29 July 2011

Everyone Knew What Was Coming

Diane Arbus, Child with Toy Hand Grenade, Central Park, 1962
On the way into the center of town to meet a friend for dinner before heading off to the opera (Renee Fleming and Joseph Calleja with Zuben Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic) I toured around Ahad Ha'am Street, taking in the sites, comparing its blockier but more classically elegant architecture to its counterpart in Tel Aviv, before coming upon a police blockade for the Gay Rights Parade which was marching up the street from Independence Park.  Behind a barricade, blowing whistles, was a collection of Haredim that looked like an even greater exaggeration, multiplied, of Diane Arbus' famous Vietnam era kid holding a grenade, so contorted were they in their hatred of the normal. 

I remember a time twenty years ago, when one of my roommates here in Jerusalem used to lament the horrible indignity of going to the park to meet men.  He hated it, was humiliated by it, and eventually gave up on Jerusalem for Tel Aviv.  All these years later, the Jerusalem Open House makes it possible for the LGBT community to begin to stake a claim to a normal life in the Holy City and the contortion artists notwithstanding, the city has inched toward progress.  Though the police presence was formidable, it stood sentry beneath rainbow flags that festooned the boulevard, a very gay scene indeed. 

The road blocks seemed to hint at darker forces as well, concern for a growing social movement that has drawn in doctors, moms with babies in strollers, workers and civil servants along with students, Arabs and Jews; the fuller expression of the middle class.  And as we head into Shabbat, great expectations for larger rallies across the country on Saturday night.

We had coffee this morning with our friend Avraham, a Holocaust survivor from Poland and a retired professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  With laughter in his eyes, Avraham talked about this as potentially the beginning of Bibi's downfall, while cynically holding no hope, since eventually the economic questions will lead to the larger questions of security as well and by many people's estimations, the nation will be forced to make critical choices in a world of diminishing resources.  Not unlike the brinkmanship in the United States with debt relief, come hell or high water, major decisions will have to be made as they are everywhere else in the world, it seems, necessitating a new way of doing business.  In Israel, economic equality may build an alliance among the Israeli and Arab middle class that could spell the end of billions in subsidies to keep alive the Settlement project and with no viable peace movement to speak of, Israelis and Palestinians may eventually forge a peace deal through their homes and bank accounts, not through the grander narratives of land and God.

At the National Auditorium before the concert began, the Mayor of Jerusalem thanked the evening's sponsors and then introduced Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, sitting in the crowd next to the Foreign Minister of Malta, there to support his fellow countryman, and the majority of the more than 1000 people present booed loudly, vocalizing their disapproval of the controversial Israeli minister.  I'll admit to being both surprised and not surprised, feeling in the moment the tides of change shifting in an increasingly impatient country.  Lieberman sat stone still and weathered the humiliating rebuke; his citizens, in this venue, let him know what they think.

Mehta took the stage and with his body and baton in command of the orchestra, moved the notes over the crowd, creating a veil of comfort, creating a flow of animated music like a late July wind coming in from the Judean Hills--cooling temperaments, delivering, perhaps, visions.

Verdi, Gounod, Puccini, Albeniz, Massenet, Rimsky-Korsakov, more Puccini and then, four encores later (including Leonard Cohen's "Halleluyah" which Fleming rendered in a deep, blues) this Israeli crowd was lifted to other lands, while preparing themselves, at the evening's end, for toiling home again, to their own land:  where decisions are made.  Outside the theater on the sidewalk, two Russians played some decidedly campy arias to those leaving for the night, collecting stray coins and funny glances.  After Fleming and Calleja, to liken their presentation to nails on a blackboard would be too kind.  Still, this late night wake-up call was a jarring return to a difficult, complicated but potentially redeeming reality that lies ahead for this great country.

While there was more wealth assembled in a theater than I have ever seen in Israel, one could not escape the tension wire of change that hung before us all, vibrating its own notes of a new day.  Chants and signs of protestors' social revolt reflected in the glass of the building, an ephemeral reality coming into view.  At one point, I was overcome with a rebellious desire to mount a table-top, address the crowd, and give a rousing speech about liberty, equality, and fair access to housing beginning with the words, "My Fellow Patriots!  Shalom Aleichem!" but I demurred, leaving the brimstone and fire for another day.  Still, as we drifted toward our transport vehicles, riding the music, you could tell that everyone knew what was coming.  We kept enjoying those encores that much more--a kind of whistling in the dark--one last song before the prose of rebuilding that is destined to arrive.

No comments: