Bearing Witness

Forgive me for diverting from my usual pieces about Aliyah but I feel it has become incumbent on me as an ex-South African and now citizen of Israel to write the following piece.
 
As many of you know, the State of Israel has been put on trial for the last three days in Cape Town, South Africa by the “judicial” (and I use that term loosely) farce known as the Russell Tribunal for crimes of Apartheid perpetrated against the Palestinian people. Given that the Tribunal has no official judicial status it can only be described as a kangaroo court. The Russell Tribunal forms part of the Betrand Russell Peace Foundation which was originally formed to investigate violations of international law and human rights.
 
For the past three days the sounds of kangaroos hopping their way to the courthouse has drowned out all sounds of reason. And the jury selection for this has been full of kangaroos (apologies for the comparison, cute marsupials from Australia!).From former Special Rapporteur for the UN on Palestine, John Dugard, who is almost as heinous as his successor to Red Ronnie Kasrils himself! And not to forget the Arch Tutu, Zackie Achmat and Winnie Mandela. Winnie “withdrew” from the panel. Perhaps her own scurrilous human rights record should face its own tribunal! Lest I forget star witness, Leila Khaled, she of first female airplane hijacker fame! And these are the people who judge Israel for human rights abuse? Laughable if it weren’t for the fact that the Tribunal is taking place in South Africa, former Apartheid state, the jurists are famed anti-Apartheid activists and the venue for this theatre of the ridiculous is the District Six Museum. Very symbolic. This is enough to have any anti-Israelist turning cartwheels and thinking all their birthdays have arrived at once.
 
So why have I decided to write this piece? As someone who grew up during the emergency state years in South Africa, I bore witness to the crime that was Apartheid. As an Israeli, I live the reality of what Israel is like every single day. Is there racism in this country? Yes, just as there is in any other. No, Israel is not utopia but neither is any other country – including South Africa. We tend to forget what the word Apartheid really means. Apartheid is defined as “the Afrikaans word meaning ‘separation’, Apartheid was the racial, social policy introduced by the National Party government of South Africa in 1948.” Today it is used to describe Israel. It is a very sexy catchword, after all it is emotive, evocative and provocative. Perfect if you want to package and market hatred. The very use of it to describe Israel is not only odious but makes a mockery and cheapens the tremendous suffering endured by South Africa’s black citizens.
 
Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I bore witness on a daily basis to the inhumane suffering of my fellow citizens. Only they were not regarded as such. Denied the right to vote or have political representation they had no voice in government. Unlike MK Zoabi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset and another “star” tribunal witness. South Africans who were not perfect white specimens were denied the right to a decent education, receiving a “bantu education”, which was inferior to that I received. The Apartheid laws in South Africa denied black citizens the freedom of movement. I remember witnessing the humiliation of black men who were out past their curfew as police checked their pass books and in some circumstances whipped them with a sjambok (whip). Just because they could. As a child I once asked my mother why it was that nannies (domestic workers) always sat on the grass in the park. Was it that they did not like the chairs?Imagine my mother’s discomfort explaining to me that nannies were not allowed to sit on benches because they were for “whites only”. An idea that was unimaginable to my naïve childish mind. I also wondered where the black children were because they did not attend my school or my ballet class or swim in the same swimming pool as I did. If my father gave our “nanny” a lift anywhere, she has to sit in the back of the car for fear of breaking any racial laws. We as Jews come from a history where we understand too well the implications of racial laws. I could go on and on about the injustices suffered by black South Africans and it is extremely painful to write this piece as I also acknowledge how I as a white child benefitted.
 
I now focus on Israel. I am proud to be an Israeli citizen, it  is the realisation of a lifelong dream. Yes, this country is defined along ethnic lines – as was legally voted in by the United Nations and is no different from the countries, and there are many, who define themselves according to their Islamic identity. I live the day to day reality and it pains me to hear my country so erroneously compared to South Africa. Visit any Israeli hospital where Arab doctors treat Jewish patients and vice versa. Take the public transport and revel in the fact that there are no seats marked “Jews only”. Attend any of our Universities which are fully integrated. Visit the beach. Enjoy your lunch or coffee in any of our restaurants and coffee shops. Find your way around our country in Hebrew or Arabic (and yes sometimes even English) as they are our official languages. Vote for the Arab parties if you so wish. Have your case heard before Arab Supreme Court judge, Justice Joubron. Serve in our army or foreign service. Rest assured these are not positions reserved for Jews only. I am proud of our imperfect yet pluralistic democracy.
 
I am proud to call myself a Zionist Israeli. I challenge the jury of buffoons who dare sit in judgement to truly look at Israel with open eyes. I fear that they do not. The Russell Tribunal would not have been out of place in Salem circa the witch trials because it is exactly what it is.
 
Jurists of the tribunal, under the laws of balanced, democratic jurisprudence, I find you guilty of racism.

Driving Miss Crazy

 

So it has dawned on me that I need to brave the Israeli roads (actually make that drivers) and learn to drive here.

 

Yip, I know, I also didn’t think that at the tender age of 30-something I would have to relearn a skill I have had for many years. Well, if you call driving like a frustrated grand prix driver a skill…..

 

I know some of my friends in South Africa are scratching their heads in confusion and thinking, Ro, why does someone who drives like she thinks she is Schumacher on a hot lap have to take driving lessons?

 

While Israel has an extremely efficient public transport system (the trains are a trip! Pardon the really bad pun!), it is a good idea to have your own set of wheels. Or at least the ability to make them move. On the opposite side of the road which we Saffers (ex South Africans) are not used to. This definitely takes some getting used to!

 

Anyone who has ever observed the art of driving in Israel would come to the same conclusion: why hasn’t NASCAR or Formula 1 recruited drivers from this tiny little place? Just observing a bus turning a corner or the morning rush into Tel Aviv would have the most generous racing sponsor salivating! Speed and the innate ability to overtake at a rate of knots make Israel the perfect breeding ground for racing drivers. When we are children we learn that cars go vroom vroom. Here they go “yalla! Zuz (move)!!!

 

And then there is parking. This is a phenomenon all on its own. It requires a level of driving skill mixed with a David Blaine-esque ability to squeeze a car into the space designed for a bicycle. It also requires a certain amount of rhythm to do the shuffle backwards and forwards and then from side to side to ensure that the aforementioned vehicle fits comfortably. And don’t stress if one of your wheels humps the pavement. This is parking. Israeli style!

 

All back seat driving aside, driving in Israel is extremely pleasurable. The roads are excellent and well signed. Even a directionally-challenged person like me can find her way around! Olim, note that you have limited time to drive around using your licence from your country of origin. You have a year to get your Israeli licence. But you have three years to convert your licence. Confusing I know, but the system seems to work.

 

It may appear to the unassuming new driver that the rules of driving in Israel are like Fight Club (ie, there are no rules) the licensing process and the laws of the road are quite strict and failure to adhere will result in harsh penalties. You also have to go for obligatory medical examinations before attempting to take your licence. This means visiting your GP and an optometrist for the a-okay.

 

This is the next step in the entertaining journey of self discovery that is Aliyah.

 

It is time for me to whip out the bad passport sized photograph, take my documents and permission from the powers that be down to the DMV and officially be let loose on Israel’s roads.

 

Now that my engine is revving dangerously close to the red zone, my fellow citizens, consider yourselves warned. I will be driving on a highway near you. Soon.

An affair to remember…

  

I have fallen in love with a 63 year old. A complicated, tempestuous and passionate 63 year old. These past weeks this sexy 63 year old has made me ride a rollercoaster of emotions.

Now before some of you scratch your heads in confusion, my delicious 63 year is of no particular gender (well, being quite tempestuous some may render my 63 year old a woman!) and though only “officially” 63, this love of mine is several thousands of years old.

It is easy to fall in love withIsrael. This is a country whose people value life and celebrate it with incredible vigour. In as much as we celebrate the sanctity of life, we also stress the importance of the preservation of memory.

Never is this more evident than on Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day). On this day, the entire country pauses to rememberIsrael’s brave men and women who have fallen in battle. When the first siren sounds at 20h00 the evening before, signalling the start of Yom Hazikaron it is a very humbling and sobering reminder that the lives of nearly 23 000 men and women have been cut short in defence of the security of our beloved State. In its short 63 year old existence as a modern State, this country has witnessed several wars and more than its fair share of clashes with its extremely hostile neighbourhood. The Middle East is a volatile neighbourhood where bullyboy tactics are the order of the day but pluckyIsraelis not one to stand down in the face of adversity!

But courage has come with a terrible price and that is the loss of precious life.

A recent Olah, I have never had the opportunity to serve my country in her army. I regret not coming toIsraelat an age where I could serve because I feel that as Olim we miss out on a vital part of Israeli society.

And then literally overnight the mood of the country changes from deep reflection and mourning to that of exuberant celebration.

Israelover the chagim (holidays) is a sight to behold! Cars and apartments are festooned in blue and white Israeli flags and the excitement is absolutely palpable. Saying that Israelis can party is an understatement!

On the eve of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day)Israel’s streets are lined with happy proud revellers. Modiin rocked toIsrael’s most popular singer Eyal Golan. His arrival was announced by the high pitched, ultrasonic squealing of several thousand excited teenage girls and more than a few ecstatic adult women. Even I knew the words to some of his songs and managed to sing along in badly mimed Hebrew!

Living inIsraelis a sensory experience. Whether it is hearing Hebrew spoken around you (normally at a very rapid speed!) or the feast for your eyes which this little oasis in the desert is, on Yom Ha’atzmaut it is your sense of smell which is heightened. By the smell of food a’la aish (for South Africans……BRAAI VLEIS!)

Normally debating is the favoured national pastime but this is given short reprieve for a la aish on Yom Ha’atzmaut. To my great amusement, pita vendors paraded up and down the beach selling perfect accompaniment to any meal – the pita. No not ice creams, pitot! Well as we say here, ZOT YISRAEL! (This isIsrael).

And what a treat to sea the best of Israel’s naval and air force hardware demonstrated in a flyover and a sail past on the coastline! The sight of a cluster of F16’s definitely had this Olah Chadesha screaming like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert!

These have been weeks of “firsts”. And what a wild ride they have been!

Even though I have been made to ride an emotional rollercoaster these past few weeks, my love affair with Israel is one I will gladly boast about.

A Siren wailed and freedom rang

 

The picture that says it all.

The other day I thought it was high time that I updated my blog.  I sat down to write my blog post about Pesach and I pondered  about what I was going to write, how it feels to celebrate as an Olah Chadesha and even just the mind boggling experiences of shopping in Israel for this Chag. There are so many scenarios I could describe but it seemed fitting that today of all days when I share my thoughts, I talk about Freedom.

 It is always a dangerous prospect to leave me alone with my thoughts but on a day like this, freedom is a most fitting theme!

 Today is Yom Hashoa, a day when we honour the memory of the six million Jews hunted down and exterminated simply for being Jewish. It is a day deeply ingrained in the collective Jewish psyche and felt in our souls as it will be for generations to come.  I sit as a yartzheit (memorial) candle flickers in memory of the martyred six million and an Israeli flag flutters proudly from my balcony and many others across the country as we ready ourselves for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) next week. It is a fitting tribute from a proud nation to our country and her people. We are reminded on a day like today of the importance of the existence of this country. How many could have found refuge, been saved, found hope in the existence of a Jewish state?

This morning,Israelcame to a stand still as the memorial siren wailed at 10am. It was profoundly emotional for me to stand in complete silent memory. Tears streamed down my face as I contemplated the magnitude of 6 million lives lost. Who were these people? Who could they have become? What became of my family? I remember the names of those whose fates we know. Aleksander Carpel for whom my father is named. Caroline Carpel, Miriam Carpel and countless other relatives whose names are forever captured in the vaults of Yad Vashem by Lazarus Karpel, who bore witness. I remember with fondness the fact that brothers spelt their surnames differently. These were people. Loved by many. Murdered by Nazis. Today, remembered by me, living in freedom in the State of Israel.  

I thought about the enormity of making Aliyah. The opportunity it brings for us to live in freedom in our tiny, democratic, fiercely passionate and proud Jewish State. There is that word freedom again!

We woke up this morning to the breaking news that Chief Terrorist and public enemy number 1, Osama Bin Laden had been killed. In an interesting twist of irony, both the death of this madman and another, the architect of the Holocaust, Adolph Hitler was announced May 1!

Again the word freedom rings. Bin Laden has kept the world in collective imprisonment as his drip fed terrorist rhetoric through messages broadcast via the internet and rare video appearance. Is it a coincidence that on Yom Hashoa, we hear of the demise of yet another hate-filled lunatic?

As Yom Hashoa draws to a close this evening, the wreaths placed at memorials around the country will dry, normal broadcast scheduling on TV will resume and the flames of yahrtzeit candles will die out. But we will forever remember the vow that we have sworn, NEVER FORGET and NEVER AGAIN.

A purrrrrrrrrrrfect homecoming…..

When I mentioned that I was “importing” my pet cat, Weave, to Israel there was a collective countrywide groan. Surely Israel does not need anymore cats!

Modiin has no shortage of felines and I could literally have my pick of the bunch! Fat/thin/mottled/gingy/male/female/spotted/striped – you name it, it is a kitty smorgasbord! Anyone who has ever been owned by a cat wouldnever dream of excluding them! Erm, did I also mention that she is 15 years old? An age where most cats dream of the big scratch pad in the sky…

Weave’s move to Israel required as much planning as the Normandy landings. She needed an extra battery of shots and tests in order to be approved by Israel’s State Vet. This delayed her aliyah. Naturally news of this debacle led to frantic execution of Plan B which entailed me phoning around, desperately trying to find accommodation fit for a feline princess while she waiting to be probed and scanned, jabbed and examined.
Enter the dynamic teams of Gail’s Kennels and Keringa Petwings who ensured that this feline princess was looked after like a queen and travelled  to Israel safe and sound.

It is often said that Israelis are amongst the warmest and most hospitable people in the world. This epitomised my experience collecting my furry friend from the airport. Navigating red tape is about as much fun as a root canal treatment. Armed with the necessary paperwork in Hebrew and English, I trekked off to Ben Gurion airport on a solo mission to collect this most important arrival. Half expecting her to strut through the arrivals gate, travel cage under paw, I was quite perturbed to find out that not only would she not be disembarking with the rest of El Al Johannesburg to Tel Avi’s passengers but that I would have to find my way to cargo city to collect her.

 A short shuttle trip with a driver who had no concept of speed limit later, I arrived at cargo city. To cut a long story short (okay and a mini meltdown due to my lack of understanding of Russian-accented Hebrew and a drop in sugar levels which brought out my inner dragon) negotiations with the “lady” who ran collections was a non entity. Teary eyed (and potty mouthed) I pleaded with the two gentleman from Cargo to please help me.

My eternal gratitude to Ezekiel Ezekiel, Dani and the mysterious Kobi who moved heaven and earth to cut the red tape and bring my precious cargo to me. I don’t know what was more entertaining, Weavie’s excited mewing or the macho Israeli men trying hard not to smile at our joyful reunion!

And so by plane, train and automobile (literally!) Weave made her way to her new home in Israel. Gratitude to Ben Gurion security, Israel Railways security, the nice Russian guy who carried her to the platform for me, the nice security guard who shared stories about pets while waiting for the train, the nice teenager who carried her to the taxi and the befuddled taxi driver who asked me, “Nu, what is so special about THIS cat?”

 

I am happy to report that she has settled in nicely. Kitty ulpan optional.

A word or two……

So you know your Hebrew is coming along nicely when you wake up in the middle of the night and start conjugating verbs. Lomed.Lomedet.Lomdim. Lomdot. Ay Carumba! No wait, wrong language!

