Paula R. Stern is CEO and founder of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company offering documentation services and training seminars. She made aliyah in 1993 when her oldest son was 6 years old. In March 2007, her son Elie entered the Artillery Division of the Israeli army and Paula began writing about her experiences as A Soldier’s Mother. The blog continues as Elie begins Reserve Duty and her son Shmulik is now a soldier. She recently opened a publishing house, helping other authors fulfill their dream to publish.
Jews have been called the people of the book, and for a good reason. From an early age, we are instilled with a love of the written word. All truths can be found in books, and a fair amount of lies as well. Even centuries ago when illiteracy rates were very high, Jewish children were taught to read. Most Jews I know amass a large library of books. I once walked around my house and realized that in almost every room, I have hundreds of books - bedrooms, living room, hallways.
I have a cookbook collection with easily over 100 books; we have religious books, funny books, novels, dictionaries, encyclopedias and more. I'm a sucker for a book and a book sale. So, many months ago, when a friend came up with a brilliant idea for raising money for charity, I agreed to get involved. The concept is so simple, so brilliant.
I live in a country where the main language is Hebrew. For those of us who came here later in life with English as our mother tongue, we struggle to keep ourselves "in the book" - with enough to fill our time. I can't go to sleep at night without reading for a while. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night and the fastest way to go back to sleep is to read for a while.
So - my brilliant friend came up with the brilliant idea that we swap books - for charity. We did the first one in my backyard and raised well over $1,000 in one night and all the money was immediately donated to charity. We did another a few months later and raised about twice that amount; and we did it again last night to the benefit of several local charities.
Here's how it works. You put out a call to your friends and neighbors - give me your old books, the stacks that have been sitting there, the books you've read and don't want, the extras. Thousands of books came pouring in.
Then, you put out a call in your community telling them about the event. For each book a person donated, they can take another one for some nominal fee (we charged 5 shekels or about $1.30 for each donated book swap and 10 shekels or about $2.60 per book if you didn't donate one to cover the swap). And, you announce that all the money is going to benefit charity. In this case, we chose several local charities - an organization that gives food and assistance to needy people, an organization that promotes English literacy among children, a youth camp for children from families that needed this extra attention, etc.).
And the results - once again, stagger us...
They came, they swapped, they appreciated it. For a people who love the book, the books were consumed. So, if you live in a place where people love to read and you want to raise money for a deserving cause, consider the Book Swap - and special kudos to Bat Aliyah - the inspiration, dedication, and drive behind this brilliant event (and a heck of a friend!).
Israel's democracy is a vibrant thing. For all that our enemies criticize alleged discrimination, according to the law, all our citizens are equal. A bit over 10% of the population of Israel is Arab. They vote and have elected many Arab parties and leaders who then stand up from the floor of our parliament and demand our destruction. They work against us as a fifth column, betraying information to our enemies and then running off if caught (for example, Azmi Bashara, who aided Hezbollah).
Israeli Arab schools are funded by the government; Israeli Arabs have access to medical care like all other citizens, get regular benefits, etc. Including, amazingly enough - suicide bombers who kill Israelis...and then expect the government to pay benefits to their surviving families (and for many years and perhaps still, Israel has done this).
I was in the hospital last week after my father had an operation. At least two of the nurses were Arab men - sweet, kind, helpful, educated and equal to the Jewish/Israeli nurses that serve with them. In the cafeteria, watching the monitor for hours as my father was transferred into the operating room, then to recovery and then finally back to his room - we sat among Arabs, waiting, watching, worrying as we were. There was no discrimination as they waited in line - in front of us, behind us - to buy coffee or a sandwich, to sit at a table, to look, to wait.
I went shopping last night when someone told me the price of tomatoes and other vegetables was skyrocketing (still don't know why). Half the checkout people were Arabs; the assistant manager is an Arab; most of the men who work in the meat department are Arabs; most of the men who stock and restock the fruits and vegetables are Arabs. To say we are an apartheid country is a vicious lie told by those who wish, despite the facts, to damage the image of Israel for others. Do the research and you'll understand the truth.
Yes, there is that moment each day when we and they pass through the checkpoints - and yes, they are scrutinized in the 10 seconds it takes to pass through while we are observed in the 5 seconds it takes us. That is a measure of discrimination brought about by need and not apartheid. Blacks in South Africa didn't blow up bombs, sneak into the homes of whites and slit the throats of their children.
There are reasons for this 5 second delay the Arabs face while we do not - legitimate reasons. The simplest is statistics - Arabs are somewhere between 99-100% more likely to be a suicide bomber than Jews. No, stop - do not put words in my mouth. I did not write that 100% of Arabs are terrorists (and there would be BBC quoting the last 5 words of that sentence). The vast majority of Arabs are NOT terrorists. The vast majority just want to live, as I do, as we do, in peace. That is what I firmly believe.
They want food for their children, medical care, a home, a job. So, to be clear - the vast, vast, vast majority of Arabs are not terrorists. BUT....yes, there is a but...BUT, the vast majority of terrorist are Arabs. Please, read that again - understand the difference and understand that if you fail to comprehend that, accept it, live with it and take precautions, people will die. Young children - like the three Fogel children murdered in their home, pregnant women - like Tali Hatuel and her four daughters, shot at point-blank range and murdered on the road from their home. And countless others.
The need to protect one's people is one of the ultimate signs of a democracy. Assad of Syria does not care about his people; Mubarak of Egypt didn't care; Muammar Gaddafi of Libya didn't care. Democracies care and so they enact laws and run governments to make lives better.
Eight years ago, in the summer of 2005, Israel's democracy was under the control of Ariel Sharon. He was swept into office by the votes of the majority of Israel. We voted him in with a clear plan of strength and security and in the end, he gave us neither.
He turned his back on his supporters, we who had brought him to office by implementing a unilateral evacuation of Gaza. In plain terms, this means he turned more than 20 Jewish communities to rubble, pulled people - figuratively and literally - from their homes without a plan in place to see to their needs. And for this agonizing sacrifice, he gained Israel humiliation as we watched the Arabs move into the areas where we had evacuated - to set up a mosque in a synagogue that remained (as they so often do); to set up a university of hatred; to launch rockets from the rubble at Israel's cities and civilians. Only months after doing this, Sharon broke away from Likud to form Kadima - a backwards party despite its name. I was glad when he left; I felt he had returned Likud to me, to the truth, to strength.
Eight years ago, our democracy was used against us to protect the government of the man and betray the people who put him in office. Kadima ran out of steam and Likud returned to power - another show of democracy.
And while Israel's democracy is alive and well, last night, again, it took a turn that I am not happy with. After weeks of speculation, Israel was heading towards new elections, another chance for the people to come forward and reiterate their choice and realign the government to any shifts that might have occurred in the last three years. But a few hours ago, in the dead of night, after secret negotiations, Bibi Netanyahu signed a unity agreement with Shaul Mofaz of Kadima.
By all polls I have seen lately, the Likud was in for a smashing victory in the election that will never be. Kadima was headed for self-implosion. Bibi has become their lifeline - betraying tens of thousands (likely more) of his "supporters." Years ago, Sharon took my vote and betrayed it. Last year, after 10 years as a Likud member, I took my vote back. It will not be with my vote that Bibi extends his mandate; it was not my support he betrayed last night.
What happened last night was legal. After weeks of speculation and even a first reading for a call for early elections to be held September 4, Bibi fooled many people. There is a story told that God was angry with the Israelites after leaving Ancient Egypt. He told Moshe (Moses) that he would destroy this nation and give him a new one to lead.
Moshe responded that if a chair could not stand on three legs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), how could it stand on one (Moshe)? In this case, my response to Bibi would be the opposite. The Likud party and the nation could stand on the strength of one but is likely to flounder on a chair made of three weak legs (Bibi, Mofaz, Barak).
Israel's democracy is alive and well. Just as it was legal but not democratic for Sharon to take my vote and betray it, what Bibi did last night was legal, but not very democratic. He was voted into office, not to betray, but to fulfill the will of his supporters. Last night, he betrayed his supporters. The answer to his actions will come - just as the answer to Sharon's actions led to Kadima's defeat and near-obliteration.
For now, Israel goes on a path led by leaders who may or may not have the strength to do what must be done. It is, indeed, a dangerous time for Israel given US elections coming up and Iran's ongoing belligerence. It is at times like this I turn to faith.
Above all else, Israel remains our home. What Ariel Sharon's weakness could not destroy, Bibi Netanyahu and his new unity government will not destroy either. Whoever leads this country, we have only One who truly determines our future. We will remember this in the months to come.
Tonight begins a day that I dreaded every year that I had a son in the standing army of Israel. The first and second year, I gave in to cowardice and allowed myself to stay home rather than join hundreds of thousands of Israelis at ceremonies all over Israel. I felt that I had done enough, in sending a son to the army and didn’t have to torture myself more, endlessly imagining, thinking, worrying. I didn’t have to face this day, this possibility and worse, this reality that so many families face. I crowned myself an ostrich and hid away trying to think of anything but tens of thousands of families suffering, crying, remembering, mourning.
Tonight begins Memorial Day in Israel. I have to admit, sadly, that growing up in America does not prepare you well for an Israeli Memorial Day. There, we would watch the parade of police and soldiers go past our front door. What option did we have when the police came and closed off the main street on which we lived? And besides, it was fun to see the old men marching, the bands go by. Some people would throw candy to us; they waved and smiled. Some years, the mayor drove down the street waving from the window of his car. Each year, we pulled out the chairs or sat on the curb, drank soda and waved to the parade participants.
Other than that, it was a day of sales and picnics and school vacation. It was the start of summer, a sign that the school year was finally over. Memorial Day was the light shining on the short tunnel to summer freedom. And we thought of ourselves as the good ones. We’d gone to the parade, hadn't we? And we didn’t really know any veterans or men/women serving in the army, so they were, like the wars America fought on some distant shore, remote and unreal.
It’s so different here. There are no parades – parades are happy events, aren’t they? No - no parades here. Memorial Day in Israel is not just about agonizing pain, but about putting that pain in front of the nation. You can’t avoid it, rationalize it away. It is there, for all to see, for all to feel, for all to mourn. It isn’t restricted to “military families” because we are all military families. It’s your son or your husband, your cousin, your father, your uncle. It’s your next door neighbor AND your son. It’s the boy who used to do this AND the kid you always saw doing that. This year, it’s your son; next year, it’s your neighbors until the year or so after that when it’s back to your family.
They go into the army - all these children of ours and we know they don't all come out. It is the most terrifying of thoughts that plague us all year and cripple us on this day. It is all of us – standing there on one side of this little divider every year – there on that side up in front, the bereaved families, and here behind them and that little dividing wall the city put up to give them their space. We stand supporting them, remembering the boy we also knew just a little. We watch his mother walk up the steps and light the memorial flame and are amazed that she can put one foot in front of the other; that she doesn't cry out, but as she comes down the steps, there is a break and quietly, she raises her hand and wipes her eyes.
Or it is the work colleague whose son you never met - but you went to the funeral anyway and you went in the week after the funeral to visit and sit there in their home with no words as you listen and see pictures. There and here, it us remembering the boy and the family. We are one in our mourning.
It begins – tonight, exactly at 8:00 p.m. Israelis love to be fashionably late – this one day, there is no late. Everyone is assembled, standing and quiet at a few seconds to 8:00 p.m. They announce the ceremony will begin after the siren; please stand. And so thousands around me will stand and bow their heads. And then the siren begins.
It cries, it reaches deep into your heart and pulls out the tears. It screams across the land as everyone stands at attention. Mothers with sons about to go in the army fill their minds with the simple prayer, “Please God, please, please, please don’t ever let me be sitting in that area up there in the front. Please, please watch over him, keep him safe. Please, please, I beg you. Please.” Over and over again as the siren wails, more frantic as you know time is running out. It’s the only thought. A mother with more than one son or a son-in-law too will add his name; her name;. A wife will think of her husband and pray – all over Israel. Please, God, let this not come to him or her this year, next year, ever. It is all too human to be selfish and pray this way in those moments.
