blogitto ergo sum

October 13, 2014

#222 – where your classroom is a country

Filed under: Israel,life matters,Opinionated,that Jewish thing,US life — yael [ya-el] wagner @ 01:03
Tags: , , ,

Election2014On November 2nd, I’ll practice my civic right, and vote in the 2014 Interim Election. My first! Staring at all the material I need to read to ensure I vote as I should, I realize how different is this democracy, compared to the one I grew up in. Living here for as long as I have, passing the citizenship interview/test, getting sworn in, getting a 2nd blue passport – all these steps were only the beginning. There’s more to US citizenship. And you don’t learn about it, unless you are one, unless you are totally in.

Many-many years ago, i was the [wait for it] Head Counselor of the Tel Aviv University Overseas Student Program [TAU OSP]. Breathe. It was indeed a very long title.  It was my first exposure and intense interaction with Native Americans [pun intended] excluding TV. American students, as opposed to Mexican, Canadian, and the rest of the world students, were the dominant majority [~85-90%] of the program. At that point in time, they were the US for me.

Whether it was getting them to hike to the top of Masada pre-dawn via the Snake Path to see the sunrise from the top, sharing an ambulance ride with a student that tried to commit suicide, or finding a way to tell an excited student that the nice Jewish boy she wants to introduce to her parents when they visit, is indeed very nice, but not at all Jewish, were but a few of my memorable interactions. The challenge of explaining that caring the water jerrycan is a team responsibility to students who didn’t go to Young Judaea or Habonim Dror. It was interesting. Given that I have had yet to visit the US, those interactions and experiences were the building blocks of my American perspective.

Masada Snake Path

It wasn’t until I started visiting the US on a regular basis [while living in Canada], and later living here, that I realized how distorted one’s perception may be, when it is based on a skewed sample, in a very specific setting. You can’t really learn a country or people from afar.  I know how wrong, how far off I was.

[Hold that thought]

Contradictory to Israel’s pathetic PR track record, the OSP had a brilliant one.

“Where Your Classroom is a Country”

TAU OSPSimply brilliant. Hey, I didn’t coin it. Every product / product marketing manager would be proud to have such a befitting slogan.

Every [American] student got a T-shirt with this slogan, before leaving for Israel. Americans dig marketing better than most.

In my latest cleanup & declutter [part #∞], I found the Canadian version that I produced when running the Canadian office, [and recognizing that Canada is so “not the same” [as the US]. Tomorrow, the shirts will be on their way to those who were quick to claim them.

[Keep on holding to that thought]

Between the High Holidays and the recent war, now less interesting since we got ISIS to feed the media, the last couple of months included a lot of, “So what is it with Israel? Can you please explain the war? What is going on? Who & What should I believe?”

israel facesI greatly appreciate everyone who tries to understand, who is honest enough to admit that s/he isn’t sure what’s going on in that troubled region. I respect anyone who wonders what’s behind rating-driven media coverage, money, and political agendas. I try to answer, share, and be as objective as I can. But, to really understand Israel, let alone the overall Middle East mess, you need to take yourself to the class… We – Israelis [in and outside Israel] – are a complicated bunch, with contradictions and inconsistencies being our normal. Our normal includes terrorism, religious fanaticism, and bleeding edge technology. It doesn’t include camels though. We, too, think of them as an attraction. My point? Israel’s normal is too often another’s ‘different.’

For example…

Israel is surrounded by countries that, generally speaking, wish it didn’t exist. Countries, one should point out, that when it comes to access to education & technology, personal freedom, and all other 21st century western world givens, are behind, and not necessarily interested in catching up. Israel pockets of archaic life styles are the whole garment in most of its Muslim neighbors.

Little in common with the neighbors is an understatement – check!

Known and respected for innovation in science, technology, medicine & pharmaceuticals, agriculture… with Israelis present, holding positions, sharing, partnering in most research and industries that advance us all. Yet, at the same time, thought of as a remote unstable desert somewhere.

The only Jewish state, with a minority population that can hardly be thought of as a minority. Home for immigrants, legal or not, from every corner of the world, only 66 years old, yet carries the weight of thousands of years of history. It’s the one place important to three religions that other than monotheism, agree on very little, though share a lot. Actually, make it four. The Baha’i faith, also monotheistic, has two of its most important shrines in Israel. This religious significance leads to a constant tension, not to say conflict, between the desire to be normal, and the push to be a symbol. Fundamentalists, Christians or Muslim, have a very clear view of what Israel should be… The Jewish fundamentalists have their vision too. Neither option will maintain an Israel I would ever consider living in. One or two of the options may change its name. All options will treat women as less than equal to men. The other abnormal for a western country is the unbridgeable gap, tension, and conflict between the desire to live in peace and the critical expensive battle for survival, living surrounded by hate, terrorism, and all too often wars.

You may wonder how this is all connected.  It’s about the Shoes, of course. Between taking a little pride in the brand of Katniss’ shoes and realizing that the election’s “study requirements” demonstrated to me that the country is a classroom… for the curious student.


September 29, 2013

#217 – That New Year Stuff


Every year, in the introspective period between Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and my birthday, I seek the learning, meaning, lessons, or insights of the year just ending.

For example, in 2010, I had my Slicha, I’m sorry project, posted HERE.

