10 Ways Living in Israel is Not What You Think: vote for my Expats Awards entry!

blog-award-2013-entry-150There are a million ways living in Israel is just not what you may have thought… I chose 10 of those and made them my entry for the Expat Blog Awards!

10 Ways Living in Israel is Not What You Think

I’m the only entry from Israel, so LET’S GET LOUD!

Like? Vote! Leave a comment at the bottom of the entry. Comments must be authentic, which means 10+ words. Also, use the share buttons above the comment section to spread the word – those also count. We’ve got till Friday, Dec 20.

And if you have even more ways, feel free to leave those here or there!

P.S. Here are some photo hints as to what my top 10 are…


Ready? Get over there and comment! 

Oh Chanukah, oh Chanukah, come… on, diaspora mama.

Well here’s a first.

Last week the kids and I were in the kitchen making latkes (that was also a first, and it was kinda obvious). Playing in the background: a Chanukah songs cd my mom had brought from the States. So, you know, some kind of boy’s choir-esque English-Hebrew mix.

We were singing along; when the songs were in Hebrew, we all sang. When they were in English and still familiar, we all sang. And when they were in English but also have identical Hebrew versions, my kids got annoyed.

“What? No!”

(Yes, they have a point.)

Anyway, after a while I had trailed off alone, singing ‘Sivivon Sov Sov Sov…’ Bebe, who was miraculously still tolerating me in the kitchen, suddenly turned to me and loudly stated,

“Lo sham, po!

I looked at her, confused.

And then I realized – she’s right.

That’s the only truth she knows.


Of life in the shtetl; Tevye had a point

A fiddler on the roof…
it sounds crazy.
But here,
in our little village of Anatevka,
you might say every one of us…
is a fiddler on the roof.

Before I lived here in Israel, I lived in a tight-knit Jewish shtetl called New York.

Trying to scratch out
a pleasant, simple tune
without breaking his neck.

To narrow that down, I was part of a small Jewish community within a small section of a small New York City borough. Maybe this would all be different if I had actually grown up in Brooklyn.

We were a mish mash of lost and found souls – who has never been lost, who doesn’t desire to be found? – and one thing we all had in common was, I suppose, a sense of Jewish tradition. It’s how we got there and it’s why most of us stayed as long as we did.

And how do we keep our balance?
That I can tell you in one word:

A friend randomly sent me the Fiddler on the Roof clip today; I suppose you’ve guessed which one by now. It must be a decade and a half since I last watched the movie or heard the soundtrack, but while I was a kid, my family was kind of obsessed with it. For a family growing into some new traditions of its own, I guess it really spoke to us. Or maybe that’s looking at it too deeply; maybe it was just another exciting part of being a minority finding pop culture that fit so perfectly.

Maybe it was because we also totally had the butcher; the mikvah; the Judaica shop.

But after I watched the Tradition scene today, I felt something I haven’t felt in nearly nine years of living here, in Israel, in a paradise Tevye only dreamed about, if he could dream past becoming a wealthy man.

I felt nostalgia and longing for Diaspora. A sense of loss, a sense of missing out.

The strong sense that living as an outsider is the ultimate way to stay true on your inside.

Halacha and tradition came easier there, in the shtetl, surrounded by the majority. Ok, we’re talking about New York, not pre (or post) World War Russia here, and I haven’t forgotten the end of the play.

But… still. In our kind of modern, safe shtetl, explaining holiday schedules to your boss was a pain; declining edible treats from college classmates was awkward; never quite understanding Christmas while watching TV was odd.

We don’t bother them,
and they don’t bother us.

But it made everything else so much more… inclusive. We belonged, to ourselves.

Yes, of course, there were major downsides to the ‘shtetl mentality’ – why do you think I left?

However, Israel is the biggest shtetl there is, surrounded by the largest majority that could be. Together, all seven-something million of us, we certainly have moments when we laugh, we cry, we bicker, we build, we live.

As intimate as it can get here, it’s not as intimate as the shtetl I knew, the outsider’s shtetl, based on local traditions, based on the narrowed-down group of insiders you cast your lot with.

Traditions, traditions.
Without our traditions,
Our lives would be as shaky as…
as a fiddler on the roof!

Simply put, I kind of miss it.


lizrael update: the expat-makes-a-visit edition

Living in Israel (and probably many other countries as an American expat) is an exercise in being happy with what you have, and I feel lucky to have even scratched the surface of that sentiment.

Occasionally the conversation comes up with fellow expats here and I’m no longer surprised to admit that I’m happier here than I imagine I would be in the States.

Last week I returned with the kids from a trip to the US where we mainly visited with family, which is actually the sole serious issue I have with living far away from the place I grew up. The family aspect was lovely. It’s soaking in as much familiarity and nostalgia and new memories as I can in as little time as two weeks out of the year.