A mother with a child in the army, in a combat unit, in danger, is even more frantic – if she has the courage to even attend and listen. You know you should be thinking about them...but really, so much of the time your thoughts turn to your own. I didn’t have the courage the first year. I can say that now and feel a bit of shame.I couldn’t. I'm not sure I went the second year either. I think it was only the third year, after Elie had been in the war...and he was with me, that I was able to go. And even then, my thoughts were on Elie. “Please, God – keep him safe. Thank you. Thank you for watching over him. Please keep him safe.”
And there were prayers for Yaakov before Elie, and Chaim and Shmulik after him. And now, tonight, I'll say a prayer for B. - Lauren's cousin and for the two boys I know from our neighborhood and tonight, this time, I'll also remember Tonight, I’ll go and listen to the stories – of brothers from our city who have fallen; of fathers lost; of husbands who will never return.
Each is an agonizing tale of a special person, so loved, so missed. I’ll return home to a memorial candle I will have lit in the corner of the room that will burn all of the 24 hours we are in mourning. The restaurants are all closed; the movie theaters, entertainment centers. We do not allow one family to mourn while others go about their lives. In the middle of the work day – at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday – the siren will sound again. Traffic will come to a stop. (see the video below)
People will get out of their cars in the middle of the highway and stand; others will have already pulled to the side with their radios on. Wherever they are, whatever they are doing - they stop and stand. Each will listen, stand, think, and many will be praying, “please God, please, not this one, not another – let those be the last soldiers we ever lose.” Twenty two thousand, nine hundred and ninety three.
There is a television station that will list each of the names - all 22,993 soldiers that have died for Israel, another 2,477 victims of terror attacks – all for Israel, for what we have built here in our land. If you want to understand Israel – understand our memorial day. Understand the pain we all feel on this day. Israel is not a nation like other nations. Only Israel would release over 1,000 to get back the one. This year, Aviva and Noam Shalit finally have the answer - no, they will not be sitting on the other side of the small dividing wall because of Gilad.
So - if you want to understand Israel - watch the video below. Understand that this happens all over Israel - tonight at 8:00 p.m. and again tomorrow morning. And then, I'll tell you one more amazing thing about Israel - though I'll write more about this next. As deeply as we mourn tonight, as much as we reach into our hearts and pour out our tears...with the same determination - we begin, tomorrow night, to celebrate. We will dance in the streets, cheer and laugh. The day after we thank our veterans and those who sacrificed their lives for us - we will celebrate the gift they gave us. Memorial Day in Israel leads directly into Independence Day. It is one of the most amazing facts of Israeli life. It is so right.
We cannot celebrate until we remember and thank them because without them, we would not be here. So tonight, light a candle in their memory, as I will. Remember them and thank them.
Passover - the holiday and the history - is a time of transition. Physical and spiritual. Like most of the holidays in Judaism, there is an added element of reality and intensity when celebrated in the land of Israel. Only here do you realize how connected the land is to who we are as a people, and what God intended for us. Only here.
In terms of transition, I feel it more this year than most. Amira was about 4.5 years old when Shmulik was born - that means I gave birth to 3 children in 5 years. As they were born, this is how they married. Within five years of each other - three grown and married children. There was a six year break between Shmulik and Davidi; four more until Aliza joined our family. There has always been a huge divide, though smaller now, between the big kids and the little ones.
I would smile when one of the older ones referred to "the kids." It was the three and the two; and now the three are all married and essentially out of the house. With all the plans of the last few months, then Aliza's bat mitzvah and the wedding and seeing them off for a brief trip to the US to spend part of the holiday with Lauren's family, and the mad preparations for the holiday, it is only now really hitting me that we are a family with two children.
Sure, I still have five - even eight (and a grandson) - but on a day-to-day basis, it's us and two. A transition, a change. The holiday of Passover is about transition as well - from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of being a people. New rules, new practicies, new food in the desert on their way to the Holy and Promised Land. Promised by God...to us.
Passover is about a transition from the rain and the winter to the hot and the summer. Yesterday, it was very hot and sunny in Israel; today, they expect showers in the south and in the north. By Friday, it will be hot again. Summer is coming; transition.
Passover is about cleaning out your home, even obsessing about it and pulling out of the closet those dishes and pots you use only once a year for 7 days (8 days outside of Israel). It's fun (a lot of work, but fun), to pull out those things and remember what goes where. I love the pots I have for Passover and each year struggle to put them back. It is so tempting to keep them out and use them all year long, but then I wouldn't have them for these days - and I have enough pots anyway.
The important thing about transition, I think, is to embrace it, work with it, enjoy it...and let it keep moving on. My family has been in transition for five years now - so many changes. Five years ago, we already had Yaakov in our lives - we have added Chaim as a son, Haim as both a son-in-law and a son. We added Ariella as a daughter (though that was termporary as her parents moved to Israel and we had to somewhat unadopt her - even though we still consider her ours). We added Naama as a daughter-in-law, who became a daughter; and we added Lauren as a daughter, who became a daughter-in-law. We (okay, I didn't have that much to do with it, though I was there when he joined us) added a baby grandson.
That's a lot for five years - three weddings, a bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah, a grandson - a lot of happiness, a lot of transitions. So we've just completed another one. We're enjoying the holiday and the break from work; sleeping more than I have in months, in between cooking and just reading and resting.
Passover will come and go this year, as it does every year. Winter is over; the rainy season all but behind us. Now comes the summer months; sunshine and heat. The older kids are all married; all building their own families. The important part of transition is to embrace it. I'll keep telling myself that as I enjoy my new children and perhaps focus a bit more on the two younger ones while they are still kids.
Davidi was amazing this year, helping me prepare for the holiday. He's beginning to accept the harder truth of a child - that he is bigger and stronger than I am. He takes things down from the top shelves for me; soars above me. Aliza is the little planner - but not so little. She went on a trip with the neighborhood today and carefully planned what she would take along. I helped at the end, but it was her doing, her planning.
If you love the winter, as I do, you have to remind yourself to enjoy the summer too - otherwise, you spend half your life wishing for tomorrow or next month or next season, rather than living today. One of the beautiful prayers we recite on Passover and other holidays includes the verse:
"This is the day which God has made; we will rejoice in it and be happy with it."
That just about sums it all up. Take today, this moment in your life, this time, this day, and celebrate it. Live it. Today is the transition between yesterday and tomorrow. Neither of those days can you live today. Yesterday, you cannot change; tomorrow will come soon enough. Somewhere in the posts from long ago, towards the beginning of the time Elie was in the army, I began to understand that tomorrow was a very frightening time. Tomorrow, Elie might go to war; Shmulik might go into a very dangerous situation. If I could focus on today, each day, tomorrow would always be a day away.
It's a life philosophy I try to live with - sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't. Today is the day God has made, the day He has given to me, to us. Celebrate it, rejoice in it. Be grateful for it. Each day, every day. That's the plan; the great secret of life. Passover is one of those times God gives you to remind you of where you are. Not where you were or where you are going. Yesterday, you were slaves; tomorrow you'll be out there in the desert somewhere. Today is what it is all about. Today you have food and sunshine. The dishes and pots will change; the rain will come and go.
Your family will grow - in size, in number, God willing. Accept it, rejoice in it. Be happy with it. I guess, it's the ultimate, original, "Don't worry. Be happy" message.
So don't worry - be happy. Works for me. Chag samayah - happy holidays to you.
Each week, someone does an amazing round up of some great blogs related to Israel, Judaism, related events and more. It's called Haveil Havalim and it switches hosts each week. This week, I volunteered to do it. Yeah, I know - I'm insane. But to make sure I didn't miss the deadline, I've been stealing a few minutes each day to do something I love doing (and never make the time to do). I've been reading blogs!
What a wonderful world of knowledge, of sharing! I knew I would love this - and I was right. It's a fun opportunity to read some blogs I've never visited, get back to ones I've missed reading but always know I'll enjoy, and more. So please join me on a brief trip around the Jewish/Israeli world of blogging.