Friday, May 20, 2011

Arabs on my porch

Some years ago, a title like that would have scared the living daylights out of me.  As a young bride, then new mother, I found myself living in an "illegal" settlement--not out of specifically ideological reasons, just because it was dirt cheap and we were dirt poor.  On a small hilltop in the desert, off a dusty, unpaved road full of potholes, some of the caravans (trailers) had large stones cemented around them because during the last intifada they were shot at from the nearby Arab town.

The call came late at night from a woman asking about clothing for sale.  I'm not sure how she heard about my little gemach, but she needed clothes for her two children and wanted to take some to a girl's boarding school as well.

"I'm embarrassed to ask," her words tumbling out uneasily, "but--I'm an Arab--is it ok for me to come and buy clothes from you.  I tried to go to one in Tzfat, but they wouldn't let me in."  Gemach is an acronym, spelled גמ"ח in Hebrew, and means gemilut hasadim: acts of loving-kindness.  I told her everyone is welcome and that only a few weeks ago an Amish family did some shopping here as well.  I've drawn on inspiration from one of the first gemachim that I ever went to.

Six of them came pouring out of the car after the long trip up from Nazereth.  I embraced my newest customer and welcomed her accompanying family into my porch; the large mother-in-law, her other son's wife, two sweet little boys, and of course the brother-in-law who was driving because none of the women knew how.  It was so stereotypical I almost laughed.  They left with five full garbage bags and a new friend.

Hiking towards Nahal Amud on Israel's
Independence Day with the whole family.
Tzfat can be seen across the valley (upper right).
Israel is such a tiny country and there isn't enough room in it for ill feelings.  In my corner of Israel, I am surrounded mostly by Morrocans and Yeminites.  They could look at me as a stranger, an outsider; the lone "white girl" who will occasionally still slip up and address you using words from the wrong gender.  But hospitality is in their blood and I have received the warmest welcome.  Earlier this week I caught a ride to Meron with my son's kindergarten teacher's neighbor from nearby Hazon.  An older, traditional man, he complemented me on my headscarf and asked if my husband lays tefilin.  Kind words passed between us in those five minutes and stayed with me for the rest of the day.  As a Jew, you just won't get these feelings of family, of belonging, anywhere else in the world.

I mostly ride the bus to work, but can sometimes get there faster by tremping to Meron and taking a sherut (taxi that goes to the central bus station for about the same as a bus ticket).  The driver stops along the way and manages to collect a decent fare by filling all four seats before reaching the one-sized-fits-all destination.
Walking under olive and fig trees,
it's easy to forget that you're in the city.
From the bus stop, I discovered a small trail that leads up towards Tzfat's Jerusalem Street.  For a few seconds, you can forget about the traffic and visually loud billboards, disappearing into the wild.  But only a few seconds, and then you're out onto the main street again.  I walk past the community college, a grocery store, and a cafe where the same two men are talking loudly over their newspapers and sipping coffee like they always do.  Suddenly the Bar Yochai alleyway drops off to the right.  Towards the bottom I can hear morning prayers from one of the Old City's synagogues and see cute little haredi children running off to school.  Ducking under the stone arch, floating down a long flight of stone stairs, now I'm rounding the corner where most of Tzfat's art galleries are clustered.  I see familiar faces of beautiful young Israeli women doing their national service and stop for a hug.

"Ima...you're cracked, aren't you?"
The streets are filling with tourists this time of year.  I saw a bus with a sign that says San Antonio and went up to talk with its passengers.  Yes, they're from Texas they tell me.  Small country, small world.

Taking work home to finish in the evening, I return mid-afternoon and pick up my dear Purieli from preschool.  My hand is extended and he takes it after a brief examination.

"Ima," he starts, and I already know that something blog-worthy is about to come out of his mouth.  "...you're cracked, aren't you?"  I'm trying to think of how to answer that when he adds, "Teneya says it's because you're a little bit old."  He's skipping now and I join in.  Not so old, I tell myself, hoping that I won't twist an ankle as we rush down the hill.
"It's because she's a little bit old."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Working mother

It's been quite a week.  In a good way, though.  I'm thoroughly enjoying my new job at Livnot U'Lehibanot (my name is on the website here).  All these young, North American Jews just love the combination of hiking and community service, highly subsidized by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach and other generous souls.  Aside from my work at the computer, I get to interact with the participants throughout the registration process and finally meet them when they arrive at our campus in Tzfat.  The campus is a 500 year-old stone building, which has been renovated to have hot water, air conditioning, and other modern comforts.  Thousands of people stop by the visitor's center each year and have a look at the archeological dig in our "backyard" where bucket after bucket of dirt was removed by hand to uncover an ancient building complete with mikveh, functional oven, and a cellar that saved the life of a Jewish family.  Across the street is a busy restaurant, where the man behind the counter wears a turban and "dress" and makes the food you'd expect from someone in that kind of outfit.  I hear the music and chatter of its patrons waft up through my window in the office.

Yours truly in the front yard with palm tree, rose
bush and lemon tree (and a bomb shelter too)
It's late afternoon and I return home to find my 16 month-old clingier than ever.  Staying home with Aba (Hebrew for father) is not this baby's ideal, but he'll adjust.  If only he wasn't teething again...  Teneya shows me her new pearly white growing in where the old one sat until becoming lost tooth #2.  Puriel is exhausted from the long day at school and falls asleep on the couch after I read aloud a couple of short stories by Richard Scarry.

Fragrant lemon blossoms take over
the bottom branches of my tree,
even as we are still harvesting
fruit from the previous season
On Wednesday I use my lunch break to get Teneya an extra bottle of antibiotic for her latest ear infection.  I like that doctors here first use drops to treat an infection, but this one wasn't caught soon enough and she ended up needing oral antibiotics after all.  I load up on fruits and vegetables before returning home.  My rolling shopping cart clatters along the cobblestone alley until I come to a long flight of stairs on my way to the bus station.  A haredi man is coming down the steps with two children, the three of them chattering in Yiddish.  Imagine my surprise when he approaches me and asks (in English, no less!), "Can I help you with that?"  He carries the heavy cart all the way to the top and wishes me well before heading back down to where his children are waiting patiently.

The next day it was cold and rainy.  On my way home, I noticed small white fluff floating down to the ground.  Is it snowing...or small bits of hail again perhaps?  I'm as curious as a cat and had to stop in the middle of the rain to see what it was.  Wisteria.  Beautiful, pure, white wisteria flowers were falling from the trees over my head.  I stayed long enough to bend a branch down and take a long whiff.  Reminded me of dear friends in Austin who have a purple-flowered wisteria tree in their yard.  That's where I first fell in love with this smell.  I wrapped my shawl tighter and hurried to the bus so I wouldn't get any more soaked.

On Friday I enjoyed the day with my family as we took our time to prepare for Shabbat and make up the guest beds.  There was even an hour to spare for me to organize some new things in the gemach, which my husband now looks after most of the week.  The rain poured down hard all morning.  Saturday night our Amish friends came to visit from Jerusalem.  Sunday morning I'm off to work again and our guests are on their way to finishing touring the Galilee.

New vines bursting with baby grapes
The bus is crowded today and I count 12 people standing, including me.  On my right are three young Arab women in beaded headscarves crowded into two seats.  I smile at one and she smiles back.  Outside the fogged windows I see row after row of grapevines.  It looks like a scene from an Italian movie.  On the way home, I count seven cows munching on the wild grasses in the Birya Forest.  Dinner is a large salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, tuna, tehina and humus beans.  Without even changing from my work clothes, I step out into the garden.  My lemon geranium cutting has taken root and needs to be planted out.  Teneya helps me pick fresh dill and parsely for the salad and pull a few weeds.  The kids were out the door after dinner and have come home to tell me about the newborn kittens next door.  I'm pushing baby in his swing on the porch while my husband's music student squeaks away on his recorder.  "Can we have a kitten?" I've been asked more than once today.  But their Aba is allergic, so I tell them they can just go next door and pet the kittens all they like.  It's time to brush teeth, read a story, wash the dishes, fold the laundry, and get ready to start the cycle over again tomorrow.  Sweet dreams everybody!