The hebrew language is several thousands of years old and like the people who speak it on a daily basis, it cannot be boxed in by rules or structure! As I mentioned in my previous blog post, when you commit to making Aliyah you have to commit to everything that comes with it. That includes coming to grips with the national tongue. Many Anglo Olim fall into the trap of “well most people speak English anyway so I can get by with that”. Not so fast. If you want to truly integrate into Israeli society, you need to have a good command of the language. Afterall, you wouldn’t live in France without learning French now would you? Nachon.

Having a good command of Hebrew means that not only will you be able to converse and join the workforce but you will also be able to do all those important things that are imperative to surviving in Israel. This includes understanding the banking services, buying train or bus tickets and of course the most important……..ordering your coffee! Yes, cafe society is part and parcel of Israeli living. You must be able to communicate if you want “l’kachat” (take away) “L’shevet” (to sit) and what delicious edibles the waitron is telling you about in the usual rapid manner.
Learning a new language is intimidating for sure. Especially when english style letters are not used and you think that what you are writing so diligently should be displayed in the abstract section of an art gallery!

Someone once said that Hebrew is ingrained in the Jewish soul. No amount of soul-searching will help you conjugate verbs or understand those elusive gender rules!

Luckily, Israel has the processes in place to help its Olim become proficient in the national tongue.
Enter Ulpan. Ulpan is an intense five month programme or as I like to think of it “Hebrew bootcamp”. Not only does Ulpan present a brilliant opportunity to learn Hebrew but also to form important social bonds with other immigrants. Where else would a Portuguese speaker and a Russian speaker be forced to speak to each other in their new shared language?

Most countries have a preferred national sport. In Israel it is the ability to debate. Israel is a passionate country and her citizens feel very strongly about airing their opinions – all this is done is rapid Hebrew with the odd hand gesture. Well, hand gestures are mostly reserved for dodgy drivers! The point I am trying to make is that if you really want to fit in you must make every effort to speak Hebrew.

There is something very comforting about hearing people speak Hebrew. While it can be gutteral, Hebrew is also very melodic and expressive. In an extremely modern and technology driven country, hearing an ancient language brough to life is awe-inspiring!

Now if I can only figure out those infinitive verbs…….

Chicken dances……

It has been over a month since we “committed” (so to speak) Aliyah.

Committed is a great word because a) you have to be very committed to this process to make it work, b) you have to be committed for not being in your right mind!!  Jokes aside, I am thoroughly loving every minute of my experience because when I made my mind up to make the move to Israel, I committed myself 100% to making it work.

People who have had a successful Aliyah will tell you that it is all about attitude. Okay, that and a sense of humour! But it is true. Make the effort and do so with a positive attitude and you will reap rewards.

Aliyah is also about starting again and not taking yourself too seriously. You have to understand that you are almost rediscovering the world, albeit in a different language. I find this strangely liberating. You also have to be prepeared to make a total fool of yourself on occasion. An example of this would be setting off to the butchery to order chicken breasts.

Now the Snert and I make a habit of taking our dictionary everywhere we go or at least try to learn a few words a day. We do look ridiculous standing in stores, dictionary in tow. Don’t fall into the “you can get away with english, everyone speaks it” trap. Make learning Hebrew a priority if you want to integrate, get a great job and of course find out what people are saying about you!

So off to the butchery we go and for the life of me I could not remember the term chazeh off (chicken breasts). This almost resulted in me doing a frantic chicken dance while pointing to the obvious.Imagine the look on the butcher’s face! Anyhoo, managed to get my point across and have a good laugh at the experience.

You will also learn that there are really good people out there. The Ex-Saffers here in Modiin have been truly exceptional. We have wanted for nothing and are making really good friends. People will want to share their experiences with you. Listen to them. Advice is greatly appreciated. My only advice to people wanting to help Olim Chadashim is remember that this is all new for us. It is one thing to dispense with words of wisdom, it is another to enforce your experience on to others.

Everybody’s Aliyah experience is different. Mine is completely different to Snert’s. What is frustrating to some is a breeze for others and everybody’s reasons for leaving wherever they came from are different. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Enjoy your process and remember it is YOUR Aliyah. Own your experience!!!

