Friday, July 12, 2019

With help from the heavens

Life in Israel is pretty much similar to life anywhere on the planet. People die and get born, go to school and university and we celebrate birthdays and weddings. We are also confronted daily by numerous billboards trying to sell us anything from cars to sunglasses.

But there is a small detail that I have noticed only here in Israel. (Though it is apparently also found in religious Jewish countries around the world.) In the upper right corner of death notices, birth or wedding invitations and on some billboards (usually aimed at the religious population) you will find the words bs”d. (Not to be confused with BDS!)

I heard that religious Jews also write these three letters at the top of their notes, letters and other correspondence.

But what does it mean? Is it a secret code?

Bs’d is an acronym for the ancient Aramaic phrase,  “be’saida de’samaima”. It means with the help of the heavens.

The word “heavens” refers to God, as in with the help of God we are hosting this wedding. Or with the help of God the restaurant advertised on this billboard will serve these delicious smelling coffee and cakes ...

The word heavens instead of God is used because the sender is worried that the invitation or notebook or advertisement will eventually be thrown out and go to a landfill.

Old Bibles and religious writings or any piece of paper referring to God are carefully disposed in a genizah. A genizah is sort of like disposal place for religious Jewish texts such as old Bibles and papers with religious content.

An ancient language that is still used today

One of the intriguing things for me about the words “be’saida de’samaima” is that it is in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Middle East years and years ago. Sort of like English today.

The Talmud and other ancient religious writings were written in Aramaic. Anyone serious about studying Judaism will definitely also learn some of this ancient language too. Luckily there are many similarities to Hebrew, so if you know your Hebrew well, you can more or less figure out the Aramaic.

WHO could make such a silly spelling mistake?

Some Aramaic words became part of the modern Hebrew spoken today in Israel. I will never forget how I learnt that the word “safta” ,which means grandmother, is actually an Aramaic word.
Female words such as grandmother usually ends in a “h” in Hebrew, so I presumed that it is written in Hebrew as 住讘转讛 and not 住讘转讗 when my daughters ( they were still.small and needed my help) and I wrote their Hebrew-speaking granny a birthday card.

For some reason my sister-in-law looked at the card and asked WHO wrote safta with an h! BIG spelling mistake! It was then that I learnt that the contemporary words for grandmother and grandfather in Hebrew are actually Aramaic words.

Aramaic for everyone

Speaking or Aramaic words, there is an Aramaic phrase that nearly everyone knows but do not know that it is Aramaic.

It is abra kedabara! And I have no idea why it has become this phrase said by magicians but it is quite fitting.

Abra kedabara means “I will create with my words”. As a writer I thought that this is such a cool battle-cry for wordsmiths because we DO create with our words. How cool will it be to add these words at the top of my notebooks and blog posts!

But abra kedabara actually refers to spoken words. It is rather “I will create with the words that I say” and is much.more suitable for magicians than writers. 

So now I have to figure out an Aramaic battle-cry for people like me who create with written words. Sadly Google translate does not have an Aramaic translation option and I only know a few phrases and words myself. Basically all the words that I have mentioned up to now.

I will create

In the end I decided to let the blank page be my muse, my battle-cry and my plea for help. 

Religious Jewish people already have bs”d to write at the top of their pages, Steven Pressfield says a prayer to the muses and others literary put on their writing hats. That is, a hat that they only wear when they write. 

My personal style is to just jump right in and start writing. I usually have the words and thoughts already milling about in my head and it is a bit of a relief to finally start writing them down and start to make sense of them. 

But some help from the heavens will always be appreciated!
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Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Badass Women of the Bible

Ruth picking up left-over wheat by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

In February, during the activities of international women’s day, a friend sent me a meme that mentioned some of the amazing women of the Bible with a sentence underneath that said something like: “Women has ALWAYS been strong”. 

I totally loved the sentiment, so admiration to all the badass women we have always had here in Israel, I want to highlight these women from the Tanach who lived so long ago.

