The Real Deal

When we went  into the Old City on Christmas Eve I got an olive wood nativity set from Zach, an Arab believer who reaches out to Muslims all over Israel. He just happens to work with Tikkun International, just like us, which means we want to support his store and his ministry even more.

I was giddy all day as we walked around with this nativity set. It is gorgeous and simple and reminds me of the many hours I spent playing with the white figurines in my mom's nativity. I always thought they were so delicate and special and I loved moving the angel, wise men and animals around in celebration of Jesus. 
 The whole set is carved out of the same piece of wood so it has a similar color and grain. The wood has to cure for two years before the artists in Bethlehem can begin to care it. We got the log "house" separately and I really love how it houses the family.
 Jesus sleeps in a heart-shaped bed. Awww...
 Look at the fancy wise men, each with their special gifts.
I got a cow, some sheep and a donkey with the set, but Tom really wants a camel. Perhaps we'll go back and get one, and also an angel.
As soon as we got home I put it out on the coffee table and Cassidy started playing with it. I have to remind myself that this wooden set is more durable than my mother's waxy characters, so if Cass drops one every now and again it will be all right. This is what creates memories. I feel so blessed! 


It's the little things

I'm pretty exhausted, so this will be brief. We spent yesterday in the Old City with our friends Rod and Lois. While we were there we bought a beautiful nativity set (you better believe I'll post photos of this gorgeous set) and ate bagel sandwiches and ice cream. It was a very enjoyable and non-traditional Christmas Eve for us.

Today we woke up and celebrated Yeshua's birthday with a delicious breakfast, fun presents for Cassidy and several FaceTime chats with family. We also analyzed the story of Yeshua's birth, trying to figure out what is tradition and what is truth. We had a wonderful day together, just the three of us, and are so very grateful to have a time set apart every year for extreme amounts of joy and thankfulness for the gift of Messiah.

I want to share some of the "extreme amounts of joy" I mentioned. Just about every gift was greeted with squeals and smiles, but here is one that I think you'll really enjoy. I got her several sets of jewelry but this is the first one she opened. They cost two and half shekels; that's not even 75 cents. It doesn't take much to make this girl happy.
Merry Christmas friends. I hope your hearts are filled and your smiles are big because we all have a great reason to be joyful: JESUS!


Christmas Time's A-Coming

We are continuing to celebrate the Light of the World in Jerusalem: Yeshua's birthday is only a few days away! Right after Thanksgiving most people in the States put up their Christmas decorations, and I have to admit, it was hard looking at facebook and seeing everyone with their lights and trees and coziness. When we packed for Israel we did not pack Christmas decorations and last month I began to rack my brain on what Cassidy and I could do to make our home reminiscent of my childhood Christmases.

Well, it is Jerusalem, and I'm pretty cheap when it comes to decorations, so I got online and searched out home-made Christmas decor (much like I did for Hanukkah). I also kept my eyes open as we walked around town. My heart leaped a few weeks ago when Cassidy pointed out huge pine cones on the side of the road. Pine cones! In the past I used to get a big bag of pine cones and greenery from Tom's folks so this felt like a wonderful gift from the Father. posted a paper nativity to color and cut out and things began to come together.
There weren't any shepherds to color, so Cass created her own.

We decorated empty salsa jars (a gift in itself) to make votives and cut out paper snowflakes. These aer such simple things, but they've helped us anticipate His birthday so much more. If you or your child love to craft I highly recommend these activities, or any others. Cassidy's excitement about each of these crafts was beyond measure and I loved seeing her joy and participating with her.
My one dilemma was where to put the presents. In the past we've enjoyed the tree. It's very nostalgic for me; my family always went out and cut down a tree and I loved every aspect of a live tree (I didn't have to pick up the needles or water it). When all the kids moved out my parents wanted to go with a fake tree creating quite a stir amongst us children. We finally conceded, and my mom decorates it beautifully, although it lacks that Christmasy smell. Tom liked the tree because it gave him somewhere to put his fancy LGB train. Watching him teach the kids how to control the speed and seeing the excitement on Wyatt's face is a great memory. But even if we had packed Christmas decorations, the train would not have made it into the suitcase.

I know I could get a tree somewhere here in Jerusalem, but where? And am I really going to bring it home on the train? And is this really where I am going to focus my energy this Christmas? So while processing all of this with the L-rd I felt Him make a simple suggestion...a star.
עמנואל, Emmanuel
Yes, I thought, that is perfect. It reminds us of the star that showed the wise men the way to the newborn King, where they presented their gifts of gold (for a King), frankincense (for a Priest), and myrrh (for One whose death was going to be as important as His life).
So we re-used our stars from Hanukkah and cut out some bigger ones which we then colored and glued together. We hung them by our patio door and have started putting presents underneath them. I am so thankful to the L-rd for this idea: it represents His guiding light and His very Light and now we have a great tradition of decorating the stars together. As time goes on I'm sure it will change and improve, but this year I am thankful for this new tradition that points to Yeshua and helps us celebrate His life.
ישוע, Yeshua
Every craft has brought a lot of joy to Cassidy and we've been able to see her creativity grow and encourage her artistic side. We're so blessed to have a little girl who loves to sit and draw and sing about Yeshua. She has as many songs for the L-rd as there are crayons in the box. We pray He will continue to fill up her spirit with His love and truth so that she will shine His light here in Israel. I hope you all have a joyful and beautiful time celebrating Yeshua, his brave parents and the grace that G-d poured out on us that special day.

First Night of Hanukkah

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah (and our first night of Hanukkah in Israel!). We are happy to celebrate the Light of the world and the faithfulness of the Jewish people and the G-d of Israel.
Cass really wanted to give Abba a gift so she painted a dreidel for him and then made him a special card, filled with all of the things she loves about him. Some of the things she loves: playing on the bed, playing cards (like Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious), his hugs and kisses. She also said she is proud of how hard he works and how happy he makes her. She could not wait to give him her present and card and insisted that he open his stuff first!
We're doing presents each night for her, nothing over the top because toys here (like everything else) cost so much. I went to the equivalent of the dollar store here and got her mostly arts and crafts items because she spends most of her free time drawing, cutting, gluing and painting. 
I labeled each present with a hanukkiah and she gets to open a different present according to how many candles are 'lit' on the package. She was more than excited to open her first present:

 I love how easy she is to please. She has such a thankful and generous heart. She makes it hard to not want to give her more because of her thankfulness, but since she is so grateful I know that I won't disappoint her. She is such an easy child to raise and love.
 I lit the shamash candle, known as the helper, and she lit the first candle. She was very nervous that the flame or the wax would burn her but she did a great job. Soon she'll be singing all the blessings in Hebrew by herself before she lights the candles.
Then we started reading the story of the Maccabees, with all the gory details of the Torah observant men and women being brutally killed and the flight of the Maccabees to the wilderness. Cassidy listened closely as she worked with her new stickers and paper. She kept asking, "What does that mean?" When Tom read about the mistreatment of the Temple or the Jewish people she said, "That's not good". She may not understand all of it but she engaged with the story and I'm excited to see her reaction as the story progresses and she hears the victory of Judah the Maccabee and his brave comrades.

Tom and Cassidy played dreidel while I wished my wonderful friend Maasen an early happy birthday via FaceTime. We could hear their laughter and squeals in the other room as the dreidel landed on gimel. Happy Hanukkah, friends. It's a beautiful thing to celebrate. Check out this post for more details on why everyone should celebrate this holiday.


Winter Visitors

One of our favorite things to do, now that it's cold (usually) and wet (sometimes), is look for snails on our walks to and from the train. They vary in size and Cassidy considers this one that is pictured to be a grandpa-sized snail. There are some that are so small you can barely distinguish them from rocks. We've seen several that met their demise as they tried to cross the sidewalk and Cassidy holds out hope for them. If we see a crushed shell in the morning she'll say, "Maybe he'll be better later". But sure enough, on our way home that afternoon the shell is still there, even more smashed and definitely not on its way to getting better. We're very careful where we walk, looking out for their slimey trails and camouflaged homes, but unfortunately not everyone walking or riding along cares as much for these little guys as sweet Cass.

And this is what Winter looks like in Jerusalem...



We're searching for the right backpack for Cassidy. Why is this post-worthy? Because there is no Target/Wal-Mart/Office Max near us. It means that when we're actually in the city center we have to take advantage of the stores, even if it means while we're waiting for the train. We hustle hear, or window-shop there. Being a pregnant woman with a five-year old also complicates the search.

Last Spring we went to the fancy outdoor shopping center where there is a North Face store. They had some nice kid-sized backpacks, but wrote them off as over-priced. We ended up getting her this Hello, Kitty backpack on Ben Yehuda street. She was thrilled to have such a girly bag.

The weight of her breakfast, lunch, mayim bahkbook (water bottle) and sometimes her jacket is starting to bust the seams of the fuzzy-faced Hello, Kitty backpack.  The final straw is the fact that her homework folder won't fit in the pack without folding down the corners, not an excellent way to submit her hard work. I suppose we were taken in by the price, 60 NIS ($15), but it only lasted about 6 months. 

Wednesday, before my doctors visit, since we were in the area, we went back to the North Face store. There were no kid-sized backpacks, and when I asked the clerk about it he tried to get me to consider a hydration pack, since it's smaller. Not quite what I had in mind, but good try. We hurried through the rest of the center, looking for any kind of store that might have backpacks and ended up getting her a pair of much-needed jeans. Then we rushed off to get a cab to go to the doctor. (The whole time we're at the Mamilla mall I'm thinking, Hurry, maximize the time!)

Thursday we found ourselves again in the city center (after Cassie recorded a short video for announcements at King of Kings -- superstar!). We visited a school supply store on King George and I felt like a very elementary version of Goldilocks. The clerk pulled down one bag and when Cass put it on it engulfed her whole body. I told him, gadol (big). Then he gestured to another bag, more like the one we already have and I said, katan (small). We went back and forth, trying to find the right bag, using my minimal Hebrew and hand gestures to communicate. "Lo tov," I finally responded, telling him these were no good, finishing with "Todah", thank you (which is such a simple word but I still can't figure out where to put the emphasis). We walked away empty handed, but not before Cass helped him move carts out of the way so he could put his step ladder away.

I wish Cass would just hurry up and learn Hebrew so I can use her as my interpreter. Maybe by the time she's fluent we'll find a backpack.



'Sweetish' Pepper Cookies

Swedish pepper cookies are a long-standing holiday tradition in the Blake family and since joining the family 9 years ago I've made them less of a tradition and more of  a staple, at least in our little family. I've also changed the name and the recipe, just a tad, and I think it's time to share it. One of the reasons I've been hesitant to share is that the original recipe calls for a cookie press. DeAnn and I have been through our share of difficulties with these presses, and I've already been through two of my own. I decided not to pack a third press in our suitcases, and I'm glad I didn't. If you don't have a press don't worry about it. Now you can make Tom's favorite 'Sweetish' pepper cookies, sometimes known as pfeffernusse or peppernoten. They're softer than the traditional cookie, which is how we like them.
The signature ingredient to the cookies is molasses. When I saw the Brer Rabbit Blackstrap Molasses at the local market I immediately grabbed a bottle. Maybe I should have bought two. But I only use one tablespoon at a time so it should last me a few months. Even if I make them for Cassidy's class every other week.
The original recipe says that if the dough is too dry you can add water. The first few times I made this recipe I had to add water, and the cookies were still a bit too crunchy for my taste. Throughout the years I've adjusted the recipe and reduced the flour by a fourth of a cup, which makes to dough soft but not sticky.
If you have a cookie press you can use it -- that is if the dough doesn't explode through the sides. I've found it a lot easier to just roll them into nice little balls and call it good. I don't get as many cookies out of the recipe when I roll them by hand, but it's worth it to reduce my frustration.

If you like crunchy cookies, just bake them longer. But if you're like us then bake them for the called for amount of time (depending on your oven) and enjoy them warm with some iced coffee (or tea if you're any other Blake family). If you can't eat them all at once then store them in an airtight container. And a nice tip I learned from my sister-in-law, add a piece of bread to the container and it will keep the cookies soft, while making the bread hard as a rock.

I made these to celebrate the closing of Tom's semester (though he's still writing and studying for exams). We're enjoying them a little at a time, thanks to the sacrificial piece of bread. And the Blake family.

'Sweetish' Pepper Cookies
2 sticks of butter, room temperature (227 grams)
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 Tablespoon molasses, unsulphured
1 egg

2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons cloves

Preheat oven to 350' (180').

Cream butter, sugar, molasses and egg in a large bowl. Mix dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, 1/2 cup at a time.

Roll dough into 1 inch balls and place 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet. Bake 7-8 minutes for a crunchy edge and soft middle. Bake longer for a completely crunchy cookie.

Remove the cookies to a cooling rack for a few minutes. These are great warm out of the oven, or the next day, but they will dry up quickly if you don't store with some bread.


Father's Day

She drew a picture of them on the longest slide ever and
watching a movie together in a tent.

Cassidy wanted to treat her papa right for Father's Day so she made him a feast! She showed off her cooking, serving, artistic and musical skills all in one setting. She even dressed up (her favorite part). She truly loves the man she calls "Abba" and wants to bless him every day.
We take food seriously in this family, real and pretend.
Tom is the best papa for us. Every morning when I take Cass to school, we head down to the street and then Tom whistles at her from our balcony. Then he signs to her that he loves her, he blows her kisses and does all sorts of silly things to make her smile.

When I pick her up from school she always wants to know if Papa is home or at class. If he's home she runs to his study and gives him kisses. They are two peas in a pod; sometimes she'll go into his study while he's working and do her own project (construction paper ice cream cones are her current interest). She doesn't need to talk to him (usually), she just wants to be with him.
Then he blessed her spirit, she locked eyes with him
and received his words of love and truth.

I can understand. I want to spend all my time with him, too. Having his study at home is a blessing for all of us; we get to see each other more than most families. He has more flexibility to stop and eat lunch with me, or play with Cassidy when she gets home from school. I admit, we may take advantage of his "flexibility". He is so sweet that he has a hard time saying 'no', so we're trying to work on respecting his need to get school work done. We just want to be with him, to share what we're learning or doing or find out what he's thinking.

This time as a family is a blessing -- we really love each other! We appreciate all of your prayers for our family, and our marriage. We feel the generous hand of G-d on our relationships as we spend more time together. We pray you all had a great time celebrating the men in your lives, and remember the One who wants you to call Him Abba.


Meet 'Faith', a cute street cat with no eyes. Believe it or not, she's one of the less-skiddish cats around. Most of them stare at you till you get close and then dash off like you're after their kibble. But let's be honest, they don't have any kibble, unless it's Shabbat. And then nice old ladies leave some out on the sidewalk. All creatures great and small, right?

If we weren't so allergic and she wasn't so sketchy we might just adopt her.


Doing some moves

We finally found a soccer ball that meets Tom's standards (sort of) and he and Cassidy have started kicking it around the patio. She's kicking the ball really well and doing some moves, just like Wyatt used to do. It doesn't hurt to play the beautiful game in a cute pink tutu and tights.


When They Come For Us We'll Be Gone

I just finished Gal Beckerman's wonderfully detailed account of Soviet Jews during the Cold War Era. It was so interesting I didn't want it to end, I read the Acknowledgements at the end. Beckerman lays the book out in two story-lines: the American Jews struggling to raise awareness and the Soviet Jews trying to get our of the USSR. In both countries the movement is very grassroots; in the USSR it stays that way. Knowing next to nothing about this time period except that my aunt and uncle brought us all pieces of the Berlin wall when it came down in 1989, I gained a lot of historical information.

I can go on and on about the book; but let's be honest, not including the notes (but including the Acknowledgements) it's 540 pages. There's a lot of information in here, written in a great story form. The oppression and descrimination is Kafka-esque. It was hard for me to believe this actually happened, during my lifetime. The heroics and passion of the individuals involved is remarkable and inspiring. It is an encouragement to me to know that great things start out small. It was just a few Russian Jews underground, and a handful of American Jews in New York and Ohio that made the issue of Soviet Jewry and human rights a bargaining chip in the arms battle between the US and the USSR.  If I were in the States I'd be loaning this out along with Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. You'll have to settle for my reviews.


Out and About

We visited the Shuk, which is the big market area filled with fresh everything: olives of all varieties, huge red strawberries, bread in all varieties, fish with their heads intact and a lot of people. I've been told to visit it on a Friday as people prepare for Shabbat, but we were there Thursday and it was plenty busy. It's similar to most European open air markets, except no pig heads hanging around.

Once I get my legs under me I plan on actually buying something. I guess technically we did buy something -- pizza! Two different kinds, one with a top crust and one folded over the top in a triangular shape, so all the cheese and sauce stayed inside. Since they don't eat pork the varieties of toppings (or fillings) is interesting. This time we had red pepper and some type of cheese, perhaps gouda. Delicious!

We then went to the central bus station to get our transportation, or RavCav, cards. Another unique Irsaeli experience, there was no office, just a desk set up in the hallway. The man who helped us was a gift from G-d. There are a lot of technicalities to the card, and if you're a student or a native then you get discounts. But Tom's school is not recognized by the system yet, due to paperwork and the newness of the lightrail. We didn't think we'd get any kind of discount, but our friend George suggested we at least try to get a discount. "Stranger things have happened in Jerusalem," he said.

And sure enough it happened! Not only did Tom get a student discount, but I did as well (technically I get to take a class each semester) and Cassidy got a discount as well, for being, um, cute, I guess. We are blessed to have the cheaper rates, since we'll take the lightrail to Cassidy's school five days a week and anytime we go south of French Hill (or north of Talpiyot for now). As Pop said, a penny saved is a penny earned.


Am Israel Chai

Our first trip to the Old City was a success. We took the #8 bus north and got off on the right exit, then headed towards the Damascus Gate, but just before we got there we veered north and found Cassidy's new school. Tom's navigating has been spot on and we're getting where we need to go.

Jacob's Ladder is a Messianic school that prepares children for 1st grade in Israel, which is taught in Hebrew. We met the director, Bess, who is actually moving back to the states on Thursday, and the other teachers. Celia will be Cassidy's teacher and she stresses Hebrew to her young students, who speak mostly English. Bess introduced Cassidy to the other students, including her grandson Elan, who seemed very sweet and wore Crocs, just like Cassie's best friend in the States. Cass was happy to introduce herself to everyone and very excited about the idea of going to such a fun school. Class is Sunday through Thursday, from 7:30 to 2:30, which will be an adjustment, but I know she will learn a lot at the school. She'll probably start shortly after we move up north.

When we finished the tour of the school we headed east again toward the Old City. It is only a block or two from Cassidy's school. We entered from the Damascus Gate, which means going through the Muslim Quarter. It was another awakening to a new culture, much like our flight from Chicago to Amman on Royal Jordanian Airlines. It was a long, winding corridor crammed with food, clothes, toys and people. It's a strange thing to see Muslims and Jews mingling so freely in a tight space, but I'm sure I'll get used to it. 

At the end of the corridor we went through security and immediately we were there -- the Western Wall, known to Israelis as the Kotel. I wasn't expecting to come upon it so quickly and both Cassidy and I were surprised to be there. It's not that it's massive, although it is large. Or that there were a lot of people; we had just come through a really tight crowd of people that quickly dispersed as we got to the security check. I suppose it's the anticipation of seeing this piece of history that is so shocking.

Tom had the foresight to get out some paper for us to write prayers on, so we could stick them in the wall, as the tradition goes. Tom asked Cass what she wanted him to write and she said, "Dear Jesus, We're here in Israel. I'm excited to go to school. I wish the temple was rebuilt." We folded up our prayers and headed for the women's side. As we walked toward the wall we heard men singing on the other side of makeshift divider. The women were standing on plastic chairs to look over at the men so we popped our heads over too. We saw a few men and some boys dancing in a circle singing, Am Israel Chai (The children of Israel live). To hear them singing that song in Jerusalem made my spirit jump; it wasn't that long ago that the children of Israel regained Jerusalem.

Cassidy and I prayed the Shema and then she put our prayers in the wall. I wasn't sure what I expected to happen while we were there, perhaps an intense encounter with the L-rd or the warm sensation of the Holy Spirit drawing near, but nothing dramatic happened as I held Cassidy and prayed. It just felt good to be there and I was briefly reminded that one day He will return to this city, and we will all have our reunion. 
We walked back to meet Tom and as I turned to look at the Wall one more time I noticed the glaring gold Dome of the Rock to the left of the Wall. It surprised me just as much as the Wall itself. (Notice I did not include a picture of it.) We had an interesting time explaining it to Cassidy was we walked through the quiet Jewish quarter. There are about as many cats as there are soldiers in the Old City, so we only held her attention for so long, but I'm sure sometime when we're there she'll hear the call to worship for the Muslims and we'll have another conversation. She said she's looking forward to learning new words, and while I know she means Hebrew words, I can't wait for her to truly understand what it means to be grafted into Israel. Hallelujah!