Last year, I was about eliminating the “but” and letting go of grudges.  This is key for a real slicha.  Letting go [of the anger, pain, hurt, even self-righteousness and own mistakes] is a critical step.  I shared it with you HERE.

This year, I was having a hard time picking the one that was IT.  Many lessons were dismissed, not meeting my criteria of significance.  It was getting uncomfortable.

As life has it, in sync with the end of the High Holidays and my birthday, I collided, heart first, with TWO lessons to work on in this coming year.  Each on its own would have been enough.  Together they are going to keep me on my toes, and I haven’t tried ballet since 3rd grade. These are not New Year resolutions.  It’s a public commitment to do better, not for 3 hours per week at the gym, 5 meals per week in the kitchen, or once a week in the filing cabinet, virtual or physical.  It’s a commitment to work, practice and modify the me that you and I know.  You are more than welcome to freely offer your feedback.  Please do.

Walking on egg shells

“I’ve been walking on egg shells around you,” he said.  Surprised, I said, “you need not, you didn’t need to.”

“I didn’t want to hurt you.  I never intend to offend you,” he said.  “Sometimes I just don’t know.”20130925 - walk eggshells

Time went to wherever it goes, and the tables turned.  And now I find myself tip-toeing on eggshells, hovering about, afraid I’ll crack even one shell.
It’s much harder than I’d ever imagined.  Simply put, it sucks.  I mean really, heavily, painfully sucks.

Imagine a ticker running in your head, asking, “Should I say this?  Can I initiate that?  Do I do/say nothing and patiently wait for him to ping?”  This is so! exhausting. I don’t know how he did it.  I don’t know how you can do it for more than a conversation.

A week of this experience, and I have tons of respect [tinted with guilt] for anyone who’d do it.  A week+ of a concentrated intense effort to crack no egg.  This is how much I care, love, value, and cherish the man and the friendship.  Doing nothing for the fear of doing the wrong thing, making the wrong comment… It is a torture, self-imposed, for a great cause, and yet, a torture.  As one who values directness and proactivity, this exercise of eggshells walking is a lesson, and its timing is perfect.

another nail in the fence (source:

The story of the kid and the nails in the fence comes to mind.  Yet, reading the story and getting

the potatoes we carry (source:

the point was much easier experience than being the kid and learning my lesson.  Eliav Alaluf, if my memory serves me right, posted a related story, about a kindergarten teacher illustrating the hate for another person with carrying a potato around, until it rots.

So here goes, and I encourage you to hold me accountable, to never make you walk on eggshells because of me, around me.  This is not about forgiveness; that’s easy.  It’s about being open and approachable, making it OK to make a mistake, say the wrong thing, the insensitive thing, or even the right thing in an off sort of way…  I will be open and willing to talk it over.  Another way of looking at it is for me, for us, to treat our tough, sensitive, high-risk conversations, offenses, arguments and disagreements, as snapchat-like conversations.

A snapchat chat? Yes.  Effective immediately, it’s OK to get pissed off or even get mad…  for a minute, maybe five, 15 minutes if you must.  Recording the chat and using it to eternity is not an option.

the wrong way to go about it (source:

Accepting one’s apology means it’s gone, done, forgotten.  You’d expect one to learn from mistakes, not repeat them.  That’s a given. However, some mistakes take more than one performance before the lesson is learned and internalized.  Some students, in some topics, are slow.  I’ve been blessed with your patience, allowing me and forgiving repeated mistakes until I got it, and stopped it.  Thank you!

There are amazing, very special people in my life, a few that I have conversations with, even when they are not present, valuing their view [and much more].  This is my apology, and a promise to do my best to avoid subjecting anyone to walking on eggshells.  Snapchat these interactions.

Should you feel that I falter, you have my permission to throw those eggs, cracked or not, fresh or not, at me.  Seriously.  A forewarning would be nice though.

The second challenge awaits its very own post.

September 23, 2012

#210 – Happy. Limited. Yom Kippur 2012

Peninsula Temple Sholom [] Tashlich ceremony, Sep.17, 2012

 Once again, Yom Kippur is here.  This year it’s not near or in the proximity of my birthday; the two are one and the same, leaving me no escape.  Two years ago, I had my Slicha project.  And it felt right, appropriate, a true act of cleansing.  Last year’s Yom Kippur was mellower; my slate was much less loaded.  And here I am, thinking Happy Limited thoughts.

An observation: nobody that I know or can think off, from the most observant to the most ignorant, says “I’m sorry.”  “Gmar Hatima Tova” is the common wish and greeting.  Thinking of the importance of asking for the forgiveness of the people in one’s life, I wonder how the observant settles the abyss between the fasting, the many long hours of praying to atone the wrong doing of year past, hoping God will see it your way, and doing nothing about the people you hurt, offended, bad-mouthed, gossiped about?

Asking for the forgiveness of a person, via phone, SMS, email or the hardest – face-to-face while maintaining eye contact – is so much harder than praying or fasting.

So let me say it out right.  I am not perfect.  I offended few people this past year, and I try very hard not to let myself easily off by saying that they hurt me too, hurt me first, hurt me more.  This is my Yom Kippur, my Slicha, [and birthday too].

And I’m sorry, for the impatience, for the disrespect, for self-centered moments, for overdose of directness some of you rather I didn’t employ. And yet, there are two things I am sorry for, regret most and want to self-inflict a mental Tashlich on my mind.

First, is the sin of holding a grudge, of maintaining or nourishing the offense, the insult, the hurt, the anger, self-righteousness.  Last February, on a fun-free visit in Israel, I was speechless [only for a moment, really] to find out that my mom had been holding a grudge [based on a complete misunderstanding] against a friend since 2004.  Pointing out the very obvious stupidity of the unjustified sense of offence was met with the stubbornness of “I’ve been angry and offended by this for so long, why stop now?” duh?!

Now, seven months later, as Yom Kippur approaches, I want to clean my slate of grudges, offenses, bad air, ill-feelings I’ve been carrying around for no good reason.  Time to let go.

Here’s my Tashlich list:

The anger of your using my love for you to your advantage.  Off you go.

The lingering offense for your treating me as a lesser person than you, the disrespect you showed, your patronizing “I’m so much smarter than you” attitude.  Out of my head, vanish.  I should not seek the company of such.

The pain of being forgotten by you that I carry around.  Let the past be the past.  Moving on.

The anger of letting you treat me with disrespect, while I say nothing and yet hold it against you. No more. Out of my system, now.

The frustration with your demanding of me what you don’t demand of yourself.  No more.  I shall do what I think is right, and call out your double-standard as it happens.  Will no longer allow it to be a voice ringing in my head, but make it a part of our dialog.

Allowing myself to be put down by your insensitivity, not to say self-centered view – no more.

The prayer says something like “…He does not maintain His wrath forever, for He desires [to do] kindness.  He will again show us mercy, He will suppress our iniquities and He will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”  I am much more comfortable with my version.  The idea of figuratively emptying my awareness of all grudges [rather than the pockets of my jacket] has its appeal though. More so if one gets to do it in, let’s say Half Moon Bay.

I’m sorry if any of this makes you feel uncomfortable.  This is as hard if not harder than asking for your slicha.  Now that I hold no grudges for or against you, there’s room for new, fresh, more positive, healthier experiences for us to share. And I think this is great.  Almost.  Got to clear one more thing.

So much has been written about the pursuit of happiness.  It’s part of the deceleration of independence of the USA.  It’s a great movie.  It’s what we so want to have in our life.  But…

And this “but” is so much greater than i ever imagined.  Think, which you are more familiar with, “I’m happy,” or “I’m happy, but…?”  What do you say or expect to hear more?

In past weeks, I found myself offering “I’m happy” + a smile to the inquiring ones among you.  Surprisingly, more than once, what I got was a consecutive but.  Sometimes, it wasn’t even an audible but; it was the sound of silence.  The silence of the but.

The “I’m so happy for you” that eventually came was sincere, mostly, but…The but was there nonetheless.  And it got me thinking.

Why is it that we expect “happy, but?”  After all, just like everything else, iPhone5 included, Life isn’t perfect.  When i say “I’m happy,” I’m NOT saying “everything is perfect.”  I’m saying that things are as great as they could possibly be right now, therefore I’m happy.”  Things could be better, really.  And they could be much worse.  So here i am, in this moment, happy.  Why is this need to limit the happy?  Restrict is with a but? Is but the new Ltd.?

Who are those but Sayers?

First, there’s the cynical know-it-all-too-well.  Things can’t be this good, and if they are, it won’t last long, and something, many-a-thing can go wrong, and will.  Be prepared, don’t let yourself be happy.  Wakeup is painful.  So come-on and spit it out.  You are happy but… what aren’t you saying? When will the honeymoon be over?

Second, there’re those who know-me-all-too-well.  Their line of thinking goes like this: “we heard you before, the but is coming, we wait for the other shoe [read: but] to drop.  So yes, i do tend to take the good for granted, assume that you can see and realize the good for yourself, therefore there’s no need for me to point it out… often not making enough room to recognize and enjoy the good.   This is my other Tashlich challenge.  I recognize that omitting the good, obvious as it may be, distorts the picture.  So throw this one away too, off with this bias.  I shall call out the good and the not so good, acknowledging both. New Year, the year of & [no more the year of the but].

Thirds are those who aren’t happy with where, what and how they are.  It’s not that they don’t want me to be happy; they don’t like the idea of me, or anyone else for that matter, being happier than they are.  The notion of anyone [outside the characters of the Princess Bride] being perfectly happy doesn’t really appeal to them. For these, the bigger the but, the happier they are.  After all, why should you or I be happy if they are not?  It sounds so petty, that it got me wondering what do i say when I’m the listener.  Do I say “I’m so happy for you, tell me more?” Do I say “be careful, watch out, things can’t be as good as you think they are”? Do I think it, feeling the wiser, yet say nothing?  Seating here enjoying an amazing Californian Fall day, I challenge my mind to be happy first, and second.  My trouble or struggle should never cloud your neither your happiness, nor your sharing of it.

Not sure any of this applies to you?  A couple of weeks ago, over coffee @ the Sufi café [which deserves a chapter all of its own] I outlined the “but observations” to a friend.  Her immediate response was that it all has to do with me.  That it is because my friends are used to me usage of that inevitable “but” they now expect it.  “Oh no,” i laughed.  “Let me replay to you two of the personal experiences that you just shared.  BOTH followed this template:  I’ve changed/learned/improved/am better/happy… BUT…”

As much as she didn’t like to admit it, she could not deny the presence of the but.

Happy New Year, Happy Yom Kippur clearance.  Looking forward to having and sharing many happy experiences with you, and no buts.

October 7, 2011

#197 – Todah Raba, Thank You

Filed under: life matters,Opinionated,that Jewish thing — yael [ya-el] wagner @ 18:34
Tags: , , , , ,

a year ago, for yom Kippur, i had my very own slicha project, clearing my conscious of stuff i regretted and wanted to wash off my slate. i shared it with you in chapter #162.

a year had gone by; a year that was hard on me in many ways, and is ending with my birthday, the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, all lumped close together.  all of which  force me to do my annual bookkeeping, accounting, balance sheet… all too soon. and there’s no break.

i don’t feel the need for a major slicha project this year.  and it’s not that i think for a single moment that i was [remotely] perfect.  i was human.  i was wrong, i said things that could have remained unsaid… i was good, i was bad… i was sad.

it's a balancing act.

if i offended you, hurt you in any way, I’m truly sorry.  unintended.  really.  a blog’s slicha isn’t very personal you may say, feeling you are entitled to more.  sorry.  it ain’t coming.  this is my annual slicha.  this is it.  i need to balance it with the load of things i have to forgive; things i WANT to forgive and forget, and it’s a heavy enough load as it is.

playing back the year in my mind, reminiscing, the clearest, brightest emotion i hold for it is todah – thank you.  this was the year in which true friends came forward, often offering more than i asked for, more than i expected.  this year i had some amazing shoulders to lean on and i thank you with every bit of love, respect, joy, and friendship moments we shared.

thanking you for participating in my life is not a trivial act for me. i greatly value my friendships, and don’t ever take them lightly.  given that this is also the year in which i found myself telling a few that i recognize that we are no longer friends and that’s perfectly OK, meant accepting that some friendships come with an expiration date.  this makes the living friendships more meaningful, valued.thank you for everything you brought and added to my life this year, from getting me to submit to gym tortures, through moving some speech patterns from second nature to perfect stranger, all the way to practicing some silence and active listening.  thank you for allowing me to be me and yet calling my attention to when i should take me by the ear elsewhere.  thank you for lending me your time, ears, support, care.  thank you for sharing yours with me, thank you for the value you added to my life and for allowing me to contribute to yours.  your friendship is indeed the club i want a lifetime membership in.

TODAH!!! Gmar Hatima Tova!


August 30, 2011

#195- what’s in a pulke

the joy of pulke?

given the importance that a pulke played in my life [see #194] the following clip is too hard to resist.  i know that most jokes about Jews and chickens focus on the cure-for-all chicken soup.  but i go for the pulke.  extra crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside.

i grew up on chicken meat.  wasn’t a big fan of beef until i tasted my first GOOD bloody steak, Argentinian of course.  later, it was followed with a rich  hard to resist roast.  tongue was and is out.

therefore, until late into my teen years, the pulke was MY piece of meat.  it wasn’t until shai and guy graduated from having bits of boneless meat put in their plates that i had to move up into the adult portions of the chicken.  oh well.

like so many kids, regardless of how hungry and harsh their parents’ life had been, i too had to listen to the inevitable “do you know how the starving kids in Biafra [in Nigeria, suffered horrible drought through my childhood] would be happy to have your XXX?” until today the logic escapes me.

  1. i am not happy with this.
  2. you tell me other kids will be.
  3. go give these kids the undesirable load you put in my plate.
  4. make everybody happy.
  5. Extra benefit – i won’t have to work so hard on snicking it to our dog under the table, accumulate an inventory in my mouth that have to be emptied later…  you can make them and me happy.

i’d say go for it.  but my mom never did.

so here’s to all the hungry kids of the world that wanted our meals and never got them.

on a more serious note, i’d like to recommend TWO DEGREES.  this small company truly does good.  not only they make great food bars, all tried and tested, but they also help feed hungry children around the world. for every bar we buy, they give a nutrition pack to a hungry child.  i call it win-win.  their goal?  to feed 200 million hungry children.  buying and eating their healthy great bars brings them and us closer to achieving this goal.  why “two degrees?”  ’cause it’s only two degrees of separation between you and i and that hungry child.  so while i’ll never tell a kid that a hungry child somewhere would love to have his or her meal, I’d happily offer this kid one of these gluten free, vegan, low sodium, no trans fat bars.

order on line or search for a store.  whole foods carry them of course.

Two Degrees of goodness

August 28, 2011

#194 – from Schwartzblatt to Wagner [AKA My dad’s name isn’t Jakob Wagner part III]

Sigh .  Long procrastination time.  Apparently, the more I know, the harder it is, even if this blog post skips forward a bit.  I’ll go back to the more painful stuff.  Eventually.

This is part III of the following:

#160 – My dad’s name isn’t Jakob Wagner

#190 – my grandpa was Moshe Wagner [AKA My dad’s name isn’t Jakob Wagner part II]

[dictionary: saba- grandpa, aba – dad, pulke – chicken drumstick]

Last I left you waiting, my parents sitting in their “home office” and me all ears, ready to hear how my grandfather became my grandfather.

“What is your best saba memory,” I asked my mom.  “Saba riding his bicycle, with two baskets, apples on one side, and sweets on the other side,” she says.  “He always brought the best apples.”  Her voice sounds a bit dreamy.  “I don’t remember apples,” I am a bit annoyed.  “Watermelons too,” my mom still muses.  “I remember that,” I say and can’t help the wide smile that springs to my face. “I remember how in Yom Kippur War, when aba was in the army, he went all over the place looking for milk for Guy [youngest brother, 7 months old at the time].”  A long sad sigh clearly sounds on both ends of this Skype call.