The Tanach is the part of the Bible that Christians refer to as the Old Testament. There may be older scripts than Hebrew in the world but I doubt that they have such fascinating stories about the badass women of their times.


The wife of Abraham the patriarch followed him into Canaan, was ‘stolen’ twice from her husband and was barren for many years. Everyone always focuses on Abraham as the father of the monotheist religions but they forget that Sarah is just as an important part in the onset of these religions. As the first matriarch she was a formidable woman but we also read about her mistakes, jealousy and sorrow.

She also had a cool sense of humour. Abraham and Sarah both laughed when God told them that they become parents. When her son was eventually born, she called him Yitzhak which means “he will laugh” in Hebrew! 

Why I like her:

She did not hesitate to make the unpopular but correct decision. She knew that Hagar and her son Ismael could not stay and told Abraham to send them away. She also made several mistakes but I feel that this only  show us that she was a real person, just like all of us and not a “superwoman” or  “goddess-like” character that belongs on a pedestal


The wife of Yitzhak and the second of the matriarchs. She was also barren for a long time and then had a difficult pregnancy with twins, Esau and Jacob.

Rebeccah giving water to Eliezer by Bartolom茅 Esteban Murillo

Why I like her:

She was kind-hearted, she gave Yitzhak’s servant and his camels water, and also adventurous. Rebeccah agreed to go to another country and marry a man she had never met. She encouraged the younger Jacob to deceive his father and receive the blessing of the first-born. This act of hers made her seem manipulative but who better than a mother who knows the nature of her children and what they are capable of?


She is the sister of Moses. Not only did she hid her baby brother in a basket in the Nile but she also kept watch over him. And when Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses when she took her bath, his big sister ‘conveniently’ knew of an available wet nurse.

Why I like her:

Miriam is the typical older sister who has become a surrogate mother for her little brother. If it was not for her (and several other women as Pharoah’s daughter) Moses would not have lived. Later on, during the exodus, she was also an important leader, just like her brothers, Aaron and Moses. 

Naomi and Ruth

Naomi was a Hebrew women but lived with her husband, her two sons and her daughters’ in-law in the Moabites land because there was a serious famine in Israel. When her husband and sons died, she decided to go back to her people in Israel. 

Her daughter-in-law Ruth decided to accompany her poor mother-in-law to a country where she did not know anybody. Also the Hebrews were not exactly fans of the Moabites. Naomi and Ruth were so poor that Ruth had to pick up the wheat stalks that were left behind on the fields as charity.

Why I like them: 

They both took a leap of faith into a very unknown and uncertain future. Their strong love and regard for each other bonded them through the deaths of their husbands and going into an uncertain but probably poor future.They may not have much but at least they had each other.

Vashti and Esther

Esther usually takes the center stage but she couldn’t have saved the Jewish people in Persia if it weren’t for Vashti.

Vashti was the queen of Persia. During a long festival her husband asked her to join him and his drunken cronies so that he can brag about her beauty. She refused and was executed because of it.

Esther, a Jewish orphan, was pushed by her uncle to apply to the beauty pageant that in the end led to her being chosen to be the new queen. Eventually she had to approach the king (without waiting to be summoned) to plead for the lives of her people.

Why I like them: 

 Both of them were “beauty-queen” beautiful but they didn’t just enjoyed their elevated lifestyle that their good looks gave them. They stood by their principles and chose the difficult option even though it led to Vashti’s death and could have led to Esther’s death too.


Deborah was the only female judge that ruled over the Jews before they decided that they also wanted kings as rulers. During her time as judge, the Jews were terrorized by Jabin, a king of Canaan, and his general Sisera how had an army that included 900 iron chariots. 

Deborah asked the Jewish general Barak to gather men to go and fight against him. He agreed but on the condition that she accompany them to the battle. She did so but added that Barak will not get the honour of killing Sisera but a woman will. The Jews defeated Jabin’s army with the help of a sudden flood that swept away some of his soldiers and that caused the chariots to get stuck in the mud.

Why I like her:

Deborah showed excellent leader skills. She did not decide to lead the Hebrew army herself but choose the general, Barak, for the battle. And then she did not hesitate to leave her duties and family to go and support this unconfident and doubtful leader.  (Maybe Barak was looking for someone to blame if the Jews lost the battle..)


Yael’s story is closely connected to that of Deborah. As Jabin’s army was defeated, Sisera abandoned his soldiers and looked for water and shelter. Yael helped him and when he fell asleep, she took a sharp tent pin and hammer and drove the pen through Sisera’s skull. She fulfilled Deborah’s prophecy that a woman will kill the general.

Yael and Sisera by Jacopo Amigon

Why I like her:

She must have looked quite unthreatening to Sisera but her story shows that you should never underestimate a woman. Especially if she is very innovative with finding dual purposes for objects such as tent pins!

And many more...

Abigail, Rahab, Tamar, Puah and Shiphrah and Jochebed and more. There are MANY other women whose acts of bravery saved the day and caused events to unfold as they did. 

As long as I can remember, it was always the actions of the men mentioned in the Bible that got told over and over again. The women are usually presented as vague secondary characters, assistants to the men. 

If you read their stories as they are written in the Bible, it is obvious that these women were strong badass three-dimensional humans with strengths and flaws just as interesting as those of the men of the Bible. 

One of the ways to raise confident female leaders of the future, is to teach them about these amazing female leaders of the past.

Long live the matriarchy! 

With grateful thanks for Alex, who set me that meme that inspired this post.

If you'd like to receive my occasional "Letter from Israel" in your email box, how about signing up at the box in the top-right corner. I am a fierce hater of spam myself and I promise that I only send out these emails VERY occasionally - though I really should be a bit less lazy.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

When the almond trees flower

The almond blossoms have a special place in the hearts of Israelis

We are right at the entrance of spring now in Israel. Luckily we had a lot of rain this winter and everywhere is clean and green.

We are already enjoying the spring flowers but one cannot talk (okay write..☺) about spring flowers without mentioning almond blossoms.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

1001 objects from Israel - The Suspicious Object

Introducing the "1001 objects from Israel" project!

As a push to get myself to write more on my blog, I am trying to make my monthly (cough...actually every once and awhile) newsletter a bit more interesting and content rich for my readers.

More readers = more writing on my part because I would be too ashamed to send out boring newsletters!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Christmas in Israel

The Arab Christians in Haifa take their Christmas decorations very seriously!

It feels a bit strange to write about Christmas in Israel because the majority of the population here do not celebrate it. For most of us, it is just another working day. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Simchat Torah - Dancing with Bibles

By Roylindman - Template:Roy Lindman, CC BY-SA 3.0

We have just reached the very end of a long list of Jewish holidays. We went through RoshHaShana (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur, Sukkot (the holiday of the huts) and now finally we have reached Simchat Torah.

Simhat Torah literally means to “Rejoice in the Torah”. The Torah is the first five books in the Jewish Bible. It is sometimes called the Pentateuch by Christians which means “five scrolls”.

The rest of the Jewish Bible is made out of the stories of the prophets (Nevi'im) and the writings (Ketuvim). The T of Torah, N of Nevi'im and the K of Ketuvim give us the Tanakh. The Tanakh is known to Christians as the Old Testament.

But this is all about the Torah, so let’s go back to the beginning...

The five books of the Torah - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are known in Hebrew by the first word in every book.

Genesis is called “In the beginning” - 讘ְּ专ֵ讗砖ִׁ讬转
Exodus is called “Names” - 砖ְׁ诪讜ֹ转
Leviticus is called “Vayikra” that means "And He called" in Hebrew - 讜ַ讬ִּ拽ְ专ָ讗
Numbers is called “BaMidbar” in the desert - 讘ְּ诪ִ讚ְ讘ַּ专
Deuteronomy is called “Devarim” (words) - 讚ְּ讘ָ专ִ讬诐

It is believed that Moses wrote these five books but lately different authors have been suggested.

