One year later

It’s been just over a year since we returned to America.

It’s kind of silly, but what I remember most about this time last year is the weather. We left during a hamsin, 90 degrees (F) and dry, and arrived in Maine and it was 45 degrees and raining. That is not an exaggeration. It had been a dry winter in Israel, so I hadn’t smelled rain in months, since December. I got off the plane and the smell hit me so strongly.

Now it’s June again, and big surprise, it’s cold and rainy. We had a hot spell in May, but now the weather is exactly like it was last year at this time.

I’m sure I’m not to only one to peg significant life events to weather. There’s nothing like it to penetrate your subconscious and bring up memories.

So what have we accomplished in the past year? Re-integrating into American life. Since we moved to a new area, it wasn’t as easy as picking up where we left off. In a way that has been a blessing. It can be a let-down going back to “regular life” after a new and different adventure. We were in Israel long enough that it felt like “regular life,” but it was still an incredible learning and growth experience for everyone in the family. When we arrived in Maine, the growth didn’t end. We couldn’t slip back into old habits; we had to create new ones that suited our new community.

One incredible, incredible blessing has been our new neighborhood. It’s a mixture of families with kids of different age and some older retirees whose kids are grown. Everyone has been friendly and welcoming. It’s a single street shaped like a horseshoe, so there is minimal traffic and the back yards on the inside are connected to each other. Rafi has been playing outside with the neighbor kids and I’ve been getting to know some of the other moms. There is a girl across the street who has babysat for us a couple of times.

A lot of the American population has become transient–that is to say, moving not just to a different city but to an entirely different part of the country. One cool thing about Fulbright is that we all made a big, radical change and were able to learn from each other’s experiences and see the similarities to our own experiences. More than anything, the experience of living abroad has convinced me that moving around is an artificial way to stimulate growth and learning. It’s like an addiction to novelty. There’s a high cost to moving, not in money but in social ties. What I want to do is continue to create challenges, to keep from slipping into a rut, to keep questioning the way we look at life–without having to uproot everybody over and over. Fortunately, I’ve got a few tools now to try to work toward that goal.

Photos

Here is Ezra at 7.5 months:

Happy boy!

Happy boy!

Standing up!

Standing up!

Sitting up!

Sitting up!

The next set of pictures are Rafi’s. He staged them on the chess board, told me how to pose, snapped the picture, and told me what caption to write. We have been having a lot of fun with chess games and puzzles!

Checking the king...

Checking the king…

Checkmate!

Checkmate!

Queen sacrifice!

Queen sacrifice!

Queen me!

Queen me!

The days of playing chess on the coffee table are over, however–

Brothers

Keep the pieces away from the Ezra machine!

we’ve moved the board to the dining room table.

Winter

The thermometer on my car read 14 degrees this morning. Despite what the calendar says, that is not spring. The stores are full of shorts. It’s a laugh.

At least we are nice and warm in our NEW HOUSE! Those who know us in real life know that we bought a house and moved in February. While we were waiting to close and trying to set a moving date, the city got pummeled with four back-to-back snowstorms in the space of just over a week. (At least we didn’t have it as bad as Boston.) We moved in February with 7-foot snowbanks all over the place and movers tracking salty slush through the house. Then I had to mop the floor in our apartment that was heated only by space heaters since we were not living there. My socks got wet and Rafi got bored. It was not one of my favorite experiences.

Yesterday was Maple Sunday, which is supposed to be the culmination of the four-week period of running sap and making maple syrup. They have festivals in some towns, but every little syrup producer advertises, puts up a sign, and sells the syrup from their backyard. There is one family that makes syrup who are members of the synagogue by us, and we went to their house and talked maple syrup and synagogue politics for half an hour in a shed dubiously heated by the syrup boiler. They said the sap usually starts running mid-February, but it didn’t start this year until a couple of weeks ago, so they only had half the amount of syrup as usual.

Jewish life in Maine continues to be an adjustment. With Shaarey Tphiloh undergoing a crisis of leadership and money, and with Pesach coming up, I’ve been feeling it more acutely. The Jewish community here is really, really small and resource-poor (not just money but also the time and energy of people). I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, that religious life in Cleveland was more similar to Israel than to Maine. I keep reminding myself not to expect holiday celebrations or people’s choice of holiday activities to be what I would expect. I don’t mean to denigrate Maine at all. There are some amazing things that go on here, like Jewish Jam with Student Cantor Jeff Warschaur, an informal group for all ages to sing and play traditional Jewish music. Maine is a really special place for its slower pace of life, its local food, its vast stretches of woods, and the rootedness of its people, and those characteristics are incompatible with dense population centers with transient families. They shouldn’t be incompatible with traditional Judaism, but they are incompatible with a large, resource-rich Jewish community.

It’s hard for me separate unfamiliar Jewish culture from the general feeling of being transplanted. I think the two feelings feed into each other. (I felt better after Maple Sunday, which reminded me of what I love about Maine, and after getting a great response from families from Rafi’s school to come to our matzah pizza party on the 7th night in our NEW HOUSE.)

Rafi is learning how to play chess and loves it. He does puzzles online and goes to chess club when they have it on Sunday instead of Saturday. I swear the thinking skills are spilling over into learning to read; although we haven’t been pushing the reading at all, something is starting to click in his brain. This morning he was sounding out words in one of Ezra’s books.

Now if spring would just come…

Israeli Election Ads

Israeli elections are upcoming and a new Knesset will be elected. With that, the potential for a new prime minister is also possible. In general, among our friends, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s popularity is decreasing.  What I find interesting, more than anything, is the difference in ads that are being put out. There are many different candidates, but I will discuss the ads of two specific front-runner candidates.

Bibi’s ad, below, discusses that you cannot leave your kids with just anyone. And if you leave your kids with the wrong person, you might not have a home to return to. It appeals to the parent nature of all Israelis to keep your kids safe.

Naftali Bennett’s add, see below, is about how Israel needs to stop apologizing, Israelis, as a whole, are tired of apologizing for the world’s perception of their actions, specifically with the most recent Gaza excursion. Bennett’s whole platform is about Israel holding itself to its own standards, and not by the wrong perceptions of the world. This appeals to every Israeli that is frustrated about constantly being condemned by the world court and media.

Both very powerful ads. Both distincly different from each other. And both distinctly different from what you will find in America.

Education, writ large

My head has been spinning with ideas.

In a “previous life” (it seems) I was only a teacher, but now I’m a parent of a child in a Jewish day school. For the first time, I’m seeing the other perspective. Everyone told me, over and over, that being a parent would change how I teach. It was true when Rafi was young, but it’s becoming even more true now. I feel the urgency of “chanoch lana’ar al-pi darko,” the idea that if you teach a child a certain path while he is young, when he is old he will not depart from it. Jeff and I have been working very hard on making for ourselves the kind of Jewish community that we want Rafi to grow up in, and his formal education is a big part of that, but so is the rest of his life. Add the need for outdoor activity, unstructured playtime, Hebrew-speaking activities, and accommodating the schedule of a newborn in the midst of sleep training, while also keeping up with the housework, and boom, my head is full.

I think in Israel it was simpler. I took Rafi to the huge neighborhood playground for two hours a few times a week and sent him to public preschool. Once a week we took a hike (although not in the late fall when the days were too short). Those three things basically took care of Rafi’s educational and physical needs. I didn’t get quite enough physical activity, and I had trouble planning social activities for both myself and Rafi since it was a big deal for me to call another parent for a play date or a coffee date. I don’t know why.

Physical activity is important, but it’s the same everywhere, except that in America there aren’t neighborhood playgrounds to the same extent as in Israel. Jewish education, on the other hand, is much more fraught in America than in Israel and requires more parental input. To top it off, I’m not just a parent, I’m a teacher. Every bit of information I get from Rafi about his school, every project he brings home, every tidbit I glean from older students, gives me a new thought about how I would teach not just Rafi, but other children. When I read news articles and blogs it’s all through the same lens. Although I’m not teaching full-time, I’m still a teacher in my head. As the ideas come up, I write them down in a word file. I could probably write about them on this blog, come to think of it.

Last Friday I volunteered to be the “special guest” for Kabbalat Shabbat, which is a whole-school program that invites a member of the community to come in and do a program for the whole school. I read two folk tales about Shabbat, which went over very well. (The book of folk tales I used was a bat mitzvah gift.) In between and after the tales, I led some songs to add to the atmosphere.