“So, where did saba and savta meet,” I ask.  “In Germany? In Vlademritz?  Where?”

“In 1944,” my dad begins, “the War was over.”

“No,” I counter, it was over in 1945.”

“Ukraine was released by the Russians by the end of 1944, and this is when we left the forest [I have yet to complete this part of the story].  We settled in one of the empty Jewish homes.  I started going to school. I remember German bombers still dropping bombs on us.  The War was completely over in May 1945.”

He continues.  “In the winter of 1945, we moved from the Ukraine to Poland; to Lodz.  From Lodz we moved to WALBRZICH [See].

“In between, we also spent a few weeks in Czechoslovakia,” he adds.  “This is getting to be really confusing,” I sigh.  For one, I don’t completely trust his memory.  Then, given that he was only a kid, how can one remember all this after so many years of denial and repressing.  [Checking the maps however, reveals that WALBRZICH  was located 10 KM from the Czech border]

“Then it was Austria.  We moved around.  It was the fall of 1946, maybe September…”

“Then we made it to Germany.  In the winter of 1946, we settled down in Wetzlar.  We got a one room apartment on the 3rd floor.  It was the three of us and saba’s brother, Jonas.  It was the top floor.  And there was a staircase to the roof.  In the staircases that lead to the roof I had a goat. It was my pet.  I named her KuzuKuzu. She followed me around like a dog.  I would tie a rope to her neck and she would pull me on by bicycle.”  I can’t help laughing.  The image I have in my mind is too funny.

Saba brought her to me as a gift… she was tiny and he carried her home under his coat.  Every evening I had to carry her up the three floors.”

“Why did you call it kuzukuzu,” I ask.

“Well, koza means goat in Polish.”  I verified it with my very own personal Polish interpreter and was satisfied with the explanation.

“Wait,” I stop.  “You had nothing, it’s after the war.  What do you mean kuzukuzu pulled you around the camp?”

I don’t need to be in the room to see the “you are so stupid” look I know he has all over his face.

“I had a bicycle.  Saba had a pair too.  Both pairs made it to Israel with us.  And your cousins got my pair.  These bicycles were made PRIOR to WWII.”  I remember my saba’s bike.  Very solid.  And he took great care of them.  Bike that was made in the late forties and survived until 1978 or so.  Impressive.

There’s no stopping now.

“Once, she run away, with the rope tied to her neck.  Her rope got caught in the fence that separated between the Jewish camp and the American Army camp.  The Jewish Wetzlar camp was split to East and West.  It neighbored with an American Military camp.  I looked for her all over, running through the camp calling kuzukuzu…

Hearing my calls, she started beh-ing.

Before we left Wetzlar, on our way to France, we got one of the locals to butcher her. We got her back preserved and canned.  She traveled with us to France… got on the boat and made it to Israel.   we still ate her when we got to Israel, but not much, only when we had to.  I couldn’t.”

“Stop,” I burst as I keep typing trying to capture what he says..  “WHEN did saba enter your life?  This is what I asked about.  Kuzukuzu can wait.”  Weeks later I’m finally ready to admit that in a childish way, the story angered me.  And for multiple reasons.  Growing with a dad that won’t talk about his past, hide it, lie by omission about it….  And then plain refuse to share, visibly choke when you get him to share…  my assumption was that it was all bad, horrible, unbearable part of his life.  To have a pat, to have a bicycle doesn’t fit into this visualization of misery, having lost everything you own, your own father included.  Why wouldn’t he share these stories with us?  why didn’t he?  My saba was already part of his life, there was no risk of revealing the big Schwartzblatt secret, and yet he didn’t.  and I’m angry, was angry and now am getting over it, ready to share and continue.

My grandparents met in 1946, not sure in which of the displaced persons locations my aba went through since the war was over.  most likely it was in WALBRZICH.

here’s the story of how my saba become my saba:

“Grandma had to support herself since a very young age, as she was orphaned and depended on the favors of relatives.”

Post war, responsible for herself and my dad, she said no to no job, took upon herself whatever it took to support them two, started looking for a job as soon as they arrived anywhere. That independence, the resourcefulness and determination were admired by men [not clear of at that point she already knew if her husband perished in the war or not].  One guy was more proactive, more persistent than the others.  I didn’t like him.  He didn’t like me.

“I was a spoiled kid,” my dad admits.  “It was a Friday night and mom made a Shabbat dinner.  The suitor came for our Shabbat dinner.   I was expecting the pulke – it was MY part of the chicken.   To my surprise, disappointment, anger the suitor got the pulke, and I got the wing.  I remember it as if it was today.  That was his end.  No one can have my pulke!!! [and my mother too]”

My dad was about 7-8 years old at the time.

“what was his name,” I ask.  “Menashe, I think.”

“I guess menashe pulke is how he’ll be named from now on,” I say.

“Then your saba started chasing mom.  He spoiled me.  I was THE ONE.

I know he was married before the war; his wife delivered a baby boy, most likely he never saw his son.  Then he was recruited to the red army; his wife was sent to a concentration camp with the baby.  He served in the srudavoya armia.  At the end of the war he went AWOL and made it to WALBRZICH.”

