‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’

ElephantThe wide African sky is streaked pink and gold as the sun inches toward the horizon. Sunset happens early and quickly in winter. The trees stretch their bare arms upwards, as if reaching for those last few essential rays of light. Their dark silhouettes are a dramatic contrast to the gently glowing sun and pinky-orange sky.

We are all quiet in awe and wonder.

One lone elephant grazes in the twilight. Her trunk effortlessly tears entire branches off the tree. She drops the woody limbs with their few leaves into her waiting mouth. Her tail swishes behind her, and the grass rustles. For many moments, we are surrounded only by cracking branches, whispering leaves and the setting sun.

We are the only humans around for miles.

We journeyed many hours and great distances across continents, oceans and time zones to this tranquil place at the bottom of Africa. It was a Thursday when we left our busy home in California. By the time we arrived in Johannesburg, it was Saturday. In our exhaustion and excitement, none of us noticed that we traveled through an entire Shabbat.

Like many Bay Area Jews, we celebrate Shabbat and observe the laws and customs of our religion in our own traditional ways: we eat homemade challah and enjoy a family dinner every Friday evening; we keep a kosher home, and the no-pork-no-shellfish rule applies when we eat out; some years we do only one Passover seder, and Lag Ba’omer was a holiday that completely escaped us this year. I acknowledge to my husband and to myself that we are doing our best to teach our four children about Judaism and how to live a Jewish life … but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.

And now here we are a few days after our arrival, watching the sun bid farewell to a quiet Friday afternoon on the African savannah. Our Shabbat candles and kosher home are far away, as we glimpse a giraffe gently loping though the trees. The elephant doesn’t seem to mind as she continues to munch the branches. A baboon runs across the road with a baby on its back, and now my own kids start to chatter and complain that they’re hungry.

The sun has set and it’s dark by the time we head back to our hotel just outside the magical game reserve. We cross the bridge over the shallow river as we make our way toward the main gate. “Do you think the hippos are still there, Mom?” my daughter whispers to me.

Nobody mentions candles, challah or Shabbat as we head to dinner. We are full of thoughts and conversation about the leopard we saw hiding in the tree, the pack of wild dogs we came across in the middle of the road (a rare sighting!) and the sinister vultures scavenging in the wild brush. It was a thrilling day, and we are all eager to recount our wildlife experiences over and over. The air smells of wood smoke and we take our seats around the table in the outdoor restaurant, close to the fire pit. I watch my kids argue about how many times they saw buffalo. The fire throws flickering shadows over their happy faces and I briefly remember that it’s Shabbat, but I say nothing.

Dinner is a buffet of exotic foods: a rich lamb curry, roast beef, kudu steaks and impala sausage. My daughter returns to the table with her standard bowl of plain pasta and my youngest son is happily tucking into a plate of salad. No unusual foods for these two! But my older boy taps my shoulder.

“Mom,” he says with a frown. His brown eyes are confused and a little worried. “Mom, is crocodile kosher?”

In the wild heart of South Africa, where the animals roam free and the air is pure and quiet, we are so far from our routines, from the customs and rituals of our regular life, and I mistakenly assumed that meant we were far from our Jewish lives, too.

But no matter where in the world we are, we are always connected to our Jewishness. And, just for the record, crocodile is not kosher.

This post originally appeared in my “In Real Life” column in J. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California under the title “‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’ A curious question in the wild heart of South Africa.”

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “This summer…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee.

The Mulberry Tree

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The mulberry tree stood at the top of our garden, right next to the driveway. The leafy branches cascaded down to the ground on all sides, creating a lush dappled escape from the hot and bothered afternoons of netball practice and math homework. The mulberries were plump and sweet, dark purple fruit smeared like a bruise against the bright green leaves. We spent hours sheltered in the bosom of that tree. When we crept out the sun was about to descend in the vast African sky. Streaks of mulberry juice were visible on our blue school uniforms, and the tops of our fingers and even our bare toes were stained violet. Mulberry stains linger for a while.

We languished in a warm frothy bubble bath until our fingers and toes were wrinkled and only the slightest trace of violet remained. We sang silly songs and added more bubbles, and even though we had spent all afternoon devouring mulberries, suddenly we were starving. We sat at the big table in the dining room, our long hair dangerously close to the deliciously greasy lamb chops and homemade French fries. The sun streaked the African sky red and orange, and the mulberry tree was a dark, friendly silhouette at the top of the garden. By now the crickets were singing their loud nighttime song, and soon we would go to bed, happy and full of mulberries, lamb chops and the simple childhood joy of early summer.

Those were the best of times. For me.

And the worst of times. For others.

My childhood memories are bright and vivid, photographs saturated with color and smiles: family barbecues, dance parties, sports events on the big fields at school, afternoons in the pool or in the mulberry tree at the top of the garden. There are cousins and friends, Granny’s ginger cake, and our fluffy Maltese poodle. Magnum. It was the 80s and he was a handsome fellow.

