Sunday, January 31, 2016

Meetings, Tests And An Expat Mum

Have you ever thought about the disadvantages of school children whose parents don't understand the language that well? I never really thought about it until we became one of those families. And we have the advantage of my being a teacher and that I work in the school system here.

Our parent-teacher meeting in December was a wake-up call for me on a number of levels. I know that DD's Hebrew reading is weak as she only hears, speaks and reads English at home. However, the teacher started talking about having her assessed for learning difficulties. I dismissed this as ridiculous as she can read perfectly well in English.

"Can she read a text and write answers to questions about it?" Asked the teacher. "Um no," I mumbled in reply.

So on one level I realised that we need to practise Hebrew reading at home and that homework has to be more of a learning experience than just a matter of getting it done and out of the way - which had been our attitude to it thus far.

On another level I realised that, like the proverbial cobbler whose children go barefoot, I had been neglecting DD's English skills. She is comfortable reading English on a "Frog and Toad" sort of level but she's 7 years old. If we don't step it up now she might end up with no language in which she can read extensively and express herself in writing, despite being able to speak fluently in two languages.

We started practising Hebrew reading every night as well as English reading and we invited a friend in a similar position to join us once a week for a formal English lesson. The fact that the other child comes to his English lesson with his books and his pencil every week at a set time, gives us the formal structure to do some real work which we never seemed to find time for on our own.

Then last week I was talking to another mother who happened to mention the word list for the spelling test this week. I knew that they had been having spelling tests recently. DD showed me that so far she's got 7/10, 6/13 and a momentous 1/11, which is when she decided to show me. She wasn't overly upset about it but I think she needed an ally. I had sent an email to the teacher asking if there was a word list but got no reply. Turns out they were getting a printed list of words every week but DD had no idea what it was for so she just 'lost' it somewhere.

I'm sure all this information was in an email somewhere but I tend to skim the emails for the letters ש"ב (HW - homework). The emails are in Hebrew and I'm not very good at reading the long, details about what they are learning in school. If they're teaching it I'm happy with it and I assume that my child is learning it.

So this week we made sure we had the list. The test is today. Last night DD copied the list of words out once. Then she tried writing the list under test conditions and got 9/14. So we took notice of the mistakes and tried again. This time she got 13/14. We did it one more time and got 100%. This morning before school she 'took the test' again and got 14/14 again.

I'm on shpilkes waiting to hear how she got on. I just checked her timetable on the fridge and saw that Hebrew isn't until the end of the day. Ooooof, I want it to be over already. I wanted her to get it down while she still remembered. I can hardly wait for 4.30 when I collect her from school.

LOL. If I'm like this now for a spelling test in 2nd Grade, what am I going to be like when the serious exams come round in ten years time?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The No Snow Saga 2016

Please excuse the clothes dryer - I brought it in to keep it clean and dry.
We are in the mountains and a freeze-thaw-freeze situation makes our roads treacherous. Add to that the fact that no one is experienced in driving in ice or snow conditions and that the city does not keep road clearing equipment for two days a year (if that). It's safer and cheaper to just shut down for the duration.

However, to understand the actions and reactions and general hysteria in Jerusalem when snow is forecast, you have to go back two years. We had quite a heavy snowstorm that year (heavy for us means about 10cm) and snow tourists flocked in from the centre of the country (they never get snow in Tel Aviv). That year the snow was heavier than usual and many people got trapped in their cars on the highways for up to 24 hours. In the city they had to open up schools to house the stranded snow tourists over the weekend. We were stuck at home for a glorious five days!

So last year they shut the roads early in and out of Jerusalem and closed all public institutions. They weren't taking any chances. In the spirit of not taking any chances, we got three days off school and no snow. It was hilarious.

Obviously this year, as a result of last year, they are not being too premature and even though snow was forecast for last night, they made us wait until 5am this morning before making a decision. The suspense on fb last night was killing me. At 9.30pm my college cancelled today. As this is where I work on Tuesdays it was all over for me at that point. And the snow had started by the time I went to bed at 11.

At 4.30am I woke up and looked outside. There was snow on the cars. I turned off the alarm and went back to sleep.

Imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning (at 9.15) and outside was wet but clear. "Is there school today?" asked DD. Me: I don't think so but I'll check on the computer. Of course there was school and fb was full of posts about disappointed children (and teachers) having to be in school at 8am. Woops.

So we are sitting here at the computers - me blogging and DD watching Tangled - and watching the no snow out of the window. It keeps trying to snow. Is it sleet? Is it snow? Is it getting warmer? Is it all over? Probably.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Five Years And What's Changed?

Five years and two days to be precise. I remember walking home from the nursery with my friend Shira as she explained to me what a blog is and how to set one up - basically google blogspot and follow the instructions. A few hours later and I was a blogger.

The first post. Cute. I got some encouragement from veteran bloggers who I later discovered were only about three months ahead of me in the game. I think Gemma was my first blog friend. And I now see that Jazzy commented on that post so I guess we've also known each other for five years. Reading back over some of the posts I wonder if maybe a blog cull is called for. Not all posts are keepers.

I joined a couple of online parent bloggers' groups in the US and followed some blogs. It didn't take me long to realise that I felt more at home with the British bloggers.

At the time I was the mother of a just 2yo who'd been in full time childcare since September. I was fast coming to the end of the money I'd saved up to allow me to be a fulltime mum for a while and I'd not yet found gainful employment.

The job in publishing where I wrote educational textbooks no longer existed as the company had folded with the ongoing global recession. I loved that job. Shame.

I went to a first interview in a non-profit organisation run by Americans with serious career-heads. The hours would have had me dropping DD off at nursery at 7.30 (when it opens), running out the office door to catch a bus to pick her up at 4.30 and every bus ride being fraught with anxiety in case I was late. And what if she were ill? What if she were sick for a week? I couldn't take the stress and embarrassment of having to call in sick on a regular basis.

I needed to get back into education somehow, somewhere. But how? Where? And meanwhile no money left.

My apartment was a mess. Full of baby equipment, too much furniture acquired over the years for previous abodes and that never quite fit into this one. Boxes of donated baby clothes till about age 8 (yes we're still wearing some of it now). Too many books (yes you can) and too much stuff in general.

I was bored, underemployed, eating for comfort and lonely.

Fast forward five years and what has changed?

I found that perfect job in a Teacher Training College which got me back into a work environment I love. It took a few more years of miracles (I honestly don't know how I managed to keep afloat for the next four years) before finally having enough work to actually cover the monthly expenses. There's little to spare but at least the fear of losing everything has been erased. This final piece of the jigsaw puzzle only fell into place during the last few months. It's not perfect by any means but it's a lot more secure than previously.

I also started paying myself first, as they say in all the how to be a millionaire books. I've been putting away a small amount each month. Money that I thought I couldn't afford to save has been saved and it's starting to add up to that small-medium emergency fund you're supposed to have. Another leg of security.

I embraced decluttering and minimal(ish)ism.

The baby equipment and the toys in the living room have long gone. The boxes of hand-me-downs have been worn and handed down again. Books were culled and five bookcases (yes five!) were let go. OK, I replaced two of them with two smaller bookcases but we're still three down. A desk went, a new wall turned a walk-through room into a proper bedroom, a second toilet and a proper shower were installed in place of the old bath, and finally just this week I got my new (2nd hand) dining table which is the right shape for the room. Less is definitely more manageable and more comfortable to live with. I'm loving the space.

Blogging has changed my life and saved my sanity. I joined facebook and twitter only to publicise the blog - I didn't really get it before. Both these platforms have led to networks of new friends (twitter) and reconnections with old friends far and wide (facebook). Groups have allowed us to share information, conversations and all sorts of entertainment without the need of a babysitter.

Best of all, it's all written down. Well most of it. Not the really private bits. It's like a journal with photos and public feedback.

I am still overweight. It's a process.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Shiva (Week Of Mourning)

I want to write about the shiva week but have no idea exactly what I want to say. You already know what shiva is from this previous post so I don't have to explain it. I'm just going to write and see what emerges.

Of course there are the usual shiva stereotypes as with any social gathering. I'm not going to describe the ones I spotted at our shiva as everyone came out of kindness and love and there's an awkwardness around death that can affect people's behaviour despite themselves. Having said that, no one came too early or stayed too late. No rabbis or other learned friends gave long or boring sermons.

My sister's community works like a well oiled machine with a big heart. The friend arranging a meal rota so that home cooked suppers were delivered every day for all nine of us, called to ask if she could also arrange lunches as too many people wanted to contribute.

The 'rules' of mourning are not rules but customs that have evolved into strong tradition. This means you get a lot of flexibility if you are the sort of person who is open to flexibility. I am and so is my mother.

The traditional meal on returning to the shiva house after the funeral is a hard boiled egg, a bagel (with optional butter) and some pickled or salted herring. I'm guessing here that the round foods symbolize the circle of life as does the fish (fish being a fertility symbol) and the pickled or salted aspect symbolizes your sadness and salty tears. I also assume that this was the traditional light lunch or breakfast in the shtetl and it stuck.

You are supposed to wear the same clothes every day and not to wash for a week. This can be interpreted as wearing the same item that was ripped at the funeral. Our ripped garments were cardigans and we wore them every day. My mother and I (and DD) returned to her flat every night where we showered and returned the next day with fresh clothes under the cardigan. I can't speak for the others, I didn't notice.

I also developed an obsession with washing my hands as so many people said, "I won't kiss you as I'm a bit fluey so I'll just shake hands."

There is a mourner's payer, the Kaddish, that the children say for their dead parent (or for themselves, I'm not quite sure), Traditionally only men said this prayer, three times a day for 11 months, in a minyan (a quorum of 10 men who pray together). Nowadays many women say it as well. My sister wanted to say it in a minyan. The the first opportunity for a service at home during the shiva was the afternoon service on Sunday. They started counting around for a minyan. We had five men over the age of Bar Mitzva in the house, they have a neighbour with two sons, and there were two male visitors. We women didn't count at all and were expected to stand at the back. At that point I decided I would be saying my Kaddish alone and not in any exclusively men's minyan. (Btw, there are many enlightened Jewish communities that run with complete egality of the sexes but my sister belongs to a more orthodox community.)

There were pleasant surprises when two friends from Israel turned up as they happened to be in London. An old boyfriend from when I was 17 and I hadn't seen since (although we are fb friends). Friends from my childhood, schooldays, youth club, college years... I have in the past not made it to a shiva, thinking no one would mind as plenty of others would be there and I'm not so close to the person anymore. I've re-thought this after sitting shiva myself. It's so wonderful to see your whole life pop up and come to comfort you. Along with cousins we hadn't seen in years - we found ourselves slipping back into the past and retelling it with warm nostalgia.

DD was taken out by various friends with younger children every day. She had a blast and somehow managed to come home each day with a present in hand. However, her biggest treat was when my b-i-l taught her how to do the washing up and allowed her to wash up whenever there was something in the sink. She said to me, "it's a shame we don't have something like this at home." She pointed to the dish drainer next to the sink. Me: "we do have something like that darling, I'll point it out to you when we get home."

What can I tell you, we had a good shiva.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Funeral

We were greeted at the funeral grounds by a lovely man, I think he was Irish, who explained to us what was going to happen and in what order. My sister had the official documents that had to be handed over and we also discussed how we would like to perform certain traditions that can be approached in different ways.

My cousin's wife had brought a small pair of scissors so we could make a cut and tear our clothes. It's a small tear on the left above your heart in one garment and you wear that item for the entire week.

The order of service is that we start in the prayer hall for some prayers and someone or someones, in this case my father's rabbi and my sister, speak about the deceased. Then, led by the chief mourners (us), everyone follows the casket down to the grave. Then we all come back to the prayer hall for more prayers and finally the mourners walk out first and greet (not sure that's the right word) all the friends and family as they come out. (This final bit was the option we chose above greeting everyone inside the hall on our way out as that takes ages and feels a bit undignified - like we're celebrities on a red carpet or the Royal Family doing a walkabout.)

I had removed myself emotionally from the whole purpose of the occasion right up until entering the prayer hall. I can do that. Better than falling apart all over the place in public. But then you walk in and see the coffin and think, my Daddy's in that box. I felt my eyes well up but I got it under control before any tears fell.

There were over 200 people at the funeral. Possibly more, I'm not very good at estimating crowds so it could have been more. Two of my closest friends from school came and stood right behind me. It was a real comfort that they were there. I can't say why, but it was. Later as we walked to the graveside I saw and spoke to other friends from my youth - teenage years in our youth club, camping holidays, college days and trips to Israel. I had imagined that after almost 30 years living in Israel, it would be all my parents' and sister and brothers' friends I'd see so it was lovely and quite emotional to see that people had come for me.

A few elderly people came - Aunty Hazel! Aunty Judy! etc... None of them family but my parents' friends from our childhood who came round for tea while we played with their children in the garden before being called in for fish fingers and chips for supper together.

And the family. My father has 19 first cousins and there are about 39 of us second cousins. Apart from on facebook we only really see each other at funerals and shivas as there are too many to invite to a celebration. What can I say, it's lovely to see them all even if it's usually because someone has died.

There were prayers. The rabbi spoke and said how Dad had been the Bob The Builder of our synagogue - always on hand to fix or build something. I remember him painting the blackboards for the Hebrew classes and building the sukkah. My sister spoke about how Dad never saw a problem but would rather find a solution and quietly implement the solution before most people had even seen the problem. I cried a bit then.

We three children said the mourners' Kaddish aloud at the appropriate time. The Irishman came up and told me to slow down as my Hebrew was more fluent than my siblings and I was getting ahead. I tried not to feel pleased about that. No I didn't actually. I felt smug about it.

Then we followed the coffin to the grave. They kept stopping which we thought was to allow everyone to keep up but later we learned they stopped to say psalms. The casket was on a trolley draped with a velvet curtain and pulled by professional burial people. They just said the psalms quietly and by heart. We were standing right behind the trolley and we didn't hear any psalms. It reminded me of the stations of the cross - maybe there's a connection, I bet that's what Jesus was doing.

The burial grounds are on the outskirts of London in Green Belt country. It's beautiful. I thought to myself - I want to be buried here and not in the hot, foreign, scrub of the Middle East. I thought of the poet Rupert Brooke's grave on the Greek Island of Skyros and his poem yearning for tea in Granchester. That'll be me I thought. Others may have been saying psalms at that point but I was reciting in my heart - If I should die think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field, That is forever England.

At the graveside the coffin is lowered into the hole and then the mourners each file past and throw or shovel some earth onto it. In that way you are buried by your family and friends. They had a small box of dry stuff for the ladies who didn't shovel and didn't want to get their hands dirty. And now I've just realized something as I'm writing this.

On the way back into the prayer hall there are basins and everyone is invited to wash their hands. Traditionally it's to wash off any evil spirits (or even just spirits) who gather around death and graveyards. I was walking with my mother who steered us past the washing stations as she said she didn't believe in that. Now I realize that you need to wash your hands if you've been shoveling mud to fill a grave or even throwing in a handful with your bare hands. I love it when I see a practical reason for old superstitions.

After the final round of prayers the four of us chief mourners walked out of the prayer hall down the central isle and waited outside to speak to our family and friends. As it happened, my mother's friend decided that Mum didn't need to stand outside in the cold and that anyone who wanted to speak to her could come back to the house. As they were driving us back to my sister's where we would be sitting shiva for the week, we had to go with them. We ended up standing outside my sister's house in the cold as we didn't have the key and she was still being 'comforted by the mourners' at the burial grounds.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Call Expats Dread

We call it the dreaded call. The one where they tell you one of your elderly parents has died and you need to get yourself back in time for the funeral. In Jewish tradition this is held as soon as possible - the next day at the latest.

I got the call last Thursday 31/12/15 at 12.30 am. We had been in London for Hanuka at the beginning of December and I knew this was probably the last time I would see my father but I thought it would be a few more weeks before I got the call. However, I knew it was the call as soon as the phone rang so late at night. What else could it be?

I'd already consulted with my friend who is a travel agent and she'd told me that there was nothing she could do with El Al if it was outside office hours. But of course you can book EasyJet (or Monarch now) online at any time of the day or night. So at 1am I booked us two flights to Luton for later that day.

I put a short message up on facebook. Messages of condolence started coming back. It's amazing how many people are up at all hours from 1 am till 5 am. The laptop was pinging every few minutes. I was up as I suddenly realized that we had no clean clothes to take with us and I had to do laundry.

I had been sick with a sore throat for about 10 days previously and I'd been going to bed early and not cleaning or doing any laundry, We had finally run out of clothes but I would have been working from home that Thursday so I'd planned to catch up with all the household stuff during the next day. Instead I did three washes and hung the wet laundry in the spare bedroom with the heater on in the hope that some of it would dry by the time we had to leave for the airport. It didn't but at least I came home to clean clothes a week later.

I also had to clean my flat as I thought friends might come to visit me when we got back if I was still sitting shiva. In the end I wasn't still sitting shiva as the funeral was earlier than we'd expected. At 5 am I finished cleaning the bathrooms and the kitchen and tidying up and packing. I thought I'd get a couple of hours sleep before DD woke up at about 7 but people started calling as they woke up and saw I'd been on fb throughout the night.

I told people that it wasn't unexpected and they said it's ok to be upset even if it was expected, but I didn't have time to be upset. Along with all the cleaning, washing, packing, and travel arrangements I also had to inform all my places of work and students that I'd be away for a week.

Eventually we boarded our plane on Thursday afternoon and I promptly fell asleep for most of the flight. DD looked out the window, did colouring and sticker books and also slept for some of the way. It was an uneventful journey, no different from the one we'd done only three weeks before. I didn't really relate to the fact that we were coming back to bury my father.