Ein Gedi Botanic Garden

Ein Gedi Botanic Garden
Seek the serenity of a Judean Desert sky in Autumn at the Ein Gedi Botanic Garden

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Pre-Purim Miracle in the Holy City of Jerusalem

"Oh, Abba – you got a call yesterday. I forgot to tell you. They found the suitcase!" my 13-year-old daughter said with dancing eyes.

My husband sagged with relief. The suitcase, left behind in the trunk of a cab as he and the kids rushed to a wedding Sunday night in Jerusalem, had contained his tallis, tefillin and crucial medication.

Despite desperate efforts to track it down the next day – and putting money into a Rav Meir Ba'al HaNess tzedaka box (calling upon Meir Ba'al HaNes is a surefire method for retrieving lost items) Sinai sadly returned to Arad, sure he wouldn't see his precious items again.

Apparently the cab driver brought the bag to the base and after finding my husband's name and phone number on a piece of paper that happened to be in the suitcase, the dispatcher called to let us know it was safe.

Only in Israel.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Blood Sacrifice

Jerusalem had a grim reminder Thursday night that the Jewish blood sacrifice did not disappear with the destruction of the Holy Temples. It was a reminder that terrorism in Israel does not emanate only from Judea, Samaria and Gaza, a reminder that the Jewish blood sacrifice yet flows through the heart of the Holy Land.

The massacre of eight young Torah scholars and wounding of 11 others by a lone Arab gunman at the Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook was a nightmare from several different perspectives.

The scenes were horrific enough to prompt one of our editors at Israel National News (http://www.israelnationalnews.com/) to preface his report on the attack with the warning that his article contained graphic images. The option of reading the report without all those disturbing photos of blood-soaked tallis katans was made available through a special link.

The knowledge that a tip to police of an imminent attack on the capital was not enough to prevent it from happening is frightening because the comfortable thought that “forewarned is forearmed” has now been debunked.

This tragedy succeeded, because there were assumptions made by some of the authorities that the terrorist would come from outside the area of attack. Security checkpoints hastily placed in a tight ring around the city were wasted – because the terrorist came from within the circle.

It was an “inside job” in the truest sense.

The terrorist was a 25-year-old Israeli Arab citizen, complete with an Israeli ID card (teudat zehut), a resident of a neighborhood in the eastern section of the city, who had driven children and adults back and forth from schools in the city – including the Yeshiva. He was known and trusted. And therefore not suspect.

Many Palestinian Authority Arabs and Israeli Arabs work for and together with Jews in this country and there are still some Jews who have not yet learned to hate. Now the question is: which of their friends and workers can be trusted, truly?

Many relationships have been formed between Israel’s Arabs and Jews, some that have a basis in truth. But the problem is, it is impossible to know if or when the party will be over.

The vast majority of workers in Jerusalem’s hotels are Arabs who live in the eastern part of the city. There are many who work in hospitals around the capital as well, especially during the Sabbath when Torah law restricts Jews from performing certain actions.

Monit (taxi) drivers, bus drivers, workers in restaurants, open-air markets and building companies… Israeli Arabs in many ways are more integrated into Jewish society than one might realize.

This terrorist with the familiar face walked into the Yeshiva carrying a simple cardboard box. Anyone seeing him would have assumed that he was bringing supplies for the Rosh Chodesh Purim party scheduled for later that evening.

After all, he was not a stranger.

He knew that, and was confident that he would not be stopped. And he was right; no one checked the deadly contents of that box, which carried two guns and many clips of ammunition.

It was so easy.

Rabbonim who contend that Torah scholarship is as much a weapon to be used in war as a uniform and a gun found to their sorrow that the battleground has now indeed been brought to the study hall.

The terrorist killed five teenagers and three adults. He wounded 11 others, most of them teens as well. It’s enough, more than enough, but could have been so many more.

Had it not been for a part-time student armed with a gun, and a nearby resident who, as an IDF officer was trained to know the difference between Purim firecrackers and real gunshots, the attacker might well have murdered many others.

Thank G-d for the Jewish warriors who were as competent with a physical weapon as they are in Torah study.

This is Israel. The battleground for the Holy Land begins and ends in Jerusalem, the heart of the entire world, as it has for millennia.

The heart ached as we prepared for the imminent arrival of the Sabbath Queen. It bleeds for the stilled breath of those whose hearts beat no more. But battered as it is, the Jewish heart is steadfast and whole.

And although the bodies of eight young men now lie within the Land itself, the souls of those scholars will fight the battle on a different, more exalted level.

May they be strong advocates on behalf of our People as the Land embraces the discarded vessels that held their holy sparks.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Song of the Shemitta Year

The commandment to allow the Land to lie fallow once every seven years is one that is observed only in Israel, and not everywhere in the country at that. Eilat is not considered the Land of Israel, nor is most of the Arava.

For new immigrants, however, the advent of the Shemitta year in September 2007 was an exercise in study, scrutiny and steadfast resolve to resist the temptations of the Borochov nursery in Arad.

"You can't plant anything for a year." That was the flat statement that sparked my first interrogation of any Jewish legal authority I could corner.

"What about potted plants? Can I plant something in a pot?" I asked.
"What about transferring a plant from one pot to another?"
"How about taking a cutting and putting it in water to sprout roots?"
"Can I buy a potted plant at the nursery?"
"It's better not to."
"What about plant food?"

Now here is where Israeli ingenuity comes in. Because regular plant food is out for the year, Israeli scientists came up with a unique solution: time-release plant food. It's a little like slow-release medication, only it lasts for an entire year. The little yucky-looking pellets are spread around the garden and mixed into the soil just as you would any other plant food – and then they gradually melt away over the 12-month period. Amazing.