 One of the pitfalls that nobody can prepare you for is distance from people you love. When someone you love experinces a tragedy, it is agonising to not be able to be there physically for them. This hurts and you have to give thanks to the gods of Facebook, Skype and cellular technology.

 Tuesday morning we start ulpan. I never thought that I would be headed off to “school” at 34 years of age!! Kinda looking forward to it…….

For me, it is another brick in the wall. Another segment of a puzzle I am putting together to create a wonderful life in my new home.

So, anyone wanna do the chicken dance with me….?

What on earth have I just done…?

Things to consider when deciding to make Aliyah…

 * The decision is yours. It has to feel right for YOU! If you are a family, the democratic rule applies.

* When you have decided that you will forego the life of comfort to move to a land that is completely different, don’t procrastinate. Open your files and expedite as soon as you can.

* There will be times when you have to divorce ideology for life planning. This doesn’t mean that you are no longer a passionate Zionist but that you are laying good foundations for your future in Israel.

* Do your homework!make sure that you research as much a s possible. Whether it is the banking system, medical aid or shlepping the pets, know how the Israeli systems work.

* You will never completely understand the Israeli systems. Try wrapping your head around banking. Oy vey!

* Everybody’s Aliyah experience is different. Don’t feel bad or beat yourself up if your experience is different to your partner’s/Friend/Child.

* Attitude is everything!!Keep a positive attitude and expect only from yourself. A sense of humour is fantastic! What you put in you will get out.

* I know that learning Hebrew can be totally intimidating. I completely screw up genders and tenses when I attempt it but it is an absolute necessity in order to get really good jobs and to socialise. How else are you going to know what people are saying about you?

These are just a few pointers that I have picked up in my experience. While it is completely normal to stress about Ulpan and not working, time out also provides and opportunity to recoup your emotional and physical strength and enjoy the experience and country. Afterall, you have just committed Aliyah!

A red carpet was rolled out…..

What a week it has been! After departing from Johannesburg, “Mystery Snert” and I along with 60 other Olim made our way to Israel. In true Israeli fashion, our plane was delayed and we eventually landed and were processed as new Olim by midnight Monday. Can you believe that in just a few hours after landing, we were Israeli citizens and had registered for our medical coverage! One Teuday Oleh (immigrant ID book) with a dodgy picture later, we bussed off to Jerusalem and the Ramada Hotel and collapsed exhausted into our beds.

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent organising our lives from our banking to our cells. Naturally I took advantage of a free month’s subscription to the Jerusalem Post. Being without the Blackberry and internet I was starting to have withdrawals for information. It has done wonders for my Blackberry thumb though….

Wednesday afternoon we had a very very moving ceremony at the Kotel (see pic) where we were given our  teudat Zehut’s which are our Israeli ID cards. We are officially Israeli citizens. I am wondering if they will revoke mine when they see my driving ………….

I have to say that “Mystery Snert” and I were treated like absolute dignitaries. We have been shmoozed and feted and really have wanted for nothing. I found it highly amusing when I was quoted in Israel Hayom (one of the Hebrew daily newspapers) even though I did not speak to any journalists. I guess that is Israel!

We arrived in Modiin after taking the scenic route (and by scenic route I mean our bus driver had never been here nor did he have directions or a gps so we saw the mall and surrounds about 100 times) we arrived at our new apartment. It is gorgeous and we were so appreciative to see members of Telfed standing on our doorstep with supper and groceries for a few days.

I cannot express how hospitable, warm and fantastic the South Africans have been to us. They have rallied around us and we want for nothing. We have also managed to do a shop, deposit money and argue with the internet provider with our pidgeon hebrew. I have the vocab, Snert the grammar and together we can actually string a whole sentence together! Shabbat was made so special by the Shaff’s and the Tannenwald’s who hosted us last night and today for lunch.

I have to say an enormous thank you to Shimon and the Israel Centre in SA and the Jewish Agency, Misrad HaPnim and Misrad Ha Klita in Israel for rolling out the red carpet.

We miss our friends and family but carry you all with us everywhere we go.