It was South Africa, in the 80s. A complicated, uneasy time and place of separation and oppression, of deep and offensive division, of struggle and survival. A time and place where the same African sun rose and set on people of every size and every color, but with different degrees of warmth and comfort.

A time and place of apartheid. The only time and place I knew.

Our house was big and comfortable, with a pool in the front yard and a swing set in the back. Sometimes, during school vacations, our housekeeper’s daughter, Avril, would come stay with her mother in her rooms downstairs for a few days. The rooms were separate from our house, sparsely furnished, comfortable and reassuring. A brightly woven rug warmed the concrete floor and the bed was raised on bricks to keep away the evil tokoloshe sprite, a common practice in South African cultures.

Avril and I were the same age and we played on the swings in the backyard and ate mulberries together. Her home language was Sotho and she called me “Nee-gee” in heavily accented English. English was the only language we spoke to each other, and it didn’t occur to me that perhaps she wouldn’t know how to speak it. My Sotho never progressed beyond Dumela, o kae? Ke teng, wena o kae? (Hello, how are you? I’m fine, how are you?)

She would stay with her mother for just a few days, before going back to the township where she lived with her father or grandmother or aunt, or all three. How difficult to grow up anywhere, but especially in a time and place like that, without your mother in your daily life? My mother called me inside to get ready for ballet class, and I did not think about Avril until the next time she came to visit her mother.

Such was my life in apartheid South Africa.

I like to visit my childhood. I like to remember my grandmother’s cakes, and those hot, simple days in the mulberry tree. My heart aches with longing when I smell woodsmoke at twilight, such a distinctly African smell, and the sight and scent of fragrant jasmine in early spring always makes me homesick. For my childhood. In apartheid South Africa.

The memories are happy ones, of a young, growing girl with fingers stained purple, living a full and joyful life. As young, growing girls should do. But there is guilt and real pain in those memories, for all the girls, all the children, that didn’t grow up the way I did: in the leafy shade of a very special mulberry tree.

Inspired by the prompt “Hiraeth” from Linda Schreyer.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “How I grew up to the be the one I am now…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee and co-hosted by this week’s sentence-thinker-upper Upasna Sethi of Life Through My Bioscope.

My Childhood Home

Our smiles are as broad as the streets we amble down this sunny morning. They aren’t streets really. They are wide walkways, closed to traffic, and paved in perfectly uneven brick. Cobbled, except easier on the legs.

The spring sun warms our bare arms, and the tall palm trees that line every street in Los Angeles sway almost imperceptibly. It’s only when we stop moving that I feel a faint chill, so quiet under that happy yellow air I almost don’t notice it.

The bright busy stores beckon on the right, and on the left the farmer’s market lures us closer, promising fresh, tasty, fragrant… I am distracted by an exquisite array of tiny succulents, and gaze with pleasure at the rows of miniature gardens, green and orange and pink perfectly contained in glass spheres of every size. Safe and happy.

“I don’t know where he is? Wasn’t he with you?”

The words come to me slowly, muted, muffled even at first. They take a long time to reach me as I stand in the sun, and even longer to register in my brain, and finally my heart.

“Where is he?” Raised voices. Something like panic. I am anxious, and confused. Who are they talking about?

“Nicki. Nicki! Where’s Jed?”

“Jed? What? Why?” He was right… there. No, no… there. I know I saw him, newly seven and so curious, just a minute ago. Before the succulents. Long before. Many, many minutes before. Shit.

The chill is no longer faint. It is absolutely unavoidable. The blood freezes in my veins, and even as I spin around in actual circles convinced I will spot him any second, I wonder what will happen to our family without him in it. Who will we be? How will we be? WHERE IS HE?

Lost. He is lost.

There. Behind the palm tree. Doing ninja moves, or following a bug.

“He’s there he’s there. Jed. Jed!”

“Mom, I’m hungry. Look what I found. Is this a spider? And look, look Mom. I can jump from all the way up here. Look.”

My frozen heart resumes beating. The fine hairs on my arms relax. I hold his little hand in mine and turn my face up to the sun. I see the palm trees sway a little. We walk, all of us close together, down the cobbled street. Safe and happy.

***

Coastal Seascape With Red And White Lighthouse

Umhlanga Rocks, South Africa. photo: http://www.decharmoy.co.za

The Indian Ocean has always been my favorite. The waves are big and the water is warm, and it’s where I first learned how to swim in an ocean. My dad taught me: if the wave has already broken, hold your breath and go under. But for the ultimate thrill, jump up to meet it, before it breaks, and ride the swell. I stayed in for hours. Often I miscalculated and was dumped in a froth of saltwater and sand. Once I lost my swimsuit. I love swimming in the ocean.