No pruning. No harvesting – unless you have first put out a shingle that informs the world they can come into your yard and pick whatever fruit or herbs they please. It's called "hefker" and it means that any edible plant in the yard becomes public property.

No landscaping, if it involves activity that will encourage growth of the plants in any way. Landscaping in order to keep the garden from becoming a jungle is permitted, I was told. I didn't find that out until six months later because I didn't think to ask. It was when I saw the Chief Rabbi's yard, looking relatively neat, that it occurred to me there must be a way to get this done. Thank G-d it was just in time for spring, when all the winter rain persuades Israel's greenery to flourish with enthusiastic vigor. Yes, you can water the plants, grass, etc ------- but only enough just to keep them alive. This is a year in which water rationing will not even be an issue, I believe.

But the real killer comes when you have to shop for produce. Not every store in Israel bothers to observe this special commandment, and they buy their produce from kibbutzim that ignore the dilemma.

The supermarket was packed the last week of the old year, before Rosh Hashana.

I wheeled the shopping cart frantically around the store, searching for root vegetables that I knew would last at least a month or two if properly stored. It felt like Pesach all over again. Ten bags of potatoes, ten bags of onions, six bags of carrots, I cannot remember how many beets, butternut and acorn squash, calabasa (dala'at in Hebrew) – even pumpkins, a new product here in the Middle East.

Not a word from the cashier. She already knew. One of the rabbis of the community was also making last-minute purchases, and I asked him all the questions I had no answers to.

"Carrots are planted before the new year. Can I keep buying them?"

"It's probably okay for the next week or so – but after Simchas Torah, not a chance." Anticipating the next question, he added, "Not potatoes, onions or anything else either. It's just better not to take a chance. But ask a posek." This from a rabbi known to be a Torah scholar. Go ask somebody else.

Five bags of different peppers, two large bags of Kirby cukes, 3 dozen oranges, 3 dozen clementines (the kids finished those up in two days, of course) and huge bags of various other fruit.

It wasn't until later that I learned I could probably keep buying fruit without concern for Shemitta until Tu B'Shevat, the new year for trees. The issue comes up in relation to when the tree began to bring forth its flowers heralding the birth of new fruit.

The refrigerator was crammed with produce. No room for dairy products, meat or anything else, but who cared? We would not have to worry about finding the right place to buy produce for at least a couple of weeks, I figured.

It wasn't until Friday afternoon the week after Simchas Torah that I realized my error; shopping for herbs, zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant was out, at least until I found an approved grocer.

That first Shabbos was a real meat-and-potatoes event, the first I have served in a very, very long time.

The "Heter Mechira" crowd, which accepts a Torah loophole that allows farmers to continue growing and selling produce by transferring ownership of the fields to a gentile (generally the local Arab neighbor), has a much wider selection of products to choose from.

People who are more stringent in their observance purchase their nuts, herbs, fruit and vegetables from special providers who obtain products offered by gentile farmers and those who have stored up produce from the pre-Shemitta season, through the Otzar Beis Din – the Treasury of the Torah court system.

It turns out that the person who coordinated this effort in Arad is Sion, a Torah student at a yeshiva for Jews who did not start out observant but ended up that way. He is dealing with many different sources for the produce he brings -- but the quality is better than what is found in any regular store in the city. The price is a little higher; I would pay even more, for the wonderful produce Sion brings. He calls every Monday to take my order, helps me remember what I need by going down the list of what is available and brings it to my doorstep (actually into my kitchen) on Wednesday evenings. At least raw produce is available even in Arad.

Suddenly, I discovered I could buy take-out salads and dips for Shabbos from only one particular company. The supermarket offered products from only two additional companies, both of which used ingredients certified through Heter Mechira.

Canned fruits and vegetables were available with the reliable hechsher (kosher supervision), but I hadn't had to check out that issue in years. It reminded me of New York.

But the issue was viscerally brought home to our family unexpectedly on our first foray into the local pizza shop a month after the holidays.

"Wait!" I shouted. "The tomatoes! We can't have the tomatoes on the pie!" The kosher pizza place used products from Heter Mechira, which we don't use. Olives were okay. Onions were okay. Corn was okay. Tomatoes? No way.

When my husband took me out for dinner at the new Noodle Bar in Be'er Sheva a month later, we searched the menu for items that would not involve transgression of this commandment – and came up almost empty. We finally had to tell the waitress to "hold the vegetables," including herbs. Have you ever tried to order Chinese food without the vegetables?

But the most painful cut of all was the ban on buying plants at the Borodovsky nursery, one of my favorite haunts in Arad. As with the supermarket, Borodovsky's was packed in that final week.

It's a wonderful place. Amid the lush greenery there is a little petting zoo, a playground, an outdoor tent complete with water cooler, table and chairs, porch swing and a futon couch. Inside, next to the counter is another water cooler, a complete tea and coffee-making section, powdered hot chocolate mix, fruit juice and pastries that arrive fresh from the bakery daily, and rarely last beyond 10:00 a.m.

People who work in the industrial area, where Borodovsky's is located generally stop in for lunch, just to enjoy the serenity and scent of all the flowers.

Could I really give up this simple pleasure? Perish the thought.

I returned for last-minute plant purchases at least four times. Each trip cost me hundreds of shekels and I returned laden with pots, plants, potting soil and flower bulbs.

But I still ached at the thought of what was to come.

Finally I consulted with Itzik, who knows me well. He and his brothers now own the place, carrying on from his father, of blessed memory, who started the business 20 years ago. "Don't worry," he consoled me. "You can still have coffee and Danish here. And everyone finds something they can buy, no matter how small."

He was right, of course. I had forgotten that Borodovsky's also sells linens, pillows, odd lot socks and underwear, even little glass boxes, toys and fridge magnets.

And I can still get towels there sold by the pound. I'll survive.