…and back.

If I thought it was tough to find the time to blog in Israel, it has been even more difficult  here in Chicago. In case you’re keeping score, it’s been 10 months since we returned.

It took a Tetris champion to make this work.

It took a Tetris champion to make this work.

It was kind of a grueling trip back. Our driver miscalculated the time to get the van packed (we had a lot of bags) and we got to the airport late. Only the heroic efforts of a British Airways counter agent got us onto the plane on time – she literally ran us through security and out to the gate. The boys were mesmerized by the totally overwhelming BA in-flight entertainment system – tons of movies, on-demand, pause-able, etc. – and did not sleep. We spent overnight in London, thanks to a useless 10pm-to-10am layover, then flew to Newark. Again, BA in-flight, no sleep for the older boys.

I found myself dreading those two words from the customs agent: “Welcome Home.” I used to really like that they said it. It’s a nice semi-personal touch for an American returning from abroad. But, at that moment, I didn’t feel like I was returning home. I’d left home, and there was no telling when or if it would be my home again. That’s a lot of baggage to lay on some random uniformed bureaucrat, and maybe he sensed it, since he uncharacteristically skipped the usual welcome. Or maybe he was eager to get this bleary-eyed family with small, wired kids out of his space before somebody threw a tantrum. Either way, I was grateful.

The funny thing is how tangible the yerida was. Let me preface this by saying that I love the U.S.A., and I’m an unabashed fan of capitalism. Still, it was amazing how, immediately when we arrived, the gashmius – the focus on the material – was palpable, as if it were in the air. We were back in the land of high-quality, low-cost merchandise… all the stuff that a person could want, and then some… armadas of malls arrayed for attack… Amazon Prime 2-day delivery guaranteed.

Jerusalem was suddenly a long way away.

Everything looked so weird for a while. Too big, too fancy. The sight of our minivan, with not only 7 seats but a huge trunk to boot (in Israel, the few 7-seaters have the last seats flush with the rear door), and its plush leather interior, and automatic doors, etc., etc. made me laugh out loud. Our house was unfathomably immense. The kitchen was shocking, the hardwood floors obscene. Among the strangest things – and I’ve since learned that pretty much everybody who spends a long stretch in Israel has the same experience – were the 2-liter bottles. I would’ve sworn they were 3 liters. They looked so ridiculously short and fat. Really, all of the quantities here were overwhelming.

We’d spent a year getting along fine without a microwave… and now we had two again. Two dishwashers. Two refrigerator/freezers. Two sinks with two garbage disposals. Two tables (kitchen and dining room). Two cars. Three-and-a-half bathrooms.

Zero Kotels.

Those first few weeks back were a strange mix. There was glee in reconnecting with friends, who couldn’t wait to hear about our time in Israel and to tell us how much we were missed. There was the mild alienation of confronting the reality that a year had gone by in Chicago, as well… new faces,  new facts on the ground, and the uncertain footing of not knowing just what had changed. There was the marveling at American excess, seen with the temporary eyes of outsiders, and the furtive hope that something of our Jerusalem sensibilities would stay with us through the inevitable re-acclimation. And there was the heady feeling of having the wind at our backs again, and not in our faces. We weren’t immigrants anymore. It was back to being a native, with a thorough, sophisticated, and potent understanding of the language and culture. It felt super-easy to go places and to get things done.

For quite a while, I cried during every Shemoneh Esrei.

We worked on getting our lives in order, getting the boys ready for school, getting everyone to the doctor and dentist for long-overdue checkups, getting our phones back in order – wait, did I say something about it being super-easy to get things done? Comcast had other ideas… That was… well, even today, I’m not ready to talk about it.

I also started expanding my library with sefarim. It felt good to get the staples, in Hebrew, knowing that I could actually use them (albeit with difficulty). Mikraos GedolosChumash (the “Five Books of Moses” with a large collection of classic commentators) and Nach (ditto for the rest of the Bible – Neviim (“Prophets”) and Kesuvim (“Writings”)), Malbim on Chumash, Nesivos Shalom, and a full set of Shas (the Babylonian Talmud).

I undertook the learning schedule recommended by my Rosh Yeshiva: 1 hour a day with one of the guys back in Jerusalem, via Skype or phone, sometime in the middle of the day – not first thing in the morning or at night when I’m tired. (This is in addition to the learning I do first thing in the morning, and at night, when I’m tired.) It hasn’t been easy to keep this up, but we’ve managed. It isn’t learning all day, by a long shot, but it’s significant, and it’s way beyond where I was when I left here.

I’m not the same – our family is not the same. Whatever else there is to say, we have to call it success.

Yitzi’s siyum

Yitzi standing & singingWhen we finish learning a significant chunk of Torah – like a tractate of Talmud, or one of the six Orders of the Mishnah – we make what is called a siyum, a celebration of the completion. Near the close of the school year, Yitzi’s class made a siyum on Sefer Bereshis (the Book of Genesis), which they’ve been learning all year and now know essentially by heart. They made a really big deal out of the siyum, and it was really something. The results are perhaps too adorable for consumption by anyone but grandparents, but here we go.

The boys gathered up in front of the school, at Beit Rothschild:

Yitzi's class assemblesFrom there, they marched together to the hall at Yeshivat HaKotel, where the siyum was held:

When they got there, they started with a big song & dance number, then filed into their seats on the dais, looking like the typical VIP section of an Orthodox assembly:

Yitzi on daisYitzi singingAfter some singing and speeches, the class was mesayem (completed) Sefer Bereshis, reciting the last few pesukim (verses) of the Sefer, followed by “chazak! chazak! venischazeik!” (“be strong! be strong! and may we be strengthened!”) which is traditionally said during the Torah reading in shul on Shabbos when one of the five Sefarim of the Torah is completed, albeit without the arm pumping that you see here. They then immediately went into the first pesukim of Sefer Shemos (the Book of Exodus) – the quintessential Jewish approach, in which (a) learning is never finished; and (b) even as we celebrate what we’ve accomplished, we’re looking forward to what’s coming next. And then there’s the singing:

I didn’t intend to film that much of the siyum, but the boys were just too cute. I wound up burning through the camera battery, and had to film the part where Yitzi got his certificate with my iPhone. Here are some pics & videos of the rest:

Perfect star turn.

Perfect star turn.

arms on shouldersYitzi waving & singing

Yitzi with his Rebbe and me.

Yitzi with his Rebbe and me.

Mission accomplished?

We’re down to just a few days here, on the verge of our last Shabbos. Such a mix of emotions…

I’m excited to go back to Chicago. I miss friends, family, and the community. We were away for a full year, without any visits in the middle. Weirdly, at first, I expect it to be like a vacation from the intensity of Israel and Jerusalem. I’ve felt a lot of pressure to get everything we can out of every day here. Lots of things will be easy again, with cars and language and knowing how things work. I’m looking forward to feeling different there than I did when we left, if that make sense. I guess what I mean is that I’m hoping being back will help me see clearly the growth we experienced, and feel like a different and improved person.

But I’m terrified about retaining, and building on, my growth. I don’t want to fall back into the old groove. I don’t want this year in Jerusalem to be like a dream.

I feel incredibly sad to leave. Some of it is because the adventure is over, for sure. But when I think about the idea that our relationship to Israel and Jerusalem from here is likely to be confined to occasional week or two-week trips… well, after having lived here, that feels like an amputation.

There’s also the alternate life that seems so tangible. To live here, do ulpan (intensive Hebrew language program), find a way to make work and learning coexist… I’m not sure that would be the right move for the family, but we’ve imagined that life hundreds of times since we’ve been here.

When I think about what we set out to do – to gain skills and experience in learning, to take some time to really focus on spiritual growth, to develop a connection to Eretz Yisrael for ourselves and our children, to demonstrate to our children the importance and love of learning Torah – I feel very good, because I believe we accomplished all of those things. But when I think about the additional skills I wish I had, the pure joy of a full day of learning, and the fact that we aren’t going to be living here anymore… well, that perspective is a tough one. I think I’m having trouble simply focusing on the first perspective, even though it is far more comforting, because I’m afraid that if I take a “mission accomplished” attitude, I risk complacency and regression. I think that I’m going to have to learn to live with both, and take extra comfort in the fact that it is a very good thing that I feel bad about leaving.

And, as Debbie keeps pointing out, this trip happened because the “green light” couldn’t be ignored – the path was cleared, and the slide greased (do you prefer your mixed metaphors shaken or stirred?). If we are meant to come back here in a more permanent way, that will happen. Also, we may decide in a few months that we can’t stay away… who knows?

