Sunday, February 24, 2013

Writer's Block

I'm under deadline for an article and not feeling very creative, which makes this the perfect time to:
  • Dust window blinds
  • Crawl on floor and dust baseboards with old toothbrush
  • Launder dustrags
  • Walk Olivia
  • Brush Olivia
  • Post a picture of Olivia on Facebook
  • Ding Jenny, Terry and Don that it's their turn to play "Words with Friends"
  • Balance my checkbook
  • Remove all plates from dishwasher and manually wash instead
  • Walk Olivia again
  • Visit Netflix website and give Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a "liked it" rating. Who knew the Civil War was won because of silver bullets?
  • Scroll through 600 photos of Israel and search in vain for one, just one, picture of myself in which I look better than the camel
  • Blog about being under deadline and not feeling very creative.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Shabbat at the Wailing Wall

In my previous post, I mentioned there was one particular experience in Israel that will remain forever etched in my brain. It's the same type of moment I had a few years back when I was in Venice and my family wanted to take a gondola ride.

How corny, I thought. What a tourist trap, I snickered. Wouldn't be caught dead, I vowed.

But I didn't want to be left behind while my mom, sister and brother-in-law floated away, so I reluctantly joined them. As we glided through the still waters, I realized that the evening hour masked the graffiti and litter lining the canals that I'd noticed earlier in the day.  Instead, serenaded by an accordion player no less, the beautiful lights of Venice sparkled in the crisp, clear night sky above and shimmered in their watery reflection below, lending a surreal, dream-like quality to the hour-long ride. It was one of the most magical and ethereal experiences of my entire life.

And now, to that very exclusive list of memorable moments, I'm adding Shabbat at the Kotel (Western or "Wailing" Wall).

The day before, on a bright sunny Thursday, we had already toured the Old City of Jerusalem. And so, I wasn't expecting anything different when we returned on Friday, right before sunset, to celebrate the Jewish Day of Rest, Shabbat.

Our tour guide, Sharon, escorted our group of 15 to a rooftop centered in the middle of the holy Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters.  Below we could see people beginning to gather at the Western Wall.  As the sun set, the day's 68 degree weather quickly dropped to the high 40s. We wrapped our coats tightly as we sat cross-legged in a circle and discussed the meaning of Shabbat

It's a festive day, Sharon explained, in which both religious and secular Jews take a break from the tasks and chores of everyday life. It's an opportunity to unplug, mediate, and recharge while reconnecting with loved ones and contemplating the spiritual aspects of life. As she spoke, the Islamic Call to Prayer sounded over the speakers and echoed through the crisp night air, rendering us silent. There was an otherworldly beauty in the sound and I knew the goosebumps on my skin weren't because of the dipping temperature.

"Now let's celebrate Shabbat at the Wall," Sharon concluded. With a quick reminder that photography isn't allowed during Shabbat, we went down the winding stone steps to join the massive crowd. 

By now it was dark, but nearby lamps provided a soft, well-lit golden glow. I made my way through the women's section, wiggling through packed bodies like I was at a Springsteen concert and not at one of the holiest spots on earth. Many people were socializing with giddy joy while others were rocking in silent prayer. Earlier, Sharon had mentioned, "...if ever there's a direct line to God, this is the place," and now, standing here, just feet from the Wall, I believed her. I couldn't deny the palatable charge in the air. There was an electricity like I'd never felt before.

And to my surprise, I felt compelled to pray. Something I haven't done in years, not since losing my mother, which had a profound and shattering affect on my faith.

I prayed for a dear friend who is fighting prostate cancer. I prayed for the health and well-being of my loved ones. And, not wanting to push my luck but just in case the Big Fella was still speaking to me, I closed with a prayer of my own: help with my blood disorder (nicknamed The Blood Thingy because it's so rare it doesn't even have a name). 

After several minutes of meditation at the Wall, I made my way back where it was less crowded and I could silently soak in the bustling activity around me: Joyous schoolgirls laughing with their friends. Hasidic Jews rushing to and fro. Singing circles of dancing men, individuals in silent prayer, and parents chasing after roaming toddlers. I took mental snapshots, never wanting to forget these sights and sounds. I also took one very specific mental note: that of my time at the Western Wall.

A time when I realized I might still believe.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Israel, Anyone?

You might recall that a previous post mentioned I had returned home after spending two weeks in January traveling throughout Israel. It was a once-in-a-lifetime journey, although at the time of writing I was still too jet-lagged and traumatized from my flight home on Delta (who left us stranded in Tel Aviv) to think about the trip itself. 48 hours with little food or sleep, not to mention lack of showering or clean clothes, tends to dampen one’s enthusiasm about ever traveling again.

Amazing how a hot shower and good night's sleep can change one's attitude. 

This trip came about when I was invited to join the San Francisco Jewish Community Center’s Israel Staff Seminar (read our travel blog). Each year, the excursion takes 15 lucky JCC employees to enjoy two colorful weeks learning about Israeli life and culture. Never having been to the Middle East, every day was an adventure that revealed wondrous views of this fascinating country.

We hiked through the Negev Desert. Rode camels led by our Bedouin guide who warned, "do not pet the camels!" Trust me, I won't. We hiked a very steep Masada that revealed just how out of shape I am. Floated in the Dead Sea, slept in a Kibbutz, and pulled beets on a farm run by Leket, an organization that feeds local needy families. We visited an army base where we took part in simulated target practice with M4s, machine guns and bazookas, and I hit an impressive 7 out of 30 targets. And on my first attempt, mind you. It was loud, fun, and entertaining, until I remembered the true intent behind any such weapons and suddenly I felt a bit uneasy about having such a good time.

And to answer the one question everyone has posed about visiting a country that constantly faces political strife and turmoil: I have never felt safer. I feel more threatened during my daily 60-minute commute, battling idiots behind the wheel who think rules of the road only apply to other drivers. In Israel, everywhere we went, we were welcomed, fed, embraced and educated. This was, indeed, the trip of a lifetime

But when asked if there's one experience that stands out the most, I don't hesitate to respond. It's something that is burned in my brain and will stay with me for the rest of my life, until I'm on my deathbed and reliving certain priceless moments. It's the kind of memory that truly makes travel something that can't be described in books or purchased through material goods.

I'll write about that experience in my next post. Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Another Day, Another Birthday

Had a birthday this week and was once again reminded of how lucky I am to have so many thoughtful friends. I  received many beautiful cards and greetings--thank you, one and all.

However, one card in particular popped--and I mean this in the most literal sense.

My manager Sharon is a skilled photographer who often uses her artwork to create unique and personal greeting cards (check out her work). A few months ago, when I mentioned that I needed pictures of Olivia for future Pet Tales columns, Sharon offered her talents and spent a brisk November morning taking pictures of my pup.

Well, creative minds never sleep; Sharon used one of these images to create a special, three-dimensional birthday card that made me gasp with delight when I opened it on Wednesday.

This card, which now hangs on my cubicle wall at work, warms my heart every time I look at it. Reminding me that whatever stress the day may bring, at home awaits the perfect antidote.
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