When I looked out at the students sitting in the sanctuary rows, and made eye contact with them like you’re supposed to do, I saw children rather than students. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one. It helps that I know many of their parents and what their families value.

It’s all percolating in my head for future use. Now, if I could just get Ezra to take a bottle…

A culture of volunteerism

Levey Day School has managed to cultivate an amazing culture of parent volunteerism.

Many of the non-academic specials are run by parents. At such a small school, it doesn’t pay to hire someone for each special. (I confess I don’t know all the details, but I suspect it’s a bit of a mishmash with some employees and some volunteers depending on the level of commitment and time involved.) Overall the attitude is: You want your child to learn something that isn’t within the skill set of the current employees? Then do it yourself. It’s sort of a cross between a private school and a co-op. I completely didn’t expect that but am pretty happy about it. As a result the non-core education is a bit idiosyncratic. I’m okay with that too.

This is one way in which Jeff and I have already fit in quite well. We run community children’s services every Saturday morning. We found out that all the children (mostly Levey students, but there are two others) who attend services regularly on Saturday mornings are split between two synagogues that are located a block away from each other. At one of the synagogues, the parents did some children’s programming, but it wasn’t very organized. It was Jeff’s idea to get all the children in one place at the same time and alternate venues, and he takes charge of making sure that everyone knows when and where to show up. He leads the services and arranges for special guests. It’s working out terrifically.

I think quite a few Jewish day schools around the country could learn from the example of Levey, but it’s different in a community that is resource-rich (as Cleveland is). On the whole it’s a blessing to have many skilled educators and lots of available money for Jewish education; the downside is that people expect to take very little part in their children’s education. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention–which is not true of actual inventions, by the way. More often, some interesting material property is discovered and then marketers figure out who could use it and what for. However, when it comes to personal initiative, the fewer resources available, the more people figure out how to make things happen anyway.

As for me, I’ll be teaching Hebrew songs and finger-plays to the kindergarten once a week and teaching a one-off art project for one of the grades. I don’t know which one except that it won’t be 3rd grade because some other parent is teaching art to her child’s class all year.

No one expects a new mom to post frequently–I’ve started this post several times and never had time to write more than a paragraph–but nevertheless I feel that I’ve been remiss. So here’s a quick post.

Ezra is just over two months old and I am working on establishing more clearly-defined nap periods, stationary sleep, and a schedule. We use Dr. Weissbluth’s method (Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child). The goal is to prevent sleep problems before they arise. It worked pretty well for Rafi. Right now I’m trying to put Ezra down while drowsy but awake, which isn’t working so far, but I’m sure he’ll get there.

We’re discovering that it’s harder than we first thought to fit in here. At first I was wowed by the veneer of politeness, but I’ve found that underneath there is a lot of insularity since the area appears to have a low number of transients (and they’re all in Portland, which as I am repeatedly told, is “not really Maine”). The families we have the most in common with are transplants like us. Joining Levey Day School has really helped because it has a strong culture of parent involvement and volunteering, and we’ve fit in to that right away.

In Israel we didn’t fit in either, but the exciting newness of it all sort of overpowered that feeling. And I did appreciate that everyone and everything was on a Jewish schedule.

Jeff is enjoying his work and even the commute, which he says is time-consuming but pleasant and he’s able to get work done.

Finally, I have an update on the trash reduction project. We are using cloth diapers. (We used disposable for the first two weeks, which I recommend and would do again.) We fill one 15-gallon trash bag every week and a half, mostly with food packaging and kleenex. If anyone is curious, I’m using Thirsties Duo Wrap covers with prefolds. They NEVER leak. I also have some Bumgenius one-size pocket diapers that I bought off people selling them on Craigslist. Those leak every once in a while because Ezra’s legs are still on the skinny side, and “one-size” is a bit of a misnomer. However, they’re easier to put on when I’m barely awake and are better diaper bag stuffers.

Cloth vs. disposable diapers feels like real vs. disposable plates. More work? A bit. But why would you make so much trash when all you have to do is push a few buttons on the washer?