A year of school in the Rova (part III, the parents)

One addendum to the account of the boys’ year in school. The language barrier wasn’t just an issue for them, but very much for us. At least every Erev Shabbos, and at other times at well, the boys would bring home long notes from school, all in Hebrew. We’d have to figure out what was going on, or risk having our boys be the only ones without a swimsuit on a field trip, or the like.

The weekly Shabbos sheets were a serious workout for us. Yitzi would come home with a list of review questions on the section of Chumash they were doing that week. We’re used to a few parsha questions from school, but in Chicago they’d be in English and would be maybe a dozen or so. Yitzi’s list would be 30-40 questions, all in Hebrew, with a cursive typeface for the answers that was all but indecipherable. When the school days got longer, and they added Shoftim (the Book of Judges) to their study, that would be another 20 or so questions. I have to admit that there were times that I simply read the questions in Hebrew, not fully understanding them, and when Yitzi’s response pretty much matched the language of the answer, we’d move on with little-to-no comprehension on my part.

There were also the occasional calls from the school, or bumping into one of the rebbes or the menahel in the Rova, and having a stilted attempt at conversation. Everyone was amazingly patient with us, and we’re really grateful to Zilberman’s, the rebbes, and everyone for the great year they gave our boys and us.

A year of school in the Rova (part II, Shalom Gershon)

Shalom Gershon with the siddur he got from mechina at the end of the school year.

Shalom Gershon with the siddur he got from mechina at the end of the school year.

Shalom Gershon’s experience here was different from Yitzi’s but, in the end, also very successful. In Chicago, he would have been in “nursery” – a pre-kindergarten co-ed class with minimal academic content. We had expected to place him in gan (literally “garden”) here, which would have been a similar experience. But Zilberman’s wanted him in mechina (literally, “preparation”). Mechina is more like kindergarten-plus, with a rebbe and a focus on reading.

Shalom with his Rebbe.

Shalom with his Rebbe.

Shalom Gershon struggled in the early-going with the language barrier (even though he also had some English speakers in his class). He did figure out what was going on, and he managed to make a good connection with his rebbe, and to feel safe and happy with him. But he was initially very resistant to doing his “homework” – i.e., practicing the Hebrew letters they were learning – or hearing any Hebrew at home. He didn’t seem to undergo the same bit of hazing that Yitzi did, but we did get accounts of how one of the boys in his class (Yosef Abboud) protected him from boys who wanted to bother him. However, we weren’t sure how much of this was accurate given the fine line in his mind between fact and imagination. In fact, Shalom Gershon would frequently come home with elaborate accounts of the things his rebbe had said in school that day – even though his rebbe speaks maybe three words of English and Shalom certainly did not understand the Hebrew.

Shalom Gershon with beloved Rebbe Yedidia

Shalom Gershon with beloved Rebbe Yedidia

Things changed when an English-speaking aide, Rebbe Yedidia joined the class. Shalom Gershon became willing to practice (usually), and did an impressive job keeping up with the pace of the class. He also totally charmed Rebbe Yedidia with the sweet things he says, which we’d hear about every time we ran into Rebbe Yedida on the street. Shalom can now read (slowly) in Hebrew, including the full paragraph of text before Friday night kiddush, which he did last Shabbos. Although he doesn’t speak like Yitzi, Shalom does understand a fair amount of Hebrew, and speaks a bit occasionally. Interestingly, he seems to have learned differently from Yitzi. For Yitzi, the experience was more conventional, as he picks up new vocabulary and works it into the structure of the language, etc. But Shalom Gershon has learned to understand phrases and terms, and associate them with their meanings. For example, he knows that “sim b’pach” is an instruction to throw something in the garbage, but he doesn’t recognize the separate words as such. You could tell him to “sim b’mita” and, even though he knows that a mita is a bed, he wouldn’t necessarily recognize that you’re telling him to put the thing in the bed.

He is also attached to Israel, though it is hard to tell how much of that is a five-year-old’s aversion to change. And we wonder how well he really even remembers Chicago. But he said the other day that he’d rather live right here, and he’s going to miss Israel. He also complained that he needs to stay here to learn to daven like the Israelis do. He also professes great interest in places that are kadosh (holy). After being anxious about his happiness and experience here, it’s a relief to see what a good year it has been for him.

