Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Passover Miracle

This is my favorite Passover story, one about a real miracle that happened in my mother's family when she was just a girl. I hope you like it, too. 

My mother, Tova Hacohen, was twelve years old in 1948, the year of Israel's War of Independence. 
Before the British even left, Arabic forces surrounded the city of Jerusalem on all sides and laid siege to it. Brave Jewish men lost their lives attempting to bring truckloads of food from the Tel Aviv area to Jerusalem's residents. What little there was had to be rationed, and it wasn't even safe to venture out for the rationed food. Jewish men had to walk with their backs pressed up against the walls of buildings so they would be harder for the snipers to spot, and sometimes fathers lost their lives while trying to bring home something for their hungry children to eat. 
Tova's family--all eight of them, not counting her eldest brother Shmuel who was married and lived near Tel Aviv--got only one loaf of bread a day, a little bit of beans or peas, and a small amount of flour. Because they had small children, they got powdered milk too.
“Drink, drink,” her Imma said.
“I don’t want it, if you can’t have, too,” young Tova replied.
But her Imma would not hear of it. She didn’t care if she didn’t have enough food. The only things that mattered were her children. They always came first.
That year before Passover, the Ashkenazi rabbis permitted Ashkenazi Jews in Jerusalem to eat Kitniyot, like peas or beans, during the holiday. The rabbis didn’t want anyone to starve because they were trying to keep the Ashkenazi tradition for Passover, which forbids eating legumes. Tova’s family expected to eat only peas, matzo, and a little wine or grape juice over the holiday. It wasn't much, but at least they could try to celebrate the holiday. 
Then they got a surprise. 
Tova’s eldest brother, Shmuel, sent the family a gift.
Shmuel was a member of the Hagannah, which would soon become the army of the new Jewish state. Shmuel found out who was going to attempt to bring food to Jerusalem, and he asked this brave man to help bring something special to his family. Miraculously, that truck made it through. Tova's family received handmade matzos, a few apples and nuts for making Charoset, and--wonders of wonders--a crate with over a hundred eggs!  
Eggs! It was something they hadn't had a chance to eat in a very, very long time. 

A few years before she died, my mother took her grandchildren to the house where she grew up, so they could see it and learn the stories of her childhood. The man she's talking to now lives in the neighborhood. They each know a part of the story, and they are filling each other in. 

Everyone looked forward to it. Family and guests crowded around the dining table on the night of the Seder. Tova's Abba, who was a rabbi, had invited a group of his students, and they were in high spirits. Shmuel’s brother-in-law, Ze’ev, who was also studying in Jerusalem, came too.
There was talking, and learning, and singing. They drank wine and grape juice. They ate matzos, Charoset, eggs, and peas. It wasn’t much, but for them at that time it was a feast. And despite how little they had, the family was more than happy to share it with their guests.  
When the meal was over, Abba’s students sang the rest of the Haggadah. They wanted to do as the rabbis of old did: they wanted to make the Seder last until the sun came up. 
But there was shooting outside.
“Imma!” Tova's sister Yehudit cried.  
“Yes, I heard that too,” Imma said. “We should go down to Savta’s room." Tova's Savta slept in a room on the ground floor. "It’s safer.” 
“No, no!” one of the students shouted. “It’s Passover. We should sing!”
And sing they did. And as their singing grew louder, so did the gunfire outside. And as the gunfire grew louder, so did their singing!
“Abba!” Tova shouted. “Please can we go downstairs?”
Then came a loud “BANG!”
Everyone froze. It sounded like a bullet had entered the room.  
“Enough singing!” Abba cried. “Imma, get the baby.”
Baby Rama had been sleeping soundly when Imma picked her up from her crib. Tova rushed after little sister Sarah to Savta Bat-Sheva’s room on the ground floor. Yehudit followed them. Tova's older brother Menachem went downstairs with the students. Imma carried baby Rama down with Savta Bat-Sheva at her side. Abba came last to make sure everyone was out of harm's way.
The precious crate of eggs was already there. After all, these eggs were a great treasure for them at this time, and Savta Bat-Sheva's room was the safest room in the house.
It wasn’t the first time Tova had heard shooting. But this time was different. It seemed to go on forever. And as time wore on, Tova grew tired. Soon she and her sisters were fast asleep. One at a time, the others joined them in slumber.
In the middle of the night, however, she awoke to a strange sound.
Crack. Plop. Crack. Plop.
Over and over it went.
Crack. Plop. Crack. Plop.
Tova sat up. 
The strange sound was coming from the corner where the crate of eggs sat. In the weak light, she saw her baby sister with a big pot. Little Rama’s hand came down with something in it on the edge of the pot. Crack. Then she put the thing in her hand in the pot. Plop. Rama laughed and clapped. Tova gasped when she realized what the sound was.
Oh, no.
“The eggs!” she cried. “Imma! Imma! The eggs!”
“What?” Imma said, still half asleep. “What about the eggs?”
“Rama broke them!”
Tova and Imma looked inside the pot. It was filled with eggs and eggshells. Imma checked the crate. 
Out of more than a hundred eggs, only eight whole eggs were left.
“What are we going to do?” Tova asked. “The eggs will spoil.”  
 Imma shrugged. “So we won’t have eggs for the whole week of Passover.”
“But we can’t cook them today,” Tova said. “It’s Shabbat.”
“So after Shabbat we’ll have eggs,” Imma said. “Lots and lots of eggs.”
After sunrise the family went back upstairs. Imma put Rama in her crib. There she found a surprise.  
“Look, look!” Imma cried. “It’s a miracle!”
Tova looked. 
There--very close to where Rama’s head always rested when she was asleep--was a bullet.
“It’s the bullet we heard last night during the Seder,” Tova's older brother Pinchas said.
“It’s a miracle she wasn’t hurt,” Abba said. “A Passover miracle.”  
The story of what happened quickly spread through the neighborhood. With it spread the invitation to join the family for a breakfast of scrambled eggs on Sunday morning.
There was nothing to light a stove with, so that Sunday morning they made a bonfire. Neighbors brought wooden boards. Some also brought their rationed oil. Everyone brought plates and forks to eat with. They stood in line and waited to get a delicious, warm breakfast of scrambled eggs. Abba took a picture for the newspaper he edited.
People thanked Tova's Imma, but she laughed and pointed at baby Rama. "Don't thank me. Thank the cook!" 

Here's wishing you and your family a safe, happy, and healthy Passover.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Have a character but no plot? Three easy steps you can use to make one

If you have an idea for a character but don't know what to do with it, here are three easy steps that will help you create a great story:

1. find out what your main character wants most and make him/her want it or need it more and more.

2. find something that prevents him/her from getting that thing and make the obstacle bigger and more urgent (it can be internal, another character, or the world your character is in). 

3. bring the conflict to a head until the character resolves it by getting what he/she wants, letting go of what he/she wants (and possibly getting something better in return), or coming to accept being without the thing he/she originally wanted. 

A plot can have several steps, so your main character can start out wanting one thing, get it, and then want something else.  For example, in The Cat in the Hat, the main characters ("me and Sally") want something to relieve their boredom until they get it; then they want to avoid getting in trouble. 

These three steps have infinite possibilities depending on the main character(s), other characters, setting, style, and want/need.

If you have an idea for a plot but not a main character, you can easily turn that plot into a main character, too: whatever the objective of the main character in a plot is supposed to be, create a character who is strongly motivated to achieve that objective. Create other characters who are strongly motivated to stop the main character from achieving that objective. For example, some of the people who are motivated to solve a crime are a detective, a reporter, the accused, the victim, and the likely next target. Notice that the more motivated the character is to achieve the objective, the more compelling the story becomes. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

It will be 30 years this May since the Six Flags Great Adventure Haunted Castle fire that killed eight teenagers. I started writing my YA romantic ghost story, Ride of Your Life, when I was just 19 in an effort to give this tragedy a happy ending. Please join me on my Girls <3 Books Blog Tour to help promote this book, which I will be putting on sale for $0.99 this May. Thank you! 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Two Purim Stories

Purim is my favorite holiday.

I love the costumes, reading the story of how Esther and Mordechai saved the Jewish people, the joy and noise in the synagogue, the festive meal, and giving out baskets of goodies. It’s a chance for me to express my creativity, and it’s just plain fun!

It’s traditional for children to dress up in costumes on Purim, but this tradition takes an odd and humorous twist in the story of my grandparents’ courtship in Jerusalem in the mid-1920s.

My grandmother fell in love with my grandfather when she was just fifteen. They lived on opposite sides of the same apartment complex, and they sent each other love letters that they pinned to a clothesline that stretched from one side of the complex to the other. It was all very romantic and not at all proper for the son and daughter of two distinguished orthodox rabbis.

Of course, if you read my previous post, you already know that when Rivka Schorr wanted something, Rivka Schorr did not let anything get in her way. The fathers sat down, and the marriage was arranged.

The wedding was a few months away, and it was a Jewish Jerusalem tradition for a girl to give her fiancé gifts on each of the holidays that took place between the engagement and the wedding. Young Rivka looked forward to Purim. She was going to give her beloved the perfect Mishlo’ach Manot. She had even hand crocheted the cloth that covered the tray of homemade foods.

One of my homemade Purim baskets with a garden theme. The Megillah printed scroll came with a story I wrote about Queen Esther asking a bee and a butterfly in the king's garden for advice.
It’s traditional to have someone else deliver Mishlo’ach Manot for you, but on this particular Purim something very strange happened in Jerusalem: it snowed. This put young Rivka in a bind. No one would agree to deliver the gift to her fiancé for her. And she couldn’t do it herself, could she? It wouldn’t be proper to visit her fiancé’s house. Oh, no.

But this was Rivka Schorr. And when Rivka Schorr wanted something, Rivka Schorr did not let anything get in her way.

So Rivka decided to deliver the Mishlo’ach Manot herself . . . disguised as an Arabic man!

At first Rivka had thought that she had managed to pull it off, but it turned out that she had pulled it off a little too well.

The Mishlo’ach Manot included a bottle of wine, and kosher wine can only be served by a Jew. If it isn’t, it becomes unkosher. My grandfather’s father became so enraged at the thought that a non-Jew had handled it that he poured the wine out and called the wedding off!

Of course, Rivka wasn’t going to let that get in the way of her marrying her beloved. She spoke to her father, who spoke to my grandfather’s father, and everything was straightened out.

Now, this is a great story, and I hate to piggyback on it, but there is another great Purim story that I want to tell you.

My parents lived in an ultra-orthodox and mostly English-speaking neighborhood in Jerusalem. I didn’t like being there on Purim, because the neighbors would often get very drunk.

There is a Purim tradition of drinking until you don’t know the difference between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman. The members of my family have never been big on drinking. My dad, for example, has been known to mix sweetener in semi dry wine. We just don’t like the stuff. But my parents’ neighbors on Purim, oh, boy, do they like to drink! Driving becomes scary because of people stumbling in front of your car. And people bang on your door, because they want to sing and dance for you, loudly and badly.

So this is the story that my mother used to love to tell. It would make her laugh so hard that it would bring tears to her eyes.

My parents’ apartment is on the first floor of a very tall building, and it has a huge balcony. Huge! The apartments above theirs have much smaller balconies.

Well, as I said, this is an English speaking neighborhood, so when people get dressed up for Purim, they’re more likely to choose the kinds of costumes you might see people wear in the United States for Halloween. Not revealing or scary costumes, but costumes that relate American culture.

So this one Purim, my family is about to sit down for the festive meal. All of a sudden my mom sees something dark and big zooming past the glass door that leads to the balcony, and everyone hears a loud bang. She rushes to the balcony to find out what it is and slides the door open.

There’s a man on the balcony. He jumps to his feet, and she sees he’s dressed as Batman! BATMAN! An ultra-orthodox Jewish Batman!

And he is drunk. So drunk he has no idea he just fell two stories and is lucky to be standing at all. He sees the open door, rushes past her with his black cape flying behind him, rushes past my dad who cannot believe what he’s seeing, leaves the apartment, and heads back upstairs.

And that is my mom’s funny story about how Batman literally crashed her Purim feast.

Every year I hand out creative Mishlo’ach Manot baskets. One year, I created a booklet about “Winnie the Pooh-rim.” Another year I made bento boxes with a flower and garden design. Yet another year I created an Alice in Wonderland picnic. This year, however, I’m not allowed to give more than one Mishlo’ach Manot, because my mother passed away in December, and my daughter will be handling the Mishlo’ach Manot instead. Still, I hope you have a wonderful Purim. It is my favorite holiday, and that’s something I can’t disguise.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Educating Rivka

If you are one of my siblings or one of my cousins on my mother’s side, and I say that I’m about to tell you the story of Savtah Rivka, the white lace gloves, and the white lace parasol, you’re probably already smiling. It is, after all, a beautiful story that perfectly captures the force of nature that was my grandmother.

Rivka Schorr was born in Jerusalem in the early 1910s, at a time when the Turkish Ottoman Empire stretched over three continents with Jerusalem more or less at the center. World War I raged when she was still a little girl, and when the war was over, and Western Europe had won, the victors broke the Empire apart into numerous new countries. The area of land that the Romans had called Palestine was handed over to the British, and in 1917 the Balfour Declaration vowed that Palestine would become a homeland for the Jews.

Young Rivka Schorr grew up mostly under British rule, and she was still a little girl when the British divided Palestine into two parts. The larger part to the east of the Jordan River was given to a sheikh to create the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. The third to the west of the Jordan River was still promised to the Jews, and she grew up with the hope of seeing that dream become a reality.

Rivka was the daughter of a respected orthodox rabbi, who was also a newspaper editor. She was not my great-grandparents firstborn. She was the youngest. But she was the only one to survive past infancy. Naturally, her parents doted on her.

I don’t know how old she was at the time of this story. My guess is that she was probably twelve or thirteen. Both of my grandmothers grew up in Batei Machaseh, apartments that were built to house Jewish families outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, so this is where the story takes place.  

Photo from of Batei Machaseh

Young Rivka had the proper upbringing for an Orthodox Rabbi’s daughter at the time, which meant she didn’t go to school. There was, as far as I can tell, only one school in the world for Orthodox Jewish school for girls—Bais Yaaakov—and it was very new and very far away in Poland. Orthodox Jewish boys in Jerusalem went to yeshiva, but orthodox Jewish girls were expected to be educated at home by their mothers, governesses or tutors.

This, however, didn’t suit headstrong Rivka Schorr. 

Rivka was determined to go to a real school, never mind what was expected of a rabbi’s daughter!  

The Evelina de Rothschild school for girls in Jerusalem had a required uniform. Rivka couldn’t ask her parents to buy what she needed. Oh, no. They never would have agreed. So she wrote to a cousin in Austria, and asked him to secretly send her a white lace parasol and a white lace pair of gloves. She took them to a hotel in what today is the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. The hotel belonged to a Jewish woman who later became the grandmother of my writer cousin Emuna Elon’s husband, former Israeli Member of Parliament, Rabbi Binyamin Elon. The hotel’s owner agreed to hold on to the parasol and gloves so that Rivka could pick them up on her way to school.

I imagine young Rivka was very proud of herself, sneaking out behind her parents’ backs, conspiring with her European cousin and with the owner of the hotel, and attending school where no one knew that her parents would have disapproved if only they had known what she was up to.

Unfortunately, however, she couldn’t fool everyone.

Somehow the Maggid, the old Jewish version of the town crier, found out, and he was determined to make sure that everyone heard about it.

One day the Maggid marched back and forth in front of the family’s house and cried over and over, “What can be said of the shepherd that lets his own sheep wander?”

My great-grandfather poked his head out the window and asked, “What’s this about?”

The Maggid told him. My great-grandfather was so embarrassed. And young Rivka Schorr’s secret was a secret no longer.

I wish I could say the story has a happier ending, that my Savtah’s father hadn’t bowed to the expectations of orthodox Jewish society in Jerusalem at the time. But he did. Rivka wasn’t punished, of course. Her parents doted on her too much for that. Instead her father expressed his disappointment and told her he would find tutors for her in any subject she wished to study. And he kept that promise.

My grandmother was brilliant and well educated. While her mother could only speak Yiddish, my grandmother learned to converse in Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Ladino, and three other languages. She made friends everywhere she went, and when she got old and it was time for her to move into a nursing home, she was surprised to discover she already knew most of the residents. The women joyfully cried, "Rivka!" and welcomed her with hugs. 

Still, I love to picture my Savtah as a young girl with white lace gloves and a white lace parasol secretly walking to school in Jerusalem, a young girl determined to get an education who would not let society’s expectations stand in her way.