What is special about  the Torah is that these five books are still written today in the form of a scroll. An experienced scribe copies the words by hand with a quill on the parchment of a kosher animal.

Writing a new Torah scroll is quite an undertaking. The scribe has to know how to write ancient calligraphy, make the special ink and quill, prepare the parchments and then do the actual writing, without making even one mistake.

The photo below shows a section from the Aleppo Codex of the bible book Joshua 1:1.
Just look at how straight the letters are written!

Once all the parchments have been written, they are the stitched together with thread made of animal veins and attached to wooden rollers. These amazing scrolls are usually housed in a synagogue in a special ornamental cupboard known as an ark. The ark is placed on the wall that faces Jerusalem.

On a usual week, the Torah is taken from the ark and read out loud on Monday, Thursday, and twice on Shabbat.

The five books of the Torah are divided up in 54 segments called ‘parshiot”. Every week a different portion, or parshah is read until the entire scroll is read through throughout the year.  Some portions are read together in the years that are not a leap year. The size of the sections are not equal, they can be anything between 30 to 150 verses long.

Jews all over the world read the same parsha every week. So it doesn’t matter if you are in Tel Aviv,  Madrid or Australia, you will know exactly which portion should be read.

Today, on Simchat Torah day, the last verses of Deuteronomy is read and then immediately the first verses of Genesis are read.

It is a huge celebration when the readings of the year is completed. People are dancing and singing, eating and drinking. As many people as possible are given the Torah to hold and dance with. (Not women or children though).

I once asked a religious Jewish woman why women are not allowed to dance with the Torah. Until today I am not 100% sure if I agree with her answer.

She said that it is enough for women to see men dancing with the Torah. Given the heavy weight of the scroll and the repercussion of letting it fall - I am personally okay with only letting the men dance with the scroll.

What I really like about Simhat Torah is that the connects the body and mind. The happiness of coming to the end of a long year of reading and study spills out into joyous dancing.

We do not just live in our minds but also in our bodies.

And sometimes, when you are really happy, you just have to DANCE!!

If you'd like to receive my occasional "Letter from Israel" in your email box, how about signing up at the box in the top-right corner. I am a fierce hater of spam myself and I promise that I only send out these emails VERY occasionally - though I really should be a bit less lazy.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Walking on aquaducts

The old Roman aquaduct near Caesarea

I sometimes get jealous when I see what cool stuff people from other countries get to do.
They can easily visit world famous museums, ski in the snow every winter or climb really
high mountains.

Or there are these amazing trails such as the Appalachian trail or the Camino de Santiago
were you can just lose yourself in nature. (In Israel we lose ourselves on the couches under
the air conditioning.)

But you know what they do not have?

Friday, August 17, 2018

Netta Barzilay - The Israeli singer who had us all clucking

Life in Israel is never boring. The other day I was walking along a street in Tel Aviv and suddenly a guy next to me just chirped like some kind of robot chicken.

And of course I didn’t freak out, or even floated the “WTF!” thought bubble above my head. I knew exactly what was going on. The guy was merely singing from Netta Barzilay’s song “Toy”.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Middle Eastern Sesame Cookies

Middle Eastern Sesame Cookies

Having a decent cookie to dip in your cup of coffee or tea has always been part of my childhood. And now I am the one that has to fill the cookie tins.... :)

The taste of my cookies is usually influenced by my Western upbringing but I have been living in Israel for a while now, so I have decided to experiment with honey and sesame seeds. These two ingredients are as Middle Eastern (and Mediterranean!) as it gets and are often found in sweet treats.

You can find the entire recipe here: Middle Estern Sesame Cookies

I encourage you to try the recipe. It is quite easy, the ingredients are not difficult to get hold of AND it is really delicious!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Yaron's remember garden

We had just experienced another tense and emotional period here in Israel. 

Once again we commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day and remembered the fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. And then the sorrow slowly turned into joy as we celebrated 70 years of independence.