a Moshav in the Judean Hills arrived in Ulpan class flustered and worried about her dog, as the perimeters of her moshav were being flushed with water to prevent the raging, merciless fires, that had already evacuated the neighbouring moshav of Nataf, spreading.

All equilibrium flew out the window into the ash filled air as I and the nation confronted arson, the new, fierce face of terrorism.

The Haifa fires were devastating, and on Shabbat as we watched firefighting planes fly across cloudless sky towards the North of Israel, (we were in Yad Binyamin, where they get the best views of all aircraft activity) our stomach’s twisted, with the lack of news, with the knowledge that those fires may be licking up houses as we stroll equanimously through one of the most peaceful yishuvim in Israel.

So much for my tranquil epicentre. I’m certainly not living in Sydney, Ausralia. This period has left me wondering where is the ‘peace’ of Jerusalem, which its very name promises? It’s forcing me to realise more and more that peace is not tangible. It’s like gold dust that flies through our days, to be caught with our hearts. Ephemeral moments that pause time like the smile from an old woman from an archaic world, harvesting olives from olive trees with a stick and a creaky, granny trolley, as the hustling, bustling Jerusalem cars whizz by.

So Trump has won the election. The shock, the horror as the world watches America exercise their democratic right and vote in their next president according to what they believe, not what the polls and media would have them believe. Is it the right choice? Who knows. This is when I believe in sitting back with a cup of coffee and watching what happens next. Interesting times are unfolding before our eyes, we might as well sit and enjoy it with a hot cappuccino.

I could be accused of being a frivolous coffee addict, who lives from one coffee moment to the next. I’m not alone. The world has erupted into vibrant, gourmet coffee shops and corners. Coffee has become a new art, a religion with it’s own exclusive magazine. It’s about the quality of the bean, the exact temperature, allowing the coffee to bloom, and of course the creamy froth. What they forget to mention is the human element of camaraderie, quiet moments of togetherness which makes change, insane turns of events, the big unknown that much easier to face. Because we’re in this all together.

One of my most memorable memories of a meaningful, therapeutic coffee moment took place this time last year. I was sitting at Kadosh (yes the absolute best French Patisserie in Jerusalem) in town, with a lovely friend and we were listening to heart stopping, raging sirens that shook the city a street away from where we were sitting. We looked at each other, and said ‘now what?’ This was at the time of vicious stabbings that paralysed Jerusalem night life for a week. It felt like a taste of armageddon, where we didn’t know where the next knife would appear. We sat there in the radiant sunshine and shook our heads and laughed. We knew it was inappropriate to laugh which only made us laugh harder. It was a laughter that was full of nerves and fatalism and that we didn’t know what would be so we may as well savour our coffee and apple croissant as we stared into the vacant abyss of the unknown. We knew, as the sirens provided background ambience to a tragic month of terror, that if we didn’t laugh hysterically over our cappuccinos we would cry and cry and cry.

So coffee is a coping mechanism. A moment of quiet enjoyed alone or relished with friends. It’s a precious commodity, that extends beyond the quality of the coffee filter. It contains a human element that traverses all cultures, languages and religions. A dark shot of caffeine is a simple, easy pleasure that doesn’t have to be a Nespresso specialty in a china cup. It can be an Elite instant, red sachet in a paper cup, black with two teaspoons of sugar. A specialty that I’ve been preparing for builders who are fixing our house, and who love coffee breaks as much as I do, especially with a piece of vanilla raspberry cake. I’ve learnt how to say thank you in Arabic. I’ve learnt that a cup of coffee can be a smiling meeting point of our common humanity.

This all makes me believe that coffee may be the secret brew to solving the world’s problems. There’s nothing more human than drinking a cup of coffee. On the level of a black cup of coffee I can wax lyrical about the fact that the every day person is just eking out a living, providing for their family, taking pride in their children and hoping for another sunny Middle Eastern day to drink coffee in their work break. If we could keep life to the simple savouring of a cup of coffee, beyond religion, politics and past hurts. If all world leaders, old and new could remember that we are all in this together, human beings deserving of mutual respect, we could live in a peaceful world that guarantees tomorrow’s frothy cappuccino.

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This month has been a month of boxes. Assembling, packing, and taping boxes. I could have used packers and half way through packing up our rental apartment I wished that I had, but there’s something about knowing what you have, sorting through stuff, and most of all throwing out miscellaneous debris. Whilst physically I’ve been confronted with cardboard boxes, mentally as well I’ve had to look at my mental boxes. My preconceptions, my prejudices and assumptions about the ‘other’ which is cartoned in my mind.

One particular box was about the Haredi world. A world I didn’t often enter or really think about. Stepping into the black hatted world which seems so austere, harsh and separate wasn’t was never for me. The most interaction I had was schlepping my son to his orthodontist in Geulah, who has a beard as long as Santa Claus and a sefer by his orthodontic equipment which he dips into between patients. He also has a Chicago accent, a kind, welcoming smile and a great sense of humour when it comes to my son’s bitter complaint’s about his braces. Not so black and white.

A few weeks ago we had a Haredi wedding to attend in Bnei Brak. I truly love the family who invited us (black hats and all) so we were going. I just had to figure out how to go in the most respectful manner. I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable or make anyone scandalised by uncovered elbows or painted toes. So I donned a headscarf that covered every wisp of my hair. I made sure to wear stockings despite the thirty five degree Middle Eastern inferno, and I wore a soft blue dress and cardigan that covered my elbows, knees and neck. I prayed that it was an appropriate colour.

When we arrived, it was hard to figure out which wedding was the right wedding. The Bnei Brak street was a virtual shuk of chuppahs and flower girls. We finally found the right building. Two weddings were being held there. Ours was on the upper floors. I separated from my husband as I mounted the stairs to the women’s separate entrance to the wedding hall. I arrived with bated breath, not quite sure who I would know, and not quite sure who would rag me for my Haredi wannabe outfit. I was pleasantly surprised when I was greeted with warm, beaming smiles from the family members of the groom.

As a wandering Jewess I’m a consummate stranger. I know what it is to be the ‘odd one out’ and I’ve learnt from a very early age to be okay with it. But a welcoming smile to the stranger can’t be underestimated. It brings a warmth that spreads from ones toes to the tips of ones hair. I immediately relaxed and felt the tremendous nuptial joy. Over burekas and hummus I got to know the Haredi women who were the groom’s family’s community. They were warm and friendly beleaguering all my preconceptions.

We all huddled around one of the tables, because everyone wanted to sit with the groom’s mother. Happily I ate roast chicken and rice off my lap, as I was introduced to the various scarfed and shaiteled women around the table. One was a doctor who worked in a hospital, another was the widow of one of the men murdered in the Har Nof massacre. This was all whispered in my ears during the meal. I learnt that evening that you can’t judge a shaitel or scarf by its appearance.

I never expected to talk to one of the widows of the Har Nof massacre. But as we were both not dancing (I couldn’t afford for my scarf that was precariously tied to fall off) and were standing side by side she struck up a conversation, and we ended up chatting about the difficulty of immigration and how it takes up to five to ten years to settle. How does a woman who has enduring endured such shocking tragedy, smile and engage in small talk?

I pondered the thought that happiness and joy have nothing to do with what we have, and nor how life treats us. These people didn’t have much in terms of physical possessions, and everyone in that room held their life story and tears hidden in their hearts.

It was not a wedding of silver dishes and fancy flowers. It’s the first wedding I’ve been to that served Yerushalayim kugel, and had a water cooler in the corner with plastic cups. Nonetheless, the bride’s shining face beamed with an energy and happiness that I felt would see her through the reality of marriage. It was a wedding with happy, joyous people dancing in rapturous Hassidic circles (the Bride’s side was Hassidic), who bussed from near and far to celebrate with the bride and groom and their families. It was simple, and in that simplicity was the richness of friendship and love, that can’t be bought or fabricated from a bridal magazine.

I left that night with my preconceived ideas of what it is to be Haredi shattered. I still don’t know or understand that world. But at least I now am an empty vessel when it comes to how I see them. When I see a black hat or shaitel walking down the street, I now think to myself, ‘I don’t know who you are.’ Which is far better than judging and closing my mind off to their humanity.

This new month will be a month of unpacking my boxes. The cartons of prejudice, the prisons of my mind. And whilst I don’t like everybody or everything that is done in the name of religion, I can love everybody for being created in the image of God (as Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali, one of the murdered three boys, says.) And I can celebrate the openness and magnitude of the human spirit which is found in all of us across all groups, one opened box at a time.

Like life, Jerusalem is full of surprises. Walking down the street with my four year old, on the way to Gan, I breathe in the tantalising aroma of Belgian waffles and American pancakes with maple syrup. On the way back just by our home I’m arrested by the scent of Halva and a minute later with Jo Malone Plum Blossom heady in the Summer morning air. It’s these daily idiosyncrasies that make living in Jerusalem one year later worth it.

A year later – our Hebrew is A LOT better. To the extent that we enjoyed, and moreover participated in an Israeli, Hebrew speaking, Shavuot lunch, without too much brain freeze.

It’s a misnomer to believe that you don’t have to work for a new language. It’s a commitment learning to speak and live a new language. More often than not I feel thick as a brick, as my tongue trips over the grammar and I speak of how yoga ‘kills’, instead of ‘cleanses’, as I mix up letters and words in a wonderfully dyslexic way.