In response to my question, my aba says impatiently, “I don’t know how many people were there.  Grandma was looking for a job, anywhere, anything… always a survivor.”

“Saba was not only courting mom, but he was also dating me.  He took me to the zoo, , brought me sweets…

When other men visited I didn’t talk to them, kept my mouth tight, no conversation.

They got married without me. I wasn’t at the wedding.  It wasn’t a real wedding.  Maybe they registered.  I don’t know.  I don’t think so.”

“And at this point, are you Schwartzblatt or a Wagner,” I challenge.  There’s a brief pause.

“There wasn’t a ceremony.  While we were on the boat they changed the names.  I remember saba asking me, ‘Vous vilste, Schwartzblatt or Wagner?’ [in Yiddish, what do you want Schwartzblatt or Wagner?”

And I chose Wagner

But I never called him “dad”. I called him Uncle.

I am shocked.  And somehow I vividly recall that my dad would always tease him, “Mr. Wagner”, Moshe Wagner”…  I truly can’t recall even once when he said “aba”.  It was saba said this, saba said that…  how good are we kids in repressing what we don’t want to know; what may hurt us, break our illusion of perfection, they way things need to be…

Everyone knew he is a stepfather, my dad adds, meaning in Israel.  But we didn’t.  And no one said a word.

My mom intervenes “uncle” in Yiddish is “feter”.  Close enough in sound to father…  I keep quiet.

How do you make sense of your ignorance, of finding out, so many years later, that what you thought, what you knew and what you didn’t want to know were all there, in front of you, and yet…  I saw nothing.

And so I say it again, with sadness and longing that never seem to fade, I loved my saba more than the three other grandparents; he was the perfect kind of a saba.  Thank you!

June 14, 2011

#188 – a Loaded Pig

Note: this post was first published on, a website dedicated to pork and identity, and how our choices surrounding the pig often reveal our cultural backgrounds and worldviews.  Jeffery is a long time friend who earlier this year launched the story project Pork Memoirs.  This is my loaded pig story.  I’m sure most Jews have one.


There’s a Chinese folk saying, “Chinese can eat everything that has four legs, except tables; everything that flies, except for airplanes; and everything that is found on water, except boats!”  From the point of view of the hungry, making a choice to avoid a certain food is viewed as less than smart.  Why would you avoid a good source of proteins [OK, fat too]?

The Pig, among few other animals, is a loaded meat for Jews.  Dear old bible orders us, “the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be cloven footed, yet he chews not the cud; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall you not eat, and their carcass shall you not touch; they are unclean to you“[Leviticus 11:7-8].  This is the pig load Jews have been carrying around ever since.

My parents grew up in religious homes; strictly orthodox on my mom’s side, kid-friendly orthodox on my dad’s side.  I grew up in a looser Israeli home, yet, a Kosher one.  Spaghetti Bolognese was made of beef/turkey and served without cheese; chopped liver was never fried in butter, and we never had milk with our meat-based lunch.  Yes, the observant doesn’t mix dairy and meats together.

But… in the pantry, well sealed in hiding, we had one small frying pan and a knife.  These were used on the rare occasion of some good swine making it to home.  In a house were everything was open for discussion, we didn’t talk about it.  Every now and then it provided delicious teasing material about hypocrisy.  My own place has no aspirations to be called kosher.

In 1991, I landed in Canada, Director of Academic Affairs, Tel Aviv U.  My job took me to Canada’s universities, Israel-centered events, Study Abroad Program fairs… I met with university staff, overseas programs’ officials, Jewish student organizations, community activists and many others.

Then the unexpected happened.  I was working hard representing Tel Aviv University, Israel’s largest university, and an open minded, knowledge seeking institute.  Yet, for many if not all, I first and foremost represented Israel.  Slowly, I realized that whether I cared or not, I was expected to act Jewish.  Funny.  No one actually forced me; no one accused me of not making the Jewish threshold.  But after saying once too many “it’s OK, I can eat this [Pork/Ham/Bacon] sandwich, no problem” and getting an awkward look, I got to the point of accepting the expectation.  I stopped eating pork in all public events.  No pig for me.

As much as I hate hypocrisy, I become a public kosher Jew by choice; my choice.  The non-Jews I was interacting with felt more comfortable when I avoided pork and other piggy meats.  By standing out [as the kosher one among all those other international academic program’ representatives], I was fitting in.  Go figure.

Source: Marc Boy's photostream on Flickr

Afterthought: Years later, I no longer tease my parents about their hidden pan.  I don’t bring bacon or ham into my home, only prosciutto on occasion.  Logical?  No.  Rational?  It doesn’t have to be.  My inconsistent relations with the pig are part of my identity.  Judaism is a part of it too; not the orthodox Jewish practice, but Judaism as a culture, heritage and tradition, a tribe I was born into, with collective memories and shared past.


November 21, 2010

#162 – Slicha, I’m sorry.

Filed under: life matters,that Jewish thing — yael [ya-el] wagner @ 22:07
Tags: , , , , , ,

Yom Kippur is our atonement day.  Once a year, it’s all about accountability, asking for forgiveness, and the hope to be forgiven.

The Jewish mitzvot [generally translated as “commandments”, mitzva –singular] can be divided into two basic categories: one, between individuals and God [בין אדם למקום], the other between individuals themselves [בין אדם לחברו].