It’s been a long time since I’ve swum in that ocean.

So many summers were spent on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The long eight-hour drive from our landlocked town, usually through the night so that we wouldn’t waste our first day of vacation, was generously rewarded with the first dazzling glimpse of the sea as we drove down the hill, so blue it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the water started. And the lighthouse. White and red and ever-present on the jagged rocks.

My mom made sandwiches with cold cuts and soft white rolls, and my dad developed asthma from running in the humid coastal air. Our striped umbrella was mostly easy to find in the throng, and we knew to find a landmark or two so that we could head in the right direction when the rough waves eventually tired us out. We used the lighthouse to gauge how far we were from where we should be . Often we vacationed with friends from home, and my sister was with me always.

We were young, barely eight-years-old, and while my blissful childhood memories are of hours of unsupervised ocean swimming and play, my rational parent brain knows that can’t be true. Eighties life was safer and simpler, and even more so during the hot South African summer at the beach, but there must have been a vigilance cast toward us that we were happily unaware of as we frolicked in the waves and munched our sandwiches on towels laid carefully on the sand.

My friend taught me to jump over the little waves as they broke at the shoreline. We held hands and shrieked as the water nipped at our ankles and we teased the frothy water as it crept back and forth back and forth. She dropped my hand, and headed back to the striped umbrella. Maybe she yelled over her shoulder that she was tired and was going back.

Maybe not.

Suddenly I was alone with the whole of the wild Indian Ocean before me, and it was no longer fun to jump over the waves. I was scared. I walked toward the striped umbrella but it was gone. Or maybe it was somewhere else. The colorful, busy beach I loved turned cold and unfamiliar. I walked and walked and wondered if anyone knew what I knew: I was lost.

What if I never found them? Who would I be? How would I be?

The waves continued to nip at my ankles and I think I was lost for a very long time. But perhaps it was only a few minutes. Someone found me wandering on the beach, and I was reunited with my parents and my sister.

Safe again. And happy.

Inspired by the prompt “My Childhood Home” by Linda Schreyer.

A Lack of Compassion Can Be as Vulgar as an Excess of Tears

source: zap2it.com

source: zap2it.com 

So says the Dowager on one of my favorite shows, “Downton Abbey.” Lady Violet delivered this line to her apparently unfeeling granddaughter, Lady Mary, just this week here in the U.S, with her usual dry nonchalance. She does that, Lady Violet: her sharp blue eyes and nothing-fazes-me demeanor belie her soft heart, kindness and universal knowledge of the inner workings of the world.

On “Downton,” Lady Violet’s off-the-cuff gems are almost a character unto themselves, and are as much a draw for me as the plot itself, but this line struck me more than her others.

At this point, Lady Mary, the cold granddaughter had displayed such selfish, unsympathetic behavior toward her sister, complete with eye rolls and nose in the air. “Ohmygd what a bitch!” I exclaimed in disbelief. Apparently Granny felt the same way, for it was then that she proffered the line of the night and shut Lady Mary, and me, up.

Her delivery was impeccable, of course, but it was her words themselves that echoed in my veins for the rest of the evening and week:

“My dear. A lack of compassion can be as vulgar as an excess of tears.”

I don’t agree that an excess of tears can be vulgar (I’ve come to appreciate how wonderfully fulfilling a good cry can be), but Lady Mary’s absence of kindness, sympathy, concern, empathy at the very least, was most definitely offensive to me.

As I go about my daily life, I don’t usually think about what compassion means, but Mary’s unappealing, indifferent manner and her grandmother’s not-so-gentle admonishment have been on my mind.

***

All this week, I have received texts from my mother updating me about her friend’s heart transplant. My mother lives in South Africa. Her friend is in Atlanta. They are almost 10,000 miles away from each other, but the distance means nothing to my mom whose texts from Monday to Wednesday read as if she is sitting next to him in ICU, watching him recover:

The heart is on its way. He is prepped and ready and they’ll begin when the heart arrives. Keep praying.

Procedure just started now. They said 7 hours.

The new heart was in at 1.22am my time. [He] came out of OR and went into ICU.

He’s awake. Doing well. Miracle. I’m so relieved but it’s the waiting to see if heart is accepted.

He’s eating softs foods! Able to get up for a bit. Amazing. Love and hugs to you all.

And finally, this one just a few minutes ago, today, Friday:

just waiting for today’s news 🙂

It is no wonder that my mother, who has spent weeks recovering from painful back and heart surgeries herself over the years, is so worried about her friend undergoing this enormous procedure. If they were in the same country, I have no doubt that she would be at his bedside all day, watching, caring, helping in person.

What is amazing to me is that even with the tremendous distance between them, her care and concern is so deep and so present it is palpable even to me, removed by more degrees of distance and separation. I know, with each beat of his new heart her dear friend feels every wave of compassion across the vast Atlantic, from her kitchen in Pretoria to his hospital bed in Atlanta.

***

As I received these texts from my mom this week, I thought what a shining example of warmth and kindness she would be to that cold, sleek, fish-like Lady Mary with her ramrod straight back and newly-coiffed bob.

I know it’s a TV show, but her apathy and unkindness stem from reality. That she can’t even muster an “Oh shame” (the ultimate South African expression of sympathy and empathy) is abhorrent but not uncommon in a world where too many people feel alone, uncared for and forgotten.

Lady Violet uses her carefully chosen words to teach her granddaughter. And I learn from my own mother’s heartfelt words and her sincerest, deepest compassion.

I think the Dowager would agree with my mom: We are never too far away to care about each other.

This post is part of 1000Speak. Today, in honor of United Nations World Day of Social Justice (February 20), more than 1,000 bloggers all over the world are writing about compassion. 1000Speak started with an understanding that all creatures, at every stage of life, need the kindness and compassion of others. The movement has taken on its own life, and is spreading  a whole lot of love and connection. Join us – together we’re stronger!

Spread the love using the hashtag #1000Speak

Join the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion group on Facebook.

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What I Never Imagined…

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We came to Israel this summer to celebrate.

And for many other reasons too: because our kids had never been and we wanted to show them the land of their people, because we love beach vacations and no matter where you are in Israel you’re seldom further than an hour from an incredible beach, because the food is amazing (never mind the shwarma and falafel, even frozen schnitzel and french fries are delicious here – especially if you eat them on the beach!), because you can kayak down the Jordan river and ride a wobbly camel in the Judaean desert, buy fragrant spices and the freshest challah at the bustling Middle Eastern market in Jerusalem and find the most exquisite shoes at the beautiful mall just steps away, because Israel grabs you by all five of your senses and never lets go…

But mainly we came to celebrate my oldest son’s bar mitzvah. He’s been practicing his Torah portion for almost a year. I’ve heard him once or twice – he doesn’t falter, never hesitates. He has spent hours with our rabbi in Oakland learning, discussing, preparing his speech and his words of Torah.

I imagined it. South African grandparents, and aunts, uncles, cousins from Herzliya, London, Florida, Johannesburg, California, friends from Oakland and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I imagined the praying and Mazal Tov! and brunch overlooking the Old City. Shabbat dinner and then a party in Jaffa, while the sun sets into the Mediterranean and we dance and laugh and celebrate.

I imagined us all together, a gigantic family barbecue on the beach, introducing my sister to my future sister-in-law, listening to all the brothers reconnect, meeting my friends at my favorite rooftop bar in Jerusalem. I imagined tears of pride and joy and relief, laughter and singing and so many hugs and kisses on both cheeks.

But I never imagined this.

Of course. I never imagined we would celebrate during a war. I never imagined I would take shelter from an air strike in a restaurant kitchen. Or in my cousin’s house, together with his neighbors and their kids because they don’t have a bomb shelter. I never imagined my kids would know what to do when they heard a siren – but they do, and they don’t falter, never hesitate. I never imagined it was possible to receive so many messages of worry and love from every corner of the earth, every day and through the night. I never imagined I maybe wouldn’t meet my friends to watch the sun sink over the Old City, because who in their right mind would fly into a country during a potential war?

And I never imagined I would almost forget we came to Israel to celebrate my oldest son’s bar mitzvah.

Relentless rockets have been fired into Israel for seven days. Sirens wail from north to south, east to west throughout the day and long into the night. Thank G-d for those sirens, alerting every living creature to take cover, find shelter, usually within 90 seconds but sometimes less. Turn off the car if you’re driving. Move away from it quickly. Find a wall facing north or lie flat on the ground. If there’s no bomb shelter in your building, stand under the stairwell. Listen for the boom, the interception, the all clear.

Finish the surgery on the dog. Continue the soccer game in the backyard. Pay for the sunglasses, and don’t forget the tomatoes. Dinner is almost ready. Life continues.

Who could’ve imagined this? Not I, dreaming my perfect party dreams in my house in California. Not my son, singing his Torah portion over and over with the rabbi at our Oakland synagogue in preparation for his big day at the Kotel. And not our family and friends living their lives in cities and towns all over Israel, planning the summer for their children, taking care of their elderly parents, scheduling appointments and meetings.

Life continues during a war. Or maybe it continues especially during a war.

I could never have imagined we would be in Israel this summer in the midst of an almost-war. But I cannot imagine being anywhere else. Israel grabbed hold of me and every single one of my senses while I was on a family vacation 30 years ago, and has never let me go. Being here while she is under siege, while so much of the world is turning its back on her and its people, only strengthens that grip. She has never let me go, and I will never let her go.

Life continues, especially during a war. And we are here to celebrate my oldest son’s bar mitzvah. Mazal Tov!