Each time I go back for a visit, I feel a certainty that I made the right choice, which I think is so incredibly valuable when you’ve made a life-altering decision. This time, it barely even crossed my mind to contemplate it; it was a given.

Some of the time, I view America the way lots of people who don’t live there view it. The politics creep me out. The culture shocks me. The values confuse me.

And when I’m in New York, I’m overwhelmed. The supermarkets are heavy. The malls are filled with stuff for sale that makes me sad. The maternity and daycare situation is dismal. The nightly news is frightening. I’m looking over my shoulder. I’m filled with mistrust.

I think maybe I was always overwhelmed until I left. Surely not every born New Yorker has a New York soul. Not every American feels at home. A lot of the reasons people cite for what’s great about living in the States don’t compel me.

I’m happy to be lucky to be happy with what I have.

Getting your feet (ritually) wet: An American-Israeli’s mikvah story

Perhaps, for a taharat-mishpacha-keeping American-Israeli olah (female American immigrant to Israel who keeps laws of family purity), nothing else can quite epitomize the cultural differences of here and there better than… the mikvah.

Because I got married in Israel, my mikva knowledge and experiences have been molded here. The closest I got in the States before emigrating was a very swanky, fancy Sephardic mikvah in Brooklyn, that my high school class was taken to on a school trip while learning the halachot (laws) in our senior year. A gorgeous facility, including pre- and post- manicure, robes, blow driers, and made-up balaniyot.

The idea to me seemed, pretty clearly, to make the practice more attractive.

Fast forward to 2006, when I became engaged in the monthly ritual in an old, very ‘Jerusalem’ mikva facility tucked into a shoddy building behind a meat market in Katamonim.

Out of any of the mikvot I’ve been to, I came to love it the most.

I hated going, but I loved coming out. I loved the sound of Kaaaaasherrrr rolling off the tongue of the elderly Mizrachi balanit. Deep, warm, the rrrrrr is what made me really feel purified. I loved that she wished me the best of luck, speedy pregnancies, a million children, a good life. I loved believing her, that it would all come true this month, even though the next set of birth control pills were somewhere in the depths of my handbag.

To contrast that, there were the few times I’ve gone in New York during visits. It was my hometown mikva, a place I had passed a billion times during childhood, the heavy red door shut tight during the day. I had known what it was, but I had never been inside.

It was classy enough, comfortable, even kind of PC.

And it was home. Imagine my delight when the first time I lifted my head out of the water, the middle-aged New Yawka balanit was shrilly calling, KOH-shuuuh!

I’ve even been to the mikvah in Melbourne, Australia. This was by far the most comfortable, beautiful facility I’ve dunked in yet. Everything was provided; everything was just right.

Later, when I moved to Tzur Hadassah, I experimented before settling on a permanent mikvah. I tried what seemed like a tiny pre-1967 free-standing stone room in Bar Giora. I visited Efrat, where I felt I had entered an alternative universe (we spoke in English of course). I’ve been to the small but equipped mikvah in Nes Harim.

But where I’ve mostly settled, and returned to every month, are the mega-mikvot in Beitar Illit.

Israeli mikvah: Beitar Illit

These are free-standing buildings with their own identities; secret entrances shield visitors from publicity. A reception desk greets you. Corridors of prep rooms are available. Two mikvot are rotated inside, available depending on your tradition.

And the pre-check questions, oh, the questions.

It’s a personal challenge. I don’t love it like I was able to come to love my elderly Sephardi balanit in Jerusalem. I’ve had to make the experience completely separate and personal so as not to claw at the kisui rosh of an unassuming ‘just doing my charedi job’ Beitar Illit balanit, who to her credit, as she checks the length of my too-long nails, never fails to ask,

‘So, are you from around here?’


P.S. I have it on good faith that I’ll be able to report on the ever-in progress Tzur Hadassah mikvah very soon. It’s been completed and waiting for electricity, so they say. Stay tuned…



Organ donation in Israel: the good, the bad, the depressing, the options

Helping hand(s)So… what happens after we die?

One thing we know for sure – (ok, two things, for starters, our bodies decompose after some awkward nail and hair growth) – one sure thing is that we leave behind the living.

The healthy living. The barely living. The newly living. The next in line.

Organ donation is not a glamorous topic. The word organ: ugh. Way to reduce the miracle of human physiology to such a crude-sounding word. org-un.

But it is truly miraculous that we humans have figured out how to take the heart, liver, kidney, womb from one body and place it in another, so that the latter human can continue to beat, think, thrive.

Consider that.

This week I heard of a tragic scenario in which an immigrant-Israeli needs a transplant to survive, but is battling the complications she’s encountering due to the priority criteria in this country. It’s consumed me since I started researching (48 hours ago) how organ donation works in Israel, why it’s complicated, and the preparatory options available.

The situation

As we’re all painfully aware, Israel is a tiny country with a tiny population. We’ve got around 7.7 million residents. That’s not ideal news for those in need of organ transplants. Less people, less possibility. Drill down further, and there are significant sectors of the demographics committed to theology that doesn’t jive with organ donation.

So when it comes to ‘homegrown’ organ donation, not every person waiting makes it to seeing the other side of living.

As a country and culture and people that place life as sacred over all else, it’s a hard pill to swallow – according to the numbers, not everyone in need of a life-saving transplant can or will be saved.

I found this to be a painful revelation. It’s obvious-sounding. But take into account: what if you’re the one in the middle of the waiting list, with the clock ticking? How many more visits from your kids do you have left? Will the support system in place pick up where you left off?

How do you even begin to grapple with that?

And does it need to be the story’s ending as much as it is?

How it works here

I don’t know how organ donation law works abroad; I can only assume that in a place as populous as the States, it’s based on urgency, matching, survival chances, location, and other factors, probably including financial implications. Way more people, way more potential donors, way more organs to go around.

Here’s how the allocation of organs works in Israel, according to ADI, the National Transplant Center.

Since 2008, a priority law has been set to encourage people to sign up as potential donors and help prioritize who receives organs, when. Considering the gaping lack of organs for the necessity, this seems like a bold (and positive?) move:

The Organ Transplant Law was formulated after comprehensive and in-depth discussions by a forum of ethicists, philosophers, jurists, clergymen, psychologists, and physicians. The Law grants priority on the waiting list to the organ transplant candidate holder of a donor card before other candidates with similar medical data who do not hold such a card.

Then, the next part, where the donor priority details get broken down:

The new Law grants priority on the transplant waiting list in the following cases:

  • To a transplant candidate whose first degree relative (parents, siblings, children or spouse) has signed the donor card.
  • To a transplant candidate whose first degree relative died (in Israel) and his/her organs were donated for life saving.
  • To a transplant candidate who has donated, or whose first degree relative has donated an organ (kidney, liver lobe or lung lobe) to a non-specified recipient, i.e. to a stranger, from the transplant waiting list.

Here’s more on donor rights in Israel. Law nerds: You can read the organ donation details here. And the numbers… how many have signed ADI cards in Israel:


There was this rite of passage, growing up in the Modern Orthodox day school world, when we high school students entered drivers license age and were told organ donation is against Jewish law. Then again, I also heard from teachers and rabbis that it was pikuach nefesh, or saving a life, which is pretty much the most sacred Jewish value.

Mixed messages, yes. ADI lays out the Jewish take on organ donation on a page broken down into much-appreciated detail.

Even further, the Halachic Organ Donor Society (HODS) is an organization campaigning for more Jews to get involved. Their mission: “To save lives by increasing organ donations from Jews to the general population (Jews and non-Jews alike).” 

I promised depressing (and uplifting) so here’s the people-side testimonial.

Do what you need to do
Read more. Talk to your partner. Make your call. Sign the card.

Another extremely important (and of course, possibly life-saving) option to consider if you’re an Israeli resident: private health insurance.

Israelis are all entitled to the national (socialized) health insurance agencies. Going further, many people decide to add a layer of protection and security by opting in to private health insurance plans. They can add a basic layer of extra coverage, or go the whole way.

The option here is to adopt a plan where after obtaining the medical sign off that you need a transplant, you contact the insurance company to make a claim. From there, you’re traveling the private route, with no Israeli national (and highly limited) organ wait list. In that case, the organs are typically flown in from abroad, or patient is flown abroad (depends on your plan); it’s a completely independent system, where the insurance company is a player.

For more on private health insurance options in Israel, start here (disclaimer: I live with the guy who wrote this).

Yeah. So. It’s an uncomfortable, depressing topic. But just like setting up a Will, it’s something you just have to consider. For myself I view it as some kind of parenthood rite of passage.

Do you know more about organ donation in Israel? Please leave comments and share your info… Still so curious.

Life in Israel: boys will be boys in flower crowns

Israeli kindergartens love crowns.

This is the first year I’ve been personally exposed to the Israeli flower garland thing. In Hebrew, זר. Kids in gan and early elementary school wear these pixie crowns for birthdays, celebrations, ceremonies.

Naturally, the Shavuot chagiga in gan is one of them, and between his gan birthday and this, Koala’s now been fully introduced to the tradition.

And then this…

Little boys wearing flower crowns shooting at each other with pretend guns.

Isn’t that just… a little boy’s life?