Praying, keeping Kosher or observing the Shabbat are considered mitzvot between one and God.

Charity, visiting the sick… and asking for one’s forgiveness are examples of mitzvot between individuals and others.

Praying cannot wash off the offenses, insults, ill-treatment you had given to others.  To correct those, one has to ask for the person’s forgiveness.

I’m mostly “observance-free”.  I do have some issues with rules and traditions that assume that turning the light on/off is labor intensive.  Same goes for boiling water or, more important, making a fresh cup of latte on a Saturday  morning.  However, this is Yom Kippur we are talking about.  This slicha thing is a mitzvah that I have great respect for.  Introspection; thinking of friends and colleagues I could have treated better, differently – this alone is a challenge.  We are so programmed to think about how we are right, that taking a time-out to concentrate on the wrong doing – this is Yom Kippur thoughts for me.

This year, for reasons beyond my awareness, taking responsibility, apologizing, asking for forgiveness demanded greater attention, and so I did.

I came up with my slicha plan.    

Many of you get my e-card.  For the local ones, those that I could do it face-to-face, there was a cookie to accompany the conversation.

And I had a list.

Sending a sorry e-card, while some may think is an impersonal thing to do, is a hard, non-trivial act.  I drafted it, found it too cold and remote, rewrote it, again, and then with a long sigh of hope, sent.  When you put your heart into it, admitting “I was wrong, please forgive me” is hard, regardless of the medium used.

Yet, hard as it was, face-to-face is much harder.  First of all it requires getting the person in a time/place he/she can and is willing to listen.  That’s challenge #1.  And then, how do you start a conversation with “I’m sorry”?  We are used to saying “I’m sorry” as part of a conversation, not to have a conversation about my being sorry and apologetic.

One big surprise was that I had no clue how hard accepting apologies may be for some.  Some couldn’t end the conversation fast enough.  Others wanted to be reminded of the details, “what are you apologizing for” they demanded.  Sad smile.  Given the opportunity, they not only wanted an apology they were not expecting, they wanted a full confession.  Fair enough.

Others were really-really hard to get hold of.  So hard, as a matter of fact, that though I managed to apologize via phone, I still have the cookie.  Taking responsibility for what I’m not proud of was a humbling experience.  Humbling and cleansing.  Without any crazy liquids, ceremonies and bitters to swallow, it felt very much like cleansing.  As I was making progress I could almost feel the physical lightness and “feel good” levels go up.

A challenge l almost failed was to prevent the conversation from turning into “you said, I said” conversation.  Slicha is not about who is more right… it’s about admitting and honing to my wrongs.  It’s not about the causes or justifications; it’s about the actions…

And of course, there were tears.  If you read this awaiting an emotional confession, I will let you down.  I didn’t have any broken heart or lover to apologize to.  Friends and colleagues, you and you that are part of my [everyday] life, it’s damn hard to tell you “I’m sorry”, damn hard to admit that I should have done better, should DO better.

The last conversation took place a couple of hours before Yom Kippur started, on Friday afternoon.  There were raw emotions, there were tears, there was a huge effort to deliver it as intended.  Then I went home.  And was sad-happy.  A friend of mine whom I’ve shared my slicha plan with, said that adding cookies to the slicha mix ridicules it.  On that Friday night and now, two months later, I know it wasn’t the case.  I think of the cookies as a token of my commitment to try and be better this year.  I may fail here and there, say things I’ll regret, make mistakes, offend and be sorry.  That’s the way it is.

I didn’t go to shul, I didn’t pray.  I said what I had to say, and this was it.

Note: searching the links to the Jewish terminology included, i came across a blog that asked slicha in a much more public way than i did.  enjoy §238 Slicha – I’m sorry

November 11, 2010

#160 – My dad’s name isn’t Jakob Wagner

My dad’s name isn’t Jakob [Yaakov] Wagner

Everyone who knows my dad, knows him as wagner.  To his biological dad however, he was Schwartzblatt.  The Germans/WWII eliminated Yitzhak Schwartzblatt , the grandfather I didn’t have.  The grandfather I had was called Moshe Wagner, the best grandfather one could wish for.  He had to die before we – his four grandchildren – found out he was our grandfather by choice.  I should state it again, he was the best grandfather one can wish for, and he was MY grandfather.

Yet this is not about him.  My dad’s wasn’t born a Wagner, yet that’s the name he goes by.  And there’s guilt, and deep buried memories and nightmares and lots of stuff I don’t know and probably will never find out.

My older brother is Yitzhak Wagner; one of my younger brothers added Schwartzblatt to his name, and that’s about as much remembrance there is.  Oh, there’s the plaque on a memorial wall of their eliminated hometown community somewhere in Givataim.  I even went with them once.

This all started with a nice Friday dinner in Israel with a Romanian majority [Romanian refers to place of birth].  Somehow, the conversation parked for a while on identity issues.  The other Israeli and I pointed out that we are more Israeli than the Romanians, who’ve been living in Israel for the past 30 years or so.  It was taken as an offense.  A major one too.  we talked about Israeli folk dancing and sing-along, two common popular pastimes,  very Israeli indeed.  Everyone has to go through it at some point in life; high school, university, scouts… Somehow, at some point in your life, you’ll end up in the middle of an Israeli folk dancing circle.  Not knowing HaGashash Hahiver idioms, language and classical acts was brought up too.  We then pointed out that “your first language isn’t Hebrew”, “you don’t read in Hebrew”, “at home, you don’t speak Hebrew” and so on.  Volume and tempers were going up; the Romanian observer [visiting, lives in the US] across the table from us took pictures of our heated discussion.   The Romanian answer, other than accusing me of being or becoming an American was “I MADE the decision to live here, I MADE this my home, therefore I’m an Israeli”.