Needless to say, he’s well ahead of where he’d be in Chicago. In fact, we’re worried about how bored he will be this year in “pre-1A” (the inexplicable term used in the boys’ school for kindergarten). They’re going to be focused on learning Aleph-Beis (the Hebrew alphabet), but he can already read – in an Israeli accent, to boot!

A year of school in the Rova (part I, Yitzi)

Yitzi with three certificates attesting to his learning prowess.

Yitzi with three certificates attesting to his learning prowess.

Everyone told us that kids pick up Hebrew fast, and that it would be no big deal for them to be in a Hebrew-only school environment this year. Needless to say, it isn’t quite so simple.

Yitzi goes to Talmud Torah Aderet Eliyahu (nice promotional video here), a.k.a. Zilberman’s. There are a number of unique things about the school. It is famous for its methodology (the boys learn all of Tanach (Bible) by heart, then learn Mishna, and only then Gemara) and for the fact that they have school 364 days a year. The only day off is Tisha B’Av, when it is actually prohibited to learn (most) Torah. Even on Shabbos they have at least a few hours of school.

But the most immediately significant fact for Yitzi was that his Rebbe speaks no English, although there are a few English-speaking kids in his class. Also, we put him back in Kita Aleph (first grade), even though he’d be in second grade in Chicago, so he was familiar with the first few parshiyos (portions) they did in Chumash (written Torah) at the beginning of the year. But much of the time he simply didn’t understand what was going on.

Putting Yitzi in Kita Aleph was the right move for another reason. His birthday is at the end of October, right near the cutoff for school years. In Chicago, we wound up putting him in the older class (i.e., he’s among the youngest), which worked out fine because it’s a class of great kids. Here, he was among the oldest, which helped him get through the physical hazing of being the new kid. The kids here aren’t really mean, but they are tough, and they don’t hesitate to get rough with each other. Fortunately, Yitzi seemed able to defend himself, and wasn’t fazed by it. Part of it is that somewhere he got the idea that he knows some karate. Yeah, I have no idea. In fact, one day he came home and announced, “Mommy, I love fighting.” Their “fighting” is mostly little-boy wrestling, so it’s no big deal, but we are frequently reminding him that it is ok to defend yourself, but he’s not to initiate physicality, especially when we get back to Chicago.

I was really impressed by Yitzi’s approach this year. He never got discouraged, and went to school every day eager to learn, even when he didn’t know what was being said. In an early meeting I had with his rebbe (via a translator), he referred to Yitzi as a malach (angel), because he was always attentive and trying to follow along. Once, he had as a sub the second grade rebbe, who does speak English. Yitzi remarked wistfully that it would’ve been nice to be in that class because he could’ve talked with his rebbe, and we felt bad.

But it wasn’t too long after, maybe 6-7 months into our year, that it became clear that things had clicked for Yitzi. I knew his language skills had turned the corner when, one Shabbos, he had a non-English-speaking friend from school over to play. Yitzi pulled out Battleship and taught his friend the rules, in Hebrew. (To be fair, Yitzi later said he never wanted to do that again, because it was so hard.) At this point, his Hebrew is very serviceable, and he’s totally open to speaking and improving it. He plays with the other boys in Hebrew, speaks with his rebbe, and is up to the task when our visiting American Hebrew-speaking friends inevitably want to test his abilities.

Yitzi also now knows Sefer Bereshis (the Book of Genesis), in Hebrew, by heart (this is the primary curriculum for Kita Aleph at Zilberman’s).

Zilberman’s has a practice that gives some insight into their philosophy. If a boy asks a question in class that his rebbe can’t answer, he gets sent to the principal’s office (the menahel)… where the menahel (Rav Yom Tov Zilberman) answers the boy’s question and gives him a prize. After a year of being incentivized to ask good questions, Yitzi is now a trained assassin – metaphorically, of course, notwithstanding the strength of his karate. I’m going to have to meet with his prospective rebbe back in Chicago to prepare him, and make sure this impulse to question continues to be encouraged.

All in all, the year for Yitzi exceeded expectations. Not only did he pick up great skills, but he can look back and see that he was able to succeed in something tough. Hopefully, it will help him later in life when he needs confidence in his own abilities. Equally importantly, he had a good time and developed an attachment to Eretz Yisrael. When asked whether he prefers living in Chicago or Israel, he said he wished there were Chicago in Israel. “It would be like Ramat Beit Shemesh,” he said, “but it would be Ramat Chicago.”