A year later – I’m learning what it is to be an Israeli.

Firstly I have to be honest with myself and admit that I will never be one, but my children will and are becoming Israeli before my eyes. (They’re beginning to roll their r’s with guttural Middle Eastern ease – ‘I want a rrreally big trrruck’.)

To be an Israeli is to love life, be direct, not beat around any bushes waiting for Lady Luck to visit but rather to make life happen; such as ensuring space for their family Yom Haatzmaut BBQ by camping out all night with mattresses on the grass, plastic tables and chairs all set up (I kid you not.) I love the way Israelis celebrate birthdays with colourful, helium balloons, festive birthday signs and large, bountiful bouquets of red roses; loudly singing Happy Birthday every time anyone pops around to their two table party at the neighbourhood deli.

You don’t have to walk far to experience joy on the thoroughfares of Jerusalem. There are street festivals every week, from the Light Festival in the Old City to the Summer, sports evenings, every Wednesday on Emek Refaim. With children doing yoga on purple mats held down with rocks outside a French Pattiserie, and a woman salsaing for hours to trendy, beaty, Israeli music in front of a wine store. Whilst we live we may as well enjoy, is the ambience emanating from the brimming sidewalks, cafes and restaurants.

A year later we’ve experienced a full year of Jewish Festivals in Israel.

It’s a tremendous feeling to experience all the Chagim in Israel as national holidays. On Pesach all the Jewish petrol stations are full of matzot and kosher for Pesach snacks. On Shavuot everyone wears white and for weeks beforehand discuss their cheesecake recipes. The streets are tranquil and mellow, as stylish (or not so stylish, anything goes in Israeli fashion) pedestrians make their way to prayers, meals and Shavuot night classes. At 4 am, enacting the pilgrimage of old, thousands afoot, ascend to the Western wall for early morning prayers. It’s such a dramatic difference to outside of Israel where I was always part of a minority group walking to synagogue in our festive best, whilst everyone else drove to work.

The ups and downs of the year have been as constant as our heartbeats. Up and down, down and up.

A year later I’ve learnt that we, as Jews and Israelis, cry together.

I have never felt what it is to be a Jew with a national identity as intensely as I did on Yom HaShoah and even more so on Yom HaZikaron. These are days of national mourning that model what Tisha Bav should feel like. I have never felt sadder, experiencing a grief and solemnity which I was unprepared for. It was an emotional dust storm that sunk into our pores. I joined all the mothers and fathers who stood at their children’s Yom Hazikaron ceremony in the burning heat, tears pouring down our faces (hidden behind big sunglasses) as the future stood commemorating the past, waving blue and white flags of our present. And we all knew and felt, Olim and native Israelis alike, what a national cost we have paid for this land. And we tried as best as we could to banish the thought of these children in their summer sandals and white school shirts, one day wearing green.

A year later – I love Jerusalem and I love how much I still need to learn and experience her streets, stone abodes and hidden corners. I love Israelis (ignoring the ones I don’t love so much), with their open hearts and quirky humour. I love my fellow Olim, whether they’ve been here a year or many years, who understand what it is to crack your teeth open on Hebrew grammar, and find your feet in the ever shifting Jerusalem desert sands.

And as romantic and fairy taleish as I’d like to make our Aliyah I also have to be nakedly honest.

One year later the children still want to (if given the choice) return back to South Africa. I give them another year or two to settle. Life was beautiful in Johannesburg. Easy, comfortable without their mother losing her ice cubes over spilt soft drinks (which are now officially banned from our Jerusalem abode, as is popcorn). They could shout outside in the garden, banging their chests like the wild, cave men they can be, without neighbours sticking their heads out of their windows, shouting, ‘Qiuet!’. Most of all they miss their family and friends….

Nothing can prepare anyone for what immigration is, a ripping of your heart from the soil of your birth and replanting it in a foreign land, which no matter how Jewish, does not always feel like home.

So one year later – We’re still settling. We’ve grown as a family. We have a deeper appreciation of life, that living in Israel inevitably teaches. The children are buying hot, cheese burekas on their way to school for lunch (does anything else matter? They do all agree, despite their complaints, the food in Israel is heavenly.) I’m far more reliant on God than I’ve ever been before as I navigate the newness of every Jerusalem day, from the bureaucracy of applying for an Aliyah ID (that I lost), to what number meat I should buy to make biltong.

One year later I’m still breathing in the Jerusalem air, with it’s surprising smells and one year memories. Wondering with disbelief at the fact that we are blessed to be living our Jewish ideals and dreams a year on from when our journey, with it’s two steps forward and one step back, began.

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Stocking Up For the Second Year