“Your passport, your citizenship is Israeli, that’s true.  But the essence of being an Israeli, the language, the culture is not.”  It didn’t sit very well.  M. shifting to a “peace talks” approach, offered “you are not a typical Israeli” as a better, less offending phrasing of the point discussed.  It was accepted.

A morning later, @ breakfast, I asked my mom if she gets offended when told she is not an Israeli.  “No”, she said.  “But I got offended and hurt when called “olah hadasha” [Heb. new immigrant] when we just got here after the war” [1949].  “Why?”, I wonder, “you were indeed olah hadasha.”

[Before continuing, PLEASE READ NOTE @ BOTTOM]

“We were promised that we were going home, where we belonged.  All these Israeli emissaries who came to visit us, talked about how we’ll be welcomed with open hands.  They said we’ll be coming HOME, our HOME.  Instead, we were placed in a town where everyone was new, not local, not an Israeli, struggling for survival and settling down, finding its place.  No one welcomed us, and we were called ‘soap’.  Can you imagine this?  I never forgave that.”

“Did it ever occur to you that they were calling you “soap” as in the Hebrew slang, and it had nothing to do with the human soap”, I dared to ask.


“Yes, maybe.”

“Was it common knowledge at that point?” I asked.

“Yes.”  “No.”  It seems that my parents are not really sure.  Interesting.  I grew up on this story, of how my mom was offended and hurt upon her arriving in Israel.  Given that her older sister was shipped earlier to serve in the army, something that in their mind was linked [not to say a pre-condition] to bringing them all “home” didn’t help.

“They had to know” my father says.  “Your grandma even brought soap to burial. “


“Yes, when we were living in Karkur, she gave that piece of soap and they buried it with Kadish and all.”

This takes some digestion.  “Grandma brought Jewish soap to be buried here?”


It’s rare that the puzzle called my dad’s past get a new piece added.  takes years.

“Do you feel guilty for not using your own dad’s last name?” [logic: funeral for a soap, nothing about your own dad?!

“I couldn’t do it as long as your grandfather was alive”.  This is the only answer I ever got to this question.  Mind you, as long as my grandfather was alive [until 1979] I didn’t know that he wasn’t.  however, my grandfather had been dead for 31 years and two months.

“What will you want your tombstone to say?” I push.

“Wagner I guess.” Pause.  “You know that Shai [brother] changed his last name, right?”

“Yes, I know, but this is about you now.”

You see, he doesn’t talk. Not about this.  Yet he feels that we don’t want to listen.  What a great defense mechanism.

I left Israel asking my dad to spend his time writing his story.  I doubt he ever will.  And I’ll say nothing about the emotional cost of not being completely who you are.  Not making peace with your past ghosts and demons, let alone your own father.

I know he went through hell and shit [literally, when he was in the ghetto.  no, i don’t know the name or location of this ghetto, since he won’t talk] and survived.  I know his mom – my grandma- is the one that pulled him away and they escaped on the day the ghetto was “cleaned” of his condemned residents.  there’s no story though.  it’s bits and pieces and broken memories that somehow escaped, sneaked out. I know that it’s unlikely that he’ll ever share the complete story.

Is he an Israeli?  unlike my mom, unless you know it for a fact, you’d never suspect he wasn’t born Israeli.  denial is yet another defense mechanism.  no one asks you about your past if they assume they “know” it.

What do i do now?  I stare at the monitor, debating with myself  if i should publish this post on a Thursday or on a Friday.  without much thought i  click on their name on my Skype contact list.   it rings forever, and i visualize my dad slowly dragging his feet towards his home office where the computer is.  i managed to get as far as asking “so, what’s going on with your writing?  did you write anything yet?”

“I don’t know”  he said. “and, to be honest, I don’t have much desire.”  my mom join the conversation.  “where did he go” I demand to know.  “he went to measure his blood pressure” is the unsatisfactory answer.  “WTF.  Tell him that I’m not going to hang up until he comes back.”

that worked.  then, as unpredictable as life can be , what I would have never anticipated happened!!!  after 15 minutes of his best performance of “let me change the subject on you and distract you”, we are talking.  and I get more than I ever got.  until he breaks down and cries, like you never want to hear your dad cries.  NEVER.

I typed as fast as I could.  I’ll share the story once it’s cleaned up… once I found some historic facts for background if I can find any… I’ll get to it once I’ll be done crying myself.



Many survivors believe that among their unimaginable crimes, during WWII the Germans were making soap out of Jewish human fat.  Researching for this blog, I wanted to find out more about it. I heard it from my parents time and again, and wanted an independent reference. The links below, among others i found, lead me to believe that this wasn’t the case.  there is no evidence of mass production of soap from human fat, but there was evidence of experimental soap making.

Independently, the word “soap” in Hebrew was used as a derogatory term for nerds, those without any tan… very uncool.  easy to be called one and hear the other. and the survivors who arrived in Israel from Europe, were indeed pale and un-tan, anything but the proud Israeli outdoor type.

%d bloggers like this: