30 June 2011


I'm back in Jerusalem for another summer teaching on BYFI--the Bronfman Youth Fellows in Israel program--a collection of 26 rather extraordinary young people between their junior and senior year of high school, representing all denominations and backgrounds of North American Jewish life.  I teach a 90 minute lesson each day to a small group of students and then we spend the rest of the day exploring the country, meeting leaders from all walks of life, and encouraging an open dialogue and inquiry into what it means to be a Jew at this stage of our history.

Last night, after an easy flight from JFK, we drove straight to Jerusalem to the promenade overlooking the Old City, ate a quick dinner of falafel and soggy chips, threw back a few glasses of Lipton Peach Flavored Iced Tea, and did some studying under the city lights of this beautiful public park.  At the edge of southeast Jerusalem, the promenade remains one of a few public parks with a Palestinian and Israeli presence and as we learned a series of rabbinic texts about Abraham receiving God's call to begin a new nation, a group of young Palestinian men were listening to loud and celebratory music.  During my teaching I found myself swaying to Jerusalem's familiar rhythms while off in the distance, on this exceptionally clear night, the lights of Jordan could be seen in the distance.  While reading about Abraham receiving God's call, we imagined, a few centuries later, Moses standing atop a hill in the Jordanian distance, longing to enter a land he never would.  Stars shone above; music swelled around us; fighting fatigue, the students plowed into narrative, melding self and tradition, individuality and nation, and the summer was on its way.

I'm staying in an apartment on Palmach, near my favorite pizza joint and an old, Viennese-style coffee shop, one of the last remnants of this neighborhood's former German Jewish culture.  Through my window is the architecture of an adjacent building in the Ottoman tradition--likely owned by an Arab family prior to 1948.  You get the drill.  In the cool, quiet, breezy night, I took a short walk for some water, a beer, and, if you will, the privilege of being able to take such a walk.  Returning each year, I always begin at the spot on the internal map of my own identity thinking about who in my family prayed in this direction but never walked the streets as I've been lucky enough to do.  It never gets old.

This damn thing called jetlag had me up at 3.30, reading, listening to my neighborhood cats, and then, with the sunrise, I was out the door for my morning run.  There's a new bike path traversing the city and heading down toward Damascus Gate, I was able to see the new light-rail being tested.  Fresh Arab bagels were being wheeled from East Jerusalem, up the hill toward Jaffa Gate emitting their warm, toasted sesame aroma, mingled with car exhaust, dusted rosemary and blooming jasmine.  Men and women headed toward work; men headed toward prayer; school-buses readied themselves for delivering kids to summer camp as I finished my run, bought a coffee and chocolate croissant, and watched the street on which I'll live for the next four weeks come to life.

I'm teaching a collection of texts on the history of Zionism.  Since our post-modern age likes to blather on about pretensions of being post-historical, and since for a variety of annoying and stupid reasons the term Zionism is somehow only understood in a rather limited, one-dimensional way, I wanted to root these smart kids in some basic ideas about how this project came to be.  They've been assigned Arthur Hertzberg's introduction to his famous Zionist Idea (in his words, "the single-greatest hundred page history of Zionism ever written!") and today we read excerpts from a few essays by my favorite Zionist dyspeptic, Asher Zvi Ginsberg, otherwise known as Ahad Ha-Am.  We deconstructed Ginsberg, put him in his historical context, tried to grasp his diagnosis of the Jewish problem, how it mirrored his own self-examination, and the degree to which his own ideas are still very much playing out today.  Just because everything seems like it's a click away, it doesn't mean it really is.  Sometimes you have to give yourself over to understanding where ideas come from.  I've got some good Arthur stories up my sleeve; some good ones about George Mosse, too.  I hope to try to make this stuff come alive for these kids.  Tomorrow we're reading Max Nordau, and of course, Theodor Herzl. 

I've actually become that guy who argues that dead German Jewish men actually matter to our understanding of the world we live in.  Imagine that.

You spend enough time in Viennese cafes, anything can happen.

No comments: