Wednesday, July 23, 2014

War: A Time for Parents and Educators to Listen

Minutes after coming out of the bomb shelter last week, I saw a father and his twin toddler daughters  finish a meal and quietly chat in a Tel Aviv restaurant.  On the streets of Jerusalem a mother told me that her 7 year old son was managing the incoming rockets just fine. "Can we do it again" (go in the shelter), he asked? "I want to hear the boom, like the video game."

How can parents, and educators speak to children about the violence going on now? Can we pretend it is just like a game? The answer is obvious. Yet with our own uncertainties Israel seems a topic easy to ignore.

 As a Jew, Israel is the place where our cousins and friends live. It is the place our ancient mothers and fathers lived. Regardless of politics, regardless of what we might think, the world does see us, as Jews, connected to Israel. I have to wonder if it is harder to talk to children about Israel, or sex? Not sure. We need to try and here are a few suggestions from experts. 

According to Berman, Deiner and Lantieri, Educators for Social Responsibility, the first thing to do is  listen.  Children as young as four or five are exposed to what's happening either from their own experience, from the media, or from the chatter of adults. Simply, ask a child,  "Have you heard news about what's happening in Israel?" 

When you hear their responses you can help them put things in order. A young child's mind tends to meld information into a jumbled scenario. For example, a few facts might end up "If missiles are hidden in schools in Gaza, then there are missiles in my school." Talking about what children are hearing or fearing, with a trusted adult doesn't stir, but rather calms. No matter how frightening some feelings are, it is far more frightening to think that no one is willing to talk about them.

Young children-early elementary school--need to know parents and adults are there for them to provide protection. We have a Jewish vocabulary of Shema to help. We can exhibit sacred listening.  Our children need loving adults who are there to hear their questions, and feelings and the stories they are creating when making sense of events. Young children can know that God is listening. Shema says, you are not alone, all of Israel is listening too. 

According to Berman, Deiner and Lantieri older children, in middle elementary school and early middle school will be concerned when faced with violence with issues of fairness and care for others. Again, Judaism gives us a vocabulary to listen to, and engage our children. 

We can tell children that our work as Jews is to balance virtues, even sometimes when they are in conflict with one another. For example, we are obligated to care for others and  to care for self.

Care for others:
"It has been told to you, O Human, What is good, and God seeks of you: only to practice justice, To love compassion, and to walk humbly before your God." (Micha 6:8) 

 Take action care for self:
"When injury is likely, one should not rely on a miracle." (Kiddushin 39b)

Educators and parents can act as exemplars, sharing how they manage balancing the virtues of self care and care of others. Share what you do when these virtues are in conflict. Make your inner dialogue visible to them.  Children also need you to be  explorers. Explorers are adults who help children find their own views on what it means to care for self and to care for others. This is a conflict that we as individuals work to manage. This is also a challenge for countries and this is what Israel is struggling to do.

Educators and parents should be both exemplar, sharing their own story and explorer, helping children ask questions and search out their own answers.  (Wertheimer, Pomson, 2014) 

Adolescents have many of the same needs as younger children. They too need to share their emotions, be heard and be supported by caring peers and adults. Developmentally they will be drawn  to the ethical dilemmas that arise from the conflict.

Our job is not to give them the answer, not to shut their questions down, but to make accessible the rich resources of our tradition so they can grapple with the opinions they explore and express. They need rich content in their conversation. Facts trump newspaper headlines. Giving teens a chance to let their hands follow their hearts and move to action is also work that is in our power as parents and educators.

The times require us to do one thing with our children regardless of age, Engage. This is not, as the innocent child said, a game.  Our children, growing in a volatile world, need us not to shy away from the conversation. Let's put our arms around our children and bravely start the conversation.

Rich resources include:
JECC's "Responding to Crisis"

"Parents Talking to Children about Violence"

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Protect Your Ass Judaism

I am a liberal. My Jewish values are proudly expressed in "care for the needy, mend the world and work for equality regardless of our differences." These  core values , I label as Jewish, have made me a loyal Democrat. In 2008, 78% of my fellow Jews also voted Democratic. Since Roosevelt, the majority of Jews have  voted for the Democratic party even when groups of similar financial and social status have switched to Republican. Do we stay Democratic because we vote the way our parents did, or as I suspect, do we vote left because the value of helping those in need trumps self interest. Help those in Need, is an honorable brand of American Jewry. And today,  I wonder if our brand is getting in the way of another honorable brand of Judaism?

Protect Your Ass Judaism (PYAJ). We need to --without apology--yet with responsibility, protect our own asses.

Rockets are coming  into Beer Sheva, Netivot, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem from the south to the center and to the north of Israel. The sound of a siren starts like an innocent cat or a motorcycle but grows as a life alert "you have 90 seconds to find a bomb shelter." Less discerning as an American, my heart skipped with the sound of each cat and real siren.

Within a minute we heard BOOM BOOM. The Iron Dome works. Again, BOOM BOOM.  Prayer: please keep working.

To put an end to this, to HELP THOSE IN NEED, we ask: "Who is coming to the table to discuss 'How do we live in Peace?'" Israel said yes. Egypt is ready. Abbas is ready, and the leaders launching the rockets say no.

Hamas leadership says no to cease fire
I've been reading Righteous Victims, A history of the Zionist Arab Conflict 1881-2001, by Benny Morris. The history I'm reading is clear in my mind. It rubs against CNN headlines (YNET NEWS much better to follow events).

One vivid image I have from the historical reading comes from the years of the late 1930's and 40s.  In the same decades when European Jews were dying in gas chambers,  Jews in Palestine were gathering weapons, growing the Palmah and the Haganah to protect themselves. Could Ben Gurion and Weitzman have sat down with the Nazis and negotiated a settlement? Don't murder our people and we'll take them off your hands to live in the desert. The answer is obvious.

Jews learned how to fight and farm with a PYAJ policy.  They hid guns from the British under floor boards and built a social infrastructure so Jews could live as opposed to be pushed into gas chambers.

While in Israel this week I spoke with Jews from France-6,000 French are making Aliyah this year because of heated anti-semitism. I spoke to Jews from Spain--who said they are afraid to admit to being Jewish on the street and hide their identities. Jews from Argentina spoke about increased security because they fear bombings.

Awake from the bubble, I thought. History is here again. Oh this bubble bursting goes against my liberal 'we are all one leanings.'

In the fog of who is right and wrong Israel and the Jewish people are not saints. Mistakes are being made along the way. Like when right wing Israeli extremist brutally killed the Arab teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Their cruelty was out of  hate and sickness, not protection.

With our core values as American Jews we can ask how to help innocent Palestinians who are caught in the crossfire? The poor are pawns. We should do all that is possible to help them (e.g. knock on the roof missiles, leaflets and calls to leave, humanitarian aide). I don't think for one minute Israel intends to, or benefits, from the killing of innocents.  Can they do better? I'm sure, and anticipate they will learn to do that.

And with as loud of a voice, with a determination that our survival, the survival of our cousins and friends, our people, I say, Israel can and should put an end to relentless rocket attacks coming in to Israel on children who are trying to play in summer camp, parents driving to work and families eating a meal in their kitchens.

The role of diaspora Jews matters. It has since the 1880's and continues today. Heart strings get tugged when Ben Widerman on CNN says, "look at this home that has been destroyed in Gaza because the Cease fire has fallen apart. He doesn't say, "The cease fire that Israel accepted and that Hamas rejected."

Before I went to Israel,  I wrote
"I hate to talk about Israel because it becomes a yelling match of right and wrong." And so I demur.

 Yesterday, my son said, "Mom if people were speaking out against the rights of homosexuals, and even if there were screaming, wouldn't you speak up?"


My other son just said, "Can you write about politics on your blog?"

"I don't know, but it feels chicken not to."

So I'm speaking up.

I'm saying as clearly as I can I'm proud of my ability to be part of a HELP THOSE IN NEED JUDAISM.  And I'm as clearly saying, now is a time to express that Israel has the right to protect and prevent continued bombardment. If it is productive to think of ways to make a better peace, let's engage in that. Let's sit at a table and ask these questions and work together for action to protect all innocents.

PROTECT YOUR ASS JUDAISM is not contradictory to Help those in Need Judaism. It is an existential necessity that we shouldn't shy away from when we sit comfortably and safely in our homes. Your thoughts?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Code Red sirens: the counting

We are safe.

The news, I understand, creates a heightened sense of anxiety. Repeated images of explosions in the air and people dying rightfully cause worry. Let me share the counting I've experienced so far around air raids.

My first air raid happened in the Tel Aviv restaurant Suzannah Dalal. Shellie, Evie, Evie's friend and I were seated in an outdoor restaurant. We had ordered delicious drinks with flavors of fruit and cucumber
A loud siren, that could only mean, rockets blared.  I saw our young waitress, an Israeli who had gone to school at Lower Merion, run. I had bread in my head and took it with me in a crazy thoughtless way. Evie and her friend ran one way. Her friend, an Israeli, knew were to go. Shellie and I followed our waitress into a parking garage.

With bread in hand, we ran with another 30 people into the garage. Tova, an Israeli on the trip, assured everyone it would be fine. She explained the times in her life that this kind of warning would be sounded a few times a day for months. As the week has gone on, I've heard repeated stories fro Israelis about how this is something they experienced so many times before and seem, at least outwardly to take it in stride. "When I was a child," said a waiter who also tracks military action in the evenings, "the war was my favorite time," he told me. "We were moved to kibbutzim in the center of the country. So instead of going to school, we played and swam." I've learned it is common practice for kibbutzim to house one another, depending in the threat is in the south or north or..

In less than ten minutes (now they are saying Stay put for a full time minutes after the sirens) we returned to the outdoor restaurant and were served our dinner. Humus and salad and fish were the menu under the night sky with a cool breeze. I thought of the World War II air raids in London (everyone knows I watch a lot of old movies).

We then went to hear a concert. Just like that. A rocket overhead intercepted by the Iron dome and then we return to listen to music. One woman started to tear. "It isn't for us, it is for my Israeli friends whose children are going to fight."

On the bus back to Jerusalem came the second air raid siren, but we didn't hear it. When we arrived at the hotel a guard told us to "hurry hurry into the hotel." The lobby was filled with high school students on a trip. They had just arrived in Jerusalem from Spain. A wonderful trip was planned. Now they would stay in the hotel all day.

My hotel room was on the 17th floor. The calculation of imagination didn't seem to add up. I'm not experienced in how to manage this state of being but the thought of walking down 17 flights didn't sound great. "You don't need to go the shelter, just stay in the stairwell." (not sure about that) So I moved into a smaller room with my friend Lynnda. The best luxury we could have would be a night without sounds. Tova had told me to "leave your shoes and most important belongings by your side. We used to sleep in our sweat suits, so if you have to run, you've got what you need." Every floor has a stairwell, go to the stairwell if the sirens go off.

90 seconds from a shelter was the advice the next day. Make sure you can get to a shelter in that aount of time. And if not? A woman from the south of Israel told us "you lay down on the ground flat. Put your hands behind your head with your elbows out. It has something to do with physics."

Thursday, I think, the days are melding, Evie and I were walking on Emek Refayim, a a street with lots of restaurants and tourists. Another siren. First I looked at the sidewalk. Do we lay down with our hands behind our heads? I saw a woman running ahead and we followed her. We running along the sidewalk. It didn't make sense to me for a split second where are we running. The woman turned into a building. Ok, she must know. We followed her down the steps and down. Down I think was a good place to go. We walked into an avant guard theatre that unbelievably was putting on a one man show, called "Shelter."

Again the chat, where are you from, and what do you do?
The author of the play, an Iraqi Jew, explained he'd like to bring the play to the US. The woman we had run after was from England. And there is the basement was a young girl who had come from Westchester New York.

"Three I heard three" said Evie. She heard three booms. The iron dome had hit them. The news said there were five rockets over Jerusalem.

I try not to check Ynet news too often. But there is the real accounting. How many dead. How many injured. How many rockets. How much damage. How many days.

I appreciate the kind notes from folks wondering how we are doing. As you can see we go to the cafe, walk on the street and now know where to go when the siren blares.
I've never been good at math.
And now just writing I can see I can't add this up. I'm able to order cafe afuch and there are sirens.
I barely believe this....

I've just washed my feet off. We heard the sirens now, no time for shoes, 90 seconds to the shelter, down five flights of stairs, Evie, me and three young people, three booms, wait ten minutes, up the steps. Till next time.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jewish mothers' amulets-not enough

Today we are one in sadness. I heard people on the right, left and even the “I don’t even give a damn”  express sadness for the murder of three teenage boys hitchhiking home from school.  A friend who almost never discusses Israel texted: “A silent prayer for Gilad, Naftali and Eyal.” At work we were told no posting on social media. When laughter was heard at work, it was followed by the awkward, “no laughter today please,” pause. No one spoke politics. Today we were all parents and sisters and cousins of three murdered Jewish teens.

In our ears we can hear the teens’ mothers’ voices the morning they left for school the last time: “Did you take your coat? Be careful, have a good day, love you.” These are the cadences of Jewish mothers.

Rabbi Henry Cohen taught that Jewish mothers back in the day would say things like, “button up your coat,” or “eat another bowl of soup” as regularly as “good morning” because daily their children were sent into an unsafe world. Past the front door, a mother had no control of hoodlums, pogroms or conscriptions. So the extra dose was protection, an amulet, for a world cultured in seeking out Jews, the different ones, as targets for hatred.

In times of quiet, in times when Jews think they are just like their neighbors, a mother’s learned amulet, passed down from generation to generation, doesn’t go away.  

Mothers call out:

“Don’t you think you need a sweater?”

“Don’t go with strangers.”

“Call me when you get there.”

Children hear these amulets with rolled eyes. 
“Don’t you think I know when I need a sweater without you telling me?”

Today's headlines are a reminder that the world we live in is not so quiet and it is not always so safe to be a Jew. Today we remember that we are all Jews, regardless of our political hankerings. Today we stand together in loss.

As my friend texted: a silent prayer for three teenagers who loved basketball, singing and baking, who walked out from their homes into an unsafe world and now have left this world.

And let me ask for a not so silent prayer: this feeling of oneness shared today will hover a little longer so we can work together to make the path beyond our children's front door a little safer and a little more peaceful.

Hear together, today and tomorrow Rachelli Frankel as she spoke her last amulet to her son
 at his funeral, "Rest in peace, my child."

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Mother Ship is Launching

The work begins. For six months I've been working on  The Jewish Education Project's 2014-15 plan  to support congregations and part time settings  I've documented the work of planning this blog. Steps have included engaging funders, lay leaders, educators, clergy, parents and our own agency--we've called it listening to 500 Voices.  Our Big and Ultimate work is to enable part time Jewish educational settings to create Jewish learning that moves to real life.

Our commitments to: 1) build on success and 2) push out the next frontier. Reality dictates we do our work with limited resources. Here's the Mother Ship (the plan for the year) we're launching. Was it worth listening to 500 voices?

Goal 1. Expand & Deepen Educational Changes in the Coalition of Innovating Congregations

  • I*Express                                                                                                                                          21 Congregations (many new to the Coalition) will adapt & launch new models of part-time learning
  •  Peer Networks                                                                                                                                 100  educators, teachers, clergy and lay leaders meetnig in small groups throughout the year to "gain the wisdom in the room," on innovation questions and needs
  • Boot-Camp                                                                                                                                          Fall and Winter in day and on line learning of Coalition resources and tools for new lay and or professional leaders in the Coalition 
  • In site-ful Journeys and Ambassadors                                                                                                Spring visits to wow places and with wow innovators who've created learning that impacts  
  • Private Consulting                                                                                                                               For sites who want to move at their own innovation pace and  agenda, they can work with a Jewish Education Consultant privately                                                                                                 

Goal 2: Document Success of Coalition to spread change in an Innovation Marketplace

  •       Impact Now                                                                                                                              Documents the stories 15 new models of Jewish part time education. The story  includes written and video documentation and impact on the learner. We'll test out  how we can share that story in a Digital Innovation Marketplace.
  • Learner Outcomes                                                                                                                                We'll convene think tanks, and tracking tools to help name and measure learner outcomes

Goal 3:  Imagine new Jewish part time educational settings (non congregations)

  •          We'll work with six communities across the country to hear the hopes and dreams of parents; build on children's learning and interests to create new models of part time learning

OK that's the Mother Ship. We're ready to launch. What do you think?

Monday, June 16, 2014

I Hate Talking about Israel

I love Israel. And really hate to talk about it. This is my challenge as I head out for a conference in Israel --the requirement of participation is "talk about Israel."

I love: People welcome with genuine zest. The American filter of politeness is absent so you quickly hear what folks really think Streets, the sands and trees make a palette of creams, and greens and blues I've never seen in another country. Everyone agrees the simple foods like tomato, lettuce, cucumber and coffee actually have a memorable taste in Israel..that is a flavor beyond a texture.

The staccato beat of the cities and the take-it-as-it-comes country tempo evens out my own rhythm and slows me down. When I leave Israel, inside my chest is a yearning to return to Israel that feels like the words from 1140 by Yehudi HaLevi "My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west..How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?" Once you've tasted Israel,  you desire another mouthful.

 I love Israel because it is part of my Jewish story. Israel, Bnei yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, flowing with milk and honey, where your Uncle started (ok later I learned not quite a founder) a kibbutz, and where your cousin stepped into the water cut his foot and died, in 1948, and if there were a state of Israel there wouldn't be a Holocaust, at the seder we say next year in Jerusalem, and my Mom-Mom pushed the stroller with her son from door to door to sell Israel bonds and then in 1967 and then. And Israel did this and that to the Palestinians, holds prisoners, look at the Arab neighborhoods and their sewage systems compared to the Jewish ones, and they put up a wall and there are not equal rights, and they shoot down on people picking olives.

The full story of Israel tells the heroics of Israel creating the homeland for the Jewish people surrounded by Arabs trying to destroy them. "We didn't have trucks," a soldier from the Haganah once told me, "but we wanted to them to think we did. So we lined people up the distance of a truck, and gave them flashlights. Line after line it made the Arabs think we had a hundred trucks and weapons." And the story of Israel's falters and cruelty, of Palestinians being arrested, and thrown in jail and worse.

Every sovereign nation has it heroics and its shames. My support of an independent Jewish nation is unquestionable. Policies and procedures are questionable. And I support a nation--a different one-- for the Palestinians. I do wonder what right I, as a non-Israeli,  have to get into these debates. One of my son's gave me a wag of the finger to say, I do have a moral obligation to get involved in those conversations. Another son, wags a finger to say, "most people from >>>organization talk about Israel don't know the history, they are just talking out of emotion."

The emotions for me start to shift from love to...the other pole, because the fights begin. Someone is right and someone is wrong. It is the same reason I turn off MSNBC, Fox NEws and CNN. There is no truth or seeking of solution. Conversations is only "you are all wrong, all right, evil or good."

The conference is really about Israel education. When I told a colleague I was going he asked:
"Is it about advocacy or education." In other words is it about "stand with Israel no matter what," or is it about "learning the stories, writing your values into the story, learning to think critically, and being empowered to act."

My suitcase is packed with my history book, a deep breath and an extra ear, for extra listening. Can I avoid the hated quagmire of righteousness from the right, left and center?

If it falls into the pit of emotional battle arts, I'll go another a cafe to write a short story about  a family torn apart because they can't reconcile core differences. I'll order some tasty tomato, lettuce, cucumber and coffee. And instead of hating, I'll stick my head in the computer, and love.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

One Will Come Back

Jennifer and Olivier, high-end commuters, traveled daily from their well appointed homes on the Main Line of Philadelphia to offices in New York City on the 15th and 33rdfloors respectively. One an American Jew, and the other a Lebanese first generation American had a great deal in common. Each day they boarded Amtrak’s 6:10 a.m. train and returned on the 7:15 pm.  Thin laptops and even thinner cell phones, however, ensured they saw screens, but never one another. The fire on Regional Train 127 that Thursday evening permanently altered this routine.

When seated in the exit aisle of an airplane a stewardess asks, “In the event of an emergency, will you be able to follow directions to aid in an evacuation? “ No one asks that on Amtrak. If someone had, Jennifer would have simply said, “No,” and moved her seat. Anxiety was her earned middle name. That feeling that something quite horrible might happen at a moment’s notice flowed in her like plasma, but she worked hard for no one to know. To keep it silenced she took a tiny pill and stayed away from heights, open spaces and high risk. 

The blaring alarm and the smell of smoke filling the car was proof positive that worry is not always a figment of imagination. She fumbled with the red handle marked “Emergency Exit.” A red sticker instructed “Three easy steps” to turn the window into an emergency door.  She read out loud, wishing she were wearing her leopard half-rimmed reading glasses.

1. Locate red plastic handle on window and pull handle toward you.
 2. Use red handle to strip away rubber molding.

 Olivier standing behind her, held his composure for steps one and two, but was not willing for more smoke to fill the car while this petite woman read step three. He reached over her, grabbed the red lever, and yanked on it until the rubber rim and then the glass gave way.

“Go, damn it, go,” screamed the man behind him. Olivier abandoned his trained middle-eastern etiquette, placed his hands on Jennifer’s derriere and began to shove her out the opening. Fortunately she was more afraid of heights than smoke. Resisting, she dug her black heels into the soft cushion of the seat, pressing her hands against the frame. The conductor, sweating through his uniform, shouted “All clear. Fire in the bathroom. Must have been a cigarette. Return to your seats. I’ve put out the fire.”

“Inconsiderate bastards,” mumbled the conductor as he leaned over Jennifer and Olivier to close the window, insisting they sit down next to one another. And if he hadn't, Olivier and Jennifer may never have shared three days in Jerusalem.

And without those days among the sand colored stones of the holy land, Jennifer, very close to the end of middle age, may have reached the official title of senior citizen as an outwardly dutiful wife with an inwardly hardened heart. Instead, her adventure with Olivier returned her to Amtrak Regional Train 127  with the knowledge that passionate adulterous sex is actually not the greatest release from the naturally accruing wounds of married life.  


“Call me for coffee,” Olivier had said causally, handing her his business card when the train had reached 30th Street Station. She could have easily thrown the card in any one of the metal security trashcans that lined her way. But, instead she placed his offering in her exquisitely neat leather wallet behind the Saks Fifth Avenue credit card. It was a receipt for a valuable transaction.

By the time two weeks had passed, the business card of the man who had touched her most privately with his words, and, yet so publicly on a train, was no longer pristine. She had taken it out. Read it. Held it. Turned it. Felt the raised lettering. Lifted it up to the light to stare at the Crane Stationary watermark.

For a few days his card rested in the back slot of her wallet next to the American Red Cross Donor Card. Every September right before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and every December, during Chanukah, the holiday of miracles, Jennifer lay on the crinkly paper, a needle in her arm, giving up a pint, because her husband intoned that if you, “Do a mitzvah, one will come back to you.”  

Really?  Her time at the law firm confirmed otherwise: “Do a kindness for another and it will surely bite you in the ass.” However, to keep the peace at the holidays, she drove belted into his van to the synagogue basement for the blood drive. The mustiness and rubbing alcohol were only bearable because she worried that if she broke the blood giving ritual she might be struck down. Logic and worry are without question mutually exclusive life forces.

Sometimes, after the band-aid was placed on the crook of her arm, she’d sip the orange juice, feeling miracles and atonement were possible. Maybe there was a glimmer of truth in her husband’s mantra  “Do a mitzvah thing.”  By time she crunched the plastic cup, those infantile thoughts evaporated.

“Married thirty years can make a pair of shoes lose their shine” she had told Olivier on their train ride back to 30th Street. Olivier, obviously younger with only the faintest creases around his eyes when he smiled had been married only 14 years, yet seemed to know exactly what she meant.

He had three children and a wife who cared for them all extremely well. When his parents had come to this country from Lebanon they didn’t know any better, so they moved to West Virginia. Life would have been very different if they had gone to Dearborn, Detroit or New York. Growing up Lebanese in that part of the country was miserable.  His yellow and blue thick silk tie and his briefcase with his own letters monogramed on it telegraphed confidence and accomplishment. How could misery be his founding story?
“How many times can you listen to the same joke, and laugh.” He had placed his hand gently on hers to say, "I know."

On the Northeast corridor it is widely understood that you do not even say the shortened “Hi” to address the person sitting in the adjacent seat. Sharing the unexpected danger had caused Jennifer and Olivier to violate that cardinal rule.

In the weeks following their first encounter, Olivier’s card rested in every slot in her wallet except the one next to the picture of her husband and two sons. No sin had occurred, but Jennifer  refused to allow Olivier’s card to touch the photo in her wallet from her youngest son’s bar mitzvah.

At the bar mitzvah, eight years ago, Jennifer, the boys and her husband posed for photos. Posing is as much a part of this right of passage as reading from the Torah. Of course Jennifer had been happy. Her sons did well in school and had friends to keep them busy. Jon looked like his mom. Both had crystal blue eyes. They both had blonde hair. Jon’s was natural.

Jennifer had tried to remind herself the day that photo had been taken that she had “what to celebrate.” She and her husband were permitted to stand on the bimah together. Many of their friends, divorced or separated, couldn’t say as much. The rabbi’s rule:  “If you can’t speak nicely to each, you’ll take turns on the bimah.”

Jennifer’s expression in the photo looked like her dress: perfectly tailored. Her husband, tall with brown hair curling at the back of his neck, always needing a haircut, had worn the same suit to Steven’s bar mitzvah four years previously. This time a round paunch protruded. She had asked, and then pleaded with him to buy a new one that fit. She, as her husband had said, had nagged.  And then she lost it.

“You look like you are still at the hardware store,” she yelled.

“What’s wrong with that? No one seems to mind how I dress, but you.”

“I’m your wife. I’m supposed to care. What happened to you? Where’s the man who bothered to comb his hair? Where’s the man who didn’t leave dirty socks and underwear by his side of the bed?”

“And where’s the woman who wanted to sleep on my side of the bed?”

“Oh shut up.”  His truth hurt. Hormones. Stress. Boredom. The pills she swallowed to quiet anxiety? His fault. My fault?

“You shut the fuck-up,” he amplified. Her husband slammed the dresser. How could she confess, “It’s my fault” while he was yelling at her? How could she say, “I don’t feel very sexy when I know the sound and the smell of your farts, and you know mine. You think that’s sexy?”

The front door thundered. He drove to the synagogue that morning of Jon’s bar mitzvah alone in the van with  "Brown’s Hardware” scrolled across the doors.

 “Dad had to go early to check with the rabbi.”

In those days it was easy for her to pretend the boys couldn’t hear what went on. She thought a house that was so big it had special rooms for shoes and wine and her husband's stamp collection could hide the sound of bitterness. Years later she learned no home, regardless of size, conceals from the children the truth between and a husband and wife.

The photographer had posed the boys solidly between them. What had the photographer seen?

Now, eight years since that photo was taken the doors slammed less often, the boys were out of the house, and the mattress she shared with her husband had a dip in the middle that was rarely crossed.

The day Jennifer decided to make the call from her smart phone she had left that photo on her desk. Enough arbitration. She didn’t need to pull out Olivier’s card. She had it memorized
Olivier Berbera, Vice President, Financial Management International
         Serving the Global Finance Community  
Promoting high-quality research that extends the frontiers of financial knowledge
Phone:  212 200 1515 email:


Basso 56, a neighborhood restaurant on 56th Street, midway between their offices, right off of 7th required walking down a flight of steps to enter. For most people, bending your head on the last step was part of the charm and even helpful when trying for an hour or so to shut out the traffic above ground. For Jennifer, however, it increased her queasy feeling, as it was reminiscent of her early days as a public defender at Holmesburg State Prison. The door frames of the prison, built by Quakers, were intentionally short, forcing criminals and lawyers alike to bend their heads with repentance when entering and exiting a cell.

At their first meal, Jennifer and Olivier learned they both enjoyed dry gin martinis, Hendrix, with extra olives, and like most people who regularly spent time in New York, shared vivid images of human beings jumping out of buildings with plumes of smoke against clear skies. Of course, their mishap on Regional Train 127 did not compare to that, but they admitted to reliving that burning smell over and over again.

“On a train or in an office, a few seconds pass, and life ends. So, live it now,” Olivier said emphatically, pulling the toothpick quickly through his full lips to release the olive into his mouth. She hadn't remembered the small scar under his right eye. On a man it was intriguing.

Filling in the outline of their lives was easy to do over eggplant and buffalo mozzarella in the dimly lit restaurant.

She refused the bread. Every bite at this age had a penalty. Olivier, on the other hand, ate it with gusto, smearing the soft side of the bread into the rich green olive oil with flecks of red pepper and smashed garlic.

“Penn Law School,” Jennifer said over their first martini. “My husband was supposed to go too, but his father died suddenly, heart attack.” Olivier nodded, “Ah, live now, tomorrow it is a heart attack, a building hit by a plane, or a fire on a train.” Didn't that mean you should worry more, she thought.

Her husband had gone to work in the family hardware store to help his mother, and then never left.

“Channel, Sears and K-Mart came and went. Brown’s Hardware remains.” Over the years, her husband made sure his employees knew the difference between a toggle bolt and a molly bolt. She surprised herself with the pride that accentuated her bullet points about the store she had grown to hate for  swallowing up her husband’s ambition.

“‘Even when the customer is only there to compare prices with Home Depot…do a good deed, and a good deed will come back to you.’” She was careful in her telling to replace her husband’s word mitzvah with the English translation “good deed.”  The good deed translation given to her by her grandmother, her Oma, when she was a little girl, fit more neatly with the white tablecloths of the restaurant, or this Arab man of high finance.

Her story was bland compared to Olivier’s. Since a backpacking trip through Europe in college, she and her husband had only gone to Florida, mostly to visit his mother. Planes crash, explode, disintegrate and disappear. So she did everything she could to avoid them.

Olivier spoke Arabic, French and Spanish. He traveled the world for his job, but hadn’t been to Lebanon in ten years. His parents, now in Ohio, still owned a farm in the south of Lebanon where cousins grew, well he wasn’t exactly sure, dates or goats or something. In the near future he’d be selling the farm. “Farms are for farmers, and that is not me.” His silk lavender striped tie resting against a crisp white shirt, framed by a deep grey suit looked more Manhattan than Beirut. His dark eyes and deep voice could go anywhere.

Jennifer had paid the bill. To reciprocate, he would treat next time. The following Wednesday at 1:15 worked for both of them. Basso 56.

At their second lunch he was even more interesting and more interested. While enjoying salad with goat cheese, walnuts and fresh figs, Olivier asked Jennifer many questions. First about her work, what kind of law she practiced? Why arbitration? What did she like least and best? Her work was like Solomon. Yes Christians and Jews know that story. She was surprised to learn Olivier was a Christian and more surprised he had figured out she was Jewish. What had she said? Jennifer Brown, she thought  sounded quietly American. She had been glad her husband’s family had dropped the stein off the name. It hadn’t fit well in the hardware store window.

Then the questions got more personal. What were her parents like? Her grandparents? What was it like to be  a Jew in America?  How was it different for her than it was for her parents? And her sons, did they think of themselves as Jews or Americans?

As for being Jewish, well that is something she rarely thought about it. It felt odd sharing thoughts about being Jewish with an Arab. Yes, he was an American, but still was it a betrayal to tell someone who had cousins that probably were at war with your cousins that being Jewish meant little? She was an American first and foremost.

Her childhood home had a menorah that was kept in a plastic bag. The family lit candles occasionally. Miracles, her mother was very clear, did not happen outside of Disneyland. The family always had a Christmas tree. “You live in America, so you act it,” her mother insisted drowning out the voices of her Oma.

She assumed her sons would carry on the tradition. They really didn’t talk about it. Maybe they’ll have a menorah in a plastic bag too.

 “I don’t usually talk to people about having immigrant parents who barely spoke English,” said Olivier leaning closer. “Sure, every American comes from somewhere,” he said, "but, you are not fully American, until that fact is a forgotten footnote.” He liked how Jennifer was fully American. She wasn’t sure how to take that.

His cell phone rang.

Jennifer had put her phone on vibrate. She had told her secretary that she had a doctor’s appointment. There was no reason to lie. Nothing but friendship had happened between them, but she didn’t want Nancy, who tended to be nosey, asking about her black v neck dress or her new perfume.

Olivier stepped away from the table to take the call near the open kitchen. His full brows went up and down following the movement of his hands. The words weren’t clear, but his strong emotion was. Was it his wife?

“I’m furious” Olivier said returning to the table, placing his cell phone back in his breast pocket.

“Young employees have no work ethic. Things get hard. They bolt.”

Jennifer didn’t want to shush him, but people sitting two tables away turned their heads to see the commotion.

“Monday we leave for a conference in Jerusalem. Just like that my assistant quits. You can be sure he won’t get a recommendation.” Olivier ran his hand down his silk tie trying to return it, and himself to a previous state. He scooted his chair fully under the table.

“I’m sorry,” Jennifer said.

“Oh, just work,” he said stirring the fine lines of vermouth back into the gin.

“Ha,” he erupted out of his silence, “You said you’ve never been to the Middle East. Come to Jerusalem.”

This was much more than she had hoped her black dress could evoke. In the past decade, she had occasionally day dreamed about such a proposal. She had never had, or tried to make the opportunity real.  Marriage was a contract, and contracts were not to be broken.

But it was her Oma’s voice that urged her on. “If not now, when?” Oma would say to her when she was deciding something little like going out to play or something big like if she should take ballet lessons. Oma, would stroke her hair with advice that sounded more like, “I love you more than life itself.”  If not now, when was the next time a man with a full head of dark hair and a trim body was going to invite her to an exotic destination?  How many pills would it take to get on the plane? She couldn’t say that out loud so the only objection she could utter was, “I don’t have a passport.”  

“You can get an emergency passport in 48 hours. I’ll have the changes made and email you everything you need. I’m leaving Sunday. My assistant’s ticket is for Monday.”

Olivier paid the bill. After climbing back to the bustle of the street, he bent over to kiss Jennifer on each cheek.  “See you in Jerusalem.” Instead of taking a cab, she walked forty blocks back to her office in her black patent high heels.

Ari Ben Cannaan, courageous underground Haganah leader, and Kitty Fremont, American-gentile nurse and grieving widow, were an unlikely couple in this Promised Land, sipping martinis as they began their love affair with polite conversation on the terrace of the King David Hotel. The full orchestra plays, “This land is mine. God gave this land to me, this brave and ancient land...”

Ari, played by dreamy blued-eyed Paul Newman, and Kitty, played by the seductress Eva Marie -Saint, hears the theme song revealing what’s bubbling deep within Ari’s heart.   “So take my hand and walk this land with me. Though I am just a man,” the violins soften, “when you are by my side with the help of God I know can be strong.”  How could Kitty resist? She joins Ari, against the British, the Arabs, and the whole wide world so the Jewish people can have a homeland.  

Now, Jennifer sat on the very same terrace of the King David Hotel, vividly recalling the 1960’s movie of her childhood, Exodus. As a little girl, Oma dressed in her usual floral house dress, pockets filled with tissues, had let her watch the movie on the wooden TV set with a rabbit ear antenna. Once her mother caught them and threw a tantrum. “That crap is for old people and superstitious idiots.”

Walking on the very stones where Ari and Kitty had stepped made the movie replay in Jennifer’s memory. In the morning sun, she had goose bumps. Was this going to be her story too-- joining with an unlikely lover in the Promised Land?

Her tour guide, Liran, or if she found it easier to call him Ron, met her for a full day of touring. Olivier would join her on the terrace for dinner at 9 o’clock.

Their only stop of the day was the newly renovated, surprisingly impressive, Israel Museum with exhibits on everything she had only learned bits and pieces of as a child. Each room of artifacts told a story about things grounded in the superstitious myths her mother had banned.

Dressed in khakis from head to toe, Ron, a former army officer, explained as if she were a Christian, how Jews have marked the life cycle for centuries. Well, she knew about bar mitzvah, her husband had insisted on that one. The rest was mostly foreign.

“Brit,” she read under the white lace infant’s gown. “This ceremony brings a Jewish boy into the covenant between God and the Jewish people.”

“Oh, Bris.” Jennifer said with some recognition. She hadn’t known the Modern Hebrew word. She had refused that ritual the traditional way when the boys were born. Her husband had insisted they do something so he had the doctor in the hospital perform the circumcisions. Her husband sing sang some prayers.

Ron explained “berit” means covenant, which is a contract. “A boy gives some skin and in return he is connected to his people.”

“Quid pro quo, I give you this and you give me that, it is the fundamental of any contract,” she went on a bit about her work to Ron. Contracts, Jennifer understood. And she was readying herself to break one that evening. Loopholes are not that hard to find.

“A ketubah, also is a contract,” Ron pointed out when they walked past the white bridal gowns from Yemen, Russia and England. The marriage contract is between three parties.


 “Yes, between a husband, a wife, and God.”  Where had God had been in her marriage?  Where had she been for the last decade or so? Her husband? Was the contract null and void? 

“The chupah the marriage canopy, is a symbol, of the home you build together. The sides are open, there are coming and goings. And sometimes you need more of one than the other,” Ron said holding his tour guide badge with Hebrew letters as if this were the most official of instructions.

“See,” Ron, pointing to the glass resting on a napkin, "the husband breaks the glass and everyone calls, ‘Mozel tov.” The glass symbolizes the fragility of happiness. So easily broken.”

She and her husband had been married in Philadelphia’s City Hall. The only broken glass was out on the street left from drunks.

Toward the end of the day they walked passed the ritual objects for death. Her parents had been cremated according to the instructions in their will. Oma was buried in a white shroud like the one behind the glass case.

“You wear this when you push up daisies and on Yom Kippur,” Oma had shown her the white coat folded in the cedar chest by the foot of her bed. “Remember,” Oma had said, “At Yom Kippur, like the day of your death, which can be any day, you stand before God who asks you, “Have you lived only for your self, and if you have, what are you? “ This very instruction guided all of Jennifer's pro bono work.

Liran had done an excellent job of guiding her through the museum filled with light and art and inspiration. Really it was like any you might see in New York. Jennifer expressed appreciation and said it was more than enough for a day. By six o’clock he returned her to the King David Hotel.

Jennifer’s flight had arrived in Tel Aviv at five that morning. After ten hours on the plane and a full day at the museum, she’d shower, rest a bit then meet Olivier for dinner.

After the cool shower she rubbed almond cream bought at a special counter at Saks on her elbows, knees, heels, and soles. They were dry spots that daily said, “You’ll look more like Oma soon.“ Eye cream, neck cream, and face cream followed, and then cover up, blush, mascara and lipstick. She washed down her pill for cholesterol, with two pills for anxiety and reached for her new white dress.

Treating herself to nice things was something she had learned from Oma who had quoted a rabbi “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Jennifer turned to look at her figure in the full-length mirror, to the right and to the left. She took pride in the fact that she was the same size as she was in her twenties. Same size doesn’t mean same figure. A dress can only cover so much. The dark would certainly be kind to her nakedness.

Thirty minutes until meeting Olivier for dinner. Butterflies just like a teenager. She rested her head on the pillow. She woke again at 4 a.m. Her dress was damp. She clicked on the light.

Trying to orient herself to the fact she was standing in an Israeli hotel in the middle of the night sweating and alone, Jennifer put on her half-rimmed glasses to read the note, “Saw you were sleeping. See you tomorrow for dinner. O.”

Her mouth was parched. The dream she had just had, played back in fits and starts.

A judge swirled overhead. Was she wearing a burial shroud or a wedding gown?

 “Liar,” The judge banged. “You broke it.” The bearded judge threw glass bottles at her. Run. Run.  

Yes, she had lied when she told her husband there was a conference in Chicago. She’d be taking the train. Always supportive, he kissed her goodbye. Jennifer had hoped he couldn’t smell the excitement on her. She told Nancy she was taking a few days vacation. “Call my cell for emergencies only.”

In the dream, the bottles shattered across her face. Kitty Fremont wiped the blood while Jennifer sipped orange juice from a martini glass on the terrace of the King David Hotel. Smoke. Burning cigarettes. Atone. Run. Was that her husband or Olivier covered in blood?

“You broke the contract,” John Quincy Adams and the rabbi screamed. The rabbi was Oma.

Oma never screamed. She cooked and talked and hugged, but never screamed.

“This ancient land of mine.” Paul Newman held her in his arms and kissed Jennifer's cheek, lips and then her neck.  He touched her breasts, ran his hand across her stomach and up her thighs. He rubbed between her legs, again and again. Some version of a dark hair Ari pressed his engorged force into her. As she remembered her dream, Jennifer felt the touch, she had been penetrated. She was naked, old, and naked. Kitty in her white nurse's uniform picked up the pieces and made the bottles whole.

Jennifer twisted open a plastic water bottle and drank it quickly before falling back to sleep.

In the morning, the dream echoed like the aftermath of a migraine, but instead of it pounding in her head, it stayed in her chest. She called the desk with a message for Ron, “Today, I’ll be on my own.” For Olivier, “Loved the roses. See you at dinner.” 

Dinner was grand. On the terrace, figs and goat cheese, they agreed, tasted so much better in Israel. She was sorry for last night. He totally understood. The conference was going extremely well, despite not having his assistant. Tomorrow afternoon when the conference was over they could spend the day touring the Old City. He wanted to show her his cousin’s store in the Arab market. The two of them, once strangers, now connected, knew how to make peace, and if anyone would listen, they could teach these countries a thing or two about getting along.

Jennifer wanted to tell Olivier about her visit to the Western Wall, how she had gotten a map from the front desk and found it on her own, despite fearing bombs, grenades, terrorists and explosions, and how when she stood there she felt compelled by the weight of the stones and the heat of the sun to say a prayer for the first time in a very long time, but found she couldn’t. Did he want to know what that prayer was?  Didn’t he want to know what she had been hoping for, once more, before she was too old to know that touch?

“Tell me more about your sons," he focused the conversation.This was the first time she saw him in an open collared shirt. Jennifer tried to avoid looking at the dark hair on his chest.  She hoped the moonlight was doing for her half of what it was doing for him. 

“What did you do so they became fully Americans?”

His own parents had not done such a good job.  “’Be American,’ they’d say, then they’d dress me from Goodwill. You cant’ be like the rest of the kids when your house is the only one that smells like olive oil and goat.” She could taste the sadness in his voice.

Olivier had been teased and beaten mercilessly by kids at school. Like the time four boys held him down to wrap a pillowcase around his head. “I could tell you much worse, but I won’t ruin your meal. I am not doing anything as obvious as cooking goat in the backyard, but I know there is more I can do for my children. Jennifer, tell me what you did. Can you help me?”   

There it was, on the terrace of the King David Hotel, in the moonlit night, where Ari and Kitty had fallen in love, Jennifer could see Olivier was a hurt boy, and a very handsome man, who wanted a friend, a mentor to help him  be a parent who didn't make his children feel like foreigners in their own land. That’s what he wanted from this woman who was leaving the end of middle age, well creamed and misdirected.

The next morning, before leaving for the airport she went back to the Western Wall finding her way without a map. The streets were filled with the noises of cars, cats fighting to survive, and people rushing past each other on the way to the next errand. She turned the corner from the tourist shops and the smells of food sizzling waiting to be wrapped in pita to see the wide open space of the Wall of Jerusalem stone. Ron had told her, everything in Jerusalem, ancient and modern is cut from this same sand colored stone.  

Jennifer covered her head with a brocade scarf bought for accent and now used like the women standing at the Wall moving to a rhythm she didn’t know. She tried to move a little, and then a little more. She didn’t know the words, but something was calmly opening in her chest, muscles and tissue and toxins released and she dared to reach out to touch the smooth worn stones. 

“Oma” she heard, a little girl say. She opened her eyes to see a child tugging on an old woman’s floral dress. “Sha. Think about what I taught you this morning,” the old woman patted the girl on the head, ‘Rabbi Hillel says, If I am only for myself what am I? If I am not for myself who will be for me? If, not now when?’”

The possibility of miracles and atonement, that something totally unexplainable can happen, and the chance that she could begin again at her age, flowed from a crack in the damn around her heart, enabling Jennifer, without fear of judgment or explosions to write a new prayer on a small piece of paper, and to place it in the cracks in the Wall like she had seen the other women do. Her plane would be leaving in six hours. Jennifer was ready to come back.

Copyright, spiritual fiction, One Will Come Back, by Cyd B. Weissman