There's a phrase that used to be very common in my peer groups a few years' ago: 'everybody's just working for the weekend'. Even the people who apparently 'loved' their jobs (and I used to be one of them…) were still cracking from the strain of being switched 'on' 24/7, and were just waiting for the weekend to begin.
As an observant Jew, my weekend began with Shabbat. Which meant that really, it began with an enormously stressful Friday where I was trying to get all the shopping and cooking done in four hours flat (and it could take that long just to get a good parking spot.)
So weekends were ok - once I'd recovered from all the stress of trying to break the world record for fast preparation of Shabbat. But really? Really, I still needed a vacation. Really, I needed at least three vacations a year, and at least one of them had to be in Israel.
The first couple of years' that I lived in Israel, I was still working full time, and feeling incredibly stressed. Even so, my 'need' for a vacation seemed to shrink drastically. The three weeks in a posh hotel became three days in a posh hotel; then two days in a tzimmer (log cabin); then one night camping - which brings us up to this year.
I thought I'd pretty much outgrown my 'need' for hotels and 'vacations'. I was happy to camp out up North and go rafting / hiking / fishing / biking for a couple of days, but all that 'luxurious pampering' nonsense? I was past it…
But my kids weren't. All their friends were apparently 'going away' for a few days in Chanuka, and they wanted to go somewhere, too. I ummed. I ahhed. Then my yetzer hara (evil inclination) kicked in, and decided it was a great thing to do. After all, my husband was going to Uman for Shabbat Chanuka again this year, and I didn't want the kids to feel as though they were missing out because of Rebbe Nachman, G-d forbid.
Eilat was out. Even in the depths of winter, it's still very hard to avoid 'skin' and to find 'kosher' things to do. Oh, how 'frum' and 'pious' I felt, scorning the evil Eilat. So instead, we looked for something generally 'South'. I thought we'd booked a kibbutz hotel. It wasn't. It was a bunch of brick-faced 'log cabins' that were off a communal tent-and-floor-cushions type space. We drove past it three times before we realized that the 'barn' with all the big, barking dogs actually was where we were meant to be staying.
But that's not all. The kibbutz itself was one of the most secular places I'd ever been in my life (at least, in Israel...) It had been established in 1965 with 132 families, and there was a small makolet, or corner store, a community hall, a basketball court - and no synagogue.
No netz minyan for my husband. No minyan, full stop. No Hallel. No Chanuka praying. I didn't see a menorah, even, the whole time I was walking around there. And if there wasn't even a shul, there certainly wasn't going to be a mikva.
I started to feel quite anxious.
But that's not all. The kibbutz had a clearly aging population, and I didn't spot a single child (other than my own and other guests) the whole time. But it was still doing big business growing fruit and veg in massive hothouses, mostly for export outside of Israel. 'Someone' had to pick all that produce. It turned out, that there were about 100 Thai 'someones' living on that kibbutz - at least as many as the kibbutzniks themselves.
All the signs in the grocery store (which was very well stocked with Asian cooking products) were in Thai…
But that's not all. We got to the kibbutz just as the sky was darkening, and all the thai workers were coming 'home' for the day. Most of them had t-shirts wrapped round their heads and faces, to keep off the sun, and as they converged on the makolet to buy their beer and supper, they looked for all the world like arab terrorists. My girls freaked out: one went into an instant asthma attack that lasted all night, and the other one just got very scared, and started asking me why we'd come to a place with no Jews.
I got into a very pensive, down mood, and I was brooding a lot after I lit my menorah. What was I thinking, dragging my family to this completely secular, no-Torah place for Chanuka?
After an hour of personal prayer, I realized, that G-d had actually done me a massive favor. If we'd ended up in the nice hotel I thought I'd booked, with big, fluffy towels and a full-on kosher breakfast, I knew it wouldn't have bothered me very much that my husband didn't have a minyan to pray with; or that we'd be the only frum Jews in town.
But G-d took away all the 'deluxe' - and I really felt where I'd landed: a place devoid of Torah, full of alien ideologies and secular culture, where the most 'kosher' thing we could find to eat was MSG-laden pot noodles. In short, it was yucky.
No wonder one kid couldn't breathe, and the other one couldn't sleep.
Then, I had some more realizations: I actually love my life! I love where I live, a place where you can pick your mikva and also which netz (sunrise) minyan you want to daven with. It's a place so full of Torah and holy Jews; a place so full of holiness and so full of deep, vibrant, energizing spirituality…
In the UK, I really needed my vacations in Israel, to tap into that Jewish vibe and recharge my soul, before going back into galut. These days, my life is so full of amazing holy things and mitzvahs, that I'm really hard-pressed to go anywhere 'more' satisfying or enjoyable.
My evil inclination had fooled me; it told me I really 'needed a break' to recharge and unwind, when really, all my vacation ended up doing was taking me away from G-d, and a ton of mitzvahs.
I came back from that trip with a few strong 'understandings': Number 1: from now on, we don't sleep overnight anywhere that doesn't have a minyan and a men's mikva. Number 2: my vacations are no longer just going to be about 'having fun' or 'relaxing'. There is a place for both of those things in Judaism - but I don't need to go away to get happy, and my hour of personal prayer is still the most relaxing thing I've found to date. Number 3: I don't need a vacation from G-d - quite the opposite. Going to places with dodgy (or no…) kashrut; and with no religious Jews; and with loads of people not wearing clothes is not good for my soul, whatever my body might think about it. Even if it is in a 'fancy' hotel; even if the towels are super-fluffy; and even if they have 'rustic' bread for breakfast.
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Check out Rivka Levy's new book The Happy Workshop based on the teachings of Rabbi Shalom Arush