08 July 2011

The Fog

At around 4.30 am I heard the busdriver's voice, calling to one of our educators that he was having a hard time seeing the road.  I was jolted out of sleep, remembering that we were traveling down to Masada in the middle of the night for a sunrise walk up the Roman ramp, used by the imperial power to defeat the Jewish zealots who were encamped there.  Driving down to Masada is already like being on another planet; in middle of the night--even more so; surrounded by a July fog rolling out of the desert?  I hear a voice behind me:  Are we descending into hell?


Yesterday we were at the Jerusalem Open House around 1 pm--learning about how the Holy City's LGBTQ community advocates for itself and builds an open, pluralistic Jerusalem in the face of considerable opposition from the official religious communities here; and then afterward, we were at the Belz Yeshiva and Synagogue, a Hasidic enclave completely rebuilt after their devastating obliteration during the Shoah.  This was a day of contrasts that speaks to the heart of the education that we do over the summer--going deep into paradoxes and examining them from all angles.

At the Jerusalem Open House we learned that besides secular LGBTQ people who avail themselves of the center's services, there are also Haredi Jews, religious Muslims, Orthodox Israelis and Palestinian Jerusalemites who share gayness and therefore come together in this tolerant and loving refuge in the midst of a city of stark divisions.  Historians often reference the fact that the avant-garde begins with *perceived* deviance but ultimately brings change and progress to society.  Given a century of failed efforts to achieve peace, maybe gays and lesbians ought to have a shot at leading the way:  You got a better idea?

At the Belz center, the Fellows were confronted with the proud advocacy of their lifestyle, from one perspective "sexist;" from another perspective "traditional."  At the Open House, Fellows learned about an internal debate about whether or not "flamboyance" hurts the cause, advances the causes, or is neutral.  The leaders wrestle with the issue.  At Belz, Fellows learned that clearly delineated roles feed and educate thousands of people with such focus and determination that a community which nearly disappeared in 1945, now numbers more than 100,000.  Life is filled with mind-boggling paradoxes.

The sun rose on Masada.  We ate, prayed, read, did yoga.  Around us, birthright trips, post-bar mitzvah trips, and young army recruits traversed the ancient hilltop, learning the history of a lost-cause; a mass suicide; the setting for a battle between accommodationist Jews and rebel Jews; a fight to the death; a fascinating archaeological dig; or, all of the above.

The fog had lifted.  Even the birds, it seemed, had joined our study and conversation.  Their calls sought not crumbs or morsels but loaves, answers.  Josh Feigelson, one of our rabbis, taught a Talmudic text asking, essentially, "what are you willing to die for?"  Awake all night, caravaned through the desert and catapulted likes rocks to penetrate the mythic fortress of Masada, the Fellows quarried answers.

960 Jews decide to fight the Romans--a hopeless cause.  Josephus reports that to contravene the Jewish prohibition against suicide, they make a pact and kill each other.  Its gruesomeness is made even more painful by the fact that at the same time, Yohanan ben Zakkai is negotiating with Rome to create Jewish communities and houses of learning outside Jerusalem's destroyed Temple Mount, in order to allow for the continuation of study and prayer, institutions that to this day sustain the Jewish people.

My mind drifted, alas.  I thought back to Belz.  I had to leave early in order to go meet a friend at the YMCA, founded during the British Mandate period.  The gates to Belz were locked and our host was still presenting within and in a flash of inspiration, I decided to *escape* which is to say, to jump the fence.  I was literally escaping from being locked into Belz.  I thought of my teacher, Arthur Hertzberg, who descended from Belz Hasidim, and how he very much would have appreciated my predicament, and then hoisted myself over Belz's formidable fence and went about the business of hailing a cab from the northwest back toward the southeast.  After fifteen minutes, an Arab driver picked me up in an air-conditioned Mercedes.  His radio was tuned to the Koran station, and he was concentrating on a sermon, followed by beautiful, mesmerizing liturgical singing.  More Torah!

His cab dropped me at the YMCA, where I caught up with an old friend and heard about, among other things, a father's struggles with Parkinsons and dementia.  My own mind bounced from Jonathan Franzen's "Corrections" to Paul Harding's "Tinkers," two powerful novels I read recently.  Starlings circled overhead as evening crept in; the sky shifted from blinding blue to the palest indigo:  We're never one place, I thought, but always moving along the way.

"I'm not sure where we are," the busdriver said this morning in the fog on the way to Masada.  But those of us in the front of the bus woke up, leaned forward, and ultimately, arrived at our destination:  paradox and ambiguity.

Writing from a city with so much spiritual certainty, a bit of paradox and ambiguity can actually go quite a long way.

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